Joanna Williams

Is there anything worth celebrating in higher education today?

In the UK, higher education often seems to hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons. Universities stand accused of allowing students to be radicalised into terrorism; failing to produce graduates ready for employment; failing to provide students with a satisfactory learning experience; and harbouring a sexist ‘lad culture’. Meanwhile public discussion focuses less upon what a university should be for and more upon how much it should cost and who exactly should pay for it. An obsession with price has replaced discussing the value of higher education.

The idea of the ‘student as consumer’ is derided by academics and commentators alike but it can seem as if there are few intellectually inspiring visions of higher education on offer to young people today. To celebrate higher education we need to move beyond mundane ‘skills for employability’ and to stop drawing a trivial financial equivalence between tuition fees and posh cups of coffee. Rather than focusing upon student satisfaction and the customer experience, universities need to promote the knowledge, ideas and understanding that only they can provide.

For Cardinal Newman, author of the seminal The Idea of a University (1852), the pursuit of knowledge needed no justification. He argued that ‘Knowledge is capable of being its own end. Such is the constitution of the human mind, that any kind of knowledge, if it be really such, is its own reward’ (1959, 96). This notion of liberal education continued into the twentieth century when Matthew Arnold similarly claimed that ‘The ideal of a general, liberal training is to carry us to a knowledge of ourselves and the world.’ He continued, ‘The circle of knowledge comprehends both and we should all have some notion, at any rate of the whole circle of knowledge’ (1904, 399).

The notion of ‘knowledge of ourselves and the world’ spoke to the idea that universities played a special role in preserving and transmitting society’s accumulated collective knowledge and understanding of the world for future generations. Writing after the Second World War, Hannah Arendt returned to this idea and argued it is because children are born ‘into an already existing world’ that educators have a specific responsibility to pass on society’s knowledge ‘even though they may, secretly or openly, wish it were other than it is’ (1954, 185–86). The philosopher Michael Oakeshott similarly described education as a transaction between the generations through which young people are initiated into the world they will inhabit.

During the second half of the twentieth century, the idea that knowledge was ideologically and politically neutral and capable simply of ‘being its own end’ was increasingly called into question from within and outside of universities. Theorists associated with the Frankfurt School who were, in turn, influenced by the works of Gramsci and Marx, provided a welcome challenge to the contemporary orthodoxy of positivism. Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, writing in Dialectic of Enlightenment, focused upon the role of culture within a totalising system such as capitalism, ‘Each single manifestation of the culture industry inescapably reproduces human beings as what the whole has made them’ (2002, 100). They were critical of ‘high’ culture which they argued universalised the ideology of the ruling class. However, their primary focus was ‘mass’ culture, especially film and popular media, which they perceived as crucial in making the working class willing accomplices in their own exploitation. Although written in the interwar years, this critique of culture as ideology later found favour with an academy seeking to explain the barbarism of the Second World War.

The concept of truth, and in particular a connection between knowledge and truth, also began to be called into question. Foucault argued that ideology ‘always stands in virtual opposition to something else which is supposed to count as truth’ and that the ‘effects of truth are produced within discourses which in themselves are neither true nor false’ (1972, 118). When culture is considered reducible to ideology, and truth constructed through discourse, then the argument that more, or better, knowledge is needed for people to make sense of the world and engage critically with its contents loses out to a view that impartiality, objectivity and rationality need to be treated with suspicion.

This equation of culture, and later knowledge, with ideology was used to draw attention to the role of education in transmitting a dominant ideology from one generation to the next. Basil Bernstein notes that Durkheim and Marx showed the structure of knowledge to reveal ‘both the distribution of power and the principles of social control’ (1971, 48). Michael Young similarly asked, ‘Are we then reluctant to accept that academic curricula and the forms of assessment associated with them are sociological inventions to be explained like men’s other inventions, mechanical and sociological?’ (1971, 41).

Teaching knowledge, particularly in the form of high culture, came to be seen as imposing a particular hegemonic perspective in order to further the interests of a social elite. Bourdieu and Passeron argued, ‘All pedagogic action (PA) is, objectively, symbolic violence in so far as it is the imposition of a cultural arbitrary by an arbitrary power’ (1977, 5). In the UK, Terry Eagleton similarly argued the teaching of culture served as ‘a vital instrument’ for the ‘deeper entrenchment and wider dissemination’ of certain social values (2008, 16).

The challenge to both curriculum and canon gathered speed throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s. It moved from universities to schools and back into higher education once more, prompting significant debates about what should be taught and why. Discussion coalesced around the notion that teaching high culture has little merit beyond an opportunity to expose the ways in which hegemonic values are given the appearance of universality. Curriculum content has come to be determined less on the intrinsic merit of the knowledge to be covered than on the perspectives it represents. By this argument, classic texts, especially those written by dead white men, have less to offer students than works by people previously underrepresented within the academy. Students are not so much encouraged to take ownership of an intellectual birthright and to make it anew for their own generation as they are asked to reject the past in favour of an ever-present focus on identity.

Throughout the time this debate has taken place within the academy, successive national government policies have also chipped away at the relationship between universities and knowledge. In 1950, the University Grants Committee’s A Note on Technology in Universities focused upon the need for higher education to be harnessed to the development of technology in order to ensure Britain’s continued standing on the world stage. In 1963, British Prime Minister-elect Harold Wilson made a speech hailing the age of the ‘white heat of technology’ and in the same year, Robbins argued for educational expansion as a means of capitalising upon the scientific advance he expected to have a direct impact upon the national economy. In the 1970s, the Conservative government’s Higher Education; Meeting the Challenge emphasised the role of universities in supplying graduates for industry.

By 1997, Dearing’s National Committee of Inquiry into Higher Education was able to suggest a shift away from knowledge as an aim of HE towards more explicitly individual and instrumental ends: the role of universities was to serve the needs of the economy rather than the economy responding to the impetus of new knowledge. Dearing was explicit in arguing that government and universities must ‘encourage the student to see him/herself as an investor in receipt of a service, and to seek, as an investor, value for money and a good return from the investment’ (chap. 22, para. 19). The Labour government explicitly linked higher education to social inclusion and social mobility. By the time of the Browne Review (2010) the idea of higher education as an individual investment in a student’s future earnings had firmly taken root.

Today, higher education has moved so far from any sense of the importance of knowledge for its own sake that the concept of an intergenerational transaction is discussed not in relation to the passing on of an intellectual inheritance, but rather as a crude financial arrangement whereby the pension savings of the baby boomers can be used to cut tuition fees for tomorrow’s students. There is little to inspire or celebrate in students being encouraged to pick up a few transferable employability skills while imbibing a cynicism towards the very idea of anything being particularly worth knowing.

The assumption, particularly prevalent within the humanities disciplines, that there is no truth and that only difference can be acknowledged, denies students access to the powerful knowledge they need to argue for some ideas to win out over others; instead, they are left with only ‘voice discourses’ which reduce knowledge to experience. As Young notes: ‘The practical and political implications of such a rejection of all knowledge claims is that voice discourses are self-defeating. They deny to the subordinate groups, with whom they claim to identify, the possibility that any knowledge could be a resource for overcoming their subordination’ (2008, 5).

A celebration of higher education must begin with a celebration of knowledge. We need to reclaim the idea that some things are worth knowing and reinvigorate the act of passing judgement. This does not mean uncritically imparting a canon set in stone, or that academics and students should be crushed under a weight of tradition. Teaching in higher education is not about preserving the status quo through transmitting an unchallengeable body of knowledge that transcends generations. Knowledge can be explored in relation to its social, political, historical and cultural origins; it can be mastered, engaged with, questioned and challenged. But this does require starting from the view that culture has more to offer than just the ideological perspective of its creator. It means accepting that although truth claims must always be contestable, it is the aspiration towards truth that makes knowledge meaningful and criticism possible.

It is worth remembering that artists, writers and composers have rarely worked directly as agents of the state; their primary intention was not to promote a hegemonic position but to produce a work of art. Likewise, students as consumers of culture are not so shallow as to imbibe uncritically, in fact, criticism is all the more successful when it is made from a position of knowledge. A liberal humanist approach to higher education is not about inculcating students into the dominant ideology so much as a demand that ‘teaching is viewed as an open exploration of texts and ideas without a predetermined outcome. The aim is to teach students how to think rather than what to think’ (Good 2001, 16). This assumes people are more than mere syphons of the dominant ideology and that culture is about more than just a crude attempt at masking and repackaging power relations. It makes higher education worth celebrating.


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Young, M. F. D. (2008). Bringing Knowledge Back In: From Social Constructivism to Social Realism in the Sociology of Education. London: Routledge.