‘COFFEE TALKS’

January 11th 2003 Initially the discussion focused on problems concerning policy towards Iraq, Israel and North Korea, as in earlier sessions, but later dealt with a more domestic issue – formal education in Britain. Some views expressed follow.

America should use its influence with Israel to improve the Middle East situation, but a ‘Zionist’ lobby in the U.S. is powerful enough to prevent solution of the Palestine issue, despite policy differences within the administration and variations in policy statements. Moreover, Israel sees Iraq as a potential threat, irrespective of ‘regime change’. If the U.S. uses force for that purpose it would be the people of Iraq who would suffer primarily and it is arguable that countries around Iraq are best placed to oust Saddam Hussein.

 

Similarly, a viable outcome of the North Korea problem may depend essentially upon the attitudes and policies of its neighbours – particularly China. If North Korean policy prompts Japan to undertake a nuclear programme, China will be very concerned. Although currently the North Koreans are arguing that they will not be ‘blackmailed’ and that sanctions will bring war, it was argued that ‘brinkmanship’ does not necessarily lead to war. America, it was suggested, will probably have to come to terms with North Korea. It was doubted whether ‘diplomatic solutions’ could be successfully monitored.

 

One person believed that if the Iraq regime is changed, ‘westernisation’ on the Iranian model throughout the Middle East could help solve the Arab-Israeli problem. Upon consideration of both Iraq and Turkey it was recognized that ‘westernisation’ and ‘democracy’ are not necessarily synonymous. One contributor believes that history has taught us that ‘cultural deprivation’ can arise through democracy, while another is convinced that the Middle East norm shows that only a dictatorship will replace that of Saddam Hussein. Dictatorships can be benevolent and more effective in social policy than democracies, whose citizens are often less ‘law-abiding’. This view was supported through a claim that ‘peace and justice’ could be achieved through dictatorship. Some alternatively argued that types of democracy differ –one seeing Singapore as a hybrid version, another relying on ‘checks and balances’ to ensure public justice. A concluding comment on this issue was that the only true test of a democracy is the ability to remove an unsatisfactory regime.

 

Consideration of the prime conditions for a democracy led to subsequent discussion upon the need for an ‘educated’ electorate. It was claimed that in Britain general comfort has reduced political consciousness, but ignorance and apathy were deplored. Teachers present reported their experiences. Older state school teachers considered that ‘behaviour and attitudes have deteriorated by over 100% over the past 25 years’, while ‘rudeness, lack of respect and motivation’ and short attention span extends also to some independent schools. Although similar problems may be experienced overseas, they are not as severe as in Britain. One consequence is that the teacher recruitment situation in Britain is now very serious, whatever levels of remuneration are offered.

 

Various factors were proposed as causes of this undesirable state of affairs. Children ‘just cannot sit still’, possibly through constant social distraction and lack of reading or writing experience, while television dominates everyday life and working parents are absent from homes. It was suggested that many factors are long-term, such as ‘1960s liberalism’ and a stress on individualism ,which led eventually to a current laxity through which the ‘pendulum has swung too far’ – while abuse was properly deplored, current legal restraints on staff powers enables pupils, often with parental support, to assert disruptive ‘rights’ which greatly affect learning situations. One teacher commented that many children today ‘don’t know how to behave’. A view then expressed was that loss of respect over many years now for institutions such as the church, the monarchy, marriage, politicians, etc. as well as for education resulted essentially from our democratic society, who also have the means to correct the imbalance through the ballot box.

 

A teacher considered that staff overwork and overloads of paperwork contributed to the situation. Schools are ‘being measured all the time’ against publicly required standards. Lack of home support for pupils was mentioned, but doubt was then expressed on the efficacy of legislation to discipline careless parents. When it was suggested that more exercise and sports participation could improve behaviour, it was pointed out that pressures on the curriculum cannot be discounted. Another suggestion that education should be made ‘optional’ was met by the comment that in many areas schools serve an essential social purpose in ‘keeping the kids off the streets and not terrorising the neighbourhood’. Procedures involved with discipline (such as expulsion) relate to law and entail complex negotiations, so they are used only as a last resort, so shorter-term measures such as temporary suspension are often welcomed by miscreants as ‘days off’.

 

More positive views were, however, expressed. Although ‘comprehensive’ education may have failed, unacademic children were considered in the 14/19 White Paper, which envisages diversity. While the national curriculum was seen as originally of benefit, experience has shown the need for ‘flexibility’, such as diversification beyond the age of 14. The loss of an apprenticeship system in Britain was deplored, but Continental practices offer good models. There was a suggestion that large secondary schools will ‘fragment’, with incalculable consequences. Another suggestion was that schools may be given more freedom to ‘run themselves’, even if curriculum and standards then vary, because competitive ‘weakness’ could result in closures where necessary. That proposal led to a claim that ‘good schools’ can be found in most unpromising areas and that closures reflect poor management, which could be corrected. Opportunities to study outside school, together with use of information technologies and shared school resources are also being encouraged. ‘City Academies’, which link business with education seem successful with mixed abilities and background intakes, although they are admittedly elective and have supportive parents. Overall, it was accepted that school ‘ethos’ and parental involvement are crucial and that they depend essentially upon the quality of heads, governors and staff. While schools will ‘still be up against the breakdown of society’ it is essential that ‘strong leaders’ are in place. There is now provision for the training of head teachers in a national college. (At the conclusion of the discussion participants were informed that a full study day on education will occur at the Institution in October, when new developments will be considered, with practitioners.)

 

February 8th 2003 The topic was entitled ‘Does Europe exist?’ and discussion began with a review of elements of unity and diversity in its history. The global developments in which that history was embedded saw the focus of life change from hunter/gatherers to rural then urban peoples. Communities, at first small and isolated, changed under the influences of trade, wars and population growth. Principalities, monarchies, etc. were subsumed in nation-states and then in international linkages, such as the League of Nations, the United Nations and now many agencies concerned with trade, defence, communications and many more features of mutual concern.

 

Europe’s geography , providing seas as natural boundaries on only three sides, affected its history. From the south came various unifying forces – Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Turks, etc. From the north came Scandinavians and from the east various invaders, but a core of established states eventually emerged. In the medieval period the Catholic Church was a unifying feature, but church/state rivalries and schisms helped bring state dominance. Developing trade brought empires, trade wars and by the 19th century the ‘struggle for Africa’. A so-called ‘concert of Europe’ based upon political and strategic alliances emerged, but there were always problems in the east and in the Balkans. In the 20th century two world wars prompted thoughts of greater European unity, while empires were nominally being ‘freed’. Churchill urged unity, the Americans offered the Marshall Plan, but then came the Iron Curtain and the Cold War. The Balkans and the east remained problematic.

 

The Iron and Steel Community developed into the Common Market and then the European Union, but many problems reflecting both diversity and disunity remained. Internal and external relationships affect economic, political and strategic matters as well as cultural harmony. Internally problems of agriculture, trade, social policies and taxation, etc. are currently supplemented by those arising from attempts at expansion and constitutional change. Externally problems of eastern boundaries and the Balkans persist, now joined by anxieties over western relationships with America and Britain, the problems of the Middle East to the south and global problems arising from the plight of the Third World and the movement of peoples.

 

Following that contextual review the discussion opened on the proposed ‘dream of peace and co-existence’ which was promoted by a ‘club’ (as one person put it) of which Britain is only a ‘part-member’, requiring its full membership if ‘rules’ are to be adequately improved. While its failure to accept a ‘social charter’ was deplored by some, others argued that instances of rising unemployment consequent upon the required taxation must be noted, but yet others thought that political rather than economic considerations should be dominant in order ‘to avoid the devastation of wars’. Another view was that although empires may ultimately all fail, they serve for a time as ‘great forces for stability’, despite being exploitative, and may serve as a model.

 

When it was suggested that Europe should ‘look beyond its borders’ one response was that it is currently too busy looking inwards to its own problems to be able to do that – ‘it does not yet have unity’. Another was that pressure from ‘outside’ – e.g. by aspiring immigrants – would compel closer unification: ‘we might then keep them out’. A response to that observation was that we ‘won’t keep them out because there is always a re-distribution of wealth’ – ‘without fair trade they will come to us’. Another commented that while there is much more global wealth now than in history so far, population explosions are requiring distributions to be changed.

 

The need to balance the global power of the U.S.A. through the development of a united Europe was then considered. One contributor deplored the ‘gung-ho’ attitude of the U.S. and its impatience with the United Nations and sought a show of European strength, but another regretted any building of ‘power-blocs’ and warned that the U.S. might withdraw into isolationism if it was thwarted in its desire to solve global problems. The recent dispute over banana production and distribution was mentioned as an example of how such minor disputes can exacerbate international relationships. Contacts with Americans were reported by one person, claiming that they failed to understand why Europeans saw the U.S. not as ‘policeman’ but as ‘threatening the world’ through ‘empire-building’. He wondered whether Britain could achieve ‘influence’ both with the U.S. and with Europe equally in order to serve as intermediary, as he believed Churchill had envisaged immediately postwar. A respondent declared that ‘resolution’ rather than ‘vacillation’ was certainly admired by the French, who welcomed both the stance of Mrs Thatcher and that of Tony Blair, despite policy differences. He commented that the British establishment was seen generally as ‘uninventive, distant and aloof’ from European interests.

 

When various pros and cons of a single currency were discussed one view was that the much-travelled young people of Britain generally favour British participation, whereas older people are more concerned with ‘ sovereignty and nationalism’. It was agreed that most British people are neither clear nor informed about the nature of ‘federalism’. It was observed that German, American and Australian systems, which could serve as models, differ from one another and that European policy in that respect should be based upon that experience. One comment was that federations are not empires and that the principle of ‘subsidiarity’ secured for Britain is significant. Such arrangements can serve democracy and the advocate thought France and Germany both reflect that. Another person pointed out that in each of the models mentioned there is a common currency, which brings advantages for the movement of people and goods, while differing levels of taxation (e.g. in V.A.T. in Europe) enables local flexibility of policy. It was agreed that it is quite possible to enjoy diversity within a unified system. The psychology of an island nation perhaps inhibits thought it was suggested, so travel and a common currency could help reduce insularity, although it was conceded that mass holiday arrangements would hardly help. While one view was that parity of dollar and euro would foster unity, another was that a weaker pound would aid British industry. No further discussion of a single currency ensued.

 

Turning finally to the proposed expansion of the European Union, it was noted that newcomers would be relatively poor and that they would require help from existing members. It was argued that various countries and peoples had benefited from such help to date and that now they should help others in turn, whilst acknowledging that, as democracies, responses would depend upon public support. A comment was that if we face mass immigration from the east, it is in our own interest to support eastern developments. When it was suggested that as for German reintegration it might be ‘worth it’ to make some ‘sacrifices’ it was observed that financial liabilities undertaken by the West German government then are now making problems there, which can hardly be seen as desirable. It was also noted, however, that the countries of eastern Europe are not in the Third World category and that there are established features to build on. Turkey was seen as a special case, but while some thought that its human rights record renders it ineligible for membership of the E.U. or that only its strategic position caused the U.S. to disregard that record, others argued that a large non-Arab Islamic people could usefully serve as a member and as a bridge to the outside world.

 

March 8th 2003. The topic was ‘Is war inevitable ?’. At the outset it was suggested that any discussion of the impending war in Iraq should consider whether a case had been made and what effects were likely to follow if the U.N. was by-passed. If the discussion spread to war in general, consideration might be given to the history of peacemaking and the role of the United Nations together with the conditions which would have to be met if global peace is to be secured. Concepts of ‘just war’ and ‘international law’ could be examined. In the event, some aspects of each issue were discussed. (Arguments put, sometimes in qualification or contradiction of others, are summarized.)

 

A recent book entitled ‘The End of History’ contended that while nation-states had hitherto fought one another over access to resources, globalisation now enables corporations to access and shift resources wherever needed, thus obviating war. Now it is realized that terrorism also can become international and that wars are still possible. Some consideration of the lessons of history provides hope that the United Nations will eventually be able to secure the peace. If terrorist activities are ever to be halted, however, it is essential to pay heed to their complaints. Leaders may well have reasons for war which may not be disclosed, on grounds of ‘scaremongering’ or security, but no ‘persuasive arguments’ were put with reference to the war in Iraq.

 

The issue of trust. The basis of the present crisis was considered to be President Bush’s mistrust of Saddam Hussein, so that nothing revealed could be sufficient to convince him that ‘compliance’ would be satisfied – ‘What would be the bottom line?’ When faced with hostility, the leader of Iraq would understandably seek to maintain at least defensive capabilities. Furthermore, the events since the Gulf War justifies a belief that ‘that was punishment enough’. While the proclaimed motives for demands were mistrust based upon the records, and ‘deterrence’ among others, perhaps ‘we expect too much’.

 

The motives for war. It was thought ‘completely pointless’ to combat terrorism by attacking Iraq, since terrorists would operate independently and because the interests of the two parties are ‘completely different’ the claimed links are ‘not convincing’. If a ‘hidden agenda’ was to control Iraq oilfields, to create a democratic Iraq and then to deal with ‘fundamentalists’ in Saudi Arabia, that policy was arguable. Since the Russians and France had agreed to exploit one-third of Iraq’s oil and a democratic Iraq might affect that deal, their anti-war stance is understandable. Thus it is clear that political motives are discernible in the background to current events, although it was thought that Blair’s motives are less clear, given domestic opposition.

 

The role of the media. Despite media focus on individuals such as Blair and Bush, the U.S. administration seem generally supportive of war, but media reports usually fail to reveal the extent and strength of opposing camps. The primary interest of the media is the idea of conflict, so extreme positions are emphasized. Although for them ‘there are no shades of gray’, it is possible to reach a balanced view by reading widely. However, in sum the public does not have enough information to be able to judge whether ‘the case has been made for war’ or not.

 

The post-war situation. The relatively advanced and democratic background prior to the current dictatorship might support a suitable restoration. If seen as a ‘Balkans’ situation, however, internal strife and eventual disintegration could be expected, unless an occupying U.S.-led administration used familiar Stalinist methods to preserve a nominal unity. The current report that the U.S. would relinquish control to ‘U.N. Trusteeship’ three months after the war was yet to be verified.

 

The effect of ignoring the United Nations. In the event of (effectively) a unilateral war with Iraq, Britain would be isolated and it would be ‘disastrous’ for both Britain and Blair, whereas the Americans would arguably retain both power and prestige. The ‘presidential’ power of Blair allowed him virtually to ignore his cabinet, while ‘9/11’ gave Bush broad support domestically. Thus, in Britain the Labour Party would split, but much more important, it would become much more difficult to avoid war in future. The Security Council was set up in the recognition that power determines policy and that the powerful must collectively decide policy to avoid global conflicts, hence the provision for the ‘veto’. In pushing for majority support in the Security Council to justify further action that historic reference to the absolute power of a single veto was being challenged. In effect an attempt was being made to ‘change the rules’ on the grounds that a ‘fight against terrorism’ differs fundamentally from traditional nation-state conflict. Yet, instead of tackling the ‘criminal’ rather than the military threat which terrorism poses, the current policy was traditional in support of war with Iraq, while failing to provide a convincing case for links with terrorism now or in future.

 

Terrorism. If ‘terrorists’ are to be pursued, it will be very difficult to distinguish suspects from nationalists (as in the Palestine/Israel and Chechnya situations) where ‘freedom-fighters’ are recognizable. ‘Political nationalism’ (as opposed to ‘cultural nationalism’) does cause much conflict and the recent attempts at creating a united Europe shows the need for democratic resolution, but where the vote is denied citizens will seek alternative solutions.

 

Opposing the terrorist threat. A war with Iraq is not likely to bring a global Islamic uprising, although it might ‘bring a few terrorists out of the woodwork’. If ‘logistically ‘ organized they could be a threat, but the power of the C.I.A. and other agencies is formidable, although the Americans concede that they are more dangerous dispersed than they would be if they formed an identifiable power bloc. Rather than war, U.S. policy should be to win ‘hearts and minds’. The West generally appears to have lost sight of the legacy of Islam over the ages and rather than impose our ideas we should at least listen to theirs.

 

 

The role of America. While Americans are basically isolationists, they become involved with matters beyond their borders not only for strategic and economic reasons, but also as the sole super-power to try to globalise democracy. Pearl Harbour, the Suez War and ‘9/11’ triggered interventions, but American ‘cultural imperialism’ which rides roughshod over cultural diversity creates hostilities which would be exacerbated by a unilateral attack on Iraq, for whatever ostensible reasons. If America was to be faced by a direct military threat from North Korea they might take more interest in that threat than they do currently, but their experience with an Iraq war would condition their response to such a threat.

Is war inevitable? Yes, it was thought, but we must not give up attempts to minimize its incidence. Although a United Nations ‘peace force’ envisaged when it was set up has never materialized, that organization is ‘all that we have’. Effectively there is no enforceable ‘international law’ and ‘what we learn from history, if anything, is that it will happen again’.

 

12th April 2003. Under the title ‘Iraq-what next?’ postwar reconstruction in Iraq was discussed over three broad areas of consideration- who pays, internal and external factors.

 

Who pays? The possibility that Iraq’s oil production could cover reconstruction costs was examined. Estimates suggest that about 550 billion barrels of oil could be exploited, although only 112 billion are proven reserves. Extraction pre-1991 was 3.5 million barrels per day- later, 2 million per day. Since 1990 the ‘oil –for-food’ programme absorbed $12 billion per annum, for feeding two-thirds of the population. Two-thirds of output came from Kirkuk in the north, Rumaila in the south, at approximately 800,000 barrels per day each. Exploited Kirkuk reserves and poor maintenance since 1990 has left only 10% of original reserves there and declining output, although the Remaila output could be increased.

 

The lowest estimate to date of rebuilding costs is $100 billion ( which includes $20 billion for electricity supplies and $5 billion for oil installations). The total debts of Iraq for loans, earlier war claims, etc. amount to $383 billion and existing contracts with Russia, France, etc. amount to a further $57 billion.

 

When the implications were considered it was suggested that even with some remission of debt and contract cancellation (against legal problems) the need for grants or loans is clear, if only to convince inhabitants that ‘something is happening’. Although long-term (fifty year) World Bank loans are available to governments for ‘administrative costs’ only, the Bank borrows its funds and adds a percentage to the interest rate it pays in order to provide itself with funds, thus adding even more debt to those who borrow from it. Either grants or loans carry political implications, but there are grant precedents (as when post- World War One reparations were recognized as too onerous and when the post- World War Two Marshall Plan was offered) so they may be offered to Iraq if Western interests are thought to merit the cost.

 

Internal relationships. Roughly one quarter of Iraq’s population are the ruling Sunnis and another quarter are Kurds, but the remaining half are Shias. Although unified in wartime, two factions of the Kurds (KDP and PUK) are rivals for power and if the Kurds gain control of the northern oil fields, Turkey has threatened intervention. Divisions among the Shias are also evident, as the recent murder of a cleric has shown, and other clerics are poised to return with many thousands of dedicated followers. The U.S. – backed Ahmad Chalabi, now returned, is controversial. U.S. attempts to recruit up to 3000 expatriates to co-ordinate reconstruction has resulted to date in but 69, others being considered ‘unreliable’. All in all, the prospects for a ‘federated Iraq’ do not look bright.

 

How conflict suppression could be assured and how a democratic framework could be built in a country unused to it were discussed. A precondition of civil order was also considered. Examples of postwar ‘anarchy’ (as in post-Tito Yugoslavia) should have alerted those who initiated the Iraq war to reconstruction needs well in advance of invasion, when adequate provisions might have been planned. Claims that ‘intelligence’ had advised correctly that Iraqi armed resistance would quickly collapse, thus requiring only limited armed intervention, do not address the apparent failure to predict the collapse of civil administration. It was reported that bombing caused much confusion, but it was also reported that senior Iraqi authorities were not given instructions by the regime, which suggests lack of wholehearted support within the regime hierarchy. Whatever the reasons and however understandable the immediate failure to protect hospitals, etc from looters, the postwar administrative ‘vacuum’ was arguably predictable and preventable.

 

Although questions have been raised about the objectivity of media reportage, national stances and characteristics plus the ‘fog of war’ may account for that generally. Less clear, it was thought, are the actual motives for the war – whether the proclaimed removal of ‘WMDs’ (Weapons of Mass Destruction), ‘regime change’, control of oil resources, etc. or others. Whatever the motives, the outcomes are becoming clear and solutions are needed for the many problems now raised. If a federation would be unstable, a group of three autonomous countries would also pose problems, since natural resource dispositions are also involved. If democracy is likely to be hard won, benevolent despotism would probably be preferable to colonization, given the volatility of the region. These considerations led naturally to the third area of discussion.

 

External relationships. An immediate issue appears to be the punishment of ‘war criminals’. Neither a Nuremburg model nor ‘tribunals of reconciliation’ are mooted by the Americans. Instead, their official policy is to prosecute all identified Iraqi ‘war criminals’ in American courts only, trawling as far back as 1990, which has prompted a warning from Britain that both restoration of law and order in Iraq and its reconstruction may thus be delayed. Proclaimed Arab reactions to the war which condemn the ‘catastrophe…of imperialism and occupation’ add to the controversy over motives, particularly when American sources report that postwar contracts are to be reserved for American companies and that the opportunity to test the efficacy of military technology afforded by the war will prove highly profitable for the American ‘defense industry’(Washington Post). Adding to these concerns are predictions that if it is announced that WMDs are eventually found in Iraq, ‘nobody will believe the Americans’.

 

Broader and more long term views have been expressed by a former British Foreign Secretary. He has argued that Saudi fear of Iraq (and also of Iran) brought Saudi links with the U.S., which in turn brought reactivity from Bin Laden and Al-Queda, and he believes that postwar those links will loosen, since neither side now needs the other. Further, a democratic Iraq might encourage Arabs to overthrow their own despots. In Iran, increased fear of U.S. power could spur reform to favour U.S. links or nuclear reliance for defence. If the U.S. backs up its ‘road map’ Israel could be forced to recognise a Palestinian state, quit the Golan Heights and dismantle some settlements, while in return Arab states would recognize Israel, the U.S. would guarantee Israel’s borders and both diplomacy and regional trade would be developed. Views then expressed on Arab reactions to a democratized Iraq differed. Some thought that tradition and culture would prevent copies, while others thought it both possible and desirable.

 

Consideration turned to the role of the United Nations postwar and whether humanitarian aid is all that would be possible. It was pointed out that its original charter provided for the setting up of a permanent peace force able to deter any aggressor. Since that was never realized the U.N. has lacked power to back up its authority, when both Gulf wars might have been avoided. Against that observation it was asserted that any attempt to ‘discipline’ a big power like the U.S. could precipitate the global war which the U.N. was set up to prevent. It was suggested that the U.N. should detach itself from America, so that the ‘Rest of the World’ could be recognized as authoritative, but that was thought impractical, considering U.S. military and financial significance. Questions were also raised about Britain’s role and status in Europe. Would its recent support of the U.S. make it ‘more influential’ or ‘more alienated’ ? No decision was reached.

 

When the motives for the war were confronted, the main view was that both the U.S. and the industrial world want dependable oil supplies. Although Iraq may have been chosen as a ‘soft target’, America may have sought to resolve the generally unsatisfactory Middle Eastern situation in order to get a quick settlement ‘one way or another’, irrespective of both the tangible and the less obvious costs.

 

The concluding considerations were devoted to the desirability and possibility of ‘installing’ democracy in countries without such structures. Some claimed that factors such as inadequacy of information services, tribalism , the status of women and religious conservatism, etc. would inhibit any attempts to promote democracy. To the claim that imperialism had in some instances installed democracy came a counter-claim that in those instances what had been installed was ‘constitutionalism’, an essential pre-requisite. It was also argued that what is basic to an effective democracy is education and it was observed that deficiencies in that respect are not confined to the Middle East.

 

10th May 2003. On this occasion Peter Valentine introduced discussion on recent news articles which concerned the demographic effects of aspirational women seeking careers, thus raising questions for government policy. The economic health of the country might be crucially affected by educated career women deferring or foregoing pregnancy to the extent of a 15/20% drop in their birth-rate statistic. As the issue was then expressed by the presenter- ‘ Should the government encourage career women to have babies and keep their careers – through longer maternity leave, flexible working hours, subsidised child care, etc. – or should it be left for mothers to find their own ways round the problem – by using house husbands, etc. ?’

 

The various views expressed clustered primarily around attitudes to child care. One view was that although more men now undertake house and child care, the role of house husband is not a natural state for most men. That opinion prompted the suggestion that grandmothers could be encouraged to look after children, if and when that proves practicable. It was agreed that children should be ‘put first’ and that they should not be regarded as a chore, but it was also recognized that they can be very stressful. One further factor discussed was the number of divorced women who are now seeking employment and possibly partners.

 

The origins of the present situation were also considered. Some argued that since the Industrial Revolution the recruitment of women into industry has changed the social background. Others were concerned with influences arising from the media and the application of political correctness to the use of language, as well as obsessions with youth culture and sex. Attitudes to public courtesies were also considered – attitudes such as giving up seats or opening doors for women- and it was noted that some young men are now apprehensive about being snubbed if deference is thus shown.

 

One contributor to the discussion added to consideration of the cultural factors involved remarks on some physiological implications. If the roles of men and women with respect to family life change significantly, some hormonal changes are also likely. Arguably, while working women will tend to become more assertive and sexually predatory, house husbands conversely will tend to become more oestrogenic and feminine.

 

On the assumption that the current situation poses problems or developments such as those touched upon in the discussion, some ameliorations were suggested, ranging from exposure to university education for all citizens regardless of scholastic background to advocacy for kibbutz type communities, but overall there was no emergence of consistent or agreed suggestions on how policy on the basic demographic issues may satisfactorily be generated. The discussion concluded without general agreement on the way forward.

 

14th June 2003. The question posed was ‘What is a University?’ The government wants young people to go into higher education. In 1990 there were 430,000 students in 46 British universities, but by 2002 there were 1,640,000 in 87 universities (some of which were converted polytechnic colleges). It was recently announced that academic bodies with a minimum of 4000 students (with no obligation to undertake research) will be granted university status, which implies that university colleges, then further education and art colleges, and even U.S.-style private institutions, will achieve that status.

 

Before general discussion began, those present considered the views of John Henry Newman (Cardinal Newman) in his lecture series of the 1850s which was collectively entitled ‘The Idea of a University’. Such an institution, he claimed, should attempt to impart ‘universal knowledge’ (including a liberal theology) through what he called a ‘liberal education’. Such an education would not be aimed at promoting moral virtue nor at vocational achievement, but primarily at the development of mental skills. Such skills he considered valuable in themselves, but also as subserving a liberal society and ‘any one of the sciences or callings’. Since those who cannot find ‘truth’ hold ‘views’ (opinions) instead, which may be illusory, it is important that ‘creative drift’ should be encouraged and preferred to ‘passive reception’ of declared ‘absolutes’. However, he also had curriculum preferences, since he sought to promote ‘literature and science’ rather than arts and crafts (which he regarded as ‘elegant pastimes’) since the former directly served the ‘philosophic temper’ he believed. He also thought that a ‘profusion of subjects’ would not necessarily provide an ‘education’. While recognizing the inevitability of specialization – students ‘cannot pursue every subject which is open to them’ – ‘ they will be the gainers for living among those who represent the whole circle’ – i.e. the university community. His ideal graduate as ‘having an accurate vision and comprehension of all things, as far as the finite mind can embrace them’ has been rejected as impractical, and his selection of essential subjects has been criticized as doctrinaire, although reflecting perhaps his circumstances and those of his time. Nevertheless, the nature and range of his arguments have been used to provide a model against which other models may be judged.

 

Three questions were posed for discussion. What is the purpose of university education? Who should have it? How should it be organized? Despite reservations about its applicability in today’s world, it was generally agreed that Newman’s vision is on the whole acceptable. Education was variously considered to require both learning for oneself and thus research, primarily however to enable self-criticism. It was also agreed that a university should enable both specific and general knowledge to be acquired and that interaction with others, both through formal projects and through informal exchanges, should be both encouraged and enabled.

 

The contemporary situation confronting those ideals was thought to pose many problems. Some thought that provision of ‘packages of learning’ discourages active exploration. ‘Disciplines which do not speak the same language’ were also considered inhibiting. There was criticism of the pursuit of ‘academic knowledge’ alone, but there were also adverse comments on the range of subjects on offer, which may not guarantee the desirable conditions required for learning through higher education. Students should, however, be free to follow their interests – which arguably could include arts and crafts, where aesthetic criteria dominate. All students should learn that ‘knowledge’ develops and that established ‘truths’ are always subject to revision, if sufficient reason for revision is established.

 

Considerable concern was expressed about current pressures on both staff and students. Loss of tenure has removed the academic freedom of staff, industrial funding now largely determines research areas, and too small a proportion of national wealth is put into education overall. Many pressures cause much stress to all involved and many students are now reacting by choosing ‘easier’ subjects and by taking readily available drugs.

 

Some comparisons with the situations in other countries were made. While pressures in Britain limit achievements, continental Europeans generally have more time to develop both knowledge and understanding. An American sketched a mixed picture of the situation in the United States. Where ‘trade schools ‘ and ‘arts colleges’ had been transformed into ‘universities’, often by amalgamations, quality of provision was not assured. On the other hand, endowment by individuals and industries do not generally threaten academic freedom, since faculties determine the curriculum. There was general agreement in conclusion that formal education should not stifle creativity and that inspiration by dedicated teachers and liberal minds is basic to learning. Time did not permit direct discussion of who should receive university education, but an implication of the discussion appears to be that if the sketched criteria are met, all who might profit from that form of education should be enabled to have it.

 

19th July 2003 The question posed was – ‘The Internet: blessing or curse ?’ Having begun as a defence project for the U.S. government in the 1970s, the Internet rapidly became an extremely useful means of exchanging information between academics around the world. The help initially given to researchers then became publicly available as people began to use email and Internet access to promote and receive both information and opinions freely and globally. Although both formal and informal education were thus assisted, commercial interests and (less desirable) criminals and pornographers also tapped in to the advantages offered. An initial comment on this was that the original aim simply to provide global information exchange has been ‘undermined’ thereby.

 

Given the corruption of its intended usage, subsidiary questions were posed. Is ‘policing’ the Internet possible or even desirable (since that suggests censorship) ? If not, must individuals be solely responsible for the uses to which the Internet is put? One point put in response was that the providers of Internet services object to paying for services which the undesirable special interests freely exploit. Suggested policies then ranged from ‘psychic hygiene’ – i.e. education for responsibility – to the imposition of cost upon the abusers.

 

One contributor to the discussion distinguished the Internet itself from the applications run on it. Its ‘architecture’ is designed to provide a means for connecting devices to provide interchanges and its key feature is provision for direct one-to-one facilities. In recent years that provision has been ‘broken’ by the introduction of intermediate facilitators such as ISPs (Internet Service Providers). In his view therefore the problem is not that the Internet is too ‘ open’, but that it is ‘ too closed in some areas’. A proposed solution now is that a new architecture is being devised which will provide new addresses for everyone wishing to use the Internet on a one-to-one basis, as originally intended. He conceded, however, that this solution would in turn present problems, because wholly private interchanges would foster criminality, cartels, subversion, etc., and thus raise the problem of ‘policing’ the Internet once more. On the ‘policing’ issue it was noted that US policy to restrict encryption of messages to a level accessible by authority had unfortunate implications for commercial secrecy. ‘Routeing’ by ‘packet-switching’, etc. will break up a message sufficient for security, but that introduces dangers from viruses and inefficiencies in the various devices through which the fragmented messages then pass.

 

Although advantages of speed of information exchange and the near-universality of availability were acknowledged, it was pointed out that despite the spread of computing ‘chips’ in many common devices today and the attempts made to develop ‘user-friendliness’, access to both Internet technology and expertise in its use is restricted in contrast to the traditional wider accessibility offered by books, radio, television, etc. One suggestion was that the Internet may just be a passing ‘fad’ – people may eventually discard its use in favour of other more personal interests and activities. Moreover, its development may be inhibited by technical difficulties, expense and the sensitivities of authority.

 

When the information carried by the Internet was considered, the term ‘information overload’ was introduced. The essential problem was thought to be not just the amount of information now available and how to access it, but how that may be assimilated – the problem of comprehension. Further, although cross-reference and linking facilities are provided, the ‘reliability’ of the disclosed information can be questioned.

 

A related problem then discussed was the threat to the ability to refer to historical records – particularly to the personal records being made by phone or email. Rapid changes of recording modes now render earlier modes redundant and often inaccessible. It may be technically possible to preserve all records – one reported method now is to make holographic recordings on crystals, which can provide for vast amounts of information securely in a very small host. Since most information today is still in analogue rather than digital form, digitization involves expertise and equipment expense, however, and while official and commercial records may thus be preserved there are still problems for other records and mode redundancy. For example, NASA is losing much important data because tape recordings are degrading and they are too numerous and too difficult now to read. Moreover, the impending ‘dynamic recording ‘ of information through holding it distributed continuously through Internet networks poses further preservation problems.

 

Finally the means for assessing the reliability of the information being provided by the Internet was discussed. How can one know that authorship is as stated? Children and others who believe claims to authorship become vulnerable to misinformation both personally and in terms of their education. University staff are now concerned, for example, about plagiarism disguised as spontaneous creation. On the other hand, it was argued that ‘unification of knowledge’ is now more easily achieved through Internet services, although discrimination is, as ever, essential. Cross-referencing is now available to the user as well as any provider with a vested interest and search engines were thought generally useful, although authenticity and quality of information may still be doubted. The Internet can provide hitherto unknown information to users quickly, but sophisticated use of search engines and personal judgments are needed. One remark was that in a society where there is a tendency to ‘accept authority’ without question, the accessibility of ‘raw data’ offers both blessing and curse. It was concluded that discussion of the need for and the nature of reliable authority in modern society must await another occasion.