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A conversation overheard on a train

On a train from Manchester to Nottingham I was sitting at a table when I was joined (in Sheffield) by two academics from the University of Nottingham.

The two gentlemen talked (rather loudly) about the internal affairs of their department (which seemed to be a ‘social policy’ department, at least the term ‘social policy’ was used) and their nice trips to various European nations and to Australia, New Zealand and Japan.

What struck me was the total lack of interest in ideas that the academics showed – they both boasted of using the same talk again and again, and neither cared whether their talks represented the truth or made any contribution to knowledge.

I only spoke once. One of the academics was boasting of his trip to the “biggest city in New Zealand”, but could not remember the name of the place – so I told him it was called Auckland. But later he seemed to be under the impression that he was talking about the capital of New Zealand – so he may have meant Wellington.

For the rest of the time I just sat there in the hope that some sign of interest in ideas would be shown by either man, but it was not.

I remembered Professor R. of the Politics Department of the University of Nottingham. Professor R. had always been interested in ideas – although I can not say that I had always agreed with him.

Once at a conference in London I had expressed the fear that local councils would use the introduction of the Community Charge (the “Poll Tax”) as an opportunity to increase spending – and blame the bill on the new system (my own position was that a local sales tax would be the least bad option – as people could at least vote with their feet and shop in the cheapest areas thus, perhaps, forcing down the level of the tax).

Professor R. had replied that I was too cynical and that most politicians met well, they were just guided by mistake ideas. As my own view was that most politicians (and many other groups of people) were scum, our difference of opinion became quite sharp. Perhaps my anger was due to Professor R. reminding me of my father – a man who was betrayed so many times and yet maintained a strange (at least strange to me) faith in human beings.

Some years later (after some “modernization” of academic life) Professor R. killed himself.

As I have said he was man who was interested in ideas and valued them, but perhaps he had too much faith in human beings (just as, perhaps, I have too little faith in people).

I miss people like Professor R., they thought that other people were like themselves (and they are not), but the world would be a better place if they were correct and people (especially academics) were really honest and dedicated seekers after truth.

Still what would have I had heard had the two academics had been interested in ideas? The latest plan to reform the Welfare State – yet another pattern for the deckchairs on the Titanic?

Or (if the academics had been economists) the claim that the best way to promote prosperity was to “reduce interest rates and stimulate demand”.

I have even heard libertarians talking as if investment did not have to based on real savings ( fiat money and credit bubbles performing this function instead), and as if prosperity was based on consumption (rather than on work to produce goods and services of value to human beings). The madness of the boom bust cycle being presented as what “all serious economists” believe (as a columnist in the “Times” newspaper put it – referring to his idea that Germany’s economic situation could be improved by issuing more money “stimulating demand”).

What is worse? People who are not interested in ideas, or works of political philosophy, economics (and other subjects) that are filled with absurd nonsense and seeing this nonsense repeated in so many places, from leading universities to television and the newspapers?

26 comments to A conversation overheard on a train

  • Julian Morrison

    The latter is because of the former. Nonsense is so prevalent because many people really aren’t at all interested in ideas. For them it’s like kitchen cultery. You buy a pckaged set, and that’s it, you have them and you don’t need any more. These folks might change ideas with the fashion, but they certainly won’t go out of their way to continually upgrade.

    In practise what this means is that they act as force-multipliers for the few who do think and thereby make the fashion. This is why I’m optimistic for libertarianism. It may look like we have to push the world, but it’s more like, we need to tilt the balance of fashion among a comparatively small group, particularly the young. That’s an achievable goal.

  • Stephan

    I hold now a glass in my hand with a fine concoction of wine and orange juice in it, and here is my toast….To New Ideas, the people that build them, and to the wisdom to see when these new ideas turn out to be bad rubbish!

  • Verity

    Stephan – I hold now a glass in my hand with a fine concoction of wine and orange juice in it, and here is my toast. Ideas, the people that build them, and to the wisdom to see when these new ideas turn out to be bad rubbish!

    A ‘fine concoction of wine and orange juice’? And you’re offering your pensées to the world?

  • Alfred E. Neuman

    A ‘fine concoction of wine and orange juice’? And you’re offering your pensées to the world?

    Verity, I am an uncouth, vulgar American, and I have no idea what this means. But it looks–and hopefully sounds–sort of like penis, so it’s funny. Sorry for being so uncultured and unknowing of Frog…uh, I mean French. I’m going to go drink a Sam Adams now, and damn my peni…I mean pensees.

    By the way, I’m completely joking and mean no offence whatsoever. You freaking limey.

  • Patrick

    Drinking wine mixed with fruit juice is, of course, really just taking a rennaissance approach to one’s hygiene :)

    But on topic, there is the theory that lack of in interest in ideas, whilst frustrating for those ideas-inclined types like this blog’s authors, is no inherently bad thing – it generally means that everything is going well enough for the vast majority. As, despite my personal dissatisfaction with almost everything, it clearly is in the three main countries connected to this blog – Oz, England and America.

    I don’t know of any theory that excuses your academics, except that of supply and demand – there being very little demand for social anything professors, there is very little remuneration available, and consequently the supply is of a low quality.

  • Gareth Russell

    As a student of the Politics department at the University of Nottingham, I can’t say that I feel in the least bit surprised…

  • Luniversal

    Well, it’s like this, children. The theorists are impotent and the doers are seldom interested in ideas. Between them, thank God, the world just keeps muddling on reasonably contentedly, with the odd disaster or pleasant surprise to keep us on our toes.

    The worst regimes in history have been those run by theorists who thought they could increase the sum of human happiness by conscious action. Fortunately such tyrannies always burn themselves out quite soon (eg Nazidom) or subside into a cynical torpor (Soviet communism) or recognise reality in practice while paying lip service to the programme for a while longer (China).

    The superior souls who lack the dynamism of tyrants but who think they have the key to a better life for all continue to gnash in impotent fury (see this site, passim et seriatim). Meanwhile us simpler souls drift quietly from the cradle to the grave, knowing in our heart of hearts that there is no such thing as progress and that we are neither wiser, happier, more artistically gifted nor better-looking than the inhabitants of ancient Egypt– just different.

    The only problem with our indifference to the theorists’ siren songs is that sometimes it allows a cabal of them to foist a dangerous folly on us– for example the Krazy Krusade in the Middle East. But such niaiseries also have a habit of ruining themselves and their progenitors quite quickly.

  • We call it:

    ‘Form without contents’

    We recognize that the empty shells runs the world
    and this is simply the most adequate characteristic of the time we have to live in.

    (Link)

    (Link)

    Sincerely
    Joern E. Vig

  • Adrian D

    When I was an undergraduate law student 20 years ago, I used to write essays for liberal arts students ‘for hire’. These students would often be studying things like media studies, English, and politics. These students would often be friends, who would pay me in kind (e.g. a dinner, loan of their car for a weekend etc) rather than money. Unethical I know, but not the point of my story.

    The point is: I never attended any of their lectures. I never spent more than a weekend on the essays. And I never got less than an A on any of them. Some of them were marked in percentages out of 100, and I don’t think I ever got less than an 85%.

    And I was not the top law student in my class by any measure.

    Which has led me to the conclusion (and am yet to see significant evidence to the contrary) that liberal arts or humanities courses do not attract the smartest people. Therefore, I wouldn’t think you need to be all that bright to be invited to do PhDs. Therefore, the pool of academic talent going forward wouldn’t be that great. And they are then called upon to judge and reward the low standard work of the next generation of students. I am not surprised the likes you met on the train were no Einsteins.

  • Adrian D

    When I was an undergraduate law student 20 years ago, I used to write essays for liberal arts students ‘for hire’. These students would often be studying things like media studies, English, and politics. These students would often be friends, who would pay me in kind (e.g. a dinner, loan of their car for a weekend etc) rather than money. Unethical I know, but not the point of my story.

    The point is: I never attended any of their lectures. I never spent more than a weekend on the essays. And I never got less than an A on any of them. Some of them were marked in percentages out of 100, and I don’t think I ever got less than an 85%.

    And I was not the top law student in my class by any measure.

    Which has led me to the conclusion (and am yet to see significant evidence to the contrary) that liberal arts or humanities courses do not attract the smartest people. Therefore, I wouldn’t think you need to be all that bright to be invited to do PhDs. Therefore, the pool of academic talent going forward wouldn’t be that great. And they are then called upon to judge and reward the low standard work of the next generation of students. I am not surprised the likes you met on the train were no Einsteins.

  • Don’t be too hard on the profs. It could be they just didn’t want to talk “shop”.

  • Simon Lawrence

    As a fresher in History and politics at Nottingham, you’ve just left me severely frightened…..but, to be fair, I do have a good impression of the tutors so far.

    In the end could be simply be that they spend a great deal of time working, especially on enforced research and so wanted a break. Of course that doesn’t excuse their confusion on NZ.

  • Luniversal – “Well, it’s like this, children…” etc.

    Before all else, as an objectivist (in public policy, if not in private life) and social conservative (now there’s a circle to square…) I cleave to the view that anyone who puts themselves forward for elected office should be automatically barred from holding it.

    In short, you’re right: the last people we want holding power are those who seek it.

    But I think you are too harsh on the denizens of this site and others like it: our theories are, it seems to me, anti-ideological. They are about the relinquishing of power, not the imposition of a ‘benign’ set of rules. So theories, ideas, yes. But not of your totalitarian give-me-power-to-improve-the-world variety.

  • ALIMAC

    Go easy on the Academics

    They are just trying to earn a crust like the rest

    and since they depend on government subsidy for survival

    they have to fall in with the political correctness of the day

    Most social sciences are politicised like the Guardian

    Indeed some Departments advertise new posts only in Guardian

    what do you expect?? Ideas for peanuts

  • Findlay Dunachie

    I’ve never heard a teacher (and I know lots of them) ever talk about Education. School gossip is all I ever hear.

  • Luniversal

    Edward Lud: “But I think you are too harsh on the denizens of this site and others like it: our theories are, it seems to me, anti-ideological. They are about the relinquishing of power, not the imposition of a ‘benign’ set of rules. So theories, ideas, yes. But not of your totalitarian give-me-power-to-improve-the-world variety.”

    Balls, Neddy. These people adulate the USA, the most oppressive and aggressive nation state in the world. You might as well abjure smoking and beer drinking while continuing to inject crack.

    As a social conservative and objectivist, your eyes must be watering from doing the splits. Would you, for example, agree with the Blessed Ayn Rand that mothers have the right to abort children up to the moment of birth because they are just parasites in the womb?

  • Millie Woods

    Here’s a fine example for you, Paul.
    The Independent carried a story the other day about how the Saudis were no longer pretending that oil was scarce and fessing up to the fact that they have scads of it tucked away under the sand = perhaps reacting to the disclosure that the Alberta oil sands reserves were good for another 250 years at least.
    However after admitting that there was no shortage of oil real or potential in the near or far future, the geniuses at The Independent created another scary fact – refining capacity is just not there. Duh!
    So we don’t have to worry about running out of black gold any time soon but we have to moan and groan because the refining capacity just ……oh well. You can’t beat the scaremongers at their own game.
    Refining capacity – I ask you. Obviously none exists in the minds of The Independent writers.

  • Dave M

    I left Anglia Univ. because the Politics Dept. was full of moron-like left-wing profs, devoid of ideas and content to attempt to brainwash us into believing their drivel. I did and exchange to a Canadian University, liked it and ended up staying…much more like a proper university.

    Mr Neumann, you are a very funny gentleman, do not be ashamed of being American, its nothing to be ashamed about.

    We need ideas, vigorous debate and all sides of the arguement aired (except the Lib Dems maybe…rubbush clearance, Gay Action groups, & ‘Community’ anything fail to grab my attention I’m afraid)

  • “Luniversal” is hardly even worthy of the epithet “parochial”. His little world contains no ideas, just slurs and lies.

  • Paul Marks

    As so often I must apologize for my vile typing.

    “met” for “meant”, “mistake” for “mistaken” – and all the rest of my errors.

    One day I must learn not to type when in a fit of rage. My typing is little better when I am calm – but at least I might remember to check for errors.

  • Paul,

    No need to apologise. Your posts are always appreciated (by me at least) and I didn’t even notice the typos!

  • RAB

    When I did Law at Nottingham in the early 70’s, it was a good university. But then things like Media Studies had not been invented.
    Media Studies was called reading the newspaper and watching telly back then. And you did it for recreation after a hard day in the library sorting out your remainders in fee simple from your entailed estates, not instead of.
    If you wanted three years of birds and booze, and an easy 2/2 at the end of it, you took Sociology.
    I had a horrible premenition back then of what was to come though.
    My girlfriend was studying to be a teacher, so I used to hang out at Clifton College a lot. Now this was supposed to be a premier division Training College at the time.
    What I found was that over 50% of the students were of such low grade(you could get in with just two very ropey A levels) that they barely understood the subjects they were hoping to go on and teach, and worse than that- the College gave them no instruction in HOW to teach whatsoever.
    These very students, if they have stayed the course, are now Heads and Deputy Heads.
    It makes me shudder!

  • Luniversal – “Balls, Neddy. These people adulate the USA, the most oppressive and aggressive nation state in the world. You might as well abjure smoking and beer drinking while continuing to inject crack.”

    The most oppressive and aggressive nation state in the world?

    And there was me thinking this was a rational exchange of views.

  • gravid

    Crack isn’t soluble in water. Nitpicking old me.

  • Paul Marks

    RAB mentioned teacher training.

    I am presently at the University of Bolton on a P.G.C.E. (“post compulsory”) course (I have taught for years, on and off, but licencing is gaining in strength).

    How much of the course is about the knowledge a person has of the subject or subjects they are going to be teaching? None of the course is about this, knowledge is not considered to be important.

    How much of the course is about helping someone learn to explain knowledge of a subject to students? In theory quite a bit of the course is about this, but in practice virtually nothing in the course is about this.

    The course is about bits of paper containing various regulations, tables, and admin concepts.

    The chance of my passing the course is about the same as the chance of my becoming the first man to visit the planet Mars.

    Well at least the students of the future will be saved from being exposed to people like me (which is the point of it all of course – as Mrs Thatcher and Ken Baker both stated back in the 1980’s).

    The system is not insane, there are reasons why human beings make it the way it is. And just having an elected government (such as Mrs Thatcher and some of her colleagues) who do not agree with the powers that be (the real powers that be) does not mean that the system will be changed for the better.

    Government institutions will never be as good as institutions that are created by civil interaction, but not all government structures in time and place are equally bad. In theory it is possible to reform government structures so that they are less bad in their effects (for examle by deregulation, such as the end of various licencing laws), but in the practical political and cultural circumstances of the United Kingdom today reform does not seem to be likely.