Academic life

Encore #2: University “reforms”

I am now doubly removed from the impact of the various “reforms” to universities in the UK and beyond. For one thing, those of us in Cambridge are well protected in various ways from the worst effects. And for another, I am now officially retired from the fray. Which doesn’t stop me getting distressed by reports of what is happening.

One of the most acute writers recently on what is befalling universities in the UK  is a Cambridge colleague, the intellectual historian and cultural critic Stefan Collini. But telling though his analyses are, I’m not sure that he has much more idea than I have about what is then to be done. As I ruefully reflected in this piece:

Universities, galleries and Stefan Collini (February 26, 2012)

I read Stefan Collini’s What are Universities For? last week with very mixed feelings. In the past, I’ve much admired his polemical essays on the REF, “impact”, the Browne Report, etc. in the London Review of Books and elsewhere: they speak to my heart.

But to be honest, I found the book a disappointment. Perhaps the trouble is that Collini is too decent, too high-minded, has too unrealistically exalted a view about what actually happens in universities which is too coloured by attitudes appropriate to the traditional humanities. And he is optimistic to the point of fantasy if he thinks that people are so susceptible to “the romance of ideas and the power of beauty” that they will want, or can be brought to want, lots and lots of universities in order to promote these ideas (as if they would suppose that the task of “conserving, understanding, extending and handing on to subsequent generations the intellectual, scientific, and artistic heritage of mankind” was clearly ill-served when there were only forty universities in England, as opposed to a hundred and whatever).

The cultural goods that Collini extols, perhaps enough will agree, are not to be measured in crassly economic terms and should be publicly sustained. But that thought falls so very short of helping us to think about what should be happening with the mass university education of almost half the age cohort, about what should be taught and how it should be funded. Collini’s considerations — if they push anywhere — might indeed suggest the ring-fencing of a relatively few elite institutions, to be protected (as in the old days of the UGC) from quotidian government interference and direction. He himself mentions the Californian model (layers of different kinds of tertiary institutions, with a lot of movement between, but with a sharp intellectual hierarchy, with research concentrated at the top). But Collini doesn’t say if that is where he wants us to go. The myths of basic-equality-of-institutions that continue to be endorsed so often in public discourse about the universities in the UK are quite inimical to official moves in that direction.

I am still musing about Collini’s book which I’d finished on the train down, while in the Central Hall of the National Gallery. I am looking at one of their greatest paintings, Giovanni Moroni’s The Tailor. The tailor’s gaze is challenging, appraising: I sit for a while to gaze back. It was a busy weekday afternoon. But in ten minutes or more not one other visitor walking through the Hall pauses to give him a glance.

A bit later, I go to see once more the painting I’d perhaps most like to smuggle home and put over the mantelpiece, Fra Lippo Lippi’s wonderful Annunciation. I spend another ten minutes in the room where it hangs. One other person wanders in, and rather rapidly leaves again. Even Vermeer’s Young Woman Standing at a Virginal — and isn’t she on the ‘must see’ list in every pocket guide? — is surprisingly lonely, and almost no one stops to keep her company.

Take away all the school parties, take away all the overseas visitors, and who is left? You might reasonably imagine that the English don’t really care, or at any rate don’t care very much, about the art which is on show here. Oh, to be sure, we chattering classes know which blockbuster exhibitions are the done things to see: Leondardo in London or Vermeer in Cambridge will, for a while, be chock full of people. But from day to ordinary day? Some are vaguely glad to know that the National Gallery and the Fitzwilliam Museum are there. But, to be honest, a nice National Trust garden is really more our cup of tea (with scones and jam to follow, thank you).

I’m sure it’s not that we are more philistine as a nation than others (the Uffizi in December isn’t suddenly full of Italians glad to take advantage of the absence of tourists). But equally, I wouldn’t overrate the interest of even the more educated English in Culture with a capital ‘C’. When I was a Director of Studies, I used to ask my students towards the end of their time in Cambridge if they’d ever visited the Fitzwilliam: almost no-one ever had.

Collini, to return to him, reflects that “Some, at least, of what lies at the heart of a university is closer to the nature of a museum or gallery than is usually allowed or than most of today’s spokespersons for universities would be comfortable with.” And I rather agree. But where does the thought take us? I doubt that even Collini really thinks that the tepid interest of the English — just some of the English — in museums and galleries can be parlayed into a wide public enthusiasm for spending a lot more on universities in these difficult times. So what’s to be done?

Stefan Collini has written more since on what is happening to universities since his book. In a later post, I noted another piece of his from the London Review of Books, about the privatisation disasters befalling British universities. Let me quote again his acerbic  peroration:

Future historians, pondering changes in British society from the 1980s onwards, will struggle to account for the following curious fact. Although British business enterprises have an extremely mixed record (frequently posting gigantic losses, mostly failing to match overseas competitors, scarcely benefiting the weaker groups in society), and although such arm’s length public institutions as museums and galleries, the BBC and the universities have by and large a very good record (universally acknowledged creativity, streets ahead of most of their international peers, positive forces for human development and social cohesion), nonetheless over the past three decades politicians have repeatedly attempted to force the second set of institutions to change so that they more closely resemble the first. Some of those historians may even wonder why at the time there was so little concerted protest at this deeply implausible programme. But they will at least record that, alongside its many other achievements, the coalition government took the decisive steps in helping to turn some first-rate universities into third-rate companies. If you still think the time for criticism is over, perhaps you’d better think again.

And Collini’s latest entirely admirable piece in the LRB turns to analyse, deconstruct, and shred the latest government proposals on teaching assessment. Not very cheering reading, I am afraid.

Philosophical remnants/Notes on Category Theory v.3

IMG_0085

So, over the last months, quite a few more large boxes of books have gone to Oxfam. I have kept almost all my logic books. But in three years I must have given away some three quarters of my philosophy books. Very largely unmissed, if I am honest. Those works of the Great Dead Philosophers are no longer reproachfully waiting to be properly read. The more ephemeral books of the last forty years (witnessing passing fashions and fads) are largely disposed of. I’m never going to get excited again e.g. about general epistemology (too arid) or about foundations of physics (too hard), so all those texts can go too. I’m left with Frege, Russell, Wittgenstein, Quine; an amount of philosophical logic and philosophy of maths and related things; and an eclectic mix of unneeded books that somehow I just couldn’t quite bring myself to get rid of (yet). I’m not sure why among the philosophical remnants, Feyerabend for example stays and Fodor goes when I’ll never read either seriously again: but such are the vagaries of sentimental attachment.

But if I’m still rather attached to some authors and topics and themes and approaches, I’m not quite so sure about ‘philosophy’, the institution. Still, that’s another story. And anyway, those lucky enough to have philosophy jobs in these hard times certainly don’t need ancients grouching from the comfort of retirement: they have problems enough. True, judging from what’s been churning around on various Well Known Blogs over the last year, some might perhaps do well to recall Philip Roth’s wise words about  that “treacherous … pleasure: the ecstasy of sanctimony”. But being the season of goodwill, I’ll say no more!

Instead, for your end-of-year delight, here’s an updated version of the Notes on Category Theory (still very partial though now 74 pp.). Newly added: a section on comma categories to Ch.4, a short chapter between the old Chs 7 and 8, and a chapter on representable functors. So far, then, I cover

  1. Categories defined
  2. Duality, kinds of arrows (epics, monics, isomorphisms …)
  3. Functors
  4. More about functors and categories (and the category of categories!)
  5. Natural transformations (with rather more than usual on the motivation)
  6. Equivalence of categories (again with a section on motivation, why we want ‘equivalence’ rather than full isomorphism)
  7. The Yoneda embedding (shown to indeed be an embedding by using an easy restricted version of the Yoneda Lemma)
  8. An aside on Cayley’s Theorem
  9. The Yoneda Lemma (how to get to the full-dress version by two conceptually easy steps from the restricted version).
  10. Representables (definitions, examples, universal elements, the category of elements).

Download the new version of the notes here

Aberystwyth sunset

Old College, Aberystwyth, at sunset
Old College, Aberystwyth, at sunset

The Guardian has published its latest rankings of UK universities. These things mustn’t be taken too seriously, of course. But I see that Aberystwyth, where I taught for the first half my career, has now plummeted from 50th overall three years ago to 106th (out of 116). And it isn’t just the Guardian which perceives a rapid falling off: the Complete University Guide has Aber dropping over the same period from 47th to  87th. Those are, surely, huge drops, signalling something pretty dire going on. And apparently, applications are dropping sharply too, with the number of new undergraduate students at the university dwindling from 3,283 in 2011 to just 2,510 in 2013, and entry requirements for some courses hitting rock bottom. (There’s now an online petition with some excoriating comments about the current vice-chancellor who, incidentally, got nearly a 10% “performance-related” pay rise for presiding over the first two years of this plunge down the ratings, and now earns 50% more than the Prime Minister …)

When I was in Aber, there were some very distinguished people scattered round the college. My colleagues in the philosophy department included D.O. Thomas, who wrote the definitive book on Richard Price, the Berkeley scholar Ian Tipton, and O. R. Jones — all extraordinarily nice men, and thoughtful serious philosophers (and very hard-working and productive too, by the standards of the day). We had some very good students too: for example,  Sue Mendus started as a student the year I arrived there.  A department very ripe for closure, then, as happened in the “Thatcher cuts” of the later 1980s.  At that time, the institution faced hard choices but seemed to jump the wrong way repeatedly, and the slow diminution as a serious place started that has now accelerated alarmingly.

Aber was the founding college of what became the University of Wales (a national institution which also no longer exists in its original form). It is sad to see the place, which used to be held in quite unusual but very understandable affection by its students, in such precipitous decline.

M.M. McCabe: the crisis of the universities

Talking together, talking to ourselves: Socrates and the crisis of the universities.

Here Prof. McCabe says with passion and eloquence and learning what many of us think and sometimes, so much more stumblingly, try to express. Three cheers!

I hope that she makes available a written version of this valedictory lecture for those — normally including me — who, if only for time reasons, don’t get round to watching lectures online.  But yes, as Richard Baron says in his comment, the live performance in this case carries an impact that indeed makes it more than worth watching.

Ah, “impact” …

Logic matters, but not that much, apparently …

Looking at the Leiter blog … and no, this isn’t going to be about certain recent kerfuffles, where there has perhaps been rather too much rushing to judgement.

As I was saying, looking at the Leiter blog, I’m struck by the new list of “recent hires“. So far, there are [updated] eighty three “tenure-track and post-doc” appointments listed. Only four mention logic at all in any shape or form, and judging from publication lists and websites, the relevant people’s interests are in non-technical philosophy of logic overlapping with the philosophy of language and epistemology (topics like vagueness, theories of truth,  the epistemology of basic logical principles, the sense in which Russell was a logicist). Only one person on the whole list mentions philosophy of mathematics at all (and again, only with that same historical paper on Russell’s logicism to show for it). Fine topics to be interested in, but not perhaps at the core of logic or philosophy of maths.

It could be that Leiter’s list — or rather the list provided on his comment thread — is a bit unrepresentative. But it could be one more straw in the wind, showing how far the direction in most philosophy departments has turned from a central engagement with two of the founding disciplines of analytical philosophy.

Stefan Collini writes again about the attack on universities

In the latest London Review of Books, Stefan Collini writes again from the heart and with critical incisiveness about the privatisation disasters befalling British universities. Here’s his peroration:

Future historians, pondering changes in British society from the 1980s onwards, will struggle to account for the following curious fact. Although British business enterprises have an extremely mixed record (frequently posting gigantic losses, mostly failing to match overseas competitors, scarcely benefiting the weaker groups in society), and although such arm’s length public institutions as museums and galleries, the BBC and the universities have by and large a very good record (universally acknowledged creativity, streets ahead of most of their international peers, positive forces for human development and social cohesion), nonetheless over the past three decades politicians have repeatedly attempted to force the second set of institutions to change so that they more closely resemble the first. Some of those historians may even wonder why at the time there was so little concerted protest at this deeply implausible programme. But they will at least record that, alongside its many other achievements, the coalition government took the decisive steps in helping to turn some first-rate universities into third-rate companies. If you still think the time for criticism is over, perhaps you’d better think again.

Read the article, weep, … and then if you are still in a UK academic job get a grip and do something!

The Decline of the West, Episode 42

Here’s a very dispiriting new blog post by Tim Gowers about the dire state of school maths teaching in the UK. I’m a bit surprised, though, that he’s surprised by what he discovered (but then being in the happy situation of teaching Trinity mathmos is likely to colour your view of the world!). Certainly, my experience teaching Cambridge philosophy students — a very bright lot — about half of whom had done A-level maths and got top grades, was that very few of them really understood any maths. They might have picked up a bag of tricks to apply in response to some formulaic questions. But as for some conceptual understanding of classical analysis or an appreciation of the idea of rigorous proof ‘in the wild’ … Sigh. (No wonder philosophy of mathematics can leave them cold!)

And judging from the many comments to Tim Gowers’s post, the decline in school maths teaching is not confined to this declining off-shore island.

Well, there’s no point in moaning about this, though I hope my local friendly mathematicians are exercising what influences they can to help stop the rot. But it does mean that there’s a real problem for teachers of logic and writers of logic books aimed at students. We tend to be mathematically ept ourselves, and students are good at dissembling — or at least, at remaining silent — so we can so easily fail to realize just how mathematically inept so many of them are (through no fault of theirs, let it be emphasized). What to do? I don’t have the teaching problem any more: but I still do have the writing problem. I guess I’ve fallen over the years into working with the principle if in doubt, go slower and explain even more. But it does make for long books to write and long books to read.

 

Universities, galleries and Stefan Collini

I read Stefan Collini’s What are Universities For? last week with very mixed feelings. In the past, I’ve much admired his polemical essays on the REF, “impact”, the Browne Report, etc. in the London Review of Books and elsewhere: they speak to my heart. If you don’t know those essays, you can get some of their flavour from his latest article in the Guardian yesterday.

But I found the book a disappointment. Perhaps the trouble is that Collini is too decent, too high-minded, has too unrealistically exalted a view about what actually happens in universities which is too coloured by attitudes appropriate to the traditional humanities. And he is optimistic to the point of fantasy if he thinks that people are so susceptible to “the romance of ideas and the power of beauty” that they will want, or can be brought to want, lots and lots of universities in order to promote the ideas (as if they would suppose that the task of “conserving, understanding, extending and handing on to subsequent generations the intellectual, scientific, and artistic heritage of mankind” was clearly ill-served when there were only forty universities in England, as opposed to a hundred and whatever).

The cultural goods that Collini extols, perhaps enough will agree, are not to be measured in crassly economic terms and should be publicly sustained. But that thought falls so very short of helping us to think about what should be happening with the mass university education of almost half the age cohort, about what should be taught and how it should be funded. Collini’s considerations — if they push anywhere — might indeed suggest the ring-fencing of a relatively few elite institutions, to be protected (as in the old days of the UGC) from quotidian government interference and direction. He mentions the Californian model (layers of different kinds of tertiary institutions, with a lot of movement between, but with a sharp intellectual hierarchy, with research concentrated at the top). But Collini just doesn’t say if that is where he wants us to go.

 

I am still musing about Collini’s book which I’d finished on the train down, while in the Central Hall of the National Gallery. I am looking at one of their greatest paintings, Giovanni Moroni’s The Tailor. The tailor’s gaze is challenging, appraising: I sit for a while to gaze back. It was a busy weekday afternoon. But in ten minutes or more not one other visitor walking through the Hall pauses to give him a glance.

A bit later, I go to see once more the painting I’d perhaps most like to smuggle home and put over the mantelpiece, Fra Lippo Lippi’s wonderful Annunciation. I spend another ten minutes in the room where it hangs. One other person wanders in, and rather rapidly leaves again. Even Vermeer’s Young Woman Standing at a Virginal — and isn’t she on the ‘must see’ list in every pocket guide? — is surprisingly lonely, and almost no one stops to keep her company.

Take away all the school parties, take away all the overseas visitors, and who is left? You might reasonably imagine that the English don’t really care, or at any rate don’t care very much, about the art which is on show here. Oh, to be sure, we chattering classes know which blockbuster exhibitions are the done things to see: Leondardo in London or Vermeer in Cambridge will, for a while, be chock full of people. But from day to ordinary day? Some are vaguely glad to know that the National Gallery and the Fitzwilliam Museum are there. But, to be honest, a nice National Trust garden is really more our cup of tea (with scones and jam to follow, thank you).

I’m sure it’s not that we are more philistine as a nation than others (the Uffizi in December isn’t suddenly full of Italians glad to take advantage of the absence of tourists). But equally, I wouldn’t overrate the interest of even the more educated English in Culture with a capital ‘C’. When I was a Director of Studies, I used to ask my students towards the end of their time in Cambridge if they’d ever visited the Fitzwilliam: almost no-one ever had.

 

Collini, to return to him, reflects that “Some, at least, of what lies at the heart of a university is closer to the nature of a museum or gallery than is usually allowed or than most of today’s spokespersons for universities would be comfortable with.” And I rather agree. But where does the thought take us? I doubt that even Collini thinks that the tepid interest of the English — or some of the English — in museums and galleries can be parlayed into a wide public enthusiasm for spending a lot more on universities in these difficult times. So what’s to be done?

But perhaps I’m too torn to think straight about all this — torn between sharing Collini’s romanticism and acknowledging the element of unrealistic fantasy. I’ll say no more. Here, instead, is a cooler appraisal, perhaps the best response to his book yet, by the Chancellor of the Other Place.

Stefan Collini on the very idea of a university.

I much admire Stefan Collini’s writing on the current situation in UK universities (see here, for example). He has a book forthcoming next year What are Universities For? which should be a major event at least for academics struggling to find principled ways of thinking about and reacting to the battering. In the meantime, you might be interested in his recent Cambridge lecture on the very idea of a university, now online.

Thank heavens that’s over …

Examining, I mean. For the last time ever. And, after a long-drawn-out and rather depressing experience marking tripos, at least I finished on a high note, viva-ing a particularly excellent M.Phil. thesis.

Now it is back to clearing my office. Into the bin with lecture notes from courses twenty-five years ago! Out with old overheads and handouts! Onto the come-and-help-yourselves shelves in another room for a lot of never-read/never-to-be-read books!

But now it is getting harder. I’m slowing down, and it is all getting more discombobulating.

In some cases it is a matter of regretfully having to acknowledge that — being realistic — I am never going to have a year or so to really get my head again round X or Y. I’d love to really get to the point where I was back on top of the state of play in the philosophy of quantum mechanics (say); but it is never going to happen — or at least, it’s never going to happen if I am to have half a chance of finishing some logicky projects. So that whole area will have to remain a closed book, or rather a small pile of closed books. A cheering reminder of faded hopes, eh?

Then there are the books to which I still feel an odd attachment and find difficult to let go for no reason I can easily articulate. Irrational, as I’ve not read them for decades, and I’m surrounded by Cambridge libraries. For instance, I’ve just found myself rereading some of  Cornford’s Unwritten Philosophy, which I must have bought in 1967, and not had occasion to read much since. I’m sure it is all very creaky: ancient philosophy has come such a very long way since when Cornford was writing (the essays date from the thirties and forties). I’ve long since lost touch, and my Greek has quite disappeared. And yet, and yet … The charm of his writing still weaves its magic. No; this I think I will keep, just for a bit longer.

Back to the pile for sorting …

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