what you get here

This is not a blog which expresses instant opinions on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers as jumping-off points for some reflections about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

Sunday, October 18, 2009

tower of babel

Pieter Bruegel the elder (1563)
I ended my last post with an attack on universities. This is not the first time I have found myself attacking university over-specialisation in the social sciences. When I was struggling in the early 1970s with the appalling social and economic conditions in which almost 20% of the people in the West of Scotland lived, I could find no discipline in academia which could help suggest what we might be able to do at a local level to improve these conditions.

A few of us had to struggle to put a strategy together – the only help we received was from the Tavistock Institute in London and Rowntree Trust in York! Once we had shown the way, the universities spawned their courses and research projects – and began to present themselves as community resources.
Attacks on universities can easily be (mis)represented as leading to “burning of the books”. They also seem rather lonely if not selfish ventures. All those currently in positions of power have passed through university portals and part of their identity rests on the parchment they carry - which marks them as “physicist”, “engineer”, “accountant”, “economist” etc.
Why should they bite the hand which has given them this status? Or deny such positions to those waiting at the gates? The genie cannot, it seems, be put back in the bottle....

But, as I return to the theme 20 years later, I feel that the perspectives, terminology and career structures of the ever-spawning academic specialisms have actually contributed to social alienation and the decline of confidence in government. Why did no-one take Stanislaw Andreski seriously when, in 1971, he wrote his book “Social Science as Sorcery”? Why did it so quickly become out of print?
In the global competitive environment in which universities now operate, universities are now capitalists like anyone else – but the (unchallenged) medieval rhetoric their leaders use about their social role gives them a cloak which conceals even from themselves the evil they are doing.
What is that evil? It is in
· doing nothing to disparage the ethic of utilitarianism, individualism and private profit and
· being the major source of the development of Orwellian new-speak, technical jargon and a modern Tower of Babel.
So what might they be doing?
Basically going back to the Scottish tradition of moral philosophy and political economy – and finding the common language to allow the social sciences to communicate with one another. There are many (older) texts which could form the core of reading for such a course – eg Ivan Illich; Leopold Kohr; Michael Oakeshott; Karl Popper; Neil Postman; JQ Wilson. I will try shortly to give a more definitive list.

In the older blog on my website, I posed the question of which book you would give to a beneficiary – for example in a central Asian or Caucasian country. My choice in Uzbekistan in 2002 for the Deputy Prime Minister I was working with was Guy Peters’ The Future of Governing - four emerging models. In Azerbaijan I gave my Minister Robert Greene’s 48 Laws of Power!

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