Having read with great interest (read: frequent gasping, jaw dropping, note taking) Michael A. Peters’ Higher Education, Globalisation and the Knowledge Economy: Reclaiming the Cultural Mission (2007), of course I must respond. It is my duty, I think, as a historian. And at the same time, I want to see whether I can connect it to the question George Siemens poses in this week’s video (is technology transformative or just an add-on?) and his article for this week.
What’s missing in the questions about technology and educational institutions is the middle ground, the negotiated, messy grey areas on which techno-evangelists claim the world is embroiled, but themselves seem unwilling to engage. Peters was more willing to deal with these than many other authors to whom we’ve been introduced.
In his work, Peters claims that a new crisis for the university system has been declared. In English-speaking countries particularly, there has been a move away from the university as a “universal welfare entitlement” to a “private investment in ‘human capital'”, a transition marked by a demand for new workers in the global tertiary economy, cries for accountability, and monitoring to reduce the public financial burden. There is at present more people in universities than ever, a greater focus on vocational goals and application, and concerns about competition among institutions of higher education as we “come to terms with the impact of globalisation”. Taking his cue from Bill Readings’ The University in Ruins (1996), Peters says that the main concern, apart from a decline in the humanities, is a crisis of external legitimation, which he claims up to now has been based on the “notion of culture”.
This notion, embedded in the “modern university”, is subject to his (and Readings’) historical examination. This examination is based on three ideas dominating the modern university, in chronological order: “the Kantian idea of reason; the Humboldtian idea of culture, and; the techno-bureaucratic idea of excellence” (5). He treats the first two as the “historical” university, where the main purpose of the institution shifted from the application of reason to the needs of the state. Universities became the place where, in the 19th century, nationalistic ideology was inculcated. Entering what he calls the “post-historical era” (I really dislike that term), the modern capitalistic economy replaced the older nationalistic goals with the meaningless idea of “excellence” in education, an undefined and useless objective. This new approach promoted the neo-liberal focus on market forces, “obliterating the distinction between education and training”. Nowadays, it is suggested by Readings, that market model is being replaced in its turn by the conception of the university as a “global service corporation” in a new “knowledge economy”. This economy, according to a UK White Paper “Our Competitive Future” (1998) will be neither interventionist nor market-based, but focused on knowledge as wealth-creating and transferrable, ready to be exploited — a “techno-bureaucratic ideal”. In opposition to this ideal, Readings instead presented the concept of “dissensus” as an alternate path once “we have had to relinquish the notion of culture as the unifying idea” (20). This dissensus is founded on openness and incompleteness, which sounds similar to a number of views we’ve examined in this course.
Unfortunately, although Peters doesn’t say so directly (so I will) Readings’ “dissensus” vision seems to replace the techno-bureaucratic utopia with an ahistorical model that substitutes “knowledge” for “excellence” as the useless and non-referential catch word. Instead, Peters provides a better-grounded alternative to legitimization being based on consumer power, competitive production, or the “hollowing out of the university” (16):
I want to take a different tack and suggest a form of the university that does not break entirely with the founding historical discourses and their single unifying ideas but preserves them, adapts them to new conditions, reinvents and redefines them as an imaginative basis for resistance against the narrowing of thought.
He goes on to talk about the traditional goals of universities as producing knowledge and disseminating it. Instead of throwing out universities’ role in “culture”, he suggests the adoption of “knowledge cultures” based on shared practices and cultural norms, even as they shift. He argues for the preservation of reason and understanding of our own culture, an acknowledgement and acceptance of changing conditions that need a rational response. In other words, he argues for many of the things I would argue for that make the “post-historical” idea clearly the wrong direction. This wrong direction leads away from the “critique” element of rational discourse (for which Peters cites Foucault) into the stupidity of crowds and the tyranny of a mob wandering around in semantic constructions (which is one of my levels of hell).
George Siemens’ New Structures and Spaces of Learning (2008) attempts to envision a different model, one based on connectivism but acknowledging the traditional roles of the university, including accreditation, guided tasks and research. This model does not succumb to the post-historical techno-bureaucratic free-for-all that disturbs Peters. It quite literally connects the old and new elements of the university:
Structure is seen as necessary for beginners in a subject, to provide foundation, with exploration at the next level for the learner, and room for negotiation. It seems to reflect the approach of the English tutorial system, or graduate study (when grad students aren’t subject to serfdom, that it). This model would bring the perception of universities our culture can reclaim (centers of learning) together with new methods that take advantage of the latest technologies. It could potentially also move the pendulum back from skill-specific vocational “training” to a fuller idea of education, so long as the technology didn’t dominate the learning and create its own techno-bureaucratic nightmare. In addition, Siemens’ model needs to be careful about promoting specialization too early, which would take us back to the “training idea”. One great advantage of our general education standards, as I’ve said before, is the provision of a multiplicity of fields of study, with required introductions to each before a student may specialize.
So in answering questions about the future of institutions in the face of open resources, internet connectivity, and amateur content, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that institutions do evolve over time in response to changing conditions, and they don’t have to lose all their foundations to do that. And no, it’s not as simple as just augmenting the current system or “adding in technology”: I’ve seen that fail in many classrooms, from K-12 to college. Technology’s purpose is to be applied to problems. When there are problems in our institutions that technology could solve, technological solutions should be applied in those areas. If there are problems technology cannot solve effectively (or morally, or efficiently, or acceptably to those concerned), then there needs to be conversation about whether its application is appropriate. But the role of the university itself is to expand, not contract, to include varying subjects, approaches, and connections in the quest for knowledge, not just the pursuit of “excellence”. That’s part of the university “culture” as well.