Tuesday, 30 September 2008

Draft of conclusions to "God professors and student ratbags"

Student movements in the 1960s and 1970s succeeded in engineering a revolution of sorts, certainly in relation to university-based knowledge. However, revolution, as John Burnheim suggested, is messy, and this one had some serious unintended consequences.

The revolution centred, largely, on an enacted power struggle over the control and possession of university-based knowledge, with professors on one side, students and sub-professorial staff on the other. This power struggle was based on opposing characterisations of university knowledge. One side – the professors (generally speaking) – saw university-based knowledge as a growing set of disciplinary traditions. It was the role of experts, according to this professorial characterisation of knowledge, to protect and impart these traditions – a grave responsibility for those who have taken the arduous journey of gaining mastery of knowledge. David Armstrong of the Sydney Philosophy department was an especially dramatic case, but his belief in the significant responsibility to protect knowledge is undeniable, despite other leadership and administrative flaws.

Collectively, professors constituted bodies (often called the Professorial Board or something similar) that guarded this knowledge from potential incursion by governments, religions, and others – and, specifically in this period, students. The professorial position was neither stable nor necessarily any better planned than the student revolution was. We saw in chapter one, the character of university knowledge was not certain and the shift to substantial public funding in the 1950s raised questions about the extent to which the professoriate could continue to control knowledge in a system that required democratic consent to its production and maintenance. Formerly strict barriers between university-based knowledge and all other kinds had been collapsing for more than a decade by the time students were seriously threatening it in the late 1960s, and the traditions of academic mastery were losing their meaning without the students’ help. It is perhaps because of these existing threats that some in the professoriate tended to hold onto knowledge a little tighter, in the face of student desire to possess it, than was perhaps necessary or wise.

On the other side, students (of course, not all of them but on the other hand including many academic staff, too) saw knowledge as contingent, uncertain, chaotic and potentially revolutionary. Knowledge was not truth, not certain, according to the emerging epistemology, it was political and it was power. The traditions of knowledge so jealously guarded by professors, was political in that it supported and validated a social structure that students perceived to be deeply flawed. Since knowledge was already political, students saw no harm in proposing new knowledge be included in the universities that conformed to revolutionary, rather than capitalist, politics. Utopian organizations like the Free U embodied a hope for legitimation of new knowledge and claimed ownership of knowledge for the students and sub-professorial staff that the official university was then excluding from its control.

Such knowledge was not intended to peacefully co-exist within the existing system – it ought to disrupt traditional, discipline-based knowledge and destroy the notion of a canon. For some students this disruptive power was the opposing equivalent to the types of power they perceived universities wielded as organizations and as purveyors of knowledge. Slippage from power to violence occurred on campuses like Monash and La Trobe, with students claiming the (violent) power attached to knowledge, as well as knowledge itself.

According to students’ perspective on university knowledge, there is no canon, only that which is constructed for the purposes of power. So in a students’ ideal university, with no canon to protect, the professoriate has no role. The continuation of the professoriate, in this new characterisation of knowledge, was seen to function as the ongoing protection and validation of an obsolete and morally questionable approach to knowledge. The production of new knowledge that is “relevant” to society (without justifying it) was moreover highly unlikely to emerge from professorial members of the university community. Trained as professors were in mastery of the canon, and positioned, in an almost ecclesiastical sense, to protect it, revolutionary knowledge from professors was improbable. This was one of the frustrations felt during the University of Melbourne’s 3.3.18 controversy – that the university failed to engage with politics and simply excluded it. The new knowledge students sought was the plaything of the young, who (unlike professors, who were by definition older) were capable of innovative ideas that could challenge the stability of knowledge and artificial separation of the disciplines. Jacka and Curthoy’s feminism course was a case in point: of course the Professorial Board were unqualified to evaluate this knowledge, it was entirely new – and new was not what the Professorial Board was all about. New and political knowledge had an uncomfortable place in traditional professorial cosmology and its mere existence in the university threatened the status of the professoriate. The success of the Philosophy Strike can be seen as a nail in the coffin of professorial authority.

The next step of the Sydney Philosophy department was the replacement of the core curriculum with electives. Such abolition of canonical knowledge was the final factor that broke down any further valid distinction between university knowledge and other kinds – and thus any structural need to defend it. The consequence of this was very serious. In this new schema there was no longer a need for university government that was separate, or protected from society. Interference from outside bodies would seem to have no real consequences if knowledge is political anyway. Students sought to transform university governance to no longer reflect a need to protect and maintain knowledge, but to rather reflect the same democratic systems that they also sought beyond the universities’ cloisters – systems designed for openness rather than protection. This structure would leave the universities vulnerable to incursions on academic freedom and other types of external interference.
Democratic knowledge was knowledge chosen by students. This had been the case at the Free U, where the only determinant of curriculum was student choice. Abolishing the core curriculum in undergraduate philosophy announced the death of the canon and of professorial authority in determining what knowledge is. Selection of courses by students would, in the same way as market forces in a laissez faire system, determine what knowledge is, and which knowledge is valuable. Inadvertently, market forces were to be the new authority in the determination of university knowledge. Universities could no longer proceed, in their arrogance, with telling students what to do and disciplining them if they failed to comply. Universities, students claimed, should now persuade (they did not yet say “sell”) potential students of the value of the knowledge on offer and provide the services that were a natural consequence of competition. The outrage that the service provider assessed the customer is one way of interpreting the anti-exam banner, “examine the examiners”.

Student utopias, naturally, did not intend this outcome – an outcome where knowledge functioning as capital emerged at precisely the moment the canon was finally undermined. Student goals were expressed more faithfully to their intention in the student-centred pedagogies, assessment regimes and student evaluation systems that are also the legacy of student protest. The exam resisters – the students who pulled their chairs together to complete their Marxist exam collaboratively – saw knowledge’s power and capital as something that ought to be shared. Examination was a claim to an unfair portion of the ownership of knowledge, according to the new student view, a clear assertion of the power of the knower over the student. A reconfiguration of assessment from barrier to learning support found permanent expression in universities’ assessment policies remarkably quickly. Examination of the examiners, commencing as student-led evaluation of teaching and of courses, also gradually found a permanent place in university quality assurance practices.

This was a revolution in the ownership of knowledge. It was not painless or even, sadly, bloodless but it was remarkably quick – especially given the size and requirement for consensus from university bureaucracies. This speed was enabled by the generation gap between junior academic staff and senior professors, which facilitated rapid change. Students clearly won this struggle, which transferred the ownership of knowledge from a privileged few to students in an open, participatory model. In this, contingent knowledge would be continually produced and negotiated, owned by all. But while they stripped the professoriate of their monopoly on knowledge, professors did not necessarily see it as a transfer in ownership – for in the traditional professorial view, knowledge did not really have an owner. It was an elite system, certainly, but belonging to it was a privilege professors not only felt they had earned, but also to be a responsibility to the preservation of knowledge and of truths that went beyond them as individuals. The new epistemology stripped universality from university-based knowledge and thus any remaining separation of knowledge from the knower – ensuring that from here on, knowledge must have an owner.

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