Sunday, 15 February 2015

Science, Scarcity and Education

No social or scientific revolution has not redefined what is scarce. At the heart of all science is the relation between objects, perception and discourse. Whilst scientific practice might necessitate a degree of loss of relationality in the process of what Bhaskar calls “referential detachment” of scientific laws and the objectification of scientific facts, this loss of relationality then feeds scarcity declarations about scientific achievement, truth and progress. Education systems support this process whilst remaining in the social realm where objectification is challenged by everyday life.  As a process of making nature meaningful - of creating discourses whereby the meaningfulness of nature can be codified and shared across history and across peoples – science gives individuals license to identify things that are scarce. In the process, science can be emancipatory: a powerful tool for usurping regimes of scarcity backed by elites, and replacing them them with new social orders. The business of pursuing knowledge, of revealing defensible narratives about the world challenges power relations, and in so doing leads to hope. It might not appear immediately obvious that scientific endeavour is directly related to political expression achieved through critical engagement. Critical discourse and the contest of narratives concerning the meaning of the world gives each member of a society possibilities for making their own contribution to that discourse: for asserting their own ‘status declarations’. Science and technology amount to political action. New meaningful discourses switch ecologies of communicative flow between individuals and groups. In particular, new discoveries about the materiality of the world reveal new possibilities for social coordination. The relationship with materiality, skilled performance, critique and argument produces new opportunities for acquiring new rights, responsibilities, obligations and commitments. With this comes the rise in status of individuals, commercial opportunity, and political power.

The University, as a space of deliberation, is the home of scientific endeavour. But scientific activity requires deliberation, dispute, and clashes in different paradigmatic views about the world: it does not just mean the parroting equations of mathematics and physics, or the number crunching and computer visualisation of the biotech lab. What nonsense the STEM agenda seeks to impose! Science also means the activity of artists: they too render new meaning in physical artefacts and psychological process. Most importantly, science also means the university itself: its activities, organisation, management and the market forces to which it is subject. Scientific activity means critical discourse about the laboratory: each activity contributes to the deliberative scientific endeavour. But each concern, each narrative among the many, has the power to exclude the others, because each discourse, each activity makes a declaration of scarcity of its territory. Narratives which carry risks of ecological imbalance include:
  • The narrative of the University as an Instrument for granting social status
  • The narrative of the University as specialist in a domain
  • The narrative of the University as a business
  • The narrative of the University as a Training provider
  • The narrative of the University as Innovation Factory
  • The narrative of the University as an Employment Service
  • The narrative of the University as Monastery

Whilst providing a home for critical science, Universities risk driving a wedge between themselves and the society in which they serve by failing to ensure that they represent the plurality of intellectual inquiry. This is most telling in management. When a manager says “We are a business! We have to make money!”, the declaration of the scarcity of the viability of the institution is invoked in an unhealthy relationship with other competing narratives. The “university as a business” is a functionalist meta-narrative governing the other activities of the University. Its principal criterion for success is income, good student satisfaction and strong performance in international league tables for research and teaching. Soon, even the artists - who should have most to say in protest to the business ethic - are finding themselves having to work on making their students 'employable' (another scarcity declaration). The University as a Business conforms to and confirms the scarcity declarations produced by informational measures dictated by government. Typically, the institutions which do best are those which are most closely connected to government. Declarations of scarcity in this way become declarations of the uniqueness and value of those who attend these institutions. Aggressive pursuit of the University as Business rhetoric will produce an institutional monoculture fundamentally destroy the conditions within which knowledge grows.

But it is not just the "university as a business" rhetoric which is the problem (although it is the biggest problem). The University as a specialist institute declares the scarcity of the domain within which it sits. One only has to look at where such institutions declare failure. The specialist art college determines what does and doesn’t count as art (as indeed do art galleries, concert halls and so on). The specialist technical university declares what does and doesn’t count as a innovation. The specialist medical institution declares what does and doesn’t count in medicine. Then there are peculiar alliances between the different declarations of scarcity. Yet the overriding narrative which currently subsumes the others is the ‘University as a Business’. The challenge is to find a way in which none of the above competing rhetorics is able to establish itself to the detriment of the others. How would managers know when things are out of balance? What might they do about it? How might educational managers judge if they are doing a good job? The criteria for ‘good educational management’ currently are vague and feed on many of the ‘deadly sins’ to which the University is prone. Measurement, or rather mis-measurement and the pursuit of a single (business oriented) narrative is a dangerous strategy not just for the institution, but for society. 

The reasons which drive the wedge between education and society are economic: educational institutions must maintain their separation so as to feed the scarcity of their activities and to maintain their price: the more the separation between themselves and society, the greater the value that is accorded to the university.  But the economic model upon which the university sits is broken. 

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