Picky, coddled students? Make them read Beowulf

February 26, 1999

Is our culture dumbing down? There is a dominant view in this heated debate that those who complain are bitter about easier access for more people to higher education and to a culture that was traditionally the preserve of the privileged few.

Under attack, institutions are increasingly defensive. This is nowhere more apparent than in our universities where the accusation of elitism has silenced those who express disquiet that liberal education seems sacrificed in the name of accessibility. While having no truck with those who harbour apocalyptic fears that the hordes are destroying education, I do fear that academia's defensiveness has led it to sacrifice that which was worth gaining access to.

Academics seem to have lost confidence in their role as intellectual leaders. It is now viewed as unreconstructed arrogance to suggest that academics should know best about what university education ought to be. Instead, the centre of academic life has moved from expertise and subject knowledge to students.

The consequences are profound. When the most educated allow the organising principles of higher education to be determined by the least educated and the uninitiated, then dumbing down is an apt phrase.

In the past, students had to compete for places at universities, which confidently selected and rejected without apology. Today, with expansion, colleges have to compete for students. Therefore the key task is how to make courses attractive to more students. Students have become consumers and lecturers forced into selling their wares. Courting student approval is seen as a necessary marketing strategy.

Similarly, many student-centred models began as pragmatic responses to the overcrowding and underfunding that accompanied mass higher education. But pragmatism has been theorised into a new educational dogma that too many have bought into. Student-centred assessment has moved away from being a coping strategy and is now contrasted positively with more testing traditional methods. Exams and competition are castigated as elitist as new assessment methodology increasingly strives to reward rather than challenge, as though students cannot make the grade without changing the grading system. Organising higher education around keeping students content is making us reluctant to make judgements. Students who fail are not happy customers.

Accepting student-centredness means adopting a focus group approach to what happens in universities. Lord Dearing's justification for the Institute for Learning and Teaching cited student surveys to justify the new emphasis on teaching techniques. Lecturers live in dread of end-of-term student assessments rather than the other way round.

Student-centredness is also patronising. It is as if undergraduates are not expected to cope unless study is made exciting and immediate. But this is not play-school and the rewards of higher study require real intellectual struggles. It is a mistake to expect to be liked while force-feeding Beowulf. But in the end it will be worth it, when students learn to appreciate more than just a slick Powerpoint presentation.

Student-centred education also means a loss of intellectual coherence, especially when applied to course design. Cambridge's English department is debating dropping Anglo-Saxon as it may put off potential students. Who cares if the students would have a more coherent grasp of the subject by studying this difficult aspect of literature?

This approach flags up another consequence - an abdication of responsibility. That 44 universities do not make Shakespeare compulsory on English courses points to just such a refusal by academics to indicate which writer is better, more important and so on. We will make our students dumb if we ascribe equal merit to everything. If they leave university unable to distinguish the shoddy from the superior, the serious from the trivial, they will be dumber than when they arrive.

To dress this up as student choice and empowerment is a travesty. Take pick and mix, modular, interdisciplinary degrees. How can students choose when they do not know how to construct a meaningful syllabus? They need leadership and guidance as to what makes up a discipline. But if it matters so little to us what one subject should add up to, how can we expect students to immerse themselves sufficiently to become critical thinkers?

The game of centring on students seems to be replacing the job of educating them. Worse, when people complain of dumbing down, we disingenuously say we are giving the students what they want. What a cop-out!

Claire Fox is publisher of LM magazine and has taught at undergraduate level. She is director of "Culture Wars, Dumbing Down, Wising Up?", a conference to be held at the Riverside Studios March 5-7. For information phone 0171 269 9220.

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