Tuesday 15 December 2020

Lessons From A “Legendary Teacher” Prof. James R. Flynn 1934 – 2020

A Truly Wise Man: For Flynn, the contest between truth and falsehood was never about “bad people” peddling “bad ideas”: it was only ever about inadequately supported propositions. And, the best way to demonstrate their inadequacy was to challenge them on their own terms, in public, with the evidence.

“A LEGENDARY TEACHER”, was how University of Otago Vice-Chancellor, Harlene Hayne, described Professor James R. Flynn (1934-2020). The thousands of first-year politics students who attended his lectures down the years will certainly attest to the accuracy of Haynes’ description. The stories that grew up around the often slipper-shod professor were as colourful as the man who inspired them. Following his death last Friday, at the age of 86, “Jim” Flynn’s former students will be recalling those stories with that tearful mixture of sadness and pride that distinguishes the passing of all truly outstanding individuals.

Flynn was not just a teacher of university students, however, but of two whole generations of New Zealand leftists. Born in Washington DC, Flynn was that rarest and most admirable of things – an American socialist. There are very few democratic nations in the world where it is harder to ply the socialist trade than the United States, and those who make the attempt require the most extraordinary fortitude.

The man after whom Flynn’ son is named, Eugene Victor Debs, spent years in a federal prison for the “crime” of opposing military conscription during the First World War. Flynn himself, although a prodigiously talented scholar, was repeatedly fired from his university posts on account of his membership of Debs’ Socialist Party of America. It didn’t help his career prospects that Flynn was also an active participant in the civil rights struggles of the 1950s and 60s. Not when the colleges that hired (and then fired) him were located south of the Mason-Dixon Line!

The American South’s loss proved to be New Zealand’s gain, however, when Flynn and his wife, Emily, sought refuge in what was still regarded, in the late-1960s, as one of the world’s most successful social-democratic nations.

The politics department which Flynn brought into being at the University of Otago, and which he would lead for the next 30 years, largely eschewed the sterile empiricism of “political science”, offering its students, instead, a strong grasp of the philosophical and historical origins of political ideas. To do well in Flynn’s “political studies” department, students not only had to be able to count, they also had to be able to read. (Nothing so alarmed Flynn in the latter part of his career than the dramatic fall-off in ‘voluntary’ reading among under-graduates.)

Although the contemporary university is legally obligated to be the “critic and conscience” of society, it is an obligation more honoured in the breach than in the observance. That could never be said of Flynn, however, who threw himself into the political life of his adopted country with gusto. He had hardly unpacked his belongings before he was quietly advising the Leader of the Labour Opposition, Norman Kirk, on New Zealand’s foreign policy options. In Dunedin, he soon became one of the leading-lights in the Committee on Vietnam. Whether it be leading an anti-war march down George Street, or debating socialism with his students in the Captain Cook Tavern, the lanky figure of the bearded professor soon became a fixture of the academic left in Otago.

In New Zealand, as in the rest of the world, the “Red Seventies” were roughly shouldered aside by the Neoliberal Eighties and Nineties. For Flynn, one of the most egregious effects of the “free-market” counter-revolution was the re-emergence of “Scientific Racism” – especially the notion that the IQ of Blacks was inherently inferior to that of Whites.

To counter this old and pernicious heresy, Flynn immersed himself in, and mastered, the intricacies of psychology, statistical science and higher mathematics. The result: an empirical demonstration of the social malleability of intelligence “scores”, now known, universally, as the “Flynn Effect”, undercut decisively the arguments of the new “racial scientists” – most particularly, Arthur Jensen and Charles Murray.

It was a genuinely “classical” demonstration of the way in which propositions one believes to be without foundation should be countered. Not for Flynn the contemporary preference for naming and shaming one’s opponent’s on social media; “de-platforming” them from all university venues; and presenting them with the choice of either offering-up a humiliating recantation and apology, or, losing their jobs. Flynn simply went in search of the evidence. If it wasn’t there, then the propositions of one’s opponents could be exposed as academically unsustainable.

For Flynn it was never about “bad people” peddling “bad ideas”: it was only ever about inadequately supported propositions. And, the best way to demonstrate their inadequacy was to challenge them on their own terms, in public, with the evidence.

It is, without doubt, one of the most important intellectual lessons of this “legendary teacher”: that truth is the product of free and open debate; and that any university unwilling to stand up for free and open debate is, ultimately, unworthy of the name.

Arguably, Flynn’s most important political lesson is the principle he did so much to enshrine in both the NewLabour Party, and in its successor, the Alliance. Significantly, it is based on the same intellectual rigour that gave birth to the Flynn Effect.

Essentially, Flynn’s political argument was a simple one. It is ethically insupportable and, ultimately, electorally self-defeating, for a left-wing political party to make promises to the electorate which it cannot show to be fiscally sustainable. Left-wing political leaders, said Flynn, have a moral obligation to demonstrate, by drawing up a mathematically coherent Alternative Budget, how all the good things they are promising will be paid for.

Does this approach have a political cost? Of course it does! Voters don’t like to hear that their taxes will need to be raised and/or new taxes imposed. But, Flynn’s argument was that until the electorate can be persuaded that paying higher taxes is a necessary condition for living in a just society, then any electoral victories on the part of the Left will only ever be temporary. The mission of the true democratic socialist, argued Flynn, was not, primarily, to win votes in the short term, but to effect a long-term change of voters’ hearts and minds – by telling them the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

Idealistic? Quixotic? Naïve? Flynn was called all of those things in his time. At no point, however, did I hear anyone, from either the far- or the centre-left, demonstrate the fault in Flynn’s operating principles for a genuinely democratic socialism. As he proved in relation to race and intelligence, if the numbers do not stack-up, then neither does the argument.

Though a life-long atheist, Flynn was not above offering his classes and comrades the odd biblical quotation. One of his favourites was from the Book of Ecclesiastes:

I returned and saw under the sun that – The race is not to the swift, Nor the battle to the strong, Nor bread to the wise, Nor riches to men of understanding, Nor favour to men of skill; But time and chance happen to them all.

I always thought of it as a curiously self-refuting quotation. For if time and chance determine all things, then the quest for truth and justice is vain and doomed to disappointment. But, perhaps, it is in that quote from Ecclesiastes that we find the true measure of James R. Flynn: philosopher, mathematician, socialist. That in spite of all the evidence to the contrary, the pursuit of truth and justice remains the only accurate test of our determination to become fully human.

This essay was originally posted on the Interest.co.nz website on Monday, 14 December 2020.


Shane McDowall said...

Never heard of the man.

Having just read your article I can see this is my loss.

And what a loss he is to New Zealand's academia and public discourse.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

"I returned and saw under the sun that – The race is not to the swift, Nor the battle to the strong, Nor bread to the wise, Nor riches to men of understanding, Nor favour to men of skill; But time and chance happen to them all."

I was sad to see that Jim Flynn had died – I use his research often to refute the claims of racists and "race realists" (the new self descriptor for racists). I keep a Listener article about him in a drawer ready to bring out at the drop of a hat. I've had to use it so often it's looking a bit tattered now.
I think though all he means by the above quote is that luck plays a tremendous role in one's monetary success. Something that is backed up by actual research, and research which he almost certainly had read, given his interest in such matters.

Brendan McNeill said...

Good morning Chris

Since you are quoting from Ecclesiastes and in a spirit of good will, I thought it worth sharing another quote from the same book; something that might both instruct and amuse your readers:

Ecclesiastes 10:2

"The heart of the wise inclines to the right,
but the heart of the fool to the left."

greywarbler said...

I have just come across J G Ballard, now dead. Professor James R. Flynn would no doubt have read him. Ballard seems similarly as complex and thoughtful. Here are a few of Ballard's thoughts from Wikiquote in relation to where we are going, the obstacles, and what might be our pathway in Chris Trotter's words to, the pursuit of truth and justice remains the only accurate test of our determination to become fully human.

1 For the sake of my children and grandchildren, I hope that the human talent for self-destruction can be successfully controlled, or at least channelled into productive forms, but I doubt it. I think we are moving into extremely volatile and dangerous times, as modern electronic technologies give mankind almost unlimited powers to play with its own psychopathology as a game. "JG Ballard: Theatre of Cruelty" interview by Jean-Paul Coillard in Disturb ezine (1998)

2 I began to become an adult when I was 24 and got married and had children. That matures you, but I wouldn't say I was fully an adult until I was in my forties. The trouble with the whole adult debate is that if you're asking 18-year-olds to go out and fight wars for you then you can't deny them adult rights even though in sorts of other ways they wouldn't qualify until they were about 25. These days adolescence stretches much further into adulthood than it used to. There's no longer any encouragement to be mature. As quoted in Elevator Music (1994) by Joseph Lanza

3 Everywhere — all over Africa and South America … you see these suburbs springing up. They represent the optimum of what people want. There's a certain sort of logic leading towards these immaculate suburbs. And they're terrifying, because they are the death of the soul … This is the prison this planet is being turned into. Interview (30 October 1982) in Re/Search no. 8/9 (1984)

4 The uneasy marriage of reason and nightmare which has dominated the 20th century has given birth to an increasingly surreal world. More and more, we see that the events of our own times make sense in terms of surrealism rather than any other view — whether the grim facts of the death-camps, Hiroshima and Viet Nam, or our far more ambiguous unease at organ transplant surgery and the extra-uterine foetus, the confusions of the media landscape with its emphasis on the glossy, lurid and bizarre, its hunger for the irrational and sensational. The art of Salvador Dalí, an extreme metaphor at a time when only the extreme will do, constitutes a body of prophecy about ourselves unequaled in accuracy since Freud's "Civilization And Its Discontents". Voyeurism, self-disgust, the infantile basis of our fears and longings, and our need to pursue our own psychopathologies as a game — these diseases of the psyche Dali has diagnosed with dismaying accuracy. His paintings not only anticipate the psychic crisis which produced our glaucous paradise, but document the uncertain pleasures of living within it. The great twin leitmotifs of the 20th century — sex and paranoia — preside over his life, as over ours.
"Introduction" to Diary of a Genius (1974) by Salvador Dalí

And finally, from Professor James R. Flynn himself:
“The mind is more like a muscle than we once believed. It is something that must be constantly exercised to attain and maintain peak fitness. Just as an athlete must train harder and harder as he or she matures, so children must think with greater and greater complexity as they pass through school.”
― James R. Flynn, Where Have All the Liberals Gone?: Race, Class, and Ideals in America

Anonymous said...

Thank you for prompting me to re-read some of Flynns life. I also noted that he maintained his relevance up until his passing; I didn't know that he could have had much to contribute to the upcoming debate on Hate speech.

From his Wikipedia entry: "In 2019 Flynn was told that his new book In Defence of Free Speech: The University as Censor would not be published by an English publisher, Emerald press, who had previously accepted it and scheduled it for publication. It was thought "too controversial" under the United Kingdom's laws about 'hate speech' as the intent is irrelevant if it is thought likely that "racial hatred could be stirred up as a result of the work."[32] Academica Press later published the book under the title A Book Too Risky to Publish: Free Speech and Universities.[33]"


BlisteringAttack said...

I recall the staggering volume of his lectures as a young student.

And many years later I have made up my own reading lists.

Just like the Touchlight List.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

"The heart of the wise inclines to the right,
but the heart of the fool to the left."

So using the Bible to call those of us on the left fools is "amusing" Brendan? Hilarious. You see this is the reason why there are so few conservative comedians. Here's a few quotes I think you should read and reflect on.

“Even so ye also outwardly appear righteous unto men, but within ye are full of hypocrisy and iniquity.” [Matthew 23:28 KJV]

“And again I say unto you, It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.” [Matthew 19:24 KJV]

“And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.” [Matthew 6:5 KJV]

Now if you want a really amusing biblical quote, try Ezekiel 23:19

Nick J said...

Bloody hell Grey, where to start, that is some powerful reading matter. The thing that stands out to me is the attempt to discern reality and sense from how the world is presented to us. Ballards view on age of maturity reflects that of Peterson who observes it through years of clinical practice. I mention Peterson because a large number of people damn his every statement, yet here is maybe some observed reality. It appears to me that our perception of reality diminishes as we narrow our sources. Surely we are better to give them all light of day to determine their merits. At heart that is why I oppose defining hate speach. Better put it on full view to be publically refuted and if libellous, seditious or slanderous prosecuted.

Nick J said...

GS, luck certainly plays a part in monetary success but im not sure as to how far. For years I was a highly paid corporate salesman, later I selected hired and ran high end sales teams. Some empirical observations tend to display luck differently.
If the sales person isnt able to bridge class and gender barriers he/she is going to need luck. People tend to buy from people who are like them, this indicates to me more class and gender bias than luck.
To make the sales that make the money it helps that luck of birth gives you the intelligence to understand complex scenarios, and the personality type to be able to present persuasive answers. Another lucky trait that it helps to have is an understanding of the Pareto Principle of when to focus or walk away.
I suppose in summary that in my past line of work monetary success really spanned predetermination to straight luck. All I can say is that to me it all appeared very predictable as to who got monetary success in sales.

Brendan McNeill said...


We can always do with a little more humour in our lives.... As for conservative comedians, State side there is: (although not my favourite) Dennis Miller:


The UK gives us Rowan Atkinson. Here he is defending free speech, his comedy you can find elsewhere:


And for the not so religious, Christianity today provides 7 comedic moments in the Bible.


Have a great Christmas. ;-)

greywarbler said...

NickJ and GS and Chris Trotter of course. Happy Christmas/*\ and you may even make merry! It has been good this year to read you and nut out your points, interesting and thoughtful, and I thank you for any comments on mine. I hope I can continue to see yours in 2021.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

"“So many of the clerics that I’ve met, particularly the Church of England clerics, are people of such extraordinary smugness and arrogance and conceitedness who are extraordinarily presumptuous about the significance of their position in society."

He certainly doesn't seem to be very religious.

"I am NOT voting Labour or Conservative at the General Election"– Rowan Atkinson.

It's a little presumptuous of you to assume that because someone is in favour of free speech – largely the arts' right to insult – that they are right wing Brendan.

Same to you grey. I always read your comments with interest.

John Hurley said...

From what I have read the Flynn Effect is real but it stopped and we have what we have: 1. Ashkenazi Jews 2.East Asians 3. Whites 4. Black. Bottom Australian Aboriginals.

Why would people living in separate environments turn out the same?

greywarbler said...

John Hurley puts a good point -
Why would people living in separate environments turn out the same?
Perhaps that's the precise question that human life turns upon.

Black aboriginals don't register high on a cityfied, westernised religious scale because they know things that are important to their physical and emotional survival; that have enabled them to live in a harsh environment for thousands? of years, using the renewable resources around them. This article refers to their methods, one being that of intentional burning before the dry season to limit size of any random fire. Something that has been remembered and in valuable use in Australia today and which possibly we need to start practising here.

Seeing they didn't have films and television to present them pre-masticated stories, they pondered and devised their own.

This about neanderthals -
In this impressive reassessment Neanderthals emerge as complex, clever and caring, with a lot to tell us about human life

The illustration of difference in thinking and behaviour to the westerner, can be picked up from comparisons as in the upstairs, downstairs kind, of lives of the different classes under the same same mansion roof. The Admirable Crichton by J M Barrie has been filmed giving a westerner's view of the wide differences at close quarters. Has Kenneth More, Diane Cilento, Cecil Parker.

Also pertinent to today - the theme that UKs public/private schools turn out young men and women divorced from the rigours and concerns of normal human society has recently come to the fore; I think of Boris Johnson and back to Margaret Thatcher. The theory is that these people are abandoned to a training system for narrow minds who learn to know everything and yet not how to value humanity. They are brought up in clinical fashion, without real role models and simple, honest affection from their parents and caregivers, with bouts of small torture, bullying etc. which demean the individual/s abused, and brutalise the souls of the perpetrators. See Posh Boys - https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/jun/29/posh-boys-english-public-schools-robert-verkaik-review

And this from an Indian writer from Varanassi, a special place forming background to a special thinker?
...he set out to challenge many “Anglo-American delusions”, to respond to the “misrepresentations and downright falsehoods that had built up over decades”. The rot, as Mishra sees it, stemmed from the self-serving optimism of 19th-century rationalists such as John Stuart Mill, who saw liberalism as compatible with having colonies abroad. Popular histories still portray the two world wars as predominantly European conflicts, though millions of Asian and African colonial subjects were enlisted as soldiers on both sides.

Perhaps here at the bottom of the world, we can take a naughty view of the world above us, looking up the trousers and skirts that hide the ordinary human bodies and appendages; a different and speculative view that breaks through the crust of middle class convention and complacency.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

"Why would people living in separate environments turn out the same?"

You obviously don't know anything about education or about intelligence. For one thing there is no such thing as "black" – that's a completely unscientific and vague designation – and until you can come up with a proper definition of that your statement is meaningless, however hard you people work to make racism respectable.
There is no consensus on what intelligence actually is, there is no proof that a single number can measure it, and no one can show that it depends on heredity. For that matter, no one can actually show that success depends on intelligence either.
So we don't "have what we have" and you certainly don't know what we have.

Geoff Fischer said...

I don't believe that Ecclesiastes 10:2 has any relevance to the modern dichotomy between the political "left" and "right" (which had its origin, I believe, in the Roman Republic).
It would appear to relate to the "normal" condition of right-handedness, and suggests that the wise man's heart will incline to that which is best suited to give practical effect to its desires (the "right hand").
All in all, a difficult text to decipher, and one that needs to be dissociated from any prejudice against the left-handed among us, but it helps our understanding if we remember that God is not a politically partisan smarty-pants.