The builder and the church

Yesterday I went for a walk in south London. I verified Adam’s statement that there are bluebells there, though I didn’t see the wonderful displays that the Chilterns provide. I’ll just record a few other impressions.

I saw a builder’s van which advertised on the side that the owner’s specialities were partitions and ceilings. What else might a builder provide for mathematicians, apart from floors, the obvious partner of ceilings? Perhaps lattices? Or indeed, why not buildings (with the terminology invented by Abel Prize winner Jacques Tits, such as chambers, galleries and apartments)? I was reminded of a time in the early 1970s, when sporadic simple groups were being discovered at an incredible rate, when I saw a van in south London which had on the side, “The Cameron group”, followed by a seven-digit number. Unfortunately, it was an odd number.

On the train on the way home, there was an advertisement for The Spectator in the carriage, which read, “Once we had pay-per-view TV. Now we have pay-per-view PM.” There were an elderly couple sitting opposite me. The man read it out to his partner, but mis-read PM as MP. She corrected him, and he said, “What’s PM?”

On the same train, I picked up a copy of The Bridge, the newspaper of the Anglican diocese of Southwark, in which I had been walking. The centre spread, featuring interviews with several university chaplains, was headlined, “What are we doing to our universities?” It featured a quote from Stephen Heap, Churches National Higher Education Adviser:

There is little government understanding of the public good higher education brings, no understanding of the public role of universities as places where society is helped to reflect on itself, no concept of higher education being about holistic development. A generation is to be consigned to beginning adult life in debt and seeing debt as normal. Whilst it is important to affirm what is good in what is being proposed, the likely effect will be a diminished higher education experience which fails to equip graduates to be good citizens in an increasingly complex world.

What more needs to be said? When I reflect on the contrast between my own experience as a student and what my students now get, this rings true. But maybe I am not comparing like with like; maybe my contemporaries were just marking time until they were forced to step onto the treadmill. I am not so sure; debt is the big difference. My generation were debt-averse in a way that is impossible now.

About Peter Cameron

I count all the things that need to be counted.
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5 Responses to The builder and the church

  1. Jon Awbrey says:

    O tempora o mores!

    It seems to be the same all over. When I was an undergrad in the late 60s, our elders made sure to impress on us the fact that we paid but a quarter of the actual cost of our state university education, with public funds accounting for the other three quarters. Today that partition has been reversed.

    Pay no attention to the men behind the partition!

  2. dratman says:

    I am drawn to the idea of universities as “places where society is helped to reflect on itself.”

    What a quaint idea in today’s world! Self-reflection is necessarily absent in the electronic media stream. Every hour of television is newly born and completely independent of every other hour. TV and radio spend all their time speaking, without a single pause to listen, all day and all night. In order to reflect, you need quiet time, and also dream time. Needless to say, the broadcast media cannot be quiet and certainly cannot dream.

    When the media stream became our mass consciousness, the fondest dream of Orwell’s Ministry of Truth was achieved: now it is literally impossible to think a subversive thought. Subversive thinking would mean thinking about something outside the stream. But our most pervasive training assures us that outside the stream is only the void. To imagine discourse outside the stream is like remembering a time before time, or like reaching into a higher dimension. We cannot even think how one might try to do it.

    Of course I exaggerate! Silly me. You can think and even talk outside the stream. It’s just that no one else will ever be able to understand you.

    • I am reminded of what Ken Brown and Paul Glendinning said in their excellent report on Mathematics Today. The fact that these things needed saying is the most telling part:

      [The] publication [of the International Review report] provides an excellent opportunity for the UK mathematics community to reflect …

      … the working research mathematician’s requirements are relatively few – good internet access, a quiet and warm place to work, and plenty of time and coffee!

  3. Adam Bohn says:

    Talking of thought-provoking vans, I was recently stuck behind one on the A2 that might have appealed to Lewis Carroll:

    I have no idea what this company does. The lower half suggests it might be something to do with nilpotent groups and harmonic series. But the upper half makes me think it more likely that they clean fridges (and invent words).

    • Jon Awbrey says:

      Sounds like a maker of household chemical products — Nitrogen, Sulfur, Phosphorus — name your poison.

      “Greasebeta” would never work in the States, as it would sound more like a Grease Baiter than a Grease Beater.

      Unless of course “Greaseβ” is meant to suggest a new form of grease still being perfected.

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