Tuesday, 25 May 2010

Beneath this heroic history lurks a tragic loss


Professors, by their status (that functioned as a signifier of their expertise), had long been positioned to declare which knowledge was considered valid for the university. The supposed unity of knowledge was key to this. Unified knowledge could be understood as truth. This kind of knowledge provided the metanarrative of the university. But it was a self-legitimising system. Professors decided what knowledge was and they then also were required to protect that knowledge as inviolable truth. This was a position of considerable power for, as Lyotard said: “knowledge first finds legitimacy within itself, and it is knowledge that is entitled to say what the State and what Society is”. 

The student movements, in their opposition to examinations exposed the system of power that this type of expertise asserted. Defiance of disciplinary systems demonstrated their anger at the ways that power was institutionalised and deployed against them and against society. Their insistence that students and non-professorial staff be included in university governance – in decisions at all levels – rejected the assumption of the old community of scholars: that only the accepted experts could legitimise knowledge. On the contrary, 1960s and 1970s student movements cast off professorial legitimacy in favour of something new.

In some cases this new pedagogy was explicit. The Free U set out a position paper that detailed a participatory approach that rejected the authority of the teacher-expert.  When George Molnar of the Sydney philosophy department proposed to abolish its core curriculum, he also detailed a collaborative and problem-based approach to learning.  Those opposed to exams and the participants in the philosophy strike held less coherent perspectives, but what they all had in common was the delegitimisation of the god-professor and the instatement of de-centred models of knowledge. Students at Melbourne idealised inclusion and political diversity, rather than support of dominant social and political systems, as an environment in which new knowledge would flourish. This also prompted increased student control over what and how they would learn.   Rather than doctrinal, canonical and certain, knowledge would be seen as individual, socially constituted and political. The approaches to learning advocated by student movements will be familiar to educators of the present. They represent a precursor to current concerns for situated, authentic and student-centred learning – student movements could be described as proto-constructivist. 

Yet, beneath this heroic history lurks a tragic loss. Approximately 25 years after the Philosophy Strike Jean Curthoys said:
This liberal conception of the university no longer has currency…I have no time here to defend this liberal conception and so I shall simply say that my deep regrets about the strike concern the extent to which it opened the floodgates for its rejection.
It is difficult to know exactly what Curthoys meant here about the loss of the liberal university, but the story of the period to me suggests three things. Firstly, by challenging the existing order, students did not add themselves to the professoriate as a new community. Instead, they undermined it. While this may not seem like a great loss, the legitimacy of the university’s claim over truth in civil society rested in that hierarchical order. The second issue is related. By decentralising knowledge construction, a crisis of expertise and legitimacy emerged. If the experts have no legitimate authority over knowledge, “who decides what knowledge is and who knows what needs to be decided?”  And if there is no obvious need for expert knowledge, what is the use of the university at all? The first two issues thus led to a loss of standing, of reputation for the university as an idea. Thirdly, the language student movements used identified a parallel between the ways that money flows in a capitalist system and the ways that knowledge was structured in the university, as two aspects of the same problem. In addition, they described the shift of control from institution to student as requiring student choice: a type of consumer power. The intention of these was certainly not to commodify knowledge or education. But it gave a language that could be appropriated in support of such commodification: a language that already contained powerful moral imperatives.

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