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There were two alarming pieces about decline in university standards in the The Irish Times recently.* The paper did not facilitate readers’ comments but here are some brief points that the articles ignored.

Student literacy
The decline in literacy among students is not new. I attended UCD as an adult night student in the eighties and I recall a lecturer saying to me that while he should be teaching a demanding final year elective, he was often – because he cared – working on remedial English. Now, it can seem unfair to fail a student at this level over inadequate literacy. They tend therefore to be awarded degrees. The passage of time makes it likely that today’s students have had teachers with inadequate literacy skills.

A university has no business teaching such a basic skill. In the medium term the responsibility for this teaching should be fixed firmly where it belongs. The transition from primary to secondary school involves a step into educational objectives and material that presuppose literacy. A secondary teacher of course should correct errors in written work – as many at third level have been doing for decades now. Unfortunately students progress into secondary school without it being established that they have the literacy skills for the type and level of education on offer; there is no entry requirement for secondary education.

In the short term universities should act. They must try to shed the “remedial English” workload by making high literacy a requirement for admission and testing for it.. This can be done relatively cheaply by way of a secure computer application, yielding yes/no results.

Incidentally, while these comments refer to literacy, the problem extends into numeracy, basic science and general knowledge. Indeed it can be argued that these failures make it impossible to function meaningfully as a citizen.

These thoughts are developed a little here: https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2016/02/02/pushing-remedial-teaching-higher-and-higher-risks-making-a-laughing-stock-of-irish-education/

The function of a university

There is an old and continuing debate about the proper function of a university. It centres on the question of the degree to which education should serve industrial/employment policies. These days, however, it is a debate which obscures the reality that is crippling higher education. You see, the objective of universities was changed in relatively recent years when management in the conventional sense was dislodged. Management, whose role it is to ensure that an institution achieves its objectives, has been usurped and replaced by a different leadership which has imposed their self-serving objectives on the university. That those objectives are expressed in a seemingly business focused way makes it seem as if the objective is support for employment policies and this ensures its damaging survival. This is developed here: https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2014/04/25/cui-bono-the-commercialisation-of-universities-is-more-complex-and-durable-than-many-critics-imagine/

The truth about poor degrees

There was a time in UCD when there were two distinct courses, one leading to a pass degree and the other to an honours degree. They had different examination papers. This ensured that among graduates with a pass degree were highly educated people who had achieved very high marks in their examinations. The abolition of the two courses meant that pass and honours were determined wholly by results percentages and later by grades. A forty percent score delivered a pass degree, while fifty was the threshold of third class honours. The meaning of a pass degree had changed. All of the holders were now performers in the 40 – 49% range; there were no longer highly educated people emerging with pass degrees.

This continued after the move from percentages to grades. Guidelines for grading reveal the standards and they go very, very roughly like this: a basic knowledge will get a degree; evidence of reading will get third class honours; evidence of more extensive reading will get a lower second class honours (a 2.2); creative use of the material – constructing an argument – brings the elusive and highly sought upper second honours (the 2.1); and a very fine creative performance merits a first.

Failure is down at so low a level that there are graduates emerging whom the university doesn’t want. A 2.1 degree is the entry requirement for most post graduate study. Even to get a second chance of further study by way of taking a qualifying examination requires an honours degree of some sort. While the higher education system places little or no value on a low level degree, the public at large may accept that because they are graduates these poor performers are highly educated. Moreover, degrees once awarded to weak students almost ad misericordiam now seem to be incentivised.

Bluntly, a person with basic knowledge, lacking extensive reading and without proven ability to research, formulate and argue is not highly educated and should not have a degree. Add illiteracy, poor numeracy, little or no basic science and very little general knowledge and they cannot be said to have had an education that warrants the term.

– – – – – – – –

* https://www.irishtimes.com/news/education/higher-education-is-being-turned-into-an-extended-form-of-secondary-school-1.3803854
and

https://www.irishtimes.com/news/education/student-literacy-levels-it-is-almost-as-if-they-are-word-blind-1.3803913

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When I taught Political Communication at UCD, one of the topics that students found most interesting was, “Terrorism: Violence as Communication”. It was based on a well-established approach within the study of terrorism which emphasised communication as a key defining feature. A popular way of putting this was that terrorists wanted a lot of people watching rather than a lot of people dead.*

The recent murders by beheading of James Foley, Steven Sotloff and David Haines remind many people of the similar murder in 2002 of Daniel Pearl. There are different ways to approach these murders.** Firstly, they could be discussed as evidence of a change in the status of journalists who until relatively recently were not targeted by terrorists. Secondly, the murders could be located within a history of beheading particularly within Islamist tradition. Thirdly, they could be viewed as part of the “genre” of statement or confession before violent death. A fourth approach, however, would be to see the murders as old-style terrorism, i.e. violence as communication, and much like the modus operandi of the likes of the IRA (killings to suit the news cycle and supported by professional media relations), the Unabomber and the Oklahoma bombers (killing to get media coverage of a message), and indeed the perpetrators of 9/11, the most spectacular and expressive murder-for-media.

It’s worth noting that the difference between the 2002 and 2014 murders by beheading is due primarily to changes in technology. When Daniel Pearl was murdered, the web was young and the murderers were reliant on older technology to distribute their horror video, and on journalists and editors (gatekeepers) to publicise it. Technical advance has made coverage of the murders of James Foley, Steven Sotloff and David Haines different, and not just in terms of superior sound and vision. The net has liberated his murderers from traditional mass media gatekeepers; now the audience can access the horror message directly and it can be stored, copied and multiplied with ease.***

There remains, however, a fundamental similarity between the killings and it is this that categorises them along with the older 20th century terrorism or rhetorical violence. The grisly, scripted, stage-managed murder – from introduction through slaughter to aftermath – guarantees attention. The complex message or messages can then reach the desired huge audience and the smaller support or potential recruit audiences. Job done but in the welter of communication something radical is being said of the victim.

The victim is central to the production but has a peculiar unchanging value. Living, dying and dead the victim is never a person but rather a component part of the medium, as necessary and disposable as USB memory sticks, magnetic tape or paper. This is worse than slaughter; it is beyond the reduction of a living creature to meat. At no stage is the victim other than material used to make a point. The point remains after the body parts are cleared, after the media equipment moves on, and as the managers of the killers consider their next production.

Beheading is particularly gruesome, medieval and exotic. The killers and their media managers know this; that’s why it was used. It would be a mistake however to consider them more depraved than those who bomb. The victims’ deaths serve no strategic purpose; neither can they be described as an unfortunate consequence of hitting a target that might be considered important. Whether by blade or bomb the calculated reduction of people to the level of disposable newsprint is depravity beyond war criminality.

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* To make study possible a great deal of effort goes into defining terrorism. This is because it is a contested term. It has been reduced first to a term of abuse (“If you call me a terrorist, I’ll call you a terrorist.”) and then to a synonym for bad (“We need to say who are the real terrorists.”).

** http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/worldviews/wp/2014/08/20/from-daniel-pearl-to-james-foley-the-modern-tactic-of-islamist-beheadings/

*** There’s been some thoughtful work done on the theatrical killing of Daniel Pearl, which could now be reviewed in the light of the murder of James Foley. Davin Allen Grindstaff & Kevin Michael DeLuca, The corpus of Daniel Pearl, Critical Studies in Media Communication Volume 21, Issue 4, 2004, pages 305-324. http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/0739318042000245345

I can’t put a date on it but I recall being in the canteen in RTE and asking one of my former colleagues in engineering to give me a quick rundown on this “internet thing”. Over diagrams and talk I became fascinated. I have to say that it was the abstract communication part of the technology that interested me more than the content possibilities. My recollection too is that I was using e-mail for a considerable time before I had anything resembling today’s net access. However, very soon after I had the net, I became aware of chat sites, i.e. very early social media.

Two things struck me. Firstly, I was working for RTE and the real time “chat” suggested citizen participation in TV current affairs. I wrote on that but failed to convince the Head of News and Current Affairs who reckoned that if it was to be used at all, it was more suited to entertainment. To spare his blushes I won’t name the Head but rest assured that I’ve reminded him over the years. (He’s a good bloke and takes the slagging well.)

Secondly, while I was arguing the potential, I was depressed by the content of these early chat sites. There was little or no, what might be termed, serious discussion. Some chat “rooms” were fine; ordinary people were having ordinary communication about mundane matters. The participants were civil, they exchanged information and well wishes across continents. I liked them and got to know some of them. However, many of the “rooms” and “sites” were devoted to intercontinental rudeness and abuse; people entered these rooms with just one thing in mind: to be nasty. In those days a “troll” referred to someone present in the room but not participating in the discussion. Trolling did not then refer to an increasing experience: ordinary discussants being subjected to abuse from people who simply wanted to ruin their chat. It seemed that this marvellous system would become a vehicle for intercontinental abuse.

Time has delivered a better outcome but that nasty strand has endured, indeed it’s flourished. In the early days the participants were mostly American and for a short time I considered the possibility that the vile speech, peppered as it was with “asshole” and “motherfucker”, was an American phenomenon. It wasn’t. This feature of the net that was established in the early days has attracted adherents across the globe and in large numbers. Anyone unfamiliar with this kind of vile, aggressive content can have a look at it by reading the comments under many of the music videos on You Tube. Discussion of the music can be informed or it can be pleasant, facile, fan-stuff but also it is routinely a shooting gallery for the ignorant and abusive.

Two related things can be said. Firstly, my experience of on-line participation has led me to the view that people behave on-line more or less as they do in the other parts of their lives. Decent people don’t become on-line monsters. They may avoid controversy or seek out flossy celebrity-centred talk, they may gossip with friends, they may keep up with family and friends, they may be active among people with a similar interest and crucially those who participate in serious discussions will do so on-line. It is therefore vital that few people follow John Waters of the Irish Times into a poorly informed technical determinism that sees attempts at on-line discussion as futile because the net is the preserve of idiots.* The truth is that just as the net is a good way of staying in touch with friends, it can also – with a bit of effort – be a good way of finding contending views and attracting useful criticism.

There is a tendency – particularly among those who don’t use it or who make little use of it – to see the net as particularly problematic. I’m reminded of a time when I was researching industrial/workplace vandalism and I came across a quote along the lines of, “Those people who break trees and park benches at night, where do you think they go during the day?” My point is that the web these days is where everyone – including the bad – goes. It is to be expected that forms of dreadful behaviour all too familiar in everyday life will appear on- line. It shouldn’t be more tolerated on line than anywhere else.

It is decades since I first heard someone say that they’d been abused on-line and that they were not going back. I argued that like resisting violence at football matches or reclaiming the streets, it is important that decent people do not vacate the space. The idea would be that the bad would be smothered by a mass of human decency and offenders would be reported and tackled. It can and has worked but there’s a problem in the way that many people use the net and the problem is facilitated by the way the net is developing.

Long before the net relative isolation was risky. In extreme cases abuse occurred in institutions, schools, prisons, camps, clubs, training – even families – areas into which good people could not or did not peer in numbers. Moreover, small, tight groups of friends attracted the person who would control by various forms of intimidation including manipulation of members’ need to belong.

Advice: Stay in the open. Don’t allow close association with any group to become overly important.

There is now considerable fear over net participation but it is misplaced. The fear should be – as always – over relatively closed groups and increasingly there are relatively closed groups on-line. Reports of parents shocked at what is going on are commonplace. Shock is not acceptable; it’s a lame excuse. There is a disgraceful acceptance of the line that young people are good at computers but older people just don’t know about it. It’s time to be intolerant of this nonsense and say that incompetence in this regard is as weird as locking oneself in the house and refusing to use broadcasting and text would have been two decades ago. Any parent – any citizen – who is not active on-line is failing. However, mere activity is not enough. It must go that bit further into understanding that the dangers present in life are present on-line. The basics haven’t changed.

Advice: Stay in the open. Don’t allow close association with any group to become overly important.

“Young people are good with computers.” Repeating it over and over again or making it a staple in mass media discussion doesn’t make it any less untrue. Saying now that young people are good with computers makes as much sense as saying forty years ago that young people are good with televisions. Young people today certainly use information technology a lot but their use tends to be quite limited. Moreover the whole thrust of development is towards a more limited use.

The great gift of the web is access to information but, we’re told, the information will be overwhelming unless it is managed. So begins the drift away from the open web as algorithms make recommendations based on past behaviour and like-minded FB friends determine taste, trends, acceptable behaviour and views.

I had a running gag a couple of years back when lecturing for Information Studies. On the way to lectures I would walk through a large open area in UCD which was equipped with very many on-line PCs providing easy access for students. I took to counting the number in use and the proportion of that number using FB. I then reported my findings to students at the start of the lecture. It was never the case that FB users were in a minority. Now, I use FB a lot and I like it but it was around then that I realised the extent to which FB had for perhaps the majority of users become the net. Since then all manner of apps have appeared whose express purpose is to make life easy by eliminating the need to search, to choose, to face something new, disturbing, distressing, confrontational or challenging.

Increasingly people do not surf the net as of yore. They rely on links, recommendations. This has two outcomes which I want to mention here. Firstly, in my own area of interest, political communication, it reduces the possibility of deliberative citizenship. ** Secondly, it is socially isolating, confines people to relatively tight groups wherein the nasty stuff familiar from media reports and scares can go unchecked.

I realise of course that there is considerable published material which argues that the net internationalises concerns that in the past locals could have swept under the carpet but this is not inconsistent with a view of net use which is relatively closed. An occasional report of injustice or protest or cruelty “going viral” does not mean that on-line pressure to conform from friends or information-management apps are not effective.

So, what’s the outcome of all this? Firstly, it should be emphasised that a portion of life has moved. It has gone on-line and it has brought with it ordinary concerns of life as well as familiar dangers. It is as important on-line as it is in the rest of life not to become isolated. In political communication the term used is “bubble”. Confinement in a bubble is like the older metaphor of an echo chamber. It’s about becoming closed off from discourse by over-reliance on a tight group of like-minded friends – no matter where they are in the world! “Cocoon” might be a better word as in most cases there are individuals fleeing to a security where they will be untroubled by questions, doubt, argument and counter-argument. “Cocoon”, however, doesn’t convey the menace which many parents have come to fear. “Gang” gets closer to the reality. Gangs are characterised by an us-against-world-mentality, rules, secrecy, discipline, leaders who are charismatic but border on insane, enforcers, penalties for breaking the rules and fear of the ultimate sanction: exclusion, banishment. “Gang” also suggests that this is a very old, familiar and serious problem.

The open web can seem scary with its cacophony, scams, intruders, liars, pornographers, schemers, predators, conspiracy theorists, religions, crackpots, healers and dealers but it is also rich in information, debate, cooperation and it has human decency aplenty. What evil is there lurks – as in the wider world – in the shadowy corners, cracks and alleyways. It’s both safe and stimulating on-line if a citizen has the confidence to wander the wide boulevards and engage openly with others. The same cannot be said for social media and restrictive apps which filter, create bubbles, cocoons and gangs. Mature citizens should be encouraged to use the confused expanses of open web to inform themselves and to participate. Yes, that old metaphor of the web as an agora is reappearing here. Younger and vulnerable citizens are safer and more likely to learn something new out on the open web.

In closing here’s a bit of advice for parents. Don’t overly limit a young person’s time on line. With limited time they’ll head straight for their little gang. Give them whatever it takes – time, skill, encouragement, money, example etc. – to see the possibilities to be free, inquisitive and participative on-line. A parent in an attack of self-pity might ask if they are failing as a parent if they can’t or don’t have a life on-line? Unfortunately, the answer is yes!
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* http://www.irishtimes.com/culture/media/if-you-re-reading-this-online-stop-1.1525539
** https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2012/09/05/republican-citizens-on-facebook-need-to-choose-their-friends-deliberately/

Lest it be thought that I’m keeping quiet about it, I want to state at the outset that Orla Tinsley [i] is a friend of mine. I was one of her teachers in her earliest days at UCD and we’ve stayed in touch. I like her and I feel very protective of her. Now, that’s out of the way, let’s get on.

Ireland has the highest incidence of cystic fibrosis in the world. It could be said to be a particularly Irish problem. [ii]

Because infection poses a much greater risk, those hospitalised with CF have an absolute need for an area of their own.

Let’s accept that money to spend on health services is very limited now (It wasn’t always so.) and that there are many, many worthy claims on that money. We must therefore prioritise. We must set our priorities not by way of who can generate most noise or get most people on the street or imply some financial threat but by thought and discussion. [iii]

In terms of how public money is spent we need to identify what is important, what is of least importance and things in between. So where does CF beds fit into this? It doesn’t get more important than death. The very acceptance of special hospital conditions emphasises this. It isn’t a matter of quality of life. It’s a question of life or death.

Now if someone can tell me about a greater spending priority, I’ll concede and agree that spending should be routed there first. If someone has squandered resources intended for CF hospital facilities, their priorities are very different to mine or possibly they have no sense of priority and if so, they must go.

One of the best courses I took at UCD years ago was John Baker’s course in Political Argument. I opted to do an essay on Fairness. It turned out to be complex and interesting. Don’t worry, I won’t give details. However, I’ve lately been commenting on how “fairness” has come to be such a weasel word, used to signal virtue without saying anything very much.

This morning I heard Micheál Martin interviewed on RTE Radio and he was stressing the importance of “fairness”. Needless to say, the interviewer didn’t ask what was meant by the term. If it retains any meaning in political discourse, it now means doing nothing that would change the existing structures of economic inequality. It means that if there are to be charges or cuts, then everyone will pay and perhaps the rich will pay a little more but their income must remain so many multiples of the minimum wage.

What it boils down to is this: “I’m paid ten times the minimum wage because I’m worth it and the market says so. We live in tough times and I’m prepared to do my bit but it wouldn’t be fair to reduce me to five times or even eight times the wage of a café worker.”

Jesus wept! The interviewer didn’t even ask!!!

There are two linked errors in Tom Garvin’s article in the Irish Times of Mayday.

http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/education/2012/0501/1224315400547.html

Firstly, managerialism is not exclusive to UCD or to universities generally. It had infected and depressed many other industries before it arrived quite late in education. Secondly, Tom links managerialism to business and argues that business approaches have no place in university management. Now, the latter may be true but the former does not support it.

To get a hold in an organisation, managerialism must first oust efficient managers; it is no friend of business. The bizarre language used cloaks futile activity in terms that give the impression of innovation, progress and effective decision making. It also creates a layer of employees who live off information processes that effective management would never tolerate. It is a very, very serious problem and dealing with will be difficult because its adherents now hold key positions and because doing away with it would result in many job losses.

I don’t want to say a word about Garret FitzGerald’s political career or his political perspective, his journalism or his other writing. I hardly knew him and became an acquaintance only after he retired. You see, I began bumping into him at all sorts of gatherings but what these gatherings had in common was political conversation. This was when I began to appreciate Citizen Garret.

Here was a former Taoiseach who turned up and stayed for hours. He didn’t need to be invited, didn’t need to be THE speaker. He was a far cry from a typical star political attraction who breezed in on time, delivered an anodyne speech, took polite applause and left. No, Garret took citizenship seriously.

He wanted to take a full part in national debates and “full” meant listening as well as speaking. He was looking for a persuasive argument and willing to change if he heard one. He disagreed and he required that you disagree with him.

Two little stories from the fairly recent past:

Tom Garvin was speaking in one of the large lecture theatres in UCD. Garret was in the audience. I heard a man in front of me whisper to his friend, “Poor Garret is lookin’ shook; he’s nodding off.” A couple of seconds later Garret looked up, “Tom, have you considered …?” Citizen Garret was very much on the ball!

On another occasion at a smaller gathering (It might have been the one at which I realised I was on nodding terms with Garret.) I was talking to two young women, students. They noticed Garret and one told me of a question she’d love to ask him. I advised her to go ask him but she was young and in awe, and anyway he was deep in conversation. Then he moved off in search of a seat. I gestured encouragement and over they went. They must have addressed him as Dr. because I heard him say “Garret”. All three sat and conversation began. They were still at it when I waved them goodnight.

Garret showed that Active Citizenship is the highest rank in society.