Andre Jockyman Roithmann
10 May 2015
Since I was a very young boy I wanted to study History at university. I did not really know how university worked, how to get into one and I never suspected that wish of mine would take me halfway across the globe—but I dreamed about it, regardless. That is not to say I was overly enthusiastic about school, or that I always did my best out of sheer goodwill; in fact, I do not believe I have ever caught myself longing for the “good old days”. I did not enjoy school, and that is perfectly alright. I always saw school as an obligation, a means to an end, but I believe this attitude had more to do with the structure of schools than the subjects taught. Now, at the end of my third year at university, I find myself observing many around me thinking as I did back in my school years. This has led me to rethink the importance of higher education, as well as the personal importance I have attached to it.
At some level, it seems that we all work toward a particular end. The great medieval scholar, St. Thomas Aquinas, defined an action as properly human if it was the fruit of rational deliberation, and since all deliberation stemmed from an intention, it had to undeniably have some sort of end in mind. This idea Aquinas arguably took from his reading of Aristotle, who defended that all human actions were geared toward some good—but then again, Aristotle held that some people were ‘natural slaves’, and the slave’s greater good was to serve because the master ‘knew better’, so what did he know? One way or the other, this idea has been repeated time and again throughout history, referring to both individuals and societies: from the most misquoted sentence in Machiavelli’sThe Prince to Whig, Hegelian or any other teleological interpretations of human development. Messianic or pragmatic, the maxim “just a means to an end” seems also to be the mantra of western education systems.
On that powerful lecture “How schools kill creativity”, Sir Ken Robinson [pictured] laid out the basic foundations of the modern ‘linear’ approach to education. Both schools and universities, according to this model, serve a useful role in society – the word “useful” is key, not “important”, “crucial”, or “central”, but “useful”. They teach children useful skills, and allow them to specialise in useful subjects, to get useful jobs. That is the end: to get useful jobs. The flaw in the system is clear: who is to distinguish the “useful” from the “useless”? Is there such a thing as utterly useless knowledge? As Robinson states, the arts—especially theatre and dance—often bear the grunt of it, as funding for their disciplines is slashed time and again when a “back to basics” policy of austerity is in place. Physics creates engineers, which is useful enough, and so is Biology, for it creates doctors—and even History sometimes spawns a lawyer or two. But, what about the scenic arts? The scenic arts, just like all the other fine arts, are often delegated a secondary role: they are hobbies, not careers. This compulsion to stigmatise subjects at primary and higher education alike, as put in a recent article by Giles Fraser, has created a culture of seeing the arts as ‘money-making “creative-industries”’, when they are much more than that. They have the capacity to challenge our most basic assumptions, introducing questions of great depth in diverse, aesthetically engaging manners [Robinson explores this topic elsewhere too]. One of the reasons for this is our society’s compulsion to, following a philosophy of immediacy, judge the importance of an endeavour—artistic, political, scientific—solely on its face value.
However, not only the arts are in peril: the same occurs, in different ways, with Maths, History and other disciplines. On this, David Helfand’s words are of utmost importance. Commenting on the obsession with the immediacy and usefulness of learning, Helfand has identified the following trend in North American universities (but arguably elsewhere too): ‘The university of today is a fractious collection of interest groups in which customers (formerly known as students) demand high grades for their money, while researchers with large frequent-flyer accounts (formerly known as faculty) seek to minimize their teaching “loads”. Meanwhile, property developers, who were once called academic administrators, relentlessly push for institutional expansion.’ Helfand sorely noted how a student of his told him ‘we are paying for a degree, not an education’. A few years ago, Noam Chomsky identified exactly the same problem in an article entitled “Thinking like Corporations is Harming American Universities”—though he focused on the issue of an increasingly ‘servile’ faculty, underneath an ever-increasing university bureaucracy.
What is my point with all of this? My point is that we have allowed education to become an arms race, and in doing so we have ruined parts of the school and university experience. Schools, especially those of the public kind, are extremely effective democratising institutions. Within them, children learn communication and cooperation, ideally regardless of ethnicity, religion or even socio-economic class. Likewise, universities were melting pots of creative ideas—often managed by the students and faculty themselves, as was the case with some of Europe’s most ancient and influential academic institutions, Bologna [pictured] and Cambridge universities, among others. With the support of these melting pots came modern ideas of meritocracy—an idea already present, to some degree, since the mediaeval foundation of those institutions. Still, this idea too has suffered, some say almost to the point of obsolescence, due to this educational arms race.
As modern “elite” universities slowly tend toward that meaning of “elite” that denotes
“exclusive”, many have proclaimed the death of blind, innocent meritocracy. Prep-schools, summer schools (often abroad), fast-tracks into internships based on personal contacts and sheer leisure directed towards more university (or rather, application) training has virtually sabotaged it. As a result, we see the need for all sorts of affirmative-action programs all over the world, lest meritocracy becomes aristocracy (and not in the Aristotelian sense). The system is perpetuated via a simple mechanic: only top-tier jobs pay enough to allow parents to dedicate so many resources to their children; such top-tier jobs, however, are often only attained by those who have been to top-tier universities; and, the vast majority of successful applicants to “elite” universities relied on the expensive and exclusive resources listed above. It is a simple, vicious cycle. Many have already described the political, social and economic results of this cycle in detail. Pupils coming from low-income households are often discouraged from applying to such universities—that is, they see their university applications from a position of learned helplessness—and sometimes are virtually impeded from doing so: the costs associated with a place like St Andrews (both living costs and that of the “student experience”) are a prime example of such. However, the point I wanted to stress at the beginning of this article was a much more personal one: this system, I believe, has damaged my experience as a student.
We all work toward an end. Helfand categorically stated that the students he has taught have “bought into this system”. I witnessed this at high school and I witness it now at university. At high school, we were continually bombarded by talks and workshops on how to be a “successful applicant”—to the point of being forced to do voluntary service in order to “polish off” our applications, which defeats the point of charity thoroughly. I saw how artificial and anti-intellectual this system truly is. Students do not see their mates as colleagues, but potential competitors: “please don’t apply to the same place as me” was a recurring joke directed at the “brightest” students. They are not motivated by a love of learning, but the numbers on their GPAs, SATs, APs and other such acronyms. I must be clear: I do not believe the love of learning and such ambitions are mutually exclusive, but what I witnessed was a system that—roughly from the age of fifteen—failed to motivate students on the former reason, and placed disproportionate emphasis (with a pinch of scaremongering) on the latter. I often caught myself doubting and criticising this idea, finding it shallow and devoid of vision. For example, if the same amount of resources and “weekly hours” destined to school charitable activities were directed at pressuring governments on social issues, would there be such a need for charity?
That was my experience at school, and now I see it at university. Many people around me just want to leave, get a job, and “get on with it”. Many more do not really know why they are studying this or that subject other than because they “ought to” in order to get a job. Now, instead of being bombarded with test-taking techniques, we are bombarded with interview techniques, and we keep getting told that “a degree is not enough”. Academic inflation means that, to stand out in the job market, one needs experience, internships and so forth. So, what is the point of university? Sure, one can learn the basics of finance and economics here, or the “isms” of international relation and politics, but ultimately, I see a fundamental problem: universities are being used in a manner for which they were not designed. Universities flourished as centres of discussion and often dissension, not merely preparation. In the Middle Ages, when European universities started taking form, only three trades “required” a university education: theology, law and medicine. All other trades were taught through apprenticeships; instruction was as much of the guilds’ focus as was market regulation and protect
I would never defend the return of that ‘miserable guild system’, as Hegel put it; it is clearly useless in the face of a globalised capitalist system that values innovation and competition. Nonetheless, I defend a rethinking of the university’s and the school’s role in modern society. We are clearly at the brink of another technological revolution—some have called it the “internet of things”—and it should rightly put to scrutiny the use of a highly institutionalised, regimented and, frankly, teleological education system. This system and its ends have been the origin of an artificial hierarchy within academia, and has put some brilliant and creative minds off their own ambitions.
Ken Robinson’s lectures:
David Helfand’s lecture:
Giles Fraser’s article:
Noam Chomsky’s article: