Fast food is no substitute for an intellectual feast

June 7, 2002

Modularity is a sham and the weapon of choice in the casualisation of our profession, argues Bob Brecher. No one says Oxbridge should modularise its degrees, so if it's not good enough for them, why is it good enough for the rest?

When modularity was imported from the US some 20 years ago, few of its proponents and even fewer fellow travellers understood the ideological purpose behind its spurious appeals to economic efficiency and student choice. Our current experience of modularity gives the lie to the former. As for choice: what is valuable about choice per se? As Baroness Warnock - hardly a revolutionary socialist - pointed out long ago, universities should be teaching people to want the right things, rather than indulging their "customers'" whims. Choice, the "common sense" argument of our time, is intellectually vacuous; and its modular instantiations are as limited as they are chaotic.

Thoughtful neo-liberals know this, of course: a small and compliant elite apart, teaching students to want the right things - to become safe consumers, and occasional producers, of capitalism's means of profit - is exactly what they are pursuing. And modularity, a term taken from the car industry, is the means of trying to solve the inevitable contradiction facing capitalism's managers: how to train a workforce without encouraging independent thought. Fifty per cent participation must on no account mean 50 per cent critical thinking.

But why focus on modularity? Because modular structures help fragment our conceptions of, and attitudes to, knowledge; of being a student and of being a teacher. Education becomes a commodity, students customers, and teachers deliverers of products. The standardisation necessary to ensure ease of assembly and replacement, using prefabricated and self-contained units to build Lego-style degrees, expresses a view of education as training more at home in Mao's China than in John Stuart Mill's UK. What better statement of new Labour's "vision" than Mao Zedong's contemptuous vocationalism: "(A) man studies through from grade school to university, graduates, and is then considered learned. Yet, in the first place, he cannot till the land; second, he has no trade; third, he cannot fight; fourth, he cannot manage a jobI What he possesses is only book knowledge."

That is the contempt and fear that drives the modularisation of what were once degree courses.

Education for the masses is unthinkable. Modularity transforms knowledge into a commodity, to be consumed as leisure activity, a matter of gathering and reproducing information: you learn; write up what you have learnt; have it assessed; forget it; and go on to consume the next gobbet. Put out on the shelves by educational managers - the cadres of postmodern, neo-liberal educational "progress" and "quality" - these conveniently bite-sized morsels are digested by the consumer, their consumption "facilitated" by the increasingly part-time waiters and waitresses of educational cybercafes masquerading as universities.

Assessment is central. It is modules, not students, that are assessed; no account is taken of students' intellectual development, their reflections on what they have learnt in light of later thought. Because modular structures dictate a purely mathematical approach, examination boards cannot consider students as learners, again reinforcing a mechanistic conception of knowledge. Nor can there be any question of learning from assessment where feedback can be given - if at all - only long after the end of the module, where marking is increasingly anonymous and where such idiocies as standard word lengths for assignments are imposed across very different contents and disciplines.

But there is more. Modularity ensures that the very notion of being a student fragments beyond recognition: what were once students are more like tourists visiting the University of Disneyland, or - at best - "doing" their modules, as if turning up at the call centre from their temp agency. The confidence, trust and responsibility of being part of a collective, enjoying an educational challenge and being a member of a self-defined and recognisable social and cultural group, are undermined by being just an individual among others each pursuing their individual choices. Academics and administrators, of course, are no less fragmented. If your job isn't teaching students, but delivering modules - as though education were a diet of take-away pizzas - then you are not perceived as a teacher and cannot function as one. No wonder the commercial managers of Disneyland universities can rely increasingly on casual labour: self-contained as modules are, there is no need for those who deliver them to be in any way connected with those delivering others, or indeed with anything resembling an intellectual community. One might have thought that part-time hourly paid lecturers having little or no connection with, or responsibility for, their students or university would be a problem. On the contrary, it is exactly what those dedicated to emptying universities of intellectual activity are after. Finally, the internal competition enforced by student "choice" - playing the popularity game - ensures the dumbing down everyone pretends to deprecate. Unsurprisingly, the results are turned against those who have delivered them, so that Chris Woodhead's recent demand - on The World at One , and as usual without argument or evidence - for "intellectually rigorous academic education which by definition only a few can benefit from" is not seen for the nonsense it is.

In short, modularity is the weapon of choice in casualising the academic profession; in abolishing students; in substituting information for knowledge; and in the wider determination to ensure that education plays its proper part in keeping people in their place. No one has argued that Oxbridge would benefit from modularising its degrees, and what is good for the best is equally good for the rest. That is the argument we need to make. We all know that modularity is a sham and we should say so. Already some are giving voice to what they have long known. A few universities are pushing to demodularise. And there are alternatives. At the University of Brighton, for instance, my school (and the faculty of which it is part) long ago eschewed modularisation in favour of structured intellectual development, small seminar groups and direct engagement with students' written and oral work, even if that has meant less coverage and less contact time.

Bob Brecher is reader in moral philosophy at the University of Brighton. Anyone interested can contact R.Brecher@bton.ac.uk .

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