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The education business

I have commented before ((See Unspeak, p210.)) on politicians’ habit of referring to what businesses “need” (rather than what they want). Now, it seems, even university departments in the UK are to be judged according to the demure obedience with which they service the need of business.

The writing was already on the wall in June, when the barely credible news broke that universities now fell under the aegis of the “Department for Business, Innovation and Skills”, straddled by “Lord” Mandelson. ((Universities had previously been in the “Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills”, which at least had “universities” in the title. That department lasted all of two years, which shows how seriously the government takes its organizational fiddling.)) Now this strange animal ((The department, not “Lord” Mandelson personally, but then again, you know?)) has been sending letters to university departments demanding to know what “impact” their research has, to the widespread annoyance of academics.

The latest academic response to this nonsense is more combatively entertaining: in the THES, ((I note reluctantly that, actually, the THES now appears no longer to be called the Times Higher Education Supplement, but merely Times Higher Education, which doesn’t make any sense; and the logo is a massive “THE”, which makes me think: “THE WHAT?”. In protest at this twittishness, I plan to continue calling it the THES until no one any longer has a clue what I’m talking about.)) professor of philosophy Simon Blackburn shreds the whole idiotic letter, fastening among other things on this idea that universities must provide what businesses “need”:

But we don’t think that you should pay slavish attention to what business people, especially those who believe themselves fit to judge things about which they know nothing, say are their “needs” because we do not have any confidence that without more philosophy than most of them possess, they have the least idea what those needs are. We merely note that conceptions of need that have given us such outstanding examples of business expertise as British Leyland, Rover and RBS seem strange instruments with which to assess institutions that enabled such legacies as those left by Bacon, Locke, Hume and Wittgenstein.

Go, Simon Blackburn!

But this story would be tedious if it were simply about the epic philistinism and crassness of one stupidly named government department, wouldn’t it, readers? And in all fairness, one must recognize that the “Department for Business, Innovation and Skills” is not concerned exclusively with what businesses need. It recognizes, of course, that universities need things too. Give us an example, “Lord” Mandelson, of “the major issues facing universities”!

the need to make greater contributions to the economy


  1. 1  sw  November 5, 2009, 3:19 pm 

    I’m glad you reminded me of this Unspeak, re: need & want. It is interesting that, in my limited experience, this also suggests a certain developmental process and a fairly early developmental stage where the two are not fully distinguished: I know an almost-3-year-old boy who has yet to say “want” and only says “need” – as in, “I need that!” [pointing at fluffy polar bear], or “I need a flopito [lollipop]!” When I offer that he doesn’t need that polar bear or a flopito but just wants it, he looks at me as if I were slightly less comprehending of his needs than a mould or armadillo might be, and then responds, with unbearable emphasis, “But I need it!”

  2. 2  WIIIAI  November 5, 2009, 5:50 pm 

    Some people, of course, never get beyond that developmental stage, or move to a more sociopathic one in which their “needs” become a universal imperative. George Bush, for example, often used to say that “Congress needs to pass this bill” when he meant “I want Congress to pass this bill.”

  3. 3  Steven  November 5, 2009, 6:43 pm 

    Thank you for this critical information, sw! I think we are close to proving with science that George W. Bush and “Lord” Mandelson are infantile?

  4. 4  john c. halasz  November 5, 2009, 9:27 pm 

    “Want” and “need” have a partial semantic overlap, which allows the semantic slippage and ambiguity to be manipulated and exploited, intentionally or not. “Want” can mean “lack”: “for want of of nail, a shoe was lost, etc.). And businesses do have functional requirements, “needs”. But then “need” tends to shade into, if not exactly overlap with, “necessity”, and likewise for “want” and “desire”. Something similar occurs among the “epistemologically” minded, with “to know” and “to believe”, which partially overlap, but do not have identical (ranges of) usage: hence all beliefs must be cashed out as knowledge, else they are not “rational”, and rational justification is always and everywhere “universally” available and in commensurable or interchangeable forms. I don’t know if anyone actually believes that, but some seem to permit themselves the slippage, “intentionally” or not. But there’s no “cure” for the semantic ambiguity ingredient in the range of usages in natural language, which is simply part of how it works. Other than close scrutiny and interpretive understanding.

  5. 5  john c. halasz  November 5, 2009, 9:28 pm 

    “George Bush, for example, often used to say that “Congress needs to pass this bill” when he meant “I want Congress to pass this bill.”

    Poor W. simply was lacking that port-manteau French idiom “il faut”.

  6. 6  Steven  November 5, 2009, 10:33 pm 

    John, you’re right re overlap. Something as simple as “I want nothing” can be understood in at least three ways.

  7. 7  Steven  November 6, 2009, 9:29 am 

    (Or rather four.)

  8. 8  richard  November 6, 2009, 7:33 pm 

    while “I need nothing” only has two meanings, which would seem consistent with its imperative character.
    Whenever GWB said “need” I imagined he meant “knead.” It made his speeches easier to listen to.

  9. 9  richard  November 6, 2009, 7:38 pm 

    …now I’ve read John’s first comment I’m no longer sure about what I just wrote.

    OTOH, the now rather archaic “want” meaning “lack” might have contributed to my early embracing of atheism: I remember having trouble with “the Lord is my shepherd/I’ll not want…” I wondered why I was being told, in a church, no less, that I didn’t want the Lord as my shepherd.

  10. 10  john c. halasz  November 6, 2009, 9:44 pm 

    Well, that fourth sense = “I am perfect in every way, flawless and faultless” suits the likes of Lord Mandelson, eh?

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