Kant trumps cant any day

'Intensely relaxed' about the academy's 'filthy rich legacy', Simon Blackburn sees no need to justify his work to ministers

October 29, 2009

This week many academics must have been delighted to get a message such as this, decisively showing how the Government really does care about education.

The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) has recently launched a review of postgraduate provision in the UK ... its principal areas of investigation will be:

- to assess the competitiveness of UK institutions in the global market;

- to assess the benefits of postgraduate study for all relevant stakeholders;

- to assess the evidence about the needs of employers for postgraduates;

- and to examine levels of participation, in terms of who undertakes postgraduate study, and whether barriers affect the diversity of participation.

The university intends to submit comments, and I have been asked to seek your views ...

My initial response was probably not robust enough. It is written as if from a philosophy faculty, but I hope and trust it might serve as a template for others.

Dear BIS,

(1) Our postgraduate philosophy education is primarily vital in ensuring the quality of the incoming stream of future teachers of philosophy. These provide the continuing educational resource for very acute and educated people to flow into very diverse channels of administration, business and other branches of employment, including what used to exist as and be known as "public service", before that fell into the hands of people unable to conceive of it as anything other than a cornucopia of opportunities for corruption. If these last are your "stakeholders", then we probably cannot convince them that we are of use to them, any more than music, art, literature or history could.

(2) Our future teachers will, in turn, educate philosophy graduates who can flourish in business: there have been many examples. But we don't think that you should pay slavish attention to what business people, especially those who believe themselves fit to judge things about which they know nothing, say are their "needs" because we do not have any confidence that without more philosophy than most of them possess, they have the least idea what those needs are. We merely note that conceptions of need that have given us such outstanding examples of business expertise as British Leyland, Rover and RBS seem strange instruments with which to assess institutions that enabled such legacies as those left by Bacon, Locke, Hume and Wittgenstein. We are, to adapt one minister's words, intensely relaxed about having assisted the country to this filthy rich legacy.

(3) We note that the chairman of your committee, Adrian Smith, director-general of science and research at BIS, is a committed advocate of "evidence-based" practice. While we applaud this, we also note that the impact of ideas is not measurable, even by double-blind clinical tests decked out with the best Bayesian interpretations.

Most cathedrals of Europe were built more than 1,000 years after the original source of the ideas that issued in them died, and the greatest single edifice owning his impact was built over 1,500 years after the same event. Even The Communist Manifesto had its main "impact" nearly 70 years after it was written. Nobody has done a controlled experiment on what the impact of either Christianity or Communism was, but only an idiot therefore believes that the jury should stay out on whether they had any.

If historical timescales are deemed inappropriate, we note that the £1 trillion bank bailout last year would have paid the Arts and Humanities Research Council budget for 10,000 years.

(4) As to access, from the academic point of view the sole barrier to participation is the hurdle of being sufficiently educated and competent to have profited from understanding and controlling the central categories of thought. From the social and financial point of view, the barriers include deprivation at an early age, insufficiently stimulating schooling and entrenched inequalities giving few people the confidence ever to become both curious and articulate. These are all directly the responsibility of Government, not the graduate schools that have to work with the lucky few who either did not face the obstacles or were exceptional enough to overcome them.

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