The Class Struggle
The Class Struggle
The Postmodern Postgrad Experience.
A few years ago I went back to university, after a twenty-five year absence, to do some postgraduate study. What I encountered shocked me. I don’t know whether it was just that twenty five years in the real world gives you a different perspective on universities, or that universities had in some way changed, or perhaps failed to change, but the experience was disappointing.
To explain why, we should first note a significant change in the role of education over the last couple of decades.
The western education system used to be
primarily a kind of kind of filter – a system of sieves that sorted people into
vocational ranks. If you were struggling with arithmetic and grammar in Grade 6
you would probably be shunted off to a
This all changed however in the Information Revolution of the Nineties. The technological boom of the Nineties not only produced a new generation of information technologies but a need for information about information technologies, plus a host of other social and economic developments. Globalisation, the end of the Cold War, the rise of the Asian economies, demographic shifts, new communication and medical technologies, all created a sudden and urgent need for new skills and information. Intellectual property – formerly known as knowledge - overtook agricultural produce, raw materials or manufacturing capacity as the most essential commodity in a modern world.
At this point one would have expected the universities, the very silos of knowledge, to be at the forefront of providing this new vital commodity. So how well did they respond? Let me answer by contrasting two situations that I have actually experienced.
Scenario 1. You are a busy executive who needs to be brought up to speed about some topic – digital media, commerce on the Internet, trade relations in China etc. You decide to pay $1000 for one of those one-day conferences at the Sheraton Hotel run by private training organisations. The routine is this.
You park your car in the underground car park and take the lift to the conference room where you are given a name tag, a cup of coffee and a folder that contains all the basic facts and figures that you need to have at your fingertips. You then sit in a comfortable chair while a series of speakers – experts from around the world, deliver a series of addresses which bring you up to speed on the issue. These speakers come with data projectors, reams of notes and impeccable credentials. You could not be briefed more thoroughly if you were a Minister of the Crown. At the end of each session there is a Q&A discussion where people follow up particular points of interest. At lunch you swap business cards with everyone and make a few useful contacts then it's back for the afternoon session. At the end of the day you know as much as there is to know about the issue and you have defined avenues of inquiry to pursue if your require more information. And it’s all been tax-deductible.
Scenario 2. You pay $3000 to do a part-time post grad Diploma course at a university.
You park in the street or a remote parking lot and walk through the rain to the building where you find the canteen is either closed or has nothing to eat but fossilised sausage rolls. The drinks machine is broken so you settle for a cup of watery instant coffee in a Styrofoam cup and a Kit Kat as your evening meal. You find the classroom and squeeze through a mass of clattering grey laminate tables desks and sit on a flimsy plastic chair.
The tutor eventually comes. He is
wearing a jumper. He gives you a felt pen and asks you to write your name on a
Post-It and stick it on your chest. He then apologises that he was going to give
out notes but the photocopier was broken/out of paper/Melanie the girl who knows
how to operate it had gone home early etc. Instead he suggests that the group
discuss what they hope to get out of the course. This results in a rambling
discussion, none of which is useful to you, that lasts for several weeks because
the photocopier remains out of action. Eventually, around Week 4, the tutor
hands out a document. Your hopes are raised. Perhaps this will have on it some
of the information you are looking for. But it doesn’t. It’s a reading list. Not
the actual information but a list of books that
contain the information. The thought
strikes you that, in order to draw up the reading list the tutor must have read
these books, so…. why doesn’t he just
tell us what’s in the books. Why are we playing this sick game? Why is he
forcing us to re-read what he or she has already read. Couldn’t we save a lot of
time if the tutor just gave us the relevant information? Of course, when you
reach higher levels of university, not only do we have to read books which have
already been read - we have to write a thesis which ends up as part of the
university library. And are you paid for this? No? So not only are we
paying the university for the
privilege of being allowed to read
Anyway, back in class. After a few weeks the sessions fall into a standard pattern. You arrive and sit at your wobbly desk with your watery coffee and the tutor arrives late and says:
"Right. Did anyone read the books?"
And there is silence. You listen to the distant trains.
He waits for a very long time.
"Did anyone read the notes I gave you?"
More silence. The silence of the grave. The silence of isolation tanks.
"Did anyone think about the issues?"
The silence of deep space.
Then someone starts. A solitary voice. And you think “Thank God. Someone has broken the ice. It’s happening. It's started. The interaction, the discussion, the flow of dialectic.”
But almost as soon as it begins, it turns to despair. The person speaking has completely missed the point of the topic. They don't even understand the subject. They have enrolled in the wrong unit. They drone on until you think you are going mad. When they finally finish you look at the tutor - for the first time with a sense of sympathy - wondering how he will deal with this monstrous perversion of all reason. But the tutor is nodding.
“I think that's a very good point. Would anyone like to pick up on Gavin’s point.”
Internally you are screaming. “Pick-up on Gavin’s point?” There is no point! Gavin is in the wrong group, the wrong university, possibly the wrong planet.
Surely, you think incredulously, we're not going to discuss this? Surely, the tutor will quash this here and now. But the tutor is smiling and frowning and listening, and then the full horror of the situation dawns on you. You suddenly realise the meaning of the reading list and the discussions. The tutor is expecting you to educate each other - a group of people who, by the very fact of enrolling, have admitted they don't know anything about the topic.
The whole modern ethos of education is now revealed to you. A whole generation of teachers and tutors has been indoctrinated with the idea that teaching is not about standing in front of a class and disgorging information which the group passively accepts but rather about teaching the students how to learn. The teacher is now a learning facilitator.
But I have terrible news for the modern educator. The direct transmission of knowledge from one person to another is exactly what education is about. That’s why education was invented, so each generation didn’t have to repeat all the learning processes of previous ones. The students don't want to reproduce the teacher's journey of discovery, they just want to know what he or she has discovered.
For example, consider a national leader facing a crisis.
“Mr President, the advisor is here.”
“Thanks. Show him in.”
“Good afternoon Mr President.”
“Doctor Hanson, thanks for coming. As you know Colombian guerrillas have seized 16 American hostages and are threatening to execute them unless we release Montego Lama the head of the drug syndicate. We need some answers, quickly.”
“Sure. Okay. Well first there’s a really interesting book by Levi and May called “Redefining the Hostage” which explores the whole concept of what a hostage is because, really, in a sense we’re all hostages to the Western way of thinking. There’s also a paper by Jean-Jacques Enema in the Journal of Contemporary Discourse called “Coca-Cholera: plague imagery in the rubric of the U.S. War on Drugs”. I’d send you a copy but the photocopier is not working at the moment…
A shot rings out.
The thing is, it’s not just Presidents or business people who need answers quick. It’s everyone. Women working full time and trying to raise kids while doing a postgrad course part time don’t want to be trained as “learners”, they just need the knowledge. Young people who need a certificate to get a job don’t need to learn how to be life-long-learners. We don’t want to spend all our lives learning. We want to learn as much as we can now, as fast as possible, so we can get out there and start doing things. And if we need our knowledge updated, we want it to happen quickly and efficiently.
The problem is that academics, who spend their time reading through books and journals, and who get paid for doing so, think that’s what we want to do. But we don’t. We just want to find out what they know, if anything, about the topic at hand.
So my message to the universities is this.
Please don’t waste our time. When we enrol in post-grad courses, it’s because we have a particular need. We don’t want to become academics like you. We just want the answers.
If you know the answers, just tell us. Don’t send us off to duplicate your own journey of discovery.
If you don’t know the answers, don’t cover it up by teaching us “how to learn.” We know how to learn. It’s easy. You just find someone who knows about something and ask themt. That’s why we’ve come to the university - because we thought that academics knew the answers. If you don’t know the answers please stop talking immediately and tell us where we can find someone who does.
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