Congregation of the Pillar Saints

To know the Lord, climb mountains (Mark 3:13)

God bless Tiny Tim (and his fatal ukelele); God bless Joanna Lumley (even if she is one of the national treasures whose political views you suspect you’d rather not know); God bless post-post-truth, the Office for National Statistics; God bless the CMA; and most of all, God bless us all!

There is a monk in Georgia who has lived on top of a mountain for 20 years to get closer to God. According to The Teleraph, “Maxime Qavtaradze is following in the ancient traditions of the Stylites, or Pillar Saints: men of the Byzantine world who believed residing up pillars would remove them from temptation and provide ample opportunity for prayer and contemplation.” Max (let’s call him Max) is not up there for a great selfie or better phone signal. He believes that by raising himself away from humanity he can become a more godly person.

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Literally, God only knows if this will work: from my perspective Max seems to be taking one heck of a gamble on whether there actually are any pearly gates. But at least he’s gone one better than the latter day Pillar Saints who, frankly, seem to have opted for the homespun DIY solution to get closer to God. Anyhow, why a pillar? If you really want to remove yourself from temptation, lock yourself in a potting shed or fritter your time away aimlessly googling about things like Georgian monks with the family protection filter on. Ermmm… either way, a pillar is never going to trump a mountain in terms of altitude… you don’t need to be Buzz Aldrin to see that! (And now I come to think of it, Yuri Gugarin allegedly said of his trip to space that he, “looked and looked but couldn’t see God.”)

I don’t have time to worry about Maxime too much and, although I admire his devotion, I have my own problems. So, on to more philosophical matters… is there virtue in being at the top? No, not virtue, although people often erroneously conflate excellence with virtue (as psychology has very ably demonstrated, almost since its inception: it’s a kind of halo effect although I subscribe more ardently to the horns effect in making character judgments). There is perhaps virtue in trying to be the best you can be, but nothing inherently virtuous in distinguishing yourself from the hoi polloi. Quite to the contrary, there is considerably more virtue, in my book at least, in helping others. You can probably point things out to people from your lofty position, but it’s a challenge to dress a wound or break up a fight if you’re stuck on top of a pillar.

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UK HE is awash with metrics and tables now: TEF, REF, Athena Swan. And it’s crowded at the top! By my reckoning (see below for more next week) we have around 20-30 “top 10″ psychology departments in this country. It’s getting crowded up there… sorry, up here!!! But there is nothing saintly about the rush to get to the top. Oh no. The desire to acquire top rankings is motivated by decidedly impious matters, although to judge by some of the proclamations emerging from publication of the TEF you’d be forgiven for thinking otherwise. Maybe some academics believe all these ranks mean something real? They don’t: they’re marketing tools.

Heaven forbid, universities have started to dabble in the sort of selective presentation of statistics, spin and downright misrepresentation that has given politics an even worse name recently than it had before. As long as we recognise it’s a game all well and good. When we recognise it’s a game we can identify why it’s a stupid game and fight back, protest or disengage (as some have done) from it. I bet LSE are mulling over whether to withdraw from the next TEF… the rebels! But when the pursuit of a gong becomes your goal you lose sight of why you are doing it in the first place.

So no, there’s no inherent virtue in performing well in the TEF, the REF or even (dare I say) in Athena Swan. They are crude mechanical levers for generating change, that’s all. And when someone is pressing a lever, the immediate question should be “change to what?” Those universities, those departments that crack open the champagne on a Gold Award, a notch up in the newspaper league tables or a decent REF outcome are not better because of it… they are celebrating a less hostile marketing situation and the opportunity to fill their webpages with images of metalwork which is perhaps preferable to trying to fill them with any serious content!

Coming soon… “Top of the Whats?” or, How many Psychology Departments claim to be “Top 10″, “World leading”? I’ve been googling…