Open to Question – Academic value

Scholars or customers? That is the question o2q poses in an article by Peter Dockwrey in the Aug. issue of this  broadsheet. [This of course implies that there is something wrong in being a customer but we will get to that later. ]

We want to preamble our remarks below by saying that we applaud the writer for taking a critical look at the question of academic value. All of us who pay for an education (and/or contribute tax dollars) want  to know whether we are getting value for that investment.

The main point of the article is that learning is being devalued by our  academic institutions although the author takes a while getting there.  He first complains of what he sees as the cause of the problem  – privatisation.

He refers to an Acadia ad for an assistant professor which says the university  “ supports and EXPECTS faculty members to explore the use of information technology in teaching”. About this he says:

Deconstructing  this seemingly innocuous condition we may take it to mean ‘teachers unwilling to hawk IT hardware and software to students NEED NOT APPLY’ …. anyone like myself who has taught history, philosophy and politics for thirty years can see that while computers are curious and useful tools in the classroom the notion that they should be mandatory there is frankly transparent balderdash.”

This interpretation of the ad is purely his of course but we can certainly agree that good teaching is of higher priority than showy IT and we do think Acadia has been taken in by its own IT hype. He goes on.

Acadia is scarcely alone among public trusts being stealthily privatized… the levy of a compulsory monopolised rent of a computer … is the first baby step toward the manufacture of the student body’s  consent, internalizing the ideology that learning and scholarship are  properly commoditized, that wisdom itself has a cash value.” [emph. ours]

Again we can agree with part of this – students are being cheated and a monopoly is loathsome to the market. This is hardly what we would call  ‘privatisation’. But we let him continue.

The writer follows with an anecdote about a student with low grades parlaying his credits into a transfer to another institution which will  honor some of his credentials and where he will get another chance to  graduate and expunge his poor record.

“In  order brazenly to exploit him they were happy to devalue their own degrees somewhat. But they could not grant him all his wishes. Since it was credentials they were trading in on the open market they couldn’t quite debase that coinage to the point where it was seen to be  scandalously worthless dross.”

We are to get the impression that this leniency is the result of a new “corporate” attitude toward learning. But we ask- Is this any different than a grade x teacher passing a student into grade y even though his reading/math or other skills remain at a grade f level, or
graduating a student from grade 12 who then needs a tailor made English class to bring him up to University entrance level?  For more years than we can count our educational system has been cheating students out of learning by being too kind. This pre-dates the recent business partnerships in schools. It is one of the tentacles of a culture which has us by the throat.

Dockwrey ends with :

I relish the irony that he [the student] genuinely thought his was an ‘academic’ question. And it is the universities we have to thank for bringing us to this Orwellian linguistic pass. ADVANTAGE ACADIA! Sounds like a tennis umpire’s call.

We were taught that one should always wrap up with a nice concluding sentence- we would suggest this one which came earlier in the piece.

…it is becoming increasingly obscure what it is the modern university actually does apart from abetting the reproduction of the capitalist class [!] by credentialing its sons and daughters.

This surely is the guts of his complaint and again we can partially agree. But first let us deal with that “capitalist class” bit. The student body (including overseas students)  may
be made up largely of the off spring of the elite but who is the elite? They may be sons of doctors (Govt. paid), teachers (Govt. paid.), Ministers of Government, Civil servants, mayors, and a slew of other professionals, including University professors, dependent on
Government (i.e. taxpayer) funding. Who are the capitalists? Not too many Irvings. But there are farmers, shopkeepers, lawyers (some of whom work for Government or even the NDP), accountants (some of whom work for Government), architects ( some of whom work for Govt.) artists, etc. Should we include managers who are dependent on a big business,
like say Michelin or Wal-Mart? Our point is that there is a power elite but it is not particularly a capitalist one, on the contrary it is an elite increasingly dependent on Government favour.

So what do we agree with? We agree that Universities- and our schools- have largely forgotten their purpose, the reason we the taxpayers originally agreed to subsidise them and their empires. Their highest loyalty should be to the student and his/her learning. Anything that interferes with it is not to be encouraged. Our education system is, to put it in [ahem] business terms, having quality control problems with their products. Why this shortcoming at Acadia and other universities- institutions still largely funded by Government- should be blamed on capitalism in general is beyond us. [Some of their financial straits could be solved by firing a few people who are underworked and
overpaid but who can’t be dismissed because the University has boxed itself in with very un-businesslike structures.]

Let us add that while the value of being a true scholar is beyond money it is not necessarily wrong to be a customer, but it is certainly not wise to be a gullible customer. Perhaps that is why Acadia’s enrolment is down.

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