Eating people is wrong

7

I first entered the hallowed halls of a university a long long time ago. So long that my lecturers were monks in full monkish gear, there were theologians, we ate in a Refectory, wore gowns and mortar boards for graduation, and lived in “colleges” (well, some of us did, the wealthier ones); there were cloisters (sort of!) somewhere, and a tower where bells were rung for the call to prayers (no, made up the bells).

In those far off times a university was basically for training priests (no, I wouldn’t have fitted in well!) but, human nature being what it is, I’m betting an equally significant part of its function was status and networking. Third sons of noblemen, smart young fellows from provincial towns, illegitimate sons of bishops, mixing together (drinking and wenching in taverns as much as talking in tutorials or libraries), making impressions, building up useful contacts, planning careers. Oh sure, some religiously dedicated souls, but they were destined for caves on mountain tops, or small parishes in Cheshire, not the corridors of ecclesiastical and secular power.

And so it remained for hundreds of years. Oh the student body no longer comprised priests, and the courses were widened, a little, from theology to classics and law, but the networking function remained the same. The graduates of Oxford, Cambridge, Yale, Harvard, Sydney, Melbourne, with the old university ties to prove it, could be assured of welcomes from those of the same alma mater in Board Rooms and Cabinet Rooms, and the glittering prizes that resulted.

Not a case though of the piece of calf skin or parchment signalling merit, intelligence, ability, knowledge. Not a case of the best and brightest converging on centres of excellence, academic melting pots where the poor boy from the sticks competed on the level playing fields of Oxford with the rich boy from the home counties. Oh, no, the war for success in life had already been won on the very unlevel playing fields of Eton.

Oxford (and the others) was not there to demonstrate merit, but to confirm status. To have gone to university was not a demonstration of intellectual prowess but a demonstration of wealth, breeding, school history, correct pronunciation, correct dress, correct use of knife and fork when eating. The student ranks were drawn from the right kind of families and would become the right kind of people. Would become the next generation of rulers of society, under one title or another. Would eat the little people, from public schools, red brick colleges, alive.

Eventually though one or two people here and there realised that this closed shop education, while undoubtedly efficient, was producing ruling classes as inbred (intellectually and genetically) as the Egyptian Ptolemies. That there needed to be some infusion of new genetics into the courtyard pond, some little fish among the big fish. And, further, that universities should provide advanced education in a whole range of new disciplines more important to society than a little Latin and even less Greek. And, finally, most difficult of all, that, heavens, it is like confessing a murder, female persons might benefit from a higher education.

It also came to be realised that stirring up this rich educational stew with all its new ingredients would not only benefit the likely lads (and, shudder, lasses) from the boondocks, but would also benefit society as a whole. Not just because applying the best minds of a generation, irrespective of their breeding, to all kinds of scientific and other investigations in an intellectual ferment generated inside the ivied walls, would lead to great advances in many fields, but because those minds would question the unquestionable, provide new ways of thinking, looking at the world.

Oh bliss was it in that educational dawn to be alive, but to be young was very heaven!

Couldn’t last of course. For two reasons. The kind of people who were still, recognising the right tie colour (light blue, dark blue, matters not the shade) among the born to rule, running things, had two strong objections to this new style of university (well, three counting its universality). First, if god had meant research to be free and open he wouldn’t have invented copyright. All this nonsense about science for science’s sake, “pure” science. Why, science is applied or it is pointless. And, furthermore, applied by the corporations run by boards of people like us to make money. Big money.

And second, the last thing people running a tight ship in which there is a place for everyone and everyone knows their place, stowed away neatly, before the mast, after the mast, and don’t you dare enter the wrong mess, the lower ranks have such unpleasant eating habits, is free-thinking. Goodness gracious, if the monks in the medieval universities had allowed free thinking there would have been atheists in the ranks in no time. Questioning of the order of things. Questioning whether kings were divinely ordained to rule, whether the poor were meant to be always with us, whether the Sun went round the Earth, whether it was really compulsory to vote Tory or die in foreign fields for king and country, whether it was possible to keep burning fossil fuels without destroying the planet, all kinds of dangerous questions. It’s what comes of people getting above themselves, trying to rise above their station in life.

A while ago a study by a major accountancy firm was released which concluded that Australian universities had to change their “business model” or most wouldn’t survive much longer. “Business model”? University? Do those words belong together again now as they did before? Oh yes.

Slash funding to Pure Science and the Arts. No more free university education, no more scholarships, huge loans which students must repay. More fee paying students from overseas who, paying big fees, expect a parchment at the end, guaranteed. Bring big business into universities, he who pays the piper calls the tune, and owns the music copyright.

We are back, in fact, to where we began. Training now for the priesthood of big business rather than the church, but still a religion, the religion of capitalism. No questioning that religion today, just as there was no questioning the religion of 600 years ago. And networking back where it belonged – between people wearing the right ties, using the right spoon, born in fact with the right spoon in the mouth. The Vice-Chancellor’s in his heaven, all’s right with the world again.

Big people eating little people is wrong. For one brief shining hour you could learn that in universities. But the simple folk don’t do that any more.

The nobles are back in charge.

Substitute

9

All those photos of psychopathic morons proudly showing the bleeding bodies of lions, giraffes, bears, wolves, elephants they have blasted with high-powered penis substitutes? Guess they think we will be envious of their prowess.

Makes good people not envious but sick to their stomachs seeing these vicious fools posed with their killing machines with foot triumphantly on top of the body of their victims. Makes them determined perhaps to try to stop this evil.
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Doctor, doctor, gimme the news

6

All over this planet, millions of species representing the end point of 4 billion years of evolution, living in ecosystems representing the end point of millions of years of ecological interaction, are being made extinct at a rate probably unprecedented in the history of Earth, and towards an end point seen only a few times in that history.

An incredible 100,000 or so species are estimated to be going extinct each year towards a total loss in just a few decades of at least half those existing just 100 years ago (when the extinction rate first gathered pace). My feeling is that estimates like “a half” represent scientists being cautious. That really the planet is faced with the extinction of 90% or more, and the last time that happened was a quarter of a billion years ago. The last time anything like the extent of the events of these two centuries happened was 65 million years ago as a large meteor exploded against the planet. The last significant set of extinctions was around 25,000 years ago as the climatic events of the end of the ice ages drove many large species, especially mammals, to extinction.
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Exempt from public haunt

2

“And this our life, exempt from public haunt, finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, sermons in stones, and good in everything” (As you like it)

Was thinking about blog inspiration the other day, by pure chance, not struggling with writers block, not me, nosireebob. One of my twitterfriends, HD Rebner, was wondering where his new ideas for tweets were going to come from, and for some reason Duke Senior’s words came to mind. Perhaps they in turn arose from Bill Shakespeare having a writer’s block (but heaven knows, any he did have must have been as brief as Charles Dickens’ writer’s blocks!), wondering where the next inspiration would appear.

Don’t know about other bloggers but Duke Senior’s prescription seemed pretty good for Watermelon. If I wanted to be a world famous blogger I would be a single-topic blogger – American politics, cake decorating, atheism, climate change, media – and just keep hammering away at that topic day after day. But that would bore me silly, and bore you, my faithful followers used to a smorgasbord of subjects, a pot pourri of polemic, a passing parade of media topics, an harangue about history, silly as well I think.

So on we go, exempt from public haunt, finding sermons, tongues, books, as I stare out of the windows of Wuthering Heights. But not sure about the “good in everything” – think that would bore us both too.

And blogging fame may just have to wait a little longer.

Ties that bind

12

People have always done odd things to their bodies, modifying them like petrol heads modify cars. Seems to be hardly a part of the body that some group at some time hasn’t chopped, or pierced, or removed, or tattooed. Done in the interests of group solidarity or distinction, or individual difference or status. At times done at the imaginary demand of imaginary sky beings, not infrequently involving some way of subjugating women.
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Phantom menaces

6

I’ve been watching, at long last, the three Star Wars prequel movies (yes, yes, I know how truly awful the first two are NOW, but you didn’t warn me, did you?). Something struck me as I watched the endless computer graphics supplying background to the endless special effect fight scenes.

It has long been a commonplace that the representation of “alien races” in science fiction always gets it wrong. In brief, for this is totally irrelevant to the essay, natural selection will work exactly the same way wherever life appears in the universe. And we know that physics and chemistry is uniform. So alien body forms can’t be just random collections of unconnected exotic features, and bodies are limited by physical and chemical laws. So Wookies, possible, Jar Jar Binks, not so much.

Where was I? Oh yes. Aliens are wrong, but so, generally, are the planets they are portrayed as living on. Many Star Wars planets are portrayed as having surfaces totally covered by cities composed of huge skyscrapers and clearly intended to indicate populations of billions of beings. It is an old concept in science fiction. I guess based on the ideas of inevitable massive population growth, endless technological innovation, and cities as the ultimate expression of human evolution and civilisation.
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Books do furnish an MP’s room

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Some years ago I wrote a piece in which I suggested a new form of swearing-in of a new Prime Minister of Australia, which included a choice of books on which the newly elected best and brightest could swear the oath instead of the bible – Origin of Species, Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, 1984, Catch-22.

This week I remembered those suggestions as the revelations of rorting of parliamentary allowances by Liberal MPs belatedly (ie safely after the election) came to light. Among the rorts were thousands of dollars worth of books purchased.
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Society offenders

12

Why are people so intent on blocking wind farms in both England and Australia in recent years?

Well, some of it is clearly genuine stupidity. While, it is well-known, not all stupid people are conservatives, it is undoubtedly the case that all conservatives are stupid. Add to that natural stupidity the pungent anti-science of the Tea Party style no-nothings in recent years, and you have the perfect recipe for believing any kind of crap nonscience that people of ill-will feed to you. If some clown pretends that there is a link between wind farms and an imaginary disease, then no matter how much proper science disproves this pretence, British Conservatives and Australian Liberals and Nationals will believe the clown every time. If only someone would tell them that gravity is a communist plot and a chap calling in to Alan Jones say it is well-known you can jump from high buildings but our socialist prime minister has covered it up!
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Bone of contention

10

In the mid-1970s I received an unexpected phone call – could I come and check out a museum display. The unexpected part was not the checking out, but the nature of the display I was to check.

In those distant times the only “museum” in Canberra (leaving aside the War Memorial) was the “Institute of Anatomy”. I don’t now remember its history, but it had been established early in Canberra’s history in a splendid Art Deco style building. I presume they funded research, conferences etc, maintained collections of anatomical specimens, but the main function by 1976 was their display area which was like a Dickensian museum of glass display cases full of all sorts of bits and pieces of flora and fauna and rocks and humans.
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Field of dreams

4

Odd moment during the recent announcement and garbled discussion of education reforms in Australia. Chief Minister of the ACT, Katy Gallagher, was asked by parochial reporters, essentially, “what’s in it for Canberra?”

She said, perhaps bemused by the stupid question, that because most if not all Canberra students were already receiving support above what was being proposed, there actually wasn’t anything “in it” for the ACT.

In hunter-gatherer societies all children are educated equally – it would be suicidal for the society to do anything else. Same with the early agricultural societies. In both cases gifted individuals may specialise in particular areas of expertise later, but all will be educated.

We lost this equality of opportunity as the accumulation of wealth by a few created a situation where better education could be purchased, and that has remained the case, and been strengthened, ever since.

Indeed in Australia the Right, themselves, one and all, the products of the best education money could buy, decided they could do better as old boys (or girls) than merely denoting a few tax deductible dollars to the alma mater. They could, they realised, get their name up on the honour roll by getting the people of Australia to pay big bucks to schools already overflowing with swimming pools and polo ponies and acres of rolling playing fields. And they could lock in such payments permanently with a clever mathematical formula which achieved bias while appearing objective. A simple formula, always applied by conservatives, and always effective = The Rich get Richer. Genius eh?

So, it’s time for a reversal of fortunes. A simple formula = To each according to his needs. Identify the poorest public schools, give them more money to build up their resources to the level of the richer public schools. And then, whisper who dare, onwards to the levels of the private schools. Oh, sorry, getting a bit carried away there. Never mind, let’s get all students onto as level a playing field, playing fields, as possible. Cry havoc and let loose the dogs of class war.

But wait, there’s more. The other conservative legacy also affects equality of educational opportunity – religion. Separation of church and state? Yeah, whatever, but separation of church and school just as important. Yet John Howard unleashed the dogs of sectarianism. Loony tunes religious schools proliferated. Students taught curriculums in which garbage like creationism can be included, because religious freedom. “The more religion, the lower the quality of education” – write that on the blackboard 100 times Mr Howard

But worse is that schooling, meant to broaden horizons, introduce new ideas, allow children to mix widely, teach the ability to think and evaluate, to see a world beyond the walls of their home, has been narrowed. Religious fanatics have been allowed to carry out home-schooling in bulk. Allowed to make sure that no child raised in the closed little worlds of religious fundamentalism is allowed to discover that there is another real world outside.

So, equality of opportunity for all students? Absolutely, stuff of dreams. But understand that it involves more than just money. I have a dream of getting all students onto the playing field of secular education.

What’s in it for Australia? Only the next generation.