Ideas

  • On References, Obituaries and “Personal” Statements

    When I was a young man an elderly academic once took me aside and asked me if I had ever been required to write a Times obituary. It was a crazy question though not actually the craziest question an elderly academic ever asked me. That would be, “Lincoln, did you ever meet Winston?” The great […]
  • A Lament for Academic Life

    When he was in his early twenties one of my sons said something to me that must count among the stranger things that sons ever say to fathers. Asked what he wanted to do with his life he replied, “I want to be exactly like you, Dad”, putting some vehemence into the adverb. And why […]
  • Pareto & Co.

    On an edition of University Challenge in 2013 there was a question on elite theory. I was pleased and relieved that the student competitors had heard of Vilfredo Pareto, Gaetano Mosca and Robert Michels, even if they mixed them up a bit. All of this intellectual triumvirate were born in the mid-nineteenth century and they […]
  • Universities: a Return to the Dark Side?

    A few years ago I was involved in a silly controversy about Shakespeare. I was asked to review a book which claimed that the plays attributed to him could not have been written by him, but were actually written by Sir Henry Neville. An explicit premise of the argument was that the author of the […]
  • In Praise of Showing Off

    By 1989 I had been teaching in universities for half a lifetime, twenty one years, arguably my entire time as an adult. I had no training in the job and I had never been faced with any formal assessment of my performance. Then, like the London buses of legend, forms of measurement of one’s performance […]
  • On the Expansion of the Universities

    Grade inflation is a universal human tendency. There are badges of esteem, which relate in complex ways to feelings of self-esteem, and the desire to acquire these is always present as is the pressure to make them available. Thus, for example, in societies in which there is a defined aristocracy the proportion of the population […]
  • Of Essays

    Since my early retirement from academic employment in 2004 I have taken to describing myself as an “essayist” and have had the occasional gratification of seeing others use the term to describe me. The reason for using this term is largely residual. “Writer” seems wrong at both ends because most people can write and specifying […]
  • The Philosophy of the Economics of the Garden

    SCENE ONE: (A changing room of a cricket club some time in the 1990s.) Two of the older players are discussing vegetable gardening. A younger man, overhearing their conversation, remarks sarcastically, “Grow-your-own. I bet that must save you loads of money.” Seen from that narrow angle it does all look slightly ridiculous. If you are […]
  • The Assessment of Academic Performance

    In a lifetime as a self-appointed “essayist” I have published over a thousand articles. There are all kinds of ambiguities about that figure including revisions and syndications, but it a rough indication. Mostly they were part of continuing series and the vast majority fell “still-born from the press” to use David Hume’s rather chilling phrase. […]
  • The Fundamental Flaws in Internationalism

           As I was leaving the polling station having voted in favour of the United Kingdom leaving the European Union my eldest son was passing on his bicycle. Having ascertained what I had done he berated me, albeit jovially, mentioning in particular his difficulty in recruiting adequate British staff for his niche in the electronic […]
  • Jobexit Strategies

           My first boss, the chairman of my department when I was a young lecturer, was Wilfrid Harrison. Even though there was approximately forty years difference in our ages I would have described Wilfrid as a friend. He was a distinguished and influential figure in many ways: the first person to be appointed as teaching […]
  • The Curious Fate of the Campus Sexual Revolution

           One day in 1981 I noticed that a woman I had passed in the street and tried to greet, the friend of a friend, had studiously ignored me. A couple of weeks later she appeared to cross the road to avoid me, chin jutting determinedly away from my direction. So far as I knew […]
  • Brexit: the Wonderful Options

         My first reaction on hearing about the Brexit vote was apprehension about the short- and medium-term consequences. My second was sympathy for the losers (but where was all that pro-European emotion during the campaign?). My third was the complete rescinding of the second and an onset of schadenfreude. They were such bad losers. During […]
  • Taking (Academic) Liberties

            When I was a visiting academic at Stanford in the mid-1970s the game of laureate spotting was a common practice. I don’t know how many Nobel prizewinners were then on the campus – the claim now is twenty one –  but there were plenty about. The biggest spot was Linus Pauling and I always […]
  • The Venal and the Ascetic in Academic life

           In 2014 a former colleague of mine resigned his job as the vice-chancellor of an Australian university. He didn’t have a lot of choice as he had been suspended by the Senate of the university and reported to the Crime and Corruption Commission. Many people were baffled and intrigued by the events, scanning the […]
  • Conservatism and Sport

    The suffix “ism” has two distinct implications, though they may be combined. The first is doctrinal: “marxists” are defined by beliefs, propositions derived from the thought of Karl Marx, even though the meaning and relative importance of those propositions is likely to be interpreted diversely and contested. The second implication suggests tendencies of attitude and […]
  • Trump and Corbyn: different chaps, same phenomenon

          Donald Trump and Jeremy Corbyn are in obvious ways opposites: in the over-used terminology we learned from France’s revolutionary National Assembly in the 1790s one is at the extreme “left” of orthodox politics in the anglophone world and the other at a version of the extreme “right”. But they also have similarities. They have […]
  • Pol Pot Was Right

           We just returned from a first visit to Cambodia. Of course, we visited the temples, but we also read the appropriate stuff, including Edward Short’s excellent biography of Pol Pot ( subtitled The History of a Nightmare and published in 2004) and Loung Ung’s moving account of a childhood destroyed by the Khmer Rouge, […]
  • Philosophy versus Prostate Cancer

    When you are diagnosed with prostate cancer you are faced with a number of aphorisms with more than a hint of paradox about them: “You are far more likely to die with it than of it.” “The cure, of course, is worse than the disease.” And then your friend remarks, in the pub, “It’s just […]
  • Fun with Pareto and Pyramids

           On an edition of University Challenge in 2013 there was a question on elite theory. I was pleased and relieved that the student competitors had heard of Vilfredo Pareto, Gaetano Mosca and Robert Michels, even if they mixed them up a bit. All of this intellectual triumvirate were born in the mid-nineteenth century and […]
  • In Memoriam (?): the Gentry

    Adam Nicolson, Gentry: Six Hundred Years of a Peculiarly English Class, Harper, 2011, pp. 460 My wife was brought up in a house where the number of people exceeded the number of bedrooms by five. There was no car and no telephone and no prospect of a holiday. She worked hard at school and went […]
  • Ched Evans – and the state of contemporary ethics

           In forty six years of lecturing I have only had to deal with one protest against the content of my lecture. The subject was coercion; it raised questions about the nature of choice such as when one can be said to have a responsibility for an action as opposed to being “made” or “forced” […]
  • Whatever Happened to Social Mobility?

    Captain E.J. Smith of the Titanic was described as “the highest paid seaman on earth” and “a celebrity in his own right”. He was born in 1850 in a terrace house in Hanley, Stoke, the son of a potter. Sir William Robertson (Bart.) was born in 1860; the son of a Lincolnshire farm labourer, he […]
  • Are Novels a Waste of Life?

    Earlier this year I realised that three months had passed since I last read a novel and that it was the first time in the sixty years I have been able to read that this had happened. And then I also realised that the novels I had read in the last few years had not […]