May 26, 2003

behind the razzle dazzle

That the debate over the higher education institutions in Australia is conducted in very utilitarian terms should come as no suprise, since Australia's public philosophy is utilitarian one. Currently, the key issue in the debate is the private/public funding of the university. The funding issue mostly ignores any consideration of the impact of the corporatisation of the liberal university that we find here. And what is rarely spoken about is the connection between the university as an ethical institution in civil society and the broadening of liberal democracy.

Consider this response to Brendan Nelson's proposed reforms to higher education. Davidson makes two points. First:

"Behind the razzle-dazzle, with the promise of an injection of an additional billion dollars of taxpayer funds, is a scheme for creating a two-tier system that will intensify the competition for a place in the top tier based on family wealth and, hence, ease the competitive pressure based on ability."

He is dead right. Creating a two-tier system is the whole point of the reform exercise. Secondly:

"All this is being done in the name of excellence and diversity (and equity). According to Education Minister Brendan Nelson, it is important that Australia gets at least one university in the top 100 in the world. What does this mean?

The best answer I can come up with is that Nelson and the others who are pushing this line mean one of the top 100 universities in terms of resources per student. Note this means measurement in terms of inputs rather than outputs."

Again, rightly said. A nation-state that aims to be part of the new knowledge economy must have one world class university. even if it is only for reasons of prestige.

And that's where things usually stand in Australia apart from the push for the full deregulation of the education sector. Davidson, however, does make an additional point in his defence of the public funding of universities. This public funding is justified in terms of 'the "external" benefits of higher education in the form of a more civilised and richer society of benefit to everybody, including those who couldn't benefit from university training.'

Therein lies the broader problem. What does "the benefits of higher education in the form of a more civilised and richer society" actually mean today. In a corporatised university the biosciences have a ready answer. It means wealth creation. It makes society richer. But what of the non-vocational humanities and social sciences? The answer is usually given in terms of civilised rather than utility. Instead of appealing to utility they usuallytalk in terms of scholarship, research for its own sake and academic values. Often they mean what Timothy Burke over at Easily Distracted has called the "the university as a sacred, artisanal institution." That looking back to the mediaeval university means an elitist conception of high culture, a sensitive shudder at the vulgarities of the market and a small exclusive university surrounded by a moat with its drawbridge drawn up. The justification? To contemplate the nature of things, says Anthony O'Hear:

"I must withdraw from the immediacy of the 21st century and its insistent noise and its economic and political imperatives. there is a case for periods of study and reflection on the best that has been thought and known, without ulterior purpose, where they can turn away from things of the world to the concentrated examination of things of the mind and spirit, including the natural sciences."

That is yesterday's answer: the university as the ivory tower and the academic as the monk. That is how such justifications by philosophers are interpreted in Canberra, which has its eye on the knowledge economy and the wealth of nations.

But the conservatives do not budge. On they go.O'Hear continues:

"...the universities must keep themselves separate from the worlds of business and the economy, and from the instrumental and utilitarian demands which quite properly operate in those areas."

O'Hear's talk about the ivory tower, illlumination and making me a better person just cuts no ice with the razor gang. They are only too happy to make the cuts to public funding deeper in the name of fostering individual responsibility and entrepreneurship in a market culture. If you cannot cut it then you become unemployed or find another job. O'Hear, as a member of the senior faculty effectively becomes an ornament in the corproate university, just like the flowers in the Vice Chancellor's rooms.

O'Hear will not back off though. He makes the big distinction between education and training.

"...this Government [Blair's Labor Government in the UK] and the last have shown themselves incapable of understanding the notion of a university as a place of education rather than of training. And that is as strong a reason as one could need for removing universities from the clutch of the state."

To be educated means being enlightened and this makes "me more of a human being, less of a stranger to the human condition, and to increase my sensitivity, awareness and reflectiveness."

And you can hear the politicians moaning. Give us a break they chorus.

Is there an alternative pathway for the non-vocational humanities and social sciences? Is there one that takes us beyond the traditional confines of yesterday and offers a viable alternative to wealth creation favoured by the utilitarian neo-liberals?

Yes there is. It is a well known pathway that has not been trodden of late. We can uncover it by picking up two threads. One is suggested by Invisible Adjunct's remark, which connects the university to civil society rather than the market:

"The way I see it: either the university is supported by a broader civil society to which the university lends some sort of support (not uncritical or unthinking, of course, but some sort of support), or civil society will cease to support the university."

What can the content of this relationship mean? A suggestion is indicated by another thread made by Timothy Burke's interpretation of the university as a sacred, artisanal institution. He codes this in terms of citizenship. He says:

"...most of the academics who decry the intrusions of the market into academic life are totally unwilling to embrace an alternative return to the university as a sacred, artisanal institution whose legitimacy derives from its relationship to the democratic public sphere and ideals of citizenship."

So the benefits of higher education from the non-vocational humanities and social sciences in the form of fostering a more civilised and richer civil society lies with an education for democratic citizenship. But what does an education for citizenship mean? Academic people smile when they hear this link between education and citizenship. They politely hear you out then turn back to the issues of jobs and funding.

Well, education for citizenship offers a way of linking the academic values of the university, taking an applied turn and reskilling. Let me spell it out in terms of philosophy. The academic value of the discipline of philosophy is acquiring the virtues of critical thinking (ie., critique); but a doctorate in philosophy only trains you to use these skills in terms of the problems of the discipline and the art and craft of being an academic. But there are no jobs in philosophy o rso few that it does not matter. Canberra is not interested in public subsidies for philosophers.

So why not apply the academic skills of critique to the problems that matter to those in civil society, rather than to the perennial problems of philosophy, such as asking what is time?; can a machine think etc ? Why not, in other words, go to work as a researcher for an non-government organization? Or for a politician? Why not a philosophy in political life? Sure that requires some reskilling because you no longer write books or academic papers. You do other kinds of writing. But it is still an intellectual practice requiring research, writing and critical thinking skills. Of course it doesn't pay to be too ambitiousabout an intellectual's adventures in politics.

Apart from power it is that reskilling bit which is where academics go a bit ga ga. They sort of choke on that even if they are attracted by power. Thus Invisible Adjunct says:

"So I've been reading up on how to leave the academy. It seems I need to identify a "skill set," the better to make my skill set "transferable." At the moment I am not optimistic. Frankly, I am not very skillful at identifying the skills that I might transfer. I am willing to attribute this to a failure of imagination.....I don't buy this business about the humanities PhD as an opportunity to hone a valuable set of skills. I just don't believe my history Ph.D. has given me "transferable skills" that will be of interest and of value outside the academy....That said, I can't spend the rest of my life decrying the waste, though waste is exactly what I think it. Since I'm not quite ready to give up and go home, it's time I learned how to maximize my utility."

This objection is expressed well.

The quick response is that it is not a waste since some valuable kill have been acquired by doing a PhD comapred to a B.A Nor is reskilling in philosophy to engage in a political life a transfer of skills. It cannot be since the work is quite different. It is a reskilling in the form of reshaping those general skills to a specific mode of work in a political life---eg. researcher/advisor with an understanding of the media.

In philosophy it means making contact with the rhetorical tradition, reading the texts associated with the classical Roman idea of philosophy in political life, thinking critically about public issues from a political perspective of making a Australia a better society and engaging in public debate. It means another way of writing philosophy to the current disciplinary conception of writing philosophy.

Oh no, you can't do that, I hear on all sides. That's just philosophy you speak of. Its not plausible for history. As Invisible Adjunct says, I just don't buy this business of about the humanities' PhD as an opportunity to hone a valuable set of skills.

Well, a PhD is a very valuable set of intellectual skills/capacities that have been acquired through a long, hard and gruelling apprenticeship in mastering a field of knowledge and in knowing to ask the right questionsand to sort through the sense from the nonsense. These are acquired through engaging with texts, interpreting texts, evaluating other conflicting interpretations of texts, making judgments about which interpretation is better and defending that judgement in open debate with one's peers. (Lots of philosophy in there).

So we have the skills to deal with political texts, the texts of public policy (ie reports etc), journal articles and the conflicts and interpretations around those texts. In learning to do this (generally on the job) we are reskilling ourselves. Its easy for those trained in the humanities because they intuitively understand themselves to be engaged with texts and do not see themselves doing science.

Reskilling? I hear the mumurs now. How horrible! Haven't I done enough reskilling acquiring a PhD? Why more?

Well, what is the practice of running a weblog but another way of using those academic skills in a different way, and does not that involve a process of reskilling on the job. A weblog is not really a part of the normal disciplinary discourse of the academy. It is more within the public sphere, connected to journalism and the little magazines of civil society. In running a weblog we are critically working away on the problems that matter to us as citizens. In running a weblog we are already connected to civil society and engaged with issues as citizens.

Public opinion is my modest attempt to show that it can be done---step away from the academy, floating free in civil society, and finding ones way through the maze with a concept of public reason. But a really good example is Lawrence Solum's excellent Legal Theory Blog I have in mind the the superb account he has been giving of the politics of the judicial confirmation process as a political war: the confirmation wars. This is legal reason as a public reason with an eye on the political process----apart from the academic material--understood in tetms of the friend/enemy distinction.

What the humanities in the university should be doing, whilst they train students to acquire their PhD's, is to broaden the craft from being useful as an academic in a particular discipline to being useful as an intellectual worker in civil society. They fail miserably at this broadening because they only see the academic job for the few as the end point; they pretty much turn a blind eye to all those who have to find intellectual work outside the academy. In doing this they have dirty hands in the Machivellean sense. They should be hauled before the tribunal of public reason and charged with incompetance, lack of accountability and irresponsibility. And then sentenced.

To speak politically, this has happened in Australia. The humanities have been judged by a liberal political reason. This has used the market to discipline the academic humanities for their shocking practices, which have wrought so much suffering and misery. In many ways they deserve the unemployment that is currently being visited on them. The tragedy is the suffering of the innocents.

Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at May 26, 2003 04:19 PM | TrackBack

"They should be hauled before the tribunal of public reason and charged with incompetance, lack of accountability and irresponsibility. And then sentenced."

Hear! hear! Let's try them for high crimes and misdemeanours.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct on May 27, 2003 02:04 PM

The defence by the senior and conservative faculty of their practices is shocking. They go on and on about the ivory tower, withdrawing from the world and education not training. Their minds are on higher things not trade union issues like pay, conditions and employment.

In my own experience they are pretty much like Anthony O'Hear (who I've added, just to give people the flavour of what is said.) They really do deserve being harshly treated by the free marketeers because they have washed their hands of their students.They have long forgotten about a duty for care or the pastoral ethos of the old liberal university.

Posted by: Gary Sauer-Thompson on May 27, 2003 03:20 PM

But is a PhD really necessary for the work outside of the ivory tower that you speak of? I think we depend too much on credentials already. Trying to broaden the usefulness of the PhD might be a further step in that wrong direction.

Perhaps part of the problem is that our best students have such a lack of imagination concerning their career alternatives. The very best students tend to seek a career in academia, with the next best students going into law, medicine, and finance. They can't really think of anything else. (Oh the pain it causes me to see so many students I like going to law school!)

I come from a family of small businessmen, people who found a niche and took some control over their own work life. I have enough of that instinct myself to be a little ashamed that I work in this university position that is so fully carved out by the institution. It is hard for me, however, to communicate to my students that there are possibilities out there other than the most obvious ones requiring more schooling.

Posted by: Eddie Thomas on May 27, 2003 11:54 PM

No Eddie,
A PhD is not necessary. There are many career paths where a PhD is not necesary. It only seems necessay when you go on in academia getting more creditionals to get the academic job.

But it does give you useful skills including intellectual independence---thinking for yourself---that should be highly valued.

Again you can learn to think for yourself without acquiring a PhD. You just learn to do it differently.

I see the same flocking to law school. I also see the disillusionment after leaving law school.

Posted by: Gary Sauer-Thompson on June 2, 2003 12:07 AM
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