The university ‘ban’ on free speech and thought

The ‘ban’ on free speech and thought: The beginning of the end for the modern university?

Why are many university and college degrees (not all) now effectively ‘worthless’ bits of paper – however, still costing increasingly huge ‘student loans or debts’ which a large percentage of new graduates and student drop-outs will never be able to pay off? What will it take to wake people up to how 21st University higher education in general is increasingly a scam (and that many school leavers would be better to look for experience/work-based training including apprenticeships)? Why is it a self-serving and false government (and corporate) myth that everyone needs to get a university or at least a college degree – when they don’t (and, indeed, many shouldn’t if they want to get a job and good future)? Why do the latest reports indicate that this myth and related rort is not achieving outcomes for most students, giving many of them false expectations, and now mostly helping governments fudge the real scale of growing unemployment rates – and even more of a worry that this conceals a much deeper and more insidious scam (which we discuss below)?

There have been recent media reports that Universities are definitely no longer bastions of free thought – and worse that most now actively discourage, obstruct and generally forbid ‘free speech’ (1) (2).  This is a trend that many University lecturers have long been aware of, and it represents a truly concerning ‘canary in the coal mine’ of our emerging future world and society. The real implication of this goes beyond a pseudo left-wing vs. right-wing politics of debate which is long out of date and a basically a false circular argument (i.e. the partial truths when the far left selectively attacks the idea of ‘free speech’ as a right-wing conspiracy, and likewise when the far right accuses anyone who disagrees with their extreme views as authoritarian types, politically correct mouthpieces and/or anal-retentive control freaks). It also goes beyond the increasingly clear agenda that (a) governments are systematically dismantling the idea that education is a public good, and (b) (in Australia especially) that they are big business corporations (3) (4) who might also increasingly gouge local as well as international fee-paying students (especially those from poorer countries in terms of how ‘study’ is often seen as a back-door strategy of migration).

Following on from incisive critiques (e.g. Stan Aronowitz, 2000) of the new 21C model of the ‘corporate university… [as just a] knowledge factory’, Harvard Uni Dean Harry Lewis wrote an insightful book (2006) (5) (6) about how his university had ‘sold its soul’ – leading the way for many other universities around the world to follow suit. Many other people are also waking up to how universities everywhere are tending to become self-serving corporations covering up related credentialist rorts of often intrinsically worthless degrees, online education (as substitute for learning), and (generally) wilful false advertising about projected future employability and other outcomes for students (e.g. 7). In other words, its long been known by Uni academics (such as me – see earlier post [8]), managers and other insiders that ‘credentialism’ (9) is the name of the game – ironically an imperative accelerating not declining just as people around the world are starting to wake up to how university and college degrees are increasingly worthless bits of paper often not just failing to help students get jobs but increasingly ensuring that they don’t.

More than thirty years ago we knew most university graduates (especially in general degrees like law and education) would not get a job in their chosen vocation or profession but that the experience and process of a degree completion would at least help them get some other job. This is no longer the case. This is also directly linked to how the ‘loss of free speech’ in Universities (see the report above) really means that ‘thinking’ (and relevant or ‘difficult’ questions) are no longer really allowed let alone encouraged. In other words, even more so than ever before what is expected is conformity, compliance, and merely passive ‘surface learning’ or ‘spoon-feeding’ outcomes… as your money is gleefully taken by the corporate-bureaucratic types who know full well that you are really being ripped off grandly (and that most graduates have little chance of getting the job they think that their degree will ensure).

[Thinking was the one redeeming feature of how university theories, content and ‘credentials’ were all basically divorced from direct experiential learning the key to any substantial knowledge – redeemed because thinking can be a form of indirect experiential learning. The basic reason why online university degrees in particular have become truly worthless except as a credential is that thinking is no longer even tolerated let alone encouraged and even ‘banned’. This is aside from degrees that involve ‘practicums’ or some kind of relevant problem-based learning. We are not saying that all universities or their courses should be shut down to avoid a slow-lingering death wreaking havoc on the current generations of present and future students. Indeed, we are consistently on record defending a certain model that can still be recovered (e.g. 10)]

In some ways, this is all a culmination of the ‘dumbing down’ of all modern education –  which Neil Postman (11) traced to how the numbing effects of television (‘amusing ourselves to death’ as he liked to put it). Likewise, critics like John Taylor Gatto (12) (author of ‘Against School: How public education cripples our kids, and why’) has offered an incisive review of how modern school education has lost its way and often ends up dumbing down students. This is the relevant context for appreciating a recent Conversation article (13) that ‘universities are starting to ‘dumb down…into secondary schools’. A simplified view of ‘basic standards’ is often considered a basis also for dumbed down universities (e.g. 14). However, in contrast to the ‘passive learner’ focus of the traditional rote learning approach (which at least compelled students to learn ‘the basics’) modern universities and colleges as well as schools have all got caught up in the corporate model of subverting public education in terms of viewing the learner as a ‘customer’ who is paying for a product and some spoon-feeding exercise (i.e. not expected to think or even ‘turn up’ and participate if they don’t want to let alone to really learn ‘deeply’ with intent, engagement and effective understanding) (15).

Part of the solution we think (16) lies in how possibly the most important or at least powerful skill a student can learn – complex problem-solving (or related notions of ‘systems thinking’) – could and should become either directly or indirectly the focus of all applied knowledge and experiential learning . Beyond that, as Besserman (17) (18) has suggested, a sustainable solution lies in (a) how informal lifelong learning through experience should be better promoted as the real foundation of all education inside or outside the formal and credentialist purpose of schools, colleges and universities, and (b) how likewise all education and learning should be recognised as part of the dynamic system of an ‘emerging global knowledge society.  In this way our own ‘lifecycle’ model of  the eight pillars of lifelong learning also integrates a range of post-formal (and post-employment) modes including work-based learning, personal development courses or disciplines, and seniors’ active learning for life completion. In this way (we would further argue), the real ‘university of life’ (not the false/rip-off/corporate university or college) lies hidden or dormant waiting for engagement in the human experience of every individual, community and social grouping.

See also a few of AW’s other writings relevant to the above:

CKR – Higher education privatization, internationalisation and marketization

CKR –  The eight pillars of lifelong education as antidote to the the global demoralization of education and society

CKR – Thinking for an emergent, relevant, and productive ‘knowledge-building’







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