Ultima Thule

In ancient times the northernmost region of the habitable world - hence, any distant, unknown or mysterious land.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

The enigma of pure scholarship

By Aussiegirl

Here's an interesting companion piece to the news item below concerning the recreation of the machine that decoded German intercepts in WWII at Blechley Park in England. When I read the news piece I immediately thought of the movie "Enigma" that I saw on one of the movie channels a while back. It's a pretty good movie and does give some of the flavor of what it must have been like to work at Blechley during the war. I think the author of this piece, who is also the author of the novel "Enigma" upon which the movie was based, makes a good point -- we can never dispense with scholarship for scholarship's sake, and the current dumbing down of our curriculum is a danger to our future in more ways than one. Personally, I've always loved being around oddball eggheads of various kinds. One never knows what kind of peculiar specialty is going to come in handy in a most unexpected way. For instance, it was a specialist in geology who noticed that the famous video of Osama Bin Laden that we saw early after 9/11 showed a peculiar rock formation that he knew could only exist in one particular place on earth. If I remember correctly, he got in touch with the authorities to let them know that he had information as to Bin Laden's exact location. Whether the government bureaucrats listened is another matter.

He also makes a good point about a university education being devalued in the present mania to send everyone, regardless of desire or fitness, to college. What's wrong with a trade? I'm afraid we have made it almost a thing of shame for someone to choose to work with his hands. There are plenty of very bright and talented people who simply do not fit into a typical scholastic and regimented office-type mode. These men used to naturally gravitate to fields in the construction trades and mechanical fields. It's honorable work, and used to pay a living and decent wage. Unfortunately, we have imported so much of this type of labor that native American plumbers, electricians, craftsmen, carpenters, etc. are faced with lowered wages from the fierce competition offered by illegal immigrants, who currently dominate these fields. I think we would be better off to concentrate on providing a high-quality intellectually challenging university grade education for those most suited to it and with a desire to pursue intellectual activity, and find ways to normalize the trades and manual arts that have become debased by uncontrolled immigration and a lowered wage. Of course, then the businesses wouldn't have all that cheap labor that is dramatically lowering their business expenses. But is the bottom line the only consideration for a culture?

It's amazing how everything is related, isn't it -- and I hadn't meant to digress into this discussion. Let's stop forcing kids who are bored out of their skulls into wasting their own time and their parents hard-earned money in college, when they could be learning a skilled trade and doing something meaningful and useful that they enjoy, and let's let the eggheads have the universities all to themselves, to they can egg each other on to higher and higher intellectual pursuits. Another lawyer or another MBA grad is not going to discover the next great thing that must might make a difference in whether our civilization succeeds or fails. It's through innovation and research and scholarship, and not only constant economic improvement at all costs that makes our civilization flourish.

Telegraph Comment

SIXTY years ago, in September 1941, Winston Churchill paid a highly secret visit to what was fast becoming the most important installation in the United Kingdom: the Government Code and Cipher School in Bletchley Park, Buckinghamshire.

Clambering on to a chair (some witnesses say it was a tree stump) in the grounds of the mansion, the Prime Minister surveyed what must have struck him as one of the least martial assemblies he had ever addressed: mathematicians, librarians, Egyptologists, musicologists, museum curators, classicists, chess players, historians, crossword puzzle addicts.

"Well," he said, "you don't look very dangerous." Later, as he was driving through the gate, he is supposed to have turned to "C" - Sir Stewart Menzies, the head of the Secret Intelligence Service - and remarked: "When I told you to leave no stone unturned recruiting for this place, I didn't expect you to take me literally."

What is it about Bletchley Park that explains its enduring fascination? More than a quarter of a million people have so far been to see the new movie Enigma (based on my novel) in its first week on general release in this country - a number that has surprised even the film's makers.

Partly, no doubt, this is because the whiff of war is suddenly in the air again. There is a hunger for stories about 1939-45, especially for a movie set on the home front - a theatre of operations in which we all now find ourselves conscripted. But beneath the obvious nostalgia for a heroic past there lies, I think, a more fundamental appeal: something to do with brains defeating brawn, of amateurs overcoming professionals, of the triumph of pure intellect.

"Pure intellect": ah, now there is a phrase one doesn't hear much about from politicians these days. For at least 25 years, the emphasis of our rulers has been on education primarily as a mechanism for boosting economic productivity. I first became aware of this as a student in the 1970s, when James Callaghan was prime minister. Callaghan was perhaps the first occupant of Number 10 to harp on endlessly about the need for degrees to be "relevant".

Years later, Margaret Thatcher - whose degree was in chemistry and who subsequently studied law - famously encountered a student and asked him what he was studying. "History," came the reply. "What luxury!" was the Prime Minister's withering response.

This official contempt for learning for learning's sake has reached its miserable apogee under New Labour. In a speech to sympathetic businessmen in Leeds during this year's general election, Tony Blair (another lawyer) declared that "education will be our number one micro-economic policy". And he went on to assert the basic, bizarrely inverted philosophy of Labour when it comes to education: "A government or nation which does not invest in its people does not care for business."

Higher education seems to have degenerated into a vast system for reducing youth unemployment. The Government aims to get half of all those between 18 and 30 into higher education. This sounds laudable, until you remember that the burden of financing this massive expansion is, effectively, being borne by bright students, who, a decade ago, would have had their tuition fees paid for by the state.

As Professor Graham Zellick, vice-chancellor of London University, declared this week, there is "no rational basis" for such a policy: "Some graduates have got useless degrees from third-rate institutions which they have left with huge debts after an experience of three years that will have served them in no clear way at all." How many bright working-class children are being put off university altogether, or at the very least put off courses that are not obviously vocational?

If all this sounds a long way from wartime Bletchley Park, it isn't. The war was certainly shortened - some argue it may even have been won - by men and women pursuing academic disciplines that often had no obvious practical application whatsoever: exactly the kind of people whose institutions, salaries and status have been degraded again and again by successive British governments. I put some of them into Enigma: men like Frank Adcock, dean of King's College, Cambridge, author of The Greek and Macedonian Art of War, and Dilwyn Knox, who broke the Abwehr Enigma, but whose life's work was a study of the mimes of Herodas.

One could go on endlessly. Egyptologists, skilled in piecing together the papyri of lost civilisations, suddenly discovered that the same talent could be applied to working out the pattern of German radio traffic. An ability to understand the six-part fugue in Bach's Musikalisches Opfer was invaluable in seeing the hidden pattern in a line of Kriegsmarine cipher.

The hero of Enigma carries around a copy of A Mathematician's Apology, G. H. Hardy's wonderful defence of the utter irrelevance of pure maths, except on aesthetic grounds: "When the world is mad, a mathematician may find in mathematics an incomparable anodyne. For mathematics is, of all the arts and sciences, the most remote." But by 1940, as Alan Turing and his colleagues demonstrated, even this most "remote" of subjects was to provide the intellectual impetus which led to the refinement of the code-breaking bombe, the development of Colossus, and eventually to the birth of the modern computer.

The lesson of Bletchley Park is simple: there is no substitute for the discipline of scholarship, and for the pursuit of purely intellectual activities. Politicians who sneer at this as a waste of taxpayers' money would do well to ponder the story of Enigma. The cryptanalysts whom Churchill addressed in 1941 may indeed have looked as though they had just crawled out from under a stone. They may not have been able to muster an MBA between them, let alone a degree in media studies. And they would certainly not have recognised their educations as part of anyone's "number one micro-economic policy". But they won the war.


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