Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Universities that put people before buildings are bound to succeed


"A university should be a society of teachers and scholars; of teachers who have devoted their lives to the kingdom of the mind, and of scholars who are determined to enter this kingdom. In the pursuit of modern knowledge expensive libraries, large buildings, elaborate equipment and laboratories are necessary. But this should not blind us to the fact that the spirit of the university depends on the men and women who assemble there.

Given a good teacher sitting on one end of a log and an eager student sitting on the other end, the central problem of education is solved: you have the germ of a university.

But the most sumptuous lecture room and the most splendid laboratory do not make a university if the teacher is a pedant and the taught are flippant children sent there to qualify for a profession.

This solution... is not as easy as it appears, because there are too few good teachers and too many flippant students. But a solution is not impossible. Universities which put their money into [people*] before buildings are bound to succeed."

Eric Ashby, Universities in Australia, 1944 pp.75



* In the language of the day, Ashby says "men". Normally I wouldn't change this, but I thought in this instance it was quite distracting

Frail vessels for the precious oil of humanity

"The modern university is a vastly different place from those turbulent houses of medieval scholars. Being concerned with an earthly, not a heavenly, kingdom, the universities have had to shape themselves to a changing society.

They have assumed obligations to industry. They have become encrusted with buildings and offices. In different cities and in different ages they have fulfilled now one function, now another. But through the whole eight centuries it has remained the vocation of universities to uphold and to transmit certain imperishable traditions.

Often they have been frail vessels into which to pour such precious oil of humanity. At one time and another they have betrayed their trust. But the traditions have been preserved, and they have been handed on to Australia. Today our universities, criticize them as you will, are the trustees of Australian intellectual life; despite their weakness, despite their unworthiness for this high office."

Eric Ashby, Universities in Australia, 1944 pp.74-5

Monday, 22 February 2010

War, Science, Civilisation


While significant, the war’s greatest consequences for knowledge did not lie in practical policies like the Reconstruction Training Scheme but in anxieties about the purpose for university-based knowledge. Knowledge was seen to be the foundation for a civilised ideal in which humanity was bonded by rationality. As Bruno Latour has pointed out, 20th Century wars were each met with shock that civilisation, as Paul Valéry put it, was “mortal”.[1] Revelations of the torture of humans in the name of Nazi medicine were disquieting for the future of science, even though Nazi research was regularly discredited as not “true” science. The Canberra Times, reporting on Nazi science in 1933, implied that genuine science could only function in a democracy.[2] The result of a neglect of true science in Germany, The Argus too-hopefully reported in 1939, would be a reduction in their technological development and military efficiency.[3] In July 1939, in the “hush” before the war started, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill said that science, rather than violence, created “true living space”, improving the living standards of people and enabling peace. “Give scientists a chance”, he said, contrasting science’s civilising capacity to:

The barbaric method of forcibly imposing one population upon another and of exterminating or subjugating the vanquished is hopelessly inefficient and out of date.[4]

Latour’s contention that science and rationality were deployed in modernity to instate a false peace, based on a world of naturalised commonalities is evident in Churchill’s newspaper article here. Science had established the “common make-up of genes, neurons, muscles, skeletons, ecosystems and evolution which allowed them to be classed in the same humanity” so that every conflict could be positioned as a result of superstition, passion, prejudice and barbarism, antithetical to the civilisation that science’s objective sameness allowed.[5]

Later, in 1953, Winston Churchill, like so many others, reflected on science differently:
These fearful scientific discoveries cast their shadow on every thoughtful mind.[6]
Research to develop an Atomic Bomb had been conducted in several countries in a clear race that would see knowledge win the war. The United States had invested $2 Billion in nuclear research and development. A media release, prepared after the first successful atomic bomb test in New Mexico (but not released until after the bombing of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945), shows that the researchers believed that this knowledge, like all true science, would further civilisation:

Mankind’s successful transition to a new age, the Atomic Age, was ushered in July 16, 1945 before the eyes of a tense group of renowned scientists … Mounted on a steel tower, a revolutionary weapon destined to change war as we know it, or which may even be the instrumentality to end all wars, was set off with an impact which signalised man’s most ambitious estimates.[7]

The Atomic Bomb had shown in the most dramatic way possible that knowledge could win a war. Newspapers were still expressing jubilance at the imminent end of the war after the initial bomb (“The attack on Hiroshima was successful beyond all expectations” read The Argus) when the horrible reality of the bomb trickled through.[8] “Japs say all living things Seared to Death,” read another Argus headline on the 9th August, the day of the follow-up bombing of Nagasaki.[9] By September, the Sydney Morning Herald’s war correspondent told Australian readers in graphic detail why “Hiroshima reeks of Death.”[10] Democratic science, it seemed, had not ensured humane civilisation in the way anticipated. Civilisation itself seemed uncertain so that post-war reconstruction required more than practical measures to resume a normal national economy: it required, so many thought, intellectual leaders, including scientists, who would also reconstruct the foundations for humane democracy.


[1] B. Latour, "War of the Worlds: What About Peace?," in The Cultural Studies Reader 3rd Edition, ed. Simon During (London: Routledge, 2007).
[2] Anonymous, "The Making of Peoples," Canberra Times August 2 1933.
[3] Anonymous, "Germany Less Scientific: The Effect of Nazidom," The Argus, 23 October 1939.
[4] Winston Churchill, "The Hush of Europe: Hitler's Chance to Ponder: July Lights and Shadows," Sydney Morning Herald, 28 July 1939.
[5] Latour, "War of the Worlds: What About Peace?."
[6] Anonymous, "Probabilities of War Pass: Churchill Says Tension Less," Sydney Morning Herald, 5 November 1953.
[7] War Department Washington D.C., "Media Release, Atomic Bomb Test July 16," in Philip Baxter Papers (Sydney: University of NSW Archives, 1945).
[8] Anonymous, "Ultimatum to Japan Is Expected "Surrender or Be Annihilated"," The Argus, 9 August 1945.
[9] Anonymous, "Japs Say All Living Things Seared to Death," The Argus, 9 August 1945.
[10] Antony Whitlock, "Hiroshima Reeks of Death," Sydney Morning Herald, 14 September 1945.

Thursday, 18 February 2010

Universities: utilitarian and sublime. Ian Clunies Ross.

Ian Clunies Ross (who is described in wikipedia as "the 'architect' of Australia's scientific boom") at the Centenary of the University of Sydney (1952): excerpts from his oration in his Memoirs and Papers.

"How fanciful must have appeared the rhetoric of William Charles Wentworth, when, moving the Bill for the establishment of the University in 1849 ... 'a long list of illustrious names of statesmen and patriots, of philanthropists and philosophers, of poets and heroes...'

It is noteworthy, and indicative of the change that 100 years have wrought, that Wentworth made no mention of scientists ... indicative not only of the lesser place of science and of the scientist in the hierarchy of university men, but of the appreciation which we have now lost that there was then a unity of knowledge" Memoirs and Papers, pp. 171-2


"This heart-searching is stimulated by the recognition, during and since the war, that the universities have fallen from that traditional high estate in which they exerted a commanding influence on the ideas and ideals of their times. Neither within nor between countries did they provide a rallying point, a vital philosophy with which to counter the evil philosophies of Fascism, Nazism or Communism. In so far as we have gained a respite from the assault of these dark forces, it has not been through any counter-balancing or nobler view of life imparted by the universities and contemporary education, but through recourse to the barbarism of war and the more efficient use of science and technology prostituted to that end." pp 172-173

"If we look back 100 years, we can picture how these imposing buildings must have dominated the straggling town of Sydney; so, too, must the power and purpose of the University have appeared to offer promise of a new view of life and a philosophy of living to the men of that day. Is there, perhaps, an analogy between the present position of the University, encircled by the drabness of a great city, and its decline to an institution whose purpose, in popular estimation, is to teach men how to earn a living rather than a way of living, to acquire learning rather than wisdom?" 173

"We are, I believe, faced with the paradox hat, while the university's main function is sublime, it is at the same time essentially utilitarian: utilitarian in that, from medieval times, the university has sought to meet the needs of society by the training of theologians, doctors, lawyers and .. sublime in that, whatever the nature of vocational training for particular functions or techniques, it sought to provide a system of vital ideas about the university and man's relation to it" 173-174

"It is significant that, today, we seldom think of university men, collectively, as possessed of sound judgement or of a vital system of ideas which unites the past and present in an intelligible whole. We think rather in terms of special skills and techniques; of a celebrated physician, a great engineer, a distinguished physicist or chemist; and woe betide us should we attribute to them wisdom or judgement outside of their technical competence!" 174-5

"...we find ourselves at the height of the scientific age...science is everywhere about us, interpenetrating the whole fabric of life, influencing our minds no less than our bodies, or relations as individuals no less than as peoples. And science tends increasingly to dominate the life and purpose of the universities. Through the achievements of science...the universities must win popular acclaim.

Even at the lowest material level, the sciences must preoccupy the minds of university administrators, since modern science... is an infernally expensive business, so that to you, Mr Vice-Chancellor, it must seem an insatiable monster of ever larger and more threatening proportions.

Society will provide no escape from this predicament, since it recognises that it musy live by science even at the risk of dying painfully by it." p.177

"Science poses the major problem of education because of the very magnitude of its success, so that the ceaseless and bewilderingly rapid proliferation of knowledge forces its votaries into ever-narrowing specialisms. ... what is more, they not only suffer this fate but glory in it: for are not specialists the new elect, the high priests of the cult whose mysteries none may share? Not for them
'To see a world in a grain of sane,
and a heaven in a wild flower'
The grain of sand has become all the world and the heaven they know or seek to know." pp.177-8

"We are confronted, then, with the paradox that, while science, whether pure or applied, must occupy a more commanding place in the universities, it threatens, by its very nature, to accentuate the movement from broad scholarship towards a fragmented and specialist learning; that while scientists and professional men, by virtue of their numbers, education, and the importance of their functions, should take a vital part in the life and thought of their times and in all aspects of human relations which are concerned with administration and government, and the operation of the social organism, they are not only ill-equipped but, as a result of their university training, so permanently mutilated that it is idle to expect anything of them." 178

UWA v Gray and Academic Freedom

This letter to the Editor in The Times is one of the few I have seen who have notriced that UWA v Gray is about academic areedom, the purpose of the university, institutions' complicity in marketising knowledge and the emerging role of the court in protecting universities' function in society:

Justine Pila from St Catherine's College Oxford rightly said:

'Thus, while universities increasingly operate in the market, they are not of the market, being rather of the purposes contained in their charter or Act. Central to the purposes of many universities is the ideal of the unfettered pursuit of truth, an ideal at the heart of the UWA case'

Though not as UWA presented it. Do we think it is appropriate for the Federal Court to protect academic freedom over the universities?

Facts post-modernity

'Facts are no longer the mouth-shutting alternative to politics, but what has to be stabilized instead.'

Bruno Latour, War of the Worlds: What about Peace? p.21

Monday, 15 February 2010

Down to just one part now...

And five minutes after posting the last structure, I think I need to do it chronologically. This is one of the reasons for keeping a blog: it enables me to see it differently....! Maybe....

Introduction

  1. Knowledge and Civilisation 1939-1957
Knowledge, identified as important to the nation during the war, was doubly so after it, attached as it was to a now shaky idea of civilisation. This importance led to a funding structure that made knowledge purchasable, with government its potential buyer.

  1. Knowledge and Progress 1945-1966
After the Second World War, civilisation and progress came to mean technological progress and economic growth, positioning universities as central to the economy

  1. Knowledge and Revolution 1967-1973
Student revolution against the production of graduates as products, complicity of the university with ‘the establishment’ and experiments with pedagogy and governance established new norms, undermined old hierarchies and enabled the student-consumer.

  1. Knowledge and Economics 1973-1989
In the 1980s, knowledge was so important to the economy that government felt it could not afford to leave it in the hands of academics and their gift economy

  1. Knowledge and Nation 1980-1989
Government in the 1980s used funding structures to try to control knowledge and direct it to national priorities

  1. Knowledge Trade 1986-1996
Universities attempted to control the knowledge trade through intellectual property, reconfiguring their business as a trade in knowledge, undermining their purpose

Conclusion

Epilogue


Sunday, 14 February 2010

Thesis is now in TWO parts, not three

I am unbelievably excited that the High Court said no to UWA's request to appeal against Gray again, mostly because now it is definitely over in time to go into my thesis.

I have changed the structure: the last 3-part version was too long and contained things I had not really researched. I've now made it two-parts and 6 chapters and my only remaining worry is whether chapter 1 and chapter 4 are too repetitive. Below is the summary, hwre is the full version

The thesis: The competence to determine knowledge shifted from academic to the market – so academic freedom becomes market freedom.

The structure: is in two parts, focusing on the way knowledge since the second world war has been promoted as being ‘for the nation’ and ‘for the economy’ and the consequences, for knowledge, of each. The two parts are internally chronological.

Part A: Knowledge and the Nation
Shows the pathway from when the nation realised it had a strategic need for university knowledge to when it started to control it.

1. Knowledge and Civilisation: 1939-1966
Knowledge, identified as important to the nation during the war, was doubly so after it, attached as it was to a now shaky idea of civilisation. This importance led to a funding structure that made knowledge purchasable, with government its potential buyer.

2. Knowledge and Revolution 1967-1973
Student movements established that academic freedom can prevent canonical knowledge and allow innovation but they also undermined the authority of the university and accidentally created the conditions that would position the student as consumer.

3. Knowledge and National Priorities 1980-1989
Government in the 1980s used funding structures to try to control knowledge

Part B: Knowledge and The Economy
Shows that considering university knowledge to be for the economy commodified knowledge and undermined any valid purpose for the university

4. Knowledge and Progress 1945-1973
After the Second World War, civilisation and progress came to mean technological progress and economic growth, positioning universities as central to the economy

5. Knowledge-based Economy 1973-1989
In the 1980s, knowledge was so important to the economy that government felt it could not afford to leave it in the hands of academics and their gift economy

6. Economy of Knowledge 1986-1996
Universities attempted to control the knowledge trade through intellectual property, reconfiguring their business as a trade in knowledge, undermining their purpose

Conclusion

Epilogue: UWA v Gray
Universities are now often commercially motivated and so are many academics. The union has traditionally claimed to protect academic freedom, but in commercial terms it may not always be in the best interests of their members to do so. Government has encroached on university territory substantially: who will now protect academic freedom and ensure university quality?

Wednesday, 10 February 2010

Educating more than an elite

It has become quite clear that it universities’ job is no longer only to educate a small intellectual elite. Obviously, just as we accept in sport and music, we still need an intellectual elite. But while the educational mission of the university has changed, the teaching methods to match are taking a little longer to catch up.

Educating more rather than less is always a good thing: as well as improving the lives of participants in a thousand different ways, it helps to make society a more tolerant, civil, safe and prosperous place.

But a mission to educate an elite is rather different (though I have to say research on elite education is understandable not very prominent, so I am guessing from observations).

Firstly, you don’t even necessarily need to educate elite intellectuals, they are likely to do it themselves with enough competition and rewards. To locate your elite, you could just keep examining people and scraping them off the top until you get the few you are after. Teach them really, really badly and, with enough books in the library and tough enough exams, you’ll still end up with remarkably well educated people. In fact, the harder you make it to learn, the easier it will be to identify the elite who have learned it despite you.

Which is not to say the elite universities do that. Truthfully, they attract high performing students and higher performing staff so normally the teaching is pretty good, the exposure to research even better by students who were going to do great even if they weren’t. It is clear, I think, that the education system was at least partly set up with this skim-off-the-top approach working pretty successfully in identifying the required elite.

But the majority of universities are not elite and that is a good thing. And this is where the real education has to happen. This is because the students who enter have not been scraped off the top via the HSC exams, they are real, normal people needing a genuine education. Lots of them are going to go on to become the maths and history teachers of our school kids, nurses of our sick and auditors of our finances: so it is important.

The problem is, the people teaching them have normally been trained in an elite system. That is only a problem because, research pretty consistently suggests that ideas about what makes proper education are formed early and by one’s own learning experiences. So it seems to me likely that we have a lot of academics teaching non-elite students as if they were the elite. In the actual elite universities, this is fine. In the majority it could be a disaster, especially since expansion of the system is inevitable and imminent.

In talking to academics about designing learning activities to support normal people learning without reducing university standards a comment I have heard over and over is “we didn’t get all this scaffolding to support us when we were students, why shouldn’t my students have to struggle along like I did?” I think this is because they are the elite and their students are not (necessarily).

But there is a very real risk that, instead of developing teaching approaches that educate, rather than scrape people off the top, university standards will actually drop, which is why the system is currently obsessed with quality. But I would like to point out, once again:

You do not get quality by measuring it.

The reason standards could drop is that the starting level of students is dropping, as it must if the system will expand (which it will). There probably needs to be a systematic way of improving this starting level (maybe a bridging year) but for now I am interested in developing teaching methods. If courses are aligned to student needs rather than disciplinary standards, as some current pedagogies now suggest, then standards could drop. If assessment levels are gauged by average pass rates: that is, the difficult of assessment is adjusted by on average 90% of students passing, then as student starting levels drop, so will degree standards. You could fix this with standardized exams, but then we return to the problem this posting started off with.

Postgraduate qualifications in higher education/university teaching (which should not be the same thing but are, often) are thus becoming an indicator of (potential) quality in universities and, rightly, it is becoming an expectation that academic staff will obtain some teaching qualification like this. This is important if staff are to develop the new types of teaching skills required to genuinely educate new types of students.

One campus review article (http://www.campusreview.com.au/pages/section/article.php?s=Comment&idArticle=13897) recently suggests that, academic staff workloads are such that professional development disguised as postgraduate-level courses do not all have great standards themselves. It is entirely plausible that these standards could drop as academic workloads continue to increase and government incentives lead to strategic pressure to graduate larger quantities of academics from them.

This article suggests that academic development units, being attached to university strategy rather than academically independent in faculties, may themselves have incentives to keep these courses overly simple. There may not be any systematic imperative to assure disciplinary standards. And indeed, if they are all like this, then benchmarking them to each other will only affirm low standards. I am NOT saying that this is the case (I have not personally looked close enough to know), but as I said before “benchmarking is useless if everything is crap”.

If, rather, higher education was located in education faculties as research centres, with the pure pursuit of knowledge about higher education and university teaching as the primary goal and thus offering genuinely postgraduate level courses, we could be much more certain about the quality of these courses. Because academic freedom – the freedom to choose what to research and teach – is key to quality. And it requires separation from strategic and policy influence.

I am not an expert in all this, however, and I could well be wrong.

Sunday, 7 February 2010

Universities protecting academic freedom?

I've said it before: Eric Ashby (1904-1992) was over optimistic about universities. Here's an example where I wish he wasn't:


"over a stretch of seven centuries they [universities] have learnt how to dissuade their patrons - princes, bishops, tycoons, alumni - from meddling in their affairs..."


In one case of interference that I heard about recently (I won't post details), when I lightly objected I was told that this is "the way things are, these days". Seven centuries. These days. 


I find it hard to believe the stakes are as high now as they sometimes have been over the past 700 years. Maybe it is just that universities don't think academic freedom matters anymore.

Friday, 5 February 2010

Find what wind served to advance an honest mind

Go and catch a falling star,
Get with child a mandrake root,
Tell me where all past years are,
Or who cleft the Devil's foot,
Teach me to hear mermaids singing,
Or to keep off envy's stinging,
And find
What wind
Serves to advance an honest mind.

John Donne, Song. Norton Anthology p.205

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

Final draft of structure

This is the structure I think, sorry about the crap formatting. The full version is at http://docs.google.com/View?id=dfqggshp_77drbdjgfv


Introduction


Part A: Knowledge and the Nation
Shows the pathway from when the nation realised it had a strategic need for university knowledge to when it started to control it.

1. Knowledge and War: 1939-1966
Second world war led to a sense of needing to purchase knowledge for the nation





2. Knowledge and Revolution 1967-1973
Students in the 1960s and 1970s thought that the connect between universities/knowledge and the nation strengthened the wrong sort of nation

3. Knowledge and National Priorities 1980-1989
Government in the 1980s used funding structures to try to control knowledge

Part B: Knowledge and The Economy
Shows that considering university knowledge to be for the economy commodified knowledge and undermined any valid purpose for the university


4. Knowledge and Progress 1945-1973



After the Second World War, civilisation and progress came to mean technological progress and economic growth, positioning universities as central to the economy

5. Knowledge Economy 1973-1989
In the 1980s, knowledge was so important to the economy that government felt it could not afford to leave it in the hands of academics and their gift economy



6. Economy of Knowledge 1986-1996
Universities attempted to control the knowledge trade through intellectual property, reconfiguring their business as a trade in knowledge, undermining their purpose

Part C: Knowledge “for its own sake”
Shows that knowledge “for its own sake” allows freedom to pursue knowledge wherever it leads, ensuring living, growing, quality knowledge for a civil, ethical, healthy and prosperous democracy.

7. Knowledge and Civilisation 1939-1966
Post-war concerns and cold war incidents regarding academic freedom show ways that academic freedom supports civility and democracy


8. Knowledge Utopias 1967-1973
Student knowledge utopias in the 1960s and 1970s show ways that academic freedom prevents the imposition of canonical or doctrinal knowledge, allowing new and innovative knowledge to emerge


9. Academic Labour and Academic Freedom 1973-1996
Tensions in the conditions and nature of academic labour in the 1980s and 1990s show that academic freedom gives academics the opportunity to pursue quality knowledge for a growing multiplicity of purposes

Conclusion


Epilogue: UWA v Gray
Universities are now often commercially motivated and so are many academics. The union has traditionally claimed to protect academic freedom, but in commercial terms it may not always be in the best interests of their members to do so. Government has encroached on university territory substantially: who will now protect academic freedom and ensure university quality?