It all began like this. In among the heaps of internal memoranda came one from our equal opportunities committee. They were trying to create a form of words to regularise our faculty equal opportunities position - or some such memorandum-speak - and we were invited to comment. I can recall nothing about accepting staff or students on ability rather than race, class, age or sex; indeed nothing much about opportunities at all. Rather, there was an exhortation to provide "parity of esteem" between all academic staff, technical staff and students.
This bothered me all day. I even went home and looked up "esteem" in the dictionary. As I thought: "n, the regard in which one is held; esp: high regard; vt, to set a high value on: regard highly and prize accordingly". So this policy means I would have to "regard highly and prize accordingly" all students, regardless of their performance, their ability, their hard work or lack of it, or their attitude. I had an awful vision of one of our least admirable students sloping into my office with another essay deadline missed, no work done on the research project and a feeble excuse for being late - and demanding to be given parity of esteem.
Am I just hopelessly old-fashioned, wildly out of touch with modern thinking, unkind, uncaring, right-wing and wicked, and ought I to be locked up and thrown out of university? I have to admit that when it comes to the political correctness stakes I am an abject failure, but do I really have to esteem people just because someone else tells me to? No!
I do hold a few people in really high esteem. Some are great scientists. Faraday, for example, wasn't afraid to risk his scientific reputation by doing the first experiments ever on spiritualist table-tipping; he saw a mystery and wanted to solve it (hint: the solution wasn't spirits). Darwin, my great hero, had an insight that changed the world for ever and did away with the need for God, a designer or a plan for the universe. Then there are colleagues of mine whose work I admire, and friends who can always be relied on; there are inspired researchers and gifted technicians, and there are students who work hard, ask difficult questions and make a lecturer's job worth doing. I esteem these and many others - but all?
I sometimes get a form from a big temp agency, to fill in a student reference for a job. "Is this person of the highest possible integrity?" it asks. No, they damn well aren't. Or if they are, they haven't yet had the opportunity to reveal it - and you don't need "the highest possible integrity" to do your measly job. I scribble all over that form, too.
What is integrity? I think of my friend Dr John Beloff, who has steadfastly researched the paranormal for 40 years, never finding any solid evidence but going on searching for ways to test his dualist theory of mind. I think he is utterly and completely wrong. I don't think he'll ever find evidence for a separate mind, because there is no separate mind. But I admire his courage, his determination and his integrity.
Integrity in science is tested all the time. You have a theory, you do the research, you find you are wrong, and ... some people just shove the data away, some twist it round to fit, but the best change their minds. They are prepared to face the disappointment, admit their failings, cope with not knowing and start all over again - caring more about the truth than about people's opinions. This takes integrity.
We know all this, don't we? And yet we seem to be creating academic institutions in which hard work, insight, generosity and integrity are not valued at all. In our department we are not even allowed to put "Dr" on our doors. Oh no. That would be unfair, wouldn't it; what about all those poor people who don't have a doctorate?
What message does this give our students? If we show no esteem for the highest academic qualifications they can get, then why should they struggle through three or four more years of no money, hard work, loneliness and all that it takes to do a PhD? Only the love of research can keep them going.
Parity of esteem? No thank you. I want the freedom to esteem the truly admirable people in this world, and long may there be such people. Now I'll just go and get that tea, Camilla.
The writer is senior lecturer in psychology at the University of the West of England.Reuse content