The Moor Back on Stage

The Moor has done his work – the Moor may go!

Reference to this sentence from Schiller’s tragedy Fiesco, or the Genoese Conspiracy had been made on a recent occasion, raising concerns over the ongoing validity of the Europea Anthem. But one may also say that with the supposed post-modern era all this doesn’t play a role – borders of spaces blurred: we live in Ireland, in Europe, in our workplaces and various leisuretime venues; we are ‘present’ everywhere and any time, GPS: globally positioned, systematically; time is time of presence, doesn’t know history and thus doesn’t have to think about future and …

…, well, and it ends with consequently loosing actuality, being reduced to pure immediate presence.

Silent night, holy night
All is calm, all is bright

We write about middle of January – it it not long time ago and many had been singing these lines from a poem, written in 1816 by the Austrian priest Joseph Mohr. The background of the lyrics is somewhat interesting – you my read it yourself, following the link. Summarising it: routines lost, the usual distraction not availabe leding to the need of considered means, approproating the situation: appropriating it by utilising the given means, doing things in an appropriate way.


After recent debates concerning the public statement of the president of University College Cork, the following effort by the School of Applied Social Studies at the same University to defend numbers and also to defend the disadvantaged and their achivements in a letter sent – as open letter – to Mr Murphy, the accused defended himself, writing himself a letter, also as open letter to the members of the ‘university community’, stating serval things.

First, little bit reminding at the reaction of the little son of a friend of mine, frequently smirking ‘It wasn’t me’. In Mr. Murphy’s version (may be a practice test for a political carreer):

my speech to the Chamber of Commerce was mischievously reported, at best, in the local media.

Well, may be I like the gripe and should juyst ignore it – Sill, being far less ‘public’ then Mr. M, and being surely less exposed to such misreporting (actually media occasionally like to quote exactly what I say, thinking that this is offensive agsinst myself and positions I represent, they are thinking what I say is in itself undermining my reputation – and others quote it literally as they really like what I say), I (or groups I represent[ed]) would immediately ask for public apology and rectification,’offering’ in particular in such ‘mischievous cases’ just one alternative: a nice meeting, venue: court; topic: defamation, reputational damage … – Seems I missed that one by the president – or it had been forgotten to mention this in his answer (Ah, politicians are so forgetful when it comes to certain things …).

There had been some mails sent after the ‘university community’ received the mischeievous reply – at the end only very few; most of these not going even a quarter of an inch beyond number crunching, looking for better statistics and ‘clarifiaction of evidence’. As if all this would be a matter of penal relevance like a traffic incidence: Speeding, 20 miles or 25 miles too fast, looking for the exact ways of dealing with technicalities. But little could be heard about truly driving on the wrong side of the road let alone asking if we should change means of transport. – Not penality law is the matter in case: it is about questions of fundamental rights: ‘law of nations’ if you want …, and if you are ready to take it as law of people, as matter of rather fundamental rights.

One really intersting, valuable and serious exception of the mails circulated after Mr. Murphy’s statement had been issued – it had been a mail that unfortunately only sent to colleagues of the department (somewhat sympotmatically for today’s debates on such issues not just in Cork I think). It had been sent only to this illustrious circle – and so I will refrain from making it public. Nevertheless, I want to point at least on some aspects of the mail and also adding my reply, including some additional remarks.

Mr. M’s reply is indeed something we should be grateful for, enlightening in its own terms. If in fairness we

accept that sometimes words can be misinterpreted particularly if arguments are ambiguously phrased
(from the said mail sent in reaction to the president’s reply to the members of the department)

and we surely should do that, we should read the reply in this light: a statement, carefully worded, and making the point of … elitism even clearer. I actually hesitate to use the term elitism as it is in my eyes much worse; and much more complicated.


So second then on the content of what never had been said – and not been publicly denounced as imputation: We are coming to the really crucial point – in need of discussion indeed much beyond the recent quarrel, much beyond Cork. I remember one of the mails, sent while discussing the School’s letter as reaction to the speech, saying that this would be a particularly important issue as the remarks made in the speech would very much concern the corporate image and indentity (sorry, I do not have the mail available, cannot quote it literally). So lt me have a brief look at the corporate socaial identity (surely a responsible one I ghuess). Part of this question is then surley the question of accessibility. Analytically there are different moments to this

  • emphasising the need of support for especially gifted students is one thing
  • ‘balancing’ this with with general educational requirement is another moment
  • and again different is the matter of accessibility for ‘people from disadvantaged background’.

Oh, holy trinity of academia: All this considers the existing ground pattern of education and of science as valid rather than being open for a more fundamental critique – questioning the Janus -faced holy Grail. This ommission however limits the debate on ‘mediocrity’ versus ‘excellence’, leaving the question ‘mediocrity’ versus ‘excellence’ of what outside of the equation, thus taking it as invariable.


With this a third point shows up – and indeed it is an issue we – people who are lecturing, doing research, working in academia – frequently complain about it: the …, yes mediocrity of students, of publishing … . We sometimes complain about students not being ready to read, not being critical, not engaging in debates, focussing their work on the exams. Complaining about publications, hastily made, providing new ‘evidence’ for old ideas and concepts barely bringing forward new ideas – or complaining about publications not being made: holding new ideas back until they are completely matured, avoiding making them public at an early stage as this would allow others to exploit them for their own benefit (yes, I have to admit: seeing others taking off with own ideas is sad, depressing). The statement which had been the bone of contention made the ‘social question’ of access the core issue for mediocrity, suggested it as reason behind it: assisting people rather than challenging them beng proposed by Mr. M. as root of all evil. – Rings a bell? This is the other way round a notion of current employment policy, suggesting that people should be challenged rather than being assisted (known from the new ‘social democrats’ to the consersatives – or the other way round?).

I think when it comes to reasons for mediocrity a more important point than access is actually ‘standing’: the social position, the question where we locate academia. Coming to the speech in question then we learn that the reason for mediocrity is consequence of

expansion and democratisation of higher education

We should actually hesitate; the immediate rejection of the apparent rejection of

expansion and democratisation of higher education

may need further calrification. We should ask decisively: What kind of expansion and democratisation did we actually see? Is it just about numbers? Easing access and taking in more people? Let us be serious and hopefully sufficiently provocative in the formulation: the real problem is expansion and ‘opening the doors’. Content of teaching, subjects and the syllabus of many courses is not following the interest as it emerges from academic insight, it is not based on the ‘rational being’ as it had been envisaged by great thinkers of enlightenment and Sturm und Drang: Kant, Voltaire, Descartes, Humboldt, Schiller, Paine …; let alone that it is following the ‘need of people and society’. It is part of a larger hegemonic system: bureaucracies, economic interests and also self-elected professional ‘peers’ acting as gatekeepers not over access of students but holding the key for the ‘golden gates’ which opens the door for what actually may be said in our lectures, part of research and gets the acceptance in the race for excellence-research. Sure, McCarthy is dead, the West-German Berufsverbots-law discontinued. But thi sis not the end of various mechanisms securing hegemonic power, guiding us to the wrong demoi of money, growth, skills rather than knowlege … – such a wide field for later anthropological reasearch of tribe leaders of the early 22st century and the role of te fetish.


Fourth, then: I asked for including a paragraph on the science shops in the letter of the School – the science shop, an initiative of the School of Applied Social Studies, and going back on more or less radical efforts to change academias agenda and curricula. Especially in its very notion, the science shop idea had been obsessed by the idea of developing a rdaical shift towards an understanding of science for the people, enabling the people to make use of science in their very own interest. This is quite different to the simplistic idea of opening academic institutions for the, ar at least for more people, right? It is a core moment as we can now come to the very moement of democratisation, Yes, I would say: Mediocracy had been and is a problem of expansion. But only because most of the expansion had been taking the wrong demos as point of reference: the demos of capitalist expansion, of growth, orienting academia on a partnership with growth policies.

To compete in a knowledge intensive world the majority of the population must enjoy a high quality third level education …

… these words evoke the same chill as the words of the 2000-Lisbon strategy, striving for ‘making Europe the most competitive ….‘ Can intelligent people not grasp the importance, the only valid standard of cooperation, of open systems, striving in permanent debates with the people for improving society. Competitiveness of countries, enterprises, universities … will fail: countries may see themselves ending in gravel of competitive wars and crusades, enterprises undermine the means of their own existence and universities loose their universality ….

Opening doors, expansion is only then a matter od democratisation if the demos is not a demon.


Fifth and finally expanding on the statement from the speech in question, suggesting

To compete in a knowledge intensive world the majority of the population must enjoy a high quality third level education and a substantial minority must embrace 4th level education delivered by institutions performing to world beating standards.

This seems to be nothing else than frothing [would be such a nice play with words in German – if you translate the German for frothing literally it is ‘beating froth’ ;-)] Even standard economists as Joe Stiglitz learned in the meantime that growth of GDP is not all, competitiveness has to be about something else (though it sadly seems that such trivialtiy and pragmatism is sufficient for gaining reputation.* But people who make reference to

the ephemera of the Celtic Tiger

fail to see that it is not about restoring economic prominence. We are searching something we may still not be able to define in proper terms. But not knowing exactly the question is surely no excuse for hastily giving an answer.


Coming to a preliminary end, much of the debate seems to go a wrong way, looking for privileges for all rather than a way towards a society of which the real privilege is that, indeed, we all are living in a society as outlined by Marx in the German Ideology, a society

where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.


In the beginning of this note I wrote:

time is time of presence, doesn’t know history and thus doesn’t have to think about future and ……, well, and it ends with consequently loosing actuality, being reduced to pure immediate presence.

So there seems to be no reason for starting with silence, and consideration. ‘Statistics‘, ‘evidence’ successfully flattening the argument in advance – simplicity of countering an unfettered financial market by some more or less loose regulatory strings, preaching against hectic and meaningless hassle and bustle, putting forward the call for a good life – libraries filled with books that simplify complex analysis by telling us nothingness about positive thinking, blogging appeals to quit and to do it now – like the idealist, illusionist proposal to meet the concept of a smart economy by proposing a smart society:

All is calm, all is bright

And from here, it seems, we lean back – all seems good

Silent night, holy night

Postmodernism allows apparently everything – even the celebration of refusing to accept evidence by providing evidence for the lack of its relevance. So it may be a good thing that people in Cork get these days an invitation to a lecture titled:

Professional work and the interference of evidence: Why evidence-based practice is not really a good idea.

Leaving aside that fact that this should be well known by now [many years ago and in various discussions many of us gave evidence for this, discussing the seemingly hot topic of evidence based practice as another means of frothing ;-)] one thing lets me hesitate to full-heartedly welcome this invitation. The presenter is somebody from a School of Education, somewhere abroad. Although I surely like to see the crossing of borders, welcoming people who are coming from abroad I am not sure why somebody has to cross this border, why somebody has to cross the border at this point: from education to all other social science. The abstract, sent with the invitation, promises the need to

focus on assumptions about the nature of professional action and the role of knowledge and values in this, on assumptions about the relationship between knowledge and action, on the different ways in which research can be of practical use, and on what might be required to make things ‘work’ in the domain of human action and interaction

But for this we surely do not need primarily educationists but … – those who are looking for education, those who do not want to cross the border into the elitist system but who want remove the walls, and claim a new practice, as I asked for on another occasion: a practice that does not occupy but liberates from occupants. This is surely different from postmodern arbitrariness, a step to decisive commitment.


* I have to add a personal note: this remark sounds disrespectful. However, I have to admit that I have huge respect for the work of another member of the Commission, namely Amartya Sen who had been its advisor. Though I surely do not entirely agree with Amartya on different aspects and criticised his work also in some publications, again, I respect his circumspect approach and openness to debate …, and I am grateful not least for the personal warmth and respect I experienced in our encounters.


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