Monday, 24 May 2010

Truth versus relevance: the ethic of (student) choice

The success of the Philosophy Strike in securing a legitimate place for new knowledge held by non-professors was not the end of the story for the troubled Sydney Philosophy department. On the suggestion of left-wing Sydney Push philosopher George Molnar  and with strong support by students, a move was made to remove a “core” of philosophy courses from the undergraduate curriculum.  Molnar opposed a classic curriculum he believed had been made artificially stable by academics, where knowledge development sought to enrich (rather than supersede) existing knowledge. 

Armstrong put his effort into opposing the idea, believing that core foundational knowledge was the basis of all new philosophical thought – a hierarchical structure to knowledge that was also reflected in his defence of the university’s hierarchy and the traditional role of professors. Armstrong insisted that any student who by-passed the core would “be getting an inferior philosophical education”.  Some members of the philosophy department, after the Knopfelmacher case, the Marxist-Leninist dispute and the philosophy strike, had enough. One responded to the need to vote on the issue with “a pox on George and a double pox on Armstrong!”

Molnar promoted a curriculum based on Althusserian philosophy, claiming that knowledge was produced, uncertain and contextual, and was always ideological.  Rather than learning to emulate academic masters and to parrot their knowledge, under Molnar’s scheme, students would be assessed in groups as they tackled complex topics collaboratively.  Many philosophers on staff supported Molnar’s proposal, agreeing that new knowledge would be best produced by those who can easily depart from tradition, on the basis of individual inquiry and personal discovery. It was in the youth movements of the period that challenges to accepted ideas were being produced and many philosophers wished to encourage the new knowledge that emerged.  Under this scheme, student choice would be the best way to determine the curriculum of each. Philosophy students, in the growing participatory atmosphere, agreed:
The proponents of compulsion commonly rest their case on various value judgements, for example that the compulsory courses are more intellectually valuable than some of the options which a student, given a greater range of choice, might make.
It was the principle of student choice that David Stove derided as a useless basis for curriculum, suggesting, “no doubt many more signatures could be got for a petition for students to determine their own results.”

Student choice was a larger theme of the student movement’s interactions with universities across Australia. Members of student movements felt that students should be able to choose what they studied as a matter of academic freedom. The requirement to study certain things was likened to the military conscription of the Vietnam War:
The university has … [an] obligation to go out and speak as honestly, persuasively and precisely as it can to prospective members, offer an invitation and not rely on educational conscription.
This ethic of choice would mean that universities competed for students, returning power to those who currently considered themselves powerless. It would be the power of a consumer then, which students would be able to assert, ensuring competing universities improve their service and offer courses attractive to students: they “must subsequently perform in accordance with the reasonable expectations [of] students." 

The language of freedom associated with many aspects of the youth movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s, even among those who would never have intended it to do so, showed a capacity to slip into the language of the free market. Theodor Adorno had warned about the myth of freedom in the ethic of consumer choice, saying “the customer is not king as the culture industry would have us believe, not its subject but its object”.  But then student revolutionaries in Paris had rejected and attacked Adorno.

[footnotes removes...available on request]

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