Something to Be Good At

Academia has always had a somewhat flickering public image. When they are not denounced for indoctrinating their students into a life of corporate servitude, universities are  chided for failing to provide their students with “employable” “real-world” skills. While this might seem immediately unfair, I think academics themselves must take some of the blame. After all, they are prone to overselling both their emancipatory function and their practical relevance. When they underperform in their effort to foster critical thinking in their students, they are hoisted on one petard, and when they underperform in their efforts to produce competent members of the 21st-century workforce, they are hoisted on the other. In both cases, critics use the university’s own ideological language against it. Perhaps it is time that we cultivated a different idea of ourselves?

I’ve been thinking about this over the past few days, stimulated by a seminar at the University of Roskilde about “the textbook of the future” and a Twitter exchange with Julia Molinari, Lesley Gourlay, and Norm Friesen. At the seminar I was struck by the difficulty we had in agreeing on what textbooks and “teaching materials” in general actually are. This, it seems to me, can be traced to a deeper ambiguity about what such hallmarks of higher education as the classroom and the dissertation are. We seem to have lost our clarity about the purpose, not just of higher education as such, but even of the most iconic components of it. The source of confusion, it now seems clear to me, is the proliferation of “media” and their somewhat unreflective (and overenthusiastic) introduction into educational contexts. We sometimes seem more eager to acquire a shiny new technology than to understand what it can do for us.

I had a sort of epiphany during Nina Bonderup Dohn’s presentation at the seminar on the “hybrid spaces” that teaching materials are used in. She pointed out that our students are not far from their smart phones, that they coordinate their offline activities online and their online activities offline. We can’t, she suggested, ignore the media-saturated nature of their everyday experience when teaching them, since they bring it with them into their classroom. Indeed, one student at the seminar suggested that the ideal textbook would be a podcast you could listen to while doing the dishes. (She found reading exhausting at times.) She was turning the kitchen sink into a hybrid space of learning, we might say.

Related to this, I’ve also long been concerned about the slide from knowledge to “information” and truth to “competence” as educational values. In the Q&A, I pointed out that perhaps something important was lost when we began to construe learning, not as internalizing a body of known truths, but as cultivating something we call “information literacy”. It’s worth remembering that this term was coined by Information Industry Association in 1974 and quickly adopted by libraries, who now no longer see themselves as repositories of finished knowledge products but as access points for information processes and, indeed, data streams. Lesley Gourlay cites Friedrich Kittler’s work, which argues that, by embracing computers, the university succeeded in again becoming a “complete media system”. I’m inclined to agree with him on this point, though I think I look at the situation with somewhat greater concern.

Norm Friesen’s work, which I’ve only just begun to read, in any case offers an important challenge to this enthusiasm for new media. He makes us consider the possibility that lectures and textbooks (and, I would hope, libraries) are not incidental features of the modern university, soon to be eroded by the incursion of new and better media. He points out that things like classrooms and books are much more stable features of literate cultures than we’re sometimes led to believe.

In the Sumerian example, with a relatively “non-restricted literacy” and writing systems and practices indisputably sui generis (vis a vis Western models) literacy instruction began early in life, and continued through many successive steps. In this context, what can be called “school” –an isolated and artificial environment for structured activity also isolated from immediate application– does not appear as a confounding variable. Instead, it seems to constitute a necessary precondition –one that has arisen independently in civilizations across millennia (e.g.; Mayan ca,. 300 BCE; Chinese, ca 1500 BCE)– enabling a socially indispensable, multi-functional and multi- dimensional set of abilities to be reproduced over generations. (Friesen 2014)

(Gourlay is probably right to suspect our fetishism of “rupture” for missing this.) When people talk about doing away with lectures and textbooks, they’re not proposing just to get through another passing fad. They’re proposing to bring thousands of years of tradition to an end. Indeed, I would say they’re proposing to bring to and end the sense of “tradition” that T. S. Eliot talked about: the present moment of the past, in which “all ages are contemporaneous” because, before you can learn something new you have learn what the last four or five millennia of human civilization have taught us.

That’s what schools are for. Not to open new ground (which we can leave to our scientists and our artists) but to preserve the learning of the past. So perhaps, then, being good at reading a book, writing an essay, listening to a lecture, and engaging in debate with peers, is not just an old-fashioned “brick and mortar” fantasy of the university as a structured space for learning. Perhaps it’s a durable competence — indeed, so durable that the word “competence” doesn’t quite do it justice and a word like “truth” would do better — that we should be making every effort to conserve, not erode. Perhaps there is some value in being “good at going to school” and perhaps this value is more or less the value of literacy as such — a “socially indispensable, multi-functional and multi- dimensional set of abilities,” as Friesen puts it. There are lots of other things that are perfectly valuable, many more things that you can choose to be good at if you don’t like school. But I think we have to stop asking schools to justify their value in so-called “real-world” terms. What is more real than the ability to read and and write? Why should some people in our culture not be good “merely” at knowing things?

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