Friday, May 01, 2015


People are probably sick of the upcoming UK election and, in particular, sick of people blogging, tweeting, and writing about it.  In particular, I'm sick of the increasingly meta-commentary (to which, yes I know, I am now contributing) of the kind that tweets about how awful it is that some person tweeted in support of something some candidate said given that said tweeter is clearly working for the party of said candidate, as evidence by this earlier tweet from the candidate that links to a photo that the tweeter is in....

It's not surprise, of course, that these parties engage in an organised attempt to provide positive commentary to their views.  I've no idea whether this helps at all or whether it just provides distraction for those of us who can't help reading all this stuff.  But it is, in the end, not particularly persuasive.  If the last 1000 Owen Jones retweets haven't made you think that David Cameron is out to destroy all that is good, then I doubt the 1001st will either.  The overall effect is not that different from what happens when supporters of football teams head to twitter or phone in to 6-0-6 with Robbie Savage.  Your midfielder's embarrassing slip that cost a goal is worth all sorts of songs, videos, parodies, comment.  Our midfielder's brave last-ditch effort that unfortunately didn't quite come off is praiseworthy and noble.  We have an organised defence; you park the bus.

Here is how one of these political irregular verbs goes:

I make a cast-iron promise.
You deceive the electorate with false promises.
He is Nick Clegg.

We have a proven track-record of delivering clear progress.
You cocked everything up last time you had a go.
They won't do anything much.

I'm bored by the whole lot and I shouldn't be.  The leaflets and the debates have just become noise.  I think what is most disappointing is that I am now finding it hard to distinguish between election leaflets and those flyers and bits of junkmail you get trying to persuade you to change broadband provider or mobile phone contract.  We are being sold something, not presented with a positive idea of something we can all do better.  (Even when the leaflets say that this is a positive idea of something we can do better, in fact they are trying to sell us something, like those companies that pretend you can save the planet by drinking a certain kind of smoothie.) So, the parties all promise that we can get things that are better, quicker, faster but we don't need to pay more.  Brilliant!  And they will super-promise all that with a five-year price deal for new voters.  (One of my local candidates has a leaflet that contains a list of five promises.  The fifth promise is a promise to keep all his promises.)  I don't believe all this guff any more than I believe that Sky broadband is eminently superior to Virgin broadband.  In any case, choosing who should represent my constituency in Parliament is not equivalent to choosing a home insurance provider.

And if that doesn't get to you, the moral overtones will.  This is perhaps what annoys me the most about the party system.  This choice between different package deals comes wrapped in the pretence of an ethical standard.  The red team says that if you vote blue then you are a heartless bastard who wants to see children starve and disabled people flogged because they can't work.  The blue team says that if you vote for the red team then you're a naive idiot who thinks that money can be conjured from thin air and that someone else should pay for you to do less. You're either heartless or stupid. The yellow team says that the other two teams are liars and that they will do a bit of one and a bit of the other: more heart and more brain.  The other teams say that the yellow team is both heartless and naive.  The green team says that everyone who doesn't like their team hates all other people and wants the planet to burn up.  The purple team says all the other teams just want to carry on playing a game of pass the parcel and that real people are fed up with it and that they want a turn at passing the parcel too.

In both ways we are treated like idiots.  The audience on BBC's Question Time last night was prepared to demand that the politicians on parade answered questions we want answered.  They didn't get much joy, but it was great to see that they weren't impressed by the evasion. 

Sunday, March 22, 2015

O tempora! O montem!

Harry Mount is depressed about the way Classics is going in British schools and, it seems, also about standards in Classics departments in universities.  Here is his piece setting out where, how, and why things are going wrong.

There are lots of ways you might respond to it.  Edith Hall has already had a go.  And there are lots of other ways you might reply to Mount's rhetoric.  E.g., he writes that Latin GCSE is depressingly easy:
As a part-time Latin tutor, I’m staggered by the low standards. One of my pupils – a bright boy, certainly, but with only two years’ Latin under his belt – got 97 per cent in his GCSE. Even Virgil would have struggled to get 97 per cent in the old O-Levels.
You can infer from this two things.  First, Mount is an excellent Latin tutor.  Second, that if indeed Virgil himself would have struggled in the Latin O-level then it is hard to imagine just what that O-level was supposed to evaluate.  Not a competence (brilliance even) in Latin, apparently.  

But here is another claim that I think I am able to speak to.  Mount writes:
Because the subject is now only properly taught in independent and grammar schools, high entrance standards would eliminate practically all comprehensively-educated applicants. And so they have to dumb down even further in order to admit those pupils. 
I really don't know what to do with that.  It will hardly help for me and various other people who are involved in university admissions simply to deny that it is true.  We would deny it, wouldn't we?  It will hardly help for me to point to various excellently-taught comprehensive school pupils and also point to the fact that there is a lot of fine teaching of Classics (and, yes, Classical Civilisation) in comprehensive schools that leaves students who do not go on to study the subject at university with an enthusiasm and interest for history, philosophy, languages, literature and the like. 
The shame is that deep down there is not really, I think, any serious disagreement about what we all want, those of us in the business.  We want there to be people who can go on to continue further detailed study and research into the ancient Greek and Roman worlds.  And yes, that means there must be people who know Latin and Greek really well.  And we want people who can do more than spot a deponent verb because we need people who can ask interesting questions of the Latin and Greek that they read.  And people who can read Plato and think about political philosophy or modern metaphysics.  And people who can read Lucan and think about Shakespeare.  And people who excavate Roman sites.  And so on.  What's more, we want there to be as many people as possible who have been exposed to these fascinating texts, times, places, and objects who don't make a career of it but who nevertheless carry that exposure with them in whatever else they do.  

So it isn't true that people either learn Latin and Greek 'properly' in Mount's terms or they do Classical Civilisation.  One will tend to lead to the other, in both directions.  What is the point of learning the verb tables if not to read the works and think about them?  Won't any enthusiasm for the classical world lead to a degree of interest in those ancient languages? 

Casting the debate as Mount does won't ensure the healthy future of the Classics he and I love.

Sunday, March 08, 2015

Admission. And Finland for Eurosong 2015!

This term I have mostly been getting to grips with a new admin job looking after graduate 'affairs' (as the job title unfortunately has it) in the Faculty.  And I've learned lots of things many of which are beginning to make me depressed about the chances of good students, particularly from the UK, being funded to do Master's and then PhD degrees.  I wonder if in twenty years time we'll be looking round wondering where this generation of UK academics in the humanities has gone.  But I'll keep my peace on that for now, at least until I've seen enough of it to think I have something more to say than a general list of complaints.

I also get to spend much more of my time in meetings than I am used to.  Meetings are only sometimes useful, of course, and often the principal use of the meeting is to demonstrate that more than one person is responsible for a certain decision. I would much rather, of course, be talking to a student about some ancient philosophy or thinking myself about some ancient philosophy but so be it.  We all have to do our turn.

But term will end soon!  Hooray!

Things to look forward to then include a Philosophy 'Masterclass' (Open Day) thing at my college and the chance to think a bit more carefully about a chunk of Plato's Philebus I need to get to grips with before September.

And my mood hasn't really been spoiled by yesterday's news that the BBC has opted for this pile of poo as the UK's Eurosong entry.  Now, we all know that there is no point entering a song that's any good and that no one who actually fancies a career in music would go anywhere near this toxic competition, but come on, really?  I read somewhere that it was written by the same musical genius that gave us the theme tunes to Jim'll Fix It (you don't hear that very often anymore) and Challenge Anneka.  Finger on the pulse...

(If you stick with it up to 1m 53s it gets particularly bad.)

 Anyhow, all is not lost because we need to get behind Finland's entry: Pertti Kurikan Nimipäivät.

Here is their song:

And here is a part of a documentary about them in which they get sweary about pedicures:


Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Some of what the ancient philosophy yoot are up to...

Peter Adamson pointed me to this interesting page, collecting titles of some current and recent doctoral research projects in ancient philosophy in the UK.  The first thing to note is, I suppose, the number: more than 50 projects begun since around 2010.  I don't think that's too shabby, to be honest, and it suggests that the discipline in general is in a relatively good state. 

One point to bear in mind is that this is the list taken from the Institute of Classical Studies so it gives those projects that are in the main being done in Classics Faculties and Departments rather than in Philosophy.  So the total number in progress will certainly be higher.  And it also might account, I guess, for the fact that if you look down this list you'd be forgiven for thinking that Plato and Aristotle are not all that popular these days.  That can't be true, can it?  Would the picture be more familiar if we add in those projects being done also, say, in the Oxford Philosophy Faculty or in UCL and KCL Philosophy?

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Studies in Ancient Moral and Political Philosophy

We take great pleasure in announcing the creation of a new series: Studies in Ancient Moral and Political Philosophy, to be published by Academia Verlag.

Besides the three co-editors, the advisory board includes: Gábor Betegh (Budapest, Cambridge), Marguerite Deslauriers (McGill, Montréal), Panos Dimas (Oslo), Susan Sauvé Meyer (U. of Pennsylvania), Pierre-Marie Morel (Paris I - Panthéon-Sorbonne), Jörn Müller (Würzburg), Ricardo Salles (UNAM, Mexico), Emidio Spinelli (La Sapienza, Roma), Teun Tieleman (Utrecht), Katja Vogt (Columbia, New York), James Warren (Cambridge).

The first volume - What is Up To Us. Studies on Agency and Responsibility in Ancient Philosophy (edited by P. Destrée, R. Salles and M. Zingano)-  offers 22 chapters on the notion “to eph’ hêmin” from Democritus to Proclus, with a posthumous paper by Michael Frede.

Table of Contents (pdf)

We hope to be able to publish one or two volumes a year. We are glad to receive any proposals for a monograph or collective volume; they may be sent to either editor of the series. Pierre Destrée (Louvain), Christoph Horn (Bonn) & Marco Zingano (São Paulo)

Sunday, January 18, 2015

And by March...

... the college gardens should be looking even better.  But if you can't wait for then, you can look at some photographs by Dave Barton, the Head Gardener posted on his Flickr page.

Corpus Christi College Taster Days...

... or 'Masterclasses' as they are now branded.  Through February and March the college is organising a series of days for Year 12 students to come and see what it is like to study various subjects here in Cambridge, meet some of the teaching staff and students and find out more about how to apply.  The full list of subjects, with dates and details of how to apply, is here.

I will be doing some sessions on the Philosophy day on 20 March.

Thursday, January 08, 2015

Impact (literally)

I wonder if anyone else spotted that the bedtime reading of one of the character's in last night's episode of Silent Witness on BBC1 was Paul Cartledge's book Thermopylae (in Dr Alexander's left hand, in picture below)Now, without spoiling too much, it probably wasn't a great advert for the kind of effect that reading PAC's work might have on a young boy's psychology but nevertheless it's yet another sign of the excellent impact being made by the work of members of my Faculty.  Hooray for us.