Higher Education in the age of Artificial Intelligence

Aoun, J. 2017. Higher education in the age of artificial intelligence. MIT Press.

Joseph E. Aoun has set out his vision for the University. It is an interesting one; a clear departure from the scores of humanities professors who dream of returning to the elite liberal arts education of the past. Perhaps these authors – e.g. Collini (2012), Maskell & Robinson (2002) – have their noses so deep in a good book they remain blissfully unconcerned about the approaching singularity. More likely they are all too aware of it, and that’s why they promote the humanities.

It should be stated first of all that Aoun’s argument relies on a maintenance of separation between artificial and human intelligence, rather than a ‘symbiotic’ line of development as idealised in the neural lace proposed by Elon Musk (an innovation that would, of course, require knowing how the brain actually works – a bothersome prerequisite).

Aoun is the president of Northeastern, a private university in the US that follows the model he is promoting. His book is therefore less a vision, more a retrospective justification for his current mode of operation. His central argument is that in a world of artificial intelligence, when computers are able to programme themselves, we need to focus our efforts on teaching the skills that robots will never be able to do, such as ‘systems thinking’. Aoun has a word for these skills that are required at the nexus between human and artificial intelligence: ‘humanics’. Aoun’s humanics are distinct from the humanities. He concedes the liberal arts will always have relevance, but the examples he gives are distinctly utilitarian; e.g. the ‘brilliant computer scientist’ needing to thrive in a human context in order to ‘succeed’ (p107).

Skills, of course, are instrumental things; means rather than ends. Aoun never presents his ends or values as up for debate; his justification assumes economic growth is an imperative, and links human fulfillment with productivity.

If Aoun believes the university has a role other than preparing students for paid employment, he doesn’t let on. He is all about collaborating with industry partners, not only in the provision of co-operative work placements, but in taking a lead from industry in the design and content of curricula. There is no acknowledgement from Aoun that the aim of a business is to create profit, or recognition that allowing profit-making enterprises to dictate the activities of the university fundamentally changes the very idea of the institution.

It is likely that Aoun is right in that this is how to run a university as a successful business in the lead up to – and perhaps beyond – the singularity. His alignment with the aims and goals of business is crystal clear. When speaking of ‘economic progress’ he is impressed by Swiss industry & education collaborations, which keep ‘costs to employers…much lower than the benefits they receive from apprentices and educational institutions.’ (p145). Aoun feels it is right and proper to allow profit-making private businesses to cream further value and profit from institutions of learning. Admittedly, Aoun’s university is also a profit-making private business, but if he wishes to make a claim about the future of higher education more generally, he should address this tension.

Aoun’s final paragraph stresses that ‘education is not a panacea for humanity’s troubles’ (p149). If we are to conceptualise education as he does, then of course it is not. He suggests, rather weakly, that ‘perhaps…society’s weight will shift’(?), making things more equitable and sustainable (p149). Having nailed his pro-business, pro-growth colours firmly to the mast throughout the book, this is clearly lip-service. I won’t say it is insincere as he does not even pretend that this is a hope he personally holds. Earlier, on p142, Aoun explicitly diminishes the notion of knowledge and learning in ‘the service of a broader good’ as secondary to ‘today’s economic and societal imperatives’. Having openly acknowledged that technological progress is ‘extremely likely’ to intensify inequality, he does not then offer any suggestion for how this might be avoided (the phrases ‘not for profit’ and ‘social enterprise’ are conspicuous in their absence). Aoun should, perhaps, have stuck to his principles and avoided mentioning equality or sustainability at all. Their presence on the page emits an oppressed whimper that only highlights the dystopia.

Aoun’s use of female pronouns is refreshing, as is his consistent use of female examples (students, researchers, industry spokespeople). Interestingly, I actually began to resent this as I neared the end of the book. Because I disagreed so strongly with his economic worldview, I felt like he was using these women to further his own agenda, that this was patriarchy masquerading as feminism; a veneer of social justice to disguise the neoliberal message underneath.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Liquid modernity and the paradox of declining female happiness

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about ideas of academic culture and interdisciplinarity, and imagining a future for the university that takes into account the hyper-connected, globalised, uber-responsive world of today – what Zygmunt Bauman calls the ‘liquid modernity’. I’ve just received a gift of Joseph Aoun’s new book Robot Proof: Higher Education in the Age of Artifical Intelligence. But I thought I’d also read some Bauman.

I chose his 2003 book ‘Liquid Love’ because it seemed to cover his broad thinking on modernity with a focus on its implications for human relationships. I find human relationships pretty intriguing, so I figured this one would be an easy read. My friend Aidan joked that it looked like a Mills and Boon novel, but there is no romance in it. Bauman’s despair about modern relationships is clear. I think his ranting tone was rubbing off on me in my recent post on virtual reality. Ranting is rarely convincing; one’s first thought is not ‘mmm, yes, you have a point there’ but ‘why are you so upset about this, personally? What happened to you?’. And, yes, I should consider that regarding my post on VR.

The first thing that really got under my skin reading Liquid Love was Bauman’s apparent conservatism around marriage. His commentary on the modern world of romantic relationships is, well, scathing. He thinks we are all uncaringly pressing ‘delete’ on one another. He makes a surface attempt to engage with the opportunities and challenges of this way of life, but having (I assume) never experienced them for himself (Bauman met his wife Janine at university and they were together until she died in 2009), it reads like he’s looking at them down a microscope. I’m not claiming things are universally better than they used to be, but there is a balanced view to be presented, and Bauman’s perspective is narrow. For example, Bauman would never have had to learn how to consciously uncouple, an modern skill that I believe demands at least as much empathy, generosity and selflessness as staying together, if not more (particularly if you share friends, offspring, pets, property, etc).

There was a time not so long ago where I would have agreed wholeheartedly about a lot of the things Bauman says about human relationships. For example, he feels an immense sense of loss about virtual communication becoming the default, and this used to be a subject close to my heart as well. Initially, the Internet helped me to feel less socially awkward, but as I grew older and became more comfortable around people, I began to find virtual communication unsatisfying and frustrating.

I think I’ve got a more nuanced view these days, and my perspective has broadened in the last few months since my partner and I uncoupled and I have been enjoying living alone. I now spend a lot of time by myself, which I like, and I’ve had some very deep, rich (and sometimes completely unexpected) virtual conversations that I wouldn’t have had otherwise.

I have a smallish group of Hackney-based friends and we use a Facebook Messenger group, mainly to exchange stupid stories, pull faces, tell rude jokes, and otherwise make one another laugh. We also use it to organise face-to-face meetings. With this group, I suspect one or two of them do find the online interactions easier and more entertaining. People participate when they’re on top form, and keep quiet when they’re not in the mood, and some quality banter gets exchanged. Still, I wouldn’t say – for most of us at least – that the face-to-face struggles to live up to the virtual. There is something quite delicious about social awkwardness (I know I’m not the only person to think this), and it is usually where the best memories are created and built upon. Meeting up in person is hard work; it’s not just that the interaction can be laboured; trying to make plans in the ever-shifting liquid of modern life is a major source of frustration. Alex Cornell points out: ‘Cellphones make plans susceptible to revision at any moment, thus making them in advance is pointless.’ It’s not quite pointless – yet. We still do it. And mobile phones enable various kinds of impromptu meet-ups that weren’t possible previously. For every challenge, there is an opportunity. We are learning that appearances are deceptive; we are perhaps even more aware now of our efforts to present our best faces to the world (ok, sometimes better than our best – filtered, enhanced, etc.), and that others are doing the same.

My point here is that modernity is just different. Not worse, or better.

I’m not leaping back into techno-evangelism. But reading Bauman’s words, tinged with anger, fear and sadness, really brought it home that there are deeply personal stories behind how we feel about modernity and technological progress. On starting to entertain a fantasy that Bauman’s wife had left him for someone she met on Friends Reunited and this very modern tragedy had fuelled his polemic, I turned to Wikipedia for clues. The entry did explain a few things.

On reading that Bauman wrote on ‘issues as diverse as holocaust and modernity’ my first thought was… are they that diverse? I’d just been writing about Spender and Lukács’ criticism of modernism for its capacity to ‘dissolve the personality’ (weaken the sense of self?), and, yes, I get that modernism and modernity are two separate things, but in these cases they both refer at least in part to the technological approach. Reading on, it seems to indeed be the case that Bauman felt the holocaust was caused by man’s anxiety about ambiguity (In an earlier post I relate anxiety with the narrative self). He actually wrote a book called Modernity and the Holocaust, an excerpt of which follows:

‘Procedural rationality, the division of labour into smaller and smaller tasks, the taxonomic categorisation of different species, and the tendency to view obedience to rules as morally good, all played their role in the Holocaust coming to pass.’

N.B. The values of instrumentalism, efficiency (performativity) and ordering are not exclusively right-wing or Conservative values. Obedience/authority is (according to Jonathan Haidt), but not the others.

The link with the holocaust wasn’t the only factor that I think may have contributed to Bauman’s strong emotions around modernity. Bauman and his wife had three daughters, Anna – an accomplished academic, Lydia – a well-known painter, and Irena, a top architect. Neither Lydia nor Irena ever married or had children. Pure conjecture on my part, but perhaps Zygmunt Bauman wasn’t happy about this state of affairs. Maybe he longed for all of his talented daughters to marry, procreate and continue the family line.

I thought back to some data I’d seen about marriage making men happier and women unhappier. Women’s happiness tends to increase after divorce. I wondered about a feminist perspective on liquid modernity. I felt like Bauman was clinging on to this institution and way of life that wasn’t doing women any favours. The old models of stability in love suited men more than women. I thought about how many of the societal changes Bauman writes about are related to women’s liberation from the home.

And then I found all this sociology research about women’s perceptions of happiness, and realised how complex the picture is. We have a paradox of declining female happiness. Women have traditionally reported higher levels of happiness than men, but they are now reporting happiness levels that are similar or even lower than those of men along with an awareness that they have greater opportunities for happiness than ever before (Stevenson & Wolfers 2009)

Key social trends implicated in this phenomenon include decreased social cohesion (Putnam, 2000), increased anxiety and neuroticism (Twenge, 2000), and increased household risk (Hacker, 2006), all of which may have had a greater impact on women’s happiness than on men’s. Another theory is that women feel more comfortable being honest about their true happiness and have thus adjusted their previously inflated responses! Interestingly, female suicide decreased markedly over time while male rates remain stable. This suggests that while median happiness may have fallen, extreme unhappiness in women has decreased.

The most persuasive theory in my opinion is that the increased opportunities for women to succeed in many dimensions feed concerns that one’s life is not measuring up. Women may now compare their lives to a broader group, including men, and find their lives more likely to come up short in this assessment. There are studies that indicate that men are still putting in more hours at work, but it is difficult to know just how much of the overall burden of home production has shifted, as measuring the emotional, as well as physical, work of making a home is a difficult task.

Akerlof, Yellen, and Katz (1996) have a particular theory around the ‘sexual freedom’ offered by the birth control pill. Often touted as a liberating force for women, they argue that the Pill actually benefited men by increasing the pressure on women to have sex outside of marriage, and dismantling the social obligation for a man to marry his pregnant lover. Did men glean a disproportionate share of the benefits of the women’s movement?

Essentially, it would seem that the decline in female happiness is widespread and cannot be attributed easily to one social phenomenon. Married/single, working/non-working – across large data sets these distinctions don’t appear to make a difference. A more pertinent question may be – why has men’s perceived happiness not decreased when objective measures of wellbeing are coming up short across the board?

This question points us to declines in marital satisfaction, which is common across the genders. However, marital satisfaction is more closely linked to perceived overall happiness for women. It is difficult to assess the role of changes in marital satisfaction on women’s overall happiness since marital satisfaction is only asked among those who are married and changing selection over time in this group makes causal inference challenging.

Maybe the home was a nice place for women to be because we made it so (here I am reminded of Richard’s provocative recent piece on Hugh Hefner and the reclamation of the home from domesticity). As women gained greater access to the world men created, they didn’t like what they encountered. This fits with the ‘expectation gap’ hypothesis. It will take a long while for women’s influence to affect the world’s infrastructure, much of which – social, physical, virtual – has been, and is still being, designed by men.

My diversion into a feminist perspective on modernity was fun – it got a lot of responses when I posted about it in the Facehole – but as I got further through Bauman’s book I must admit suffering a bit of a smash to my self-esteem. I recall cradling a comforting cup of tea, feeling like a deformed product of fluid modern society.

Bauman brings together Gadamer and Kant (p125) – two of my favourite philosophers when it comes to considering the potential for individual and collective human flourishing, and what we need to do to fulfill these. Gadamer emphasised the importance of fusing our horizons; of seeking to know the perspective of the other. As Bauman says, Kant warned us of the challenges of impending modernity more than two hundred years ago; he thought the lack of space would mean that we would be forced to embrace reciprocal hospitality.

I’m not sure we are there yet. Perhaps we are, in a way. Our technologies support a marketisation of reciprocity, and we appear to prefer that over something more organic. Take Airbnb for example – an exchange that engages human relations, understanding, negotiation etc., but depends on money to ensure exchanges are equal. The technology makes it practically feasible. The principle of open reviews helps both host and guest to choose to behave like reasonable human beings, and there are checks and guidelines in place to ensure participants are treated fairly and not discriminated against.

I rather think that the scarcity of space (particularly here in London) has meant that we have a greater desire to carve it out for ourselves. One of the factors in my partner and I separating was me quite literally needing to have a place of my own. I could have tolerated sharing the rest of it, if I’d only had one room of my own to retreat to. For many of my friends – including my ex-partner – the only option is to live in communal houses. But at least then you do get one room to yourself. I’m pretty sure Zygmunt Bauman and Immanuel Kant both had their own rooms to retreat to. I imagine they probably didn’t even have to clean it themselves either.

Airbnb allows me to offer a flexible, zero-hours position of ‘housemate’. I set the terms, and both of us have to stick to those terms or we get negative reviews. Ideally I’d prefer not to take people quite so often, but I need to pay the mortgage, and there are genuine positives. I get to meet nice people who I wouldn’t otherwise meet, it means the place never gets untidy, and having a stranger wandering around keeps me on task, away from the fridge and out of the Facehole. Most importantly, though, I am in control. I choose to share, or not share. If I really need blessed solitude, I take it. No commitment to a lifetime of someone else’s off-days, with both of you free to be your worst possible selves to one another. Maybe a little performativity isn’t a bad thing.

I’m not saying modernity’s better than what came before. But I don’t agree with Bauman that it’s worse. It’s different; it has different opportunities and different challenges. I’ve adapted to it, and I’m influencing it. Structure and agency…

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment


I’ve been doing some thinking about this blog, and what purpose it serves now I’m into the writing-up stage of my thesis. If I’m to submit a full draft in January, it may be that I should spend all my time on that, rather than continuing to push out my embryonic ideas in blog form.

Also, over the last few months I’ve made new friends who are way ahead of me in the fields I’m writing in; philosophy, psychedelics, etc.. I’ve started sending them my posts, and they – somewhat adorably – have often read them and sent me feedback. That’s not something I’ve really had before. I never expected anyone to read my blog (except maybe David) and always intended it as my sketchbook rather than something I was doing for an audience, although, if I look into the darker layers of my psyche, I see this intention is fuelled by a desire to be recognised as open, unpretentious and non-ego-driven. And bright. And motivated. I’m only human, I guess.

Not only is my blog ego-serving, it’s also a cop-out. It’s a way of me reading and writing and presenting, doing the things I love about doctoral study, knowing that these ideas won’t ultimately be checked, judged or criticised. It’s all of the pleasure and none of the pain, and it also means I get to go in whatever direction I happen to be wandering in, whether it’s the right direction or not.

It’s awesome getting feedback. It also brings it home to you how half-baked your ideas really are.

Maybe that’s why I’m now thinking I should stick to actually drafting my thesis; because it would be a safer place to retreat to… for now.

And… for that reason I’m going to continue posting up my thoughts (nothing too precious; there are some gems I need to polish and find a good price for). I need to continually remind myself that I am a neophyte. I’m a fast learner, but learning requires feedback. Also, if selfhood is a delusion, and we are all one consciousness experiencing itself subjectively, what is there to lose?

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Letheby, Metzinger and *that* Jim Carrey interview

Last week, Jim Carrey showed up on the red carpet at New York fashion week, much to the surprise of TV presenter Catt Sadler, who asked him – on camera – what he was doing there. The conversation played out like this:

Carrey: ‘There’s no meaning to any of this. I wanted to find the most meaningless thing I could come to… here I am. You gotta admit this is meaningless… I don’t believe in icons… I don’t believe in personalities… I believe we are a field of energy dancing for itself.’
Sadler: ‘But Jim, you got really dressed up for this evening!’
Carrey: ‘I didn’t get dressed up.’
Sadler: ‘Who did?’
Carrey: ‘There is no me... There’s just things happening…. It’s not our world. We don’t matter. There’s the good news.’
[Carrey gives Sadler a reassuring squeeze on the shoulders and exits stage right]

The interview went viral. Many of those who understood what Carrey was saying were delighted. Not all – some thought that it would rub the right people up the wrong way. Indeed, those who hadn’t previously entertained the idea of selfhood as a delusion – and the world being devoid of meaning – were puzzled, even disturbed. Media reactions ranged from shock, to concern for Jim’s mental health, to derision. Other media outlets have been clamouring to talk with Jim about the interview, and he has been happy to oblige. Sadler herself has described the interview as ‘unexpected’, but ‘fun’.

In his paper on naturalising spirituality, Letheby (2017) asks whether psychedelics – in their capacity to induce mystical or spiritual experiences – can offer part of a solution for (sub-clinical) existential anxiety, what he also describes as a ‘disenchantment of [or with?] the world’. What Carrey highlighted through his Fashion Week stunt was an enchantment with the self that contributes to existential angst and, one would presume, a relative lack of enchantment with the ‘world outside’.

Neuroscientific work is currently being undertaken to study the neural correlates of the psychedelic experience. It has been found that psychedelics disrupt and reduce the activity of the Default Mode Network (DMN), a network of interacting brain regions whose activity is highly correlated with one another and distinct from other neural networks. The DMN is implicated in mind-wandering, replaying events, agonising over whether to leave your husband, cut your hair short, get your navel pierced, etc.. The dominant hypothesis is that the DMN is ‘also’ responsible for our sense of self, but it is surely the case that this category of mental activity is a significant part of our sense of self; the ‘transtemporal identity’ Metzinger (2016) refers to, and the phenomenon Galen Strawson (2004) describes as the diachronic self. It is the stories we tell ourselves and others about our ‘selves’, the things we obsess over when we are not engaged in the present moment. It is what we write on our online dating profiles. It is how Richard Marshall’s 3:am interviewees answer his opening question: What made you become a philosopher?

In his 2004 essay Against Narrative, Galen Strawson highlights that a ‘strong sense of self’ is often equated to – or at least considered essential for – good mental health. This is an important point: I suspect that when psychologists refer to a ‘strong sense of self’ they actually mean a sense of self that is only very rarely attended to. If one assumes that the ‘self’ exists, then the ‘strong’ metaphor holds firm; it means it is there, it is stable, it is not an object of concern. If, however, we propose that ‘self’ is a delusion, it is no longer obvious whether it is a good or a bad thing for it to be uppermost in our awareness or lying dormant in the background, and therefore which positioning should be labelled ‘strong’ or ‘weak’.

Metzinger (2016) sketches out the human cost of our sense of self, which is substantial. Not only does the activity of our DMN use a lot of energy (and support a great deal of time-wasting), it is also the basis for existential angst. Metzinger reasons that for us to maintain a sense of self despite these considerable detractors, there must be significant payoffs. For example, a sense of self is a prerequisite for assumptions of free will and personal responsibility, without which society would break down.

From his chapter in Pereboom’s anthology on Free Will, it is clear that Strawson (2009) has also come to the conclusion that the self, free will and personal responsibility are constructions. Necessary constructions, perhaps, but constructions nonetheless.

Letheby (2017) cites Flanagan’s work on naturalistic eudaimonics; that is, empirical inquiry into the conditions for human flourishing. It would seem that a more flourished state – both as individuals and collectively – is one where we spend less time thinking about ourselves (our ‘selves’). Despite its implied finality, I’ve opted for the past tense because the processes of flourishing – for example the psychotherapeutic process – may demand a fair amount of inward reflection. But I propose that the state of having flourished and continuing to do so (perhaps an appropriate metaphor would be blooming), is a state where the attention is focused outwards more than inwards.

On the topic of psychotherapy, it is worth noting the recent award of breakthrough therapy status to MDMA-assisted therapy (MAPS 2017). MDMA (3,4-Methylenedioxymethamphetamine) is a very interesting substance that has been described as the ‘perfect drug for psychotherapy’ (Sessa 2011). The complex profile of effects on neurotransmitter release and neural receptors as tabulated by Sessa (2017) render MDMA a potent entactogen (or empathogen). MDMA reduces hypervigilance and the amygdala fear response, promotes novel thinking, and produces experiences of emotional communion, oneness, relatedness and openness. It is is a powerful adjunct to psychotherapy because it suppresses our self-protective mechanisms. In a sense, it allows the ‘self’ to be gently broken down.

So, I am proposing that the ‘strong sense of self’ touted by psychologists as the ideal mental state has been misconstrued. It has come to be conflated with the examination and presentation of personal narrative. Lilla (2017) highlights how the modes and attitudes of ‘identity politics’ have become embedded into university curricula and policy, and argues that they have made students less likely to engage with a world beyond themselves. Lilla claims this is ‘strangling liberalism’. O’Neill (2016) warns that it is separatism in disguise.

While my supervisor has warned me about paddling in the treacherous waters at the confluence of neuroscience and philosophy, I am seeing neuroscience coming on in leaps and bounds (in no small part thanks to psychedelic research), and the very existence of the journal Neuroscience and Consciousness (e.g. Letheby & Gerrans 2017) indicates that there is important and groundbreaking work being undertaken at this nexus. I am personally intrigued by the neural correlates of the identity crises of the liquid modernity described (and lamented) at length by Bauman (2003), Illeris (2013) and others. I’m sure there must be people looking into this, but for all the papers still being written about psychedelic ego-dissolution, I wonder whether today’s psychonauts are experiencing ego-dissolution as standard.

During several of my own lower-dose psychedelic experiences I have become hyper-aware of my annoying thought chatter, to the point where I have found it mildly disturbing. The experience is one of an augmented ego rather than a diminished one. Even with 25mg of psilocybin I would describe my experience as primarily mind-revealing and empathetic rather than ego-dissolving (although the recall of ego dissolution is unlikely to be accurate, calling as it does on the very thing that may or may not have been dissolved!).

Ego-dissolution versus apparent ego-augmentation may be an issue of dosage more than one of psychological set. It is highly likely that today’s amateur psychonauts are more moderate in their doses. The excessive 500-600mg hits of LSD that Christopher Bache routinely used (Biehl 2017) and were commonplace among researchers and amateur psychonauts of that era have fallen out of fashion relative to the lowest effective dose or ‘LED’.

A microdose could be hypothesised as sufficient to dampen the mind-wandering activity of the DMN and improve focus on the task at hand, but well below the level required to dissolve the ego and transform us into one of Sessa’s (2017) tie-dyed, ‘bare-torsoed hippes’ (I have to apologise to Ben for dragging this up again, but it’s just too funny not to). A criticism I have heard levelled at the practice of microdosing by some members of the psychedelic community is that it colludes with neoliberalism, promoting performative attitudes and an individualist mindset, rather than helping us to connect with and care for nature and one another.

Jim Fadiman’s large-scale volunteer study of microdosing found that anxious subjects without comorbid depression did not find microdosing beneficial, in many cases reporting increased anxiety. This is a very interesting finding that resonates with some – by no means all – of my own micro and meso-dose experiences, and I hope it is explored further. Speaking at Breaking Convention, Fadiman (2017) said that while he has enough positive reports to generate a reliable picture of the perceived benefits of microdosing, he is still keen to hear from more of those with less positive or mixed experiences.

If there is a causal relation, in which way might it run? Are we, the citizens of Bauman’s liquid modernity, more identity-focused and individualist because we lack profound spiritual experience, or do we shy away from profound experience to protect and sustain our selfhood and our individualist way of life?

My own neophyte thoughts about psychedelics, the sense of self and mental health broadly correspond with Letheby’s (2017) conclusions. A standard definition of ‘spirituality’ is an experience of something bigger than ourselves. While we can transcend the self through broadening our perspective, engaging with nature and our ‘affective responses of wonder and reverence’ (p14), Letheby also cites Harris’ (2014) claim that spirituality is simply ‘insight into the non-existence of the self’ (p15).*

Dismantling the illusion of the self – at least in part – would appear to alleviate psychological suffering of many forms. An important question is how far we should go with it. Metzinger (2016) makes excellent points about society’s reliance on assumptions of free will and personal responsibility, and while it is true that ‘nice people take drugs’ (Release, 2017), it does not necessarily follow that all people who take drugs are nice.

* Harris recently interviewed Thomas Metzinger; a link to the podcast is included below with the other references.


Bauman, Z. 2003. Liquid Love. Polity Press.

Biehl, Z. 2017. Meet the professor who self-administered 73 high-dose LSD sessions. Psymposia, 5 September 2017. Available at: https://www.psymposia.com/magazine/meet-professor-self-administered-73-high-dose-lsd-sessions/

Fadiman, J. 2017. Creative Problem-Solving: High Doses Then, Microdoses Now. Breaking Convention, 1 July, Greenwich, UK. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XuBd2NRO2Ck

Forsdyke, D. (2015). Wittgenstein’s Certainty is Uncertain: Brain Scans of Cured Hydrocephalics Challenge Cherished Assumptions. Biological Theory. DOI: 10.1007/s13752-015-0219-x

Harris, S. 2014. Waking Up: a Guide to Spirituality without Religion. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Harris, S. 2017. The Nature of Consciousness: A Conversation with Thomas Metzinger. 10 September. Available at: https://www.samharris.org/podcast/item/the-nature-of-consciousness

Illeris, K. 2013. Transformative Learning and Identity. Routledge.

Letheby, C. 2017. Naturalising Psychedelic Spirituality. In Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science. 52 (3), p623-642

Letheby, C., & Gerrans, P. 2017. Self unbound: ego dissolution in psychedelic experience. Neuroscience of Consciousness, p1-11.

Lilla, M. 2017. How Colleges are Strangling Liberalism. The Chronicle of Higher Education, 20 August. Available at: http://www.chronicle.com/article/How-Colleges-Are-Strangling/240909

MAPS 2017. FDA Grants Breakthrough Therapy Designation for MDMA-Assisted Psychotherapy for PTSD, Agrees on Special Protocol Assessment for Phase 3 Trials [Press Release] 26 August. Available at: https://www.maps.org/news/media/6786-press-release-fda-grants-breakthrough-therapy-designation-for-mdma-assisted-psychotherapy-for-ptsd,-agrees-on-special-protocol-assessment-for-phase-3-trials

Metzinger, T. 2016. All about the ego-tunnel. Interview by Richard Marshall. 3:am Magazine. 25 February. Available at: http://www.3ammagazine.com/3am/all-about-the-ego-tunnel/

O’Neill, B. 2016. Orlando has exposed the poison of identity politics. Spiked. 15 June. Available at: http://www.spiked-online.com/newsite/article/orlando-has-exposed-the-poison-of-identity-politics/18457#.Wb6WO0qGP1I

Release 2017. Nice People Take Drugs. Campaign merchandise. Available at: https://www.release.org.uk/products/nice-people-take-drugs-tshirts-unisex

Sessa, B. 2011. Can MDMA enhance trauma-focused psychotherapy? Progress in Neurology and Psychiatry. 15 (6), p4-7

Sessa, B. 2017. The 21st century psychedelic renaissance: heroic steps forward on the back of an elephant. Psychopharmacology. 23 August. DOI: 10.1007/s00213-017-4713-7

Strawson, G. 2004. Against Narrativity. Ratio XVII, p428-452. Available at: http://lchc.ucsd.edu/mca/Paper/against_narrativity.pdf

Strawson, G. 2009. The Impossibility of Ultimate Moral Responsibility. In Pereboom, D. (Ed). Free Will. 2nd Edition. US: Hackett.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

No! Chalmers! What are you doing?!

It seems Dave Chalmers has decided that the problem of consciousness is too hard. He’s now moved on to virtual reality:


I really like Dave Chalmers, and I really hope his philosophical interest in VR isn’t intended as some sort of endorsement of the thing itself, or I might have to stop liking him so much.

Last year I was on a stag do (I know, how very modern) and one of the guys had brought along a little cardboard-box viewer gizmo which was supposed to turn into a virtual reality headset when he put his iPhone into it. They made me look through it. I looked around a bit. There were shapes. They moved. Not only was it aesthetically displeasing, it seemed devoid of meaning and purpose. I said so, and asked if anyone was planning on going outside today (we were in a youth hostel in rural Scotland, and it wasn’t raining).

They told me it wasn’t the thing itself that was amazing, it was what it represented in terms of technological potential.


Reality is not just about what’s out there. What about what’s in here? Consciousness is the only thing we can be sure of existing. Consciousness is what makes life what it is.

Sure, ponder the idea of virtual reality for philosophical purposes, but do we really have to develop it? Much like space travel and with time travel in Asimov’s Age of Eternity, once you’ve got the technology, that’s one thing. But just think about all the really bad ‘proto-virtual reality’ we’d have to endure on the way.

I hate to think of all this time and money being spent on developing sophisticated technologies that mimic a prescribed visual world. The most beautiful, moving things I’ve ever ‘seen’ have been with my eyes closed; while on psychedelics, during orgasm, while dreaming, etc.. They have been creative acts of seeing, and that is what has been so profound and moving about them. Virtual reality would not engage the imagination. It would even, I presume, restrict interpretation.

Say we did, one day, have the technology to plug ourselves in and experience skiing for ‘real’; the metallic smell of the snow, the cold air on our face, the crunch of the skis on the fresh powder. How could it possibly feel the same, emotionally? Would the threat of falling bear the same consequence (a long trudge uphill to search for a lost ski, a broken leg, death)? Would you be looking forward to a well-earned bowl of gulaschsuppe and a beer served by a cheerful Austrian in a dirndl? Would you feel a glow of gratitude for the lovely weather and an urge to make the most of it before tomorrow’s snow that is likely to keep you playing Scrabble in the chalet? Would you feel a tinge of sadness that you have to leave the mountains on Saturday to go back to work? Would you feel proud and pleased that your friends are noticing the improvement in your short-turn technique?

No. Because you’d be in a wind tunnel on springs with a box on your face, in Swindon.

Finally… take Chalmers’ point that it is, in fact, highly likely that this world *is* a virtual reality, maybe constructed for other beings’ entertainment. Would they really be entertained by us discovering and creating a virtual reality of our own? It sounds like watching someone else play Tomb Raider, only a thousand times worse. Maybe that’s the point of the game. Maybe the moment when we create our own virtual reality, it’s ‘game over’… and we all disappear.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Two Cultures: A Psychedelic Solution?

The key point of C.P. Snow’s 1959 Rede lecture on The Two Cultures is an imperative to address a schism between the two cultures of science and literature (or at least, literary criticism). Snow accuses the latter of romanticising the pre-scientific era and in doing so undermining the vital progress of science that is needed to improve standards of living and alleviate human suffering.

Snow also concedes that scientific culture is not sufficiently concerned with the ends of humanity, that its disinterested detachment allows its discoveries to be abused, for example in the production of weapons of mass destruction.

The second accusation appears to me to be the most prescient, and the most serious (if F.R. Leavis was alive today, I imagine he’d be sat in his armchair cheerfully asking Alexa to play Beethoven’s pastoral symphony). Snow is arguing for greater mutual understanding between the two cultures. He does not explicitly propose a merging of the two, or suggest that this may be possible.

In an introduction to a 1998 edition of The Two Cultures, Stefan Collini observes that the controversy is entangled with ‘highly-changed matters of institutional status and social class’ (p.xvi). There are certainly egos and politics at play in Snow’s lecture and the ensuing debate, and the evidence of this peaks in Leavis’ response. In some ways I found the conflict interesting, but my overriding sense is that it is of little substance and distracts from the crucial point. If Leavis’ reaction does illustrate anything of importance it is that our life experiences affect the way we see the world, and narrow horizons and/or a lack of openness to experience are disastrous for mutual understanding.

Leavis was only secondarily objecting to Snow’s message. His primary objection was to the authority with which Snow delivered it. He felt that Snow was neither a good scientist nor a good novelist, and therefore he did not have the authority to pass comment on the two cultures in this way. Snow never responded directly to these criticisms, the manner and tone of which was widely disapproved of. Leavis was reported to have become ever more aggressive and antagonistic over the last two decades of his life, leading Stephen Fry (2011, p46) to describe him as ‘a sanctimonious prick of only parochial significance’, and, while this is equally rude, his use of the word ‘parochial’ is apt.

The ‘modest upbringing’ that is often attributed to Leavis was not a worldly one. By most people’s standards it wasn’t all that modest either. He attended an independent school in Cambridge where the teachers conversed with their pupils in Latin and Greek, and then went on to receive a scholarship to the University where (aside from the ‘great hiatus’ of World War 1 when he worked with the Friends’ Ambulance Unit) he remained for the rest of his life. Leavis was openly skeptical of the value of scientific thinking and progress, and was often criticised for his romantic notions about life in 17th and 18th century Britain that had little bearing in historical fact. He was, therefore, emblematic of the culture of literary criticism that Snow had in mind.

While Leavis’ father sold pianos in Cambridge, Snow’s gave piano lessons in Leicester. Snow’s experience at his local grammar school was very different to Leavis’ schooling; his Intermediate Examination in Science was not sufficient for him to start university directly, even at the rather humble-sounding Leicester University College. Snow had to spend a couple of years working as a lab assistant and catching up with classic literature that his contemporaries in ‘better’ schools (like Leavis, ten years earlier) were still being taught as a matter of course.

Reading Collini’s introduction, I initially wondered whether the whole contretemps between Leavis and Snow was little more than a personal spat, Leavis having disparaged not only Snow’s own novels, but the work of many writers he loved such as H.G.Wells. Leavis scorned Wells for believing that science could solve all our problems. I am very curious to know what Leavis believed these problems are, or were, given the rather one-dimensional life he appeared to have spent in Cambridge, a life lived second-hand through the experiences and imaginations of key literary figures. It is clear that Snow had a bee in his bonnet about Leavis and other literary critics, but as I said above, I don’t think this is the important message he needed to communicate. It didn’t take much googling to find out that there weren’t many writers who Leavis hadn’t disparaged, in any case.

Snow gave his Two Cultures lecture a few years after Aldous Huxley published The Doors of Perception, the seminal account of his experience with mescaline in 1953, facilitated at Huxley’s request by the psychiatrist Humphrey Osmond. Having started out as a physical chemist, one would have thought that the explosion of scientific research on psychedelic compounds would have been on Snow’s radar throughout the 1950s, but I can’t find any evidence of this. I am eagerly awaiting delivery of Aldous Huxley’s book Literature and Science, which was published in 1963, four years after Snow’s original lecture and around the same time as his concluding response, A Second Look. There is an increasing amount of evidence to suggest that psychedelic science does have the potential to address at least some of our problems – and particularly intractable ones at that (e.g. depression, addiction, trauma, openness to experience). The schism between science and the humanities is – as Snow highlights – a major world problem in itself, and it has been suggested (e.g. Grob 2009, Devenot 2015) that psychedelic experience confronts this. In Literature and Science Huxley presents the essence of the conflict as an opposition between the private experience and the public; something that Richard and I were discussing a few days ago with reference to the work of J.G. Ballard – the intractability of public ‘language’ and the stuff ‘on the inside’.

Novak (2004) describes the psychologist Sidney Cohen’s collaboration with Huxley – and his friend the historian and philosopher Gerald Heard – as an attempt to bridge Snow’s Two Cultures; an attempt to find a middle way between science and mysticism (p370). In Literature and Science Huxley imagines how a union between these seemingly incompatible aspects of humanity – reason and passion, clarity and sensitivity – might be forged. The book is currently making its way over to me from Portland, Oregon and I am eagerly awaiting its arrival.

Snow’s concern that the romantic notions of the literary critics are hampering scientific progress mirrors the tension Sessa (2017) speaks of in the field of psychedelic studies between scientific enquiry and the mysticism of the ‘bare-torsoed hippies’ among the psychedelic research community (p6). Sessa acknowledges the more spiritual factions as having ‘cultural validity’ but decries their ‘subjective claims and pseudo-scientific opinions’ (and, elsewhere, their conspiracy theories), suggesting that they weaken the scientific case for legalisation. In his original lecture Snow is similarly dismissive of literary culture, describing it not only as ‘behaving like a state whose power is rapidly declining’ and defensively ‘standing on its precarious dignity’, but also as revelling in the drama of suffering. He infers that literary criticism is self-promoting, and that scientists, being concerned with ‘the collective welfare and future of humanity’ (p.xxvi) are morally superior. While most of the respondents to Snow’s lecture agreed that the pressing problem was to increase the scientific literacy of the non-scientists rather than the other way around, Collini explains how F.R. Leavis saw great literature as ‘the only possible antidote to the cheapening and corrupting of experience which the dominant forces of modern mass society conspired to promote’ (p.xxxii).

While I don’t subscribe to the idea that forces are conspiring to cheapen human experience, I do feel that too much of scientific culture is not sufficiently concerned with the ends of humanity. In his 2009 interview with Charles Grob, Stanislav Grof highlights how industrial civilisation has ‘lost spirituality and completely oriented itself on the pursuit of external goals’ (p1), threatening the future of life on Earth. But Grof is optimistic that a solution exists in the development of technologies (such as meditation, breathwork and psychedelics) that allow people to have spiritual experiences. Citing Aldous Huxley’s dramatically altered perspective of the Romantic poets in the years following his psychedelic initiation, informed by a newly integrated view of nature and humankind, Devenot (2015) argues for the ‘mutual dependence of science and poetry’ (p.v) in facilitating and documenting profound aesthetic experience. A particular example Huxley referenced many times to illustrate the educational capacities of psychedelics was William Blake’s ‘gratitude is heaven itself’, a phrase he claims he did not understand until he took LSD, after which it became ‘luminously comprehensible’ (1957, p130).

In 1962, coinciding with the publication of Huxley’s utopian final novel Island and Lord Robbins’ report on the future of higher education, C.P. Snow released his concluding remarks on the Two Cultures debate. In A Second Look, Snow refrains from reiterating his polemic on the culture of literary criticism, instead focusing on the capacity of technology to improve quality of life across the board, and commenting on what literature has made of the scientific revolution.

Snow describes George Orwell’s novel 1984 as communicating ‘the strongest possible wish that the future should not exist’ (p101). He contrasts this with the molecular biologist J.D. Bernal’s World Without War, of which the British surgeon Wilfred Le Gros Clark (1959) wrote a glowing review that treads lines so close to Snow’s, the two men must surely have been aware of one another. Like Snow, Le Gros Clark emphasises the special responsibility of scientists to solve ‘oppressive world problems’ (p1) due to these problems largely arising as a by-product of scientific advancement. The faculty Le Gros Clark calls our attention to is one of ‘scientific imagination’. (p1)

Snow confesses his love for the work of Dostoevsky, despite the latter’s fascist leanings. He points out that where great works are concerned, ‘posterity is forgiving’ (p91). He then turns his focus on those writing about modernism. Pro-modernists such as Trilling, whose perspective stemmed from Freudian psychology, claim the aim of literature is to free oneself from society, to ‘surrender oneself to experience without concerning oneself with morality of even one’s own interests’. Conversely, the philosophers Spender and Lukács both criticised modernism for its capacity to dissolve the personality. I see what Snow is getting at here; both camps appear to be pointing at the same phenomenon to prove their respective points. For Trilling modernism offers an escape from a static society, whereas Lukács seeks freedom from the relentless drive of change.

Snow urges his audience to accept that society and education will change, and that the pace of change will accelerate. He reiterates that it is dangerous to have – as we do – two cultures that can’t or don’t communicate. So what does he suggest? Is he claiming that he is helping the cause by writing his novels? That he can mediate across the divide? What is the source of the problem? Is it a failure of individual motivation, morality, the education system, the market economy, political infrastructure? I don’t think he is claiming any of the above, but in his original lecture he does of course draw attention to the privilege inherent in the liberal arts. The likes of F.R. Leavis were unlikely to have experienced poverty first hand, and that is a characteristic of literary culture that Snow was trying to elucidate; the back-slapping, self-serving community of those who enjoy their pleasant, intellectual lives.

Snow is optimistic about our capacity to circumvent the most threatening elements of scientific progress (e.g. nuclear war). He is not so confident that we will channel our scientific prowess into actual good deeds, and recognises that this will need ‘energy, self-knowledge and new skills… new perceptions into both closed and open politics’ (p99). He also believes that changes in education will not solve the issue by themselves, but they should help us realise what the problems are.

Snow did not of course forsee the huge advances in information technology, and while he may be correct that we will never again see individuals who ‘understand as much of our world as Piero della Francesca did of his’ (my emphasis), we now have a vast amount of knowledge literally at our fingertips. Transhumanism of some variety is already on the horizon; whether it is the individual cyborg, a greater awareness and use of collective consciousness, the extension of human longevity, or any combination of these, maybe one day we will know it all.

Snow is firm on his final word, which brings together what modern bioethicists are calling ‘cognitive’ and ‘moral’ enhancement; we must aim not only for imaginative and scientific progress but also for the awareness and alleviation of human suffering.


Devenot, N. 2015. Aldous Huxley’s New Romanticisms: Reading Blake and Wordsworth after mescaline. In Altered States/Other Worlds: Romanticism, Nitrous Oxide and the literary prehistory of psychedelia. PhD Thesis, University of Pennsylvania.

Grob, C. S. 2009. An Interview with Stan Grof.

Huxley, A. 1999. Moksha: Aldous Huxley’s Classic Writings on Psychedelics and the Visionary Experience. Park Street Press.

Leavis, F. R. 2013. The Two Cultures? The Significance of C. P. Snow. Cambridge University Press.

Le Gros Clark, F. 1959. World Without War. The New Reasoner (9), p113-122.

Fry, S. 2011. The Fry Chronicles: An Autobiography. Penguin, London. page 46

Novak, S. J. 2004. LSD Before Leary, Sidney Cohen’s critic of 1950’s psychedelic research. In Acker, C. J. and Tracy, S.W. (Eds) Altering American Consciousness: The History of Alcohol and Drug Use in the United States, 1800-2000. University of Massachusetts Press.

Sessa, B. 2017. The 21st century psychedelic renaissance: heroic steps forward on the back of an elephant. Psychopharmacology. DOI 10.1007/s00213-017-4713-7

Snow, C.P. 1998. The Two Cultures. Cambridge University Press.


Posted in Thesis | Leave a comment

Why do we talk about the purpose of universities?

There are seven and a half billion of us on a rock hurtling through the vastness of space. We are collections of atoms with the capacity for conscious experience. Many of us live in vast, densely-populated cities. Others live in towns, villages, caravans, savannahs, forests, tribes and nomadic circles.

Seven and a half billion of us, all thinking. We all think about ourselves and the minutiae of our lives, but we are also drawn to thinking in particular ways, about particular things. Maybe we like to think about numbers, maybe words. We might be intrigued by the things that there don’t seem to be words for. We have sensation; we touch, we see, we taste, we hear. We like to experience these sensations and we like to create things that can be sensed. The process of creation is a sensation in itself; the scratch of pencil on paper, the creaking piano stool, the crunch of the needle into silk, the melting of fat into flour.

We know that pleasure is good, and goodness is pleasing. At its emotional foundation, human life is simple. But our ability to reason – while not exclusive (evidence of human-like causal reasoning having been observed in chimpanzees, crows and bullfinches, among others), introduces layers of complexity to the human condition.

It may not be possible for us to understand the world from anything other than a human perspective. The arguments for panpsychism or universal consciousness are compelling, but there appears to be something very particular about humans that sets us apart from other entities, and that is our awareness and preoccupation with ourselves as a species. Our thinking has been directed towards developing technologies of automation and connection. It would seem that what we want is to work less and communicate more.

We have in most cases freed ourselves from the sweat and dirt of physical labour, but our physical inactivity is making us ill. We are paid to write emails, design advertisements, call people on the phone, approach strangers in the street. A great deal of this communication is unwelcome. Regardless, we plug in and plug away, convinced that automation and connection will satisfy and save us.

In some ways, it has done. In his seminal talk, ‘Don’t Panic’, Hans Rosling uses data visualisation to demonstrate how quality of human life is improving across the globe. The University has been crucial to these developments, not only as a site for scientific discovery but also as a nexus of technology and humanity; a place where different strands of thought come together and challenge one another.

Concerns that we have gone too far with our technological development, or that we are going in the wrong direction, are not new. These are our instincts talking; our emotional baseline that knows that pleasure is good and goodness is pleasing. In The Conflict of The Faculties (1798), Immanuel Kant describes the philosophy faculty of the University as a moderating force on the ‘higher’ faculties of medicine, law and theology, ensuring the disciplines do not stray too far from questions of ethics and purpose; of how human beings should live, and to what ends.

The claim that such an approach is no longer relevant, that we now live in a supercomplex world of infinite connections and relative morals, is invalid. Not because this is not an accurate picture of the world, but because it has always been this way. In romanticising the past we disempower and dispossess our present selves.

The numbers attending university continue to increase, not just in absolute terms but also as a proportion of the still-rising population. At the same time, the expansion and democratisation of access to information means that many more consider themselves to be well-informed. Fluidity and uncertainty in the labour market erodes our sense of ‘station’ or calling. We no longer have a ‘lot’ in life to be content with. We no longer wish to be ruled.

The role of the University in society needs to continue to be considered – as it always has – in light of the changes it has wrought on it.

Posted in Thesis | 1 Comment

‘Alcohol is not harmful’

The end of the socialist trentes glorieuses saw the Misuse of Drugs Act (1971) put in force in the UK to discourage citizens from ‘misusing’ certain substances. Despite it being a logical impossibility to ‘misuse’ something with no mode of use that is deemed correct or valid, the Act includes not only ‘medicinal’ substances but also those classed as having ‘no therapeutic purpose’.

The Act’s primary objection to the ‘misuse’ of such substances is their ‘undesirable’ side-effects, listed as addiction and dangerous or ‘bizarre’ behaviour.

Superseding the Dangerous Drugs Act (1965), one of the most significant changes in the 1971 Act was the classification of substances according to relative degrees of ‘harm’ from ‘misuse’. In terms of the Act, ‘harm’ is not a measure of physiological toxicity. It is a function of whether the drug is being ‘misused’ or how likely it is to be ‘misused’ (i.e. its desirability), and the extent to which its use constitutes a ‘social problem’.

So, the Misuse of Drugs Act explicitly and unashamedly counters our own desires.

What is the ‘social problem’ of the effects of psychedelic substances (that are neither addictive nor toxic), that warrants their classification among the ‘most harmful’? Psychedelic experience enables people to learn about their minds, and to think differently. It can make people more open to new experiences (MacLean et al. 2011). It can make people more empathetic and less neurotic (Wagner et al. 2017). It can lead people to see greater beauty and value in life and the natural world (Griffiths 2006, 2008). These attitudes and behaviours obstruct the goals of an individualised, neoliberal society keen on increasing productivity and achieving dominion over nature.

Alcohol is a highly desirable drug; it lowers inhibitions, helping us to relax and connect with one another. It tastes good. It is woven into the physical and ritual infrastructure of our society and is associated with leisure, socialising, eating, sex and other pleasurable activities. Alcohol is a direct cause of social problem. Lowered inhibition can lead to aggression and impaired judgement. Accidents are caused by loss of psychomotor control and/or slower reaction times. Such incidents inflict physical and emotional harm to the drinker and those around them. In addition, alcohol is physiologically addictive and toxic. It is broken down in the liver, mouth and gut to acetaldehyde, a carcinogen that causes cancers of the mouth, throat, oesophagus, breast, liver and bowel. Alcohol causes liver damage (cirrhosis) and produces highly reactive molecules in cells that can damage DNA and further increase susceptibility to cancer and other diseases.

According to the Misuse of Drugs Act (1971), alcohol is not harmful.


Griffiths, R. et al. 2006. Psilocybin can occasion mystical-type experiences having substantial and sustained  personal meaning and spiritual significance. Psychopharmacology, 187, pp.268-283

Griffiths, R. et al. 2008. Mystical-type experiences occasioned by psilocybin mediate the attribution of personal meaning and spiritual significance 14 months later. Journal of Psychopharmacology, 22 (6), pp.621-632

MacLean, K. A., Johnson, M. W. and Griffiths, R. R. 2011. Mystical experiences occasioned by the hallucinogen psilocybin lead to increases in the personality domain of openness. Journal of Psychopharmacology, 22 (11), pp.1453-1461.

Wagner, M.T. et al. 2017. Therapeutic effect of increased openness: Investigating mechanism of action in MDMA-assisted psychotherapy. Journal of Psychopharmacology

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

On food, and being alone

As I sit at the garden table, eating scrambled eggs on buttery toast with a side of dressed spinach, hummus and avocado, I notice something.

I notice my scrambled eggs on buttery toast with a side of dressed spinach, hummus and avocado.

I notice the way my teeth sink into the soft, salty, peppery eggs and meet in the squidgy, buttery, sponge of the bread, and how if I suck just a little the melted butter runs around my tongue in the most delightful way.

I notice the avocado slices trying to escape the prongs of the fork, slipping and sliding over one another as if to say ‘…not me! Not yet!’

I notice the stems of the spinach, bending and cracking as I roll them into the creamy, grainy hummus.

I notice this because I am alone.

No-one to ask me what I am thinking.

No-one to talk at me talk at me talk at me.

Nobody here but me.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The University in Ruins?

Readings, B. 1996. The University in Ruins. Harvard University Press.

Readings describes himself as ‘deeply ambivalent’ about the university, and his book as an attempt to think his way out of ‘an impasse between militant radicalism and cynical despair.’ I know how he feels; I felt that way for a while. For me, there has been a turning point; my anger has gone, and I feel a lot more positive about the future. I’m optimistic that we are beginning to embark on a viable and preferable path of human development and innovation… but more on that another time I guess!

Writing in the mid-1990s, shortly before Dearing and Blair – and Reading’s own untimely death in a plane crash – Readings makes the case that there is no longer any fixed idea of the university, that its social role as an institution is up for grabs. He draws a distinction between this claim and the attempts of others to engage with conflicting ideas of the university, and those who argue that new theoretical advances render the old ideas obsolete.

Readings’ work is focused on the Western idea of the University, and on an American view in particular, explaining that ‘Americanization’ is synonymous with globalization. He doesn’t beat around the bush here and I guess that’s one of the few advantages of being dead, you don’t have to deal with the consequences of posthumous publication. Maybe that’s why this book comes across as so brave and ahead of its time. Readings sees the dissolution of the university’s sense of purpose is an outcome of ‘decline of the national cultural mission’ (p3). The university used to produce, protect and inculcate national culture, and now there is no national culture.

I found myself questioning this while watching a sheep-shearing contest yesterday – I am on a self-led writing retreat on the west coast of Wales), but I don’t think that’s the kind of national culture Readings thought it was the university’s task to protect. By the way, the guy who won was called Shaun. True story.

At this point in reading, I thought about whether there were (and still are) some things about national culture in the Western world that needed changing; white supremacy, nepotism, ‘powerful knowledge’ and so on (on the other hand, much of the English literature canon, while heavy on dead white males, is on the subjects of oppression, exile and diversity). Do we need a national culture? What is its value? What if we do have a culture, it is just more fluid, mutifaceted and multicoloured than it used to be? Sure, today’s universities are bureaucratic transnational corporations as Reading points out, but they are also questioning, broadening and synthesising culture. At least, ours does; I see it happen on a daily basis.

With bureaucracy comes administration and the pursuit of what Readings calls the ‘empty concept’ of excellence.

Barzun (1968, p19) speaks of administrators thus:

‘if caught young, such men can become top civil-servants and be accepted as professionals without being scholars; they can enjoy a prestige of their own and share fully in the amenities that are widely believed to adorn campus life; and they can do more than any other agency, human or electronic, to render efficient the workings of the great machine.’

Practically, we need administrators, and – having been a programme administrator earlier on in my HE career, I rather think the drive to excellence may be the most obvious source of meaning in an administrative role. In my university admin job I was dealing with students face-to-face and over the phone at least some of the time, but many university administrators do not. They deal with numbers, interfaces, forms and faceless applications. What rewards exist for such an administrator that enable them to derive pleasure from the work? Dealing with applications efficiently, monitoring satisfaction, using data to predict critical incidents, ensuring applicants have accurate information about the course and that students receive and attend to updates; this is what it means for an administrator to do their job well. Benchmarks and targets provide direction; something to aim for.

In this sense, ‘excellence’ may be deeply, personally meaningful, and I am concerned that in decrying it as an empty concept – as I have myself done – academics reveal a worrying lack of empathy and understanding (perhaps the complaint is even emptier than the concept). There are, of course, cases where bureaucratic pressures on institutions and individuals have been linked with distressing events. Ron Barnett told me about Stefan Grimm, former Toxicology chair at Imperial College, who killed himself while under employment review having not met Imperial’s demanding grant income targets. But we have all, to some extent, been complicit in constructing the world we live in and we do what we can to make ourselves comfortable in it. We are all hypocrites.

Don’t get me wrong; I like what Readings is saying, he says it well, and he was clearly ahead of the game in forseeing all this. Also, he is not blaming the bureaucrats. He is correct right that a university focused purely on excellence serves nothing but itself, but a university is not an inanimate object, it consists of human beings who value stability and meaning in their lives. Would we level the same charge at a coal-mining community, desperate to preserve their livelihood? Thatcher clearly did, but I’d like to think we would approach the wicked problem of the future of the university with sensitivity, respect and patience. As agents we can enact change on the system, but the system acts on us as well (Archer 2007). We are products of it as well as agents within it.

In describing the breakdown of the nation-state, Readings identifies nationalism as a sign of this dissolution, recognising the conflicting desires that service globalisation. The ‘hollowing out’ (p47) of the state entails a loss of belief in a political alternative, as – he argues – a purely capitalist system actually offers a non-ideological belonging. In a capitalist system, everyone just has to focus on doing their own job effectively; there is no need to concern ourselves with finding universal answers to questions of the good life and human destiny. It is essentially a breakdown of the collaborative process and could be seen as a form of stress-avoidance; avoiding ‘conflict’, getting our heads down and getting on with it. I think people see it as trusting in nature. I certainly got the sense that many people see our true nature as individual and competitive rather than collective and collaborative when I attended last year’s book launch of Rethinking Capitalism. I am personally ambivalent and conflicted; the biology graduate in me says that we are both, and that this is one of the primary tensions in human nature; a yin and yang that we are constantly balancing. The psychedelic researcher in me says that we are all one consciousness, and the ego is a product of fear that stops us from working together and recognising our commonalities. Fear – resulting from trauma – is very efficiently transferred in a population. It is cumulative and reciprocal.

I’ve just ordered Jaroslav Pelikan’s ‘Idea of the University’, as Readings is intriguingly dismissive of Pelikan’s re-reading of Newman; he sees it as outdated (Pelikan was writing around 1960) and identifies its alternative title Apologia pro vita sua – ‘in defence of one’s own life’ – as particularly telling.

So, Readings and I agree entirely on the observation that the university has become self-serving (or self-sustaining). Of course it has. We live in a precarious and fast-changing world where jobs are less secure and the underlying commitments these sustain (families, home ownership) are ever more demanding. We are all concerned for our livelihoods. I often get the feeling reading polemic literature on the university that the authors – many with secure jobs that have prima facie meaning – feel that administrators are morally as well as intellectually bankrupt. I would rather live in a society with minimal bureaucracy, an economy founded on Jackson’s three C’s (care, craft, culture), and reduced working hours in line with the predictions of Keynes and the recommendations of the New Economics Foundation, but we cannot wait for the administrators to enact change; they alone do not have the capacity to free us all from the system. Academics may feel oppressed by the bureaucrats, but they would do well, I think, to mind Freire’s (1972) advice that our oppressors need liberating before we can become liberated ourselves.

Readings identifies consumerism as the biggest threat to university education and a ‘sign that the individual is no longer a political entity’ (p48), along with increased migration and internationalization. Citing Gérard Granel (1982), Readings argues that ‘it is now pointless to seek the destiny of the University in its capacity to realize the essence of a nation-state or its people’ (p48). Granel sought to redeem the University by giving it a negative coherence; an oxymoronic ‘coherent anarchy’ (Fynsk 1991, p350). These arguments are still alive in universities; many teachers at UAL are confused about whether we are supposed to be offering our students what they see as a British education. Most of them are fairly sure they know what a British education is, particularly in the creative subjects, but uncertainty abounds about why students from China come to Britain to study fine art, for example, when we hear that artists in China are being imprisoned for creating subversive works, and why they come to study fashion when the values and processes of the Chinese fashion industry are so different from our own. There is the colonial view that our Chinese students revere the British way and expect to return to China and influence their home culture (perhaps an example of American-globalisation of which Readings speaks). In addition are assumptions and theories about trade links, filial piety, social status and social capital. The true picture is undoubtedly complex.

Angst is rarely a productive way forward. Perhaps what is best is for us to continue to deliver what we think is a British education, with all the evaluation and reflection that entails (and openness to learning and influence of other cultures), and without endless pondering on what other nations want from us. Such a preoccupation suggests an unhealthy dependence and a diminished sense of identity. Here again we can call on Carl Rogers’ theory of human development, only for a nation of peoples rather than an individual. With authenticity, acceptance and understanding we can become the best we can be.

Readings is saying the essence of a nation-state has now dissolved, and cites Heidegger’s Rectorial Address as the final plea for universities to band together to fulfil the political will of the nation-state. Also lost, Readings claims, is any referent for culture. Readings describes CP Snow’s argument for two academic cultures as a ‘fascinating rhetorical ploy’ (p61), and highlights F.R. Leavis’ recognition of the significance of Snow’s treatise in the process of fragmentation.

Readings proceeds to place literary culture in opposition to technology (p61), and sketches out the philosophical notion of culture espoused by the German Idealists; founded on concepts such as Wissenschaft and Bildung, and preceding the fragmentation described by Snow. The German Idealists believed that only a unified academic culture would direct progress and innovation towards a ‘higher social unity’ (p61).

I’ll probably write more on that in a bit – it does overlap with recent posts, and I think now is the time to engage first-hand with Snow and Leavis’ famous argument. Watch this space.




Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment