Tuesday 3 July 2012

The Institution of Education

Institutions everywhere are in crisis: banks, newspapers, political institutions, legal institutions, religious institutions, health institutions... and educational institutions. Beneath all the complexities of each crisis, there seems to be a common thread: the erosion of public trust. We expect our institutions to perform a safe-guarding function for fundamental aspects of our social life: institutions are 'safe'. Banks safeguard our money; the press safeguards our freedom of speech; political institutions safeguard our human rights; legal institutions safeguard justice; religious institutions safeguard morality; health institutions safeguard our right to life; educational institutions safeguard our right to think and to develop our minds, whilst also being a vehicle for accessing employment. The most corrosive thing that can happen to an institution is for the thing that it is meant to safeguard to be seen explicitly to be threatened by the form and function of that institution.

This is what is being seen in the banks at the moment. But what I am interested in is the institution of education, and how the institution of education's role in safeguarding our right to think and develop our minds is increasingly being seen to be under threat by the conduct of the institution itself. What is the nature of the threat? It lies in the various pathologies of education, which in turn are connected to pathologies in science, and in pathologies of all the other institutions: the pathology of education is inseparable from the pathology of politics, or health, or the banks, or newspapers, or the courts or the church.

Freedom of thought is not as easy as it might seem. Received 'wisdom' quickly establishes its own hegemony supported by publishers, scientific communities, the media, and government funding councils. Step outside received wisdom at your peril as an academic: the case of Professor Andrew Wakefield, who raised the question of the link between MMR and autism, is a salutory lesson for any scientist. Skeptics are no longer called skeptics, but deniers. Wiser scientific minds value skeptics (James Lovelock has recently praised the climate change skeptics for keeping climate scientists on their toes and causing a continual self critique and reevaluation). This is very important, but in the highly charged academic environment, it is very difficult.

Often the problems are political. Health cases, like Wakefield's, are a classic case. Into this category also go the HIV/AIDS causal link skeptics (which got Thabo Mbeki into such trouble!). Yet there are important questions to answer there too (what if the conspiracy theorists were right - what sort of collapse in the institution of health would follow a revelation that it was antiretroviral drugs that caused people to die??). But irrespective of politics, little medical research goes without funding from major drugs companies. Walk around any major teaching hospital today, and you will see units funded by Glaxo, AstraZeneca, Pfizer, etc. Surely the consequences of this are obvious? And then we should ask how the drug companies relate to the food companies - to agriculture reseach, GM and so on. So we have to start thinking about things like statins and their relationship to increased fructose in diets (see http://people.csail.mit.edu/seneff/why_statins_dont_really_work.html). Scary stuff.

Then there is the pathology of publishers, who themselves are increasingly wanting to turn education to their own purposes. It's not just with the technologies of journal submission systems which increasingly box-in knowledge into categories that it doesn't fit, or the locking-away of research, or their crucial role in the establishment of academic reputations, but the increasing influence that they have on the very fabric of academic institutions. Government research funding is directly linked to the judgments and behaviour of publishers. Once again, it becomes difficult if not impossible to step outside the system. Increasingly a post in an academic institution - in effect, the right to teach and pass on ones' knowledge - is dependent upon this unholy alliance of judgments and mechanisms.

And related to the publishers, also wanting to get in on the education act, are the global technology companies. Apple has been most active in promoting its e-book standard (actually it's not a standard - it's Apple's deliberate 'breaking' of the EPUB standard (which is a standard), to hook institutions into buying their content through the Apple AppStore). Google's offering of an educational app-suite is a similarly sneaky way of trying to lock-in learners. Banks too, despite the public ire, know that student finances are big business and will be lobbying hard to take it on. With financial institutions and technology companies getting into the mix, it seems to me naive to suppose that there won't be some impact on what actually goes on during learning.

But the institution of education is full of people wanting to keep their jobs. That's always the root of institutional pathology. Self-interest narrows the vision, clouds the judgment and before long the purpose of the institution has been forgotten. In whose interests is this? To what purpose does it serve?

These are the questions which need to be addressed. If the purpose is to safeguard important things, and we see that our institutions are now incapable of safeguarding those things, what should we do? I think there are two questions that should be directed at the institution of education. They are:

  1. "How should we safeguard our right to think and develop our minds?"
  2. "How should we safeguard fair access to employment?"
These I believe are separable issues (although not separate). 1. concerns research; 2. concerns teaching and assessment. They are linked because research is employment, and therefore it requires some means of providing fair access to it. Both issues have become corrupted by institutional pathologies. 

To deal with 1, I think we need an environment for doing a 'commonsense science'. This is a science which is participatory, diverse and (fundamentally) mixed-ability. It puts as much emphasis on teaching as it does thinking. But the hope is that by being participatory, a critical pursuit of knowledge will be uncorrupted by vested interests of publishers, funders, technology companies, etc. I shall expand on this more in later posts.

To deal with 2, I think we need to consider the role of risk production in learning and assessment, and design teaching and assessment programmes such that learners do not bear undue risks. Assessment criteria should be transparent and available for inspection before a decision to study is taken. Institutions make money (and learners often feel duped) because of a lack of transparency of what is expected. Once more, I will elaborate on this later.

But in summary, we need to rethink what our institutions do and how they do it. We need to address the desire for institutional employees to keep their jobs. But the safeguarding function of institutions does not imply preservation and stasis. Like tradition, safeguarding must be alive, innovative and responsive. Perhaps more than anything, we need a science to understand the interlinked roles of our institutions in allowing spaces to think, resources to be managed, health to be maintained, quality of life to be improved, freedoms to be upheld. I suspect this science will need to focus on the relationship between our knowledge of the physical world and knowledge of the information environment within which we all swim.

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