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The grey philistinism in Irish universities

July 11, 2010

The ‘anti-intellectuals running Irish universities’ have been attacked by Tom Garvin, professor emeritus of politics, University College Dublin. In an article published in the Irish Times back in May (I know, I know. It’s July and I’m only reading this now!)) Garvin says, ‘A grey philistinism has established itself in our universities, under leaders who imagine that books are obsolete, and presumably possess none themselves.’ He reserves his most withering criticism for his own institution:

UCD, an historically respected Irish university, increasingly resembles an English provincial college, run on authoritarian top-down lines, profligate financially, and anti-intellectual. What is referred to with surrealist humour as “intellectual leadership” in UCD is in the hands of medics masquerading as businessmen (they’re nearly all men; welcome to 1961) and practitioners of non-subjects such as “management” and “teaching and learning”.

It should be dawning on us that one of the nation’s most valuable assets, third-level education, has been taken over by non-academic forces by means of a gigantic and very expensive hoax. The universities are our collective brains, and hatred of them is silly and unpatriotic.

The people who are “running” Irish universities claim, falsely, to be businessmen running enterprises which will bring greater economic growth. These people are truant academics, running universities while having no idea what universities are for. Anti-intellectualism automatically leads to the glorification of ignorance, and this country is well on the way from the former to the latter.

It’s going to cost us.

The full article is here and well worth a read. As is this reply from Ferdinand von Prondzynski, President of Dublin City University.  He writes:

The problem with this article is that it won’t stimulate debate at all (though I’d like to think I am helping him a little here). Throwing around personal insults and somewhat exaggerated invective is unlikely to open minds or change them. The argument presented by Tom Garvin deserves some attention, but to achieve that it needs to be formulated as a contribution to debate rather than as a playground catcall.

The DCU President also responds to Garvin’s argument that ‘idle curiosity’ should have an integral place at the heart of academic activity. He asks:

to what extent should the modern academy accommodate people who will pursue in their own work, and encourage students to pursue, the search for knowledge outside of national priorities or areas of strategic focus? Or put another way, can higher education encompass both the strrategic pursuit of knowledge and skills, and the general search for knowledge in an open-ended and open-minded process? Tom Garvin’s view appears to be that the former is always improper, and the latter is almost lost. He may be wrong on both counts – I believe he is – but it is an important question and it merits a proper debate.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. Affer permalink
    July 11, 2010 10:04 am

    Well of course, Zenna Atkins, the spectacularly under-qualified Chair (or even Dining Table) of Ofsted says that “every school should have a useless teacher” (see The Sunday Times, 11 July). There is no reason to assume that this philosophy should not be extended to secondary and tertiary education so that every Uni has a useless lecturer, a useless Dean, and a useless Pro-Vice Chancellor. Or even several!

    What must be done is to ensure a stream of useless subjects that such people can teach – or ideally, just pontificate on!

  2. Rabelais permalink*
    July 11, 2010 2:01 pm

    Hi Affer,
    To be fair to Atkins she is arguing that every school should have a useless teacher so that pupils learn to cope with inept authority figures, which given the sheer scale of ineptitude among today’s leaders, might actually be a pretty valuable skill.

    I have a confession. Sometimes if I find myself confronted with a particularly ‘challenging’ group of students who just won’t engage with the subject I’m teaching (and they’ve elected to do), I fake a little mini-breakdown in class. I pretend to lose it: what’s the point of this? why are we here? it’s hopeless! we’re all doomed! Admittedly it’s exhausting if you have three seminar groups in a row and you have to have a breakdown in each one but it’s worth it because just for a while every idle young mind in the room is forced to contemplate the uncomfortable notion that nobody is steering the ship. Dr Rab has gone Teletubby-bye-bye and they’re on their own.

    I’m shocked by how many young people I meet who seem content to hand over complete responsibility for their lives to ‘authority’ figures, who they believe will act as their agents and advocates in all circumstances. They seem to have no ownership or their lives nor do they take responsibility for their actions, then when the day of reckoning comes (as it always does) their defence is ‘But I didn’t to nuffing!’ Exactly, you did nothing; thought someone else would do it for you and now you’re in the shit! Dr Rab takes a firm line on these matters. None of these shysters feel the love.

    Authority, expertise and paternalism are not necessarily bad things but don’t think that when we become uncritically dependent upon the figures who encapsulate these qualities we lose something? And isn’t this lose exacerbated by a world in which authority figures like Deans and VCs and PMs assume they are infallible? So I’m inventing a new term – modesty authority – that’s what we should strive for.

    • July 11, 2010 6:29 pm

      Regarding your shock of how young people are content to hand over responsibility for their decisions and lives. Are you truly shocked, or are you saddened?

      With more scope to bypass any real responsibility altogether, I’m not shocked to see such examples. Are some young people making the bold decision to not bother, or is it that they are less likely to recognise responsibility until it’s too late?

      You say you take a firm line and that none of these ‘shysters’ feel the love. They don’t need love, they need guidance. The lucky few who take greater control of their lives and responsibilities are already in a great position. Yes, they shouldn’t be left entirely alone — nobody should — but to ignore the many who don’t appreciate what they could achieve if they took more responsibility and to brand them ‘shysters’…that is unreasonable.

      I hope your mini-breakdowns work by giving students a moment to understand why you’re having the ‘breakdown’. But what of those who won’t snap out of the bubble? A momentary show of breakdown won’t cure years of experience in being told all the answers and having most options and decisions made for them.

      As you rightly say, the realisation comes too late. Just in time either to move on with greater conviction and clarity, chalking things up to ‘experience’ or — what is more likely — to feel further stuck in their ways and full of resentment for a ‘system’ that is ‘failing’ and ‘ridiculing’ them for ‘no good reason’.

  3. July 12, 2010 10:17 am

    Rab – we shouldn’t really be surprised that so many university students are passive, alienated or constructively idle. After all, government policy over the last few decades has transformed higher education into an extension of secondary school, part of a delayed trajectory into a job market that has only limited capacity.

    Indeed, recent figures suggest that the prospects for the average graduate are rather grim. Graduate unemployment in 2009 was 25% and worse for males than females (THES, 4 July). The figures for 2010 will surely be worse still. And even the lucky ones that do find work discover that the concept of the “graduate job” with a higher than average starting salary is going out of fashion fast.

    So there they are, pressurised into going to university, not to expand their minds or discover the value of knowledge for its own sake but to increase their chances of getting jobs that just aren’t there and running up a frightening level of debt in the process. And I’m not really sure a lot of students understand the implications of that debt either.

    Some students really shouldn’t be at or don’t want to be at university. Either they know already or need someone to tell them that it doesn’t suit their abilities or potential skills. They’re there because their parents, themselves victims of the trap, have sent them because it will apparently increase their chances of a good job and upwards social mobility.

    So let’s be careful not to vent our frustrations on the students. They’re powerless to change the system and if we’re honest, so are we to an extent as well. If in my teaching I can make a positive impact on just half my class, then I think I’m doing okay. And when a few respond in module evaluations that I opened up a world to them they didn’t think too much about beforehand or even that I changed the way they see the world, then that has to be something. It may not get them an instant job or even make them feel more optimistic about their immediate life chances but it may come into play later in life when they look back and re-evaluate the meaning of their education.

    So you’re quite right about the philistines, Rab. They reduce higher education to a business model in which subjects are priced like any commodity in the market. According to this, their value is not based on knowledge, understanding or a whole bunch of other intellectual skills. Its based on their exchange value in the job market. However, there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that employers want some added value from their graduate applicants, the kind of value higher education is supposed to cultivate in them. Prospectus UK, the graduate employment agency, ranks these in order of importance to employers as follows: self-reliance, people skills, generic or transferable skills and, last of all, specialist skills. Employers do not see university as a vocational training agency as such.

    Anyway, Rab, I’ve ranted long enough. Food for thought, I hope.

  4. Rabelais permalink*
    July 12, 2010 10:23 am

    Hi Martin,
    I hate generalising about students (but I do it as a form of shorthand) and I hate trying to catagorise them (but sometimes it helps with analysis). I also try to guard against the rose-tinted view of the good old days. My own ‘good old days’ actually weren’t that long ago and, to be frank, the world was fucked up even then. But I wouldn’t want to be young today and I certainly wouldn’t want (nor could I afford to be) a student today. Because as you mentioned in your final sentence, the system is failing students. I see this everyday.

    A colleague once said to me that when he started teaching in a university he thought his job was about imparting knowledge and doing research (and a little admin), and he used to get frustrated and angry when he’d spend time chasing after failing students for essays they’d not submitted on time; writing letters and emails to absentees reminding them of the importance of attending class; and then there was ‘crowd control’ in lectures and seminars, where some students didn’t seem to understand how to behave in such a setting. He found all this stuff exhausting and just didn’t see why he should bother. It got in the way of his work. Then he realised that, actually, this was his work, and teaching and research is what he did in between. He was joking, of course, by it was a joke which others lecturers appreciate because it has a kernel of truth in it.

    It seems to me that students and lecturers are caught in an unhappy embrace. It’s not actually the fault of either… well, not entirely… but there is one thing that I think might begin to improve the lot of each. Give students back their grant. If higher education is so important to the national economy, then let’s be grown ups and pay for it as a nation, out of tax. But if the number of graduates will have no discernible impact upon the economic performance of the individuals and the country, then let’s not allow university managers to grow richer by charging people for qualifications that are meaningless.

    Oh, and the breakdown works. Many of them respond to it in a very positive way. But the thing that I find works best of all is to be absolutely honest with students about the stupidity of the system we all find ourselves in.

  5. Rabelais permalink*
    July 12, 2010 10:42 am

    “If in my teaching I can make a positive impact on just half my class, then I think I’m doing okay. And when a few respond in module evaluations that I opened up a world to them they didn’t think too much about beforehand or even that I changed the way they see the world, then that has to be something.”

    This is revolting! It’s ‘them’ and ‘us’.

    Actually, I like to think of myself as an academic terrorist, planting little intellectual incendiary devices that go off in the minds of my students in the future.

  6. Dr.Disco permalink
    July 12, 2010 11:36 am

    AA and Rab – sorry but I really don’t get it. The days of university for mental expansion are long gone. After all, who can afford to spend 3 or 4 years of their young life just to learn abstract concepts? Indeed, that was great, when rich young men could take time out of their lives, funded by parents or estates, and universities generated philosphers and poets, astronomers and astrologers and people who just wrote stuff. But even then, university was still for doctors and nurses and scientists and accountants and so, in part, trained students for a future career. Now, at a time when fully qualified and experienced adults cannot get work anywhere, you are saying that anyone attending university for any other reason than reading Marx and thinking lofty thoughts is a philistine? Who has the money to just think for three or four years?

    I would argue that there is eff all other option for young adults other than university. Those who have been protected from the recession over the last couple of years have little idea (except from what the papers say) of how harsh it is out there. For the bargain price of 12 or 16 grand which doesn’t have to be paid back for a few years, young adults can try and ride it out and hope for better opportunities when they leave. You should take a look at the job pages right now and see what companies are demanding. Even for low paid graduate jobs, many organisations right now can demands 2 to 3 years experience, effectively meaning that immediate graduates cannot take tha graduate jobs.

    If university lecturers resent their position of being the only avenue of chance for young people at the moment, perhaps they should consider alternative careers, maybe in a library.

    Dr. Disco

  7. CharlieMcmenamin permalink
    July 12, 2010 1:53 pm

    Knowing stuff is good. I like knowing stuff. It’s absolutely brilliant when someone is prepared to pay me for telling them about the stuff I know. I’m heartily in favour of courses which help anyone get to know more stuff they can sell.

    This is called ‘training’. There’s no reason why some of it shouldn’t occur in a university.

    But one of my great sadnesses in life is when I find that the stuff I know has passed into the dustbin of History and no one wants to hear about it anymore even if I don’t ask them for any money for telling them. Or they do want to hear about it but the web is better at telling them than I am.

    This is called living in the knowledge economy.

    The solution is to know how to find out about more stuff all the time, and be able to make judgments on whether it’s interesting or useful stuff, and grasp who else might want to know about it.

    This is called ‘knowing how to think in a purposeful and critical way’. Teaching folk how to do this is the main but not the only purpose of universities. & it’s pretty essential to impart these skills to participants on even the most ‘practical’ of courses if they’re not to fall at the first hurdle of finding that simply knowing stuff ain’t enough in the knowledge economy.

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