Dennis O’Keeffe RIP


lacnov02ac1djok1With deepest regret, I must report that Dennis O’Keeffe died early in the morning of Tuesday the 16th December 2014. He died peacefully, surrounded by his loved ones, and after a long illness. There will, in due course, be newspaper obituaries. These will supply full details of his life and his notable achievements. All I will do here is publish an old diary entry, to serve as a personal appreciation of one of the most remarkable men I have known. SIG

Monday 29th July 2002

Last Wednesday, we went off to the University of Buckingham, where Dennis O’Keeffe has been appointed Professor of Sociology. That evening, he was to give his inaugural lecture. I drove into the centre to give my lecture on Economics. This done, I collected Merrie Cave, Editor of The Salisbury Review and Michael Connolly, whom I knew from about twelve years ago, when he was a colleague of Dennis at the North London Polytechnic. Then I collected Mrs Gabb from Finsbury Park Underground Station. The journey to Buckingham was uneventful but long. Dennis has suggested I should go there and teach. Getting there from London is a bind—from Deal will never do.

The University campus is an entire village out in the country. It reminded me rather of York. Used to the grittier London places, I had forgotten how nice universities can be out in the country. I suppose in the mid 1970s, it was cheap enough to buy all that land. I wouldn’t like to think of its present value.

The lecture was impressive. Dennis never thought he would make it to a professorship, and he had worked hard on the lecture. But let me pause here and say something about him. It’s all scattered through other entries. But let me draw it together and summarise it in one place.

I first met Dennis O’Keeffe in August 1988, when the Libertarian Alliance put on a lecture by David Friedman at the IEA. The lecture was interesting, but memorable now only because of Dennis. I bumped into him after the lecture was over. He was a small, fat man with white hair and a bow tie and an accent so artificially clipped, I thought at first he was German. He was there with a very handsome young man who looked so like him I knew he was the son. I didn’t speak to them, but I was not likely to forget the meeting.

I next met him again the September after next, when Dr Tame took me off to North London to attend an evening seminar course that Dennis had started to amuse himself after a day of putting up with his lefty colleagues at the Polytechnic. He was at the time a senior lecturer in the Education Department. Brian Micklethwait was also there, I think. I forget who else was there, and cannot be bothered to look up the relevant entry. Dennis sat at the head of the table, announcing that all the ills of society proceeded from our “socialist education system”. Afterwards in the Student Union Bar, he developed this and other themes.

The bald facts sound boring. But they didn’t seem so to me. Without knowing what was happening, I was drawn into the O’Keeffe orbit. Tuesday evening became the high point of my week. I think my first visit was the first seminar, as within a few weeks, the chaotic structure of that first evening had firmed into something more formal. Every week, one of us would deliver a paper, on any subject we chose. The only rules were that we should announce the subject in advance, that copies were to be circulated at the beginning of the evening, and that the presentation was to be around the paper, not a straight reading. The other rule was that the meeting finished sharp at nine, so we could all retire for an hour in the Student Union bar or in some other drinking establishment chosen by Dennis. Here, the conversation would continue until we all got tired.

This was a disaster for my career in the Civil Service. Though I hated drafting legal documents and giving procedural advice to Judges, I was able to put up with the boredom by keeping on moderately good terms with my colleagues. One of the chief means of keeping in with them was to go on the first Tuesday of every month to dinner at some restaurant that we all took turns in choosing. So the first Tuesday of every month presented me with a choice—Dennis or my colleagues. I never thought there was a choice worth considering. August 1989 was my last attendance at the monthly dinners. Over the next few months, I found my colleagues growing more distant from me. When, in February 1990, that beast [name deleted] decided to have a go at me, I was effectively without friends. It was now only a matter of when I resigned, not when. I knew it was time to go when, in the November of 1990, I sat up all night finishing my seminar paper on the law of incest. I went to bed at five, and got up at nine to call in sick. A few weeks later, and I had resigned, and my life started anew.

In the purely negative sense, Dennis had done me an immeasurable favour. But for his providing me with something more interesting to do on Tuesday evenings, I might even now be dragging out a miserable existence in the Civil Service, assisting in the production of legal instruments for the most evil government in British history. Everyone can think of times when a wrong turn was made in life, and speculate on what might have happened without it. I’m lucky enough to be able to look back on a right turn. However bad I may sometimes think matters actually are, I know exactly how worse they could be.

But I celebrate my friendship with Dennis for the positive things that have flowed form it. First, there is the joy of knowing him. Dennis has always reminded me of Dr Johnson—the unfinished portrait by Reynolds in the National Portrait Gallery could be Dennis in a brown wig. His manner of conversation is also Johnsonesque—a mixture of goodness, religious piety, common sense, dogmatic utterance and crushing wit. Like Johnson, he also has got better with age. His stilted manner has softened over the years into something much more relaxed. His later writing is better than his earlier, and his name will live on the basis of what he has done in the past five years. Of course, as with Johnson, his real glory is his conversation. Sadly, he has had no Boswell. I come closest. I am too lazy to go back over my old diary entries, but I think I have briefly summarised some of the gems from our public house adjournments of the late 1980s. One day, I may extract and publish these—though one day, I may do many things!

In 1991, the seminars moved out of the Polytechnic—some trouble, I think, with the rooms—and were now in the FOREST office in Central London. They continued otherwise unchanged, and I was delivering a paper every month. By now, Dennis was a close friend, and was encouraging me to write my thesis on the history of state education. This never worked out, though he did examine me when I wrote my public choice analysis of English liberalism since the 17th century.

I stopped attending his seminars when I went to Czechoslovakia. Nowadays, I’d set up a videoconferencing session. Then, I was cut off from England as effectively as if I’d gone to the Moon. But I met him again near the end of my time there. He called me at my office to say he was giving some lectures in Olomouc and would be pleased if I could get over the next day from Bratislava. I was supposed to be having a final lunch with the Prime Minister. Ths time, there was a contest. Even so, Dennis half won. I divided my time between him and the Prime Minister. I had lunch, but left early, getting with Mrs Gabb into a government car and going at over 100 MPH up the motorway. We had neglected to make any agreement of where to meet, however. Mrs Gabb and I got out of the car and wandered at random through the streets of the old town. No mobile telephones in those far off days—or none for me at any rate. Suddenly, I heard Dennis round a corner, denouncing something Communist. There he was with a Czech friend. We had coffee and then a nice dinner at his expense. He fitted us up with a room in the student halls of residence at the university.

Over dinner, he explained that he had got himself a contract with the Department of Education—or whatever it was called at the timeto study patterns of truancy in England and Wales. His research showed what any fool knew, but what no other writer on the subject had noticed—that children stay away from school because they don’t like going. He commissioned me to write the introductory literature survey to his book. He paid me more than the thing was probably worth, and this was welcome cash, bearing in mind I was flat broke and about to get married and return to England. My chapter was well received, and is now considered one of the best overviews of truancy research into the 1990s. Every few weeks, I get an e-mail from some writer asking if he can quote the version I published on my website. It deserves to be good, bearing in mind I absented myself from school for about 40 per cent of the first three years of my own secondary education. I wrote from experience!

Back in England, the seminars started again, though I was unable to get to all of them, and the life seemed to have gone out of them. But Dennis remained a good friend and benefactor. In August 1994, he took me to a conference in America, to speak about truancy there, and I wrote up my paper for another of his books—again being paid more than I was worth. I also met Bruce Cooper, an American academic, who remains a good friend, though we only ever communicate by E-mail.

At last, as said, Dennis was there to examine my thesis. He obviously wanted to get me through, but gave me a very professional hard time.

I therefore regard Dennis as one of my best friends and as a wonderfully generous benefactor. How could I possibly criticise his lecture?

The answer is that I won’t. It was a good one. He sat at the front of a big hall, dressed in a black academic robe, Lord Harris chairing the event. As he looked round the crowded room, I could see on his face the pride mingled with fear—pride at having achieved an ambition he had almost abandoned, fear at having to give the lecture of his career in front of a fairly distinguished audience. There was David Conway, Professor of Philosophy at Middlesex. There was David Marsland, Professor of Research Methods at Brunel. There was Norman Barry, Professor of something somewhere in the Midlands. There was Julian Morris, someone big at the IEA. There was his wife, his son, his future daughter-in-law. There were many others—all distinguished in their fields, all waiting for Dennis to show his full abilities. Failing to impress in these circumstances is not something to think lightly about.

To switch comparisons, there is something Beethovenian about his style of lecturing—a combination of hard thought and a forward, driving rhythm that holds the attention. A good lecturer holds attention by a combination of subject matter, body language and voice inflection. Dennis is a very good lecturer. Though I’d have hated studying any of the subjects he taught at North London, I wish even so I’d had him as a lecturer.

The subject of his lecture was standard for Dennis. There is, he said, a contradiction at the heart of our society. We live in one of the richest, most successful societies that has ever existed. Modernity depends on property rights secured by an impersonal framework of general laws, in which we can develop and use our human and physical capital to the best of our ability. Yet we have an education system that denies all the assumptions on which our success is built. The system has been captured by a pack of educational bureaucrats and academics who daily preach the evil of all that we have achieved, who deny the validity of our open society, and who have imposed a centrally-ordered curriculum that had denied millions of working class children the ability that he had of getting a good basic education and take advantage of the social mobility that capitalism has made possible. The answer is not to tinker with the system, but to replace it with something more receptive to consumer choice. We would never tolerate an economy run in this way, he said. Why do we tolerate an education system that reproduces the methods and failures of the old planned economies of the Soviet world? The middle classes can buy their way out of the system by sending their children to private schools. We need to find ways of extending this option of exit to the working classes. His solution is to abolish the compulsory attendance laws and to hand out vouchers to parents to let them buy the education of their choice.

Because I had heard all this many times before from Dennis, I was not startled by his lecture. I simply admired his ordering and presentation of familiar themes. Afterwards, Lord Harris asked for questions. There was a long pause, which I broke with a soft question about American education. There, I said, was a very diverse system, yet with all the problems of our own and worse. Indeed, I said, America was the home of political correctness. Dennis answered by saying that the American system is not that diverse, being regulated by the States; and then explaining that the real heart of political correctness and post-modernism was French—all from horrors like Foucault and Althusser. The ice broken, there was another 40 minutes of close question and answer.

Mrs Gabb had a harder question, but didn’t ask it. Dennis had been denouncing socialism in education, she told me afterwards. Yet she had received a standard socialist education in Czechoslovakia – nothing special, as she didn’t come from the privileged orders in that country—and this was vastly better than anything she had seen in England. She left school with a stock of mathematical and scientific knowledge that most undergraduates here don’t have. Including Czech, she also learnt four other languages. History and the other humanities, she admitted, were a joke; and probably the universities were far worse than ours outside the purely scientific faculties. But Dennis was surely wrong to denounce socialist educations on the grounds of technical incompetence.

Had she asked her question—and I wish she had—I am sure Dennis would have answered it as follows. Her country before 1989 was run by East European Communists. Yes, they had all the ridiculous economics of Marxism, and the police state means of enforcing them on the people. But they shared with Marx the old Germanic respect for learning and belief in its potential for improvement. Our own lefties are just an embittered clique of anti-nomians. They retain a vaguely Marxist economics, but are untouched by the educational traditions that Marx and his East European followers unthinkingly accepted. What they deliver here is an education that sends 20 per cent of working class children illiterate into the adult world, and the other 80 per cent ignorant of history, mathematics, the natural sciences, and just about everything else worth knowing.

I had another objection to what Dennis said, though a question about it would have taken too long to ask and to answer. This is that Dennis is too persuaded by the Francis Fukuyama line—that we are at the “end of history”. Modernity, he seems to believe, is something quite unlike anything that has ever existed before, and it will eventually bring all humanity into a common civilisation of liberal democratic capitalism. I don’t believe this for a minute. We are undoubtedly richer than in all other ages, and have more control over our physical environment. But these are superficial advantages. They allow a wider distribution than ever before to the highest values of our civilisation, but don’t determine what those values are. What makes our civilisation so special is its openness and toleration of diversity. But our open society is not the only one that has ever been. The Greek city states managed one. So, in a less transfiguring way, did the Roman Empire of the first and second centuries. Both passed away. I don’t believe that our own will last. Dennis is right that our educational arrangements are largely to blame. But I don’t agree that marketising these will do nearly enough to prevent another collapse. The flight from rationality and trust in the individual pervade nearly all our institutions, private as well as public. Indeed, while institutions have an influence on what people think, they are much more an emanation of our thoughts—and it is our thoughts that are now generally corrupted.

Dennis is an optimist. I am not. Our civilisation and all of its works will pass away, and will do so noticeably in the time of many now alive. It will be replaced by a universal and scientifically advanced despotism that will then itself crumble into a new dark age of superstition and local brigandage. Certainly, reforming education will help in the short term—which makes it worth doing—but I doubt if it will do more than delay the collapse that is waiting for us.

Yes—I was right not to put this one. It would only have depressed everyone, or had them lose patience with me. Indeed, having written the above, I’m not so sure I am right. Perhaps getting the State out of education will do the job. Perhaps a better educated citizenry will mean a less credulous media than we now have and less worthless politicians than now get elected. After all, would the Great War have been so bloody without the state educations that fitted the European masses to put up so meekly with the hate-filled propaganda and incompetent strategies that led to horrors like the Somme and Verdun? I don’t know.

Dinner was nice, but I’ve had enough of this entry.

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7 comments

  • Pingback: Education in a Communist system - Barrel Strength

  • Dennis was a rare friend. I related to him that I once asked 50 Soviet programmers in the 1970s who were on a Fortran course, what gave their start in life. The answer was almost unanimous “Inspirational teaching”. This implied flexibility, love of youngsters and subjects in the 1960s post personal catastrophes of WW2. Mervyn Bragg once referred to the wonderfu teaching and coaching he received from British returned servicemen who had vowed to give youngsters hope and love, if they survived the war.
    We were in Moscow but the programmers came from various Soviet towns and cities. I told them that in the UK I got different answers and many students would say that official schooling was a miserable experience.. It seemed to us that in the USSR, education was centrally administered but not subject to curriculum diktat a in the UK. My 2 children aged 6 and 8 are now at Petrschule, in
    St Petersburg for 2 terms, safe from the brainwashing of the english education system

    • I’ve never been to Russia, but I do know several of the former satellite states rather well. What surprised me when I was first out there wasn’t so much the character deformations we all knew about, as the considerable human decency to be found at almost every level.

  • Shocked and hugely sad to hear this sad news. Dennis as well as being a profound intellect was incredibly modest and wore his greatness lightly and humorously. All in all one of the most interesting and elegant individuals I have ever met. I can very vividly remember his voice and lovely presence after many years of not having been in his company. I will always cherish the memory of the salons he used to hold at the PNL in Kentish Town, probably 20/25 years ago now.

  • It is very sad that Dr O’Keeffe has died – I hope he has gone to a better place. And that his family and friends will see him again.

    Dr O’Keeffe was always kind to me – in spite of having to suffer a lot from my half brother (“Tony” Marks) at North London.

    Amusingly Dr O’Keeffe refused to believe that I was related to his Marxist “colleague” at North London – “but he is of Jewish origin and you are obviously Irish”. Given the name of Dr O’Keeffe I chose to take this is a complement, although as my voice is entirely English in accent, I was a bit taken aback by his judgement.

  • Friends: your kind messages are much appreciated by me and Mum. The funeral is on Monday 29th in Ealing. It has proven difficult to get the news to everyone: Dad had so many friends from different walks of life. If you would like to come just drop me an email matthew_okeeffe@hotmail.com

    • I shall be there

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