The President and the Dairymaid

At least in the German language there is the saying of a calculation undertaken by a dairymaid, suggesting  a calculation is extremely simplified and important variable are left out. Sure, this extremely unjust as these people, as long as they don’t loose their common sense, are well able to take things right, much better than people who refer to a so-called academic qualification and …

– … and get things wrong even they may actually have received the most prestigious awards.

Have a look at this – it is not a laureate text but one that is so typical for today’s academic world.

The next summit of the 20 industrialised and emerging countries (G20) will take place on 3rd and 4th November next. These 20 countries represent 85% of the world’s economy and 2/3 of its population. The declared goal is to discuss the world’s economic situation and to come with joint responses. What can we expect of this?

Fondation Robert Schuman. European Interview N. 41, 31st October 2011: Editorial Introductory remark to an Interview with Jean-Paul Betbèze.

But where is the president now? Well, actually this present epistle is indeed not about the economic question (though I will briefly come back to it) but indeed about the president. And in this case, the president is Mister Murphy, current president of University College Cork, Ireland. He disrobed himself recently, talking about academia and universities today. There is only one hope (though it is not likely anything more than hope, here meaning illusion: that it had been a badly uninformed story in the Irish Examiner, reporting on the 21st of December under the title

Pressure on college resources sees flight of talent.

It is very much the usual lament – some quotes may confirm this:

UCC president Dr Michael Murphy said the price of widening third-level access was the inability of colleges to provide the best education for top students.

The UCC president said opportunities were created for the brightest students through scholarships when resources were scarce in the past. But the universities’ ability to maximise the talents of the intellectually gifted has diminished as expanding higher education has brought weaker students who need more academic support from fewer staff.

And he is directly quoted with the words

“The ICT age, the space age, the nuclear age, the Hollywood age, all were mostly sparked by those in the top 2% to 5% of academic performers, who attended schools and universities that met their needs in innovative ways.

Under the leadership of people like Mr. Murphy there is a new age coming up, indeed: a social ice age, featuring ignorance about what academia is about.


Let me shortly reflect on this in a different perspective – taking a sentence written by Theodor Mommsen, taken from his Correspondence with Wiliamowitz. It is the letter 393, dated on the 25th of February 1894. Mentioning the date is of special importance. Reading always means considering some basic facts of the context as for instance the date, i.e. time of writing; and in this case it is of special importance for another reason: the German original tells immediately that this is not written in today’s words. My exiguous translation will not tell immediately – so first the German, then the translation:

Unser Universitätsregiment ist freilich ein schlimmes Ding. Das Willkürregiment einerseits und der Mangel an innerlichem Zusammenhalten der Kollegen andererseits sind in stetigem Steigen, und beiden gegenüber ist der Einzelne machtlos. Wohl ist noch manches zu erreichen […]. Aber es ist ein drückendes Gefühl, von solcher Favoritenwirtschaft auch nur in diesem Sinn zu profitieren. . Du wirst dieselbe Erfahrung machen, Althoff wird, soweit er es kann (seine Macht zum Guten ist sehr viel geringer als sein Wille), Dir in solchen Dingen entgegenkommen, aber Freude wirst Du davon nicht haben, liebes Kind zu sein.

Now the translation:

Of course, the regime of our universities is a really nasty thing. The arbitrary regiment on the one hand and the lack of inner coherence and solidarity amongst the colleagues on the other hand are permanently increasing, and both cannot be changed by the individual. Sure, there is still something we can achieve […]. But it is an onerous feeling to profit from such red tape even in this way. You will experience this yourself, Althoff will, as far as possible (his power to do good is much more limited than his will to do good), to accommodate you in such things, but you will not be able to enjoy this by being a good boy.

I do not want to discuss Mommsen here. Nor do I want to discuss the exclusive, elitist and strangulating system of the ‘good old times’ of academia – something that never existed. Reading many (auto)biographies, looking into issues of sociology and history of science eclipsed much of the golden gleam for me. There is, however, a point one should not forget. Leaving many things aside that are not of importance here, the understanding of academic work had been substantially different to what Mr. Murphy suggests. The freedom had not been primarily defined by the narrow stance of a micro-administrative framing – the article refers to such perspective, stating:

Dr Murphy said universities needed greater freedom on how to spend limited resources and called for an end to stifling Government micro-management.

On the contrary, grant schemes had been generous in the sense of allowing for developing wide perspectives of managing tasks as they developed from the practical developments, from real life and the opportunities it can open. Let us face it, the most known, most progressive, most advanced results of science did not come from bright individuals as suggested by UCC’s president. It had not been

those in the top 2% to 5% of academic performers, who attended schools and universities that met their needs in innovative ways

as it is quoted. Rather, the noblest advances are characterised in particular by the following:

* These colleagues had been bright, indeed – real scientists by way of coming from wide and broad approaches to reality. – Try to locate Albert Einstein, Max Weber, Karl Mannheim, Bertrand Russell, Norbert Elias or today Amartya Sen, Zsuzsa Ferge, Laurent van der Maesen, Hans Zacher, Andrey Korotayev, Leonid Grinin …, and clearly classify them as …, yes, what? Surely academics, but then? Mathematicians? Philosophers? Economists? Moralists? Sociologists? Lawyers? Historians? Anthropologists?  ????

* Many of these colleagues had been or are as personalities and academics very much part of the political and social life of their time, i.e. part of real soci(et)al life. This meant very different things – and would mean even more different things if we look at others. And some of them had been surely hugely questionable when it comes to the political practice. But still … – the conservative Weber, claiming ‘value freedom’ of research, was nevertheless only able to do what he did by standing in the middle of the political movements and by committing himself to values and taking positions (there is much confusion when it comes to the debate on value freedom and we should revisit Weber, Sombart and Schmoller on this and later also Popper and Adorno for the ‘second round’ of the ‘Werturteilsstreit’ [still useful in this context mot least the work on Materialism and Empiriocriticism]; Einstein, first contributing to the disaster due to his involvement in politics, working at the end on contributing to the development of nuclear bomb, showed how he learned from his mistakes, advancing to a most engaged figure of the peace movement, condemning all nuclear weapons …

* Although we usually look at these individuals, at their high intellectual performances and excellence indeed, we should not forget that many of them had been ‘managers’, working in groups, being intellectually stimulated by disputes with others – managers who in some cases surely worked out things in egoistic ways, utilising the work individually for themselves – nevertheless not being guided by administering stuff or staff.

These colleagues mentioned above, without holding back with criticising them where appropriate, are colleagues I truly like to see as colleagues. And I am proud and humbled by knowing some of them personally. Sure, they may never bring it to such fame as Mr. Murphy, entering the history books as one of the main promoters of the social ice age. But they are surely more distinguished, more aware of what they are saying, more respectful even in the conservatism which some of them represent.

The following has to be added – though surely this short note does not in any way cover things in full nor does it want doing so. Nevertheless, the following is the most important when it comes to the self-designated applicant for the position of a president of the new ice age.

* Our universities have to face the challenge to regain openness. Specialisation, striving for excellence and dividing staff by permanent evaluation and ‘the notion of distinction’ is one of the coffin nails of academia. Real academia can only be reached by openness, a wide mind is a bright mind. – Well, that a cobbler should stick to his last is widely accepted. And cum grano salis, for medical doctors the same should apply

* Political and soci(et)al engagement is a most crucial nourishment of academic development. Many of the colleagues especially in the first half of the previous century distinguished themselves by such engagement – and many did so by engaging on the side of the ruling classes. True opening today has to consider this in a complex way: ‘Opening academia’, launching and maintaining access-project cannot be about just opening doors. It has to be about opening the way of academic thinking, making it possible to think about the real challenges we are facing today. And these are not technical by nature. They need a more fundamental shift of our thinking – Social Quality, Big History, World Systems Theory may be candidates, and I admit I only mention these because of my own specific involvement. But I could well move on, just making these days the most exciting experiences by meeting and communicating with colleagues from Kurdistan, Turkey, India, South Africa, Chile/Mapuche and Bolivia – and though many of them are academics, we meet as people. And these encounters allow me to meet myself – as stranger in my own countries (sorry, not able to speak in singular). And this is the point I want to make: All this is not about the traditional academic debates but about what we lived through, each in his/her place and each deprived in one or another way from it. Full of contradictions. Surely not easy – but not a fight, a pool of inconceivable richness, real experience of a globalising self, breathing the fresh air of different life, and inhaling the toxic elements where they are. Surely not easy – but not simplifying as the journeys of those travellers who are globalising the other, blinding the other by the dust that is dispersed by the carriers of their palanquins. Surely not easy – but more honest than the mendacity of a administered quasi-academic elite. And again, this is the point I want to make: we should be open to the huge pool of experience out there, ready to change ourselves rather than aiming on braking their will, subordinating them under the law of the ‘imagined 85’ (see below).

We need strangers – you may want to read what Georg Simmel wrote on this topic of The Stranger.

And we equally need to allow ourselves to be strangers in our own country [You may want to red what I wrote on this but for this you have to by a book ;-)].

* And we should open internally too: creating for a for collaboration rather than presentation of excellence, engaging in disputes rather than preaching from the pulpit of a new historical school of administration. – Sure, the historical school of economics did have a role to play at its time – but we should not forget that it failed in preventing two world wars. The new economic school of administration may well fail to prevent the emergence of a social ice age.

Leaving the polemical undertone for a moment aside, having stated ‘and we equally need to allow ourselves to be strangers in our own country’ is far-reaching and more meaningful than what we usually discuss and hat we usually are actually ready, able to see. the question at stake is one of ontological and epistemological in its very nature. So I actually have also some doubts when it comes to access programs, science shops, participatory research etc., but coming from another angle, suggesting that they are far too tame. Looking at the UCC’s current strategic plan (probably we find very similar plans elsewhere) we see its emphasis on ‘contributing to society’. It is surely a problem that the link between universities and society (it sounds bizarre, doesn’t it? – It is bizarre that this actually is an issue!) had been unobserved, for so many years, pushing our critique from many years ago aside, emerging as playing field in ivory towers and on silicon valleys. But the latter is the point: The link had never been rally broken – the link that really had been broken has to be seen as the link between academia and peoples’ societies. Establishing such a link is not about working for society, but in society; it is not about ranking and excellence but about real life and its contradictions. It is about the beauty of development and the power of the ordinary rather than the streamlined and purified forms.

– Let us be brave, let us for instance have a look at ‘Die Bruecke’, the path opened for the ‘Blue Rider’ (alluding to the two groups of expressionist arts in the beginning of the last century), let us have a look at the deconstruction of Cubism that allowed new construction rather then following simply the baroque – the latter surely great in working with a descant, able to elevate from there; but not able to fundamentally overcome the path defined by this descant. That elevation had been nothing more than the last judgement: like a god dividing between good and evil. What we need is the readiness to work on something new, going beyond a smart society, walking as minor partner of a smart economy. What we need is a fundamental answer to the Guernica that smartness of the 85-2/3 society produces every day.


Well, Mr. Murphy, anecdotes …. – as we learn from the article

“There is extensive anecdotal evidence of many of our brightest students emigrating after completing Leaving Certificate for overseas education and never returning,” he said.

Anecdotes …, isn’t that about story telling, our great Irish tradition?

It may be that another anecdote will be told one day, a fairy tale.

Once upon a time there had been president, a good administrator, looking for excellence but not really knowing what he meant by it, believing just in figures – like a little journalist. Reading for instance something like this:

… These 20 countries represent 85% of the world’s economy and 2/3 of its population. …

he could not even think about the triviality of a pyramid turned with its head down: these 85% and 2/3, historically able to stand for some time on the shoulders of the minority 15 and 1/3 would surely collapse sooner or later.

Well, this president had been standing well and safe and he tried to gather with his companions, giving them tid-bits, feeding them like the old lady fed the little boy in one of Grimm’s fairy tales (Hansel and Gretel) and presenting them with golden tiaras, bracelets and earrings. Only with the time all these jesters of the new ice age found themselves drawn to ground by the heavy chains that glimmered so tempting and promising. They found themselves freezing in their fur coats that only provided warmth for a short time. And the president himself, looking more and more like an old man, calling all people to meetings to measure if their fingers had been fattened had to acknowledge one day: the brightest of the people around …, they apparently disappeared, looking for new shores, for open seas to see, rather than for narrow-minded channels. And he did not live happily ever after. You want to know why? The 15 and 1/3 on which they stood looked into the mirror and saw: actually they had been the 85 and together with the many who had minor positions in the excellence centres and who really worked for excellence. Those who lost their golden chains and who now claimed the right to live in paradise – a paradise of real knowledge production rather than gathering and improving skills; a paradise …

where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, shepherd or critique.

a paradise just as it is mentioned in part 1 of the German Ideology, a piece of excellence written in 1845.


Sure, a fairy tale – but still, the old man did not succeed.

What remains to be said at the end?

Sorry, Mr. Murphy – there may be some points that had been misrepresented in the Examiner, there may be some points that you would qualify yourself. And there are surely also some points in what I wrote that need further elaboration, qualification and …, yes, and discussion. But at least one should be very careful in such a position as yours when it comes to speaking to

business leaders at a Cork Chamber breakfast

And another point may be added – just allow me to quote one of the great academics of history though he is more known as a writer and perhaps also pictorial artist. This great and contestable mind once said

However, we all, old Europeans, are more or less cordially evil. Our conditions are too artificial and complicated, our feeling, our way of life against nature, our social relationships lack love and benevolence. Each is fine, friendly, but no one has the courage to be honest and true, so that an honest man, with natural tendencies and emotions, ends to feel quite badly.

And of course, this ‘honest man’ may well be the dairymaid, who academia has to encourage to have the courage to be honest and true.

5 pensieri riguardo “The President and the Dairymaid


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