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Middle East Comment from a Traveling Journo

New College of the Humanities: A Biased ‘Dream School’ for Oxbridge Rejects

I have to admit, when I heard about AC Grayling’s new private university initiative, I was immediately intrigued. The New College of the Humanities has a kind of spellbinding magic about it; my head filled with fantastical images of a kind of modern Hogwarts, where the world’s greatest wizards assemble to lecture young minds – cosmology from the castle turrets, philosophy in the grand library, logic, classics and literacy from specially designed rooms bursting with bewitched and enchanted trinkets and gadgets. Each wizard would occupy his own wing, and in his chamber he’d be surrounded by strange and wonderful contraptions that pop, fizz and purr softly as he conducts his lessons, whilst great sage-like wizards of bygone ages look on from their faded canvases.

But then I came back to reality (and realised I’d read a little too much Harry Potter.). It’s a little less Hogwarts, and a little more Jamie Oliver’s Dream School. Many have already quite rightly pointed out the faults with this school – that £18,000 is a vastly inflated sum that perhaps only matches the egos of those teaching; that this goes against every principle those self-professed leftist academics purport to represent; and that whilst it might be billed as a response to the government’s cuts in Humanities funding, making education more expensive doesn’t actually help anyone – other than the board of the university.

Jamie’s Dream School was a one-off event. It was a great initiative – to highlight the benefits of learning to kids on whom some had given up. And it was a fun idea. But it was made for TV, and was not exactly long-term. David Starkey was hardly going to spend 40 hours a week making lewd double entendres about Henry VIII’s codpiece to Leondre and Chantelle from Dagenham. Alistair Campbell wasn’t going to give up lucrative speaking engagements to explain the art of political spin to a class of 12 year olds. And Cherie Blair can’t waste that great legal mind on school kids – she’s got money to make on Ebay.

In much the same way, Dawkins and the like are not going to be able to devote the time they should to their students. During my masters at LSE – for which a similar fee is payable – quite a few of my ‘star lecturers’ had all sorts of other commitments. With their own work to complete, or special government assignments to take care of, or perhaps most importantly for them, appearing on Sky News every thirty seconds, teaching could at times take a back seat.

But more importantly, I went to LSE in the hope of getting a subjective-free education, where facts were presented and I was left to make up my own mind. This has mostly been the case. I don’t see Dawkins making objectivity a priority, or many of the other names that have circulated. It’s also a very narrow selection of academics – not one from outside Europe or America. I had people from all over the world teach me. Oxbridge has a similar international setup. It is anything but a superior balanced education if you are being fed the ideas of an opinionated few.

It’s too expensive, it’s not international, and its teachers will be in class about 20% of the time. Wealthy Oxbridge rejects might be tempted, but then the degree will be synonymous with second class-scholarship. Perhaps its a bit like Hogwarts without the magic – essentially a drafty old castle where you’re taught by a bunch of old white men who have their faces in the paper a little too much. And who’d want to go there?

Frankly, I’d pay £18,000 to not be taught by Richard bloody Dawkins.

Filed under: British Politics

Why Monarchy is Democratic

Tanya Brown’s article on our ‘puddle of feudal nostalgia’ was a very funny read. The Archbishop’s Easter message on social obligations was among the subjects of her amusing rant, mocking his suggestion that government figures should take some time out and see how ‘real people live’ by doing a bit of volunteer work. I loved for instance her image of Ken Clarke ‘burning turkey twizzlers at some luckless primary school,’ as she put it.

But her misguided ramblings about the ‘ghastly’ royal wedding, and her out-dated moaning about the government being a ‘pile of old Etonians,’ took the shine off somewhat. Yet again, a royal event has brought the class warriors out in full, banging their drums louder and harder than anyone else, seeking to drown out the very reasoned debate they claim they want.

We all know the royal family is slightly strange – a borderline racist grandfather, a tight-lipped frosty granny, a bonkers and estranged daughter in law, a party loving younger brother and an uncle who just won’t admit he’s gay – Why ridicule the ridiculous?

Indeed many of the elements above (if not all?) remind us of our own families in some way. But their importance goes deeper than this. Tanya Brown sees – quite wrongly – our monarchy as feudalistic. Although journalistically  it serves a purpose to blend the two, she has conflated the two rather drastically.

Feudal monarchies of old used systems of patronage and privilege to consolidate power. Those in the Middle East still function as such. But those systems are long gone in Europe, and in fact I would say we are now surrounded by feudal republics and democratic monarchies. Just look around – over the past decade, Democracy Index has consistently placed western European democracies as 7 of the top 10 most democratic nations on earth – three of those with our queen as head of state. And then look to the bottom of the list – all republics. You may say these countries outside Europe have suffered for different reasons, and you may be right. Then look closer to home – at Russia, Italy, France, Greece – corruption levels are far higher in these countries than here in the UK. Talk about a system of feudalistic patronage!

And why is this? Because a family at the top breeds an atmosphere of personal and not just official accountability. Only the most ruthless and calculating individuals will achieve power in a democracy – a monarch however must work constantly to legitimize the position he has inherited. Politicians are self-serving and short-termist, looking for policies that will best serve their interests for the next election. The monarchy seeks to consolidate its position for the long-term, and as such must find ways to make its positive presence in society felt. Monarchy remains steadfast whilst politicians are transient, and the former creates an atmosphere of duty and accountability in public office from which the latter can learn.

I’ll be watching the wedding tomorrow. Not in either a puddle of feudal nostalgia or, like Tanya perhaps, in jealous contempt of privilege. But surrounded by family and friends, thinking about the parties going on around the world, and listening out as royal trumpets drown out the class warrior’s drum, as they salute the arrival of a new princess, and a new stage in British history.

Filed under: British Politics

Ethno Rahs and the London Protests

An Ethno Rah is a term I learnt at uni. In one sense, it’s the typical Sloaney ‘Rah.’ For him: a combination of boat shoes, enormous hair, Hackett blazers, and a highly expressive radio presenting voice – as loud and with as much spit as Johnny Vaughan but with an accent closer to that of Alexander Armstrong. For her: its a massive pastel pashmina wrapped round her face, ridiculous amounts of jewellery, and again, enormous hair – backcombed this time. Both man and woman enjoy country pubs, large dogs, horses (actually all sorts of wildlife – although they do enjoy shooting some of it), signet rings, watching sport in dangerously cold conditions, wax Barbour jackets and hopelessly obscure folk music in North London parks.

I have, for the record, got nothing against the Rahs and have known a fair few. But the problem starts when they shed their Jack Wills body warmers, leave the blustery English countryside and embark on trips across the world. The trips in themselves are worthy, but they often turn these people into intolerable hypocrites. They return Messiah like, emblazoned with henna tattoos, wrists heaving with meditation bangles and ‘peace ribbons,’ full of advice and moralistic anecdotes. ‘I just don’t believe in organised religion anymore man.’ Oh right. Is that why you have a set of Muslim prayer beads attached to your hair?

The School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) – my old university – is the Ethno Rah’s Mecca. ‘Where are you from?’ I asked one such ‘disciple of life’ during my first week. ‘Oh, Shropshire’, he replied, ‘but Zambia is actually my spiritual home.’ ‘Really?’ I asked, not sure of his meaning. ‘Yuh, I totally played football there with some orphans for like 2 weeks.’ Ridiculous. Gone are the huge Kings Road pashminas and Penhaligons pendants; instead the Ethno Rah adorns herself with African tribal jewellery and multicoloured shawls, knitted by blind Tibetan nuns in the foothills of the Himalayas.

I loved SOAS, I really did – I absolutely embrace its unique nature, colour and life. I really enjoyed the course I took and met a lot of wonderful people. If UCL, as I was told, is the TopShop of London Colleges, SOAS is the Charity Shop. Much more relaxed, less fluorescent lighting, and lots of character.

The trouble is that, like a charity shop, you have to sift through endless rubbish before you find something decent. At SOAS, the endless rubbish was the constant militant diatribe against ‘the system.’ But much of it wasn’t genuine. ‘You must conform to our non-conformity!’ was the general rhetoric I was subjected to. I could call it socialist – but that would be unfair to socialists. In many cases, it was uninformed ranting for the sake of it.

Much like the violent episodes in the London Protests last week.

I had the misfortune to be passing through central London as the scenes turned ugly on Saturday night. And there they were again – the home counties hippies, chanting rubbish and attacking stores because they are ‘posh’ (not my choice of words – it was written on a placard). One sign had all the names of shops the movement believed should be targeted. Oh yes, Boots is the mother-ship of consumer Britain but the MacStore is just fine. How else could they listen to Brendan Benson on their Chillout playlists, whilst showing people pictures of orphans in India? Fortnum and Masons was occupied for no reason other than because it’s on Piccadilly, and provides the Queen with some of her groceries. But it probably provides many of the parents of those delinquents with all sorts of goodies too. Laurie Penny has called the main protest at Hyde Park a soft march for ‘hummus munchers.’ That is total rubbish – especially when many of those occupying Fortnum’s probably have parents who have the time to make it from scratch at home in Chelsea.

Scrawling equality on the side of a building doesn’t make it happen. Making sure a news camera catches you doing it will probably make sure it doesn’t. Mehdi Hassan has made just this point. I’m not sure how many SOAS students were involved – I imagine ex SOAS union president Clare Solomon was somewhere in the vicinity, making all sorts of wildly conflated arguments and inciting mindless violence. But on Saturday I could see just these kinds of Ethno-Rahs there, marching up Bond Street, placard in one hand, iPod in the other, chanting through their dreadlocks against everything from spending cuts to the Libyan intervention, without any real understanding of anything at all.

These people take serious issues and make them a joke. And the TUC should act – before it falls to the heavy-handed police – because it’s in their interest to make sure their cause is not hijacked by drum banging lunatics with too much cash and too little sense.

Filed under: British Politics

Middle East Comment from a Travelling Journo