To put this week’s offering in context, this blog post was originally going to be a comment on Jesse’s HE blog, but it snowballed into a critique of Taylor’s NYT article among other things.
I think there is definitely some merit in the idea that universities should treat content as a vehicle with which to deliver skills rather than as an end in itself.
There’s been plenty of derision aimed towards the changes that universities have made since 1992, for example universities offering degrees in surfing – the existence of such courses has been used as evidence that the quality of tertiary education is declining (“If it is to be a degree, surely it has to be something that adds to the country’s heritage and our nation, like classics.” –P. Morris). What is overlooked in such cases, however, is that these kinds of courses are vocational, offer valuable and transferable skills along with highly specialised content, and generally serve a different purpose than reading Classics at Oxbridge (i.e. learning a trade). They’re also largely carried by former polytechnics – places of further education that were disparaged because they focused on applied education for work. There’s evidence that the role of these former polytechnics in delivering vocational education is one that should still be focused on, despite their development of offering more transferable skills since 1992 (cf. McKellar). Anecdotal evidence, however, suggests that former polytechnics are better-equipped to prepare students for employment and give them a diverse and significant set of skills.
Universities largely appear to understand the importance of teaching skills rather than solely imparting knowledge, as is evidenced by various universities’ focus on, and initiatives to improve, employability. Despite this, many large businesses simply use 2:1 degrees as a cut-off mark for considering applications, simply because of the sheer number of applicants (83 for every position). But that’s a topic for another blog.
I still think, however, that there is also some value in the sentiment expressed by Mr Morris: the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, even if it’s the sole pursuit of a small collection of university lecturers’ knowledge, can be argued to be important even in this ‘age of information abundance’ – even without any obvious or particular attachment to the development of skills. But does Taylor’s example of a student’s doctoral dissertation on how Duns Scotus used citations serve any purpose? (Apparently – I know nothing about his motives for researching this – but people are clearly fascinated by the subject.) Who’s to say that it serves a purpose? – Taylor? Does it need to serve a purpose? (No.)
Just because we have an abundance of information doesn’t mean that we have all the information we could ever want. Plenty of that information is useless, misleading, or not very well-considered – even offensive. Access to all of it, whether good or bad, is important – but I have little sympathy for Taylor’s argument that highly-specialised subjects have no inherent worth. His argument is akin to that of people who complain that scientists are “wasting taxpayers’ money” and “have nothing better to do” when they don’t understand why something is being studied.
Taylor’s radical proposals, particularly that permanent departments should be abolished and replaced with problem-focused programs, might conceivably (and in a limited way) benefit academics focused on such “zones of inquiry”, and collaboration among institutions should undoubtedly be encouraged and developed (abolition of outdated models of publication, for example, to be replaced with open access to information, would – in my opinion – also benefit everyone but publishers, and create an academic environment less encouraging of malpractice), but for undergraduates, university is as much about developing approaches and perspectives in great depth as it is understanding the breadth of approaches/perspectives. Inter-disciplinary work is great but so is understanding a discipline in great detail. Not only that, it’s also untested. What if his proposal to abolish departments, even if implemented in only one university, didn’t benefit anyone?
David Bell, who reviewed the book Taylor published soon after the aforementioned article, criticised its “fragile” logic and “thin” evidence, describing the book as “unbelievably misguided”. In his words:
“While communication can take place in any direction along myriad pathways, the acquisition of real knowledge cannot. It demands sequence, it demands order, it demands logic. The new technologies have supplemented conventional forms of learning and argumentation in fascinating ways, but they cannot replace them.
“Academic disciplines…are complex, difficult bodies of knowledge whose theoretical underpinnings have to be mastered to some degree before one can even know which aspects of them can be usefully applied to such tasks.”
Bell’s argument is not flawless: technologies may be “evolving at breakneck speed”, but that’s precisely why we should incorporate them. Ken Robinson informed us all that we’re training a significant number of students for jobs that don’t yet exist. Everything is evolving at breakneck speed as a consequence of technology’s rapid evolution, so it makes sense to incorporate all technologies to train students in getting used to this dynamism they’ll face. He also appears to fail to consider the ways that technology can aid teaching and learning, as opposed to merely transmitting information.
To conclude, I think that Bell is right to call Taylor’s proposals “reckless” and “wrong-headed” – other than the idea to increase collaboration among institutions, his proposals seem deeply flawed – the ways we transmit information may have changed, and with that its availability and therefore opportunities to gain information, but human nature hasn’t. We still often need more than just the information itself to understand something well; traditional forms of education, despite all their flaws, still serve a valuable purpose. For example, traditional education provides face-to-face interaction, which allows for conversation and dialogue to occur – sure, we can comment on each other’s blogs, but it’s hardly instantaneous. Regardless, paradigm shifts need to, and will, occur – to quote Abrami et al. (2011), “How far would our understanding of automotive technology have progressed, for instance, if cars…were still designed as alternatives to horses?” (Abrami et al. also offer a number of principles to guide self-regulated learning, multimedia learning, motivational design, and collaborative/cooperative learning.)
Sorry about the length; well done if you’ve made it this far.