Anthony Grayling MA, DPhil (Oxon) FRSL, FRSA is Master of the New College of the Humanities, and a Supernumerary Fellow of St Anne’s College, Oxford. Until 2011 he was
Professor of Philosophy at Birkbeck College, University of London. He has written and edited over twenty books on philosophy and other subjects; among his most recent are “The Good Book”, “Ideas That Matter”, “Liberty in the Age of Terror” and “To Set Prometheus Free”. For several years he wrote the “Last Word” column for the Guardian newspaper and now writes a column for the Times. He is a frequent contributor to the Literary Review, Observer, Independent on Sunday, Times Literary Supplement, Index on Censorship and New Statesman, and is an equally frequent broadcaster on BBC Radios 4, 3 and the World Service. He writes the “Thinking Read” column for the Barnes and Noble Review in New York, is the Editor of Online Review London, and a Contributing Editor of Prospect magazine.
In addition, he sits on the editorial boards of several academic journals, and for nearly ten years was the Honorary Secretary of the principal British philosophical association, the Aristotelian Society. He is a past chairman of June Fourth, a human rights group concerned with China, and is a representative to the UN Human Rights Council for the International Humanist and Ethical Union. He is a Vice President of the British Humanist Association, the Patron of the United Kingdom Armed Forces Humanist Association, a patron of Dignity in Dying, and an Honorary Associate of the National Secular Society.
Anthony Grayling was a Fellow of the World Economic Forum for several years, and a member of its C-100 group on relations between the West and the Islamic world. He has served as a Trustee of the London Library and a board member of the Society of Authors. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. In 2003 he was a Booker Prize judge, in 2010 was a judge of the Art Fund prize, and in 2011 the Wellcome Book Prize. He supports a number of educational charities and is a sponsor of Rogbonko School in Sierra Leone.
Nick Shannon (NS): My interest in talking with you today really came from listening to you give a presentation to the Oxford University Society a few weeks back. I suddenly became aware of what you are trying to do with the New College of the Humanities (NCH) and the stance you’ve taken on that. It occurred to me that you definitely had something to say about leadership in terms possibly of how people who take leadership positions are educated, and also in terms of the stance you saw NCH taking towards leadership in adult or higher education circles. So I am interested to explore that with you for a little while. I guess you could say also that there’s much, much talk of leadership these days, but rather less talk about how leaders are educated. And so I think this is very timely.
Anthony Grayling (AG): Good.
NS: Just to kick off, would you like to say a little bit about the idea behind the NCH and how it arose?
AG: Well, I had for some time – I mean for more than a decade – been thinking that our higher education system in the UK is no longer quite meeting a need. That need is to send out into the world people whose advanced post-school education has done something rather specific in the way of helping them to reflect on and explore some of the wider horizons that are offered us by the insights and experience distilled in the humanities, by which I mean the best philosophical, literary and historical reflection on the human condition. In the process of acquiring a sense of this, graduates will have been helped to sharpen their ability to think. We always trot out this piety about a university education teaching people how to think. But I mean: to make graduates really questioning, searching thinkers, able to ask very good questions, able to put things into perspective, with many coat-hooks in the mind that they can hang things on so they can hang new ideas on them and see implications and work things through – in short, so that they can be very alert, informed and attentive. Study of the humanities, if conjoined with a vigorous intellectual training, provides people with that broader view and that ability to put things into context – to make sense of things – because they know something of the accumulated experience of humankind. They have, so to speak, eavesdropped on the conversation of mankind about the things that matter and so they are primed and equipped to make sense of them. But what we do in the UK on the whole is that we tend to keep on the narrowing process that starts at age 16 after GCSEs (secondary education examinations), making people do three or four A levels to get to university, and then to do just a single subject at university.
I have always thought that the American model is better because at the college level – the four years of undergraduate study – students do something a bit broader. Some then go on to become academics and specialists or professionals, for example as medics or lawyers. They get a rigorous training in those specialisations at graduate school. I’ve often thought that that is actually the better way to go and, moreover, it reflects the fact that really educated and trained people should have a much longer opportunity, a much longer time getting there. Aristotle studied with Plato for 20 years, which might be a little excessive, but if somebody has gone all the way through a US education and come out as a lawyer or an MBA, they’ve had six to eight years at university level at least.
But the one thing that can be missed in the US undergraduate model is depth and intellectual rigour. It can be a bit pick and mix because students can choose from many different courses. If somehow you could marry that model’s breadth to the depth that we achieve on the Oxbridge tutorial model, you would get the best of both worlds.
Some time ago I suggested to colleagues of mine that we try this, that we broaden the curriculum but make it the case that whatever the person is majoring in is taught very thoroughly through tutorials, which would be time-consuming and demanding on all of us. Even then, 10 years ago the tutorial model was slipping away; universities find it too expensive. Even at Oxford and Cambridge it now tends to be one to two or one to three nowadays. That is a different experience.
So that was the Utopian thing I felt I’d like to do, to make the best of what a post-school advanced education should be like. But the idea didn’t get a hearing, so there was no way forward on that. Then I began to think: well maybe, perhaps, I could do something independently. And I cast around for all the different ways to do that: set up a charitable foundation for education of that kind or start a new college. Eventually I hit on doing it the way that we are in fact doing it, which is to step right outside the publicly funded university system and try to start something afresh.
NS: A number of thoughts occurred to me as you were taking me through that and I have to say I owe a great debt to my tutors at Oxford in psychology and philosophy who, I think, passed on some essence of critical thinking skills. But after all this while, I find it quite hard to pin down what critical thinking skills actually are and certainly reading the psychological literature that doesn’t seem to be an awful lot of a knowledge base in terms of what critical thinking skills consist of.
AG: That’s true.
NS: On that, do you have a particular model or theory of that in your mind?
AG: We do; NCH is developing a course in critical thinking. A number of schools nowadays do this too, devising courses of their own. The main model is to take a text and to explore it or to give students an image and ask them to think about what the image is saying, what implications or assumptions are being made. All these techniques are good and they can certainly be part of a course.
But it’s not possible to be a really critical thinker or to get people to attain a desirable level of competence as a critical thinker without doing a variety of different things. One of these is that they have to know some logic. They’ve got to know the nature of argument, the relationship between premises and conclusions, the difference between deductive and inductive logics and how to evaluate validity in respect of form. They must also know how to spot the informal fallacies, the property of soundness in argument that comes out of the ability to avoid making the kinds of mistakes like equivocation and question-begging.
Knowing logic doesn’t make you a critical thinker, but it provides basic structural facts. So, too, does a knowledge of rhetoric, this being the technique of advocacy and debate in important part turning on understanding the nature of persuasion and the difference between factual and emotive uses of language. On the basis of logic and rhetoric one can begin to acquire the skill of critical thinking through practice, debate and analysis, both as a deliberately pursued set of techniques and as an essential part of study itself.
You can help people to sharpen their skills only if you challenge them with examples and with cases. You get them to explore them, analyze them, deconstruct them, and look at the conceptual framework that the argument or information is coming out of, and get them to examine it.
You challenge their interpretations, you get them to see implications, and you alert them to what is probably the best and richest example of forensic reasoning and that’s in the law. Legal argumentation at a very high level, such as in the Supreme Court, is tremendously interesting and instructive. There one sees the difficulties that people have in definitions and how in real situations where decisions have to be made. We don’t have the luxury of endless philosophical disputation; conclusions are reached.
There are a number of different strategies to put together. It’s a bit like teaching people how to recognize primary colours. All you can do is define them by extension, by pointing at them and saying, “This is an example of yellow; that is an example of red.” and thus just getting people to see what is meant.
Well, in the higher reaches of education, the effort is to get people to see, to get them to pick up by example what it is you are doing when you quiz them on the effort they put in. But if you can make it much more conscious and deliberate and give some of the structural techniques, then students can achieve this more effectively. You couldn’t, for example, write a text book about it and just leave it at that. The text book could only be the bare bones. There is the need for actual practice and the need for a dialectic process that terminates in the student’s coming to have that skill.
NS: And I think that answers a question for me around why do this in the old fashion way with tutorials and face to face meetings when you could do something these days online and delivery is much much cheaper, people simply sit at home as I am now. Is that the way you see it? Do you see this model being taken up in a world where technology dominates and delivery of education through the Internet seems to be taking over?
AG: If education shifts exclusively to the electromagnetic means of delivery, you would lose something tremendously important. It’s not just an old fashioned piety on my part. I think you have got to have personal contact, face to face, and to be there, be present, because at the very highest quality level of education there is something about the transmission of a skill which requires catching a nuance, recognizing a moment or having an opportunity to latch onto an idea, a meaning, which at that level is the crucial point. You’ve got to have that personal opportunity to do it; you can’t do it if you are not actually there in the same room. It would otherwise be a bit like trying to teach somebody to do surgery online.
You have a camera and the person is watching on screen. But somehow they are going to miss that glistening or that swelling or that little bubble of blood, which to the practiced surgical eye is an indication of something deeply significant. When they see it they can say “Did you see that? When you see that happen, this next thing is going to happen”. Somehow it’s those nuances that help you to genuine understanding. I am trying to convey the sense that there is something in this great, great tradition of ours – the educational tradition – where the key things somehow manifest themselves and can’t be said. They can only be shown.
NS: That makes it sound very visceral and almost that one needs all the senses in order to teach and to learn.
AG: That is so, but primarily of course it’s the intellectual sense. I think the best metaphor is that of music. The dynamic of music is such that there are important passages that are played very, very quietly and some that are very loud. To catch the quietest passages you do best to be there in the orchestra. If you are listening on the car radio, much of that nuance would be lost, or if you were listening online some of the subtlety and quality will be lost.
I know that to some people this will sound like special pleading in favour of saying that education has to retain something of its traditional form in order to be really high class. And the point you just made about the cheapness and the breadth of reach of online education is terribly attractive, especially for example when you think about providing educational opportunities to people in developing countries. It’s a brilliant way of doing it. Of course you could do quite a lot of the fundamentals – basic literacy and numeracy can be done in that way, indeed, could be done even better because with graphics and animation you can help people get a better grasp of arithmetic. But here we are talking about people reflecting about and examining complex ideas and arguments and seeking the kind of insights that come through the study of history and literature. That, I think, needs something different; there’s a much greater need for intellectual intimacy in that.
NS: Very interesting, thank you. Can I move on just a bit to talk about the project? It’s quite a big thing to start an educational organization from scratch, even if you do have a model and quite a bit of time to think about it and to plan it. How do you see the project going so far and what has it been like for you?
AG: It’s going very well. We are right in the middle now of tightening all the nuts and bolts: things like signing leases on property and contracts with our full time academic and administrative staff. We thought we would start getting student applications early in 2012 and begin the process of interviewing students during that winter and spring. But we’ve already had scores of applications and we’re well into the interview process. Indeed we’ve already awarded our first scholarships and exhibitions, which we offer because no educational institution at any level should exist exclusively on ability to pay. We are so structured that nearly 25% of our student places will be supported, either fully on scholarships, with no fee to pay, or very deeply discounted – about the equivalent of the lowest level fee for mainstream universities from next year onwards, about £6900. We are hoping to increase that to over 30% of our student body.
I see NCH as the acorn of which Harvard is the oak tree. It will take us a bit of time to get near the endowment they’ve got of 20 billion dollars. But once we’ve got a big endowment we will be able to support even more of our students. We are just in the process now of organizing our final structure into three linked entities. There’s the college itself. which is not-for-profit. There is a charitable trust to raise funds for student support and there is a service company that provides the college with all its services, and will provide services to other institutions if they commission them.
I have already appointed key staff for most of the subject areas and everything is going swimmingly. We take our first students in September next year. The key thing all along has been to find and appoint good people – the right people – and to let them get on with it. That is one essential aspect of leadership; the other is vision.
On that first aspect of leadership I think it involves recognizing the quality in other people, giving them their heads, letting them make their mistakes, giving them the opportunity to find their way to doing what you picked them to do. Generally speaking, you find that if you trust people and they feel that they have some ownership of what they are doing. They’ve got your support – and your generous understanding that all things human are fallible – then they will do their best for you. I am surrounded by people who are doing fantastic jobs. I sit back in admiration and let them get on with it.
NS: Yes, the euphemism that’s touted in business goes something like “Get the right people on the bus and then you will head off in the right direction.”
AG: That’s definitely true.
NS: It just occurred to me hearing you say that you had a very clear idea of what your role is in this project. I was wondering if you might say a little bit about how far you see that continuing.
AG: Well, there are different chapters to this story. One is to formulate the concept and then to go out and find people who will see what you are trying to do. When I started this off I realized that I was going to have to start from scratch. I began to speak to people who might be potential supporters of the project, because obviously you have got to raise more than start up money. You have to raise funds that will see the project right through. If you are going to take students you have got to see them through to their degrees. It’s got to be something that stands up. You have got to have enough funding for this right from the onset.
But also it struck me as being tremendously important that the funders should be the right funders. Early on in this process, I was offered, on four separate occasions by four separate corporates, all the money I needed and more. On the very first day that I went to speak to possible investors I was offered everything, but it was by a big corporation. I said to them, “Look, there is a concept here, an ethos that I want to develop, a way of doing this, and I would need a lot of autonomy, I don’t want it being interfered with”. And they said “Absolutely; you know our problem is to find people like that, to find people who we can appoint and let them get on with it. That’s our difficulty; it is not that we will be constantly looking over your shoulder.”
But when I went away and pondered a bit about it, I thought “Hang on a second, this is probably not going to work like that. Apart from anything else, to be seen as to some extent what happened in the early furore when we announced the college – as a kind of get rich quick scheme. Or, to be part of the corporate sphere would mislead people as to what I’m trying to do, which is a serious educational thing.” So I chose not to go that route. What I wanted was to get individual investors who see the point and want to stick with it, who will be in for the long term; who understand what the idea is. It took about a year to get together a team of just such people, high net worth individuals with a great interest in education. They are tremendously supportive. There is an element of investment in an individual and his idea, which is very heartening. And when I got them together that was Chapter One.
Chapter Two is the setup. The setup needs efficient managerial people who can do the job of dotting all the I’s and crossing all the T’s. Chapter Three is having my academic staff around me to have my conversation with them about what I want from them and what I want for the students. All these chapters are now fully in process. Chapter four is the arrival of the students and the real beginning of what we are all about.
What I want to achieve on behalf of the students, but in partnership with them, is that when they graduate they will really have acquired a tremendous amount of added value. The value will be for them personally, in the sense of an intellectual and individual enrichment affecting the way they see themselves and the world around them; and in the sense also – and this is equally important – of readying them for greater achievement in life and work. Success in these latter respects makes life all the more worthwhile, and all the better as a platform for doing good to and for others. Education in the fullest sense is about enrichment of the whole person and his or her whole life: that is what it is a preparation for.
And I said to the academics that I’ve appointed, “In the ordinary academic set up, your contract says you are going to do a third teaching, a third researching, and a third administration. I’m going to release you from admin. Although I want you to do research because I think academic teachers ought to be busily engaged with their subject and writing about it, I don’t want you to be on the hamster wheel of a research assessment exercise. You don’t have to produce two research papers every three years. You can take 20 years over a great book if you like, but if you are researching in the subject that you profess and love then that’s fine by me: you divide your time between that and teaching. That is what the life of the mind should be about; it should be about finding out stuff, and engaging with and learning from your students as well.
“So I liberate you from admin, I pay you a bit more than you get paid in an ordinary university, I liberate you from the research assessment exercise, and I say: teach and research. But, on the teaching front I really want you to take it seriously. I want you to be dedicated. I want you to remember your own best teachers – the people who made a difference to you, who inspired you. Try to be like that, really put some muscle into it.”
Far too few people who teach at universities are like that. There are some really dedicated teachers and they are admirable. Teaching is a noble calling. Dedicated teachers are worth their weight in gold. They are the sort of people I am looking for in my staff, and I think I have found them.
Likewise, I want to encourage the students and say to them, “This is a tremendous opportunity. Take it! Really, really take it!” There are lots of aspects to this opportunity and I’ll talk to the students about them. I’ll talk to them about maintaining a lively interaction with us so that if they get downhearted, as anyone might, or if they’re struggling with the work, they must always come and talk, because it is a kind of a partnership. I aim always to keep the college small, about 1000 students when topped out in a few years time, so that there can be this collegiate model, the very best of which is that we are all together. We are all working at this great endeavor that is moving forward and developing and maturing. It’s a fantastic opportunity to have bright young people between the ages of 18 and 21 and to partner with them in the development of their minds.
I am sounding very idealistic here, no doubt, but I’m highly interested in this process and I think it can be done. You can turn people out who have had their capacities, abilities and talents enhanced and enriched, and who will go on to make significant contributions in their lives and endeavours.
NS: Well I think that’s a wonderful vision and, as a psychologist interested in human development the combination of challenge and support is one that I see is vital for students. So it sounds to me that the first year students will be a very exciting bunch of people and there will be a very exciting culture in the place.
AG: All the more so because the people who are coming to us, who are signing up for what is a new venture that has not been without controversy, are pioneering in spirit. It is very interesting in them. We set our entrance level very high, at three As. We are keen on people who have done pre-Us, the IB, or extended projects in the 6th form, that kind of thing – showing independence of mind. In the applications we are receiving, we have been getting students at that standard or better, which is absolutely thrilling. The idea of having the kind of students that I had when I taught at Oxford – quite frankly I think I was as much educated by them as they were by me, because it was so stimulating to hear their essays and to discuss ideas with them. They were a hardworking bunch and I think they were so because they responded to my enthusiasm. You always get something back from students, which is really stimulating.
NS: I wonder if we can move on a little bit since you’ve talked quite a lot about your leadership role in this project. I would like to talk a little bit more about leadership in a philosophical sense, since leadership is these days touted as the solution to all of our problems, whether economic or ecological, political or social. You talk enthusiastically about philosophy as one vehicle in educating peoples’ minds. Do you see that in some way as contributing to better leadership?
AG: I think education certainly does. It needn’t just be philosophy, but I do think that wrestling with some of the big questions does have a good effect. It makes you confident once you’ve been out there in the far reaches of thought; it’s like paddling a long way out on a surf board and then you come back in again and the closer inshore waters seem much more manageable. But it’s also history, literature. It’s the law, economics, politics, international relations. It’s psychology – all these different pursuits are informative in both senses of that term: informative in the sense that they provide information; they provide a perspective; they provide material for further reflection and recognition; and informative in the sense of shaping and structuring the intellect. I earlier employed the notion of ‘coat hooks in the mind’. If you have got one coat hook you can hang only one or two coats on it, but if you have lots of coat hooks, you can hang lots of things on them. They will make sense to you as you encounter them in the world because there is a place for them to connect in your mind.
So being informed in the sense of being equipped with a knowledge of theories, views, practices – that is very very important. But the other sense of being informed is shaping, as the etymology of the term tells you – you in-form something, you put a form into something. It’s like placing a pastry cutter onto the raw dough on the kitchen table to give it a shape. And that happens with people. People come to you with their native abilities and capacities and their level of intelligence. You can have highly intelligent people who know nothing because they have had no opportunity to learn. And there are people who have learned masses, but they’ve got no intelligence. Intelligence is a kind of nimbleness in being able to move things around, to put things into connection and see those connections, see implications. As a teacher you help that business of informing or shaping a way of thinking.
Whatever it is that people do as their main subject, you get them to see that it’s something that they can apply. They can apply their subject to new situations or to their daily avocations. That’s where the value of education lies. It is a sort of broadening. I liken it to taking people up to a vantage point to see the view. The wider the view the more you can put things into context and make sense of the geography that you look out over. This is why leaders have to be educated in that sense. We all know the cliché about leaders and managers in which managers operate the machinery as it is and leaders see the direction that it’s all got to go in, anticipate new challenges, or consider alternatives. All those sorts of mental and personality skills are ones that I think a really good education provides.
NS: That’s very interesting because it’s taking us into the area of having the motivation and the confidence to put these tools and this learning to work. That’s not always something that people end up with at the end of their education. It seems to me that’s something over and above what most schools and universities try to achieve.
AG: You identify something really important there. One thing you will notice about most of the people you knew at Oxford is that having been there gave them confidence. Confidence is always 98% of the story, isn’t it! You feel that it doesn’t matter if you make a mistake; you are prepared to have a go. That kind of confidence is crucial. A manager, a technician, a person who has been an operator, has been taught how to work the machinery. That doesn’t need confidence because they have got the routine – they have been taught how to do it and they have practiced it. But it’s when you are in new territory, or when you’re taking people somewhere who haven’t been before, or when you have got to try something new or turn something around, or change something or persuade other people that this is how they should be doing things – these are paradigmatically leadership roles where if you didn’t have confidence, if you were timid, if you didn’t believe in yourself, if you didn’t have the chutzpah to have a go at it, you certainly won’t be able to do it, because confidence is a key ingredient.
NS: So I am thinking there that if you see this notion of confidence as becoming more important today than ever before in the sense that, much clichéd, the world is more complex, change occurs more rapidly, but also in connection with what you see as the decline of religion and dogma and the rise of a secular society.
AG: That’s an interesting invitation to make some big connections. It’s a good point that you now raise because of course confidence can seriously spill over into arrogance. People who succeed too often out of confidence can eventually fall off the cliff, because they become over confident. Therefore, confidence always has to be tempered. It always has to be accompanied by judgment and the ability to look in the mirror and to ask oneself some hard questions, though not the kinds of questions that are undermining.
Lack of confidence is the result very often of self observation: Can I do this, aren’t I really making a fool of myself, what happens if I’m wrong, what happens if I make a mistake? That kind of self-monitoring is destructive. Arrogant people don’t have that self-monitoring. They just assume that everybody agrees with them, that they’re the best thing since baked bread.
So, judgment and the capacity for a kind of sober-minded, mature reflection on what it is you are doing, alongside confidence, is important. This is where, in a kind of indirect and oblique way, it touches the fact that the world is becoming much more secular. Religious certainties once gave people a quite different kind of confidence – more than confidence actually. It gave them the sort of certainty that can be all too deadly: they’re absolutely right and everybody else is wrong; if anyone doesn’t step up to the mark he will have to pay the penalty.
Being confident is having a goal, wanting to achieve something that, after reflection and on the basis of good data, you are clear is the right thing to pursue. That is the confidence people have when they have given up on iron-hard certainties and have accepted that we can all make mistakes and that things could shift before we get to the target – but nevertheless they go for it. They are not paralyzed by the fact that it’s all too complicated or too uncertain. Equally, they are not blinded by some of the over-weaning kinds of dogmatic certainties that were once the very framework of the way people thought about the world.
NS: So we are talking here a lot about intellectual tools that enable people to take risk and also give them the sense that their chance is as great as anybody else’s, because they have had debates, they’ve thrashed things through, they’ve talked to very brilliant teachers and they have managed to develop for themselves a kind of platform, if you like, of confidence in their ability to think and solve problems. Is that how you see it?
AG: Exactly, and I suppose the best way to summarize all that is to say that the aim is to develop a certain kind of intellectual personality, one which is sufficiently self-reflective but at the same time capable of acting. It’s not a self-reflection that is self-subversive in any way, but results in a steady nerve once decisions have been made.
People who are not quite sure about what they’re doing or if they will stick with their choices, or will be able to know or sense when they are heading in the wrong direction, or when it’s time to stop or time to pile on the pressure – people who are always uncertain and hesitant about things – are in danger of failing for these very reasons. But similarly people who are arrogant and just barge ahead, who don’t pause to listen or to look around, are also heading for trouble. If they succeed, its going to be out of luck. But the person one admires is the person with steady nerve, a self-reflective person who has a goal in mind, reflects on it, tries to put the elements together to make it work, and then keeps his or her nerve doing it.
It’s quite hard when people are criticizing you when you make a mistake. You know most people are a bit nervous about going along. They come up with all sorts of reasons why you shouldn’t be doing it and tell you all the difficulties you are going to face. If you spend all of your time dwelling only on the difficulties, you are not going to succeed. To be determined is to be the sort of person who has the kind of intellectual personality that allows one to cope, to keep going, to be steady, and to be honest with oneself if one’s intuitions don’t really feel right.
NS: I was reflecting that it’s possibly in the British mindset – I don’t like to stereotype but it’s possibly in the British mindset – to be somewhat fearful and somewhat contemptuous of failure. Perhaps what we are talking about here is a willingness to accept failure as part of the effort of succeeding?
AG: Oh yes – no question about it whatever. If anybody makes up his mind at the very outset to say, if he does fail, “Well I tried and I failed and I think it’s a heck a lot better to have tried than not to have tried”, he has my admiration. How much more pusillanimous is it to say, “I might fail therefore I’m not going to try”. As you say, that’s so commonplace. I think of Dr. Johnson here: in the first edition of his dictionary he defined the pastern of a horse as its knee – you probably know this example – and of course it’s the horse’s heel. A woman asked him, “Dr. Johnson, why did you define the horse’s pastern as its knee?” and Johnson said, “Ignorance madam, sheer ignorance.” He was completely unfazed by it. He just didn’t know, but he put it right when he found out. I think that’s a great attitude and it’s the attitude that people need to have: “I’m going to give it a go, I will give it my damndest and if it fails I will say I tried and I failed.” That’s the way I think about this college.
NS: Professor, thank you very much. I am tempted just to try to finish off with two questions if I may? One is do you think this idea of the New College of the Humanities is something that you might have attempted earlier in your career?
AG: I don’t think I could have done it earlier. It was only when I’d got to a certain point that it was possible to attract support for it. I wasn’t well enough known or had done enough, earlier in my career. If I’d gone 20 or 25 years ago to the people who have become the backers of this, they would have said, “Who is this bloke? What does he know and will he be able to do it?” But when you get yourself to a certain point then you can leverage that. If you have some reputation, you can go to people and pitch them your idea. Then, if they believe in you and they can see that you’ve done something and that you can carry through, they are much more prepared to back you. So there is a right time to take an initiative, but one has to be judicious about when that is.
NS: And following on from that, are there ambitions lurking in there somewhere that would surpass even this legacy that you will leave if it is the success that we hope it will be?
AG: One’s life is always a multiple-stranded thing. It’s like a cable with lots of threads wrapped around each other. For me teaching has always been central. Right from the time that I became a university teacher I have done a lot of public lecturing, as well, outside the university and a lot of public discourse all as part of the great thrust to teach – a sort of addiction to teaching in a way. That’s always been one strand and it will continue. I don’t think I would ever want to stop doing that. Being involved in the college project means I can keep doing it until I become incompetent or drop. So that’s brilliant! I won’t have to retire.
But I also have a commitment to lots of other things: I do some human rights work, I’ve got a series of books contracted that I want to write, and have other things to say and do. So one or more of those things might also bear fruit in their way. This year I published The Good Book, a secular bible that I put together in the same way that the religious bible was put together, but with a completely different intention. I speak to you from Portugal in the midst of doing publicity for the Portuguese translation, which has been done beautifully here. So, it’s about keeping pressing on, on all fronts; but central to it is trying to convey a message. It is the collective message of all the people who in the past have been serious-minded about how you might open peoples’ eyes to how they can make their lives good and flourishing. That seems to me to be a good thing to be trying to do.
NS: Indeed! Well, thank you very much. That’s a great note to end on.