Universities’ sacred and profane terms are blunting critical thinking

Language is a powerful tool for breaking down resistance and normalising unhealthy cultural change, says Bruce Macfarlane

May 30, 2022
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How we use language in university life reflects trends, attitudes and changing assumptions about higher education’s purposes. Words and phrases such as “collaboration”, “collegiality” and “student voice” are part of the sacred vocabulary of contemporary academia. On the flip side are the profanities, including “managerialism”, “performativity” and “student-as-consumer”.

These lists evolve alongside university culture. For contemporary researchers – even for those of us working in the humanities and social sciences – “empirical” is now a sacred word, while “non-empirical” has become almost a slur. “Interdisciplinarity” has always been a revered undertaking, but it has now been sanctified thanks to Unesco’s Sustainable Development Goals and the UK government’s Grand Challenges Research Fund. Anyone caught working in a disciplinary silo without a global research collaboration is definitely persona non grata.

In the mid-1990s, the higher education scholar Sinclair Goodlad argued that sponsorism – research designed to fit the agenda of funding bodies – was a vice (a “heresy”, as he put it). Yet it is now seen as a positive virtue. This is why the phrase “funded research” is venerated, while unfunded research is seen as dilettantism.

The recent publication of the UK’s Research Excellence Framework results is a reminder of the rise of “impact” as a sacred expression. Universities that did well in REF 2021 are now boasting about their impact achievements on websites and in press releases. The closest academic antonym to “impact” is probably “ivory tower”, a cliché that used to be invoked in a positive way as it symbolised the historic independence and autonomy of universities. But it is rarely used nowadays as anything other than a pejorative for a lack of “community engagement” or “knowledge exchange”, two further expressions that are treated as sacrosanct.

In relation to “learning and teaching” (“learning” has to precede “teaching” in order to be politically correct), there are many other examples of sacred and profane dualisms. Active/passive learning and deep/surface learning are among them. Linguistic shifts are apparent, too. “Student experience” is now referred to as “student engagement”, while “student representation” has become the more trendy “student voice”. Such shifts are symbolic of the changing idea of the university itself and its wider role in society.

Perhaps the most worrying aspect of the use of sacred terms is that several started out as academic concepts and have turned into managerial mantras, often perverting their original intent in the process. One of the best examples is “learning outcomes”, which are now part of quality assurance. Universities will argue that learning outcomes help embed a student-centred approach, but, ironically, the appropriation of the concept as a compliance tool has focused academics more on a bureaucratic demand than on being student-centred in their teaching.

Similarly, in Hong Kong, where I currently work, some universities are hooked on the phrase “communities of practice”, as a way to describe change management teams. I am not sure this is exactly what Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger, who gave us this idea, would have intended.

Tensions between the language and practice of excellence and inclusion in universities are evident, too. Many universities aspire to be “world class”. At the same time, they say they are committed to the holy trinity of “equality, diversity and inclusion” – even though a rather different story is told by their practices, including appointing too many of their own former doctoral students as lecturers and shelving open recruitment processes when making so-called strategic hires.

The conversion of intellectual ideas into managerial mantras has influenced academics to start using sacred terms uncritically. They are still contested by some, but language is a powerful tool for breaking down resistance and normalising unhealthy cultural change. So when you find yourself – as I have – slipping into this habit, think again about what the sacred term actually means in practice. For instance, in many universities today, “student engagement” implies the constant surveillance of students via virtual private networks, swipe cards and attendance data at lectures. And “collaboration” can lead to cronyism, abusive relationships and the wilful misattribution of authorship credit.

Then there is the way in which profanities are used as casual terms of abuse. In his essay “What is Fascism?”, published in 1944, George Orwell argued that this word had become a lazy insult, akin to calling someone a bully. In much the same way, we need to stop using terms such as “neoliberalism” as purely rhetorical riffs.

If you have been keeping count, you will know that I have used about 30 sacred and profane terms in this short article. Yet this only scratches the surface. They are everywhere – and they are the enemies of the critical thinking on which higher education prides itself.

At a department meeting of one my former universities, the head of strategic planning declared that we needed to be more aware about our “competitors”. An associate professor shouted out the correction “colleagues”. We need to stay alert in this way if we want to avoid tamely adopting the latest manifestation of faddish managerialism –if you’ll pardon my profanity.

Bruce Macfarlane is chair professor of educational leadership at the Education University of Hong Kong. He is co-editing a special issue of the Journal of Praxis in Higher Education titled “Critiquing the sacred and the profane in higher education”.

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There was never a golden age in which academic values such as universalism and disinterestedness were not at risk, argues Bruce Macfarlane. But in an age of sponsorism and insecurity, all scholars must hold fast to the precepts that make our intellectual endeavours worthwhile