Universities and clothing

(Distributed early because of that report; Stonehenge elbowed aside by Australia)    1) The report   2) political clothing      Next distribution pencilled for 10-11-12

A report on Australian universities is just out from one of those outfits that seem to think if you can’t measure something by money then it doesn’t really come into the category of serious issues.  The report’s author gave interviews on television.

  The upshot was to tell the universities they are going to find money tight.  (Which they knew already.)  The way things stand they are going to be unviable unless they change.  Now if those loose remarks are talking about a risk of bankruptcy, yes, they, or they and others, will have to do something about their finances (the only aspect of universities on which Ernst and Young are particularly qualified to speak) but that by no means entails that they must go in for drastic upheavals in other ways as envisaged by the report.  The remarks made in interviews suggested little awareness of gaps in reasoning.  ‘Universities will need to reinvent themselves for the digital era.’  ‘If you want basic knowledge you can get that off the internet so universities – what happens on campus has to change.”  That proposition has the intellectual rigour of ‘If you want food you can get that from the supermarkets so what happens in restaurants has to change’.  It implies a swashbuckling ignorance, if not wilful misunderstanding, of what goes on in universities.  Universities detest the notion that students can perform satisfactorily by looking up the answer to some problem or clicking on a few sites on the internet.  There was a warning that universities should be ‘much more integrated with industry’.  Ah, now we can see where Newton made his mistake!  If he’d got properly integrated with industry instead of messing around with prisms and calculus and notions about gravity he could probably have invented the internal combustion engine and the aeroplane and made far more money (and got the world’s transport routes clogged with traffic and pollution centuries earlier, but never mind that – it’s all good thrusting economic development).  We can’t have forty universities all doing the same sort of thing in the same sort of way?  So how is it that without difficulty we can find forty football clubs all doing the same sort of thing in the same sort of way?  And the most basic inspection will show that there is hugely more diversity, in many dimensions, in universities than in the football.  Australia has some excellent universities, doing what excellent universities do well, to the benefit of those who go to them and everyone else as well.  What happens in universities, and happens best in the good ones, and what should happen, is that students learn to think; yes, think.  Not remember.

   The most important point is that you start with the data, and then go on from there; and the sort of thinking that is needed, not only in mundane profit-earning terms but more importantly in terms of the mental development of the people that open-minded countries want (and totalitarian countries hate), is the ability that can take account of the huge complexity of real-life situations, and the subtle variations in this or that of the many factors involved, and the always new balance between those factors even in situations that casual observers would say have often happened before; then to sort out some of the enormous number of possibilities about what might come next or what conclusions might be drawn, in different ways for different people and institutions and systems that might be affected.  In other words to come up with ideas and solutions that are not in any rule book.

   How, incidentally, can people get better at that sort of thinking?  The supremely gifted may get a long way by means of their own unaided experience. (The ‘University of life’ and other catchphrases ad nauseam.)  But for nearly everyone it’s far better to get help from someone further up the road.  Watch how he or she handles a tricky issue, and see the different ways that questioning gets you further into the heart of the matter.  The sort of thinking needed can be developed in most university subjects from palaeography to particle physics.  (Perhaps I should concede that there may be a few which actually do trade in cut-and-dried ready-cooked answers to set questions but we don’t need to go here into which those subjects might be).  Learning to think, in this sense, can undoubtedly benefit from use of a computer – for providing data – but you still need a human at both ends, since however much information they give very few websites on a given topic go far towards explaining the relationships between the bits of information which a guide or teacher who knows about that topic can handle with ease, and that is one of the most important aspects of the business.  One particularly valuable part of the process is watching how the guide reacts to an unexpected question.  Even the most interactive websites don’t do unexpected questioning.  For the same reason it’s best if the learning side is a small group, precisely so that they can put up a diverse range of views and arguments.  (Big groups work less well for obvious reasons.)   On the other hand, it is not necessary for this to happen in a university.   By no means all individual experts, guides, advisors – call them what you will – are charlatans.  Perhaps surprisingly some intelligent military training around the world, at higher levels at least, operates in the same way.  One should be open-minded.  As Paracelsus wrote, a doctor must seek out old wives, gypsies, sorcerers, wandering tribes, old robbers, and such outlaws and take lessons from them.


“I got the idea from the Olympic opening ceremony,” says Gillian Senega, 33.  “I  watched all those teams walking round the track, and I thought ‘Why the hell should teams all have to wear the same kind of clothes?’  Next thing, I had a picture in my mind of Nazi brownshirts marching in Berlin in the 1930s.”  Gillian is head of a team bringing together independent researchers and scientists with NITS (the National Institute for Technological Sociology) on a project studying relationships between appearance and political allegiance.  “One thing led to another and we got this project set up in record time.  No trouble about funding.  Political groups of every shape, hue and degree of sanity were falling over themselves to contribute, desperate to find anything that might help them get their people in at the next election – or at the earliest practicable date in the case of the French Federation for the Posthumous Cloning of General de Gaulle.”

  “So you’re going to investigate things like which colour has the best impact on voters in each country, like the red shirts and yellow shirts fighting each other in Thailand?” I asked.

  “No.  Of course, there’s enough there to deal with.  There’ve been shirts of every colour under the sun, only excepting infra-red and ultra-violet – so far.  Even no colour at all, with the descamisados in Argentina.  But that’s all in the Encyclopédie vestimentaire politique along with all the stuff about political socks (can be fatal in Central America) and political trousers and so on.  It’s an odd thing, by the way, you get Union Jack underpants worn for political reasons but exactly opposite political reasons by British right-wing parties and by fierce Britainophobes in the Middle East.  But anyway I got interested in the relation between political beliefs and the bodies inside the clothes.”

  “You’re talking about racism based on colour?”

   “No again.  But only because that’s already studied to bits.  A bigger factor every day, exactly as election winners always say it wasn’t, in their campaign.  But there are other things.  Sometimes obvious, like in Turkey nobody with a beard will be voting for the Cumhuriyet Halk Partısı.  But did you know that in India, the average waist size of those voting for the Congress Party is more than 8% larger than the national average?  And it’s claimed that 92% of voters in Paraguay over 1m75 in height will vote for the Colorados.”

  “So your team is going to put together an encyclopaedia of physiological politics?”

  “Not exactly. You see, I moved on again.  I thought to myself, all those men in 1930s Berlin, 95% of them were maybe marching along in their brown shirts because they were Nazis, or their family told them they were, but maybe 5% had thought they looked good in a smart brown shirt and that had ended up with them being in there with the Nazis.  You see, when you find some bit of a voter’s appearance is strongly linked with some political belief, it doesn’t have to be the belief leads to the appearance, could be the other way round.”

  “So where do you go from here?”

  “Well, we’re going to do practical experiments on good-sized numbers of voters to see if changing their actual body changes their political beliefs.  An easy one we’ll do is get a lot of men to grow beards (my partner is one of them, by the way) and find out if after that their political allegiance has changed.  Another one, we’ll get a group to agree to lose weight – at least 30% – and see how that changes their voting preferences.   If we can we’ll get a similar group to put on weight, though we might have to pay them for that.  The contrast could be very informing.  Maybe we could get a group of men to shave their heads and go bald.  There’s plenty more we could try.  For instance, it’s obvious we’d be doing follow-up studies on sex-change cases.”

   “If you want to see whether appearance affects political views instead of the other way round, wouldn’t it be easier if you went back to the clothing?”

  “First off, we think a change in bodily appearance – like, a change in the real ‘you’ – could easily work differently from the clothes.   In fact we hope it does, because, second,  the clothing experiment’s been done all over the world, and the answer is ‘yes’.”

   “What do you mean?”

  “Well all over the world, young men, mostly pretty ordinary young men, get  signed into a police force.  Then they have to wear a special uniform which is well associated with – I won’t say exactly ‘political’ – but with attitudes about the sort of things which a lot of  politics is about, and about the way to behave to people.  Are you telling me they don’t nearly all pick up those same attitudes, whatever they start with?  And I’m not just talking about taser-happy cops in Oz and Britain and America, either.”

   “H’m.  I see what you mean.”


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