The Future University (post II)

Chapter notes (II)

Wheelan’s stance is that universities are sites where social justice should be furthered but that social stratification (drawing on the work of Martin Trow) means that this aim gets frustrated.

She also draws on Durkheim in arguing that universities should be sites of esoteric knowledge, aka known as abstract and theoretical knowledge. This is not the same as profane knowledge, which is practical. It is esoteric knowledge that provides a “discursive space for the unthinkable” (p. 41). She goes on to claim that success comes to those who have access to such knowledge, and, quoting Bernstein, that those who have access “will become aware that the mystery of discourse is not order, but disorder, incoherence, the possibility of the unthinkable” (ibid).

The purpose of a a universal system of education – hence the name ‘University’ – is to “prepare the whole population for rapid social and technological change” (p.42). This is not the same as the purpose of an elite education which is aimed at preparing a minority who will remain in minority circles; a universal system of education is also different to mass education whose purpose is to transmit knowledge on technical and economic issues so that leaders can do their jobs (this kind of mass education is what is also referred to as ‘vocational’).

Quoting from the Australian Department of Education Science and Training which claims the the mission of a liberal univeristy is to ‘develop generic skills and knowledge’, Wheelan responds (p.46):

The emphasis on generic skills, graduate attributes and employability skills at the heart of curriculum in higher education reflects the purpose of curriculum, which is to ensure students have appropriate dispositions and attributes for the labour market. Rather than participating in collective representations that make and re-make society, neoliberal visions of education privatise and commodify knowledge so that it is bought and sold in the credentials market as individuals make decisions to invest in their human capital, and employers to purchase their human capital.

She concludes her chapter by arguing that we need a ‘theory of knowledge’ to account for the purpose of University and to inform our curriculum designs. Having a theory of universal access and of student choice makes no sense unless we also have a theory of knowledge to guide students in their decisions. This theory of knowledge should be one that allows students to participate in debates and controversies in both their fields and in society. It should not be a theory of knowledge to enable them to do a specific job.

The first modern Chinese university is very recent, having been founded in 1895 and based on medieval European models. The authors argue that for this reason, the Chinese university shares many of the values of the west but is weak in two aspects: knowledge creation and rationality (p. 53) having defined its identity around normative aims such as the promotion of values set by the cultural elites.

After 1949, private Christian universities were replaced by Univeristies based around the Soviet model in which research was separated from the activities of the university per se. Widening participation after 1999 meant that the idea of the university had to be re-thought once again as it tried to balance expansion with quality (cf excellence vs equity referred to in the previous post).

Since then, the “idea of university in China has been neglected and marginalised in a series of performivity (Lyotard) excercises and the audit culture” (p. 55). There is hope, though, on p.57, because although

[a]ccountability and performivity have exerted considerable influence and even constraints on universities, […] institutional leaders can be brave in developing a public discourse as to what university should be responsible for. To engage openly with the public is a preliminary form of enactment of the idea of the university.

[my bold]


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