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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