Tag Archives: education

On the Need for Consistency and the Avoidance of “U-Turns” in British Politics

In recent weeks I have devoted several blog posts to my disappointments in studying for a master’s degree at UCL in London. I now fear that I am presenting a misleadingly negative picture of an experience which has been relatively positive, whether if it is despite or because of the university. There are some real joys in my learning experience—allow me to share just one.

We had been learning about what causes European citizens to vote for far-right parties—obviously, a matter of topical interest.  One aspect of the analysis engaged in by theorists is to discern whether cultural views or perceived economic predicament were a better explanatory factor in judging the likelihood of individuals to vote this way. I had read a piece by Thomas Kurer and Briitta van Staalduinen (“Disappointed Expectations: Downward Mobility and Electoral Change.” American Political Science Review, 2022).  The authors described a concept called “status discordance”, which took into account a person’s reasonable life expectations based upon their original family situation and compared it to the reality of their economic achievement. For many decades in the West it had been taken for granted that each new generation will be better off than that of their parents.  This presumption has been severely undermined by economic realities.  Kurer and van Staalduinen contend that the greater the extent of this status discordance, the more aggrieved people will feel due to the economic gap in the realities of their lives and the more likely they are to vote for right wing parties (or, one might think, any extreme or non-mainstream party).  The statistical analysis they undertook seemed a bit complex to me, but in the end I became utterly convinced by their argument.

This certainty lasted about 20 minutes, when I followed it up by reading a piece by Yotam Margalit, who made precisely the opposite claim (“Economic Insecurity and Causes of Populism, Reconsidered.” Journal of European Perspectives, 2019). He critiqued (not Kurer and van Staalduinen individually), but their point of view that economic factors were dominant in the decision to support right wing parties.  For Margalit, this concentration on economic factors missed the importance of cultural ones, which he believed were ultimately the true causal factors, which are sometimes hidden due to the research methods used.

His piece was too long to describe at length, but he cited several studies which showed relatively weak relationships to economic factors once cultural factors were isolated.  Margalit argued that, “People may also view economics-based arguments against immigration as more socially acceptable than ones couched in cultural terms and thus may overreport the former as the justification for their stance.”  He gave an example from a 2010 study by Alexander Janus which tried to separate these factors by dividing a sample randomly into two groups.  He asked one group to read three pretty neutral statements and then asked if they agreed with the total number of statements (but without having to agree/disagree with each).  He then added a fourth statement (“Cutting off immigration to the United States”) and asked the second randomly chosen group if they agreed with all four.  The percentage agreeing dropped from 61% to 42%.  By hiding a statement which might be socially undesirable to object to amidst three others, Janus was able to identify the percentage likely to be opposed to immigration in a way that would pose no “social risks” to the respondent.  This is just one example of many used to by Margalit to make his point.  Although I began the article feeling very sceptical, by the end I was convinced, and my opinion had changed by 180 degrees!

Which position is factually correct is irrelevant to the point I wish to make. Instead, what I have learned is the utter joy of changing ones view on a dime when presented with countervailing evidence one finds compelling. At its best, academia provides pathways and methods to seek “the truth” and the freedom to shift about in pursuit of it.

I used to believe that philosophical consistency was of great value. What I have learned during the course of my study and in the example I have shared above is that there is something special about an environment that ought to and does permit this ideological wandering. At a much earlier point in my life I argued passionately concerning the intrinsic value of intellectual consistency. I was chided by a woman who quoted Emerson to me.  She said, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.”  She was right and I laughed out loud—and never forgot that line!  I have thoroughly enjoyed the intellectual knockabout and the constant shifting of views that my educational experience affords.  Long may it continue.

However, I was listening to the radio over the weekend, hearing about the sad saga of Tory ex-Health Secretary Matt Hancock, whose private WhatsApp messages have now been publicly disclosed. So much of this story is pathetic, humorous, disturbing, engrossing, or worrying, depending upon your point of view.  For readers who are not from the UK and have not been watching this story, I am pretty sure it’s not worth going into the gory details. Suffice it to say that a minister acted badly and got caught out—nothing new, really—a bit of sex, arrogance and wide-ranging incompetence.  The radio commentator had made one important point that UK government ministers seem to find it incredibly difficult to reverse a policy once it has been decided upon, even in the face of new information which suggests the policy may have been wrong. This is especially troubling during a pandemic when lives can be saved or lost based on policy responses to accurate evidence. 

But something in the UK make U-Turns particularly challenging manoeuvres.  Maybe it’s the influence of the press, or the enormous egos of some of our appalling leaders who have been “Peter Principled” right into the Cabinet.  I suggest Matt Hancock would have been far better off getting a masters degree than jetting off to participate in “I’m a Celebrity….Get me out of Here!”  But that would make for poor TV.

Rodney Schwartz

London, UK—5 March 2023

I started my career in mainstream finance and shifted into impact investing before returning to my lifelong passion of politics in early 2021. This blog reflects that return and is my way of sharing the impressions of someone journeying from “proper jobs” in the investment world back into education to study politics after four decades. For those interested in why I started this blog click here, and to read my declaration of known biases, click here. I welcome any comments

“Hierarchism” at University and in Politics–and How we Really Learn

When I started my master’s degree in Democracy and Comparative Politics at UCL I wasn’t quite sure what to expect.  Would I be leaning about Plato and Aristotle, or Hobbes and Marx?  In fact, it’s Weber and Rawls where our studies seem to begin.  However, I find that many of my political lessons do not come from books written by any of the great theorists, but rather in observing how universities operate and how that mirrors government treatment of citizens.  Let me explain.

As I sit here today on 28 February, I am awaiting the results of an exam handed in on 11 January. I have had a steady stream of apologetic emails assuring me that the grades are to be available imminently–hmmmmm.  I recollect this also occurred with the mid-terms for the same class.  In fact, we did not receive the results until after the end of term!  Thus, one had no chance to learn from the exam, or to gain an understanding of concepts one failed to absorb in preparation for the mid-term exam.

It is also infuriating that the final exam was handed out in the middle of the Christmas break on 3 January (classes resumed on the 9th), and we were expected to hand in our exam papers by 14:00 on the 11th. Hopes that exams be handed out at the end of term were thwarted as it would have meant that professors would be marking over their Christmas break, which was understandably unacceptable. However, the idea that students should be expected to do an exam during their Christmas break seemed perfectly reasonable.

Another example, in another class, were the repeated promises that an important lecture would be made available through the online portal by a specific time. Of course this did not appear much later. I fully understand that shit happens, and that university professors are massively overworked (and underpaid), but what I find galling is the hard-assed insistence on students meeting firm deadlines at the same time as the university persistently fails to meet nearly every deadline it establishes for itself.  We are told that if we hand in exams even just one minute late there will be penalties. 

It is not only professors that continually miss deadlines, but the university itself.  Lectures, course outlines and necessary material are often not available until after the first classes of term begin, which is patently ridiculous.  I suspect this attitude of strict deadlines for those further down in the hierarchical system, and disregard for them at the top permeates downwards—as they say, “a fish rots from the head”.  I could go on and provide more examples, but I am sure you get the picture.

I have been reflecting on the question of “where else have I seen this behaviour in the world we inhabit?” I wonder……………   As many will recall, the Conservative government under Boris Johnson was strict with regard to COVID restrictions. Citizens who had the audacity to sit on a park bench as they took their daily walk at the height of the restrictions were quickly moved along by police and those found to have had group gatherings were punished. It is a matter of public record that while we were adhering to these restrictions those who governed over us were flaunting them with abandon. I presume that they believed it was important that restrictions were put in place in order to keep us healthy and to prevent hospitals overflowing with patients, but clearly they did not seem to worry about this for themselves.  Were they not worried?  Did not care?  In any event, the rules were only applicable to us but not to them!  I have decided to call this behaviour “hierarchism”, whereby those in power strictly enforce rules and regulations on those over which they have power without feeling any obligation to abide by these rules themselves.

This feels an important political lesson, but one I suspect the university has taught unintentionally. It’s about people in power using this power to procure benefits for themselves or make their lives easier  without any regard to those over whom they have power, further down the hierarchy. The irony in both cases is that it is actually students and citizens who are theoretically in charge. As students we are the customers of universities and are paying them to provide us with a service.  They work for us—it rarely feels that way. As citizens, politicians are nominally meant to be public servants, acting in our interest under authority delegated to them. Yet this theoretical model does not seem to work in practise.  Even if it did operate in Athens many centuries ago it certainly fails in the modern era.

Students exert pretty much zero power over the universities, despite being the customer.  Frankly even the professors seem relatively powerless and are often forced to undertake inane tasks for wages that are far too low.  But this is the nature of hierarchism—each tier dumps on the tier below.

My time as a student is limited, and this is true for most of us.  However, we are (unless you are Shamima Begum) forever citizens of our countries.  Democracy cannot operate effectively in an environment where citizens feel—and arguably are—powerless.  Yes, we have elections, but……….. Until we seriously address this, a vibrant healthy democracy cannot exist.  Perhaps in future blog posts I can explore this issue and analyse those governments which are at least taking a few steps in that direction.  In the meantime, I will just keep on learning, grateful to the university for the many lessons it is teaching me 😊

Rodney Schwartz

London, UK—28 February 2023

I started my career in mainstream finance and shifted into impact investing before returning to my lifelong passion of politics in early 2021. This blog reflects that return and is my way of sharing the impressions of someone journeying from “proper jobs” in the investment world back into education to study politics after four decades. For those interested in why I started this blog click here, and to read my declaration of known biases, click here. I welcome any comments.