Wednesday, June 8, 2011

AC Grayling's Dodgy New University

AC Grayling
In 2010 I heard AC Grayling give a talk about philosophy at the Perth Writer's Festival. Actual A.C. would have been nice because although it was at night it was 40 degrees centigrade inside the hall. In anticipation of disaster I had taken the precaution of getting a seat in the back row. AC Grayling began his talk thus "I was in my bath the other night reading Moliere..." He continued in a similar vein for an hour, at least I assume he did, 10 minutes was all I could handle of it and there were free drinks waiting round the corner. I met Grayling later and had a brief chat with him. A nice enough bloke but I quickly deduced that he's a sort of poor man's John Gray. He's a generalist, not in the first rank of world philosophers, and has made no great contribution to any of philosophy's major disciplines.
It was a bit of a surprise to read in The Guardian yesterday that he's gone off and founded a New College of the Humanities in Bloomsbury, London which will be charging 18,000 pounds a year for a B.A. What will you be getting for your 18 grand? Well Grayling has assembled a small but heavy weight team of international professors for his institute. It is not an eclectic bunch. There is only one women on the faculty and only one minority. The rest are all Anglo-American white guys of a certain age. Among the big names are Richard Dawkins, Ronald Dworkin, Niall Ferguson, Stephen Pinker, Steve Jones, Peter Singer, Grayling himself. By good fortune I've either had seminars with or heard lectures from most of Grayling's faculty, so I'm in a position to save you some cash which you can then use to go to a proper Uni with a diversity of voices and viewpoints (and where you might see the occasional lecturer under 40 or a woman or someone who didn't grow up in the Anglo-American academic tradition).
1. AC Grayling: I've heard him lecture and I've read one of his books. Not a deep thinker, more of a media personality.
2. Simon Blackburn: I've heard him lecture and heard him frequently on the radio. Blackburn, like Grayling is a historian of philosophy and a bit of a lightweight.
3. Sir David Cannadine: Cannadine is a fairly minor historian of royalty in Britain (hence the knighthood). No real original ideas. Read half of one of his books.
4. Linda Colley: This will make you laugh, Linda Colley, the only woman on the faculty, is David Cannadine's wife. She's also a minor historian.
5. Sir Richard Dawkins: I've heard him lecture many times at Oxford and I've read five of his books. His thesis? Nothing Earth shattering: every species on the planet got here through natural selection and there is no evidence for the existence of God. Er, that's about it, really.
7. Ronald Dworkin: Another philosopher. I've had tutorials with him and I've read 4 of his books. He believes in natural rights and says that these rights permeate the common law of England and America. He's good is Dworkin, maybe not 18 grand good, but he's good. Jeremy Bentham called natural rights nonsense on stilts and neither Dworkin nor any other believer in them has ever really explained where these rights actually come from.
8. Peter Singer: Yet another philosopher. I've heard him lecture a couple of times. Singer is a very smart guy. He's an animal rights activist and an ethicist. Again don't know if he's worth 18 big ones.
So that's about two thirds of his faculty covered and they all look pretty similar dont they? No real radicals who will challenge each other's world views and make the students think. The Guardian has also broken a story that Grayling has ripped off the curriculum of the University of London for many of his courses. Dear oh dear when the professor's a plagiarist what hope do the students have? To me this "university" seems less about providing students with a rich and interesting education and more about providing a retirement fund for Mr Grayling and his aging chums.