A Political Theory of the University – some thoughts on a paper by Morgan White

Tonight’s PESGB seminar at the IoE is going to feature Morgan White talking about a political theory of the university. I read his paper (which I’m not sure is publicly available yet) and had some thoughts…

White argues that democracy is ‘always already in crisis’. Sure, it requires ongoing deliberation, but it doesn’t follow that it’s always been in ‘crisis’. Most of the philosophers I’ve been enjoying recently (Gellner, Gadamer, Watts) demonstrate how any expectations we might have of reaching a settled, safe state are illogical.  Nothing certain but death and taxes, etc…

The refrain throughout the last century is that democratic politics are populist, corrupted and technocratic. I’d agree with that, but I think we need to be more specific than saying our democratic systems are not keeping pace with social change… that’s so vague it’s almost meaningless. One thing that seems obvious to me is that, while Media, Marketing and PR are activities that have embraced technological advancement, the machinations of political decision-making are stuck in the dark ages; like the Houses of Parliament buildings themselves – ancient, outdated and unfit-for-purpose. This means that whoever already has power can easily retain and increase their power, because the technologies they have to hand can easily outwit and undermine our aging democratic system. Parliamentary and voting systems remain largely unchanged from a time before we before we had specialised ‘psephologists’ and the capacity to develop intricate statistical modelling programmes to gauge public opinion and voting intention. Offshore media moguls, operating with the primary aim of retaining their paying readership, have formed mutually beneficial alliances with the politically powerful. It is difficult to see how the common man can possibly fight such a beast.

White often mentions the increasing complexity of society. Society – particularly in terms of our political leanings – does not seem to be getting more complex to me; it seems to be becoming black and white… and strangely evenly split! 50-50 Trump-Clinton, 50-50 Leave-Remain (approaching 50-50 graduates-non-graduates by the way… coincidence?). We have us and them, two different tribes, finding one another increasingly offensive and resorting to voluntary segregation in echo chambers. In his book The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt proposes that our split political leanings are explained by his five-foundations theory of moral psychology; right-wing, conservative politics and rhetoric are designed to appeal to those who value the moral foundations of loyalty, sanctity and authority, and hold a proportional interpretation of the moral foundation of fairness; i.e. they believe that those who put the most in should get the most out. Left wing, liberal politics appeal to those who value the moral foundations of care (for the vulnerable) and a redistributive interpretation of fairness (with the aim of addressing pernicious inequalities). When viewed like this, viewpoints often described (and pejoratively so) as ‘populist’ seem less mysterious. But not many people think about moral foundations in these terms, and social media makes it easier and more acceptable to express our views and segregate ourselves. News media plays on our moral foundations (and natural, groupist tendency to righteous indignation) to maintain their readership and continue to make money. That’s what’s happening here. So we do have different literacies that talk past each other, and increasingly so. I agree with White that democratic literacy is needed, with a particular emphasis on the power and workings of the media and the other mechanisms that preserve social privilege. But – crucially – we also need to emphasise what *is* simple and what we have in common (e.g. having beliefs that are founded in morals and emotion) – rather than stressing complexity and difference.

I don’t agree that we’ve lost our political imagination; a lot of people are very excited right now about what’s happening in the UK and the US, and everyone has an opinion on it. Social media *may* seem like a cacophony or a void but it does function as quite a democratic system; popular, divisive and insightful views rise to the top through crowdsourced promotion; I’ve fallen out of favour with Twitter over the last decade, but it may be the last genuinely democratic platform we have left.

I’m glad White picked up on Bauman’s liquid modernity as a source of ontological uncertainty and narcissism. I wonder though whether the more prescient problem is not our ontological uncertainty but our unreasonable expectations of ontological certainty (see first para above).

White says we need better media and better politicians. Agreed, but the two are inextricably linked. I don’t agree that it’s concern with our self-image that puts good people off politics. I rather think it is a justified sense that the public *do* care about image, and the media moguls *will* tear that image apart in order to sell their papers, so no-one will actually take us or our ideas seriously, and in becoming a laughing stock we will probably end up making the situation even worse. 

Regarding market values, these also relate back to Haidt’s moral foundations theory. The moral foundation of proportional fairness is very much dependent on a belief that humans *do* have free will, and an assumption of equality of opportunity. It relates to the concept of ‘work ethic’, a preference for competition over collaboration, and a theory of human motivation that leans towards extrinsic over intrinsic reward. I’m not sure why White doesn’t think the public is a market. It’s totally a market. Isn’t it?

Given my thesis topic, I was particularly interested in his point about academics turning away from the democratic horizon (because it’s too big a topic, and we’re being forced into putting out small, manageable research outputs… also because of risks to career progression). White argues that metrics like the REF are steering us into the wrong sort of self-seeking (back to the theory of human motivation)… well, yes. That’s how the metrics act on us. But we still have a choice (see Gonzales 2015 for some examples).

Likewise, turning the power on and connecting to the cacophany of information overload is still, I believe, a conscious choice (we are not yet to my knowledge living an episode of Black Mirror). Resisting, and carefully selecting who to read and listen to can, I think, be a political act, particularly given recent overlaps between politics and celebrity. And perhaps if we don’t we will one day lose the option to do so.

White’s writing on the public sphere – particularly that relating to the workings of ancient Greek society, were interesting and puzzling. I get the Kantian principle of publicity (rational-critical public debate that bridges politics and morality) – I liked Conflict of the Faculties. But then White brings in a different kind of publicity – the modern-day, promotional sort. Promotional publicity is a decidedly one-way form of communication, so I’m not sure what the connection is between this and Kantian publicity. Sure, a ‘public’ university in the Kantian sense would prioritise rational-critical discourse, but this is arguably a separate issue to the marketisation of higher education, and I wouldn’t place a lack of rational-critical discourse top of a list of problems with universities. So, this is an interesting conundrum. The paragraph on public attitudes (p11) makes the link between the two concepts more coherent, but I’m still not sure about it.

So, is – as Chris Calhoun thinks – our ‘vibrant public sphere’ under threat? In some ways, maybe, but we could just be looking at the past through rose-coloured specs. Vibrant, Kantian publicity is flourishing in places with innovative courses and approaches (MA Fashion Futures at LCF springs to mind) that aim to subvert current norms and practices, rethink entire industries, and produce graduates with the attitudes and attributes to reshape the world rather than slavishly reproducing it.

There is some metric-bashing in White’s paper that is a bit band-wagony and lacks critique. I’m not sure about the implication that high satisfaction ratings on the NSS are just another statistic to use in marketing. They *can be* a reliable account of sorts. The stories behind the lower scores can be surprising (or just plain confounding), but a 100% satisfaction rating is difficult to argue with. Same goes for the stuff on managerialism; yes, we need to retain academic freedom BUT we’re still human beings and many of us benefit from a little management and a little extrinsic motivation. Duke Maskell’s personal account of the rise of managerialism and professionalism in a transitioning post-92 university (in The New Idea of a University, 2002) gives a well-balanced perspective.

At the end of his paper, White asks how the educator’s authority is affected if the student’s expectation is that the course will help them to get a career. I think that’s a conversation that educators and students need to have – and ideally on an individual basis; why are they here? What do they want to get out of this? They are, after all, paying. So what are they paying for, and why? If you’re going to shell out a load of cash, you should really have engaged with a cost-benefit analysis. Not many undergraduates (in fact, hardly any university teachers in my experience) know that the full cost of their higher education to the state is more than double the amount of the loan they are taking out. On the other hand, they should also be aware that increased taxation on higher earnings over the course of their lifetime would cover the full cost of their degree – on average three times over. Financially, it’s a complex picture, but if they’re bright enough to do A-levels it shouldn’t pose them a problem.

Ultimately, I would argue that it’s not those who go to university who need a political education the most. Yes, the marketisation of higher education may promote individualism and self-interest, but individualism and self-interest were doing pretty well already. The current generation of university students have been completely shafted, and as far as I can see they remain remarkably public-spirited.

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