Glyn Davis

In a recent Prospect interview, distinguished Princeton and ANU scholar Philip Pettit described political philosophy as a conversation around various themes. Some voices focus on power or freedom, others on democracy or the nature of the state. The conversation should extend beyond the academy, argued Pettit, to embrace public intellectuals, journalists, commentators, political scientists, activists, and government.

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Knowledge gained through academic life is no preparation for political practice. So found Michael Ignatieff, the distinguished Canadian historian and public intellectual. In October 2004 he was teaching at Harvard University when approached by ‘three men in black’. These Liberal Party power brokers suggested Ignatieff leave the classroom and run for office. Fire and Ashes tells what happened next. By January 2006 Ignatieff found himself in the House of Commons in Ottawa. Less than three years later he was leader of the Opposition.

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In a famous essay on poetry, English philosopher Michael Oakeshott evoked the metaphor of conversation to describe how people share and discuss ideas. A conversation, suggested Oakeshott, allows a continuous discussion between past and present, between the thought of earlier generations and the pressing needs of the present. A conversation is not a search for truth or even facts, but an endless dialogue among diverse voices.

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What happens if we take seriously the metaphor of a marketplace of ideas? Philosopher John Armstrong and economist Carsten Murawski recently tested that question in an article on theconversation.edu.au, by exploring the implications of a market logic for higher education (20 March 2012).They argued that student choice would remodel the teaching and research agendas of our universities – not instantly but over time, much as water carves out shapes in sandstone. The online response was instant, and unambiguous. Academics and doctoral students rejected the language of markets as profoundly hostile to their vision of a university. If students start paying for instruction, said one respondent, institutions will soon pander to ‘the lowest common denominator amongst student interests’.

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Don Watson sits low in his chair, shy and silent when faced with a group of university administrators gathered to hear him talk about management speak – those weasel words that Watson has hunted down with grim enthusiasm. He speaks hesitantly at first, struggling to recall examples of misleading expression, evasive phrases, dishonest communication. Soon the rhythm quickens. There is indignation now in the voice, derision anew at the decay of public language. The speaker rocks forward, ranging more widely as he explains the link between thought and expression. Jargon hides intentions. Clichés abandon serious engagement with an issue. This is not the pedant’s obsession with grammar, but anger when the contest of ideas is undermined by impenetrable language.

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In October 2010 Hugh Brady, president of University College Dublin, sent colleagues around the world a copy of The Idea of a University(1854)by Cardinal John Henry Newman. As Newman approached beatification, President Brady recalled that UCD is the successor institution to the Catholic University of Ireland, which welcomed Newman as its first rector in 1851. Not many university leaders can aspire to sainthood, but establishing a new university and writing a classic text about the purpose of higher learning were only brief episodes in the long life of the most famous church intellectual of the nineteenth century.

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Anthony Blanche stands on the high balcony with a megaphone. With practised stammer he recites The Waste Land to puzzled undergraduates walking below in Christ Church Meadow. ‘How I have surprised them!’ he assures the other Old Etonians gathered for languid lunch in Lord Sebastian Flyte’s rooms. In this single image, Evelyn Waugh fixes Blanche in our memories – privilege, aesthetes, the creeping arrival of bewildering new art to the Oxford of 1923.

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Most editors look forwards, not back. We have to: there are pages to fill, readers to court, deadlines to meet. But publication of a 300th issue of a literary review invites retrospection, if not undue nostalgia... ... (read more)

Travel in America is a journey crowded with literary acquaintances. For centuries visitors have striven to make sense of the United States, drawn by its energy, admiring or disturbed by its civic culture. Charles Dickens visited twice, in 1841 and 1867, capturing his observations in American Notes (1842) ...

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