Another portrait of decline

It’s hard not to believe there is some deep unease in Australian universities when two books come along at once; after Donald Meyers’ Australian Universities: a Portrait of Decline comes Richard Hil’s Whackademia, or rather WHACKADEMIA, as the cover has it.

Unlike Meyers, Hil managed to get his book published by a University press (the University of New South Wales). As a result, it is better copy-edited; but I really felt the lack of an index.

Meyers was an engineer, Hil a sociologist. I’m afraid that in my experience social scientists don’t write as clearly as scientists and engineers, and this is an example. He quotes various surveys, but gives no precise reference, and only an impressionistic sketch of what the surveys actually found. (From something he says elsewhere I gather he doesn’t like numbers and graphs.) He uses expressions like “She sheeted this home to internet technology”, unknown to me and not in my dictionary. The typographic game with the book title reminds me of the kind of marketing gimmick he castigates universities for.

I lost count of the number of times he used “neo-liberal” as a rude word. He could have examined the interesting question why a neo-liberal ideology, based on freedom of the market, has instituted such rigid central control in universities. But he did not. You have to go to Donald Meyers for that.

In addition, the case was wildly overstated in places. He says,

… critics often embody aspects of the system they deride …

and

… complaints are important ways of informing and achieving change, but if such articulations are too wild and woolly they can be easily disparaged by the powerful.

But he doesn’t apply these thoughts to his own writing.

Most upsetting to me is his comments on an opinion piece by Professor Steven Schwartz. Hil is largely approving of Schwartz’s opinions, such as “I don’t want to teach students what to think. I want to teach them how to think”, but comments patronisingly,

Personally, I think the brave professor should be commended, or perhaps given an award for his outspokenness – even though I think he is articulating what amounts to a rather conservative view of liberal arts education grounded in abstract, de-contextualised ideas.

Surely even social scientists are aware that, on this side of the academy, we do indeed teach abstract, de-contextualised ideas? He should go away and read Alan Sokal’s opinion; Alan expresses it so well that I don’t need to.

All this is a pity, because Hil has some telling stories to relate, especially concerning the way academic decisions are being made by administrators, and the nonsense of research assessment (though I don’t agree with damning peer review equally with bibliometrics).

The real strength of Hil’s book is, as John Bamberg said, the large number of quotes from academics (unfortunately mostly unattributed). They describe a climate of fear where Gestapo-like teaching and learning committees or “quality” audits force courses into an institutionally-approved straitjacket and keeping academics so busy filling in forms that they cannot make any effective protest. Fair enough, if a little over-the-top.

The book did make me think back to my time as a student. There were no “graduate attributes” then! I did spend some time studying, and some time drinking; I did have part-time jobs, but only in the vacation; I was in the athletics club; I played in a pop group; I protested about police powers; I sat up late drinking coffee, listening to music, and putting the world’s problems to rights; and I rediscovered reading, which I had more-or-less given up at school. Of course these things were connected in various ways. For example, I was secretary of the athletics club for a year. Some of the secretarial work (including publishing the club’s Newsletter) involved me spending time in the Sports Union offices, where one of the secretaries, Gaby Chicoteau, a part-time student, was selling off a big parcel of books from a course she had taken, including such classics as Richard Hoggart’s “The Uses of Literacy”, David Piper’s “Enjoying Paintings”, and Aldous Huxley’s “The Doors of Perception”. A liberal arts education, right there!

So I have no idea whether what I got from entirely outside the formal curriculum would count as “graduate attributes”. Perhaps they would, but certainly no academics had to waste their time on committees justifying how their lectures on functional analysis or Galois theory developed “graduate attributes”. It’s just what students did, in those golden days before students became customers in the education mall.

And a final note. Hil quotes Frank Larkins, emeritus professor at Melbourne who wrote a report on discipline diversity in university research grants for the L. H. Martin Institute. The name rang a bell: I ran against Frank Larkins in the 1966 Inter-Varsity athletics in Perth. Could it be the same person? Google revealed that Frank Larkins did indeed have a full blue for athletics from the University of Melbourne, where he was a student in 1966.

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About Peter Cameron

I count all the things that need to be counted.
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