A life of service

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Artwork by Mark Palfreyman

Prince Philip, husband and consort of Queen Elizabeth II of England, died on 9th April 2021. The obituaries and epitaphs, of which there have been many, have been united in noting and praising his life of service. There is however something curious about a person who was born into royalty and spent the majority of his life living in pampered opulence being celebrated for selflessness.

What resolves this apparent contradiction was the Prince’s adherence to the notion of Duty – an acknowledgment that being the recipient of wealth and good fortune incurs an obligation of repayment. Being favoured by luck means devoting oneself to others who have not had the same benefit of privilege. It means giving back.

And it’s not only royalty that incurs that duty.

Because many people seldom venture outside the boundaries of the society they’re born into, it’s easy for them to be blinded to the moving parts that compose it. Perhaps especially so in the West, where we’re weaned on legends of rugged self-reliance and individual resourcefulness, with gifted men and women rising to the top by dint of personal brilliance.

We forget that no matter how empowered, how strongminded, how independent we feel, we’re actually in it together – and the taxes that our government collects from us makes that formal. The money levied from its citizens is used by government to pay for its programmes. The cash spent by charities is derived from donations by individual citizens.

If you receive public money, that means that society – the people around you, acting through their elected representatives – is investing in you. You are receiving money given by your fellow citizens in order to perform some function that you’ve either been commissioned to do or promised to do.

In academia, that public investment comes principally in two forms: teaching and research.

Teaching means receiving public money in order to increase the general level of societal learning, primarily through engagement with the young. You take the benefit of your knowledge and way of thinking, and both transmit it and use it to inspire others. Teaching’s often undramatic reputation hides the fact that this is arguably the most direct and the most profound way in which academics of all stripes utilise their acquired knowledge: they are proactively and productively engaging with very large numbers of interested members of society, namely their students.

Research means taking public money, awarded competitively, to obtain new knowledge. Here, the public contract is often more indirect: you take public money in order that the results of your work lead directly or indirectly to new technologies, new treatments, or new perspectives. Research is usually portrayed as the more glamorous side of the academic life (which perhaps it is, given that its workings resemble those of a casino), but academics are not lying when they assert that the potential benefits are vast – the coronavirus vaccines are the most recent and tangible demonstration of the accumulated value of decades of work across a spectrum of research fields.

Academics are prone to boast that they are paid simply to follow their curiosity, which is true, but it overlooks the usual source of that money, namely their fellow citizens.

We may be mercenaries in some degree, able to change societies and move to where money is available, but it’s still given to us in trust and on behalf of the people of that society. The public is donating it, indirectly, via the government institutions its taxes support. They are investing in us to educate them and to make new findings, and the promise always is that in so doing, we learn more about ourselves, more about the world around us, and we can harness that knowledge to improve their lives and hopefully, those of people the world over.

We owe it to them to repay that trust. Through our hard work, through our best efforts, and through our commitment. We are taking public money, we are the beneficiaries of privilege, and we must therefore – in some way – pay it back.

And in that sense, we’re all royalty.

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