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Harry

Nicholas Winton is dead

by Harry on July 1, 2015

Winton organized the Czech kinderstransport that delivered a total of 669 children bound for concentration camps to the UK, instead. He kept quiet about it until his wife found his records in the attic. He lived to 106, and died today, the anniversary of the train carrying the largest number of children—241—departed from Prague. BBC story here. Account of how he pulled it off here. He said that anybody would have done it.

Interesting video story:

Challenge to cynics:

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Justice for Janitors Day

by Harry on June 15, 2015

Today is Justice for Janitors Day. Its the 25th anniversary of the police brutality in Century City that resulted in one miscarriage, numerous broken bones and serious injuries and, according the article linked, only 38 arrests: a a remarkable organizing victory. Congratulations to SIEU, and all involved for 25 years of sterling work!

I was one of the supporters of the striking janitors at the June 15 1990 demonstration. We’d held a demonstration a week or so earlier, just before the strike began, which was pretty rowdy but extremely good-humoured. To be honest, I’m not sure anyone anticipated the strike succeeding—if they did, I certainly wasn’t among them. The unprovoked, and quite extreme, police attack on the demonstration was probably key to victory: everything was televised, to the extent that when I went into my bank on the Monday, two of the tellers recognized me from the TV coverage, and commiserated (having demanded to see my injuries—half stripping in a bank is a little weird) and congratulated me on being involved in a cause they clearly supported. I believe the full story is that, having seen coverage on CNN Europe, a Danish union threatened secondary action against the company unless it settled, which it did, promptly, the following week. (The City of Los Angeles settled its lawsuit less quickly, because the Rodney King beating took place shortly afterward, and as I understand it all LAPD brutality suits were put on hold till that was settled). I know first hand that the attack was entirely unprovoked because shortly before the police went nuts one of the organizers had requested that I come to the front line, on the flimsy grounds that I was the only person they knew to have had prior experience of this sort of situation. Here’s a video about the event (I’m the overweight English-looking guy being dragged around at some point), with some reminiscences below the fold.

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Just off the presses: a new book I have edited with Michael McPherson on philosophical problems in higher education, The Aims of Higher Education: Problems of Morality and Justice (amazon)

aims

Here’s the blurb:


In this book, philosopher Harry Brighouse and Spencer Foundation president Michael McPherson bring together leading philosophers to think about some of the most fundamental questions that higher education faces. Looking beyond the din of arguments over how universities should be financed, how they should be run, and what their contributions to the economy are, the contributors to this volume set their sights on higher issues: ones of moral and political value. The result is an accessible clarification of the crucial concepts and goals we so often skip over—even as they underlie our educational policies and practices.

The contributors tackle the biggest questions in higher education: What are the proper aims of the university? What role do the liberal arts play in fulfilling those aims? What is the justification for the humanities? How should we conceive of critical reflection, and how should we teach it to our students? How should professors approach their intellectual relationship with students, both in social interaction and through curriculum? What obligations do elite institutions have to correct for their historical role in racial and social inequality? And, perhaps most important of all: How can the university serve as a model of justice? The result is a refreshingly thoughtful approach to higher education and what it can, and should, be doing.

The contributors are Amy Gutmann, Kyla Ebels-Duggan, Paul Weithman, Allen Buchanan, Erin Kelly, Lionel McPherson (no relation to my co-editor) and our own Chris Bertram.

I imagine CT readers will be particularly interested in CB’s excellent chapter on philosophical defenses of the humanities, and, I hope, in my and McPherson’s concluding chapter which outlines a series of philosophical problems in higher education that are not discussed in the book, but we think merit further discussion. A version of Amy Gutmann’s excellent chapter is online here.

I should say that we encouraged authors to concentrate on problems arising in selective settings, not because we think they are more important (we don’t) but because we thought that we would get better essays if people reflected on what they knew best. The essays are all written in a style accessible to undergraduates, and in my experience undergraduates find them very engaging, and are troubled by the questions they raise. We are hoping that others will take up some of the problems addressed and some of the suggestions we make in the conclusion and do further work on them.

One of the stupidest things I have done in life was not taking my dad up on his suggestion, when I was 18, that I go and spend some time living with his friend, hero, and mentor, Harry Ree, and act a sort of secretary for him. As a result, I never met Harry. Harry was an academic education scholar, of the very progressive variety who, later in his career (well, he was only slightly older than I am now) quit professoring, and went to teach in a comprehensive school. I knew, even then, that the regard in which my dad held him meant he was really, really, something, and it was only a combination of shyness, social awkwardness, and the general low-level depression that plagued me for much of my youth and early adulthood, that stopped me taking up my dad’s suggestion. I think about it now, reasonably often, having played the sort of role in younger people’s lives that dad would have liked Harry to play in mine. Idiotic really.

Until recently I assumed that Harry was, at that time, still bound by the Official Secrets Act, so I wouldn’t have learned much about his wartime activities. Not so! He, in fact, starred in School For Danger (aka Now It Can Be Told (youtube has the date wrong)). He began the war as a conscientious objector but then spent most of 1943 in occupied France, working for the SOE aiding the Resistance. Last year was the hundredth anniversary of his birth, and at a celebration held at the Institute of Education my dad got hold of this, amazing, broadcast. I tried to put it up last week for the anniversary of VE Day, but the file was too large for CT and I only just figured out how to put it somewhere else – and anyway, there was a lot of other, less welcome, stuff going on that day. I think the BBC probably hold the copyright, so if they request me to I’ll take it down (but please, if you’re from the BBC, don’t ask me to take it down). It’s a tribute to the ordinary French people who lived, and those who died, fighting the Nazis in the small and large ways they could. It’s also a tribute to the men and women of SOE. I don’t know how difficult it is to give your life for a valuable cause. But I am pretty sure that, however difficult that is, it is even more difficult to live every minute knowing that you, and those who are risking their lives just by not turning you in, might be captured, tortured, and killed, any minute. It is 15 minutes of beautiful, inspiring, intensely sad, poetry. Everyone in who understands English should listen to it. Humbling.

Viv Stanshall Day

by Harry on May 13, 2015

I’ve decided to unilaterally declare today “Viv Stanshall Day”.

I noticed last night that Radio 4 Extra is repeating Big Shot: A Trip Through the Canyons of Viv Stanshall’s Mind.

So I got very anxious about a student I’ve been teaching all year, who is visiting Madison from a UK university. I have taught her philosophy and helped her with her writing, and given her the best mince pies she has ever had and generally looked after her welfare. I even showed her that wonderful youtube clip of Jeremy Hardy and Mark Steele talking about Americans (I showed the whole class, they loved it). But—I had neglected her national heritage. Might she go home without having learned anything about Viv? So I sent her some videos:

Her response (timestamped 1.04am): “I am listening to these in the union with Gab and am trying not to just sit here laughing to myself!… My Pink Half of a Drainpipe – the bit about rice pudding. Just all of it really; wonderful, just wonderful. I am convinced I have seen the tigers one before, which was bloody funny…These have brought me much joy.” And I know she doesn’t lie because she hated the paper of mine that we read in class, and was quite uninhibited about saying so.

Tragedy averted. Maybe the now we have a majority Tory government at last, they will officially declare today Viv Stanshall day! Can’t I start a petition or something?

The interview I linked to last week, about our book Family Values provoked what, for both me and Adam, has been a somewhat bizarre, and occasionally disturbing, experience. The sequence of events seems to have been this. Some Australian journalist (Tim Blair of the Daily Telegraph) with a beef against ABC, the broadcaster of the interview, wrote an article/post lambasting ABC for broadcasting it. Then, Mr. Rush Limbaugh picked this up and, in turn, lambasted Adam for insanity and ridiculousness (quite to my irritation, he didn’t mention me at all). Then – well, I guess a mention on Mr, Limbaugh’s show is enough to get you a lot of publicity, and the right and ultra-right wing blogs took up the cause. We started getting invitations to appear on talk shows, and a slew of hate mail (almost all of it to Adam – the worst I got was one saying “your also a fucken idiot like your mate adam smith. pair of wanker fucksticks. simple. fuckoff idiot). NRO took it up, and that spread it further. As you might guess, once Mr. Limbaugh has hold of something, the white supremacists pick it up pretty quickly too, and one site (to which I will not link, because it is so repulsive) celebrated the 70th anniversary of Adolf Hitler’s death by telling its readers that if the world had only listened to him, people like me and Adam would be silent.

Now, what did we say that was so insane and ridiculous? – what was it for which, according to one of Professor Althouse’s commentators, we should be shot?

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Kieran’s posts below, and the various discussions I’ve seen in the papers, and heard on the radio, have got my wondering: isn’t it rational for the Labour Party to split, now, before it saddles itself with a new leader?

Why should it do so? Well as many people have said, it is too right wing to defeat the SNP, given the SNP’s savvy (and in my view largely cynical) adoption of left-social democratic political positions that appeal to the Scottish electorate. But to have any chance of restoring its hold Scotland in the short term, it needs to become more obviously left wing than it dares to be, for fear of losing antsy English voters. Two, quite separate, parties (preferably with identifiably different names) might have a better chance of becoming a governing coalition. As it is, all three of the major English parties refrain from fielding candidates in one part of the Union—Northern Ireland. An amicable divorce might help, not hurt, the Labour Party’s prospects. And, simultaneously, help save the Union by giving Scots a prospect for an actual voice and real influence in government (eventually).

UK election open thread.

by Harry on May 7, 2015

3 seats in, all Labour in the northeast. Exit polls indicate meltdown for the LDs, but the Tories doing much better than they expected. Also that UKIP will be the third party in England and Wales in terms of votes. Speculate/Enjoy/Analyze away.

Swift on Family Values

by Harry on May 4, 2015

My friend and co-author Adam Swift was on the Australian Broadcasting Company’s show The Philosopher’s Zone yesterday (I think it was yesterday) talking about our book Family Values: The Ethics of Parent-Child Relationships. The podcast is here, and the website for that particular show is here. You can also here him on Philosophy Bites here. There’s much more to the book than the consideration of parental partiality on which these two interviews focus, but I can see why they are excited about that part of it. Listening to both broadcasts I was struck by two things—one, which I did already know, is how good Adam is at explaining a fairly complex set of ideas simply but without oversimplifying. The other, though, was how good (in both cases) the interviewers are. Good interviewers really know their stuff, and use it to prompt the interviewee, never showing off what they, themselves, know. This is a rare case where I know exactly how much the interviewer had to know in order to the interview well, and it is a lot! Anyway, enjoy it.

UK Election Questions

by Harry on May 1, 2015

I have been following the UK election as much as I can given an unusually heavy workload for the time of year. Fortunately the campaign seems to have been pretty dull, so I haven’t missed much—and all the fun will be watching the results come in and finding out what nobody seems to know about the outcome. Most of my following of news is either reading or listening – I don’t watch much. So I miss certain nuances and tend to give politicians the benefit of the doubt when I hear them say things that either seem stupid or are mystifying. So, to get to the point, when I have heard Ed Miliband say that he will not go into coalition or do a deal with the SNP, I have tended to think—well, of course he is saying that to try and scare Scots into voting Labour, but he doesn’t really mean it and, when the time comes, he’ll do what he has to do to become Prime Minister.

But I just watched him on Question Time, and when I see him say it, he really seems to mean it . My first question is: does he really mean it?

One possible outcome is that Labour has the by some distance the most seats of any party, but falls well short of a majority, and can govern successfully in (some sort of) partnership with the SNP. On some possible versions of that, the Tories could not form a majority coalition even with the UUP, the DUP and either the LibDems or UKIP. Second question: Even if Miliband really does mean, now, that he wouldn’t do a deal with the SNP, would he renege on that in such a scenario? Third: What would the political consequences for him be if he did renege?

Please will our UK resident contributors and commenters try to enlighten me?

Ritchie Benaud is dead

by Harry on April 10, 2015

Guardian obit here.
Great leg spinner, truly great captain, but for my generation known, with Arlott, as one of the two greatest commentators.
Can you imagine an English commentator, even Arlott, criticizing the England team like this:

His final moments of Ashes test commentary:

John Renbourn is dead

by Harry on March 27, 2015

I was at a conference with CB when Bert Jansch died, and neither of us recorded the death here. Now Renbourn is gone too. Both gone too early. Guardian obit for Renbourn here. Jansch here. I have a lovely memory of seeing them both, with Jaqui McShee, at the late lamented Palms, in Davis CA, just after I married; and being simply in awe of them. Just listen.

Pentangle:

Renbourn alone:

Jansch alone:

World Cup Open Thread

by Harry on March 25, 2015

Well, CB does it for rugby. Now I am able to watch everything courtesy of ESPN, I thought why not do it for cricket. Thoughts welcome about the teams, the rules, the (ludicrous, unless someone can defend it) diss-ing of the associate nations, who you think will win, England’s spectacular failure, whether New Zealand can win on Australian soil, the way that T20 has influenced the one-day game… whatever you want.

Non-gory cases (in philosophy of education)

by Harry on March 23, 2015

Whenever we discuss thought experiments in moral philosophy here, Daniel and JQ give me a hard time about various things, including the goriness of the thought experiments that moral philosophers frequently use (viz, trolleys killing workers, fat men, babies drowning… you name it). During the last round one or both of them challenged us to come up with some non-gory thought experiments. I haven’t. But I do have an article in yesterday’s local paper concerning a real case which serves as a sort of thought experiment—the case of Boston Public Schools’ deliberate and explicit pandering to middle class parents in the design of its choice system. The article is part of an insert that the College of Letter and Science at UW-Madison placed in the Wisconsin State Journal which, I think, is a model for communicating the value of our research (and, to a lesser extent, teaching) to the people in the state. PDF of the insert is here.

I took the case directly from Meira Levinson’s excellent Justice in Schools site: her team, which I think shares, to some extent, JQ and Daniel’s unease about the science-fictiony and gory cases we often use in moral philosophy, has been developing a series of carefully constructed cases (all based on real decision problems), with the aim of helping academics (including philosophers) teachers, policymakers and the public to train their ability to discern what values are at stake in particular situations and better make judgments about trading them off against each other. I’m designing a course around the cases for this coming fall. My favourite reaction to the site (which I used in the description when I was seeking approval for the course) comes from a (now former) elementary ed student I know quite well, who just graduated (and was snapped up by a school district in a different state that has gotten its act together). I sent her some of the cases, which she discussed extensively with her cohort. Along with her, typically well-considered, responses, she emailed:

“I wish they would give us more readings like those in my school of education, they are much more realistic than most of the readings we do, which are more idealistic… Actually I think that tension is something I struggled with a lot throughout the program-but didn’t fully understand why it was so frustrating to me. In my practicum I would see my teachers facing problems like this one-and the other behavior case every day-multiple times a day. Then in our content classes these very real problems were almost watered down, and approached in terms of ideal theory. We talked about the benefits of all-inclusive classes, being preventative, and reflecting in action. But we never really had conversations about how this looks in imperfect practice”

Which is both right (about the justice in schools project) and…depressing.

Megan McArdle quite reasonably takes me to task for a seemingly (but not actually) throw-away phrase in my post about the recent dispute over the mission of my university. I’m very much in sympathy with the direction of her piece, so I thought I’d explain what I meant. One caveat—she very clearly specifies that she is talking about public flagship universities like mine, and I shall stick with that, so neither of us should be interpreted as implying anything about any other kind of institution (she takes her main example from an Ivy league school, but that example could just as easily have been at Madison).

She says this phrase caught her eye:

First, and most obviously, undergraduate education is central to the mission of the institution. Although at UW-Madison we have as many graduate and professional students as we do undergraduates, most of the graduate students are here because the undergraduates are here, and a very large proportion of our professional students are recruited from the undergraduate pool. Take away the undergraduates and the whole enterprise is done for.

She’s not sure what I meant by it (I’ll clarify in a moment) but she suspects that:


“Undergraduates are central to our mission” is a kind of polite public fiction within the university community, the sort of thing that everyone believes ought to be true but often isn’t, like “America is a great melting pot.”

The main evidence she has that it is a fiction concerns hiring, promotion and retention decisions:

One of my favorite professors at the University of Pennsylvania, a truly gifted and amazing teacher, failed to get tenure the year I was a senior. After a grassroots campaign by his adoring students, the department reconsidered and gave him an extra year, after which he again failed to get tenure, and he went off to the West. I eventually got to ask someone else in the department why he’d been let go, and the answer was simple: His scholarly work was not impressive enough. So arguably the best and most beloved teacher in the department, the one whose class I have carried with me lo these 20 years and more, wasn’t good enough to teach undergraduates at Penn because he wasn’t publishing enough groundbreaking research.

Does that sound like an institution where educating undergraduates is central to the mission? Not really. Or at least: It is not central to the mission of the faculty, because if it were central, it would carry more weight in deciding who to hire and retain

and

So to people outside, teaching undergraduates seems like a nice thing that the faculty would like to do, or at least persuade someone else to do, rather than an overriding priority.

As she points out, even if faculty don’t value undergraduate teaching, that doesn’t mean it is not at the core of the mission. Maybe Administrators care about it:

As a group, the administration is probably more focused on undergraduates than the faculty are, if only because the administration is responsible for keeping them out of trouble.

But I’m not sure that this means they think of educating undergraduates as core to their mission. Graduating undergraduates, yes. Keeping undergraduates from dying, or suing—yes. Getting undergraduates jobs, yes. Giving undergraduates a happy college experience that will later turn into fat checks from nostalgic alumni, yes. But educating them? Is that really their core mission? Again, from outside, it seems that administrators are more focused on student life outside the classroom than they are on what happens inside it.

Ok, so there is a lot to discuss here, and I might not get to it all, but here goes.

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