To steer between being useless and authoritarian is the great art of teaching
~ Earl Kelley
This collection of essays was originally published back in 2017 as two separate blog series looking at the state of higher education and modern pedagogical techniques respectively. These were some of my earliest attempts at writing, and as to be expected, they lacked a bit of polish. Neither particularly stood up on its own as a series, yet there were some glimmers of promise that have caused me to revisit them. Learning is, after all, an iterative process. I have merged the two series, beefed up some of the weaker posts, abandoned some entirely, and added some new content that covers education in a post-pandemic world. Let’s hope, for all our sakes, my efforts have not been in vain.
Pull up a chair, school is in session!
Your First Assignment
During this semester, I will be doing a great deal of talking. I will be giving lectures, answering questions, and conducting discussions. Since I am an imperfect scholar and, even more certainly, a fallible human being, I will inevitably be making factual errors, drawing some unjustifiable conclusions, and perhaps passing along my opinions as facts. I should be very unhappy if you were unaware of these mistakes. To minimize that possibility, I am going to make you all honorary members of Accuracy in Academia. Your task is to make sure that none of my errors goes by unnoticed. At the beginning of each class I will, in fact, ask you to reveal whatever errors I made in the previous session. You must, of course, say why these are errors, indicate the source of your authority, and, if possible, suggest a truer or more useful or less biased way of formulating what I said. Your grade in this course will be based to some extent on the rigor with which you pursue my mistakes. And to ensure that you do not fall into the torpor that is so common among students, I will, from time to time, deliberately include some patently untrue statements and some outrageous opinions. Nothing would please me more than for one or several of you to present a corrected or alternative version of one of my lectures.
~ Neil Postman 1988
Tools for Fools
What matters in learning is not to be taught, but to wake up
~ Jean-Henri Fabre
Knowledge is a form of literature. The various styles of knowledge ought to be studied and discussed, because no subject can truly be understood without understanding its particular manner of speaking and writing. From chemistry to the classics, each has its own characteristic rhetoric, a special way in which arguments and theories are expressed. To be oblivious to such stylistic nuances is to make oneself extremely susceptible to deception. Everyone can be fooled, particularly when you are unfamiliar with the tricks that are likely to be deployed against you. If you are not fluent in the language of a subject - all the jargon, idioms, and linguistic gymnastics used to persuade minds or obfuscate the truth - you have very little beyond instinct to know whether you are being led up the garden path.
In the digital age that we find ourselves in, it is becoming increasingly difficult to discern fact from fiction, to distinguish strong inference from mere speculation. Pieces of information wizz round cyberspace, lacking any form of continuity or context. Yet many are presented in such a way that we are utterly convinced by them; their cogency is undeniable and their provenance seems second to none. In most cases, our delusions arise from conscious tricks people use in order to delude others; in other instances we must blame ourselves for unconscious habits with which we sabotage ourselves. To protect ourselves from the constant blurring of lines between the Babe Ruth and Pork Pies, we must first identify the cause. Once diagnosed we can then work on changing our behaviour to reduce our susceptibility. Below I outline several examples to stimulate your critical faculties. Your homework will be to identify several more.
For one, verisimilitude is ubiquitous. Regardless of its provenance, virtually everything on the internet has the appearance or semblance of truth. Superstitions, beliefs for which there is no verifiable, factual basis, flourish on the internet. Patriotism, religion, and astrology are easy targets, but we should not be so quick to sneer. We can all be fooled. Academia has similar superstitions—the belief that people with college degrees are educated, or the belief that students who are given lessons in grammar will improve their writing, or that one’s knowledge of anything can be objectively measured. For me, the most perilous of all these superstitions is the belief, expressed in a variety of ways, that the study of literature and other humanistic subjects will result in one’s becoming a more decent, liberal, tolerant, and civilised human being.
Second, reification is rampant. The tendency to confuse words with things is not unique to the modern era. Since the dawn of communication, human beings have been naming things. We are cartographers, piecing together a verbal map to help us picture the world around us. Now of course this is very useful. Without a map, navigating the universe would be nigh on impossible. Without this simplified caricature of reality we would be lost, all at sea. To group things and ascribe names to those groups is the first step in understanding, but the road to enlightenment does not come without risk. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. Because of our weakness to confuse names with things, we are extremely susceptible to the likes of priests and politicians. Marketing is sometimes hailed as the greatest art form of the 20th century. Everyone is a salesman, everyone is a spin-artist. The way you describe a product is more important than the product itself. Demagoguery reigns supreme; impassioned appeals to the emotions of the populace trumps a clinical statement of facts any day of the week. Look no further than perfume television advertisements. No one works harder. To convey a smell through a purely visual medium is surely a heroic feat worthy of the greatest snake oil salesman. Every trick is pulled out of the bag - euphemism, suggestion, subliminal messaging - to shift more units. Even academics are not innocent of these dubious practices; far too often scientists will obscure the emptiness and uncertainty of prevailing theories with the aid of alluring names and fancy-sounding jargon. Academic institutions are for-profit institutions after all - every professor must peddle their research program for the university to stay in business.
Thirdly, with so much of our lives now spent online, there is an ever growing threat that language can be used not simply to obscure reality, but to replace it altogether. We are more disconnected from reality than ever before. This disconnect means it is much easier for people to slip, largely unawares, into fanaticism or extremist tendencies. The polarisation of the modern world can largely be attributed to technological bubbles, algorithmic reinforcement of beliefs, and reduced socialisation. The us-versus-them mentality pervades contemporary discourse - rich versus poor, aliens versus natives, Christians versus Muslims. Vitriolic slogans are tweeted from the rooftops. Ritualistic utterances to solidify solidarity. War is declared as a matter of course. Firmly entrenched in their socioeconomic, nationalistic, or religious camps, stalemate is all but inevitable. To compromise would show weakness, olive branches must never be extended under any circumstances. Yet when you walk amongst your community, when you take the time to actually talk to people and listen to what they have to say, such divisionary viewpoints are hard to come by. Inexorable soldiers are few and far between. By and large, people enjoy debate. An opportunity to hear different perspectives is an opportunity for growth.
There are of course, many important caveats to this glossary of deceitful tactics. Perhaps most germane is that definitions are not themselves immutable; the validity of a definition is determined by its common usage and practicality, not by its correctness. It is often a fatal mistake to accept, without challenge, the insinuated meaning of someone’s vocabulary. This notion applies as much to the definition of aardvark and atom as it does to the definitions of more hotly contested words like art or authority - all are subjective. Indeed, it is often words that are overlooked that cause the most problems. Despite a plethora of different interpretations, the definitions of some deceptively simple words are taken for granted, preventing any meaningful discourse. In all walks of life, “true” and “false”, or “right” and “wrong”, can mean different things to different people, and we turn a blind eye to this fact at our peril. In order to combat the ever increasing rigidity of language, we must arm our students with alternative definitions for every important concept and term they are likely to encounter.
For the Love of Numbers
Scientists now map the world almost entirely in the language of mathematics. Mathematics does a far better job of capturing the continuous, infinite variety of nature than words do. This has been known since ancient Greece. With numbers we can achieve a much more accurate description of reality, and so it behoves us to become fluent if we are to ever understand the secrets of the universe. As science becomes increasingly analytical and abstract, however, we run the risk of creating a schism in the world between people who speak the language of numbers, and therefore understand modern science, and those that do not. Such divisions can form between researchers and the public, and even occur within scientific disciplines themselves.
To the uninitiated, mathematics can be a daunting realm - unfamiliar expressions couched within a tangle of incomprehensible equations. Sadly, this fear is readily exploitable by those familiar with the techniques of coercive persuasion. Marketing firms use carefully chosen statistics to hoodwink the public into believing the hype and buying the product. An advertisement for a tooth-whitening agent that ‘increases brightness by up to 70%’ does well to obscure the fact that no improvement remains a distinct possibility. Statistics of ‘up to’ provide no information on the lower limit. The toothpaste may even darken your teeth, and the validity of the claim will still hold. Journalists employ the same tactics. A 300% percent rise in the number of illegal border crossings may seem on the face of it like a worrying increase, but for rare occurrences, i.e. small numbers, that eye catching inflation may only reflect the difference between two and eight people. Only when the statistic is put in context do we see the fear mongering for what it is. Six additional people is hardly newsworthy.
Science too, can be crafty with the way it represents numerical information. The findings of clinical trials for instance,are carefully manicured, with the way in which results are reported entirely dependent on whether or not the experimental drug produced the desired effect. Rates are particularly susceptible to distortion. Claims that involve vague references to the “fastest growth” or “largest decline”, without any explanation of the absolute values, should be treated with suspicion. Similarly, explanations for large scale, historical patterns should not be taken as written unless the researchers making the claims also provide the range of values from which inferences are being drawn. Confining an analysis to only a small subset of participants, or only including a partial range of the dataset, can obscure or exaggerate trends to a large degree. Whether changes in climate or cancer diagnoses, the intent is the same: to win people over to your way of thinking or to sow fear and make your target audience more susceptible to manipulation. Science therefore, and particularly the way scientific advances are communicated to the public, requires some serious policing.
The peer review process is one of the great pillars of academic rigour. Before anything can be published in a scientific journal, it must first be critically evaluated by several experts within the paper’s field of study. These anonymous reviewers will go through the paper with a fine tooth comb, poking holes in every argument, finding flaws in every conclusion. If the manuscript is not up to par it will either be rejected out of hand, or sent back to the authors with criticisms and comments that must be addressed before it can be considered for publication. Seeing a paper to print is a lengthy ordeal. Multiple rounds of revision are the norm, with the process often spanning years between submission and acceptance. Across the suite of journals there is naturally a range of standards, but they all require a high degree of polish on the finished product. But the system is not perfect. Many questionable papers slip through the net, with readers dumbfounded on how they ever managed to make it to print. Particularly when it comes to scrutinising the statistical methodologies employed in scientific papers, the peer review process can be woefully inadequate.
Somewhat understandably, reviewers can be embarrassed to admit to journal editors that they do not understand the analytical methods of a paper they are reviewing. They are supposedly experts after all. But if they are not fluent in the mathematical language that describes the paper’s main findings, then they are unqualified to adjudicate on its merit. If this fact was known, then an editor could scour around and recruit a true statistician to weigh in - someone entirely unfamiliar with the subject matter of the paper, but well placed to look over the numbers and make sure everything adds up. This practice, sadly, is virtually unheard of. All too often, no one is willing to admit their ignorance, no statistician is called, and the mathematical side of manuscripts goes largely unquestioned. But it is extremely likely that if the reviewer cannot fathom the intricacies of a particular statistical analysis, the bulk of the readership will have an equally challenging time of it. This is not something to skip over; the numbers lie at the very heart of most scientific articles. We are clearly in desperate need of two simultaneous campaigns: one to improve statistical literacy amongst professional scientists, and one to destigmatize the act of asking for simpler explanations. Together, these campaigns would improve the quality and clarity of published science no end.
To not learn the language of numbers is to turn your back on nature. On planet Earth, life has had 4,000,000,000,000 years to prosper and flourish. Aeons of experimentation and refinement has resulted in starfish and sequoias, toads and toadstools, elephants and E. coli. 10,000,000 species in all. And we are just 1 planet. As we span out beyond our provincial corner of the universe, we find 100,000,000,000 solar systems in our galaxy, all with the potential to harbour life. At best estimate, 200,000,000,000 galaxies dot the cosmic sky. Only mathematics can begin to reveal the universe’s grandeur. Only mathematics can capture the sense of scale. We must make sure younger generations, future scientists and citizens alike, are fluent in the language of numbers. Statistical literacy facilitates a dialogue with the cosmos. More importantly, it provides a defence against those that use and abuse numbers for their own, nefarious purposes.
Out with the Old?
The major problem with sloganeering, whether shouted from a picket line or convention hall, or displayed on a car bumper, is that it is a substitute for thought, indeed a repudiation of thought.
~Neil Postman, 1985
It has been said that if you brought someone from Victorian England to the modern day, their minds would be incapable of processing the world in which we live. Technology would be indistinguishable from magic, and they would inevitably collapse in a heap, driven mad by their surroundings. With two exceptions. A Victorian would feel quite at home in a courthouse. In England, media crews are still prohibited from entering courtrooms - only sketch artists are permitted to capture the action. So there would be no technology to frighten our time traveller, no camera flashes or cell phone rings to startle our 19th century gent. The wooden benches are the same, the gowns, the wigs, the gavel. Nothing has changed, and our Victorian would be able to identify his surroundings almost immediately. The other location where this would also be true is in a school. Classrooms have changed little in the last 150 years. The chalkboard, the lectern, the wooden desks -Charles Dickens could describe it equally well. And as the British education system has been forcibly exported around the world, I am reliably informed that classrooms appear very similar whether you are attending school in Northampton or Nairobi, Kathmandu or Kensington. I completed my undergraduate education in 2014. I spent some of the happiest days of my life in the rolling hills of Yorkshire, exploring the cobbled streets of what was once the steel capital of the world. Although still quaint in parts - the canal, the relish factory, the sprawling tram network - Sheffield has undergone a dramatic transformation since its heyday. Towers of glass and concrete interspersed with independent art galleries and skate parks; Sheffield is very much a modern city. But again, the university has changed little since its founding. The red brick buildings, their bases partially obscured by tangles of ivy, have stood unchanged since 1879.
Despite the relative stagnation of the buildings at my alma mater, a few things within the university’s walls have kept pace with the rest of civilization. The mission statement of the college for instance, has evolved tremendously from the days of yore. As an undergraduate, seldom did I contemplate what I was doing. I paid little attention to the reason for my schooling. Now I am inherently fascinated by the teaching goals of academia and the intrinsic value of education. At present, the main stated aims of the University of Sheffield are “to educate others and ourselves and to learn through doing so, thereby improving the world.” Lofty goals indeed, and no doubt a far cry from the institution’s original purpose. In the modern mission statement there is an overarching sense of the greater good. The University of Sheffield ranks in the top bracket of research quality, at both the national and global levels. As a rule, these so-called R1 institutions (R for research) pay little attention to their undergraduate cohorts; their main priority is securing multimillion dollar grants and conducting groundbreaking experiments. Yet they emphasise the importance of inclusivity and disseminating information to a wider audience. Is this simply something that has been concocted by the public relations department? Are they just virtue signalling? The academic bubble still very much exists; ivory tower professors conducting their research behind closed doors, rarely required to communicate any of it to the public. The majority of academia remains opaque. Even when efforts are made to publish research findings the benefits to broader society are far from guaranteed. The articles hidden behind paywalls, and the message muddied by all manner of jargon and technical language, is it any wonder that state-of-the-art knowledge is so often confined to a select few? Is it any wonder that the public can hold academics in contempt for their continued role as the gatekeepers of learning?
In with the New?
Do not be deceived by the pedantry of dates. The ages of Shakespeare and of Molière are no less past than are the ages of Sophocles and of Virgil. The communion of saints is a great and inspiring assemblage, but it has only one possible hall of meeting, and that is, the present, and the mere lapse of time through which any particular group of saints must travel to reach that meeting-place, makes very little difference.
~Alfred North Whitehead
We have the world at our fingertips. We are the first generation to be able to make that claim; the first generation to have constant access to virtually all of humanities acquired wisdom. The ubiquitous presence of social media and portable computers in our day to day lives is not a remote possibility, it is an actuality. The digital age is upon us. Soon, you will be able to browse the internet directly through your brain, read any book ever written, and instantly communicate with anyone around the globe. The internet allows students to critically evaluate sources in real time. The internet so eloquently conveys the value of references, the disconnect between primary and secondary literature, and the role of scepticism in the scientific method. If we take it for what it is, the internet could be, and should be the greatest leap forward in public education since the invention of the printing press. But to presume that the total immersion of technology into society has no repercussions is the height of folly. If we turn our collective backs on the grand history of higher education, we risk creating a technological asylum in which the only thing to do is plunge toward insanity.
The internet is the high seas, and we are buccaneers in search of the greatest treasure of all: knowledge. As with real treasure, it is not easy to get your hands on. We must sail across oceans of nonsense in our quest; dangerous waters indeed. What’s more, we should be extremely wary of the stories and claims of other adventurers; one must remember that fisherman’s tales can be some of the tallest. Instead of sirens hoping to steer us off course, we are instead faced with news articles of Nazis on the moon, Tom Cruise’s new eyebrows, and cats playing pianos. As a society, by and large, we do not wish to be informed, we wish to be entertained. From races for political office that now resemble beauty pageants to televised news that masquerades as an action flick, our world demonstrably favours style over substance. Entertainment pervades because entertainment sells. The danger of mass education is precisely that it may become very entertaining indeed. So said Hannah Arendt. Only those steadfast, exhibiting the utmost restraint, ignoring all distractions on their journey, emerge from the internet unscathed and enriched. And the key there is that they do emerge. It is all too easy to get lost at sea. The exposure-risk relationship of a substance describes the relationship between the mass concentration and the statistical probability of the occurrence of a disease. Most young people have far too much exposure to the internet, and the resulting mental health epidemic speaks for itself.
The medium is the message, so said Marshall McLuhan. The principle of the non-neutrality of media - that the form in which information is coded has an inescapable bias. Every extension of speech—from painting to hieroglyphics to the alphabet to the printing press to television—also generates unique ways of apprehending the world, amplifying or obscuring different features of reality. Each medium, like language itself, classifies the world for us, sequences it, frames it, enlarges it, reduces it, argues a case for what the world is like. Pictures need to be recognized, words need to be understood. The photograph presents the world as objects; language, the world as ideas. In the digital age, marketing is everything. The way you sell a product is more important than the product itself. When the product is human beings, the consequences can be disastrous. Style over substance. The internet does not value a good education, it has no need for it. The internet has little patience for logical reasoning or carefully considered opinions.
Challenges and Doubts
To doubt everything and to believe everything are two equally convenient solutions; each saves us from thinking.
~ Henri Poincaré
The key to learning is asking the right questions. The knowledge we have accrued as a species stems entirely from the questions we conjure up. What’s more, the form in which we ask our questions will determine the answers we get. When asking questions you must always bear in mind that you might have received a different answer if you had posed the question differently. It is also important to bear in mind that the principles and rules of asking questions differ as we move from one system of knowledge to another. The questions one might ask of a mathematical proof will differ dramatically from the questions regarding a literary work. Science too, has its own nuances as to the form and function of questions it asks. Werner Heisenberg was the first to realise, or at least the first to admit, that scientists do not see nature as it is, but only through the questions they put to it. Science is rooted in revolution, every practitioner dreams of insurrection, rising up against the establishment and overthrowing long held beliefs. To keep dogmatism at bay, scientists, as a matter of course, question everything. To be so paranoid and full of doubts may seem a daunting proposition, challenging authority is never easy, but as far as we can tell this is the only way to glimpse a reflection of reality - to see through the looking glass. Most forms of education discourage the asking of questions. Instead, schools typically focus on answers, forcing students to memorise the ‘truth’. But an answer without knowledge of the questions that produced it is at best meaningless, and at worst dangerous. Society in general is geared more towards teaching obedience and conformity. Why? If we are to properly serve future generations, the art of questioning should be at the heart of education. If it is not, how educational can it be? If it is not, what is the purpose of schools?
The Consummate Consumer
Classes for the Masses
I am well aware that it is now the fashion to deny that Socialism has anything to do with equality. In every country in the world a huge tribe of party-hacks and sleek little professors are busy ‘proving’ that Socialism means no more than a planned state capitalism with the grab-motive left intact. But fortunately there also exists a vision of Socialism quite different from this.
Higher education is a for-profit enterprise, but it doesn’t have to be. School is free. Libraries are free. The western world seems to agree that education should not be a privilege of the wealthy. So why then, are universities not free? Tuition, dormitory rentals, administrative fees, textbooks, facility surcharges - students wind up paying through the nose, and despite this, there is a noticeable lack of support for a more heavily subsidised tertiary education system. As a result, the extremely vocal nature of many liberal college campuses on the topics of inclusion and diversity can ring rather hollow. Particularly in an age where institutions could readily make all course materials available for free online, one could argue that in many instances, increasing the accessibility of universities is more talked about than worked towards. All mouth and no trousers. If we wish to consider ourselves civilised, academia must be made available to young or old, rich or poor - anyone with wi-fi.
Of course free universities would not be an economically viable approach, clearly. But why should it be? Money is not part of the equation when we talk of fire departments or mental health centres; we invest in them because it is the right thing to do, not because they are profitable. We must not let wealth and greed prevent us from making education accessible to all. In the modern era, equity is at the forefront of our thinking and discourse, but we often stall at the implementation stage. For instance, as I write the vast majority of primary literature is unavailable to the vast majority of people. Blocked behind paywalls, scientific discoveries both old and new are hidden from public view. The average person is only privy to advances in science and technology through second hand sources. The digital age we find ourselves in presents opportunities for communication like never before. Moreover, the internet can help to create a higher degree of transparency in how certain sectors of society operate, such that you would think academia would be doing everything in their power to dispel the images of elitism and shameless profiteering.
A concerted effort to make all primary literature open access is one of the most important cultural advances the scientific community can make. The benefits of open access are manifold. Online-only formats can save on all manner of expenses, from property leasing to printing materials. With such cost-saving measures, institutions are then free to explore a breadth of research far exceeding that of traditional journals. Articles can range the gamut of disciplines, and encompass all article types (review, research, methods, etc.). What’s more, this style permits the reporting of replication studies, i.e. studies that confirm a previous experimental finding. Previously, it was considered too expensive to conduct research that has already been undertaken by other scientists. However, we are now paying for this cost-cutting approach - the scientific literature is currently experiencing a wave of retractions. Paper after paper is being pulled from print because they fail to hold up to scrutiny. If the results of a study cannot be repeated, this is clearly something the scientific community should know about. Similarly negative results, studies where you do not find any support for your hypotheses, are becoming more common in open access journals. Historically neglected - simply because not finding a link to cancer, say, or not finding an impact of climate change, is considerably less exciting than if you do find those things - negative results are critical to scientific progress and painting a complete picture of the world around us.
There are a handful of concerns that are often used to justify not striving for accessible academia. One particularly prickly obstacle is that of certification; adjudicating on whether an individual has met all of the requirements pertaining to their degree becomes demonstrably more challenging with free education. Another is people not receiving credit for their work. With the rise of ‘open data’, publicly available data and methodologies, such concerns are legitimate, and dialogues surrounding the regulations that ensure accreditation have resurfaced. Plagiarism has always plagued academia for time immemorial. Falsified resumes and fabricated qualifications are equally common. Across all disciplines, there are con-artists overstating their value and literary thieves passing off prose as their own. Perhaps, it is argued, a more open data-sharing network presents a tantalising new arena for these crooks to commit their crimes. Perhaps instead open access will facilitate fact-checking of dubious claims, and make it easier to discern the provenance of products and materials. Time will tell.
Progress towards educational reform will inevitably be hampered by the hierarchical structure of our institutions. That is after all, why they are built that way. Worlds within worlds, specifically designed so as to be extremely resilient to change - virtually untoppleable. Classrooms within departments, departments within colleges, colleges within universities - at each scale we can clearly see the authoritarian rule and the subjected masses. Even if some emboldened teacher or rogue department raises the courage to engage in disobedience, the next level in the hierarchy will resist, either consciously or unconsciously, and the system as a whole will likely remain relatively unchanged. Moreover, to yield the highest profits universities place obedience to authority above all else. Academic institutions hoodwink us into believing that any ill feelings we have as to the way things are done are purely a manifest of our own inadequacies. So effective are they at this deception, the vast majority will resign themselves to inaction. Most do not even register when our masters incessantly demand payment on the one hand, and feign poverty on the other. We have much work to do. We must stop training servants and start training revolutionaries. An educated person is one who refuses to bend the knee.
Dear white administrators in academia, You, as the sole protectors of intellectual property, are claiming a politics of diversity in a built-in, impenetrable, and dismissive apparatus that legitimizes imagined narratives in the name of a colour-class-gender-blindness system. If you spent less time in meetings that appear to be more like hamster wheels, perhaps the incalculable $$$ collected from students could be used to hire permanent faculty.
~ Clelia Rodriguez
Student Life? It’s a scam. From start to finish. If the smartest people on the planet - esteemed professors of business, economics, and science - can’t figure out a better way to make money than scamming students, the fight for civilization may be lost. For the sake of societal progress, higher education must be made more affordable. Exorbitant costs of university attendance generates an academic elite and fosters contempt and mistrust among the general public. The Student Life scam has been operating for decades, but the global pandemic of 2020 laid bare the duplicity for what it was. With schools forced to close their doors and transition to remote instruction, the role of education in modern society became even more obtuse. Universities could’ve reduced fees in line with the reduced quality of education provided, or simply not taken on a new cohort of students, but they did not. Exploiting the fears of students and parents alike, academic institutions instead continued to perpetuate the myth that without a college education, young people are destined to a life of mediocrity and struggle. Scammers are fueled by greed. And greed is never about need; universities don’t need students’ money, they have just become accustomed to taking it.
Every single student knows it’s a scam, but they are powerless, they are afraid. They are teenagers after all. They are eighteen years old when they arrive at the university gates, and we promptly take all of their money. No attempt is made to hide it. Scammers are notoriously brazen. They know their marks are desperate, they know they have them over a barrel. People that use loan sharks are fully aware of who they are borrowing money off. But they don’t have a choice. Universities routinely slap hidden fees onto their students once they are several years into their studies; on contemplating the predicament if they were to quit at this late stage, students invariably cough up the money. And then comes the veritable long-con. Upon graduation, it is not uncommon for degree holders to then seek employment at academic institutions. Working the rest of their lives for the very people that drove you into debt in the first place. It screams of an abusive relationship.
Subsidised tuition might sound prohibitively expensive, but that is all part of the scam. To make the con seem more like a legitimate business, universities never deviate from the party line that they are ‘poor’, and lack the money to ease any of the burden on students. However, if you walk around a university campus you will be surrounded by opulence on the level of royalty. Palatial buildings, immaculate gardens and lawns, the kings and queens of old would feel right at home. And yet, the scammers can look students in the eye, and tell them that the university is hard up. Strapped for cash. Financially struggling. Fearing bankruptcy. If it wasn’t a scam, why don’t the richer universities charge less? If it wasn’t a racket, why can’t the likes of Harvard or Yale, Oxford or Cambridge, have free admission?
Like all good scam operations, higher education has a regimented chain of command. The professors answer to the dean, the dean answers to the president, the president answers to the trustees, and the trustees answer to none but God. They are the ultimate governing body of the university. For most faculty and students, the Trustees might as well have been living on a distant planet for all that was seen of them. The regular changes in trustees don’t make an awful lot of difference to day to day operations on campus. They were distinguished clerics or aristocrats. The men upstairs. They are by definition trustworthy: they were supposedly incapable of acts that fell below the probity expected of this role in public life. By and large they are high minded people genuinely interested in contributing their wisdom to a prestigious institution, but the human cost of decisions must be understood. A business model whereby science is self-sufficient through external grants, no longer dependent on aid from government coffers. the subject areas must be shifted towards those that would most likely secure their own funding. Rather than focusing on providing young people with an education and a hopeful future, rather than striving for groundbreaking research with far reaching benefits, we obsess over making money.
By all rights, we should be teaching students how to spot scams, how to avoid being duped, how to defeat stupidity. Stupid people can be trying, but we must always remember they are the victims. The real villains are the scammers; the hucksters, the confidence-tricksters, the charlatans. Through their duplicity, the world is kept in stupor. Everything has a price. It’s not much of an education if they leave just as credulous as when they arrive. I guess in a roundabout kind of fashion we are teaching students some hard life lessons. Huxley was wrong when he said ‘You can’t consume much if you sit still and read books.’ The grifters are more devious and inventive than we typically give them credit for. There’s one born every minute.
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue, then you will be a Man, my son.
~ Rudyard Kipling
The placard reads: A multicultural curriculum for a multicultural world! The chant is the same. The crowd on the steps is growing increasingly agitated. One protester is being interviewed by a reporter for the regional news. “Why do we not have a global education system? It is mind boggling to me that we continue to provide young minds with such propaganda. The most heinous crime we as teachers can commit is to limit the scope and breadth of our students’ learning. By keeping education provincial, we leave schoolchildren completely underprepared for the interwoven fabric of the modern world. By confining our teaching materials to a singular or subsection of narratives, we do future academics a disservice.” Inside the courthouse, the motion has been put to a vote and the decision is unanimous. The book will be struck from the syllabus, its contents deemed to lack clarity, intelligibility, arrangement, or relevance. Starting next month, fines will be levied on any teacher caught flouting the ban.
Catalysed by the industrial revolution, universities have become considerably more mainstream and utilitarian. For much of higher education’s history, style has triumphed over substance. Academic snobbery is infamous. The arcane rituals, the secret handshakes, tails at dinner, cloaks at graduation. In the last two hundred years however, things have changed. In the adolescence of the 19th century, Napoleon had finally been defeated, and once more Britain sat relatively unchallenged on the imperial throne. Between Napoleon’s exile in 1814 to the onset of WW1, Britain subsumed over 10 million square miles of territory and 400 million people into its already distended empire. New technologies, notably the steamship and telegraph, were chiefly responsible for this feat, and epitomised the prevailing attitudes of the century. The number of universities in England exploded during this time, and the breadth of subjects taught at them increased dramatically, bringing higher education to the masses. Non-collegiate institutions sprang up in every major industrial city in England, fueling tremendous advances in civic science and engineering. Aside from steadfast conservatives at the likes of Oxford and Cambridge, these changes were widely seen as an inclusive, progressive step in the evolution of academia. In contrast to the long-standing, prestigious colleges that required passing the stringent 39 Articles test of loyalty to the Catholic Church, and perhaps a Baron- or Marquis- stapled to the front of your name for admittance, modern universities accepted everybody.
Although it made universities more cosmopolitan and welcoming, the industrial revolution also created marked divisions across academic communities, creating rifts that have yet to be repaired. There is a tendency to assume that the disconnect between scientists and literary academics has always existed in the collegiate world, but this is a relatively modern phenomenon. In classical Greece and during the Renaissance alike, mixing between science and the arts was commonplace; polymaths abounded. Not until industrialization did the two cultures begin to drift apart. Scientists were the only intellectuals that embraced the industrial revolution. All other academic fields either failed to understand, or never attempted to understand the evolutionary jump. This fact is remarkable enough, that the majority of intellectuals failed to notice the biggest upheaval in society since the emergence of agriculture, but it is beyond unbelievable that one hundred and fifty years hence the situation remains as it was. How then, can we bridge the gap? We are in the midst of another technological revolution. In time, our current revolution will exacerbate historical divisions or produce its own divisions if we do not act.
The digital revolution has already facilitated paradigm shifts in academia that have far-reaching implications. Academic publishing for example, is unrecognisable from what it was only a decade ago. Journal reputation and subscriber counts were paramount in the days of print-only. Researchers would subscribe to a handful of journals and read every article in each. Similarly, university libraries would only stock those journals that had a large enough readership amongst the current students and faculty. Whilst the ‘impact factor’ of a journal is still important in the modern age, there has certainly been a dramatic shift in culture as the way we obtain journal articles. The internet has completely changed the publishing environment. Articles are extracted from all-encompassing search engines with considerably less thought given to the source. Nowadays, the journal in which a publication features can sometimes be an afterthought when adjudicating a paper’s merit, and this is something that could be praised or could be cause for concern. Innumerable instances exist of substandard science not receiving the lambasting it deserves simply because it manages to get picked up by a prestigious journal. The reverse is also frustratingly common; papers of excellence being completely overlooked because they feature in an obscure outlet. Reputation trumps content. Or at least, it did. With the increase of electronic journals and open access publishing, critical evaluations of scientific articles will not be so readily influenced by provenance, and therefore be less biassed. Of course, reputation and prestige can be legitimate. It is important to understand how top-tier journals earn their stripes before we ignore them out of hand. If a publication is lauded due to its unsurpassed level of scientific rigour, it would be pure folly to treat its offerings on a par with blog posts from the backwaters of the internet.
We are all guilty of extending the application of a rule to items that are excluded from it. My perspective comes from that of a biologist. Very early on in my education it was made clear that nature forbids all-encompassing laws; what is true for one species does not hold for another. There are over one thousand species of jellyfish. There are over five thousand species of dragonfly. Although there are overarching principles that govern the evolutionary strategies of all life on earth, to try to generalise across taxa is the height of folly. The same is true of people. Human behaviour is impossible to succinctly explain. Millions of individuals spread across myriad communities, for every commonality there are exceptions. Clearly in animal and human societies alike, there is a distinct advantage to having a wealth of variations. Diversity is the only law.
In an academic context, diversity increases the quantity, and much more importantly, the quality of research output at all levels. Within a lab, within a department, within an institution, success hinges on diversity. Progress is much faster if you have multiple perspectives tackling the same problems. The recalcitrant professor who operates a ‘my way or the highway’ attitude towards research is bound for extinction. Similarly in teaching, the rigid syllabus, the blanket exams, the lectures that only appeal to certain types of learners, all are slowly being eradicated. This style of education emerged in Victorian England and has since been exported around the world. Standardisation may have been appropriate in the days when students were of one particular colour, one particular gender, but in modern times they are woefully inadequate. Thus it is always important to bear in mind that any call for inclusive education is not a call for homogenization. Instead, it is a call to diversify our portfolio of teaching tricks, and being willing to turn to unlikely sources for inspiration.
Video games, and the mentality of those who excel at gaming, are under scrutiny from academics looking for helpful pointers. Video games foster learning across a whole suite of personality types, whilst keeping them all motivated to develop their skills. The so called ‘gamification’ of classrooms has been touted by many as one of the most fertile avenues for making advances in education. Musicians too, have a lot to teach us about the learning process. As artists, the targets musicians seek are not well defined. The vast majority of playing is aimless, unguided, and purely undertaken for fun. Self-satisfaction is always paramount. Richard Feynman called it the ‘pleasure of finding things out’ and it is something artists do well, academics poorly. Further, a musical education seamlessly blends all four of the traditional learning styles to maximise the acquisition and utilisation of knowledge. Auditory, Linguistic, Spatial, and Kinesthetic all play their part. Music teachers will get you to sing what you want to play before picking up an instrument, to ensure that the brain has fully processed the sounds. Written music resembles an elaborate, abstract artwork, stimulating the visual part of your brain and forging connections between sight and sound. Such an appeal to a diversity of learning styles and is surely something to emulate.
If we are to properly serve young minds, we as teachers must swallow our pride and acknowledge that we have much to learn. Mistakes should not be punished, they should be encouraged. Especially in a student’s formative years, mistakes are the most powerful tool they possess - each blunder opens up new lines of thought, revealing hitherto hidden perspectives and directions of enquiry. Similarly we should make more of an effort to reward cooperation. Working with others towards a common goal is as much the bedrock of science as it is of an orchestra. A collaborative mentality is highly coveted in academia, but rarely fostered in the classroom. If we gamify universities, we will do a far better job of imparting a life-long love of learning. If we sow musical seeds in higher education, we shall reap our fair share of virtuosos. It was once said that any textbook that is easy to teach from should be burned, for it cannot be educational. Diversity introduces complexity for sure, but it is the only known phenomenon that can guarantee survival in our turbulent, ever-changing world.
Steve clears his throat before responding. “I don’t want my kids brainwashed!” he exclaims. “The primary goal of schools is to produce well-informed and productive members of society, not push this radical agenda! He should be proud of his heritage. We came from nothing, and they’re trying to take that away from us!” Steve is a modern day stoic. For him, contentment comes from not dwelling on things that one does not control. But this conversation is testing his patience. Perhaps, he thinks, it is best to leave before things escalate any further. Least said, soonest mended. Besides, he can’t stay long, he must be at work in half an hour. His family has been employed by the local mine for five generations. Coal dust is in his DNA. Around these parts, black gold fuels the economy and fills the hospital waiting rooms. “What about our problems?” Exasperated, he turns to leave. “So long I’ll see you, cause the buick’s outside waiting.” As he clambers behind the wheel, Steve’s lower back gives him the usual grief, and he unsuccessfully attempts to stifle a groan.
At the Sound of the Bell
Passing now to the scientific and logical side of education, we remember that here also ideas which are not utilised are positively harmful. By utilising an idea, I mean relating it to that stream, compounded of sense perceptions, feelings, hopes, desires, and of mental activities adjusting thought to thought, which forms our life. I can imagine a set of beings which might fortify their souls by passively reviewing disconnected ideas. Humanity is not built that way except perhaps some editors of newspapers.
In the conditions of modern life the rule is absolute; the race which does not value trained intelligence is doomed. Not all your heroism, not all your social charm, not all your wit, not all your victories on land or at sea, can move back the finger of fate. Today we maintain ourselves. Tomorrow science will have moved forward yet one more step, and there will be no appeal from the judgement which will then be pronounced on the uneducated.
~ Alfred North Whitehead