by Jan McArthur,
Centre for Higher Education Research and Evaluation, Centre for Social Justice and Wellbeing in Education, Dept. of Educational Research, Lancaster University
What is really ‘higher’ about Higher Education? At a time in which the nature and purposes of higher education, including the place of the humanities, feel under threat from increased marketization and commersialisation we must be able to answer this question robustly if we are to offer a genuine alternative to these current trends. We cannot simply look back to some mythical golden age, as this perpetuates the problem by denying the reality of higher education’s long history of fostering elites and maintaining privileges. Nor can we simply assert that the academy is where new knowledge is developed, in a spirit of free academic enquiry. The academy has no monopoly on knowledge.
What I would suggest, however, is that higher education can offer a special home to knowledge, and in doing so contribute to greater social justice throughout society as a whole. Theodor Adorno, an often misunderstood critical theorist, reminds us of the dilemma of trying to achieve greater social justice from within a society that is itself unjust. We cannot underestimate the resilience, tenacity and ubiquity of the status-quo, the mainstream and the taken-for-granted. Inspired by the nuanced and multi-faceted ways in which Adorno seeks to make sense of the social world, and to find opportunities for greater justice within it, I suggest that higher education needs to be understood as a space that is both intrinsically located within the social world and yet able to provoke moments of escape from the status-quo. This can be achieved via the nature and ways in which we engage with knowledge.
I suggest three broad features that should characterise the engagement with knowledge in higher education, in line with a commitment to greater social justice. Firstly, the knowledge that we learn, research, critique or generate in higher education should be not easily known. Again, higher education is not the only social sphere in which complex knowledge is engaged with, and yet it must be a criterion for higher education that the knowledge that we engage with is complex, contested and dynamic. Such characteristics should be evident in every level of higher education activity, from first year undergraduate classrooms and onwards. Secondly, the ways in which we engage with this knowledge should reflect these characteristics. Thus at no level within higher education should engagement be passive, static, or uncritical. Thus I suggest we engage with knowledge as if a palimpsest upon which the marks of our engagement – the imperfect ideas, the questioning, the false starts – are also evident. We must not enculturate students at first year into a reified relationship with knowledge and then criticise them for it in later years.
Finally, also drawing from Adorno, the key to this active engagement with difficult knowledge lies in challenging the dichotomisation of theory and practice. As Adorno suggests, thinking should be a powerful activity, and once complex thoughts are shared, debated and analysed the world is changed. Those of us committed to greater social justice within and through higher education must protect and foster these moments to challenge, step outside, reflect upon and reconsider all that is privileged simply by being that which already exists. The social implications, and hence the lived realities of injustices, should be bound with the ways in which we learn and use knowledge, whether it be the reading of a novel, understanding the mechanics of bridge-building or researching the molecular structures of living things.