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Caveat Emptor

The opinions expressed on this page are mine alone. Any similarities to the views of my employer are completely coincidental.

Monday, 31 October 2011

UCAS and University application

It seems to me that there is an obvious way to organize admission to English universities so that potential students can apply after they know their results: start the university year in January. There would be a lot of advantages and, as far as I can see, few disadvantages. There is no need to change the timing of A level examinations. The existing university terms could be kept with teaching in the existing Spring and Summer Terms followed by the Summer vacation and examinations in the Winter Term. Educationally I can only see benefit - students would have the Summer vacation to revise and think about the material and they would start the next academic year with it fresh in their minds. It would also give students who gain places at university an opportunity to spend an extra term at school  perhaps following a pre-university preparation course. There would, of course, be a slightly painful transition period, but it shouldn't be beyond the wit of any institution worthy of the name 'university' to be able to cope with that. Now tell me all the reasons why it can't be done.

Friday, 28 October 2011

St Paul's

Hats off to Canon Giles Fraser for having the courage of his convictions. If only  a few of our political leaders could act with such straightforward honesty and dignity... but then again they wouldn't last very long in our political system if they did.  I'm curious though how one can be guided in one's moral life by a belief system that  asserts both:

"...it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God."

"...render unto Caesar what is his and unto God what is His."

That's the problem with revealed religion, self-evidently something got garbled during the process of revelation.

Tuesday, 25 October 2011


For some reason I'm a person who finds thinking in terms of categories easier than thinking in terms of continuous measures. Maybe it's just an effect of getting into quantitative social science  without studying proper math in school - if you didn't take calculus in upper secondary school and had to mug it up yourself later thinking about continuous smooth change or differences sits uneasily on top of my instinct to chop the world up into discrete bits with distinctive labels. Maybe that piece of cod psychology is just nonsense. Anyway I'm always slightly disturbed or amused when people chop the world up differently from the way I would do it. Most of the time I come round and admit that my way is just as arbitrary as the next person's, but sometimes I just wonder what goes through people's minds.
At the weekend I was browsing the shelves of my local Waterstones (whiling away the time while partner and daughter had their hair cut) and found that they had put Philip Kerr in the general fiction section. I like Philip Kerr, but he is a genre writer and should be in the crime section! If I'd wanted to buy one of his excellent Bernie Gunther novels, which as it happened I didn't, I wouldn't have been able to find it. I know it is trivial, but worse was to come. Upstairs in the philosophy section they had put  George Polya's How to Solve it next to Karl Popper's Open Society and its Enemies. What's the matter with these guys don't they know the difference between mathematics and philosophy?
Still, there was one encouraging sign. My blood pressure always used to rise when I saw what was on the shelves in the sociology section. Problem solved. There is no longer a sociology section.

What is a university?

The Guardian today gives space in its education section to what is, in effect, an advertisement for BPP University College masquerading as a comment piece by BPP principal Carl Lygo. BPP is a private, for profit, college with degree awarding powers. Personally I've nothing against such colleges entering the market and I can see the attraction of the no frills, low cost model. What they should not be allowed to do is pretend that they are something they are not. Lyco can scarcely be accused of that. In fact I'm amazed by his candour. He writes:
"So how can we do all this and still charge only around half the fees the other charge? The answer is by cutting back on costs in areas that do not directly affect the student experience. Having underutilised real estate (classrooms, libraries, lecture theatres, breakout space) that students do not use is just a drain on cost."

Classrooms, libraries, lecture theatres and breakout space do not directly affect the student experience? Did I  read that right or have I just entered a parallel universe in which the English language no longer means what I thought it meant. Or is this just standard corporate speak which, silly old me, nobody is meant to take seriously and is "qualified" in the small print?

Monday, 17 October 2011

Rhythm of the year

One of the  things that every parent notices once their children start school is that the year  becomes much more obviously structured by the traditional festivals that for most of us long ago lost any deep significance. In a way I quite like it and for small children it is probably psychologically important to have the year marked by a succession of regular and familiar events. It's interesting though how these events can take on  very different shades of meaning.
Last year my daughter took part in her Kindergarten Harvest Festival service. It was held in one of Bamberg's Lutheran Churches - a rather splendid building that was completely reconstructed after the war. Inside a small group of parents huddled - German churches never seem to be heated - to watch the kids perform a harvest themed play. We sang a few hymns said a few prayers and the female priest - dressed in black with a splendid white ruff - preached a short sermon. One shouldn't overestimate the piety of the event; most of the parents, judging from an apparent lack of familiarity about how to behave in church,  looked as though they were far from stalwarts of the predominantly working class parish and were primarily interested in taking photographs and videos of their offspring. On the other hand the event was recognizably about thankfulness for the fruits of the earth.
This year we were back in England  and the school Harvest Festival was in an enormous Edwardian North Oxford barn of a church. Turning up five minutes before kick-off we were lucky to squeeze into the back row and those that came after us had to stand. I wonder if the church had ever been so full. We were then entertained for an hour by quite amazing orchestral and choral performances by the children. As one of the parents said to me afterward: "You had to keep reminding yourself that they are just junior school kids". Audience participation was limited to one quick verse of We Plough the Fields and Scatter which I think was quite enough for most of the parents. 
At one level what we saw was a spectacular achievement. The children had obviously been practicing hard and the performance standard was truly outstanding. In a sense, of course, this is what the parents wanted to see - the children - or in some cases their child - at centre stage. It would be wrong to be cynical or disapproving of that, but I can't escape the feeling that  even for this non-believer something important about  the meaning and significance of the festival had become obscured.

Friday, 14 October 2011

Defending Public Libraries

Public libraries that are free at the point of delivery - at least if you want to borrow books - are an important part of the sort of community I want to live in. It wouldn't be much of an exaggeration to say that up to the age of 18 I got a large amount of my education from and in Coventry's Central Library. If you came from a home like mine where there was no culture of books or reading one of the few ways you could  get any sense of the sheer  range of what there was to know  and enjoy was by visiting the library, standing in front of the shelves, and surveying their content. I was very lucky in that my father, no great reader himself, thought it was a good idea when I was round about the age of 7 to take me one day after school to our local branch library (an old two room Carnegie building)  to get me a library ticket. I can still remember the first book I chose for myself - a large illustrated volume about Carter's excavation of the Tutankhamun tomb. I think the text was too difficult for me, but I enjoyed looking at the pictures. 
My own daughter has had her own library card from the age of 3 and every other week we make a Saturday afternoon trip to get story books and DVDs. We often see the same families in the children's section of  the library and, as far as I can judge, they are not just drawn from the middle classes - though inevitably quite a few are.
I've got reasons then to feel instinctive hostility towards plans to cut library provision - my own County has quite extensive plans to make "efficiency savings" and has just concluded a "public consultation". I've personally benefited enormously from the system and I hope my daughter will too.  But, I feel uneasy. Looking at the evidence rationally rather than emotionally I can see that some of the resources devoted to the public library system are probably misallocated. Consider a county like Oxfordshire with a large rural and small town population. Library buildings last a long time and locations that made perfect sense 50 years ago may not make as much sense now. But public feeling tends to get very firmly attached to what was relevant in the distant past rather than what is sensible today. Public policy always involves making choices: more of this (or in the current climate the same of this) means less of that. If you look at spending priorities one by one in isolation it is  impossible to decide which services deserve support. They all deserve support, but that is not a choice within  the politically feasible set.

Thursday, 13 October 2011


An occasional posting inspired by the delicious column Forsooth! in  RSS News.

Which Professor of Sociology describes his understanding of our discipline in the following way?

"Sociology is for me in essence the ironic depiction of the ironies of human existence, that is, an ironic take on historical irony".


Thursday, 6 October 2011

Possibly useful methods site

By chance I came across the Methodspace website which might be useful to know about (assuming you don't know about it already). I've only briefly looked at it and will be interested to hear informed opinion about its utility. Two caveats. Firstly you have to scroll to the bottom of the page to find out that it appears to be sponsored by Sage. Nothing intrinsically wrong with that, they produce some useful books, but on the whole I prefer not to link to commercial sites and you will find quite a lot of plugging of Sage content. Secondly my very brief look at the site content suggested to me that surrounding the more serious questions and discussions there is quite a lot of artlessly disguised "can you help me with my methods 101 homework" type of fishing. Still I keep an open mind and if I  hear a lot of positive feedback I'll add it to my blog list (and if not I won't).

Incidentally my own attempt a few years ago to create a very crude version of this sort of thing in the department  was a complete and utter failure. I was always hearing from students that they were frustrated by lack of easy access to all the methods expertise (or enthusiasm)  that is widely diffused amongst us. So I set up a mail list to which any member could send  out quantitative  methods questions that were troubling them in the hope that somebody in the community could give them some advice.

The problem was not in recruiting members - plenty signed up. The problem was in soliciting questions. Literally not a single question was ever submitted. I saw no evidence to suggest that the need for advice disappeared, it just seemed to be that when push came to shove nobody was brave enough to admit in public that there was something they didn't know or couldn't figure out.

And they say education is a dialogue...

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Academic biographies

The trouble with writing the biography of  an academic is that by and large they don't have very interesting lives. All the action is, so to speak, inside their heads and if the thought is less than riveting in the first place then the biographer really has a tough job, one that it would be  wiser not to take on. Still, some make a success of it. I enjoyed and felt I learned something, for example, from Ben Rogers' biography of Freddie Ayer and Michael Ignatieff's life of Isaiah Berlin. Two less successful exemplars of the genre I've read recently are Fred Inglis' History Man: The Life of R.G. Collingwood and Dai Smith's Raymond Williams: A Warrior's Tale.
Collingwood is  a  thinker  I suspect is oft cited  but little read. One of the reasons for this is that his thought is difficult to pigeon-hole within conventional intellectual categories: he was an archaeologists, an historian and a philosopher. Personally I find his philosophical writing an acquired taste, in fact a taste that I have never managed to acquire. He's usually regarded as one of the last of the Oxford Idealists picking up the baton from wherever the likes of T. H. Green, F. H. Bradley and a host of obscure and now long forgotten Oxford philosophy dons dropped it in the first couple of decades of the Twentieth Century. How much there is to this view I can't really say mainly because I have a profound distaste for the writing of the Oxford Idealists based on the fact that  for the most part I can't understand what their metaphysics is actually about. One mention of the Absolute and I reach for my conceptual revolver. I imagine it was an infinitely subtler version of that reaction that got Oxford ordinary language philosophy off to a flying start. (Of course in my own day we had versions of the same kind of thing. As an undergraduate I had great fun learning the arcane vocabulary of Althusserian  Marxism and could  'interpellate' with the best of them, uttering long and apparently grammatically correct, but essentially meaningless, sentences at will. The members of the sacred circle nodded their heads in sage agreement. Nobody challenged it. I might as well have been making farm-yard noises: in fact I was making farm-yard noises).
Anyway I turned to Inglis' book hoping to learn something about the man and a lot about his thought. I'm sorry to say that I learned little of either. Essentially Inglis has little to say  and he says it at great length. The reasons for this are rather plain, firstly he doesn't seem to have much to work with apart from Collingwood's books themselves. It quickly becomes apparent that the family refused him access to personal papers  in their possession and therefore one of the key sources for an illuminating biography is missing. Secondly, Inglis doesn't appear to have the sort of philosophical insight that made Rogers' and Ignatieff's books illuminating (at least to me). Beyond the few windy generalities that I already possessed I'm not much the wiser as to the significance of Collingwood's thought. What I do sense is a biographer who is out of his depth and would have been wise not to have got into the pool in the first place. What is particularly irritating are the vast number of pages devoted, not to Collingwood's, but to Inglis' opinions about this, that and the other, none of which are particularly interesting (tip - in a biography it is the subject not the writer who should be at the front of the stage). So Collingwood still awaits a serious biographer. Whether the wait will be worthwhile I can't say, but you may feel that life is too short to  fill in the time with Inglis' effort.
Raymond Williams is one of those iconic figures who for my generation of left leaning undergraduates sat at the right hand of Marx (or was it Lukacs or Goldmann?). Anyway,  he was one of those figures like Edward Thompson, Christopher Hill, Eric Hobsbawn and Rodney Hilton who were supposed to be, as far as we were concerned, beyond reproach or criticism. Of course I made the appropriate reverential noises, but actually, a lot of the time I felt guilty because although I believed that ideas about a "common culture" and "structures of feeling" should have some analytical value, I could never quite put my finger on what that value was, other than as emotional rallying calls for a particular English intellectual generation, that even by the time I was an undergraduate, had had its day. I can't say anything about his works on drama, which I've never read, but I do recall the first bewildering time I read Culture and Society. I couldn't make head nor tail of it. What did all these little essays add up to? Williams clearly believed there was a thread, there probably is a thread of some vague sort, but where did it lead? I was dammed if I knew. Later I read the book again. I got more out of the individual essays, but I still wasn't really able to understand why it had such a big impact when it was first published in 1958. I was similarly disappointed by The Long Revolution. Cultural studies types seemed to regard it as a source of endless insights but to me it just seemed to be a lot of cod sociology much of it at a level of generality which meant it was never precise enough ever to be wrong.  People whose views I respect tell me that Williams' fiction is worth reading: I'll save that pleasure for a rainy day.
Dai Smith's problem is the opposite of Inglis'. Whereas the latter had too little material to work with, Smith has too much and he never misses an opportunity to present it to the reader. On the whole Williams didn't lead an especially interesting life, unless you find drafts of syllabuses for WEA courses fascinating. An unfair, but not entirely inaccurate synopsis might be: school, Cambridge, active service in WWII (start a short lived literary magazine), Cambridge (start another short lived literary magazine), Extra-mural tutor (start various short-lived literary magazines), write a lot of novels that are never published...
Smith pads out the bare bones of the story with pages and pages and pages of verbatim quotations from Williams' largely unpublished and endlessly recycled fiction. Some of this stuff can reasonably be regarded as  subliminary evidence of biographical value, but  we really don't need so much. The story could have been told in 200 rather than 500 pages and that story, at least up to 1961 which is where the biography ends, is really that of a man very much caught up in trying to understand his own roots, and his own place in the world to pretty much the exclusion of everything and everybody else. Friends and comrades appear on the scene, some are around for years only to be suddenly dropped for the flimsiest of reasons (Wolf Mankowitz, Clifford Collins) or no reasons at all (Michael Orrom) and all the while the abiding image is of a man sitting at home in Hastings surrounded by notebooks and work in progress (which is never finished) almost oblivious to the existence of his wife and three small children. There are intriguing  references to depression, apparently keeping him in bed for days, but this does not seem to have kept him from his main occupation: scribble, scribble scribble Mr Williams (and why not start another literary magazine?). As a political actor on the left he was involved, yet not really, or only reluctantly, at the centre. Perhaps he was just too much of his own man to be straightforwardly committed to any political cause and in fact his grounds for refusing military service in the Korean War contain strong hints of this (his case was essentially that he objected to the subordination of the individual to the dictates of military authority). Williams was clearly a complex man and I suspect one with many inner demons that he could only exorcise through his writing. Whether that exorcism leaves us a legacy that is of anything but historical interest is something that I'm not sure of.