One of the things I’ve noticed a lot during lockdown is the number of puppies around. We got a new puppy a bit before the age of COVID, after one of our old dogs passed on. It’s clear a lot of people in the neighbourhood and on zoom also have new puppies.

It’s hard not to love puppies.

Puppies look cute – big eyes – but it is their behaviour that is most enchanting. They are playful and mischievous.

I look at the world through the lens of a geneticist. I hypothesise that domestic dogs have particular genes that breeders have selected which make them puppy-like compared to wolves. Some dogs, and some people, probably keep those genes on at higher levels throughout their lives and are consistently more puppy-like.

In biology this is called neoteny – eternal youth. Axolotls are famous for it. They are like Salamander tadpoles that never turn into frogs. Peter Pan. To varying degrees other animals retain youthful features, and more importantly here, behaviours, throughout their lives.

This year we’ve seen plenty of puppies on zoom but in normal life puppies, and indeed puppy-like people, aren’t included in serious management meetings.

Very young people aren’t invited because they won’t have had the opportunity to demonstrate their expertise and develop gravitas. Older people, with puppy-like traits, are unlikely to be taken seriously enough to rise through the ranks and be included. And as well as being playful puppies are also mischievous. To avoid problems most meetings are populated by people more like Jeeves than Bertie Wooster. Too much playfulness can undermine authority.

But there are several obvious consequences to the bias against youth. Firstly, governing groups tend to include people whose average age is greater than the people they govern, and whose average playfulness is less. The neural diversity of the group will be limited and there is a risk that things become too serious. The wisdom of experience is a good thing, but battle scars can also leave people jaded, pessimistic, and even risk averse.

You might think it doesn’t matter if serious things are treated seriously. But, sometimes, taking things too seriously can lead to managerialism and to great waste. We would save a lot of time if we remembered to ask our puppies or indeed our children – what’s important? Are we sweating the small stuff? Or other questions like should we invest here or even should we go to war?

Satirists, cartoonists, and puppies prompt critical thinking. Sometimes it’s vital to listen out for giggling about the Emperor having no clothes. That story is widely known throughout our culture but it deserves more thought. Typically it is the Emperor’s vanity that lets him down and the fear of his citizens. But one can also imagine a version of the story where it is the kindness, the loyalty, the solidarity of the citizens, who love their ageing Emperor, that prevents them from correcting the error of a doddery old man. Puppies, through their independence, can correct errors that arise from vices and virtues alike. In the privileged academic world I inhabit I see more errors arising from well-intended virtue than vice, and I rely on puppies to point them out.

The Cambridge political scientist David Runciman has famously proposed that the voting age be lowered to six to ensure that as lifespans stretch out the voice of the young is not overwhelmed. I think this is an important idea.

One way universities serve society is by being cradles of eternal youth. Students are like axolotls. The student population itself doesn’t age. It’s important that we find ways of amplifying that voice and helping students speak to the broader society.

In university administration we also have to listen. At my institution we care about student surveys (imperfect though they are). We also include student representatives on many different committees, including the governing body (our Council). But it’s also important to optimise the ways of listening to these representatives. The Privy Council apparently ensures that the most junior person speaks first to prevent the established voices dominating proceedings. One has to take active steps to reverse entrenched hierarchies and ensure youth is heard.

As our society ages, as wealth concentrates in the older generations, as traditions dry, harden and set, it becomes increasingly important that we find ways to inject the happy, optimistic, unsullied, and sometimes disruptive voices of puppies. We should sometimes value playfulness and absurdity, rather than always lionising gravitas, in order to prevent pomposity and imperial vanity taking over. Puppies can unite communities and their energy and optimism is infectious.

Our old dog was fairly wary of our new mischievous new puppy at first, but she soon learnt to accept it. Now she joins in play and prances about like she used to when she was young. It looks exhausting but I expect it’s also a good feeling. Having a few happy puppies around should help to distract us and to remember- to paraphrase Wilde: there are somethings in life that are too important to be taken seriously.

Professor Merlin Crossley is Deputy Vice-Chancellor Academic and Student Life at UNSW



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