Wednesday’s Child: The Teaching that Students Pay For

The universities minister, Jo Johnson, criticizes the ‘lamentable’ teaching some UK undergraduates receive. He is determined to ‘drive it out’: by subjecting universities to for-profit competition, by letting weak universities go under, and by imposing on everyone another costly and destructive regulatory scheme, the threatened ‘Teaching Excellence Framework’.

Never mind that there is no empirical evidence that bad teaching is pervasive. Never mind that our leading universities compete in a global market against peer institutions that do not waste time on ‘Excellence Frameworks’. Never mind that the best teaching is expensive, and  if there are to be more contact hours, more feedback, and more Nobel laureates in smaller classrooms, someone will need to pay —if not the public, then students.  But another reporting scheme, in which first prize may be permission to raise regulated fees by no more than inflation, will make teaching worse, not better. Hundreds of millions of pounds are already wasted in a national research evaluation scheme whose benefit has never been tested, let alone demonstrated.

Of course none of this is about empirical evidence. The government is worried about optics: ‘It is not at all clear to some students what their tuition fees of £9,000 a year actually pay for…,’ says Johnson.

It varies, but at my university (of which Mr Johnson is actually a graduate) one thing tuition fees do not pay for is the cost of tuition. We subsidize that, by spending our endowment to the tune of something like £8,000 per year per undergraduate. Yet there is no scenario in which the government will allow any university to let tuition fees rise to £20,000 or £30,000 a year. (Nor, in my view, should it.)

What then are students ‘unclear about?’ The answer is obvious. It is unclear to them why they should be paying even £9,000 a year when their counterparts in excellent German or Scots universities are not. It is unclear to them whether they should be going to university at all, since the economy is not producing enough graduate-level jobs for all who graduate.

We could clarify their minds about that without yet more bureaucratic regulation:

(1) They are paying tuition fees because they (mostly, their parents) voted for political parties who think higher education should be paid for privately and not publicly. (I set aside the massive charge on the public purse that will be racked up through unpaid student loans.)

(2) Their degrees are worth less because the economic value of going to university, though still significant, is lower than it used to be.  A degree is in part a ‘positional good’. The more graduates there are, the less valuable it is to be a graduate. And as long as the austerity-cult continues to depress the economy, even the few who graduate from elite universities now compete for fewer good jobs. (I set aside the bullshit jobs created by the regulatory schemes themselves.)

But maybe I oversimplify.  Perhaps the unclarity in students’ minds is of a different kind.  Maybe they are asking, ‘What am I doing here anyway?’ or ‘What’s the point of education if it doesn’t land me a better job?’  If that is a widespread worry then it is a sign, not that university teaching is failing, but that it is succeeding.

Occupy (the right aspect of) the syllabus!

Brian Leiter comments on the mindless identity politics among the Berkeley undergrads who demanded that a course on ‘classics of social theory’ (Plato to Foucault) should mirror the social justice interests of the privileged college students who chose it:

We must dismantle the tyranny of the white male syllabus. We must demand the inclusion of women, people of color and LGBTQ* authors on our curricula.”

They ask,

‘Are your identities and the identities of people you love reflected on these syllabi? … Is it really worth it to accumulate debt for such an epistemically poor education?’

First, as Leiter notes, there is the humiliating fact that these students seem unaware that Foucault was gay.  Not to mention the interesting case of Plato.  And all those confirmed bachelors among the tyrants.  Yet the students turn lavender contemplating their own firm belief that there are no ‘LGBTQ*’ authors on the curriculum.

They have a better complaint about sexism.  It is troubling that Foucault makes the syllabus while none of Wollstonecraft, Beauvoir or Arendt do.  Choices always need to be made, but to omit all of these is a poor one.  And I also share the view that ‘classics’ of social theory might include something from the Asian philosophers.

But a question: I take it that these students, or nearly all of them, want Asian philosophers translated into English, the lingua franca of the white male corporate plutocracy that runs their state and nation? (California is the home of the US “English Only” movement.)

As far as I can see, that is how they were served their Plato and Aristotle, their Marx and Weber–and their Foucault.  Or are Sanskrit, Pali and classical Chinese now more widely read among Cal undergrads than are Greek, German or French? Somehow I doubt it.

I have a feeling that the linguistic mono-culture of most American students is utterly invisible to them. That is how hegemonic blinders work.  White students don’t see their own race; American students don’t see their own language. They want their identities to be reflected in their syllabus.  But in one of the ways  most salient to the humanities and social sciences, they already are–and not to good effect.  Of course, ‘unilingual Anglophone’ is, for most American students, not a social ‘identity’ they are aware of, let alone one they care to reflect on and, perhaps, transcend.  (Ditto, of course, for social class.)

It seems to me that a college education that leaves students–especially in the humanities– linguistically crippled is an ‘epistemically poor education’ if anything is.  (I know: ‘What ableism!!)

It gets worse.

The students’ complaint is introduced, without comment, with this backgrounder:

“This call to action was instigated by our experience last semester as students in an upper-division course on classical social theory. Grades were based primarily on multiple-choice quizzes on assigned readings.

At first, I thought OK that is a pretty good reason to ‘occupy a syllabus’.  Many American college students are racking up huge debts, and for what?  A ‘classics of social theory’ course in which the instructors’ main tool of assessment is multiple-choice quizzes? (‘Hobbes is the foundation for unbridled capitalism: (a) Yes; (b) No; (c) I couldn’t get the reading.’)

It is easy to poke fun at the narcissistic self-involvement of privileged students who think everything should be a branch of “me studies“.  In truth, thinking about one’s own identity can be a first step in thinking about others’ identities–and then  a further step up the ladder to thinking about social identity as such.  But not if you think the problem is just the poverty of the reading list, as opposed to one’s own  impoverished ability to read beyond it.