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Colum Kenny: A President for the people must keep it plain and simple

How is your paradigm? If you do not even know what a paradigm is, then last week's speech by Michael D Higgins may have passed you by. And that would be a pity. Because he wants to be a President for all the people, and he was saying something useful.

Higgins was talking to academics about how citizens have been thrown to the market wolves, and about what we can do in the current crisis to protect people. He peppered his speech with terms and references that he may have felt were needed to impress his university audience. But his challenge as President is to communicate rather than just to pontificate.

Ever since then US President Ronald Reagan received an honorary doctorate at University College Galway, in 1984, I have not felt the same about such ceremonies of the National University of Ireland. Sitting through that ingratiating event among a hardened White House press corps was plain embarrassing.

But last week's recipient of its honorary doctorate was a worthy one. Higgins is not just one of its own, but a canny man of the west who has used his political and intellectual skills to stand up for the downtrodden. If his tone sometimes irritates not just the high and mighty, his good humour usually endears him to listeners.

So what was Higgins trying to say by talking about an "intellectual crisis"? Even the word "intellectual" is like a red rag to a bull in the Anglo-Saxon world that surrounds us. French people may be proud to be called "intellectuals", but "thinker" is usually quite enough for most British or US academics.

Put simply, the President's message was that free markets left to their own devices have been a disaster. Societies, families and individuals are damaged as a result, and we need to get back to a more balanced view of the world.

Trying to gain the world, we lost our soul. We need to put things right.

Putting things right will be easier said than done. But it involves intellectual effort. And that is why President Higgins chose last week to appeal to academics.

A former UCG lecturer himself, he is aware of the pressure on third-level colleges to turn themselves into mere instruments of industrial convenience at public expense. But now more than ever the critical capacity of universities is needed to help us to restore the place of ordinary citizens in global planning and economic policies.

And maybe his message did not have to be plain and simple, maybe his dropping of names such as those of obscure if brilliant theorists Friedrich Von Hayek and Ernst Bloch really added something to his speech. Why should he apologise for citing authorities when speaking to academics who are expected to do the same when publishing their ideas?

But some of his sentences were longer and fuller than necessary. They seemed crafted to impress rather than to communicate. He has always had a tendency as a politician to take off into the stratosphere, his voice rising and words flooding out until only those who already agree with him are impressed.

During the presidential election he controlled any tendency towards high-pitched verbosity, for the most part, and his calm and measured tone stood him in good stead. He should have learnt then that this tone is what people want from him as President, and this is how he can be most persuasive.

But even if he cannot always manage it, or if he sees no need to avoid indulging himself in front of an audience of academics, it would be wrong to ignore his warnings about Irish university life. He is not the first or only Irish academic to resist efforts to turn colleges into mere markets, places where degrees are for sale and there is no time or encouragement for challenging the ways of thinking (or "paradigms", if you prefer!) that have landed us in the mess that we are now in.

There is a danger that we will now romanticise the past. Many of our ancestors had a keen sense of the importance of what is not just material in life.

Few of us believe that man ever lives by bread alone. But while our Christian Celtic past may be remote enough for us to harbour fond illusions about its perfection, there was a lot that was not very nice about more recent features of our supposedly spiritual legacy.

And, likewise, our universities have not always been the kind of challenging institutions that Michael D Higgins seems to think that they were. Not all academics were as interested as himself in, (as he put it last week), "debunking some of the bogus expertise directed at what was assumed to be uncomprehending citizens, in the early days of the emergence of a technocratic society".

What we did when we voted for Michael D Higgins to become President was pick someone whom we felt might help symbolically to restore a bit of the balance. We voted for him because he seemed like the best of a bad lot and not an extremist or ideologue, to put it bluntly. He needs to bear this in mind and should sound humble and simple if he is to discharge the office of President effectively, and not to lose the run of himself.

Sunday Independent