Being an Academic Today: Thoughts for Undergraduates

This week I went to Dublin to speak at the opening dinner of the Global Summit for the Undergraduate Awards. The dinner, and my speech, were on Wednesday (9 November), and the 150 students being honoured at the dinner came from all over the world. Wednesday, of course, was when people on this side of the Atlantic discovered that Donald Trump had been elected as the 45th President of the United States of America (subject to ratification by the Electoral College, of course). For many people, the election of Trump was a blow to progressivism, human rights, esteem and many other values that we hold dear; it is also perceived by many as part of the slide towards authoritarianism across ‘the West’. Bearing all of this in mind, it was somewhat difficult to craft a speech that would be uplifting, but the below is the text that I settled on. I decided to focus on being an academic in the arts, humanities and social sciences, and on the social value of that role at times like this.

The Undergraduate Awards                                                            9 November 2016

Fiona de Londras, University of Birmingham

** Speaking notes—minor deviations likely in the version as delivered **

Ladies and gentlemen, distinguished guests, good evening.

It is a great pleasure to be here with you all in Dublin this evening. Let me start not only by thanking the organisers for inviting me, but also by warmly congratulating you all for your success in these Undergraduate Awards. I hope that you will all enjoy being here in this wonderful city and this country that is my home, and that you will return to your universities and home countries even more curious, even more ambitious, and even more engaged than you were when you arrived in Dublin.

Today has been an extraordinary day, and this has been an extraordinary year. I could not help this morning but be struck by the contrast between the US Presidential election this year, and the election—almost 26 years ago to the day—of Mary Robinson as the first woman President of Ireland. That campaign was a brutal one; it was one in which all of Mary Robinson’s so called faults as a feminist, a working mother, an active campaigner for women’s reproductive autonomy and especially the availability of contraception, and so on were hurled against her. And it was one in which the People, and especially the women of Ireland, mobilised to elect as our President someone who believed in progress, in kindness, and in possibility. I was nine years old when Mary Robinson became president. My mother had her three children—all daughters—stay up to watch the result being announced. That was the day that I decided to become a lawyer. During her presidency, Mary Robinson did things that for the 1990s in Ireland were truly extraordinary: she opened the official residence of the President up to gay and lesbian Irish people, she spoke eloquently and intelligently about justice and about social justice, she literally reached out a hand of peace in Northern Ireland, and she taught me—by then an early teens, dumpy, intense, gay child in rural Ireland—that there was a place for me in this country, and that through my intellect I had something valuable to contribute. She reaffirmed the messages of love, support, and affirmation that my family gave. That was when I decided to be an academic lawyer. All day I have been wondering about what messages smart, ambitious, slightly different, little boys and girls and children who identify as neither boys nor girls have received this week in the United States.

And so what I want to speak about this evening is being an academic. And specifically being an academic in the social sciences, the arts, and the humanities.

You all know academics—you have been in their classrooms and offices, and corresponded with them by email. Some of you may even have been encouraged to apply for these Awards by an academic. However, in spite of this we may still seem a slightly exotic breed to you all. You might well wonder what we do all day.

Research is huge part of the academic’s role. For those of you who are chemists or engineers or medics, for example, the concept of ‘research’ might seem pretty straightforward, but it is not unusual for people to say to me: ‘research? Well, what kind of research could you do in law?’. Of course, law and all of the social sciences and humanities are just as amenable to research as any other field, because fundamentally research is just what you all did in the papers that brought you here today: the application of method, sources, intellect, curiosity and imagination to challenge received wisdom about how the world works.

The core concerns in my work are pretty straightforward. I am interested in why and how we seem to hold the state to lower standards of self-restraint and human rights when there is some kind of declared ‘crisis’ (such as terrorism, or a putative moral crisis of ‘sexual irresponsibility’ or ‘mass immigration’ and the like) than we do when there is not. Furthermore, I am interested in how we might limit the state’s ability to take advantage of that by manufacturing crises and acting irresponsibly, by causing harm and hardship, and by perpetuating inequalities in society. This core enquiry allows me to explore a lot of different issues, such as how we hold states accountable for excessive counter-terrorism. And how we challenge and, ultimately, reform constitutional and legal structures that hamper our human flourishing, rather than enabling us, such as the 13th Amendment in the United States or the 8th Amendment in Ireland.

I am sure you will all agree that this sounds quite interesting, but the ‘so what’ question still lingers. So what if I do this kind of research? After all, I am not going to discover a cure for cancer, or find out something about a distant planet. I am not going to make a discovery that can be patented and which will lead to a multi-billion dollar spin off company creating hundreds of jobs. But that does not mean that the kind of research I do, and which is done by humanities and social science academics the world over, does not have value.

Without independent, curious, rigorous, and creative research in a field like law, we struggle to find the tools that we need to challenge, change, understand and revolutionize the underpinning structures of society. Structures of inequality and systemic oppression that mean some people cannot afford that cancer drug my colleague in pharmacology helps to develop, that millions of children will never attend a school where they find out about the planet my colleague in astrophysics helped us to understand, that many are not enabled to acquire the skills and qualifications that mean they can access the jobs in that spin-out industry my colleague in nanotechnology started, and that far, far too many can never exercise the freedoms that underpin all of our abilities to access education, to maximize our potential, and to challenge power.

I know that we have award winners here today from all over the world, including from Turkey, Hong Kong, South Africa and the United States. At this time, these students will know perhaps more than others how important strong, vibrant educational institutions are; how attacks—both blatant and less explicit—on academic independence and freedom are core to attempts to centralize power and dominate the polity; and how fragile the settlement between the institutions of the state and ‘the People’ can be. They will also know, as we all should, that in states where authoritarianism is on the ascent it is not the chemists, the physicists, the medics and the biologists to whom power first turns its gaze; it is the philosophers, the poets, the artists, the historians and the lawyers. It is these disciplines that so fully enliven the public square, that provide the democratic pulse of critique and criticism through which we find the ways to both benefit from the scientific advances of our colleagues in the ‘hard’ disciplines and to critically discuss the ethical implications of their astounding advances in knowledge, that most gravely threaten power. Even for despots who reject the power of the human spirit to invent and reinvent, to value knowledge and challenge received wisdom, and who are taking power in states often considered to be among the most vibrant democracies in the world, it is the arts and humanities, the social scientists, and the lawyers who are the danger. This is because they know, as we do, that through our curiosity, critique, and critical distrust of what they assert as ‘truth’ we shake the foundations upon which they attempt to build their appearances of unassailable power.

Even in countries where authoritarianism is less overt, the role of lawyers, artists, philosophers, political scientists, historians and other humanities researchers cannot be understated. I myself live and work in a country where academics are not only encouraged but expected to make an impact, based on our research, on the world outside of academia. This is not only a neoconservative, ‘value for money’ trope to justify the investment of tax payers’ money in academic research; it also reflects the idea that a strong research base can better enable people and groups to challenge state power by developing more persuasive and informed arguments against the status quo. So too, it can result in better and more effective governance and regulation based on evidence rather than on whim. Of course, we do not always succeed in this, and as many of you will know “experts” are rather in the bad books for many in the UK at the moment, accused of an elite conspiracy against the will of people. Those of us the Prime Minister has derided as “activist left wing human rights lawyers” are accused of “harassing and haranguing” the armed services by insisting on accountability for the use of state force, and judges are called “enemies of the people” on the front page of a national newspaper when they interpret and apply the law to force the government to comply with the Constitution. Rather than intimidate the so-called elite intelligentsia, however, this has led—rightly—to both critical self-reflection about whether as a group we ‘talk down’ to ‘little people’ from whom we seem disconnected, and a refusal to be quieted, demonstrating the vibrancy of the academy and the importance of academic independence.

Here, in my home country of Ireland, critical economics continues to show the acute and unequal impacts of ‘austerity’ and is finally beginning to bring about some change to fiscal policy to some extent. We have a former academic serving as Minister for Children and Youth Affairs in Cabinet whose policies are deeply informed by both ‘hard’ research from the sciences and research from the humanities. And we have a poet, ethicist and philosopher as our elected President. Academics continue to work hard, often as allies to advocates and marginalized groups, to try to force our state to face up to the historical injustices of our shameful ill-treatment of women, the disabled and Travellers in this country, and to use best international practice in law, ethics and medicine to reform our archaic and harmful approach to reproductive justice and maternal medical care which continues the ill-treatment of women.

These are merely illustrations of the value to society of being an academic. And of course I have so far omitted what I consider to be the most important contribution that we, as academics, can make to our societies: guiding our students to become informed, intelligent, self-aware, reflexive and critical thinkers, committed to making the world around them a better place both through their individual pursuit of ethical behaviours and through the work that they will go on to do in the world.

These Awards recognize and reward some of the very brightest lights in our current undergraduate communities all around the world, and all 150 of you here will go on to do great things, and to make enormous contributions through your work. I hope that some of you do that through becoming academics, challenging power and working towards a more equitable, more ethical, and kinder world.

My request to you, as I finish, is this: whatever your field, and whatever you go on to do, remember the importance of the arts, humanities, and social sciences to the world in which you do it. If you become become a politician remember to protect education and the arts because they are as critical to progress and prosperity as the sciences and technology; if you become a teacher remember to learn from your students and to expose them to things that will challenge and excite them; if you are a business leader remember to endow, fund and support the arts, humanities and social sciences; and if you become an academic remember to look outside of your own mind and to undertake your work with an ever present consciousness of its wider significance and a commitment to the ethical pursuit of knowledge.

Let me close by congratulating you all, once again, on your wonderful achievement, and by inviting you all to pursue life with curiosity and conscience, which I hope will start with these four days here in Dublin.

Thank you.


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