On the menu: epistemology, gumbo and giving

March 31, 2000

A seminar series at Karl Sabbagh's alma mater invites him to debate tough issues and to reflect on philanthropy

Donkey's Years, a play by Michael Frayn set in an Oxbridge college, depicts the events that occur during a college graduates' reunion. I saw the play many years ago, but one character sticks in my mind. He was a nerd before the word was invented. Unpopular when an undergraduate, he was shunned by the others attending the reunion. Of course, he turned out to be more successful than any of them. But that nerdy image clings - in my mind - to people who go back to their old colleges years after they left.

The only problem is, I do that sort of thing, too. When I went back a week ago, it was not just to get that warm feeling that comes from wandering through familiar places, occasionally bumping into aged academics who pretend to remember you. It was to discuss "Does science tell the truth?" And this was not because I am a philosopher of science, a scientist or a sociologist, but because my old college, King's College, Cambridge, is experimenting with a series of seminars on tough and complex topics of the day for any of its members, current or past, who want to spend an evening listening to a couple of speakers on the topic, having dinner and then discussing in small groups.

Why are they doing this and whom does it serve?

You could be forgiven for thinking that it is a thinly disguised method of fundraising at a time when even the apparently richest Oxbridge colleges struggle to make ends meet. And it is true that King's is trying very hard to come up with new ways of making money. Indeed, it is facing a rent strike by undergraduates protesting against a rise in rents. But at no point during the evening did the subject of money come up, as a hundred or so of us plunged into the wilder recesses of epistemology.

Patrick Bateson, provost of King's, has no hesitation in admitting that he borrowed the idea of "the provost's seminar" from Balliol, his old college, after he had had such a good time himself at a seminar there on "Genes - natural born killers?" The first thing to say about the provost's seminar is that there are no compromises in the subject matter. There were two introductory talks, and you might have expected a kind of public lecture on the topic, made palatable to an audience whose professions spanned dons, farmers, picture framers, and technical manual writers. But we were soon plunged into a whirlwind tour of competing theories about science and truth, laid out by Peter Lipton, professor of the history and philosophy of science at Cambridge, and a colleague, Martin Kusch, a man for whom Wittgenstein appears to be God.

I asked Lipton later about this high level of discussion, as he made me an espresso on the fellows' coffee machine. "It is not a cross-section of society that comes to these seminars," he said. "These are all King's people in one way or another, and not just any old King's people, these are a self-selected room of people who are really keen. Tonight is a good example. These problems are fantastically difficult."

After the initial talks, we were sent off to dine with other members of the ten groups we had been divided into. I had drawn Lipton as group leader, and one of the King's postgraduate philosophers was given the thankless job of being rapporteur. She turned out to have the amazing ability to make what we later said in the group discussion sound half-way coherent.

On our table at dinner were two pieces of paper. One was the menu, showing that we were to have a starter of pea tart and salad, and a main course of seafood gumbo. Both were excellent. The other paper referred to less easily digestible matters. It simply said: "'To say that true theories correspond to reality is not so much wrong as uninformative. There simply are too many ways in which a theory can correspond to reality.' Is this an argument against saying that science tells the truth?" The other groups found similarly meaty philosophical questions on their tables. Amid the hubbub of a full hall, we plunged into informal discussions.

After dinner, the groups of ten or so trooped off to Gibb's, the elegant pedimented building on the west side of King's main court. Clumping up the bare wooden staircase to the top floor, our group went through the baize-lined door into a fellow's set of rooms.

In the hour from eight till nine we roamed widely, over such issues as the degree to which different map projections represent the truth about the globe; the irreconcilable dualism of the wave-particle theory of light; the fact that a theoretical description of an electron is not the same as an electron, and something to do with two oranges in the bowl in front of us.

None of us was too worried about whether we were spouting orthodox philosophy or popular misconceptions. The farmer on my right attacked me for something I did not say and took things in good heart when he was firmly put in his place by Lipton. The only disappointment was that none of my group members was quite as odd as a participant in the "Violence and intractable conflict" seminar I attended in November. He was an elderly man who sat, silent, through the rather wishy-washy liberal views that most of us expressed about international politics, and then put up his hand to silence us. "I only want to say one thing," he said, "but I want to be heard in silence and without interruption." We looked at each other, wondering what was coming next. "What I want to say," he said, "is that the Gurkha was the finest fighting man in the British Army." Unaccountably, this particular contribution failed to find its way into the rapporteur's final account of our discussion.

At 9pm promptly, we all returned to a final session where the rapporteurs read their summaries and the two speakers commented on them. This was interesting but unexciting, except when Kusch used an analogy that involved a room full of clocks running at varying rates wandering around randomly on wheels until a pair bumped into each other, at which point they reset themselves to show the time as an average of each of their two readings. The image stayed with me, but the meaning has evaporated.

It might be thought that returning to one of the most beautiful colleges in one of the most beautiful universities would be bound to make the experience enjoyable. But in fact, the enjoyment came from elsewhere. As Bateson explained afterwards: "I was quite surprised. The seminar was tough-going, and people who are not academics came out saying that it was one of the most stimulating evenings they'd had in a long time."

The lack of appeals for money was almost like Sherlock Holmes's dog that did not bark in the night. When I asked Lipton about this, he said:

"Development is very important now to the college. When people look at the college, that's not what they think of. But just look at those buildings, and the deferred maintenance. We need to raise funds. And I think there is a sense that this is the kind of activity that can support that.

"Speaking as an American, I come from a place where there is a tradition of your university asking you for money every year, and you just cough it up, and you don't expect to get anything in return. That's not a tradition yet in this country, but the college is thinking in general terms of how it can establish a serious relationship with the old members."

And Bateson backed up that message: "Obviously there is a long-term strategy for the college in shifting the culture from one in which people come through Cambridge and then go off, and the link is very tenuous after that. Here there's no sense of 'This is not only an important part of my life, but something I have to try to sustain' that you've found in American universities for years.

"I think the only really good way of doing that is to get people to feel that they can own it a bit; and that they can come back and participate on equal terms. It's not exactly an ulterior motive, but we do need to change the way people think about universities, because they're not going to be funded by the state in the way that they have been in the past."

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