"Telling old stories, and singing songs, that make me think about where I came from"

Posts tagged ‘China’

Some things should be beyond politics

ImageThis afternoon I am going to watch the Dalai Lama deliver a speech at the Caird Hall in Dundee. I am not a Buddhist, I have to confess I don’t know a whole lot about Buddhism, but like the Pope, the Dalai Lama is someone you feel impelled to listen to despite not being a follower of his religion: you get the feeling that he might just say something that springs a light somewhere in the recesses of your mind. Maybe that’s just me. It’s just as likely that by visiting the Dalai Lama you have added another interesting anecdote to be recited at family dinners, weddings, or in awkward, boastful chit-chat.

This article isn’t really about the Dalai Lama, however. It’s about the way in which his visit has been politicised by certain members of Scotland’s political community. The SNP have not rolled out the red carpet, Alex Salmond has not returned early from a promotional trip to the US, and Nicola Sturgeon has, apparently, so shamefully not stepped in to welcome the Dalai Lama on our dear leader’s behalf. And Dundee City Council, the Lord Provost in particular, are – apparently – ‘panda’ ing to the Chinese. This is what Scottish Lib Dem Leader Willie Rennie would have you believe.


Now, away from Willie Rennie’s fanciful projection of the world, what is really going on? The Dalai Lama is not on a state visit. Indeed, the Prime Minister nor anyone else from Westminster have met him, clearly accepting that this visit is ‘pastoral’ in nature. This is not a visit about Tibet, about Scotland’s relationship with a wide and diverse religious community, or about anything that would warrant the attention of politicians. In fact, I would go as far to say that politicians’ involvement would have detracted from the nature of the Dalai Lama’s visit.

Willie Rennie’s attacks have been most cutting towards the role – or, in his view, lack of a role – played by Dundee City Council. A relative of the Lord Provost tragically passed away this week, and yet Rennie has seen fit to lambast the Provost for not speaking at the event. Admittedly, Rennie has retracted a little and widened his attacks to the Council at large, but is this unfeeling, undignified jab at a man in grief indicative of Scotland’s political community? Are we so tribal that even the death of an opponent’s loved one can be used as legitimate political capital?

I can see it now. The Lib Dem’s PR agent hunched over the morning news stories and then, EUREKA, the SNP are not meeting the Dalai Lama. We can score points on this one. A little, quivering voice perhaps interjected that this was not entirely fair, pointed out the true nature of the Dalai Lama’s visit, and the circumstances surrounding the Lord Provost’s withdrawal from the event. But the desire to point score, even in the most severe and unfeeling of manners, overruled.

As I said at the beginning of this article, this is not about the Dalai Lama. And it is not to say I am entirely right, perhaps the Chinese have applied a little pressure on the SNP not to make more of the Dalai Lama’s visit than is necessary. But I’m sure I am not the only one to find Willie Rennie’s attacks on the SNP and, particularly, the Lord Provost, as more than a little unsavoury.


Humanities are a thing of the past

A humanities student in Sweden is worth a third of a science student. This may sound like a provocative statement but in cash terms it is completely accurate. The humanities are suffering from chronic underinvestment not only in Sweden, but across the West. Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust recently noted, that we have ‘eroded our support for humanities‘ and that ’emphasis on the short term can mean especially painful cuts for disciplines whose value, though harder to measure, is no less real.’

Anyone involved in Higher Education is aware of this issue but seem either unwilling, or unable, to counter this trend. As Scottish universities try to survive with less funds, senior management teams have looked first to the humanities to make savings. There are no headlines of ‘Life Science Department to lose 100 members of staff’, ‘University axes partnership with pharmaceutical company’, or ‘Professor of Signal Transduction role made obsolete’. But in the UK as a whole, we have seen Middlesex University terminate its philosophy department, Sussex limit their history scope to post-1900, and the only British Professor of Palaeography role removed from existence.

You will not be seeing the University of Edinburgh History Department going into partnership with an arms manufacturer or pharmaceutical company, and perhaps herein lies the problem. Economic short-sightedness and a fetish with the present, has seen universities elevate science over the humanities. There has been an intellectual attack upon the humanities, to the extent that I have witnessed humanities’ students themselves downplaying their degrees. I will not get into mud slinging contests with the sciences – because that would paradox the intentions of this article – but we must try and take a broader perspective when considering the societal, economic, and cultural benefits of all academic disciplines. A doctor saves a life, that is a real benefit. A scientist discovers a new immunisation, that is a real benefit. History, philosophy, and political science can help to frame legislation to alleviate causes of poverty, sectarianism, war, and provide the tools to explore the big questions of who we are and where we fit into the world. Harder to measure, but these are real benefits.

Universities who fail to understand this equation, in admittedly testing times, run the risk of undermining the essence of what a university is. Rather than fostering a desire for discovery and knowledge, they become engine rooms – laboratories motivated simply by producing the next multi-million pound drug. Harvard, Oxford, Cambridge, and the other elite universities understand this. But we risk a situation where the study of the humanities becomes the playground of only the very rich.

There is, however, one country who better understands the future and necessary balance of Higher Education: China. Whilst their growth in the sciences has been noted, sneaking in under the radar is unprecedented investment in the humanities. At institutions which have hitherto been the domain of the sciences, the Chinese are restructuring to bring in the humanities. One such example is Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou who have introduced a liberal arts college. Two thirds of students in China currently study science, a mirror image of the UK where two thirds study humanities, and perhaps as we try to balance – and risk outweighing the other side – so the Chinese are looking to balance their graduate output. Although I’m inclined to think more is going on here.

China is emerging as a super-power (if not already there) and have emulated the West in many areas. But in some distinct ways they are emulating our strength of fifty years ago. They seem to understand that a price tag cannot tell you the true worth of everything. So, to bring hope and ambition to their populace, the Chinese have spent billions on developing a space program which includes a manned lunar station by 2020 and this week saw the launching of their space station. They join America and Russia as the only other countries to have achieved this unilaterally. The Chinese also understand that to develop a strong society which is aware of its heritage and its potential future, so it must invest in the humanities.

We may scoff at the Chinese lack of democracy, human rights record, or other aspects of their culture which we find worrying. But one thing is for sure, they are not so quick to destroy their cultural and historical hearts – the humanities departments of universities.