The New Spongers?

Stefan Collini in the London Review of Books Vol. 38 No. 2 · 21 January 2016
pages 33-37 reviews

Fulfilling Our Potential: Teaching Excellence, Social Mobility and Student Choice
Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, November 2015, ISBN 978 1 4741 2492 8

Collini argues that:

Much of our contemporary discourse about universities still draws on, or unwittingly presumes, [this] pattern of assumptions: the idea that the university is a partly protected space in which the search for deeper and wider understanding takes precedence over all more immediate goals; the belief that, in addition to preparing the young for future employment, the aim of developing analytical and creative human capacities is a worthwhile social purpose; the conviction that the existence of centres of disinterested inquiry and the transmission of a cultural and intellectual inheritance are self-evident public goods; and so on.

While that conception of a university and its purposes is still very much alive and may, I suspect, still be the one held by a great many ‘ordinary’ citizens, we may be nearing the point, at least in Britain, where it is starting to give way to the equivalent of MacIntyre’s barren utilitarianism. If ‘prosperity’ is the overriding value in market democracies, then universities must be repurposed as ‘engines of growth’. The value of research has then to be understood in terms of its contribution to economic innovation, and the value of teaching in terms of preparing people for particular forms of employment. There are tensions and inconsistencies within this newer conception, just as there are in the larger framework of neoliberalism: neoliberal thinking promotes ‘free competition’ in international markets, while the rhetoric of national advantage in the ‘global struggle’ often echoes mercantilist assumptions. But, gradually, what we still call universities are coming to be reshaped as centres of applied expertise and vocational training that are subordinate to a society’s ‘economic strategy’.

… It takes no great insight to foresee that a form of TEF-guff will develop in parallel to the existing REF-guff

Follow this link to the full article to read about the potential fate of the academic as ‘sponger’ (akin to the familiar stereotype of the ‘student sponger’ in the 1960s).

Collini’s review applies his critique of higher education policies previously published in What Are Universities For? (Penguin, 2012). This book prompted much debate in the weeklies. Fred Inglis gave it a positive review in the Times Higher Education whereas Peter Conrad in the Guardian gave it a scathing one, stating that the book was ‘heavy on hand-wringing and light on real answers’.


Research lab 1: what happened when we discussed an unseen text?

At last week’s HEAT Lab, I had a great opportunity to conduct a kind of ‘thought experiment’ with participants. People at the lab were asked to consider the following unattributed written piece of text and to share their responses to it:

‘The principle of organization, and the principle of development, in her work is an intense moral interest of her own in life that is in the first place a preoccupation with certain problems that life compels on her as personal ones. She is intelligent and serious enough to be able to impersonalise her moral tensions as she strives, in her art, to become more fully conscious of them, and to learn what, in the interests of life, she ought to do with them.’

Readers of this blog might like to stop at this point and repeat the experience of participants at the lab, before reading on. What are your immediate responses to the above text?

Initial responses and questions raised included the following:

  • The text is highly gendered, notably in the phrase ‘She is intelligent and serious enough …’
  • Sounds like it was written from a literary critical standpoint
  • It’s decontextualized and I prefer it when something has a context
  • The word ‘life’ is vague, is it something outside the individual?
  • The word ‘impersonalise’ sounds like it might mean something different from ‘impersonal’ in the usual sense
  • Reflexivity!

Following disclosure of the Source of the text the group was then asked to identify or discuss any connections between it and pedagogic research, specifically insider-practitioner  pedagogic research, the kind that I am particularly interested in. I think it’s fair to say that for many in the group the links were not immediately obvious, including for those used to the discourse and conventions of insider research, and the decontextualisation of the text may have made these links less obvious. That said, a number of observations were shared, including on the ways in which the notion of ‘moral tensions’ might apply to the creative process and by extension research.

The method used for the activity was based on I. A. Richard’sprotocols’ first used in his experiments with university students and staff in lecture theatres in the 1920s in Cambridge, which were a major influence on practical and ‘New’ criticism, that is, criticism focused on analysis of the text. This was also a precursor of reader-response theoretical approaches to texts that came to the fore from the 1970s on. As a student of English in the 1970s I was taught using this method and I had a mixed response to it: on the one hand it allowed for a certain amount of free play with the text, that encouraged open interpretation and creative response – ‘the Reader’s Liberation Movement’ as Eagleton (1982) has jokily referred to it; on the other, I disliked the element of elitist connoisseurship that could creep in when the method became formulaic.

Having reflected on the method and the outcomes of the activity in this instance, I went back to the text and sought to analyse it in the light of some of the themes participants and I (independently) had identified and to relate these to theoretical dimensions of pedagogic research. In other words, to read the text theoretically and pedagogically. My assumption had been that these dimensions were already signalled in the text in words such as ‘organisation … development … moral … problems … learn’. To an extent the text, as I read it in and out of context, called for if not demanded a pedagogic reading. To identify these dimensions I could, for example, have brainstormed or created a concept map or used word clouds. Instead, I chose to use Google Scholar and adopted the following search strategy

[+/- ‘text’ +/- ‘key word(s) from theme’ + ‘pedagogy’]

and then selected items, words, phrases from the results, usually within the first 20 results. Those items with (*) I added separately from my own prior reading and interests where I saw a connection with a theorist. While this is a procedure that says more about some of my own interests and ways of reading a text I also think it was a way of building on the discussion and taking it further, as well as of identifying additional potential links that we had not spotted during the lab.

Original text Themes Theoretical dimensions of pedagogic research
Principle of organization … principle of development Structure and process
  • Research paradigms, methodology
Intense moral interest Developed and highly purposive interest in one’s value systems, by inference the desire to deal with something seriously, intensely and maturely
  • Moral voices and choices
  • Moral education as pedagogy of alterity
  • Action sensitive pedagogy
Of her own Owned, arising from the individual’s grounded sense of purpose and experience, not taking over someone else’s
  • Emancipatory values
  • Social learning and cognition
In the first place Originating impulse of that sense of purpose, not post hoc
  • Models of creativity
  • Unruly, disruptive pedagogies
A preoccupation with certain problems ‘The pea in the mattress’, the specific concerns that won’t go away – although the concerns, if morally conceived, are likely to be more than merely personal if they are to amount to more than an idee fixe.
Life compels on her The moral significance of the work lies in its dealing seriously with experience considered in its historicity and facticity
  • Researching and writing the self
  • Phenomenological pedagogy
  • Nurturing ethical ideals
Intelligent and serious Cognitive skills and values are aligned, you can’t embody one without the other
  • Agency and design values
  • Enhancing performance
  • Deep learning
Intelligent and serious enough to be able She takes a serious interest and the criterion of that is that she has produced a serious work
  • Work and play
  • Ethology
  • The ludic
Impersonalise She acknowledges and remains in touch with the personal sources of her interests while transmuting these into an extra-personal work
  • Reflexivity
  • Objectivity/subjectivity
  • *Poole’s ‘deep subjectivity’
  • *Polanyi’s ‘personal knowledge’
Impersonalise her moral tensions The tensions are kept in a dynamic equilibrium, not ‘disposed of’ but used to continually creative ends
  • Emotional intelligence, standard intelligence
To become more fully conscious The growth in self-knowledge is gained through and during the ‘art’, not applied to this retrospectively or prospectively
To learn … what she ought to do with them Discover the potential purposes of the work during the actual process of its development. These purposes involve an investment of self.
Interests of life Politics of public pedagogy that aims to be intellectually, culturally and socially relevant
  • Moral sentiments and material interests

Thanks to the participants at the lab who indulged me and took part in this experiment. You were not only ‘game’ for the activity, but you also provided me with a lot of stimulus for thought both during the lab and afterwards. I’m currently working on a book about the author of this text and their relation to contemporary higher education and this has helped me clarify for myself some of these connections.

Steven Cranfield


Democratic politics and the dynamics of passions (post-Blacker)

Post the symposium and the reading group discussing David Blacker’s text I came across this article, via Allan Parson’s blog Prolepsis and Poesis. It’s taken from a presentation by Chantal Mouffe at the Second Moscow Biennial of Contemporary Art (2007):

But nihilist wisdom does not only give a phantasmagorical view of our world, featuring the entire mankind as a population of merry consumers overfilling all bins with the refuse of their frantic consumption. It also pictures the law of domination as a force that permeates any will to do anything against it. Any protest is a performance, any performance is a spectacle, any spectacle is a commodity, such is the ground thesis of this post-Marxist and post-Situationist wisdom.
Chantal Mouffe
Agonistic public spaces: Democratic politics and the Dynamics of Passions

A further perspective on the ‘apocalytic’ scenarios which we were discussing, and the possibilities of resistance and change?

Steven Cranfield

‘The (newly) imaginable disaster’: precursors of David Blacker’s thesis

In its sudden loss of confidence, its glimpse of the newly imaginable disaster, it [our civilisation] – in politicians of all parties, … the voices of the eminent wise … – talks merely of how to restore a steady rate of economic growth and a constantly rising standard of living (a matter of money to buy things with and a sure and growing supply of things to buy). It can’t really believe in the menace hanging over it; it is incapable of grasping the patent diagnostic truth, so rapid has progress been, so stupefying the effect on human life of the continuing industrial revolution, which is constantly accelerating …

No, not Susan Sontag in her 1965 essay ‘The Imagination of Disaster’ but F. R. Leavis, writing in 1975 in Thought, Words and Creativity, page 18. The above text has been rumbling through my mind as I make notes on David Blacker’s book which presents us with another take on the wholly imaginable disaster. One challenge for higher education – what role do we have in enabling the ‘eminent wise’ and others to grasp the patent diagnostic truth(s), to transcend what Leavis calls ‘the neo-Benthamite world’s spiritual philistinism’ (page 18)? Harsh and persistent ridicule? Pre-emptive ‘resilience’? Creative metaphorisation, of which Sontag’s science fiction apocalyptic tropes or more recent analogies of zombie culture are two examples?

Leavis interestingly at this period also called attention to the ominous appearance of the word ‘joblessness’ and ‘the threat of joblessness’ in public discourse at around this time, signifying an existential state in which dehumanised labour was robbed not merely of the prospect of paid employment but of its very meaning. A precursor of Blacker’s eliminationist thesis?

Steven Cranfield

Possible questions for David Blacker HEAT group

First to say I am enjoying the book so far, although needing to take it in measured doses, partly because I am reading it on a phone, and should have worked to the end shortly.

First, a broader question about the wider intellectual critique of which David’s book might be seen to situate itself. From at least the 1960s on, if not before, there has been a strong element of the critique of higher education conceived as being linked solely to economic prosperity as the summum bonum. This critique has been shared here by both the Left as well as the Right or Right-leaning, e.g. in the anxious conservatism of educationalists and cultural critics such as F. R. Leavis. By and large this critique from either perspective has had limited impact in altering the course of higher education in the UK. Where does he locate hope, if any, for the future beyond stoicism or even measured pessimism? This question may be addressed at the end of the book, but my sense from the tenor of the book so far is that hope is in short supply.

Secondly about trends. A publication is out today (November 6) in the British Journal of Sociology which looks at data on social mobility and questions the ways in which broad brush statements are made here about social mobility:

Social mobility is now a matter of greater political concern in Britain than at any time previously. However, the data available for the determination of mobility trends are less adequate today than two or three decades ago. It is widely believed in political and in media circles that social mobility is in decline. But the evidence so far available from sociological research, focused on intergenerational class mobility, is not supportive of this view. We present results based on a newly-constructed dataset covering four birth cohorts that provides improved data for the study of trends in class mobility and that also allows analyses to move from the twentieth into the twenty-first century. These results confirm that there has been no decline in mobility, whether considered in absolute or relative terms. In the case of women, there is in fact evidence of mobility increasing. However, the better quality and extended range of our data enable us to identify other ‘mobility problems’ than the supposed decline. Among the members of successive cohorts, the experience of absolute upward mobility is becoming less common and that of absolute downward mobility more common; and class-linked inequalities in relative chances of mobility and immobility appear wider than previously thought.

Bukodi E, Goldthorpe JH, Waller L, Kuha J
Department of Social Policy and Intervention, Nuffield College, Oxford. The British Journal of Sociology

David’s argument clearly touches on social mobility and its connection with life/employment chances. I wonder if as someone looking at our system here from an outsider’s perspective he has any thoughts about how to understand the kind of complex picture that seems to be emerging in this study, and its implications for higher education, at least in the UK?

Steven Cranfield

Lyotard’s ‘mercantilisation’ of knowledge’

My attention was drawn to a statement by Lyotard in the initial section : The Field: Knowledge in Computerised Societies’. …’the mercantilisation of knowledge is bound to effect the privilege the nation-states have enjoyed, and still enjoy, with respect to the production and distribution of learning. The notion that learning falls within the purview of the State … will become more and more outdated’ (page 5 of the Manchester edition’. Well, this is a prediction which we can test, and debate the evidence for and against. But is this notion outdated? I can see the implications as regards ‘digital capitalism’ for instance and the democratisation of knowledge. But I still can’t set up a Facebook site that colleagues in China will be able to access, for instance. Nation-states (or at least institutions within nation-states) are also all very much competing for students internationally. The nation-state still seems to be very much a going concern in the distribution of knowledge.