On the improvement of education

Presentation ‘on the improvement of education’

By Jasper Ligthart (student at the University for Humanistics, Utrecht), resulting from the workshops “the art of living knowledge” held in January 2010 at the University of Utrecht.

My analysis is divided in two parts. At first I will make an attempt to describe the current condition of the dutch universities with regards to the ‘institutional logic’ employed there, and in relation to the European-wide processes. The second part will consist of a small analysis of different counterstrategies, and my suggestions (drawing in part on the philosophy of Benedictus de Spinoza).

Current situation on the universities

Currently a dominance of neoliberal market theories. Has totally overtaken and enveloped the existing discourse.

Discourse (Foucault): the whole of speaking of a certain group, narrative bound which structures reality. Produces accounts of truth (what is true) and morality (what ought we do).

This new discourse came to prominence in the 90s. Grahame lock (Oxford) pointed out: central thesis is that university should be ran as a company. Words imported from organizational theory and accountancy: efficiency, excellence, targets, competition (on ‘unique selling points’ or qualities). This discourse claims many improvements: universities which ‘run’ better, are more motivating for students and produce an excellent nation (or europe-) wide higher education. I disagree: why.

  1. Fundamental issue: education has an internal logic very different from the logic of economic markets. The purpose is to bring everyone’s individual talents to full fruition. This means becoming a person as much as acquiring technical knowledge and skills. Academic education should be Bildung (von Humboldt vs french ‘applied sciences’) as well as ‘ausbildung’. Encourage growth as a person: extracurricular activities, pause for reflection, allow broad range of interests, contact with classic philosophy, art etc.

As in the first academy (plato): education is much more than just planting knowledge from one brain into the next. You also need to grow up, become a person. Especially for those supposed to develop critical, scientific faculties who are supposed to be tomorrows cultural/intellectual elite. This logic is adversary to logic of corporatism.

  1. Perversity from an institutional viewpoint: a minimal effort is rewarded, quality (which to a professor means academic quality) is only defined in terms of efficiency. Aim: to have most students complete their studies as fast as possible, for as low cost as possible. This rewarded because a smaller investment per student results in more money being available for the institution as a whole and a compliment by the government (‘this is an excellent institution).
  2. Perversity from a student viewpoint: students are encouraged to study nominally (make a minimum effort). This avoids a study debt and makes it possible to start owning money fast. Government meanwhile supports this with policymaking: standard student grants are frozen or even abolished (converted to loans), paying up to 10 times as much for a second study etc. In the logic of corporatism: simply an impulse to encourage educational ‘consumer’ to take certain action (here: study faster).
  3. Another consequence of corporate logic is the style of governance at the universities. CvB (College van Bestuur) becomes CEO (Chief Executive Officer). The fundamental discussions of the 1960s are completely avoided, and the wave of democratization of those days is reverted. Wet MUB (modernizing university boards). For student and employee boards. Inspraakrecht (right to decide) is vervangen door instemmingsrecht (right to agree) cvb is free to do otherwise (as long as its ‘motivated). Is because in corporate logic critical minds among students/teachers are an obstacle to efficiency. At all costs avoid fundamental discussions. The human ‘resources’ must work towards a common measurable output (number of citations or number of graduates), not interfer with parameters or the conditions defining this primary process. This is only for the managers. Concept of an academic community (students and teachers deciding together) is completely gone.

Example of this: occupation of bestuursgebouw a few months ago. Disagreement with abolishing the uublad. By stopping the uublad on paper, an important platform for presenting dissenting opinions/critical views was stopped. With only online distribution could be easily marginalized. They agreed to vacate the building in exhange for two more paper uublads and a ‘re-evaluation’ of the choice to go digital. Corporate language: re-evaluation = repeating the same arguments coming to the same conclusion again. But the peace was restored, work could continue again. There was never any considerations of the opinions of the majority of staff/students.

  1. In european context: Bologna process. Harmonization of european higher education, according to neoliberal logic. 1/3rd of our education stolen (from 6 years doctorandus to 4 years ba/ma). Consequence of an ever-growing bigger count of students but government lack of investing more. Using ECTS to convert knowledge (something very personal which only exists in the intimate context of our minds) to a universal, marketable currency.
  1. Next step in ditch context: commisie Veerman. All faculties are required to make an ‘educational concept’ showing their relevance. This will lead to competition between studies among cities. The ‘excellent’ ones (where many people graduate cheaply) will receive bonuses, the ‘bad’ once maluses (those who promote developing other skills, provide many course choices/majors, support development etc.) And will eventually be dissolved. This will lead to further degradation of academic culture: those who cater to specific niches of knowledge will be made to stop. This is completely from corporate logic: competition for a consumers favour, focus on short-term academic and financial gains etc. Wrapped up in doublespeak language; ‘striving for excellence’ very different in academic logic then corporate logic.

Biggest problem: can’t escape this discourse. Those in power unable to see unique position of the university. Fundamental discussion: what should good education teach is reduced to marginal issues ( our political party will invest 59 mln more in education than yours. Discussion Rob Riemen – Job Cohen NOVA 30th of may 2010 clearly shows this.

Counterstrategies/ my conclusion.

1. Umwertung aller Werten. Making people conscious of these problems, promoting awareness and creating an intellectual countermovement.. Curb the influence of the managers, put quality of the education itself at the forefront again. More time and attention to individual students. Organizations which follow this line of action are BON (beter onderwijs Nederland), KSU etc. Will it work? Not very likely since those in power are largely incapable of thinking outside the dominant discourse. This is a ‘paradigm struggle’ that probably can’t be won.

2. Radical resistance. Occupying the universities, demanding reform of current policy by both students and teachers. Reverting de wet-MUB to return ownership over the spending of time/financial means to the teachers/researchers. This is also not very likely because of the lack of interest among most students ant teachers. My view: they have largely been socialized within the current system. This creates a situation where the current student/teacher has been formed (produced, Foucault would say) according to the wishes of the dominant discourse (compare to hospitalization etc). Civil servant mentality. The elder generation is often aware of these changes but have been able to shield themselves from many of these changes. Situation for current promovendi is very different then it was then. Anyone who identifies himself with these ideas is perceived by the mainstream of either just making fuss or referring to old-fashioned ideas from the sixties.

3. Third option. For this I must refer to Spinoza, more particularly his view on power. For Spinoza, power is everything a certain modus (i.e: a human being) is capable of doing, AT THIS PARTICULAR MOMENT. His term potestas (power) is understood more in the sense of capability.

In his words

By the right and established order of nature I mean simply the rules governing the nature of every individual thing, according to which we conceive it as naturally determined to exist and to act in a definite way. For example, fish are determined by nature to swim, and the big ones to eat the smaller ones. Thus it is by sovereign natural right that fish inhabit water, and the big ones eat the smaller ones. For it is certain that nature, taken in the absolute sense, has the sovereign right to do all that she can do; that is, nature’s right [ius naturae] is co-extensive with her power….But since the universal power of nature as a whole is nothing but the power of all individual things taken together, it follows that each individual thing has the sovereign right to do all that it can do; i.e., the right of the individual is co-extensive with its determinate power. (TTP 16/179; cf. TP 2/4)

This does not mean however that he abolishes morale. Spinoza says that each modus has a conatus: a force to preserve and enhance the self, the powers of the self. Because according to reason we (as individual agents) can only do what enhances our conatus, the state must necessarily (because it is the total of bundled conatuses of its inhabitants) strive towards that which allow the greatest possible welfare for all.

In this state our natural rights are transferred to a sovereign, but not like in Hobbes where this power is understand more in a physical sense (power in a violent way). It is more of a psychical transference. The power of the sovereign is dependant on the will of his subjects to be loyal to him. So his power is limited to his actual, factual capabilities at a certain moments.

We could conclude: the Other has as much power over us as we give him. Spinoza’s power is constructed by the total (multitudine) and not individually. From this I conclude that if we want freedom and a revitalization of the academic idea, we must create zones exempt from the control of managers and the market discourse.

Therefore we must create ‘zones of interferention’ on a local level, where we can give meaning to the idea of an academy in a true sense, without exposing ourselves to the control- and power mechanisms of the managers. Like Jesus said: ‘where two are together in my name, I am’. In this sense an academy can be created and built upon when just two people reflect critically on a subject together.

These zones of interference may grow into places where an alternative praxis for the dominant education discourse is presented, developed and refined, where a different logic is being shown. In a very real and true sense this is what we did in our course with Fabiola Jara Gomez and Jos Scheren.