Use passion to counter culture of compliance

December 21, 2001

Interdisciplinarity could be key to promoting a culture of debate in our universities, says Stephen Rowland.

Critique and contestation are essential features of a democratic educational process. Life in universities, however, is characterised more by a culture of compliance than by one of rational debate. A previous minister for higher education said, at a public lecture a year ago, that the function of university learning was to meet the skills shortage in the global market. This view, stated as if it were fact and common sense, portrays the university as the compliant servant of the marketplace. Here, as in most government pronouncements, the critical functions of university work go largely unacknowledged.

The struggle between the submission to teacherly expectations and a critical engagement with a contested field of knowledge is the essence of higher education. Yet, at this level of the teaching process we again see the emphasis placed on compliance rather than on contestation. Higher education minister Margaret Hodge, for example, has complained that while at university, she "should have been forced to do more work" ( THES , June 15).

The pressure for compliance is not just a feature of teaching relationships. It infects the curriculum itself and the way it is evaluated. Measures supposedly devised for ensuring that teaching is effective have led to a bureaucratic account of learning that is limited by the straitjacket of predictable outcomes; completing tick boxes of generic skills undermines the enthusiasm and passion of intellectual work. Intelligence and intellect-ual struggle cannot be reduced to predictable outcomes, however politically and administratively inconvenient this might be. Scholarly work - whether academic research or student learning - needs to be the subject of critical evaluation. But it is essenti-ally a form of inquiry and its outcome can never completely be determined at the outset. At the same time, the rapid expansion of knowledge, together with the greater emphasis on the practical purposes to which it might be put, has led to the emergence of new disciplines, new combinations of discipline and increas-ingly to challenges to existing disciplinary boundaries. This has impacted on research and on the courses we offer students.

One result of this has been the modularisation of the curriculum and a drift towards the commodification and fragmentation of knowledge. This further enhances the compliant role of students. They are viewed as consumers of modules of knowledge, while researchers are the providers of knowledge for "user groups" in the marketplace. This depressing culture of compliance and commodification undermines a genuine interest in the critical aspects of students' learning and research. There is one development, however, that holds out the possibility of a more lively culture of debate and contestation. This is the rise of interdisciplinarity.

Interdisciplinary learning and research offers imaginative possibilities. Ideas and metaphors that inform one discipline can offer challenging insights into other fields of inquiry. Divisions in language and disciplinary barriers can be crossed when interdisciplinarity is fired by curiosity that is respectful, rigorously disciplined, and yet imaginatively playful.

Take a contemporary example. Stimulated by the interests of the previous chief medical officer, the field of medical humanities has been developed, in which literature, philosophy and art are brought to bear on the science and practice of medicine. The exciting interdisciplinary possibility here is that insights from the humanities can contest accepted norms in medical practice, and that the realities and demands of medicine and healthcare can produce insights in these humanities. Indeed, even the idea of what it is to be a doctor on the one hand or an artist or literary critic on the other can be informed by an engagement between humanistic and scientific forms of inquiry.

Theories cannot be taken out of the context from which they were derived and applied to different situations. As one attempts to transfer insights from one discipline to another, argument will arise as the presumptions and practices in the different fields confront each other. Such contestation contributes to the growth of the disciplines involved. Learning and research must be motivated by a passion for the subject, if this interdisciplinary approach is to fulfil its potential. Otherwise, contestation is merely an academic game. Words such as passion and love of the subject never figure in the prescriptions and requirements of central agencies, with their focus on developing skills, gaining qualification and maintaining standards. Our task is to create spaces where such contestation can take place between students and staff and the wider community. Perhaps then we can counteract the culture of compliance that dominates academic life.

Stephen Rowland is professor of higher education at University College London. The article is from his inaugural lecture.

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