Oakeshott’s definition of the university

Oaskeshott, M. J. 1967. The Definition of a University. The Journal of Educational Thought / Revue de la Pensée Éducative, 1 (3), pp. 129-142

Writing four years after the publication of the Robbins report, Oakeshott responds here to a ‘confusion about the nature of a university and the character of a university education’. We could call it confusion. We could also call it ‘diversification’, or simply ‘change’.

I need to remind myself what benefit(s) Robbins had in mind when he decided that such a significant increase in the proportion of the population would benefit from a university education. Did he imagine that the influence would work both ways? That the university would indeed have an effect on this broader population of students, but the students would have an effect of equal significance on the university? Students are not the only agents in the system; students’ families, and those who employ their skills post-graduation, also push back on the structure of the university.

Unlike before, I found myself irritated by Oakeshott’s prose. For some reason, today, I seem to have projected a pompous tone onto it. The idea of a university as ‘resisting attempts to define it’ is irksome; the university is surely more a structure of our own construction than an actor in itself. He makes unsupported assumptions that students come with mixed or uncertain expectations. I have little sympathy for his discomfiting ontological doubt – I’m sure he would rather his own position was more stable. Wouldn’t we all. Welcome to supercomplexity, Michael – I imagine you still retired with a decent pension and a spare bedroom.

Oakeshott acknowledges the impact of the students – where they have come from, where they are going – on the university. (p134). He argues in favour of its place following on from compulsory schooling; ‘the most impressionable years’, where interests and relationships are formed for life, and momentous decisions are made. He is of the opinion that a university is a more ‘favourable’ context for these happenings to occur (this would be an interesting argument to interrogate). He does, however, describe these happenings as ‘chance opportunities’ rather than the ‘gifts it intentionally affords’, drawing on the rather dubious simile of a railway station as shelter from the rain.

I think what he goes on to say on p135 exposes the blurred boundary between the two; a boundary that Newman – writing 100 years earlier – did not attempt to draw.

Oakeshott describes a university education as a specialisation; the acquisition of a single skill, incorporating a body of ‘strictly limited’ information. The aim as he sees it is for man to fill a specific place in his society and to satisfy a current demand; to sustain a current manner of living. This vision is wholly conservative. Even his ‘different and complementary way’ of regarding the ‘inheritance of human achievement’  is concerned with understanding, explaining and sustaining our existing condition, rather than imagining and creating any future condition.

And then, out of nowhere, he describes these as ‘the skills we need for transforming the world’. Where did that come from? He also acknowledges that studying history or science, for example, when one is not oneself going to become an historian or a scientist, may be a defensible course of action, as the world needs those who can recognise and appreciate great works without necessarily participating in (creating?) them. So I’m left doubting the certainty of his position.

I like this bit…

“not being comparable to a light-industry (having no product, in the strict sense), nor to a store (having no sales-list of items for disposal), a university is apt to confound the accountants. Profit and loss, cost and return on capital are not easily calculable; indeed, there is something inappropriate in making the calculations. It illustrates the truth that there is nothing great in the world that does not involve waste, and that the human propensity to avoid waste (which has itself been erected into a science) is, perhaps, one of our greatest intellectual vanities.” (p139)

…and what really illuminates how much has changed since Oakeshott’s time is his recollection of his own experience at university, which as I am finding through my own conversations is a crucial factor in our individual understandings of the university as a concept: ‘…the feeling of being emancipated from the pressures of immediate achievement… the opportunity to make mistakes without having to pay heavily for them.’ (p140-141).

Here, Oakeshott repeats his claim that the university was the way it was because of his own wants and expectations, and those of his companions. He feels that if these had been different, the university as it was would have dissolved. He focuses in particular on the perception of a university degree as a ‘passport to social prestige, to power and to emolument’ (now, that’s a lovely word!). He observes that – even in 1967! – we have gone too far in this direction, and says that ‘we are wrong to confine our admiration to these [qualities]’ – again, a statement that is ripe for unpacking.

“The time may come when, in the face of the vulgarity of a single-minded devotion of the exploitation of the world and of the barbarism of instant affluence, learning will have to hide its head, and universities will survive only by the exercise of the courage of their calling and by becoming retreats devoted to keeping alive, in hostile circumstances, the great disinterested enquiries of mankind. But that time is not yet.” (p.142)

Is that time now, or is it too late? Did we already sell ourselves down the river?

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Possibly the dullest book in the world

Blessinger, P. and Anchan, J. P. 2015. Democratizing Higher Education: International Comparative Perspectives. Routledge.

I bought this book over a year ago for a princely sum, fresh off the first print run. When it arrived I was disappointed – not only because of the boring black spine with white letters (my bookshelves are ordered by colour) – the content looked pretty dull too.

I’m pretty confident the editors won’t read this (I wrote to Patrick Blessinger once and he didn’t reply), so I’ll be candid. For a start, it reads like the authors themselves weren’t particularly interested in what they were writing. Another major issue is the amount of unnecessary padding. A degree of repetition is understandable – necessary even – if you are setting up a novel and complex argument. If all you want to get across is that higher education systems are generally getting messier (except perhaps in Scandinavia, which is undergoing a sort of higher education spring clean, and Russia, where we’ve really no idea what’s going on), and that an understanding of global trends in HE policy and governance enables those who work in HE to view their practice in context, I don’t think that needs repeated explanation.

sad face

When I met Ron Barnett for tea and hobnobs, he impressed on me the importance of gaining a global perspective on these matters, given my desire to generate novel imaginings of the University. In hindsight, I should have just picked a diverse selection of countries and read about their HE systems on Wikipedia, but I paid good money for this book and I refuse to let it get the better of me. I also refuse to spend any longer on it after today. This post is getting written tonight, then I’m going to watch an hour of Bladerunner (which I’ve been told will fill a gaping chasm in my cultural education), and then I’m going to go to bed. Tomorrow will be a new day, without this book in it.

I’m going to run through the countries & regions covered in the book and just pick out things that were novel and of interest to me.

The US
I knew about the whole community college/public university/private university split (mainly from watching the surreal comedy series Community). What I didn’t know was that racial segregation still has a pronounced legacy in the US HE system, with over 100 historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). I enjoyed reading about these on Wikipedia; there are some interesting stats there about student wellbeing, academic support, etc., that shed some light on the attainment gap we have at UAL. It seems that in the US the stratification or clustering of HE institutions into different types is more pronounced (and more accepted?) than in the UK, where standardised metrics (REF/TEF/NSS) nudge us towards homogeneity.

Tuition fees at public universities in the US are similar to the UK, but have been that way for much longer, resulting in student loans being second only to mortgages in consumer debt. Most of the debt is federal, but there are several private student loan companies too (maybe you need a private student loan to attend a private university?!). The state of Oregon wants to pilot a graduate tax scheme called Pay It Forward, but that fact that it would take 20 years to pull in a surplus is apparently making everyone a bit too twitchy. Oh, short-term world.

There is no national education system in Canada; education is governed through the provinces (10) and territories (3). The full cost of university tuition is expensive – around twice that of the UK and US – with government funding focused on providing financial aid to the poorest 30%. Canada’s vast, rural territories are a real challenge to universal access. Long distances are a big issue. Canada led the way in ed tech development, but internet connectivity in rural areas is pretty poor too. First Nations people are underrepresented in Canadian universities with only 8% holding degrees.

I knew about the Bologna process and its aim of making credit frameworks compatible and facilitating the international movement of students. I didn’t know that the European HE Area had set common aims around widening access and quality assurance as well. Given that this is the case, I was a bit shocked to read that only half the Bologna countries systematically monitor participation in HE (by e.g. disability, gender, educational background etc). I guess I’m pretty used to everything being measured here.

I found it quite amusing that the EHEA doesn’t compare the quality of education itself – each country has its own QA measures, so it is the robustness of these quality assurance frameworks that is measured and then compared.  Ha. Measuring the quality of quality. Love it.

Portugal has access strategies in place that lower entry requirements for certain groups. They sound a bit blunt, a bit clunky… but hey, it’s a small country. I like Portugal. Great place.

Scandinavian countries have always had a strong commitment to the public funding of higher education. Saying that, neoliberalism does appear to be peering over the wall, notably in Denmark with the introduction of the Danish Productivity Commission. The rate of participation in HE is growing across Scandinavia and the current trend is towards centralisation, and merging of institutions.

Denmark has seen a massive reversal of the diversification of its HE institutions since the millennium, with large-scale mergers resulting in a shrinkage from around 150 institutions to only seven regional university colleges, nine business colleges and eight universities. Tuition is free for school-leavers, but a parallel system of work-based higher learning is only part-funded by the state.

In Sweden HE courses are free to all European citizens; other applicants have to pay full fees. Norwegian higher education is still free for everyone.

Most Scandinavian students leave home to go to university and, while financial support for students is relatively generous, many work to support themselves. Living costs in Scandinavia are relatively high – with the post-Brexit exchange rate, student living costs are comparable to London.

New Zealand appears to be grappling with similar issues to Canada regarding the educational attainment and social equality of its indigenous people (Maori and Pacific Islanders). New Zealand has eight universities, 20 polytechnics and three Wananga; publicly-owned institutions that provide university level education in a Maori cultural context.

Students contribute to tuition fees at a more modest level than in the UK/US, but this is on the rise as participation increases. Student loans have been interest-free since 2005. There is a shortage of graduate-level jobs. While there is a concern that NZ universities are slipping down the league table rankings due to policies that favour low student fees, modest public investment, and increased participation, the Tertiary Education Commission (TEC) is primarily concerned with the influence of universities on the economy.

South Africa
The South African HE system underwent complete restructuring since the end of Apartheid in 1994 and the dissolution of the Black (‘Bantu’) Education Act. Old institutions have merged and new comprehensive colleges have been set up. The country is aiming for a differentiated system of universities and community colleges, similar to the US, but the system remains unstable and the prognosis is uncertain. Internet connectivity is an issue.

Higher education has always been under state control in Russia. There have been periods of greater independence, for example following perestroika from 1985 to the 1990s. The chapter on Russia makes frequent allusions to ‘distorted measurements’ and gaps between official data and reality. The mobility of students between states is restricted because of the funding infrastructure, and international mobility is hampered by a number of factors, including money and language as well as differences in curriculum and credit transfer. 50% of students study on correspondence courses. Participation is decreasing, as is the number of higher education institutions. Closures and mergers are being executed in line with criteria that sound rather more absurd than those of the TEF. So we should count ourselves lucky, hey?

Hong Kong
High demand for undergraduate study in Hong Kong has resulted in a second tier of institutions offering sub-degrees; the limited number of publicly-funded institutions offering these having higher status than those requiring self-financing. This has some similarities with the community college system in the US, and the growth of community colleges in India.

Malaysia appears to have gone the whole hog with expanding and marketising its higher education system. The rhetoric in this chapter is very familiar – it is all about excellence and is unashamedly corporate.

In the penultimate chapter, Blessinger links back to Dewey’s seminal work Democracy and Education, I guess to make some sort of justification of why it is right and proper that higher education should be moving in the direction it is. He argues that as our social systems become more complex and interconnected, we need more formal, prolonged systems of learning to function properly within them.

And that’s about as much as I can take of this book.

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Kreber and Barnett on authenticity, strangeness and what it means to be a graduate

Kreber, C. 2014. Rationalising the nature of ‘graduateness’ through philosophical accounts of authenticity. Teaching in Higher Education, 19 (1), pp90-100.

While the internet was down at work, I read this. I hadn’t heard of Carolin Kreber before; her work was suggested to me by a fellow EdD student at our last meeting in Oxford, and I’m pretty happy about having found her.

Kreber makes connections between graduateness and authenticity. She equates Ron Barnett’s ‘capacity for coping with strangeness’ (2005, p794) with openness to experience, and explains how this links up with what she describes as an existential dimension of authenticity; how human being is affected by, and deals with, the challenges of being in the world. She presents this disposition of openness as a prerequisite for the development of qualities of moral commitment and responsible engagement (Sullivan & Rosin 2008) which follow from the critical and communitarian dimensions of authenticity.

Kreber cites Sullivan and Rosin’s (2008) suggestion that the purpose of higher education is to enable learners to participate and identify with ‘something that is larger than oneself’. For Sullivan and Rosin, with their emphasis on responsible community engagement, this ‘something’ is social, and it resonates strongly with Hogan’s view of education as ‘the uncovering and nourishment of human potentials that benefits others as much as the self’. One of my research participants had an alternative take on this idea of something ‘larger than’ or ‘beyond’ the self, emphasising not only the public good aspect, but the role of higher education in showing an individual other possible ways of being, other than who they are now, and I’ll come back to that in a bit.

My attention was drawn to Kreber’s thoughts on ‘strangeness’. I don’t recall coming across the word in Barnett’s work, and I was intrigued (as I often am by the German language) by Kreber’s translation of ‘unheimliche’; something that is strangely familiar and therefore ‘uncanny’ rather than simply ‘strange’. Uncanny is a word I’ve used in the past without really thinking about what it really means, and the contexts in which we tend to use it, which are closely tied with human likenesses.

Further investigation on the Google revealed this rather fun chart of human likeness against familiarity, featuring the ‘uncanny valley’ of negative emotional response:

Not massively relevant to the philosophy of higher education, I know. Let’s move on.

Kreber proposes that students today are met with two challenges – one being what Barnett calls epistemological uncertainty, with rapid advancements in knowledge – and the calling into question of truth – leading to an awareness that the future is uncertain and unpredictable. Barnett (2007, p36-37) claims the challenge is made ‘supercomplex’ by the incompatibility of different interpretations of the world, which are increasingly coming up against one another as a product of globalisation and disciplinary specialisation.

Having spoken with Ron personally about this, I know he is optimistic about creating shared understandings. As I gather the data for my thesis, I’ve started to wonder whether our knowledge frameworks are as incompatible as we like to believe. Do we – as Theodore Zeldin observes in his book Conversation – focus on difference because we love drama? We find arguing fun to do and entertaining to watch. We also like to find patterns in things, which requires labelling, categorisation, clear distinctions… and often reductionism.

The embryonic findings of my research seem to support Zeldin and Gadamer’s view that we have more common ground; more scope for finding new solidarities; than we might have assumed. That doesn’t surprise me, because I’m a happy, positive soul (well, cheerfully pessimistic) and that’s what I wanted to find! I am also finding evidence that we might all be more self-interested than we think we are; a commonality that possibly gets in the way of us acting on whatever solidarities we build.

Unlike Cinderella’s glass slipper – which either fits or it doesn’t – the compatibility of interpretations appears to be subjective. Pluralism – so it seems to me – is about seeing the compatibility of different interpretations (‘Compatibilism’ specifically refers to the standpoint that free will and determinism are not mutually exclusive). Pluralism is, of course, distinct from relativism, which lends validity to all points of view. Compatibility is not the same thing as validity. I am not a relativist. I may be a pluralist. Hence my view on incompatibility and supercomplexity.

Let’s get back to strangeness, because what Kreber says on this resonates strongly with something I read a few days ago at the very start of David’s book – A Hermeneutics of Religious Education – on the Heideggerian perspective that interpretation invokes a play or tension between a text’s strangeness, and its familiarity (p2). Thinking on this, it struck me that this tension is surely present when we are learning anything. We have to create and engage with strangeness, otherwise there will be nothing to learn.

Barnett argues that the anxiety that is felt when our existing conceptions are called into question is ‘a condition of what it means to be a student’ (Kreber 2014, p93). I’m not sure that’s the kind of thing that makes me feel anxious. I think I quite like having my mind bent around a bit. That probably explains why I like psychedelics so much.

It’s often said that anxiety can get in the way of learning. Procrastination is often said to have a basis in anxiety. I have found that taking a deep breath, holding it and letting it out slowly is a great way to finish that paragraph rather than making another cup of tea. But Barnett and Kreber are talking about more than breathing exercises; they feel that the appropriate response to strangeness is for students to be open to one’s own complex possibilities. This is what they mean by striving for authenticity.

The use of the word ‘authenticity’ is intriguing to me as it suggests being or becoming what one really is; i.e. a single, determined outcome, rather than a range of possibilities. I’ll return here to what my conversation partner said about students discovering other possible ways of being, and the personal example they gave that suggested a critical stripping away of assumptions and expectations that revealed their true self. Is becoming aware of what might be (and what you might be) the same thing as coming to know what is (or becoming who you really are)? This is what Barnett and Kreber – and my conversation partner – seem to be saying, or at least that the relationship is a reciprocal one.

N.B. when I told Richard I was reading about coping with strangeness by creating it, he told me that when he was a little boy he would pretend to be a monster, in order to scare the monsters away. I’m not sure that’s relevant to the debate, I just thought it was cute (and ingenious).

Education requires being open to change – which as David points out in his book is a necessary attitude for engaging in dialogue. There is absolutely no point in entering into a dialogue unless one is open to having one’s mind changed. If we are absolutely sure that we are right, and our aim is to change the other person’s mind, we demand they take a different, more flexible attitude to us; we enforce a double standard (this is a key point in Stone, Patten & Heen’s 1999 book Difficult Conversations). Openness to change, and to the revealing of additional complexity, is what Kreber means by contributing to the strangeness. She returns again to the metaphor of authorship (‘of one’s own life’, which I find a little problematic given my recent reading on free will and determinism), pointing out that where there is no authority to rest on, no confirmation to seek, we have to offer our own ideas. This goes beyond critical thinking; it requires us to invest in and commit to our own choices.

I had an idea today for something to do in the lead-up to the election. I thought I would pop along to the local canvassing meetups for all the main political parties. They couldn’t possibly refuse, could they? Not if I was just hanging around and listening in with an open mind? They’d probably find it very strange, and they’d be right  – it would be very strange, in exactly the way that Kreber is talking about; challenging and developing openness to experience, moral commitment and responsible engagement.

Watch this space for some serious strangeness!

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Sacred plant medicines and other tangents

I had a pretty long meeting with David on Friday. We talked a bit about my thesis but the main point of the meeting was to discuss ideas about the workshop I did at the PESGB conference a couple of weeks ago on psychedelic education. I’m keen to develop these ideas into an article or chapter. David’s pulling together a number of pieces on cognitive enhancement and thought this would probably be a good fit.

He’s going to send me a description for the special issue – and also promised to send over what he’s got been working on about Eros and education (which intrigues me).

His advice for approaching the article or chapter on psychedelic education included shifting from talking of spirituality to sacredness and/or reverence, to focus on phenomenology, and to resist the temptation to resort to persuasive but reductive neuroscience. I think he wants me to leap further into the profound. That’s not a comfortable place for me to go, but perhaps some inspiration might help. He’s still encouraging me to watch Jacob’s Ladder (eek), and read Carlos Casteneda.

David thought the notion of preparation in psychedelic education was particularly important, and there’s a lot of literature I can draw on around that.

Pretty much all these ideas are touched on by Peter Sjostedt-Hughes in his recent interview for Psychedelics Today. Peter’s interests overlap significantly with my own, and I suspect he’s much more qualified to write this piece than I am. I may have the edge on the philosophy of education angle, but only just!

I spoke to Peter this weekend about it and we’re going to meet up to discuss this and some other things, at the Breaking Convention conference if not before. And he’s agreed to do one of Richard’s Philosophy at 3am interviews, so I’ve been working with Richard on getting the questions together for that. That little task stretched me in good ways, because he works at the speed of light and I felt compelled to knock out thirteen questions as soon as I got the nudge. Concentrating on one task is something I’ve started to really struggle with; it makes sense that as my mind has become more free and open to new connections, it’s become less focused. I’m not sure it’s possible to have both.

But, I recognise that I am going to have to take action to switch to focused mode in order to make real progress with all this reading and writing. My chat with David yielded a couple of great ideas, and since then I’ve downloaded a simple, free social media blocker app for my phone, and subscribed to a programme called ‘Freedom’ which makes it really easy to turn off access to social websites and really hard to turn them back on again. So hard, in fact, that I still can’t access them two hours after my last session expired, and I have no idea how to get them back again. So I don’t think I’m going to be tweeting much.

I found a playlist called ‘Natural Concentration’ on Spotify which seems to really help to maintain my focus, and if the birdsong gets too shrill I turn to the Honest Guys’ youtube videos – particularly ‘River in the Shire’ and ‘Windy Enchanted Forest’ 😉

I think more in relation to my thesis, David told me about a book that brings together Newman and Gadamer in the context of religious education. Waterstones said they could get it for me for only £16 so I pulled out my birthday book token and signed on the dotted line. This foray also led me to the wonderful Waterstones Marketplace, which looks like a great alternative to Amazon. Noted.

David also suggested I read the chapter by Hubert Dreyfus in the Cambridge Companion to Heidegger on the Ontology of Art. I found a pdf online of the entire book (weird), so I’ll just print out the relevant section.

I think both the above sources are relevant to both my thesis and my interest in psychedelic education. In fact, the more I read, the more crossover I see. The paper I was reading on Friday for example – Carolin Kreber on ‘graduateness’ – argues for higher education as the development of certain dispositions such as responsible engagement and an ability to cope with the strange and uncanny. I have a few notes on that paper which I’ll be posting up over the next few days, along with some thoughts about the Stefan Collini lecture I went to last month, and a couple of other things.

My deep reading of Newman’s Idea of the University is progressing pretty well – I’ve had plenty of insights and it was a great thing to go through and consider every sentence.

So… all ticking along!

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Nixon #3 and a tangent on free will

One thing I particularly liked about Nixon’s book was the depth of the image it painted of the four thinkers whose ideas were drawn upon; it described them as real people with families and styles of dress and ways of talking. I like to know about the lives of the thinkers I’m reading about. It’s fairly obvious that our ideas and ways of thinking don’t arise ex nihilo (ha – I said I wouldn’t ever do that) – our perspective depends on where we’re standing.

As usual, I’ve had about five different books on the go at once. While digesting Nixon I’ve also been reading Tim Williamson’s Tetralogue (about absolutism, relativism and points of view), rediscovering Newman’s Idea of the University, dipping into a philosophical anthology on free will, and having some fun with Dave Chalmers’ The Conscious Mind. Quite a mix, I know!

I’ve also started having the conversations for the empirical part of my thesis, and I’m feeling more relaxed (optimistic?) about the University as a concept, the central tenets of which actually seem pretty consistent. Debates over who pays for education, the effect of competition between schools, the quality of student accommodation, contact time, internationalisation… these have been around for millennia – since the academic community of Athens, at least. I can feel myself shifting towards a view that – regarding those in higher education – provided they are actually learning plenty, there’s maybe not a huge amount to worry about.

What about those who aren’t, though? I feel like this is the elephant in the room… or maybe all these writers on higher education think that the elephant isn’t in this particular room, so it’s not relevant. But how can it not be relevant? If we’re going to argue that higher education is a public good, what or who is this public that it is good for? Nixon writes: ‘the future is cosmopolitan and cosmopolitanism requires us to acknowledge our differences and recognise our shared humanity’ (p110). There may be differences between the religious and the non-religious, the upper class and the working class, between natives and immigrants. There are presumably also differences between graduates and non-graduates, and it may be that these are particularly problematic when it comes to the great debates of our time. Are universities actually driving a deeper rift through society? According to some reports, we are approaching 50% participation in higher education. Information is everywhere and we all think we know what’s what, which is an interesting state of affairs in a democracy, especially when governments bypass representation and make us decide things ourselves.

One of my early ideas for my thesis was on speaking with members of the public without personal experience of higher education, about universities. I put it to one side, realising that I had a lot of assumptions about the insider view I needed to question first, and that I needed to hone my skills as a radical pluralist translator (ha!) before letting myself loose on the outside world. I’m definitely not ruling it out as a future piece of work.

As I mentioned in my previous two posts, I found quite a lot of resonance between Nixon’s chapters on Arendt and Nussbaum, and the anthology I’ve been reading on Free Will (Pereboum 2009). I’ll outline some initial thoughts here.

An issue I have with a lot of the free will debate is that it draws on examples of individuals making decisions in isolation. I get that this is a simplification that probably works for the case the particular writer is making, and of course Pereboum’s anthology isn’t about education, but when your primary concern is education, there are a lot more connections and influences to consider. It’s easy to dish out advice on what to do – not so easy to take it yourself, and teaching, to a large extent, is about motivating and advising others. I’m really interested in this in relation to the free will debate, because when we act as a teacher our actions are intended to influence someone else’s actions. Taking Strawson’s model of C factors and S procedures, are we – the educators – the C factors or the S procedures in a student’s life? Are we enacting our own will freely when deciding how we should influence them, or are we all just part of one huge interdependent matrix that is so necessarily complex it appears chaotic – random, even – and gives us the illusion of free will? Nixon talks about this in the chapter on Open Futures (p114) – our life trajectories as acting upon and being responsive to the trajectories of others (at this point I googled ‘is there anything that is totally random’, which I really don’t recommend you do unless you’re okay with circularly polarised photons and hidden state variables).

I made a pretty massive decision recently; or at least on one level I thought I did, but at the same time it didn’t really feel like I was making it. It felt like it was happening, and I was coping with it as best I could. This is one reason why I’ve become very interested in the free will question. Another is that I’ve been having treatment for a long-term impulse control disorder, which has taught me that in-the-moment decisions don’t feel very free. It seems that the decisions you can make in advance and plan for – e.g. to watch your sugar intake, to meditate, to exercise – do feel more like free decisions, and provided you choose to follow the right routines and develop particular patterns and habits, the frequency and and power of the impulses are reduced. I think this is highly relevant to education in general, and I’m aware this might sound quite provocative, because I don’t think we like to think that our emotions and impulses have so much of a hold on us. We like to think of ourselves as rational, autonomous beings. We like to think of ourselves as having free will.

Regarding the big decision, I think engaging with the free will debate helped a lot. Not necessarily the ‘making’ of it – if that’s what I did – but definitely in coping with it and maintaining near-normal functioning in my life while it was going on. What also helped was stumbling across Ruth Chang, an existentialist with a wonderfully accessible line on hard decisions; we often look at them in the wrong way; as being very ‘high stakes’ in the sense that if we get it wrong, the consequences will be awful. But when you think about it, the reason it is a hard choice is because there are benefits (and yes, potential drawbacks to both); neither is obviously better nor worse than the other; they are ‘on a par’ with one another. Looking at a hard decision in this way helps us to stop the agonising and catastrophising, and see the dilemma as an opportunity to be the author of our own lives. This perspective seems to be in support of the notion that we have free will, but – yet again – the more I read, the less significant the differences appear to be.

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Nixon #2: the four thinkers

Nixon, J. 2013. Interpretive Pedagogies for Higher Education: Arendt, Berger, Said, Nussbaum and their Legacies. London, Bloomsbury.

Nixon uses the middle section of his book to develop his ideas around higher education as interpretation through four thinkers; Hannah Arendt, John Berger, Edward Said and Martha Nussbaum.

I’d come across all of them before, and bought Berger’s famous book ‘Ways of Seeing’ shortly after his death earlier this year, but it was satisfying to have their viewpoints brought together in this way and to see explicit links made with higher education.

I first heard of Arendt through reading about Martin Heidegger, with whom she had a long-term on and off relationship – despite being a Jew and him a one-time Nazi. A lot of people would probably wonder what on earth was going on there, but I get it. I too am intrigued and attracted to people with different viewpoints to myself, because I know I’ll be able to learn something from them. It doesn’t make life easy, but I don’t like things to be easy. Arendt was also clearly someone who liked to challenge herself and engage with as many different viewpoints as possible.

Nixon focuses on Arendt’s ideas about thinking, and her own approach to thought itself. Arendt saw thoughtfulness as constant, endless questioning. Thinking is difficult, and the relationship between thinking and acting is complex and indeterminate. Thoughtfulness alone can’t enable us to achieve collective agency.

I’ve been simultaneously reading up on free will, and this of course relates, but I’m not entirely sure what side Arendt would have placed herself (in fact, as I read, the more I wonder whether there are in fact two sides), as she argued that there is no clear path between the realm of thought and the sphere of action.

Arendt was in favour of thinking without method (‘without pillars and props’) – and as something that can only be done alone. That’s a really interesting distinction, and it doesn’t sit comfortably with me; I feel like I’ve had some of my most memorable insights in discussion with others, which has forced me to sharpen my focus and think a bit deeper than I would have by myself. But Arendt also stressed that thoughtfulness is plural in that it demands thinking from the standpoint of others; what she called representative thinking. I’ve been talking about this recently with Richard – the ability to simultaneously appreciate different standpoints – but I feel like we haven’t reached a point of mutual understanding on that yet.

Plurality is a key theme that runs through a lot of Arendt’s thinking about thought. She describes as ‘plural’ the relationship between thought and action, and also describes thinking as herself being with herself; an activity where she is ‘both the one who asks and the one who answers’. (1978, p185). I think that’s a really lovely way of putting it, and her assurance that she is alone but not lonely when thinking in solitude is really helpful for me personally, given that, right now, I’m adjusting to being alone a lot more than I’ve been in the last few year or so. Arendt argues that thinking is an activity – not an action, even an inner one. We are only with our self while thinking, whereas when we act we are in the company of others (2003, p105-106).

A couple of other points, which I’ll probably return to (maybe in my thoughts about free will and responsibility), include Arendt noting the easy ordinariness of evil and the tremendous difficulty of being good. Also that – without recourse to specified methods and procedures – thinking is unpredictable and has unspecifiable consequences.

In comparison to the chapter on Arendt, I’m not sure the chapter on John Berger spoke to me that much. Maybe working at UAL for seven years hasn’t influenced me as much as I thought it had – or maybe it has, and that’s the point! The general message – that becoming attentive is a way of positioning oneself politically and personally – is insightful. I didn’t feel it was particularly contentious.

In the next chapter, Nixon relates the work of Edward Said to his theme of worldliness in higher education; an openness to new possibilities and horizons and a constant questioning of what is known. Nixon makes explicit connections between Said’s thinking and Gadamer’s, on building on fragile friendships (through argument, understanding and deliberation) to extend the bounds of solidarity (see From Oslo to Iraq and the Roadmap – 2004, p170), and the idea of ‘background’ (I guess what Gadamer refers to as ‘tradition’?) and how it ‘asserts itself into the foreground’ (p82). It might be worthwhile to check out the BBC Reith lectures Said did in 1993 on speaking the truth to power, where he speaks of weighing up the alternative interpretations, picking the right one, and then intelligently representing it where it can do the most good and cause the right change.

Said – again like Gadamer – highlighted the importance of the historical context when interpreting texts. Worldliness requires a recognition of the interconnectivity of texts, and the complex web of social relations that bind and distinguish them. We need global and transnational perspectives in our reading of social reality (I was reminded here that I still haven’t returned to Blessinger’s recent book Democratising Higher Education, which outlines international variation in HE policy, funding models, etc – and this is the advice Ron Barnett gave me as well. Oops).

An important assumption underlies Said’s approach, which is the mutual dependence of written texts, and their status as deliberate interventions. Texts have designs on their readers and a vested interest in how related texts are read and interpreted. Now, this is a very interesting point. It made me consider – what are the designs I have on my readers (not necessarily through my thesis, but the other texts that spring from its loins). What is my vested interest in how texts related to my own are interpreted? Another assumption Nixon picks up on is that the world is ‘escapably wordy’. We understand and represent the world and render it knowable through words; this is part of what the world is and what it becomes. Texts have authority; this is how they resonate with each other and their readers. They ‘invite their readers into their conversations’ (p88).

Said was against politics being taught in classrooms, but maintained that knowledge is always better than ignorance, without exception – and this was, in a sense, his politics. Nixon describes him as a powerful, rather than a forceful, figure, and Said also used this distinction, likening it to the difference between volume and intensity (or resonance) in music. Said also wrote about the later work of artists – rather than expressing reconciliation and serenity – as tending towards the troubled and complex, highlighting the ‘intransigence, difficulty and contradiction’ that artists communicate through their work toward the end of their lives. I found this really interesting.

Reading about Edward Said got me thinking about how texts change our interpretation of the world, particularly in light of Galen Strawson’s chapter in the anthology I’ve been reading on free will. I wondered whether Strawson would class such texts as ‘S’ procedures or ‘C’ factors. I suspect probably the former. I guess the more surprising or unexpected a text is, the more its potential for change – but too far and the reader will not engage, or react in a way that ultimately serves to reinforces their existing view (this balance was very much in my mind when writing a feature for the Mail on Sunday a few weeks ago).

The chapter on Nussbaum also connected strongly with the free will debate. Nixon describes her work as ‘deeply Aristotlean’ in terms of her assertion that we are vulnerable to factors outside our control (‘much that I did not make goes towards making me whatever I shall be praised or blamed for being’ – 2001a p5), and how this affects our moral appraisals of one another. Nussbaum argues that we have a moral responsibility to be responsive to one another’s needs, and this, I assume, is what Nixon is relating to higher education – an aim to develop this capability in students.

Are we good/bad because of luck? Or because of our goodness/badness?

I’ve not read Nicomachean Ethics (yet), but I really like the sound of Aristotle’s approach as described by Nussbaum (2001a, p319-320); to carefully examine the extreme positions of luck-supremacy and agency-supremacy through exploring the motivating concerns in each case; i.e. what might prompt someone to adopt either view, and in doing so to preserve both ideas. I also like what Nussbaum says about emotions being a form of judgement (similar to the Greek Stoic view) on certain things beyond our own control. She suggests these affective judgements have their origins in our helpless, purely responsive infancy and are connected to the development of practical reason and a sense of self.

But… I think this idea of education as developing learners’ capabilities to affiliate oneself with others raises more questions than it answers. I think we all affiliate ourselves with others; what divides us is who or what we include in those circles of affiliation. Some – like my friend Libby – a vegan who founded the refugee aid charity Calais Action – have a seemingly very wide circle of affiliation that includes all humans and animals. Some – like myself, for whom empathy and social imagination doesn’t come naturally, and human connection is exhausting, might appear to have a smaller circle. Most of our mutual friends would say that Libby is the better person. I’ve had a lot more formal education than she has, but she has love and imagination in spades (except perhaps for political conservatives, people who neglect or harm animals, and anyone who voted for Brexit). While I spend my evenings and weekends immersed in philosophy, moral psychology and policy in a quest to understand the Other (especially political conservatives), she is out collecting and distributing emergency supplies for the distressed and displaced of the world. I guess we are both cultivating our humanity – and our global citizenship, and our respect of difference – in different ways. Are both our ways valid? What were the educational influences on our approaches? Are we working towards the same ends? These are all interesting questions that I’ve found myself pondering in reading about moral psychology, and I’ll come back to them.

In his conclusion, Nixon describes the human condition as dealing with having no control and needing to have total control; the ‘complementary neuroses of late modernity’ (p109). We are aware that our actions interconnect and interrelate to a vast extent and in myriad ways; so much that we can never get a handle on the details. That bit was great – it blew my mind a little – but the rest of his final section descends into polemic, and I’ll chew over that in my next post.

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Nixon’s ‘pedagogic university’ #1

Nixon, J. 2013. Interpretive Pedagogies for Higher Education: Arendt, Berger, Said, Nussbaum and their Legacies. London, Bloomsbury.

I found this a rather unusual book. It gripped, then it intrigued, and ultimately disappointed. And now I have the fun of articulating why that was! I made a lot of notes, and simultaneously took a couple of interesting tangents on free will and relativism/absolutism, so this might extend to two or three posts.

Nixon proposes that the current economic crisis has exposed tensions and contradictions in the future of the university. I’d thought it was the expansion and marketisation of higher education that had caused said tensions and contradictions, and that the economic crisis was largely a fabrication, but there we go. In any case, Nixon observes that certain undesirables are on the rise in UK society – lack of stable employment, inequality, consumerism, etc. – and constructs an argument for the pedagogical university; a place of ethical flourishing through interpretive enquiry and ongoing dialogue. That’s obviously why I’m reading his book – it pulls together the idea of the university and the interpretive tradition, and makes some great connections with Hans-Georg Gadamer into the bargain. The first section is great; very much along the lines of what I was going to write for my literature review (and now I’m going to have to do something else, oh well). The middle section considers higher education through the lens of four thinkers – Arendt, Berger, Said and Nussbaum – each with distinctive contributions to interpretive scholarship and thinking around interpretation. The final section explores epistemological and ethical implications for higher education practice.

In the first section Nixon explains how pedagogy permeates the practice and structure of HE. For Nixon, key pedagogic themes include deliberation, dialogue and the centrality of the question (referring to Collingwood, which David and I discussed a couple of years back). He highlights plurality, incommensurability and contingency as factors impacting on human understanding, and the importance of Gadamer’s philosophical hermeneutics.

I’ve been reading a bit more on moral psychology and theology recently, and it was interesting that Nixon picked up on Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s call for faith communities to embrace ‘religionlessness’ and acknowledge unresolved disagreements on issues of value as well as matters of fact. The other day I came across Linda LaScola (through Daniel Dennett’s work on consciousness, while prepping for next week’s PESGB workshop), who’s been researching non-believing clergy of different faiths. It’s really interesting work (and I love the way LaScola answers questions about herself – like she’s observing wildlife).

I think a lot of people probably think the connection between universities and theology is purely historical, but this is important stuff; we’re talking about the difference between right and wrong and living accordingly. Nixon – like Bonhoeffer – argues that we need to hold the argument open until we at least agree on what the disagreement is; and that this ‘holding open’ creates the moral and ethical authority of the university.

At this point I turned to Google to remind myself of the difference between morals and ethics. I’m still not 100% convinced I get the difference, but I’m a very early-career philosopher:

Morals = difference between right & wrong & living accordingly.
Ethics = philosophy of how that morality guides individual and group behaviour.

Nixon argues that interpretation is intrinsically ethical, because it is concerned with how we interpret the world in light of others’ interpretations of it (p15). He feels that universities have a role in ‘ensuring we learn how to build together an interpretable world within a global context’ (p13), through producing students who are active interpreters of the world. His focus on learning to live with difference resonates with the work of Jonathan Sacks as well as Gadamer, and he emphasises that the quality of pedagogical and collegial relationships is key to achieving these ends, as dialogue and understanding require reciprocity and mutual respect in addition to academic freedom – the recognition of different viewpoints and a commitment to exploring those differences.

Nixon cites Collini (2011) in highlighting the danger that many undergraduates will be palmed off with a narrow training while children of the privileged classes continue to attend properly resourced universities, echoing the situation in the US where a small number of private universities with high fees suck out the resources needed to sustain good public universities. There is an assumption underlying UK HE policy that market forces will drive up standards and drive down prices, but we’re not seeing any evidence of the driving down of prices; everyone is struggling to survive and finances are increasingly being diverted away from teaching and into recruitment, administration and management.

Is public education about social control and reproduction, or liberation and transformation? Nixon cites Bauman’s description of the majority being educated into obedient compliance and socially useful occupations, and the social and economic conditions enabling the enlightenment of the few crumbling with the post-enlightenment ‘liquid’ modernity. Freud, Marx and Nietzsche all had radically different visions when it came to education, but all envisaged a new order of thinking people independent from state and societal control; public educators as public intellectuals speaking for the public, where necessary against the state and societal norms.

Nixon argues that crucial to our survival will be a radical pluralism, a new politics of difference requiring a new kind of specialist; those able to act as translators between specialisms and cultural traditions; able to form ‘interpretive frameworks within which radical differences can be held in critical tension’ (p19). This is what Bauman (1987, p.143) refers to by the ‘art of critical conversation’ – ‘to talk rather than fight, to understand rather than dismiss’ – and this is exactly what I had in mind when I initially conceived the idea for my thesis; I wanted to try this mediating role out for myself.

Nixon presents a thorough treatment of the ‘two cultures’ divide (exemplified by the debate between C.P Snow and R.R. Leavis in the 50’s and early 60s) – the drive in the humanities being to understand and in the sciences to control. This prompted me to wonder about my own thesis and whether my methods and intentions hang together. Yes, I want to understand – but what is my eventual aim? Do I want to control? I do want to effect some kind of change, but I think I’m fairly open-minded about what that might be. I suspect the most significant change will be in myself…

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Supervision #2

I met with David at Brunel on Monday for a supervision meeting and gave him a brief update on what I’ve been doing and what my plans are over the next few weeks. It really is action stations at the moment because I’m scheduling in conversations with my participants, and putting together my literature review chapter. The data collection part of my schedule has slipped a bit, but I’m still aiming to get a first draft of the literature review done by the beginning of May:

The main thing we discussed was possible approaches to the literature review. David encouraged me to consider interesting stylistic ways of structuring it, and suggested a deep reading of a core text; using this as a central thread from which to make outward connections with the other sources I’ve been engaging with. The core text would need to be something quite fundamental and David thought Newman’s The Idea of A University would be a good choice. I really wasn’t sure about this at first because it seems so very dated, but I quickly came around to the idea. It should actually give me lots of opportunities to compare and contrast present and future conceptions with the origins of the university. I’m a lot more comfortable working with the theological aspect of these origins now as well, after my little sideline into psychedelic phenomenology, several months of PESGB seminars where God features quite a lot, and reading Barnett and – just for fun – a comprehensive anthology on the philosophy of Free Will. If there are bits of Newman’s Idea that seem to be of no relevance to the hear and now, then that could be a point of interest in itself.

It’s been done before of course – here’s a short Guardian article from 2010 and a much longer paper given by the Reverend Ian Ker in 2011, both of which deal with the relevance of Newman’s Idea in the 21st century. The timing of these is pertinent; the dramatic rise in tuition fees payable by students and the associated marketisation of higher education prompted a good deal of reflection about what a university is and what it is for.

I thought it might be useful to look out for a couple of examples of this ‘deep reading’ approach, but then again maybe it’s best to find my own way with it. I found a neat little resource on ‘close reading’ from the University of Wisconsin’s Writing Center, which might come in useful if I run out of ideas. And this excerpt – I’m not sure what book it’s from – has some good questions to ask when reading Newman.

What I know I’m at risk of doing is continuing to read all the other interesting things (including Jon Nixon’s book on Interpretive Pedagogies, which rather annoyingly sets out very well the kind of thing I was planning to write about conversation and education), and putting off the actual drafting. So before the end of this weekend I plan to sketch out the main concepts in Newman’s Idea and start overlaying connections with the other sources I’ve looked at.

Looking ahead to the Methodology chapter, David suggested I get in touch with another PhD student Ido Gideon, whose thesis on communities and the moral foundations of citizenship education also utilises conversation as a research method. I met Ido at last year’s PESGB conference, and hopefully he’ll be there in a couple of weeks’ time so I can pick his brains.

Aside from a little tangential discussion of Arendt, Heidegger and romantic love is/as education (touching on jealousy, possessiveness and polyamory), that was pretty much it; a really focused, useful meeting. Boom.

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On work, fun, and capitalism

Last week I had the urge to clear out my desk space at work, and came across a little brown envelope. Inside, I discovered a memo I’d been required to write to myself at our first EdD seminar, three and a half years ago:

I was so happy to read this, because I don’t feel conflicted anymore – at least not about that. I am having a whole tonne of fun.

But, it ties in with a few things I’ve been thinking and reading about recently, and links to my previous writing on employability and economics. I guess we all have our internal conflicts, and one of mine is that, while rationally I think we should all be working less for the sake of our health and the planet (see the NEF report on the 21 hour working week, and Tim Jackson’s CUSP report on sustainable prosperity), I have a competitive personality and something of a work ethic. This cognitive dissonance came to the fore in the last few months when I started to get cold feet about the plan we’d made to move up North and downsize. I realised I didn’t want to; I enjoy the fast pace of life in London, and its intellectual challenges. I had been ambivalent about going part-time and raising a family; now I was decidedly apathetic.

There are several mechanisms at play in the rise and resolution of this internal conflict. I was raised – explicitly and by example – to compete, to keep busy, to keep learning, to be independent and to plan for the future. In slight contrast my partner’s upbringing was explicitly socialist and (half) Catholic. This instilled values in him such as collectivism and a disinclination to accumulate wealth (which seems to include putting money aside to pay his tax return, annoyingly). He’s been a significant influence on my political education over the last few years – and has introduced me to new ways of having fun – to the point where I started to question the value of all this hard work and individual achievement.

I think it was probably a number of factors that converged to pull me back to what I recognise as my natural way of being. The first was getting called out at work for not doing a very good job on something I was supposed to have been working on over the summer, and not even having a completed registration document and UREC form to justify my slackitude. I suspect my subsequent forays into microdosing, and menopausal epiphany – ‘this is who I am and this is what I want’ – were also implicated, and it was also around that time that I started attending the PESGB seminars, which inspired and motivated me, while introducing a fun, social element to my academic vocation. My research shifted my thinking, as I began in earnest to explore viewpoints other than my own, seeking in particular to understand the neoliberal ideology. The nail in the coffin might have been Brendan’s tax return.

I’ve had several people recommend I read Weber, and I finally got down to him last week (this was ultimately Richard’s doing; he was getting all excited about the Protestant work ethic and I immediately saw the connection with my thesis). Weber gave me exactly what I wanted; a theory about the evolution of the capitalist spirit, and a substantial history lesson besides.

I learned about the Protestant Reformation; a split from Catholicism initiated by Martin Luther, who interpreted that human salvation can be obtained only through faith (‘sole fide’) – i.e. not through good deeds. This laid some of the foundation of the capitalist spirit as it meant that one can potentially attain salvation through any form of life. Luther also introduced the idea of one’s daily work as a divine vocation – a ‘calling’. However, Lutherans still frowned upon the accumulation of material wealth beyond one’s personal needs, particularly if it was obtained at the expense of others.

This concept of divine providence was – and continues to be – influential; the idea of God allocating you a station and a vocation in life. Yes, ‘social mobility’ is all the rage these days, but it wasn’t very long ago that having ‘ideas above your station’ was frowned upon – even considered immoral.

A point of note is that the emphasis on the ascetic importance of a FIXED calling provides an ethical justification for the modern, specialised division of labour; an ideal that began to dominate worldly morality and played a huge part in building the modern economic order. Machine production determines our lives; where the Puritans chose to work in a calling, many of us are now forced to. It is interesting to compare this with the utopian society Huxley imagines in Island, where only light subsistence industry is permitted, and citizens have a specialism they undertake part-time in combination with a rotation of different kinds of work.

Calvinism (also known as Reformed Christianity) was a subsequent major branch of Protestantism, and this is where things get a bit complicated with various sub-branches – Methodism, Quakerism and so on. The important thing to note is the Puritanical aspects of Calvinism and the related traditions, in particular the principles of ascetism (which arose from various dogmatic foundations) and predestination – the idea that we are either chosen, or damned, and we can’t earn our salvation (through, for example, good works). That having been said, the later Calvinist traditions – Quakerism in particular – held a view of one’s life’s work as an exercise in ascetic virtue; one’s conscientiousness as proof of one’s state of grace. So, there is a funny backwards logic at work here; the Lutheran view that we are allocated our lot in life stands, but if we believe that a conscientious attitude is proof of being among God’s chosen few, all it takes is a little faith, and then we can be conscientious and count ourselves among the chosen.

It’s important to emphasise that these religious reformers (Luther, Calvin, Wesley etc.) were only concerned with the salvation of the soul; they were not interested in social/ethical reform. Ascetism and predestination could be said to be religiously superficial, even incidental, but Weber argues that they played a part in a complex interaction of historical factors that had major cultural (and economic) consequences. These consequences were not foreseen by the reformers themselves, and in some cases were in direct contradiction to their intentions.

So – back to the vocation. Does it matter what it is? While in modern times we might assess the moral worth of a particular calling through its value to the community, the Puritan view provides an intriguing twist, as Puritans see the hand of God in all occurrences. Therefore, if God shows one of his elect a chance of profit, then they should take that path, with the caveat that one accepts the gifts and uses them for only in God’s service. In other words, one labours to be rich for God, and the temptation to use that wealth to fund one’s own leisure and pleasure must be resisted. The parable of the servant and the talent even indicates that it is not sufficient to hold ones riches undiminished for the glory of God; we should strive to increase them.  Hence the imperative not only to save, but to invest and accumulate.

It seems that being wealthy would be particularly burdensome given these conditions (and at this point I guiltily recall giggling at the woman complaining about the ‘great responsibility’ of being rich in the BBC documentary The Price of Inequality).

While indulgence was definitely not approved of, the Puritans acknowledged that financial wealth lent a certain ease to life. They accepted as unproblematic the notion that God blesses the chosen in this life as well as the afterlife, and that unequal distribution of the goods of the world is a dispensation of divine providence with secret ends unknown to men (that convenient get-out clause of God working in mysterious ways). Wesley’s advice was that those who gain and save should also give; a good conscience becoming one of the means of enjoying a comfortable bourgeois life.

Weber points out that the full economic effect of these developments came only after the peak of religious enthusiasm passed. Puritan ideals often gave way under pressure from the temptations of wealth, the unsustainable nature of the ideals effectively killing off the religion. As John Wesley wrote: ‘religion will produce both industry and frugality, and these cannot but produce riches. But as riches increase so will pride, anger…desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, and the pride of life. So, although the form of religion remains, the spirit is swiftly vanishing away.’  The pursuit of wealth has become stripped of its religious and ethical meaning.

So, even at the time of writing (1905), ‘the idea of duty in one’s calling prowls about in our lives like the ghost of dead religious beliefs’ (p109). I love that sentence – there’s something very poetic about it.

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Employability, Tragedy and the Meaning of Life

The day after the PESGB seminar on entrepreneurship and the performing arts, I attended an education research seminar at Queen Mary on engagement with employability and graduate attributes. The seminar was given by Finola Farrant, a lecturer in Criminology at Roehampton, and for me it raised plenty of juicy questions of the type that are likely to arise in my conversations, the first one being – what is the problem that ’employability’ is the answer to? 

This question – along with most of the others I scribbled down during the session – is chewed over fairly comprehensively in the HEA’s recent report – Employability: A review of the literature 2012 to 2016. So I’ll bring the two things together if I can.

Citing Kettis et al. (2013) and Rich (2015), the HEA report describes a fault line ‘between those who argue that higher education’s primary purpose is the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, and those who argue that higher education serves a research and development function for the country along with the development of a skilled workforce’ (p13).  The research and development agenda (as promoted by CP Snow in his 1959 Rede Lecture The Two Cultures) was no doubt a major influence on the 1963 Robbins report and the subsequent expansion of higher education. The skills-shortage argument can be questioned, particularly in terms of this expansion. Is it true, for example, that there are lots of vacancies for criminologists that cannot be filled due to a lack of suitably qualified candidates? Here’s another question I wrote down in the seminar:

If we imagine a highly employable person, what are the skills or attributes that makes them employable? Are highly employable people taught these attributes at university? Could they be?

I felt these were important questions that were glossed over at the QMUL event. I’ve recently been reading Baroness Alison Wolf’s 2004 book Does Education Matter, which questions whether the skills employers are actually using and looking for are those gained at university (rather than those gained at 14, 16 or 18, for example). Wolf argues that the skills most wanted by employers are ‘the ability to read and comprehend, write fluently and correctly, and do mathematics’ (p37) – traditional academic skills that are taught at school, and – it could be argued – that all those headed to university already have.

The HEA’s 2013 Framework for embedding employability (which features heavily in the 2015 report), describes and defines employability in terms of key aspects (p10):

  • confidence, resilience and adaptability;
  • experience and networks;
  • attributes and capabilities;
  • specialist technical and transferable skills;
  • knowledge and application;
  • behaviours, qualities and values;
  • enterprise and entrepreneurship;
  • career guidance and management;
  • self, social and cultural awareness;
  • reflection and articulation.

The Government’s 2015 Employer Skills Survey seems to support the theory expounded by Wolf – that the skills employers are finding in short supply are those that are supposedly learned at school – numeracy, literacy, time management, etc. – as well as specialist and operational knowledge that is best learned ‘on the job’. While the survey findings have been used to argue for greater state investment in vocational education, they surely provide a better argument for employer investment (in apprenticeships, traineeships, etc). Their relevance to higher education seems debatable.

As an aside… it’s the glaring, unacknowledged contradictions in reports like these that cause me to reach for the salt when digesting their conclusions. For example, the report presents a concern about under-utilisation of skills, which apparently ‘represents not only a waste of individuals’ talent but also potentially a missed opportunity for employers to increase performance and productivity, improve job satisfaction and employee well-being, and stimulate investment, enterprise and innovation.’ (p8). But the most common reason given by employers for such under-utilisation was that staff were not interested in taking on a higher level role; i.e. they made a personal choice in the service of their job satisfaction and wellbeing. We are dealing with people here, not machines.

Back to the HEA report – which cites Speight et al. (2013) in reporting that some see the employability agenda as a threat to disciplinary learning. It is this aspect of the ‘fault line’ that intrigues me and is the foundation for my thesis. I’ll nail my colours to the mast – I’m still right up there with Pádraig Hogan, defending the intrinsic value of education – but I’m happy to acknowledge that the other side has a point, albeit a secondary one. I went to university in the first instance both because I liked learning and it was a prerequisite for the kind of work that I thought would suit me best. Embarking on an MA and then an EdD was prompted by a similar motivational blend (and a pretty standard one at that, I guess – to survive and be happy?).

In their report, the HEA argues that it is possible to combine the two viewpoints through careful revision of the employability agenda to integrate academic and employability learning, and cites Rust (2016) in claiming that many people operate somewhere between these two poles (something I’m curious to discover through my institutional conversations). The report offers the following definition:

‘Employability in higher education (HE) is about preparing students to become workers, citizens, community members and lifelong learners.’

It could be argued that universities have many responsibilities to the young people they take on – and this broad description touches on several of them. But the statement in the HEA report that universities have a moral duty to educate for employability on the basis of student investment and expectation of improved life chances does not sit comfortably with me. For me, a more pressing moral imperative is to curb the excessive inequalities in society that validate such dubious statements (another suggestion in the report that really irked me was that universities were partly to blame for the financial crash of 2008, by not producing graduates with the right skills). I don’t want the life chances of graduates to be ‘better’ than those of non graduates. Different, yes – but not better.

The consensus presented in the report (citing Cole and Tibby 2013) that employability is about meaningful participation in society rather than simply getting a job is all very well, but ‘meaningful’ is a difficult word. Let’s google it:

  • Significant
  • Relevant
  • Important
  • Consequential
  • Worthwhile
  • Purposeful

…see where this is going? When we describe an action as ‘meaningful’, we acknowledge it is a means without commenting what it is a means to, i.e. a specified end or purpose.

In a recent interview, the philosopher David E Cooper had this to say about ‘meaning’: “I don’t think we should just ‘muddle through’ and ignore the question of life’s meaning. Or better, perhaps, I don’t think it is a question that can be ignored once the business of asking about the worth and significance of what one is doing – one’s work, one’s pleasures, one’s ambitions and so on – has got going.”

So, there’s the rub… that’s my issue with the employability agenda, that’s where I think the fault line arises, and that’s why I’m with Pádraig. I want to live in a society where it is commonplace to interrogate the purpose of our actions; their worth, their consequences, etc. I would like that to be the foundation of employability education.

Here’s another question I wrote down during the QMUL seminar – it might seem a bit obtuse at first, this one, but bear with me:

Can we imagine a person whose employability attributes diminished through going to university?

This question doesn’t really feature in the literature as far as I can see; the assumption is that university increases employability; it’s just a question of how and by how much. But having had a rough time at university myself, and spent a year working as a resident tutor looking after others who were having a rough time, this is an issue I really care about. The transition to independent study and living can lead to problems such as a decline in mental and/or physical health, risk-avoidance due to stress of debt, substance abuse, etc. Personally, I found school and college pretty easy, but I really struggled to cope socially at university. I found living with other students intolerably invasive, and the expectation that I would make friends for life only increased the isolation I felt. Having alienated virtually everyone I met over the three years, I left immediately after my final exam to take up a job at the other end of the country. Getting the job was easy; it was a small educational publishing firm run by a guy who thought he wanted a bright, eccentric young woman on his writing staff.  But the fresh start I was expecting turned into more of the same, and again I failed to connect with people in an appropriate or normal way. I soon became acutely depressed and was fired due to erratic behaviour, ending up on Jobseeker’s Allowance of £46 a week. I struggled to get another job, and it took several years of temping and bar work (and the rest… better not ask) to put myself back together.

The thing is, I know I’m not alone in this. My experience as a resident tutor at Bath revealed how other kids struggled to adapt to university life, sometimes with disastrous consequences. Lots of them had a great time, of course – and that’s why it can be really hard to admit to having a bad one; you don’t want to rain on everyone else’s parade.

Looking at this from another angle, I now work in a specialist arts university, and I often stumble across the suggestion that angst, adversity, tragedy – even mental illness – can be the basis for great art. In another recent 3:am interview, my friend Richard asked philosopher Dennis Schmidt whether tragedy is ‘the perfection of the possibilities of art’. Schmidt responds, first citing Hegel and Nietzsche, that ‘if we are beings who are multiple and full of irreconcilable conflict, and if we are beings who make artworks in order to understand ourselves, then tragedy is at least “a” if not “the” perfection of art’s possibilities.’ Schmidt believes that the technological world has shifted the possibilities of art – perhaps in productive and creative ways but also in restrictive ways.

The last couple of questions I wrote down during the seminar sound mildly facetious, but they come from the heart:

In response to Roehampton’s Graduate Attributes, one of which is ‘Curious and creative with a passion for knowledge’, I wrote: How does the love of a subject and learning assist someone in a common graduate desk job? Wouldn’t it just make them more bored and frustrated?

On hearing Farrant’s own reasons for going to university (‘I wanted a job that was fulfilling, engaging and interesting, and hopefully offered me suitable recompense’), I wrote: If you have been fortunate enough to succeed at school and university and land a job that is fulfilling, engaging and interesting, what exactly is society compensating you for?

This last one really got me thinking. Other than increased competence and/or experience (productivity hmm), what are justifiable grounds for one person being paid more for their time than someone else? I jotted down a few ideas:

  • Unsociable hours – e.g. tube drivers
  • High-stakes (emotional stress) – e.g. surgeons
  • Low autonomy – e.g. factory operative

Why are graduates paid more than non-graduates, just because we got to faff around going to lectures, reading books, getting shamefully drunk on cheap beer and playing Ultimate Frisbee while they were putting in an honest 37 hour week? I just don’t get it, and it’s important, because the entire issue of HE funding and the public/private good debate hangs on it.

Farrant finished off her seminar with three questions for us to ponder, so just for laughs I’ll show you my responses:

Q1: What do you wish you’d known at the outset of your career?
A: That trying to make your parents proud of you is a futile, empty goal that will occlude and obstruct your own aims and desires.

Q2: What has been the most valuable advice you’ve received?
A: When things get hard, just keep breathing. Also, if someone asks you ‘what do you know about (x)’, never say ‘nothing’. Always say something.

Q3: How might you take forward employability on your programmes?
A: Now, there’s a question…

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