I write this post at the end of my career in UK higher education (HE) and it was suggested that I reflect on how the sector (in the UK at least) has changed since the early 1990s? For weeks, nothing grabbed me. Completely unrelated to this brief, and for pleasure (much under-rated), I revisited the late Douglas Adams’ Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (H2G2) and to my surprise these two threads – my lived experience of UK HE and the imaginary world of H2G2 – have emerged from my subconscious as a couple of rather bizarre waking dreams. These dreams have provoked me to reflect broadly on education, particularly on HE. Anyone familiar with H2G2 might comment that the eve of retirement is rather late in the day to start thinking about education. They would be right!
I’ve borrowed more than my title from the H2G2; ‘Don’t Panic’ being ‘written in large friendly letters’ at the start of eponymous guide. In H2G2, the Earth (and everything on it) was a computer tasked with finding the question to which the answer was 42. My task here is to imagine the question to which the answer is education. Ever since I revisited H2G2 I’m haunted by the thought that we are to the development of education as those who set out in the B Ark were to the development of the wheel (all thought of shape was subdued whilst they argued over what color it should be). In my waking dreams, I was tasked with explaining what we were doing (in university education) to several key educational figures from my mind’s limited databank: Aristotle; John Ruskin; and John Dewey. My surprise that Aristotle spoke flawless English aside, I was struck by their puzzled looks and their questions. My abiding impression was that my imaginary visitors believed that I had something in common with the B Ark architects of the wheel; we were both confidently and blissfully clueless. From that moment I’ve been wondering if we have become lost or confused and that we no longer serve society well.
I want you to stop reading for a second and reflect on what you understand by the suitcase term, ‘education’. What is the purpose of education; what is its role in society?
I think it’s necessary to point out that education changes over time; it evolves, not in a Darwinian sense, but by episodes of what we fervently hope turns out to be intelligent design. So, what is ‘education’? What does it require or imply? How was education regarded in the past?
In antiquity, education was not made available to all, but its value was clearly appreciated as shown by Aristotle’s assertion that
‘a man should be capable of engaging in business and war, but still more capable of living in peace and leisure; and he should do what is necessary and useful, but still more should he do what is noble. These then are the aims that ought to be kept in view in the education of the citizens both while still children and at the later ages that require education.’ (Rackham, 1944; book 7, sections 1333a and b).
The key point, for me, is that education should encourage citizens to ‘do what is noble’. In today’s parlance that means to have high moral principles (to include honesty, integrity and generosity).
By the early 20th century, education was becoming more technical but the capacity for critical analysis in the service of judgment was clearly valued, as illustrated by John Dewey, who suggested that education provided one with the tools for analysis and interpretation necessary for intelligent action (Dewey, 1938; pages 105-6). It was also Dewey who crystalised a view that, for me, comes closest to defining the value of education to any modern [democratic] society. In ‘Moral Principles in Education, Dewey argued that education should develop in all citizens what he termed ‘force of character’, elements of which he listed as ‘initiative, insistence, persistence, courage, and industry’. (Dewey, 1909, page 49)
Because I think it is justified, I’ll give a little more room to Dewey’s conception of education. In Democracy and Education, Dewey asserts that a society’s values and beliefs are communicated from generation to generation through education (Dewey, 1916, page 17). Dewey is by no means alone in believing that education has a special role in any modern society; education, in a very real sense, is the means by which the knowledge, wisdom and values of a society are shared with successive generations (to be adopted, adapted or rejected). For this reason, I regard education as the most important responsibility of a society.
Dewey was nevertheless concerned by the relative neglect of wider societal concerns within the context of education, and this was voiced by non-other than President Franklin Roosevelt, who claimed that
‘There is not in all America a more dangerous trait than the deification of mere smartness unaccompanied by any sense of moral responsibility’. (Roosevelt, 1903).
I confess that since reading Roosevelt’s assertion, I see little evidence that we still make a virtue of ‘moral responsibility’ in UK HE. There clearly are groups of people (often young) who are highly motivated by ethical and moral issues (e.g. climate activism) and too often they are not supported by the generation with the power and influence to effect change. In contrast to the student-led activism of the 1960s, Universities in recent years don’t seem to foster the same degree of critical thought and action. Perhaps there are just too many issues?
As our society has become more complex, the interdependence on others felt by anyone with sufficient money to pay rent, buy food and stay warm has become less visible. Moreover, the huge financial incentives for those who increase profits (or influence public opinion) seems to erode the notion of societal value in favour of personal enrichment, as outlined in Mark Carney’s 2020 BBC Reith Lectures and in the 2016 Netflix documentary, The Great Hack. In consequence, it might be argued that focusing only on technical education goals and ignoring the development of societal values is reckless in the extreme. With luck, humanity will persist and so observe our present with the benefit of hindsight; with the perspective to judge the merits of this concern.
As I said at the outset, I write this at the end of my career in HE. What changes have I witnessed?
Despite believing with every fibre of my being that I’m right (see cognitive bias), I should acknowledge that the changes I describe might be more imaginary than real. The last two years of COVID-19 imposed change notwithstanding, not much has changed if one were to judge only on the movements of people from room to room, or the movements of the written word between students and educators. Lectures persist, as does laboratory work, small group teaching and a myriad of assessments. What has changed in 35 years might appear more or less trivial; changes in the methods of presentation (chalk for computer graphics, with and without recordings) and notetaking (transcribed on paper or a tablet, or annotation of pre-circulated presentations). The point is that the activities appear to have undergone only a minor technical evolution, far short of a revolution. I would argue that appearances can be deceiving. In my opinion, several factors account for subtle but important changes in the process of education. My top three are 1) information overload, 2) marketisation of education and 3) intellectual isolation.
Information overload has at least two dimensions, first, we have more detailed knowledge of the cellular and molecular basis of biomedical science. Mastery of the additional detail imposes greater demands on the same educational window of opportunity. Second, there has been a proliferation of information sources that are readily available via a browser. Many of these information sources attempt to simplify the complex and some introduce substantial errors that are often not obvious to the learner. When simplifying the complex, we should make the effort to explain the unavoidable risks inherent in all simplification.
The marketisation of HE was intended to bring about the same sorts of improvements and efficiencies as seen in manufacturing and service industries (Molesworth, et al 2010). In the UK this has coincided with substantial expansion of student numbers, increasing the staff:student ratio. In practical terms, the competing needs for research outputs (in most HEIs) and student (customer) satisfaction is an equation that can only be balanced by extracting more from staff who teach and conduct research. Despite the reports of higher workloads in HE, there is a reduced opportunity for dialogue between educators and students – there is finite supply of time and a larger number of calls on our time. Larger numbers of students is a relatively minor factor in the increased consumption of staff time – most staff report substantial increases in administration relating both to research and to teaching.
Intellectual isolation seems somewhat unlikely given the much-vaunted power of social media to ‘connect people’ and yet even those most closely aligned with social media are dubious of its merits. It is possible for students to have access to a million points of view without discussing them in any meaningful way. How does one properly evaluate the evidence for so many opinions without the combination of many minds and the probing power of discussion? It is relatively easy to find an information source that confirms our bias and which we, therefore, immediately recognise as right-thinking and entirely reasonable, regardless of what it might be that we believe. The emergence of a rainbow of myths and wisdom regarding effective treatment (or prevention) of COVID-19 infection over the last two years surely demonstrates this to be true.
Am I optimistic for the future? Yes. Innovation in society is a lot like an experiment in nature, even if the innovation were the result of intelligent design. If it is seen to be beneficial, it will be retained and propagated. If it is not beneficial it might persist but is unlikely to propagate. If it is harmful, the harm will (eventually) be recognised and steps taken to discourage what the innovation initially encouraged. Child-labour and tobacco smoking are very conspicuous examples, but there many such examples in our collective histories. That said, the damage done can sometimes persist and things that cause harm in the long-term seem to be tolerated if short-term effects are positive (think alcohol and sugar).
So, what sort of steps could we take? Information overload could be reduced if what is expected of an undergraduate degree is re-imagined. We might do better to focus on how to pare away unnecessary detail to find the key issues and to then frame good questions for further [curious and creative] thought or research. Marketisation within HE has been a creeping cancer (my view) and the solution will require surgery – all other treatment choices are palliative! Making the university system into an industry that has no aspiration beyond expansion has been a foolish experiment. The university system needs to be regarded by everyone as a social good, regardless of one’s personal interaction with it. Intellectual isolation can be reduced in a host of ways. In the 1999 work, ‘Seven complex lessons in education for the future’, the French philosopher Edgar Morin (now 100 years old), argues that the development of separate scientific disciplines was closely linked to information overload – the human mind was too limited – and that despite advances, this isolation ultimately limits understanding and stifles innovation. The recent emergence of cross-disciplinary teaching and research is a move in the right direction.
More generally, I believe it would benefit society if we could make a virtue of exploring the choices we’ve made in the past and how well our current choices fit our society for the future. When economies were mainly local, interests could be local but as the developed countries now operate in a global market economy, our interests must be similarly global; we can’t pretend otherwise and to try is to gamble everyone’s future. A democracy can’t be led honestly if the population is ignorant of factors that make difficult change necessary (political parties would use public ignorance to manipulate opinion and voting habits). I’d like to see society (through education) champion wisdom and integrity rather more enthusiastically and perhaps we should all try to go to sleep behind Rawls’ veil of ignorance – not knowing the colour of our skin, our gender or our place in society when we wake the next day. Afterall, you never know whether the Earth will still exist tomorrow!
References (not included as in text hyperlinks)
Dewey, J. (1909). Moral Principles in Education. Riverside Press, Section V – The psychological aspect of moral education, page 49; https://www.gutenberg.org/files/25172/25172-h/25172-h.htm
Dewey, John. (1938). Experience and education. New York: Macmillan. Pages 105-106
Dewey, J. (1916). Democracy and education. Project Gutenberg. https://www.gutenberg.org/files/852/852-h/852-h.htm#link2HCH0002 – Chapter 2: Education as a Social Function, page 17
Molesworth, M., Scullion, R., & Nixon, E. (Eds.). (2011). The marketisation of higher education and the student as consumer. London: Routledge.
Rackham, H. (Harris), 1868-1944, trans.: Politics, by Aristotle (HTML at Perseus, Aristot. Pol. 7.1333a/b)
Roosevelt, T. (1903, May 2). Speech of President Roosevelt at Abilene, Kansas, May 2, 1903. Theodore Roosevelt Papers. Library of Congress Manuscript Division. Retrieved from https://www.theodorerooseveltcenter.org/Research/Digital-Library/Record?libID=o289769
 In H2G2 the Earth was demolished by aliens only minutes after humanity became aware that aliens existed.