Friday, 25 July 2008

Revolution in knowledge and its ownership - thinking about the 1960s and 1970s

I have been struck by two things in the last two days.

One: yesterday (Friday 25 July) I was reading a speech by Kim Edward Beazley (Sr) in 1972 to the Melbourne convocation, where he was talking about student protest and other “problems” (despite the ways that university staff and politicians might sympathise with student opinions, it still constituted a problem requiring some sort of response). The university Beazley Sr described was barely recognisable to me. It was a placid, civilised, quiet place - a detached location for contemplative knowledge. Furthermore, it is obvious, in his speech, that Beazley Sr believed that protesting students would come and go but the university (the university form, its idea, that is) would remain the same. The fact I could not recognise the obviousness of his ideal university’s qualities, suggests that it did not.

Two: On Thursday I went to a workshop on assessment (Noel Myers presenting at ACU) where it was clear that our assumption is now that we should assess students constructively as a part of their learning to equip them for knowledge and work that does not yet exist. This contrasts to some of the ideas around traditional examination, which were never for students at all. They were for society to know that all its graduates in (say) medicine had achieved a minimum standard. This changes the place of the (idea of the) university in society from a bureau of standards, an examining organisation, to a training one. It shifts the university’s claims in relation to knowledge, since examination presupposes the existence of a stable canon, to contingent, shifting and multi-located knowledge – including knowledge located in the future.

The university seems so permanent, so stable. It seems so bureaucratic, slow to change, cautious (some, more than others). The university has a conservative position in society, though it may not have (many) conservative members. (Consider the double-meaning – I think intended – in the Bradley discussion paper “[Higher Education plays] a key role in the development and maintenance of the nation’s culture and social structures” (p.2).

So the fact that lasting change was made in the university idea in as little as 7 years – maybe as long as 10 – says (as do some other things) the student movement of approx 1968-1975 in Australia was a revolution of knowledge – and a revolution in who owns it.

And I was all prepared for finding that it was all a lot to be passionate about at the time, but fizzled out after a while. Hmm.

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