03 January 2011

notepad: January

The purpose of mediocratic ideology is the same as that of Marxist ideology: to make life impossible for genuine intellectuals, i.e. those who might generate real cultural progress. To mask the issue, an ersatz system of high culture has been built up, designed to perpetuate and reinforce the ideology, and to ensure no assistance is given to those whom the system carefully excludes.

• According to the Philosophers’ Magazine, one of the ideas of the 21st century is equality of intelligence. Philosophy lecturer Nina Power tells us that, unfortunately,
we live in an age where we see a resurgence of the idea that some people are fundamentally less intelligent than others.
I knew the idea of innate ability was unfashionable, but I had not realised its denial had become entrenched to the point that one speaks of “resurgence”.
To help avoid the unpalatable, academic philosophers can offer us the “contemporary axiom or assertion that everyone is equally intelligent”. According to this, anyone
can relatively quickly understand complex arguments and formulae that have taken very clever people a long time to work out ... everyone has the potential to understand anything.
It is hard to know whether these assertions define their terms in such a way as to render themselves vacuous, or whether they are simply false. Not surprisingly, they take their inspiration from a French postmodernist, Jacques Rancière, who proposes a radical (almost metaphysical) form of egalitarianism.
Equality may also be something one wishes for in a future to come, after fundamental shifts in the arrangement and order of society. But this is not Rancière’s point at all. Equality is not something to be achieved, but something to be presupposed, universally. Everyone is equally intelligent.
The axiom of equal intelligence has important implications for education. Quoting from fellow philosopher and Rancière expert Peter Hallward (a key player in last year’s Middlesex Philosophy drama), Dr Power suggests that
“superior knowledge ceases to be a necessary qualification of the teacher, just as the process of explanation … ceases to be an integral part of teaching.”
The idea that teachers may be no more knowledgeable — at, say, spelling or arithmetic — than their pupils, and in any case need not be any good at explaining what they do know, may have applications to the UK’s state education system, though probably not in the way that Power or Hallward intends. [3rd Jan]

• Max Hastings sounds angry.
This screwed-up, bitter geek with a grudge against the institutions of the West has become a master of the anarchic universe created by the internet.

Like others of his kind, he has discovered that without resources or mandate, it is possible to become a publisher of fantastic power, leapfrogging every traditional constraint imposed by the need for a geographical base, plant or corporate structure.
Who is this tirade really aimed at, I wonder. Julian Assange? The blogosphere? The entire internet? Sir Max seems to disapprove of people who, “without resources or mandate”, are able to “leapfrog every traditional constraint”, and get an audience for their views or activities, regardless.
In the good old days, traditional constraints, such as the need to find a publisher, kept a lot of people out of print who did not deserve to be in print, as well as a few who did. Now, it may seem, anyone with a bee under his or her bonnet can turn into a global talking head with an audience of thousands or even millions, however apparently potty or dangerous they are. Is it beneficial for the quality of debate, or for culture generally?
What this line of reasoning leaves out is that decades of anti-culture, and pseudo-egalitarian, ideology have distorted mainstream publishing, so that it now consists in large part of (a) products brainless enough to appeal to a dumbed-down mass market (cookbooks, celebrity autobiographies), (b) products so abstruse and vacuous they would not be read at all without the presence of an artificial ‘university’ industry putting them on its reading lists.
“Traditional constraints” no longer function as quality-selecting devices in the way they once did. We have a culture market of sorts, but one that bears little relation to what would obtain without the massive levels of intervention and redistribution to which it is subject. Sadly, many conservatives have themselves contributed to the rot by standing up too feebly for old-fashioned standards (if at all), or have even profited from it, e.g. by writing books of revisionist history.
The other thing analyses such as Hastings’ ignore is the ephemerality of the web. A blogger may get hundreds of comments every day, but if he keeled over tomorrow would his postings leave any lasting effect on the political or cultural scene? It is doubtful. Academic exiles may be ‘free’ to post their thoughts on the web for anyone else to read, but it is a far cry from getting them disseminated via a broadsheet newspaper, let alone via a book put out by a prestigious and well-connected publisher, or via an academic journal. You could write a philosophical treatise to rival the Tractatus, but publishing it exclusively on the web would get you nowhere. [10th Jan]

• One seems to get past one’s sell-by date very quickly these days in BBC-world. I feel sorry for older BBC presenters (I mean those born before 1985), it cannot be easy for them. According to a BBC reviewer, Massive Attack — who, incidentally, were unfairly excluded from the Catholic Church’s Top Ten Albums Of All Time (surely Mezzanine should rank above Supernatural) — are no longer trendy.
Startling as this may be to thirtysomethings who grew up in prescribed awe of Massive Attack, but a whole new generation has arisen in the 12 years since their last pivotal album, Mezzanine, a generation to whom the Bristol duo are at best peripheral.
Ouch. Who are those marvellous artistes, I find myself pondering, who are not peripheral to the interests of the new generation? Kanye West feat Justin Timberlake, perhaps.
Seriously, it may be the case that Massive are past their peak. In looking for possible future successors, you could certainly do worse than this. Yes, for what it is worth, British popular music is still the best in the world, X Factor notwithstanding. Harvard may beat Oxford, but Kasabian trumps Kings of Leon.
By the way, US comedy normally outclasses UK but some things, I think you will agree, are just a little too cheesy. [17th Jan]

• Re local government cutbacks. Why is it that the only two useful consumer services that councils offer — libraries and waste collection — are either being eliminated or becoming unusable, while council jobs with titles like “well-being coordinator” continue to be freely advertised? The answer is simple: these two services are too much about doing what individuals want, and not enough about the preferences of the providers. Libraries allow people to choose which books they want to read — so the wrong books must be excluded, books in general must be phased out in favour of social forms of entertainment (movies, internet) or, if this still leaves too much scope for autonomy, libraries must be closed. Waste collection allows people to choose what materials to eject from their households — so there must be more and more rules about the ‘wrong’ kinds of waste which will not be collected, and rules about how ‘right’ waste will only be collected if it is first reprocessed in prescribed ways, or, if this still generates too much advantage for citizens, collection of waste must be stopped at the slightest sign of difficulty and householders encouraged to take it themselves to the city dump, conveniently located five miles away. Have a nice day. [24th Jan]

• To take it as given that we need an expanding university system is, as I have argued elsewhere, a position sorely in need of hard evidence, yet it continues to be espoused by government ministers.
If you want high-quality expanding universities, which we all know we need in the age of India and China and global competition ... (David Cameron)
It is not clear how more graduates, whether in Mickey Mouse subjects or in ‘serious’ ones such as economics or psychology, are going to help in competing with India or China. Keeping up with billions of people willing to buckle down and do useful things would seem to require that less of our population’s available time and energy be taken up by pseudo-work such as public sector pen-pushing, social work and other ‘services’ which the elite thinks you ought to have, management consultancy, legal work relating to a rising mountain of state intervention, spurious ‘learning’ etc. This seems more likely to involve a contracting university system.
The whole notion of “competing with” is in any case hopelessly vague. Are we trying to do what they do, only better or cheaper? Then surely we need more of what they have, namely gumption and elbow grease, and probably also less state interference. Or are we trying to offer things they cannot? I suppose one could produce more lawyers, engineers and computer scientists in the hope that others will want to import those services from us, but it seems a high-risk strategy. If Asia can imitate the West’s manufacturing, only better, it will not be long before it can imitate and improve on the West’s professional services.
The 2006 Leitch Review, commissioned by Labour to produce the desired answer i.e. a need to further massively expand higher education (allegedly to help us “compete”, but in reality probably to destroy any advantages enjoyed by the hated bourgeoisie), is one of the most risible pieces of pseudo-research produced in the last twenty years, yet its conclusions — not based on meaningful argument or evidence — continue to be echoed by members of the political and intellectual classes. The Review lumped degrees together with vocational training under “skills”, but for many degrees it is unclear what skills are being fostered, let alone how they can contribute to the problem of competing globally.
According to justcourses.com, the ten most popular UK degree courses are law, Design Studies, psychology, business, management, Computer Science, English, medicine, Sports Science and Social Work. Of these, the only two which conceivably generate skills that businesses might need significantly more of in order to compete with India and China are “Design Studies” and “Computer Science”, but is a degree really the best way to acquire those skills? I doubt it.

• Common sense may however be starting to creep back, with regard to a ludicrous system in which half the population mortgage themselves to the tune of several £ tens of thousands for the sake of qualifications with values ranging from doubtful to nil. Deloitte has announced it will start to hire school-leavers, and KPMG seems to be toying with the idea as well. Now all we need is for other employers to see the light and follow suit. Then we might, after a delay of a few decades, be able to return to a scenario in which residential university education is something limited to (a) the academically gifted, financed by bursaries, (b) those with enough parental or other private funding to indulge their taste for the college experience; the whole thing covering a proportion of the population no greater than 5%.
I would not myself see anything wrong with having (b) as well as (a). My colleague Celia Green has explained to me the advantages of the social mixing such a system generates. It enables the cleverest to make contact with the offspring of the richest and most influential, allowing the former to share some of the networking advantages of the latter, which is the kind of focused meritocracy that can actually do a country some good, and is probably as much meritocracy as you can hope for in an educational context. Anything beyond this is just top-down morality. [31st Jan]

• Postscript re TV comedy. Do I still believe in the Special Relationship? I do now, having watched Episodes, a new series created by Americans and produced by Hat Trick. Transnational productions have a poor track record, so it is an achievement to have generated something that is funny without straining, managing to combine the best aspects of British and American humour while softening the worst. US/UK, coffee and cream. We should be thankful the pre-contract internal memos were not EaziLeaked, or the delicate negotiations might have been scuppered. [31st Jan]

The author of this blog is an unsalaried academic. Like his colleagues, he is excluded from the academic system because of the way that system is currently run. (The phrase “sausage factory” was recently used by a government minister, expressing part of the problem.) As a result, he is unable to write in detail about intellectual issues to which he could be contributing, and has to limit himself to brief blog comments.

If Oxford Forum were provided with financial support, he and his colleagues would be able to work properly on a number of issues; and views which are currently not represented in the academic world would receive due expression.