Friday 12 November 2010

Want to be bowled over by insight? or steamrollered by dogma?

I remember by predominant desire and expectation of going to university was that I would be thrilled by insight and intelligence. I was lucky - I studied music (the most important discipline on the curriculum!) and I had a wonderful professor, Ian Kemp, whose biography of Michael Tippett I had read prior to going. "The only thing we expect of you is that you like music" he said in his welcome to us. That was a good start.

Music for me was wonderful because on the whole I was encouraged to ask any question of it I wished. And all the questions of life are there - and I asked many of them. Indeed, my professor would often write down the questions (and answers) we came up with. Occasionally, less open teachers would try to 'close things down', but I was largely able to avoid them.

My experience of Higher Education following this was increasingly disappointing. I found that in place of openness and questioning, increasingly I found dogmatic attachment to methodologies, rigid thinking tied to insecure personalities, and increasingly the sense that the University was not somewhere where any question (the sort of questions a child might ask) could be asked. Indeed,as Alasdair MacIntyre has recently commented, in the modern university there were some questions which seem to be impossible to ask.

I was lucky because my first experience was wonderful (also free!). Only in my current role at the Institute for Educational Cybernetics have I found anything as open in University education (a role for which my first degree prepared me better than I could possibly have imagined). But for many students, their first experience of Higher Education is their only experience of higher education. They might arrive at University hoping to be bowled over by insight, but immediately find themselves steamrollered, not just by theoretical dogma and the insecurity of teachers, but by bureaucratic mechanisms - which often work hand-in-hand with dogmatic teaching. And they're paying for it! They may indeed get their degrees through jumping through the hoops - but what else do they get?

The most worrying bi-product of this experience is a cynicism about knowledge and questioning which continues the attack on curiosity and authentic being begun by schooling. I find the emergent social consequences of this frightening.

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