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The End of the Humanities November 17, 2009

Posted by Dwight and Lynn Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, Education.
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The corporate model of education, which has been colonizing K-12 education for  years, will soon make its appearance on college campuses.

The emphasis on standardized testing, the use of top-down curricular mandates, the use of profit motives to “encourage” teacher performance, the attack on teacher unions and modes of pedagogy that stress rote learning and memorization—these are all features of education “reform” promoted over the last 20 years culminating in the disastrous No Child Left Behind Act. It is filtering into higher education in the guise of Student Learning Outcomes and other mandates required by accrediting agencies.

The movement is especially noxious in the UK. Let’s hope this version doesn’t find its way across the pond.

The Higher Education Funding Council for England has proposed new guidelines for funding research—entitled the Research Excellence Framework (REF).  One new component stipulates:

…that research must “achieve demonstrable benefits to the wider economy and society”. The guidelines make clear that “impact” does not include “intellectual influence” on the work of other scholars and does not include influence on the “content” of teaching. It has to be impact which is “outside” academia, on other “research users” (and assessment panels will now include, alongside senior academics, “a wider range of users”). Moreover, this impact must be the outcome of a university department’s own “efforts to exploit or apply the research findings”: it cannot claim credit for the ways other people may happen to have made use of those “findings”.[ …]

The document offers a “menu” of “impact indicators” that will be accepted: it runs to thirty-seven bullet points. Nearly all of these refer to “creating new businesses”, “commercialising new products or processes”, attracting “R&D investment from global business”, informing “public policy-making” or improving “public services”, improving “patient care or health outcomes”, and improving “social welfare, social cohesion or national security” (a particularly bizarre grouping). Only five of the bullet points are grouped under the heading “Cultural enrichment”.

The author of the linked article Stephan Collini writes:

Clearly, the authors of this document, struggling to give expression to the will of their political masters, are chiefly thinking of economic, medical, and policy “impacts”, and they chiefly have in mind, therefore, those scientific, medical, technological, and social scientific disciplines that are, as the quoted phrase puts it, “closer to market”.

He goes on to point out:

As the phrases quoted above make clear, the guidelines explicitly exclude the kinds of impact generally considered of most immediate relevance to work in the humanities – namely, influence on the work of other scholars and influence on the content of teaching.

Collini has a detailed critique of how this proposal essential destroys the humanities. Here is an excerpt:

An experienced cultural or social historian, working on the topic for years, might – just might – be able to identify the part played by a particular piece of academic research in long-term changes in certain social practices and attitudes, but it would require a hugely detailed study and could probably only be completed long after the event and with full access to a range of sources of different kinds. Yet every academic department in the land is going to have to attempt something like this if they are to get any credit for the “impact” of their “excellent” research.

Of course philosophy will be the casualty of such a regime as well, because the “impact” of philosophy on social attitudes is even less direct and more long-term than cultural history.

The idea that intellectual labor is only valuable if it produces useable “products” will be the death of inquiry. Genuine inquiry depends on the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake.

But I would not be surprised to hear glowing reports about the  Research Excellence Framework on a campus near you.

Stay tuned.

book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com

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