How to Lose Friends and Alienate People

As almost everyone who has ever had a conversation with me will know, I’m very much a proud student of philosophy, and a proponent of philosophical method to the issues of wider society. I would like to think I am sincere in my passion for my chosen subject, but one of the things that has always irked me is the curious distaste that some philosophy students hold for the empirical sciences and subjects with more direct practical applications than philosophy. This sort of intellectual elitism has always irked me.

UWE Bristol have recently decided to axe their philosophy programme. The planned closure came to light because Dr. Iain Grant, a philosopher at UWE, sent an email to the North American Schelling Society, detailing a meeting in which the department was told of the university’s plans. As such, UWE have yet to send out a statement about their rationale for closing the programme, though it doesn’t exactly take a genius in university management to guess that this has likely been brought on due to financial pressures facing the higher education sector in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, particularly in terms of massively decreased overseas student enrolment at British universities. I wish to cast no aspersions whatsoever on the UWE Philosophy Department, and I am sorry that they are facing the axe. However, academic philosophy’s rank elitism seemed to me to be on display in Professor Amia Srinivasan’s response email sent to the UWE administration, shared by Professor Brain Leiter on his blog:

Dear Prof West; dear Dr Griffiths; dear Prof Coffey,

I am writing to express my profound disappointment and dismay at the news that UWE Bristol is proposing to shut down its philosophy department. A university without a philosophy department is not a university — not, that is, an institution dedicated to free and humanistic inquiry. It is, instead, a technical shop that has subjected itself to the instrumentalist logic of efficiency and economic growth. If these plans are seen through, I assure you that your administration will be seen by academics across the UK and around the world as the people who not only destroyed what was once an excellent philosophy department, but moreover betrayed the values of learning, truth and education. In turn, the reputation of the institution whose interests you are charged with serving will suffer gravely. I urge you in the strongest possible terms to reconsider.

Yours Sincerely,

Amia Srinivasan

Chichele Professor of Social and Political Theory

All Souls College, Oxford

Before anything else, I want to make infinitely clear my respect for Professor Srinivasan, who does incredibly important work in political philosophy, and I cannot overstate her achievement in becoming the first woman, first person of colour and youngest person to occupy the Chichele Chair of Social and Political Theory. I also acknowledge that is perfectly understandable for philosophers outside of UWE to protest this decision which so affects their colleagues and discipline, if for no other reason than that turkeys should hardly acquiesce to a looming Christmas. However, I want to say what I found so galling about this response.

Firstly, the immensely poor optics of a professor at the University of Oxford, an institution with 10x the operating budget and 3,388x(!) the endowment of UWE, criticising the latter institution for being sensitive to the perturbations of the global economy. Oxford University owns so much land that even its own Estates Department couldn’t provide you with a map of it all, and that isn’t even factoring all the land owned by the colleges, as legally distinct institutions from the University itself. This is compounded when one realises that Professor Srinivasan is a member of All Souls College, an institution with eight (yes, you read that right) students which holds an endowment of £420m, in comparison with UWE, a university with in excess of 30,000 students, holding an endowment of £1.8m. As far as my own investigations found, All Souls College holds more land in the City of Bristol as part of its endowment (that is, land owned not for use in university operations but as an investment) than does UWE Bristol, though I am happy to be proved wrong in this. The irony of this will not, I hope, be lost on readers. It is not as if Professor Srinivasan is powerless to do anything to remedy this disparity, as every member of All Souls College is automatically also a fellow of All Souls, a full member of its governing body. There exists no more ivory-clad a tower in the world than All Soul’, a college for the most elite subsection of the English-speaking world’s oldest, most elite university.

This disparity in income stream is deeply relevant to UWE’s decision to axe their philosophy department. It makes eminent sense that UWE would cut a programme which was not attracting sufficient student interest (philosophy courses are notoriously cheap to teach, so there must have been an absolute dearth of applicants if my assumption that the decision to cut the department was financially motivated is correct), as 72% of UWE’s 2018/19 income came from ‘tuition fees and education contracts’, whereas tuition fees make up only 15% of Oxford’s investment profits and research grant dominated income.

Secondly, the pure elitism that seeps out from phrases such as ‘a technical shop’ and ‘betrayed the values of truth, learning and education’, which summon up Nick Cohen’s quip about ‘the condescension Oxford dons habitually mistake for wit’[1]. The precise use of the term ‘technical’ will not have been a mistake in the words of someone so eminent as Professor Srinivasan, in reference to an institution that for the vast majority of its history was known as ‘Merchant Venturers Technical College’ and then ‘Bristol Polytechnic’. One can practically taste the contempt that Professor Srinivasan casts down upon such intuitions, dedicated to the mere pursuit of widespread, profession-oriented education for the working classes. The use of the phrase ‘betrayed the values of truth, learning and education’ in reference to UWE’s decision to forgo the teaching of philosophy is laughable. After all, it isn’t as if there is a university in the UK that counts 14 Nobel laureates amongst its former staff and students, which is also the birthplace of antibiotics, an innovation which has saved hundreds of millions of lives in the past 70 years, all without ever having had a philosophy department. If such a university were to exist, one would be hard pressed to argue that it wasn’t dedicated to the high ideals of ‘truth, learning and education’. In fact, if Professor Srinivasan were to inform anyone who had been saved from certain death by the penicillin discovered by Alexander Fleming at Imperial College London that the aforementioned institution is not a ‘university’ but ‘a technical shop that has subjected itself to the instrumentalist logic of efficiency and economic growth’, I somehow doubt that they would be any less thankful that they get to spend many more years with their loved ones.

This thinking was not limited to Professor Srinivasan – In a post on Leiter Reports, the most read blog in the world of philosophy, Professor Brian Leiter (another philosopher who I greatly respect and earnestly read) refers to this decision by UWE as ‘no doubt part of a plan to revert to being a polytechnic in all but name’. The derision with which both these eminent philosophers hold polytechnics is baffling to me, considering that polytechnic institutions were founded as low-cost, profession-oriented institutes of education catering to the working class, at a time where ‘no one could qualify for an Oxford BA without showing a knowledge of the Gospels in Greek, the Thirty-Nine Articles, and Joseph Butler’s Analogy of Religion[2]. I’m not sure exactly how much Koine Greek the average Briton could comprehend circa 1838 (when the Royal Polytechnic Institution was founded), but I’m sure it wasn’t much. Defending the intellectual importance of philosophy is one thing, but pitching it as the one true axis around which all intellectual endeavour turns, the inerasable foundation stone of any ‘true’ university, confirms the worst stereotypes of arrogant intellectual masturbation which deters so many from the pursuit of academic philosophy.

My final point relates to differing conceptions of what a university is. The most telling phrase is Professor Srinivasan’s accusation that the UWE administration’s views on education are ‘instrumentalist’. To a philosopher, an instrumental good is not considered desirable for its own sake, but that it is desirable because it leads to something else. We can argue until the sun dies about what the importance of philosophy actually is (a subject on which, I’m sure, I would agree with Professor Srinivasan), but I reckon it is probably indisputable that the majority of university students in England do not go to university because they see education as a transcendent good worth spending at least £27,000 on for its own sake, as Professor Srinivasan seems to hold they should, but rather that they want to experience the university lifestyle, or maybe to move away from home for three years, or maybe they feel like it is what they have to do because all their friends have done so, or maybe, just maybe; they do it so that they can get a stable job at the end of it.

 My roots are a traditional, working-class* South Asian family from Birmingham, and just the fact that I study so unremunerative a degree is the butt of jokes, so you can imagine that my waxing lyrical about the intrinsic, transcendent beauty and value of philosophy at family gatherings doesn’t exactly win me much love. My brother, for example, studies accounting so that he never has to see my father, a man in his fifties with recurring health issues, work in warehousing or as a night porter in a hotel just to make ends meet, as he has done for the past few years. To me, and many others, this is just as valid a use of a university education as any other. Academic philosophy is a field soaked with financial privilege, and so I imagine it is easy for Professor Srinivasan, the Bahraini-born daughter of a banker who spent her childhood between Singapore, London and New York, to decry people seeing university education as something they engage in because they need to earn a living.

The saddest thing about this whole email is that it will fail to elicit any actual support for philosophy at UWE. Professor Srinivasan has attempted to get administrators at the university on her side by accusing them of being rapacious philistines antithetical to learning and education, and by deriding the institution which they run as not being a university worth the name, but simply a convenient limpet which is only good to finance the running of a philosophy department. If I were an administrator to whom such a letter was addressed, and if I felt that Professor Srinivasan’s attitudes towards every single activity at the university outside philosophy was reflective of the views held by all philosophers, then I frankly would be all the more eager to expunge such insufferable elitists from UWE. The irony is that Professor Srinivasan could have followed the lead of Dr Iain Grant, the UWE Philosophy faculty member who highlighted the proposed closure, of not launching a verbal offensive, but instead highlighting all the great work that goes on in the UWE Philosophy department.

I want to conclude by reiterating that as a student of philosophy myself, I think it is an immensely important field of study, and I once against extend my commiserations to all those who worked to make UWE a great place to study philosophy. It is my love for academic philosophy that spurs my annoyance when I see one of its rising stars and most prominent representatives within the UK paint it in such a distasteful light, as I feel Professor Srinivasan does in her letter to the UWE administration.  

*It is my personal view that British-Pakistanis, as with most other BAME groups in the UK, defy easy classification into the British class system, but that is a topic for another post entirely. What cannot be denied is that British-Pakistanis, in terms of socioeconomic metrics and life outcomes, align most definitely with the white working class.

[1] Page 112, You Can’t Read This Book, Nick Cohen, HarperCollins 2012

[2] Page 10, The history of the University of Oxford, Vol VII, ‘Nineteenth Century Oxford, Part 1’ edited by M.G. Brock and M.C. Curthoys, Clarendon Press

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