Don't run away - face the music

November 17, 2006

As numbers of students have risen, academics have ducked the question of what purpose university serves, says Bob Brecher.

About 40 per cent of UK school leavers now go to university.

And yet, apart from complaining that their school experience does less and less to prepare them for university work, we academics have paid very little attention to what goes on in schools. So, when Sir Richard Sykes bemoans the loss of real scientific content in "science studies" and historian David Starkey the absurdity of "doing" bits of "history" without any sense of historical development, we sit back and agree.

Not that that is any surprise. After all, it was our abandoning any rigorous notion of development in the rush to modularise our own courses that paved the way to a similar fragmentation at A level. The story of how - with some exceptions - we came to do that is the usual mix of accident, short-sightedness and the seduction of spurious notions of choice: academe is no different from the rest of society in that respect.

But it goes deeper. As undergraduate numbers increased, most of us simply did not bother to think about the implications for the nature of our own work. Where once we were engaged largely unthinkingly in producing future generations of academics, civil servants and the like, we were now doing something rather different. But what, exactly? We ducked that question.

Faced with needing to develop, and indeed promote, a positive view of the function and purpose of a university education aimed at engaging and educating perhaps half the population, we ran away from it.

Enthusiasts apart, we accepted modularity, together with the fragmentation of students' learning and of the very idea of knowledge to which it inevitably leads at undergraduate level, as a "practical" means of dealing with larger numbers and satisfying the apparent requirements of choice. And now we are reaping what we helped to sow.

So what to do? First, we need to accept our responsibilities as no less part of an overall system of education than as scholars, researchers and academics. A central component of our role is to educate people: whatever else we are, we are, most of us, teachers. Very well: what are we educating people for; and, in light of that, how should we set about it? There are of course a number of different answers to those questions. Not all university education has the same function. Undergraduate courses in the arts, professional development courses and medical education, to name some at random, are all very different. But they have something in common. They are concerned with engaging students' critical faculties, fostering reflection on the impact on the wider world of their specific concerns and priorities and encouraging the capacity for self-reflection that is a necessary condition of someone's coming to be an educated individual. They are, after all, university courses.

The point of 40 or 50 per cent, or whatever other percentage, of people going to university is that they be educated. Why? Because the more people are educated in the sense just outlined, the better for them and for the society they inhabit. At least, that seems a reasonable view for teachers to take, if not necessarily for politicians: otherwise, why teach at all? And, if that is broadly right, the implication is that we also need to take an active role in reshaping the mess that secondary education has become.

In short, we need to play our part in rescuing knowledge from our neoliberal masters.

Bob Brecher is reader in moral philosophy at Brighton University.

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