Reconstructing Human Rights

The first in a forum on Joe’s recently released Reconstructing Human Rights: A Pragmatist and Pluralist Inquiry in Global Ethics (Oxford University Press, 2016). A number of commentaries will follow in the coming days.

hoover-reconstructing-human-rights-cover1Earlier this year I visited Sylvia’s Corner, the home of the Focus E15 campaign, to give a talk about the human right to housing. As I shared my research, based on work I had done with housing campaigns in Chicago and Washington DC, I was struck by how this specific moment illustrated what I most hope Reconstructing Human Rights might accomplish—namely, helping to reconstruct human rights as a more democratic idea, and practice.

In London, Focus E15 has been fighting for the human rights of those struggling to secure a decent home for themselves and their families, often struggling against the very public agencies who should be assisting them. Their work not only draws on an ethical and political language of human rights, but it also remakes that language, renders it suitable to their needs and responsive to their experiences. I have witnessed this same process with other campaigns, such as the  Chicago Anti-Eviction Campaign, and with community organising groups like ONE DC in Washington DC. It was revealing to act, even briefly, as a conduit through which the experiences of these distant groups could be relayed. Human rights are constantly being remade, repurposed—reconstructed—to serve the ends of those suffering from injustice. It is this reality that motivates my book, which is at its core an attempt to understand how human rights can be both an instrument of the privileged and powerful, and also a weapon for the oppressed and disempowered. I wrote this book because I wanted to know, what should we make of human rights?

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On Objecting to the New College of the Humanities; Or, Who Would Pay £18,000 a Year to Listen to this Outdated Victorian Rationalism When They Could Buy Themselves a Second-Hand Copy of John Stuart Mill?

Yes, this is more comment on the New College, a.k.a. Grayling Hall, a.k.a. Grayling’s Folly, a.k.a. North Oxford in Bedford Square (NOBS), a.k.a. The Ultimate Scab University.

It won’t have escaped your notice that there has been a flurry of disgust, disbelief, protest and rage at the announcement of the New College of the Humanities (an aside: ‘of the’ Humanities? Why not ‘for the’ Humanities?). There have also been a number of responses that pretty much add up to ‘meh’: to wit, there are some bad things, but also some good things about Grayling’s Folly. And then there has been some welcoming of this project, and its ‘chutzpah’. Since we are in a downward vortex of vanishing funding and academic status, why not expand where we can? And why damn the entrepreneurial? As Brian Leiter puts it:

NCH is just the natural continuation of the elimination of 75% of government funding for higher education and 800% increases in tuition in the space of a few years. If the Brits can’t even keep the Tories out of office, and if their party of the Left is now in bed with the Neoliberals, it’s really hard to see why one should think “petitioning” the government for more government funding for higher ed will produce any results. The battle to be won is at the polls, and NCH is just a symptom of the battle already lost.

All this makes me think it’s worth clarifying the case against, and the potential mitigating factors. Continue reading

The New School for Privatised Inquiry

UPDATE (5 June): Now crossposted at Campaign for the Public University and at Critical Legal Thinking. The New College of the Humanities has already been called The Ultimate Scab University. I should have titled the post that.

Nina Power also has a call for boycott up and a running info post exposing, amongst other things, that many of the Professors involved have bought shares in the New College. A strange kind of workers’ management, but one apparently meant to incentivise its intellectual labourers through the lure of profits on thought. See also the expanding discussion at Leiter Reports and A.C. Grayling’s defence (in reply to the Birkbeck Student Union Chair).

In 1919, John Dewey and others founded The New School for Social Research, intended to offer a democratic and general education for those excluded by existing structures. On the faculty side, this meant a staunch defence of academic freedom in the face of increasing censorship and a climate of intellectual fear. For students, it meant evening classes, an open structure of instruction and the ability to engage in inquiry despite exclusion from the other universities of the time. A fascinating legacy even before it became a refuge for forces of critique fleeing Fascist Europe.

Now there is a new New School. A New College in fact. A.C. Grayling, Richard Dawkins, Ronald Dworkin and Peter Singer (yes, Peter Singer), amongst others, have inaugurated this new space for privatised inquiry. Tuition fees will be £18,000 a year. While the original New School aimed for “an unbiased understanding of the existing order, its genesis, growth and present working”, the New College gives you the skills “needed for success in this complex and competitive world”. There will be courses in how to do slick presentations and on effective working-with-others. Ironically enough, there will also be instruction in ‘applied ethics’ and ‘critical thinking’ (will education and the public good be topics of study I wonder?). The TV-friendly, rent-a-theory Professoriate glistens, although it seems unlikely that many classes will actually be taken by Niall Ferguson and Steven Pinker (visiting Professors only). Many other stars already hold other posts. And a closer look indeed reveals that ‘conveners and other teaching staff’ might bear somewhat more of the teaching load than advertised.

Four heads of major private schools sit on the Advisory Board. Intriguingly, the formal academic entry requirements seem rather low. Some funds are available for those from more deprived backgrounds (news reports suggest around 20% of entrants will get some kind of ‘assisted place’), but otherwise there is just some loose talk about ‘using a tuition fee loan’, although I assume this won’t be on the preferential rates and deferral plans available through the more antiquated public institutions. As Martin McQuillan intimated, it also seems that Grayling et al. have some inside info on the forthcoming White Paper, at least enough to calculate that their fees-and-hand-outs combination will not be penalised by standards on access and equality for degree-granting institutions (since it also seems that qualifications from the New College will count as endorsed by the University of London).

This is the hour for the experiment; and London is the place…

Which is all by way of saying that New College represents a new stage in business ontology. Today the public provision of humanities is framed again and again as unsustainable, unproductive and antiquated. London Met, which educates more black and ethnic minority students than the whole Russell Group combined, is facing the closure of 70% of its undergraduate courses, predominantly drawn from its humanities and arts provision, all overseen by a political elite who received their free educations in cognate subjects. UK higher education is systematically and chronically under-funded thanks to a governing class that has been spending less on schooling and free inquiry than any of its ‘competitors’ for several decades now. There is nothing natural about the emergence of a market which will bear the dubious pricing of Grayling’s project, and no objective need for the fresh sources of private investment that he cites as somewhere in support of the endeavour. We do indeed need ‘a new model’, but not this one.