The collapse and rebirth of the Valley’s preeminent private company was the most bewildering business story of 2023 and an object lesson in a truth that’s hiding in plain sight: When capital and ideals clash, capital smothers ideals in their sleep. The end of the charade that OpenAI was a nonprofit signals the beginning of the end of ESG.
We are always ready, and want, to believe that this time it’s different, we will do good while making billions. The last big corporate jazz hands was the ESG movement, purporting to prioritize environmental, social, and governance concerns over shareholder returns. Succumbing to this siren call, we abdicated our responsibility to discipline corporations and curb the externalities wrought by the pursuit of profit, believing instead that one profit-seeking entity could cajole another profit-seeking entity to seek something else.
When a “nonprofit” takes a billion dollar investment from a for-profit, it has been bitten by the dead and is now also a profit-seeking White Walker.
Which reminds me (somewhat) of some comments made by Derek Bok, a former president of Harvard, with respect to higher education: Institutions choose survival over morality.
Lorna Finlayson’s Diary took me back to the 1970s when my husband’s lecturer in Buddhism at Lancaster University offered this sublime assessment of one of his essays: ‘Tight. Like Bill Wyman’s bass or the Liverpool defence.’ Happy days.(Caroline Walker)
Which brings to mind Geoff Norman’s phrase to the effect that objectivity is not a useful objective, the only judge of expertise is subjective.
This article from the FT is about Ivy league admissions in the USA but I think has relevance to the way people gain entry to medical schools in the UK. I was never involved in med student selection at either Newcastle or Edinburgh so I feel free to admit that I have always felt vaguely hostile to the grade 8 violin crowd. Now, self-taught guitarists, are another matter, as are those who have worked in paid employment whilst at school.
Many of us know at least one wealthy person whose kids spent a week in India or Tanzania building houses or digging latrines. Bizarrely, I know of a family that travelled to a nameless developing country on their private jet on precisely that quest. Competitive volunteering as a means of glamorising résumés for Ivy League applications long ago reached absurd heights. The ideal student would play concert-level violin, cure river blindness, win yachting competitions and get intensively coached into high SAT scores. At some point, the system has to collapse under the weight of its self-parody. I don’t know how close that moment is, or what a revolution in university admissions would precisely look like. But the data keeps pouring in.
In 1612 the founder of Oxford University’s Bodleian Library had even warned against collecting play-texts: worthless “baggage books”.
No freeman (or woman) is free if judged by their peers. [JLR]
Comment by shug4476 in response to the above article
Academia…. has become a profession for the rich and the desperate.
Too true. Hard to recommend.
(After a John Hennessy quote that the time to assess a Stanford degree is ten years (or more?) after graduation).
Any real education is incapable of a robust widely accepted psychometric assessment of the sort that will satisfy a professional regulator.
If you can reliably assess knowledge within a standardised and regulated framework it is not education.
Tenure is a guild, only more inefficient and costly. However, the workmanship is worse. It’s meant to protect academics from the dangers of provocative, original thinking (e.g. Galileo). But in my field, marketing, it’s hard to imagine anybody needs protection, as nobody is really saying anything.
I’m home after traveling, and I’ve put my sons to bed. My oldest puts in his Invisalign, lies down next to me, and drifts off in my arms. I can’t help but stare at this thing that sort of looks, smells, and feels like me, but so much newer and better. Suddenly he stirs and begins to smile. He opens his eyes and tells me he and his buddies did an improv play at school and it was “hilarious.” He drifts back to sleep. He is warm, safe, loved, and next to a dad who wonders if he (like his dad) is unremarkable, but might still (like his dad) have remarkable opportunities.
The article is worth reading in full even if you only have a passing interest in higher education; or the future.
higher education had become just too important to be allowed to be free
Free: as in free speech rather than free beer.
A comment on this article on the WONKHE site. Scale matters, but not in the way that the C-suite want.
It has been salutary being an insider-academic doing visit days. It has confirmed my long held view that one of the most important things for a would be student is to get on a smallish course irrespective of subject wherein they will be personally known and recognized by their lecturers, not just an allocated ‘tutor’ or ‘supervisor’.
In my personal, and anecdotal, admittedly, experience, of family members, and of teaching undergrads this has determined more than anything how well students do, in terms of academic performance and personal development. It is not wholly related to RG vs post-92 either. The latter seem to do really well, if the cohort is small.
A university is a gym not a hotel
But perhaps the time has come for a deeper rethink. The marketisation of the higher education sector, through the loan system, successfully expanded access and fears of social exclusion were not borne out. But the numbers are not looking good, and there has also been a significant cultural cost. Universities, increasingly run as competing businesses by overpaid vice-chancellors and a coterie of financial managers, have lost touch with the collegiate ethos that used to inform campus life. Crude systems of measurement and monitoring have eroded trust and generated false incentives, leading, for example, to grade inflation. A drive to cut costs has targeted staff pay and pensions, and created a disillusioned underclass of pitifully rewarded young academics on insecure short-term contracts. Strike action, currently taking place at the universities of Leicester and Liverpool, has become commonplace.
Removing, or greatly reducing, upfront fees and recasting the direct funding relationship between government and universities could help address such problems. The market model pioneered 10 years ago has begun to look dated and unsustainable. New thinking is needed.
Yes, I know all of this. But solutions, please. And ones that can be defended and not crapped all-over in that place 400 miles south of me.
Professor Coaldrake named “industrial-scale cheating” as one of the “emerging big threats” that the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (Teqsa) would have to address. “We’re dealing with an incredibly fast-paced sort of industry here, and one that does present a profound challenge to us collectively,” he told the Needed Now in Teaching and Learning conference.
As I have said before, it is an industrial-scale model of higher education that facilitates such criminal activity. Parasites do indeed understand their hosts better than the hosts themselves: it is how they keep one step ahead.
Great fleas have little fleas upon their backs to bite ’em, And little fleas have lesser fleas, and so ad infinitum. And the great fleas themselves, in turn, have greater fleas to go on; While these again have greater still, and greater still, and so on
Augustus de Morgan
Via John Naughton’s newsletter, I learned that Jonathan Sternberg died. I did not know him, having only come across his name in Tara Westover’s book Educated and in the LRB. There are also some words about him on the Cambridge Faculty of History page. Both sets of quotes say a lot about education when it is practiced by a master with a pupil keen to learn.
‘I am Professor Steinberg,’ he said. ‘What would you like to read?’
‘For two months I had weekly meetings with Professor Steinberg. I was never assigned readings. We read only what I asked to read, whether it was a book or a page. None of my professors at BYU had examined my writing the way Professor Steinberg did. No comma, no period, no adjective or adverb was beneath his interest. He made no distinction between grammar and content, between form and substance. A poorly written sentence, a poorly conceived idea, and in his view the grammatical logic was as much in need of correction.’
‘After I’ve been meeting with Professor Steinberg for a month, he suggested I write an essay comparing Edmund Burke with Publius, the persona under which James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay had written the Federalist papers.’
‘I finished the essay and sent it to Professor Steinberg. Two days later, when I arrived for our meeting, he was subdued. He peered at me from across the room. I waited for him to say the essay was a disaster, the product of an ignorant mind, that it had overreached, drawn to many conclusions from too little material.’
“I have been teaching in Cambridge for 30 years,” he said. “And this is one of the best essays I’ve read.” I was prepared for insults but not for this.
At my next supervision, Professor Steinberg said that when I apply for graduate school, he would make sure I was accepted to whatever institution I chose. “Have you visited Harvard?” he said. “Or perhaps you prefer Cambridge?”…
“I can’t go,” I said. “I can’t pay the fees.” “Let me worry about the fees,” Professor Steinbeck said.
And from Regius Professor Christopher Clark:
Jonathan said that there are three phases in learning how to teach history:
‘Phase 1: you learn the history.
Phase 2: you learn to teach the history.
Phase 3: you learn to teach the people.’
To be supervised by Jonathan was an illuminating and, for some, life-changing experience.
As a teacher, Jonathan was something of a cult figure, both as a lecturer and as a supervisor. There was a sense of occasion around a Jonathan Steinberg lecture. One felt grateful to be in the room.
Teaching is much degraded in many modern UK universities. It remains the greatest multiplier — to use a concept from economics— of human flourishing.
Thirty years ago[now 40], scientists who studied climate change, and I am one of them, tended to have long hair and very colourful socks. We were regarded as harmless but irrelevant. But the serendipitous investment in their work revealed processes that we now recognise as threatening the future of human society, and the successors to those scientists are playing a crucial role in assessing how we need to adapt.
I think you could see the same dress sense in the golden ages of molecular biology and computing.
Another snippet from a wonderful article (and previous aside).
Much of the blame for all this rests with Mao, whose Cultural Revolution was “perhaps the largest intentional destruction of human capital the world has ever seen”.
The story is…
Their team gave an IQ-like test to thousands of rural Chinese toddlers. They found that more than 50% were cognitively delayed and unlikely to reach an IQ of 90 (in a typical population, only 16% score so poorly).
Half of rural babies are undernourished. Caregivers (often illiterate grandmothers) cram them with rice, noodles and steamed buns, not realising that they also need micronutrients… A third of rural 11- and 12-year-olds have poor vision but no glasses, so struggle to read their schoolbooks.
Some of these problems would be laughably cheap to fix. A pair of glasses costs $30. Multivitamin pills are a few cents. De-worming tablets cost $2 per child each year. One reason the problems persist is that harmful myths abound. Many rural folk believe that—as a grandmother told this reviewer—glasses are bad for children’s eyesight. Some fret that de-worming pills reduce fertility in girls. A recent study found that 99% of Chinese farmers gave their pigs de-worming drugs, but hardly any did the same for their children.
Read that last sentence again.
Patricia Highsmith had a thing for snails. She admired their self-sufficiency and found it “relaxing” to watch them copulate, delighted by the impossibility of distinguishing male from female. She collected them for decades, keeping hundreds at home and scores in her handbag, which she let loose when bored at dinner parties. Her affection for snails was matched by her ambivalence towards people, whom she often found baffling and kept at a distance. When a literary agent suggested Americans didn’t buy her books because they were “too subtle” and the characters too unlikeable, Highsmith responded: “Perhaps it is because I don’t like anyone.”
Rotifers are famously asexual. The last time members of one group of the animals, the bdelloids, had sex is reckoned by zoologists to have been about 80 million years ago.
Former universities minister Chris Skidmore hopes that his private member’s bill on essay mills will prompt the Westminster government to finally take legislative action against contract cheating. Proposing the bill, which would make the operation and advertising of essay mill services illegal in the UK, Mr Skidmore said contract cheating was “a rot that infects the very discipline of learning and has the potential to damage academic integrity beyond repair”.
Hard to argue with, but would the essay mills fool school teachers? I suspect not. There is more than one way to cheat, just as there is more than one agent in any con.
When microchips were invented in 1958, the first significant market for them was inside nuclear missiles. Today about a trillion chips are made a year, or 128 for every person on the planet.
Letter to the economist from Allan Milne Lees.
As Johnson rightly notes, we humans need regular undemanding social interactions such as small talk to support our well-being (January 2nd). As a primate species that is relatively hairless we are unable to use grooming rituals to establish and maintain social bonds. Chatting about the weather and stock performances is our equivalent of removing salt crystals and lice from each other.
The dermatologists might add that the value of host responses to such infestations, like stock prices, may go up and down in value.
Some lives leave love, others just a trail of utter destruction.
There was much amusement on Wednesday when outgoing OfS chair Michael Barber used his King’s College London Commemoration Oration to wade in on “no platforming”. He said he was willing to believe that the vast majority of controversial speaking engagements do in fact go ahead on campus, but that he would love to see figures — adding, “It’s hardly a job for a regulator but if I were a university administrator or an influence at UUK, I would be collecting the data.”
What he hadn’t clocked is that it is, in fact, a job for a regulator, given the Prevent duty — his regulator, whose most recent figures show that just 0.09 per cent of such events don’t go ahead. When we pointed that out later in the Q&A, adding that the example of a problematic speech code he’d picked from a book was both inaccurate and eighteen years old, Barber offered praise for our work here at Wonkhe but suggested that we may want to “spend less time on the detail”. We can’t imagine why.
The system is nifty. When the molluscs encounter heavy metals, pesticides or other pollutants, they close their shells, explains Piotr Domek of Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznan, who has worked on the project for three decades. To create a natural early-warning system, Mr Domek and his colleagues collect the clams from rivers or reservoirs, and attach a coil and a magnet to their shells. Computers register whether their shells are open or closed by detecting changes in the magnetic field.
Priti Patel will be on the case
In the case of a terrorist attack, an ecological disaster or another contamination of the water supply, the clams will close,” says Mr Domek. This, in turn, will automatically cut off the water supply. The clams, he thinks, are life-savers.
For decades, Katalin Karikó’s work into mRNA therapeutics was overlooked by her colleagues. Now it’s at the heart of the two leading coronavirus vaccines
By the mid 1990s, Karikó’s bosses at UPenn had run out of patience. Frustrated with the lack of funding she was generating for her research, they offered the scientist a bleak choice: leave or be demoted. It was a demeaning prospect for someone who had once been on the path to a full professorship. For Karikó’s dreams of using mRNA to create new vaccines and drugs for many chronic illnesses, it seemed to be the end of the road… ”It was particularly horrible as that same week, I had just been diagnosed with cancer,” said Karikó. “I was facing two operations, and my husband, who had gone back to Hungary to pick up his green card, had got stranded there because of some visa issue, meaning he couldn’t come back for six months. I was really struggling, and then they told me this.”
Karikó has been at the helm of BioNTech’s Covid-19 vaccine development. In 2013, she accepted an offer to become Senior Vice President at BioNTech after UPenn refused to reinstate her to the faculty position she had been demoted from in 1995. “They told me that they’d had a meeting and concluded that I was not of faculty quality,” she said. ”When I told them I was leaving, they laughed at me and said, ‘BioNTech doesn’t even have a website.’”
Donald Knuth is a legend amongst computer scientists.
I have been a happy man ever since January 1, 1990, when I no longer had an email address. I’d used email since about 1975, and it seems to me that 15 years of email is plenty for one lifetime.Email is a wonderful thing for people whose role in life is to be on top of things. But not for me; my role is to be on the bottom of things. What I do takes long hours of studying and uninterruptible concentration. I try to learn certain areas of computer science exhaustively; then I try to digest that knowledge into a form that is accessible to people who don’t have time for such study. [emphasis added]
I retired early because I realized that I would need at least 20 years of full-time work to complete The Art of Computer Programming (TAOCP), which I have always viewed as the most important project of my life.
Being a retired professor is a lot like being an ordinary professor, except that you don’t have to write research proposals, administer grants, or sit in committee meetings. Also, you don’t get paid.
My full-time writing schedule means that I have to be pretty much a hermit. The only way to gain enough efficiency to complete The Art of Computer Programming is to operate in batch mode, concentrating intensively and uninterruptedly on one subject at a time, rather than swapping a number of topics in and out of my head. I’m unable to schedule appointments with visitors, travel to conferences or accept speaking engagements, or undertake any new responsibilities of any kind.
John Baez is indeed a relative of that other famous J(oan) Baez. I used to read his blog avidly
The great challenge at the beginning of ones career in academia is to get tenure at a decent university. Personally I got tenure before I started messing with quantum gravity, and this approach has some real advantages. Before you have tenure, you have to please people. After you have tenure, you can do whatever the hell you want — so long as it’s legal, and you teach well, your department doesn’t put a lot of pressure on you to get grants. (This is one reason I’m happier in a math department than I would be in a physics department. Mathematicians have more trouble getting grants, so there’s a bit less pressure to get them.)
The great thing about tenure is that it means your research can be driven by your actual interests instead of the ever-changing winds of fashion. The problem is, by the time many people get tenure, they’ve become such slaves of fashion that they no longer know what it means to follow their own interests. They’ve spent the best years of their life trying to keep up with the Joneses instead of developing their own personal style! So, bear in mind that getting tenure is only half the battle: getting tenure while keeping your soul is the really hard part. [emphasis added]
Scientists straying from their field of expertise in this way is an example of what Nathan Ballantyne, a philosopher at Fordham University in New York City, calls “epistemic trespassing”. Although scientists might romanticize the role and occasional genuine insight of an outsider — such as the writings of physicist Erwin Shrödinger on biology — in most cases, he says, such academic off-piste manoeuvrings dump non-experts head-first in deep snow. [emphasis added]
But I do love the language…
Susan Haack is a wonderfully independent English borne philosopher who loves to roam, casting light wherever her interest takes her.
Better ostracism than ostrichism
Moreover, I have learned over the years that I am temperamentally resistant to bandwagons, philosophical and otherwise; hopeless at “networking,” the tit-for-tat exchange of academic favors, “going along to get along,” and at self-promotion
That I have very low tolerance for meetings where nothing I say ever makes any difference to what happens; and that I am unmoved by the kind of institutional loyalty that apparently enables many to believe in the wonderfulness of “our” students or “our” department or “our” school or “our” university simply because they’re ours.
Nor do I feel what I think of as gender loyalty, a sense that I must ally myself with other women in my profession simply because they are women—any more than I feel I must ally myself with any and every British philosopher simply because he or she is British. And I am, frankly, repelled by the grubby scrambling after those wretched “rankings” that is now so common in philosophy departments. In short, I’ve never been any good at academic politicking, in any of its myriad forms.
And on top of all this, I have the deplorable habit of saying what I mean, with neither talent for nor inclination to fudge over disagreements or muffle criticism with flattering tact, and an infuriating way of seeing the funny side of philosophers’ egregiously absurd or outrageously pretentious claims — that there are no such things as beliefs, that it’s just superstitious to care whether your beliefs are true, that feminism obliges us to “reinvent science and theorizing,” and so forth.
From a wonderful article in the Economist
As Michael Massing shows vividly in “Fatal Discord: Erasmus, Luther and the Fight for the Western Mind” (2018), the growing religious battle destroyed Erasmianism as a movement. Princes had no choice but to choose sides in the 16th-century equivalent of the cold war. Some of Erasmus’s followers reinvented themselves as champions of orthodoxy. The “citizen of the world” could no longer roam across Europe, pouring honeyed words into the ears of kings. He spent his final years holed up in the free city of Basel. The champion of the Middle Way looked like a ditherer who was incapable of making up his mind, or a coward who was unwilling to stand up to Luther (if you were Catholic) or the pope (if you were Protestant).
The test of being a good Christian ceased to be decent behaviour. It became fanaticism: who could shout most loudly? Or persecute heresy most vigorously? Or apply fuel to the flames most enthusiastically?
And in case there is any doubt about what I am talking about.
In Britain, Brexiteers denounce “citizens of the world” as “citizens of nowhere” and cast out moderate politicians with more talent than they possess, while anti-Brexiteers are blind to the excesses of establishment liberalism. In America “woke” extremists try to get people sacked for slips of the tongue or campaign against the thought crimes of “unconscious bias”. Intellectuals who refuse to join one camp or another must stand by, as mediocrities are rewarded with university chairs and editorial thrones. [emphasis added]
As Erasmus might have said: ‘Amen’.
According to a helpful app on my phone that I like to think acts as a brake on my sloth, I retired 313 days ago. One of the reasons I retired was so that I could get some serious work done; I increasingly felt that professional academic life was incompatible with the sort of academic life I signed up for. If you read my previous post, you will see this was not the only reason, but since I have always been more of an academic than clinician, my argument still stands.
Over twenty years ago, my friend and former colleague, Bruce Charlton, observed wryly that academics felt embarrassed — as though they had been caught taking a sly drag round the back of the respiratory ward — if they were surprised in their office and found only to be reading. No grant applications open; no Gantt charts being followed; no QA assessments being written. Whatever next.
I thought about retirement from two frames of reference. The first, was about finding reasons to leave. After all, until I was about 50, I never imagined that I would want to retire. I should therefore be thrilled that I need not be forced out at the old mandatory age of 65. The second, was about finding reasons to stay, or better still, ‘why keep going to work?’. Imagine you had a modest private income (aka a pension), what would belonging to an institution as a paid employee offer beyond that achievable as a private scholar or an emeritus professor? Forget sunk cost, why bother to move from my study?
Many answers straddle both frames of reference, and will be familiar to those within the universities as well as to others outwith them. Indeed, there is a whole new genre of blogging about the problems of academia, and employment prospects within it (see alt-acor quit-lit for examples). Sadly, many posts are from those who are desperate to the point of infatuation to enter the academy, but where the love is not reciprocated. There are plenty more fish in the sea, as my late mother always advised. But looking back, I cannot help but feel some sadness at the changing wheels of fortune for those who seek the cloister. I think it is an honourable profession.
Many, if not most, universities are very different places to work in from those of the 1980s when I started work within the quad. They are much larger, they are more corporatised and hierarchical and, in a really profound sense, they are no longer communities of scholars or places that cherish scholarly reason. I began to feel much more like an employee than I ever used to, and yes, that bloody term, line manager, got ever more common. I began to find it harder and harder to characterise universities as academic institutions, although from my limited knowledge, in the UK at least, Oxbridge still manage better than most 1. Yes, universities deliver teaching (just as Amazon or DHL deliver content), and yes, some great research is undertaken in universities (easy KPIs, there), but their modus operandi is not that of a corpus of scholars and students, but rather increasingly bends to the ethos of many modern corporations that self-evidently are failing society. Succinctly put, universities have lost their faith in the primacy of reason and truth, and failed to wrestle sufficiently with the constraints such a faith places on action — and on the bottom line.
Derek Bok, one of Harvard’s most successful recent Presidents, wrote words to the effect that universities appear to always choose institutional survival over morality. There is an externality to this, which society ends up paying. Wissenschaft als Beruf is no longer in the job descriptions or the mission statements2.
A few years back via a circuitous friendship I attended a graduation ceremony at what is widely considered as one of the UK’s finest city universities3. This friend’s son was graduating with a Masters. All the pomp was rolled out and I, and the others present, were given an example of hawking worthy of an East End barrow boy (‘world-beating’ blah blah…). Pure selling, with the market being overseas students: please spread the word. I felt ashamed for the Pro Vice Chancellor who knew much of what he said was untrue. There is an adage that being an intellectual presupposes a certain attitude to the idea of truth, rather than a contract of employment; that intellectuals should aspire to be protectors of integrity. It is not possible to choose one belief system one day, and act on another, the next.
The charge sheet is long. Universities have fed off cheap money — tax subsidised student loans — with promises about social mobility that their own academics have shown to be untrue. The Russell group, in particular, traducing what Humboldt said about the relation between teaching and research, have sought to diminish teaching in order to subsidise research, or, alternatively, claimed a phoney relation between the two. As for the “student experience”, as one seller of bespoke essays argued4, his business model depended on the fact that in many universities no member of staff could recognise the essay style of a particular student. Compare that with tuition in the sixth form. Universities have grown more and more impersonal, and yet claimed a model of enlightenment that depends on personal tuition. Humboldt did indeed say something about this:
“[the] goals of science and scholarship are worked towards most effectively through the synthesis of the teacher’s and the students’ dispositions”.
As the years have passed by, it has seemed to me that universities are playing intellectual whack-a-mole, rather than re-examining their foundational beliefs in the light of what they offer and what others may offer better. In the age of Trump and mini-Trump, more than ever, we need that which universities once nurtured and protected. It’s just that they don’t need to do everything, nor are they for everybody, nor are they suited to solving all of humankind’s problems. As had been said before, ask any bloody question and the universal answer is ‘education, education, education’. It isn’t.
That is a longer (and more cathartic) answer to my questions than I had intended. I have chosen not to describe the awful position that most UK universities have found themselves in at the hands of hostile politicians, nor the general cultural assault by the media and others on learning, rigour and nuance. The stench of money is the accelerant of what seeks to destroy our once-modern world. And for the record, I have never had any interest in, or facility for, management beyond that required to run a small research group, and teaching in my own discipline. I don’t doubt that if I had been in charge the situation would have been far worse.
Sydney Brenner, one of the handful of scientists who made the revolution in biology of the second half of the 20th century once said words to the effect that scientists no longer read papers they just Xerox them. The problem he was alluding to, was the ever-increasing size of the scientific literature. I was fairly disciplined in the age of photocopying but with the world of online PDFs I too began to sink. Year after year, this reading debt has increased, and not just with ‘papers’ but with monographs and books too. Many years ago, in parallel with what occupied much of my time — skin cancer biology and the genetics of pigmentation, and computerised skin cancer diagnostic systems — I had started to write about topics related to science and medicine that gradually bugged me more and more. It was an itch I felt compelled to scratch. I wrote a paper in the Lancet on the nature of patents in clinical medicine and the effect intellectual property rights had on the patterns of clinical discovery; several papers on the nature of clinical discovery and the relations between biology and medicine in Science and elsewhere. I also wrote about why you cannot use “spreadsheets to measure suffering” and why there is no universal calculus of suffering or dis-ease for skin disease ( here and here ); and several papers on the misuse of statistics and evidence by the evidence-based-medicine cult (here and here). Finally, I ventured some thoughts on the industrialisation of medicine, and the relation between teaching and learning, industry, and clinical practice (here), as well as the nature of clinical medicine and clinical academia (here and here ). I got invited to the NIH and to a couple of AAAS meetings to talk about some of these topics. But there was no interest on this side of the pond. It is fair to say that the world was not overwhelmed with my efforts.
At one level, most academic careers end in failure, or at last they should if we are doing things right. Some colleagues thought I was losing my marbles, some viewed me as a closet philosopher who was now out, and partying wildly, and some, I suspect, expressed pity for my state. Closer to home — with one notable exception — the work was treated with what I call the Petit-mal phenomenon — there is a brief pause or ‘silence’ in the conversation, before normal life returns after this ‘absence’, with no apparent memory of the offending event. After all, nobody would enter such papers for the RAE/REF — they weren’t science with data and results, and since of course they weren’t supported by external funding, they were considered worthless. Pace Brenner, in terms of research assessment you don’t really need to read papers, just look at the impact factor and the amount and source of funding: sexy, or not?5
You have to continually check-in with your own personal lodestar; dead-reckoning over the course of a career is not wise. I thought there was some merit in what I had written, but I didn’t think I had gone deep enough into the problems I kept seeing all around me (an occupational hazard of a skin biologist, you might say). Lack of time was one issue, another was that I had little experience of the sorts of research methods I needed. The two problems are not totally unrelated; the day-job kept getting in the way.
“I have been this close to buying a nursing school.” This is not a sentence you expect to hear from a startup founder. Nursing seems a world away from the high-tech whizziness of Silicon Valley. And, to use a venture-capital cliché, it does not scale easily.
This was from an article in the Economist awhile back. As ever, there is a mixture of craziness and novelty. The gist of the article is about Lambda School, a company that matches ‘fast’ training with labour force shortages (hence the nursing angle). When I first read it, I had thought they had already opened a nursing school, but that is not so. Nonetheless, there are aspects that interest me.
We learn that
The Economist chimes in with the standard “Too often students are treated as cash cows to be milked for research funding.” Too true, but to solve this issue we need to massively increase research costings, have meaningful conversations with charities and government (including the NHS) about the way students are forced to involuntarily subsidise research, and cut out a lot of research in universities that is the D of R&D.
But this is not a sensible model for a university. On the other hand it is increasingly evident to me that universities are not suitable places to learn many vocational skills. The obvious immediate problem for Lambda is finding and funding a suitable clinical environment. That is exactly the problem that medical (or dental) schools face. A better model is a sequential one, one which ironically mimics the implicit English model of old: university study, followed by practical hospital clerkships. Just tweak the funding model to allow it.
I have posted on this topic before, but the comments below speak to me more now than ever. They are reflections on the philosopher Michael Ignatieff’s failed attempt to run for political office in Canada. He wrote a book about these events which is highly recommended (I haven’t read it, yet). A comment on the article, He brought a syllabus to a gun fight and lost, should be understood by all those who wish to protect the academy from the current gangs of populists.
“One of the things that is extremely challenging to my teaching now is the possibility that there are some things you can learn only from experience and can’t be taught. The pathos of teaching is that some things can’t be taught — and one of them might be political judgement. I don’t think that’s a despairing thought, but it does induce humility in a teacher and make the job much more interesting.”
A comment on this article is below
As someone who spent time with Ignatieff on the hustings and whose baby he has indeed kissed, I can say with some confidence that normatively desirable outcomes never address which end of the sign stake goes in the ground. He brought a syllabus to a gun fight and lost. Canada lost more. Comment from Steven McGannety [emphasis added]
That said, his [Chris Bustamente, president of Rio Salado College ] discussion underscored some of the stark labor realities driving the proposed solutions for increased access to higher ed. Rio Salado [in the USA] educates 60,000 students with 22 full time faculty and 1500 adjuncts. Let me say that again, Rio Salado educates 60,000 students with 22 full time faculty and 1500 adjuncts. And while a small percentage of these part-time faculty may do it for the love of teaching as Bustamente suggested, it’s all but certain the vast majority are teaching on subsistence wages to eke out a living, much like many of the students they serve. Such a mixed message about the power of a college education to set you free, at least financially, hasn’t been lost on me since my first adjuncting gig in 1997.
Jim Groom, The bloody waters of Higher Ed (a post from 2014)
I think1 the words are mine:
Every time I hear the term line-manager used about an academic, retirement gets a day closer
But the great JK Galbraith (senior) had some words of his own on line-management (Galbraith, a famous Harvard Professor of Economics, was ambassador to India for JFK)
Galbraith proved up to the task, in part, as Bruce Riedel writes in “JFK’s Forgotten Crisis”, because he had access to the president and his aides. Most ambassadors report to the State Department, but the blunt Galbraith told the president that going through those channels was “like trying to fornicate through a mattress”.
A year ago, “TT [tenure track] or bust” was a common but ill-advised attitude toward the job market. That attitude should be unthinkable today. COVID-19 is an accelerant to a fire in academia that has been raging for at least a decade. When that fire is finally extinguished, the landscape of higher education will be unrecognizable at best and decimated at worst.
Think of it alongside a quote from Stephen Downes:
Educational providers will one day face an overnight crisis that was 20 years in the making. Link
I cannot see the future, but like many, I have private models that I use to order the world, and for which I often have very little data. For instance, I think it obvious that the traditional middle-class professions (medicine, lay, veterinary medicine, architecture, dentistry, academia) are increasingly unattractive as careers1. I am not complaining about my choices — far from it; I benefited on the tailwinds of the dramatic social change that wars and other calamities bring. But my take on what has happened to school teachers and teaching is the model for what will happen to many others. I say this with no pleasure: there are few jobs more important. But the tragedy of schoolteaching — which is our tragedy — will continue to unfold as successive gangs of politicians of either armed with nothing more than some borrowed bullet points play to the gallery. Similarly, in higher education within a timescale of almost 40 years, I have seen at first-hand changes that would make me argue that not only are the days of Donnish Dominion(to use Halsey’s phrase2) well and truly over, but that most UK universities will be unable to recruit the brightest to their cause. I think we see that in clinical academia already — and not just in the UK. Amidst all those shiny new buildings moulded for student experience (and don’t forget the wellness centres…); the ennui of corporate mediocrity beckons. The bottom line is the mission statement.
As for medicine, a few quotes below from an FT article from late last year. I assume that without revolutionary change, we will see more and more medical students, and more and more doctors leaving mid-career. If you keep running to stand still, the motivation goes. And that is without all the non-COVID-19 effects of COVID-19.
One of the major factors for doctors is the electronic record system. It takes a physician 15 clicks to order a flu shot for a patient, says Tait. And instead of addressing this problem, healthcare companies end up offering physicians mindfulness sessions and healthy food options in the cafeteria, which only frustrates them further…[emphasis added]
Over the past few years, efforts have been made to increase the number of medical schools in the US to ensure that there is no shortage of doctors. “When you think about how much we’ve invested to create, roughly, 10 to 12 new medical schools in the last decade, at hundreds of millions of dollars per school, just to increase the pipeline of physicians being trained, we also need to think at the far end of the physicians who are leaving medicine because of burnout,” says Sinsky.
Take the case of a final-year resident doctor in New York, who spends a considerable part of his shift negotiating with insurance companies to justify why his patient needs the medicines he prescribed. “When I signed up to be a doctor, the goal was to treat patients, not negotiate with insurance providers,” he says.
According to Tait, 80 per cent of the challenge faced by doctors is down to the organisation where they work, and only 20 per cent could be attributed to personal resilience.
Re the final quote, 80:20 is being generous to the organisations.
I read Malcolm Bradbury’s satire The History Man many decades ago and loved it as a satire on university life (and which demonstrated to me why medical schools and universities were unlikely bedfellows).
The History Man is Malcolm Bradbury’s masterpiece, the definitive campus novel and one of the most influential novels of the 1970s. Funny, disconcerting and provocative, Bradbury brilliantly satirizes a world of academic power struggles as his anti-hero seduces his away around campus. (Amazon’s brief).
I have forgotten much of the detail, but not how fine a novel I thought it was, nor how funny I found it. But for every great thesis, there is an antithesis. Here is one:
Ignorance of history is a badge of honour in Silicon Valley. “The only thing that matters is the future,” self-driving-car engineer Anthony Levandowski told The New Yorker in 2018… I don’t even know why we study history,” Levandowski said in 2018.
I know which past — and future — I would prefer.
I dislike agreeing with the corporation that is Google as I am always suspicious of their motives, but in this narrow domain, they are surely correct.
College degrees are out of reach for many Americans, and you shouldn’t need a college diploma to have economic security. We need new, accessible job-training solutions—from enhanced vocational programs to online education—to help America recover and rebuild.
I used to think universities were always the solution now I realise they are part of the problem.
That “scientific management” bungled the algorithm for children’s exam results, verifies a maxim attributed to J.R. Searle, an American philosopher: if you have to add “scientific” to a field, it probably ain’t.
AD.Pellegrini in a letter to the Economist.
I have written elsewhere about this in medicine and science. We used to have physiology, but now some say physiological sciences; we used to have pharmacology, but now often see pharmacological sciences1. And as for medicine, neurology and neurosurgery used to be just fine, but then the PR and money grabbing started so we now have ‘clinical neuroscience’ — except it isn’t. As Herb Simon pointed out many years ago, the professions and professional practice always lose out in the academy.
The following is from Scot Galloway at NYU Stern. He shoots from the hip, and sometimes only thinks afterwards. But he is interesting, brave, and more often right than most. I think I would have hated what he said when I was ready (sic) to go to university. But now, I think I wasn’t, and for medicine in particular, allowing 17 year olds to fall into the clutches of the GMC and their ilk should be a crime against….
Gap years should be the norm, not the exception. An increasingly ugly secret of campus life is that a mix of helicopter parenting and social media has rendered many 18-year-olds unfit for college. Parents drop them off at school, where university administrators have become mental health counselors. The structure of the Corona Corps would give kids (and let’s be honest, they are still kids) a chance to marinate and mature. The data supports this. 90% of kids who defer and take a gap year return to college and are more likely to graduate, with better grades. The Corps should be an option for non-college-bound youth as well.
The task of a university is the creation of the future, so far as rational thought, and civilized modes of appreciation, can affect the issue. The future is big with every possibility of achievement and of tragedy.
Nobody then would have imagined how bad it would get. The final word was prescient.
Alfred North Whitehead, The Aim of Philosophy in Modes of Thought, 1938
No certification, here.
As miserable in the job as he was smart, autodidactic, and headstrong, he managed to escape a soul-destroying future trapped behind a shop on the counter by persuading his Latin tutor to hire him as a student teacher, then convincing his mother to pay off the indenture and set him free.
The Future was His, Maya Jasanoff in the NYRB, reviewing Inventing Tomorrow: H.G. Wells and the Twentieth Century by Sarah Cole.
The following is from the Economist and is about schoolteachers.
A bigger question is how many of the new trainees will stay in teaching. Research in America shows that people who enter the profession during recessions tend to make better teachers than those who do not, perhaps because high-skilled workers have fewer other options during a downturn. But they are also a bit more likely to give up. England already has a problem retaining new teachers. About a fifth leave the job within two years of qualifying. About a third go within five.
I don’t have any systematic data on this topic, but the story appears familiar — if different in degree — across other public sector1 jobs such as nursing, higher education and possibly medicine. I am not reassured by the account below, rather, I think we are seeing structural changes that will continue to play out. The change in professional status of teaching and the resulting decline in morale always seemed to me to be the model for what might happen to medicine.
Sam Sims at the UCL Institute of Education says “muscular” policies that were put in place before the pandemic provide reason for optimism. Last year the government said that starting salaries would rise to £30,000 ($39,000) by 2022, a 23% increase. It is offering annual bonuses to teachers of subjects with the biggest shortages. And it is promising more mentoring and training for people who are new to the job. The idea is that new teachers will eventually consider themselves better-paid and better-supported than peers in many other professions. That might make Mr Seadon’s cohort a bit more likely to hang around.