Sunday, April 22, 2012

18th February 2012

While it is obviously the case that every university wants to teach bright students, it is statistically probable that Oxbridge fails to pick up a number of students who are bright, but poor. It must be a huge relief to them that a government is to appoint an expert in ‘fair access’, Professor Les Ebdon, of the University of Bedfordshire.
‘Expert’ has the same (Latin) root as our ‘experience’, the basic meaning of which is ‘try out’, and thus ‘have experience of’. Our ‘empirical’ likewise comes from the Greek empeiros, ‘practised in, skilful’. Expertise in any matter was a subject of great interest to the ancients because (as Socrates argued), while it obviously applied to technical matters, like temple-construction and ship-building, it was not so clear that there was such a thing as expertise when it came to e.g. goodness or politics. He famously pointed out that any non-expert spouting away on technical matters in the Athenian assembly would be shouted down, but when it came to making good judgements on policy, anyone could have a say – ‘carpenter, smith or cobbler, merchant or ship owner, rich or poor, high born or low born, and no one objects’. Socrates thought the reason was that technical matters could be taught, but things like ‘goodness’ could not. So if one wanted to be ‘good’, it was not clear at all to whom one would go for solid instruction. Even fathers could not teach their own sons: look, he said, at Pericles’ children, who had all the technical know-how in riding, music, athletics and so on, but were in other respects no credit at all to their illustrious father.
So presumably Professor Ebdon can define what ‘fair access’ means and how it can be ensured. Likewise, he must know what it is that Oxbridge has to do to attract poor but outstanding students. Clearly, the University of Bedfordshire must be stuffed to the gunwales with them as a result of the Professor’s expertise. Otherwise, why appoint him? Of course, if Oxbridge does succeed, it will at once be accused of ‘creaming off the poorest’ – but not by Professor Ebdon!

P.S. ‘Expert’, obviously, does not derive from Latin expers, ‘completely ignorant’.

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