Last Thursday, the Deputy Vice-Chancellor of the University of Reading invited me to a public lecture entitled: “Self-Delusion”. Thinking that this might be a less-than-subtle message for me, I attended. The lecture was enjoyable with plenty of beautiful slides and a lively and engaging presenter and was certainly thought provoking, which was, I think, its intention.
The central theme was our delusion that the individual (i.e. “self”) is important. The speaker proposed that, although individuals do important things, the key driver is the collective. Therefore, he argued, it is the contribution that the individual makes to the collective, rather than the individual themselves, that is important.
The collective could exist on many levels: the family, the community, the country or the entire planet; the latter was really the focus of the lecture where the notion of the collective was taken beyond the human collective into the entire planetary collective.
The speaker’s argument was supported by many examples from ecology and from agriculture; essentially, we are akin to worker ants. And, if we see (“delude”) ourselves otherwise, trouble ensues: the ultimate extension of the argument was that self-delusion is linked to chaos, with the core theme being environmental loss and climate change. Interesting. Strong supporting examples and arguments were made, and I think any audience poll taken at the end of talk would have been greatly in favour of what the presenter had said. And, of course, there is some sense in the argument. But, there are many flaws too, including some obvious ones.
Afterwards I reflected on the ideas presented in the talk, considering the University as the collective and we staff as the contributing individuals. I think in our setting, a balance needs to be struck between the individual and the collective. In my blog of November 2018 on “Scholarship and Collegiality” I wrote “scholarship acts to promote excellence in both research and teaching and allows individuals to flourish for the benefit of the institution and beyond. However, scholarship alone is insufficient for universities to function; this requires collegiality, the uniting of individuals for a common purpose and respecting each other’s abilities to work toward that purpose. In my view, only when we all truly embrace the duality of scholarship and collegiality will we fully achieve what we wish for ourselves and our institution, its staff and its students.” I came to this same conclusion again late last Thursday evening: success of the collective can only be achieved by all individuals striving for excellence in a supportive, collaborative, respectful, and collegiate environment. Thus, there are individual talents and there are individual roles, responsibilities and expectations, but in the end, it is the collective, and its success and sustainability, that matter. Maybe we really are just sophisticated worker ants. Or am I deluded?