Recently, Colorado State University and Harvard University each posted job advertisements that included specific time limits on when the candidate’s PhD had been earned. Colorado’s ad requested PhDs only from 2010 or later; and Harvard’s ad read: “Applicants must have received the PhD or equivalent degree in the past three years (2009 or later), or show clear evidence of planned receipt of the degree by the beginning of employment”.
Both Colorado State and Harvard ended up re-writing these descriptions, but not before the ads set off a good deal of discussion online. UK scholar Dr. Ernesto Priego has already pointed out the incredibly time-consuming and expensive process of applying for academic positions, and I’ve written in the past about the large amount of unpaid work that all candidates much put in to stand a chance at a long-term academic position. Jo VanEvery cast a new light on this by raising the issue of Harvard’s recruitment of younger tenure-track academics:
In her blog, Lee Bessette articulately described the frustrations of an academic now “out of the pool” as an “old PhD”. At Escape the Ivory Tower blog, Julie Clarenbach argued that perhaps this kind of restriction isn’t actually a bad thing, because it provides an explicit signal about when we should get out of the academic job market, move on, and do something else.
I’m not convinced by this latter argument, because while it’s practical in the moment–for those “caught in the middle” between being a “recent” PhD, and being an established superstar–I don’t think it helps us to address the real issue, which is that the job market operates implicitly in ways that are discriminatory, since right now it’s most definitely a buyer’s market.
I think this relates to something I wrote recently for University of Venus blog, wherein I took a brief look at the potential effects of increased competition on young and early-career academics, and on the culture of academe in general. The dynamics change when a larger group of people are “competing” for a smaller pool of resources. In the meantime, academic socialization often demands that we continue the search (even if in vain) lest we be considered traitorous to the profession. As we know, for many PhDs this has meant taking a low-paying postdoctoral position and/or teaching part-time and/or on contract for long periods while continuing the search for a tenure-track position. Those people will of course be written out of the equation officially if job advertisements can explicitly call for recent PhDs only.
As a bit of a side note, it’s interesting that one of the follow-up articles quotes my tweet about feeling like an over-ripe piece of fruit being cast into the cider bucket (of course in the tweet that followed it, I augmented my comment). I think the metaphor is an apt one: “over-ripe” for one, (narrow) purpose may mean “just right” for something else, ie for the making of some other, potentially very different “outcome”.
I think the really egregious thing here is the idea that after anywhere from 7 to 12 years of higher education in preparation for such a job, there is only a 3-year window in which you’re considered eligible to apply. The idea that this is “just what’s happening anyway”–even if not so much in Canadian universities–should make us all furious, considering the waste of time, talent and funding involved. So in a way, I’m disappointed that the job ads have been removed. Perhaps a solid, visible barrier, rather than nebulous claims about “meritocracy”, would finally provoke a real fight about what’s happening in the academic profession, given that the trends have already been so bad, for so long.
I admit it: as of yet, I simply haven’t mastered the art of skimming through a large policy report and producing a polished blog post within the same week. But now that I have a few moments free, I want to draw your attention back to the recent Ontario government paper on reforming the provincial PSE sector (PDF here). The report’s scope includes not only universities but also colleges and apprenticeship programs, indeed one of the goals is to solve serious problems involving credit transfer (“mobility”) between different parts of the system. Other policy solutions raised include shorter (three-year) undergraduate degrees, year-round learning and increased use of online education.
The Ontario Liberal government uses this paper to set out an overall “vision” for PSE in the province, which is worth quoting in full:
“Ontario’s colleges and universities will drive creativity, innovation, knowledge, and community engagement through teaching and research. They will put students first by providing the best possible learning experience for all qualified learners in an affordable and financially sustainable way, ensuring high quality and globally competitive outcomes for students and Ontario’s creative economy.”
There is much to comment on here – but it’s clear, from reading the paper, that “innovation” is the core solution for PSE in Ontario. Not only will colleges and universities “drive” innovation, they will also be improved by it: “Increased innovation in the PSE sector will improve student learning options, meet the needs of lifelong learners, enhance quality, and ensure the long-term financial sustainability of the sector.” Thus innovation will create further “productivity” in the Ontario economy and also within PSE institutions, allowing them to perform more efficiently.
The emphasis on online learning is a good example of how the logic about innovation and efficiency is employed (and its context) – and it fits well with the post I wrote last week about the same issue. Lectures, it is said, are an antiquated form of teaching; they do not provide enough student engagement, since the professor is simply broadcasting the same information to a sea of sleepy faces. Online learning, on the other hand, can allow new forms of engagement between professor and students, including personalized attention that improves learning “outcomes” – without reducing class sizes. What’s interesting is that in this PSE paper, “efficiency” is denigrated as a simplistic model (larger class size = reduced costs), while the online learning model is “innovative.” But it looks like this argument seeks to replace one form of “content delivery” with another, and faculty will still need to take the time to create these new and improved connections with students that are, supposedly, missing in traditional lectures (and now miraculously possible through technology).
Lastly – and in some ways, most importantly – with regards to the participation of “stakeholder” groups in the policy process, the paper states that “it is the government’s intention to generate responses to this paper that recognize global trends in PSE in addition to addressing the local priorities of acceleration, productivity, technology, quality, and student choice”; “a number of stakeholder consultations and opportunities for input will be made available.” The participation process has been framed within a particular context, and contributions will be assessed accordingly. But since such a strongly-framed “vision” has already been presented in this paper, creating involvement from students, faculty, staff, and other groups must be crucial to the government’s program of consultations. The best way to do this is through really listening to what various groups have to say, and not by merely checking the communicative boxes.
The larger context of this document is that it’s been put forth at a time when tuition is a major issue in many countries around the world and also in other Canadian provinces such as Quebec, with its highly visible and effective protest movement. Significant policy changes in England, for example, are being watched carefully here in Canada, with some already proclaiming the “success” of the extreme measures being taken in that system. Ontario’s government is also using as a touchstone the Bologna Process being implemented by the European Union, which is how an explicit connection is made to the international acceptability of 3-year undergraduate degrees.
In order to construct its argument about systemic change to PSE, the Ontario government is drawing carefully not only on arguments made elsewhere but also on its own past record of PSE policy programs, right up to its most recent budget and the platform from last October’s election. This method is a double-edged sword, since how participants view that record will affect their receptiveness to the deeper kind of systemic change that is on the agenda.
This is important because the kind of transformation that occurs will depend on actions taken by people at every level in every part of the system – that’s how change actually works. It has to be enacted by participants. How the government solicits, responds to, and draws on feedback – both positive and negative – as well as how policy is implemented, will help shape the attitudes, feelings and behaviours that we all bring to these changes, and ultimately the success of the policies introduced.
Over the past two years or so, I’ve been stewing quietly about a particular issue in Canadian education. Much of the recent media coverage about PSE in Canada is concerned with tuition costs and accessibility, faculty performance and salaries, government spending on education, and the various failings of the system. But alongside this, a campaign has been unfolding that promises to undermine efforts at understanding how Canadian education works and does not work, what happens to students throughout and after their studies, and where PSE funding should be directed for best effect. It’s a campaign, not of mis-information, but against information itself.
Some of you may have seen that one of my previous posts for this blog was a complaint about the lack of statistics on doctoral education in Canada. I’d been trying to write an essay on the path to the tenure track in Canada, and was having a hard time locating the numbers I needed (incidentally, the essay I wrote is here).
Most of the feedback I’ve received on that post has reinforced my sense that Canada lacks “the numbers” on post-secondary education. Then last week on his Margin Notes blog, Léo Charbonneau reported that Statistics Canada would be cutting yet another source of data about Canadian PSE — this time, the University and College Academic Staff System (UCASS) — in addition to ending the Education Matters publication.
When I say “yet another”, I’m referring to the fact that since 2009, research on post-secondary education in Canada has been undermined by a systematic elimination of resources. This list includes: the Canada Millennium Scholarship Foundation (CMSF), which was allowed to expire — with its mandate — in 2010; the Canadian Council on Learning (CCL), which had its funding cut in 2010; the Youth in Transition Survey (YITS), cut in 2010; the Statistics Canada long form, from the Census, also cut in 2010; and of course the Survey of Earned Doctorates (SED), which apparently ended in 2009. These are only the cuts of which I’m aware. Who knows what else may have been “discontinued”, de-funded, and dismantled (other recent examples: Library and Archives Canada, and the First Nations Statistical Institute).
What kind of logic lies behind cuts like these? The expiry of the CMSF, for example, could have been considered predictable “benign neglect” since the organization’s mandate was only for 10 years, and it was a project created by the previous Liberal government. But there’s nothing predictable (or rational) behind eliminating something like the YITS, which was, as far as I know, the only longitudinal survey of secondary and post-secondary students in Canada. The YITS information would have been incredibly valuable for policy-makers, advocacy groups and researchers of higher education in Canada — particularly at a time when accessibility issues are key, when the public is pressing to know more about the “value” of PSE, and when universities still seem ill-equipped to explain the connection between higher ed “pathways” and careers.
The fact is that numbers can be spun, but life becomes so much easier if and when there are no numbers to have to spin — in other words, “what you don’t know can’t hurt you”, or so seems to be the current modus operandi of the federal government. Perhaps this is just one more way in which the much-invoked “knowledge economy” does not include or value all knowledge.
I wouldn’t argue that the data we’d been producing were ideal. For example, as I discussed in my earlier post, the SED was fairly limited and provided too much focus on some information (such as numbers of international students, and mobility of PhD graduates) with no data available for other areas (faculty job offers; attrition rates). Still, I think these research sources were better than nothing–which is what we’ll soon have if things continue along the current lines.
When we have no knowledge — even strictly quantitative knowledge — about what is happening in education, then how do we make policy decisions that reflect anything other than a political preference? Removing the mechanisms that create new knowledge is a political act in and of itself. If “knowledge is power” then the systematic lack of attention to some kinds of knowledge is also a means of exercising power. As Jo VanEvery pointed out in her blog, the Conservative government isn’t stupid. But for me that’s the frightening part — if all this is deliberate, part of a strategy, then to what end?
So much interesting Canadian PSE news has been popping up in my RSS feeds lately that I had a hard time deciding what to write about this week.
I think, perhaps because of all the other education-related news, that very little attention has been paid to the Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology report entitled “Opening the Door: Reducing Barriers to Post-Secondary Education in Canada.” The first Senate report on PSE since 1997, it “looks at both the financial and non-financial factors” involved in PSE accessibility.
There is a lot that’s interesting about this report, which addressed the federal government’s involvement in postsecondary education, and “how PSE can be made more accessible using the tools available to this level of government.” This included strategies for Aboriginal education and improving enrollment of other under-represented groups.
But there were only two news items that I could find relating to the report. One was from APTN on April 9, and addressed the proposals on Aboriginal education. The other came from PostMedia on April 4. The PostMedia article, “Tuition fees not major factor in post-secondary enrolment, report finds”, mainly emphasized only one of the report’s conclusions, that “while much of the public debate on access to PSE revolves around the cost of tuition, [...] the major barrier to accessing PSE is failure to complete Secondary education.”
Given the context of rising tuition, massive student protests and diminishing government funds, the political implications of these arguments about accessibility show why they were chosen as a focus for a news story: “the report runs counter to a common refrain among students that tuition fees are too exorbitant” (my emphasis). But there were 22 recommendations made in the report, and this focus on tuition was clearly geared to contribute to a particular side of a particular debate.
As presented in the Senate Committee report, the primary argument for accessibility is an economic one based on the idea of “human capital” development. Canada’s government must begin to take an interest in national coordination of education, because otherwise national competitiveness will suffer. It’s this argument that leads to the most comprehensive recommendation, #22 (a), the formation of a pan-Canadian education strategy including the “creation of an independent Canada Education and Training Transfer to ensure that there is dedicated funding for postsecondary education and training” (currently PSE funding comes from the Canada Social Transfer).
If a dedicated federal transfer were created for PSE, then the federal government would want to be able to monitor how such funding is used, especially given the accountability issues of the past. Sure enough, “encouragement” for tracking PSE dollars would be built in to the recommended system: “based on success in enhancing the accountability of a dedicated PSE Transfer account, the Federal government [should] consider increasing the Transfer funding using the 1994 levels as a target” (my emphasis).
While in Canada education is under provincial jurisdiction, this kind of arrangement could bring more clout to the federal government. If we consider what’s happening at the Tri-Councils right now, then the long-desired accountability seems to fit plausibly into a larger context of increasing government control over economic development through control over PSE.
Another implication from this report, relating to centralization of control, is that of standardization. The idea that the federal government and CMEC should work to provide more information for students, including about “the costs and benefits of obtaining a post-secondary diploma or degree”, seems to entail an increased expectation for universities’ self-monitoring and perhaps a movement towards some kind of national system of assessment. Indeed, one part of Recommendation 22 is “a standardized data collection and reporting mechanism for monitoring and evaluating progress toward the participation targets.” Also suggested is a national credit recognition program so that students could see their PSE credits recognized across provinces.
I do wonder why this report seems to have been “buried” in the media; I think it demands more attention given the scope and depth of the recommendations (the report runs to 114 pages with appendices) and their possible consequences for Canadian PSE. Perhaps nothing will come of it – after all, the Canadian Council on Learning made similar points in their final report, which were dismissed by some as the self-serving suggestions of an organization trying to justify its own existence. Are we seeing a re-hash of what the CCL had produced, now made more acceptable through the stamp of a Senate committee? Or are the policy points just too difficult to be dealt with at the national level? Time, perhaps – 180 days from the report, in fact – will tell.
This weekend I was working on an essay about graduate education and decided to look up a few key statistics to add to my argument, hoping I could strengthen my point using numbers as well as words.
Little did I know what I was in for. While I’ve searched for statistics many times (not always with success), I thought I’d be able to find what I was looking for this time around. But the numbers I wanted turned out to be frustratingly elusive. I was looking for three things: the attrition rate (on average) from Canadian PhD programs; the proportion of PhD graduates who land tenure-track jobs (either immediately or within, say, five years); and the proportion of Canadian university teaching staff who have non-permanent (contract) and/or part-time positions.
While those numbers probably won’t tell a happy story, I was surprised to have so much trouble finding them. I didn’t even make it to the attrition statistic yet, because the other two took up so much time; from what I observed, attrition is not a focus in spite of the Survey of Earned Doctorates (SED) pointing out that higher enrollment has not translated into increased numbers of PhD graduates. That’s one example of how the main focus seems to be on enrollment and graduation — what went “right” — as opposed to attrition, which is considered “failure.”
The second example, that of PhDs who find tenure-track work, should have been a cinch given the heightened concern with this issue among graduate students and faculty. I had trouble believing that no-one had produced a study about this, but sure enough, there was nothing straightforward available. How this crucial research could be missing in action is something of a mystery (this was the closest thing I found so far).
Lastly, the proportion of non-tenured faculty is an important number to track in a context where academic hiring trends have been shifting for some time, and these directly affect PhD students and graduates. After a frustrating search through graduate survey results and through research reports produced by a number of different organizations, I finally turned up one Statistics Canada article that compared employment in the teaching profession between 1999 and 2005, based on data from the Labour Force Survey. There seemed to be nothing that was more recent and comprehensive, and almost all the numbers I found relating to academic hiring were focused on full-time faculty (or on one institution only).
During this process I noticed that the graduate student surveys seemed to provide a very thin snapshot — rather a grainy black-and-white photocopy — of results. Asking whether students are “satisfied” with their PhD program experiences (as the Canadian Graduate and Professional Student Survey does) seems like a rather limited way of discovering what’s going on in graduate education, considering the issues involved. The SED seems to have ended with a data set from 2007-2008; its results have been used alongside the Canadian Graduates Survey (CGS) to produce a picture of PhD career outcomes, but once again this is a surprisingly foggy image. Graduates planning to work in the “education services industry” are classified into one large group — no mention of full time, part time, university or college, permanent or contract.
This is not to say that I wouldn’t like access to qualitative research on these issues, too. I think well-designed surveys produce information that is a good start, but we also need to develop qualitative investigations to find the stories behind those numbers. For example, the SED shows up the trend that mainly young, single men in the life sciences and other STEM areas tend to be those who leave Canada after the PhD for further training and job opportunities in other countries. This tells us about the effects of gender, life circumstances, and area of research on the career paths of PhD graduates. Also worth noting is the significant amount of attention given (in the survey results) to migration of PhD graduates; this relates to the concern for building national “human capital.”
It’s disturbing to me that even given the expansion PhD enrollments, and the emphasis placed on graduate education and its role in the economy, so little information seems to be available about what is happening to PhD students and graduates. There’s also a larger point to my complaint about having a hard time finding these numbers. Statistics are a political issue. Though they can be superficial, they’re still better than nothing and they can highlight important trends. This is why it’s disturbing that the current Canadian government does not seem to place much faith in research (funding has been cut from other important surveys as well). I think we have to ask, if this is happening in education research, where else is it happening?
Last week on February 7, a conference was held at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto (OISE) on the subject of the new universities (or campuses) that have been proposed by the Ontario provincial government. The conference included speakers who discussed various issues relating to the creation of the new campuses, and there was also a particular focus on ideas put forth in the book written by Ian D. Clark, David Trick and Richard Van Loon, entitled Academic Reform: Policy Options for Improving the Quality and Cost-Effectiveness of Undergraduate Education in Ontario. Though unable to attend the conference in person, I was able to watch it live from home via OISE’s webcasting system; since I’ve been following this issue for a number of months, I thought I might share some comments.
As conference participants discussed, there are many possibilities for what new “teaching oriented universities” might look like. The question is, what’s the context of their creation and what actual forms and practices will emerge? What kinds of “campuses” will these be, and what logic will drive their governance? For example, will they be like the liberal arts colleges of the United States where prestigious faculty engage in teaching while also producing research? My guess is that the answer is “no”, because this would conflict with the need to save money by significantly increasing teaching assignments per professor, which — as it turns out — is the goal.
One thing I felt was a bit lacking at the conference was discussion of the fact that in the broader “academic economy” teaching is simply considered less prestigious than research, and that means a hierarchy of institutions is likely to emerge. In a differentiated system, universities will tend be different, but not “equal.” What will be the implications of this for the new universities, for the hiring of teaching staff (for example)? Will faculty hires see these institutions as less desirable stops on the road to a “real” university job at a research-oriented university? I believe one speaker, Tricia Seifert of OISE, did address this problem by suggesting (among other things) that we should do more during PhD education to privilege teaching and to build the prestige of pedagogical work in the academic profession.
A related point is that in Drs. Clark, Trick and Van Loon’s model, there seemed to be an assumption that teaching quality operates in a simplistically quantitative way (behaviourism never really goes away does it). A 4-4 teaching “load” (80% teaching, 10% research, 10% service) is not just about having the same number of students split up into smaller classes; juggling and planning for multiple classes is more work. As Rohan Maitzen pointed out on Twitter, teaching involves more than “just standing there” (many hours of preparation, for example).
To continue with the theme of prestige and the devaluing of teaching, what I noticed when I read the book excerpt is that the word “university” is going to be applied to the new institutions partly as a means of marketing them to squeamish students. The authors state explicitly that “every effort in Ontario to create a label that resides in between colleges and universities – such as “institute of technology,” “polytechnic university,” “university college” and the like – has failed to find acceptance and has led to requests for further changes.” Yet somehow “mission drift” — the tendency of universities to want to climb the ladder to a more research oriented status — must be prevented through government regulation and a strict mandate.
This is one reason why existing institutions may be disappointed if the think they will be sharing in the new expansion. What “new” means is not an extension of other campuses, nor a conversion of an institution of one kind into a different type (i.e. college into university); what’s desired is a “clean slate.” A likely goal is to save money by preventing the duplication of governance structures like unions and tenure, because these reduce “flexibility” and increase costs. This could lead to the 31% cost savings predicted by the authors, who nevertheless expect the new universities’ faculty salaries and benefits will remain competitive (my prediction is that salaries will be lower).
The purposes for building new teaching universities are not just pedagogical but also economic and political. Providing more access to postsecondary education is politically expedient and also matches the economic logic of the day, which is that building human capital for the knowledge economy can only occur through increased PSE acquisition. But as Harvey Weingarten pointed out at the OISE conference, campuses can’t be built unless there is government funding available for the purpose — and now we’re hearing that there isn’t any funding. I suspect that the release of the Drummond Report this week only confirms this, adding pressure to the process of imagining new teaching-intensive universities. It may now be even more difficult to ensure that pedagogical rather than just economic logic is what wins out.
After the post I wrote recently about innovation, I noticed that yet more articles have been popping up in the wake of the report I was discussing, including this one by Tom Jenkins who was part of the team that produced the report.
Then as I listening to Radio NZ recently, I heard a BBC history segment on the relationship between Edison and Tesla, and some of Tesla’s attitudes made me think of the way Edison’s example is invoked by Jenkins both in the report and in his article.
There is a long and complex story behind the relationship between Tesla and Edison, but suffice to say that after one of their conflicts Tesla ended up digging ditches for a while. In any case, Tesla apparently regarded Edison as a mere tinkerer, someone who purchased, and marginally improved on, the things others had created. Tesla’s assessment may have been drawing a line between discovery and invention, rather than between invention and innovation. Edison pioneered a kind of production-line process using many assistants; he also raised capital before embarking on a venture (sound familiar?).
From this description it seems to me that Edison was an entrepreneur, while Tesla was more of a scientist. And in the end, Tesla’s work is still with us, in spite of Edison’s PR campaign against him during the “War of Currents.” Politics was indeed at play.
Roger Martin, dean of the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, has also chimed in on the innovation issue, with an article about Steve Jobs as consummate “innovator.” Martin also argued earlier this year that SSHRC had shortchanged MBA students by not offering them designated funding (even though this is not how it works for other disciplines; and MBAs don’t usually do academic research). Clearly the arguments about “innovation” are also arguments about resource distribution. Policies have been critiqued as failing, but this isn’t enough for advocates to leave off asking for government funding and planning of R&D.
James Colliander, a math professor at U of T, has responded with a blog post in which he argues that the point about Steve Jobs is off the mark, since rather than producing original scientific or technological advances, Jobs produced original synthesis and design.
So it seems we’re still stuck on the notion of innovation as a means of producing marketable objects and processes, or so I gather from quotes like this one (from Martin): “commercial success and impact is more about innovation than about invention.” While this “is typically the product of the curiosity of a scientist”, “it can be pretty irrelevant when it is a technology in search of a user.”
It’s interesting to see, over in the UK, inventor and entrepreneur James Dyson is funding a new professorship at Cambridge. Dyson is arguing that even when we don’t know where research is going, it’s important to invest in it, especially when the government is cutting back. It may seem like a shame we live in an era when the noblesse oblige of large corporations and private foundations is what we must rely on. But at the same time, government intervention as a primary mobiliser of science and technology is relatively new in history, and discovery and innovation have not usually occurred in just one isolated environment.
Arnold Pacey argues in his book The Maze of Ingenuity that the environments in which scientific discovery and innovation take place are those where there is generally more than merely a monetary motivation for the great scientific discoveries of the past; such environments were also sheltered from full exposure to market forces. So somehow science must always be “protected” both from the market and also (Dyson’s view) from undue political intervention, which itself is now linked directly to economic development.
I would argue that it’s not a question of whether scientists, business, or the government are good at “picking winners.” The issue of needing to pick a “winner” at all is the problem. I’ve quoted James Burke more than once in some of my previous blog posts (including the last one!), but here he is again, discussing the unpredictable and non-linear nature of “discovery.” I still question the use of these definitions of terms and the narratives they’re being used to construct, which are split along the old lines — applied, theoretical; practical, “speculative;” and so on. What would be truly “innovative” to me would be a change to the discussion so that these definitions were no longer the only categories available.
Something that characterizes education, as a practice and as a discipline, is the constant stream of public critiques levelled at education systems, educators, administrators, parents, researchers, and on and on — by each other and also by those not immediately involved in education. This kind of sustained contentiousness is not the same as the assumed trajectory of “progress” in which one theory or practice trumps another after a time, such as generally happens in other academic and professional fields. Education is distinctive not only because the critiques come from many different groups and are very highly politicized, fracturing and emotionally fraught, but also because the same kinds of theories, remedies, assumptions and attacks seem to be repeated over time in an almost cyclical fashion, which is both fascinating and deeply troubling.
I’ve been considering this again recently, after I began reading Kieran Egan’s book The Future of Education. Egan describes a version of the long-term conflict over education in chapter 2 of the book, where he argues that over time the same few strands of argument have underpinned most debates about education, its theory and its practice. Because the existing arguments assume contradictory purposes for education, there are perpetual problems with reconciling the many demands being placed on education systems over time.
Following the path of “unpacking” education’s assumed purpose rapidly leads us to some deep and difficult questions, the answers to which reflect our most basic assumptions about who we are, how our minds work, and what kind of world we should live in. What is “knowledge”, and how do we acquire it? Do we begin life with minds that are “blank slates”, ready to be inscribed with culture, or are we biologically determined to behave the way we do? Should education be elitist, cultivating only the “best minds”, or equitable, offering a fair chance to everyone? Should educational methods employ rational discipline, or give students total freedom? Should learning be about memorizing facts, or understanding broader ideas and theories; should it be standardized, or individualized?
Education in the present is perpetually concerned with the future, which may explain the comparative lack of emphasis on the study of education history. There is another cause for conflict here, because our assumptions about education involve the fundamental dream of shaping and controlling the future, of providing a form of certainty in an uncertain world. Education becomes a means of realising desires for the future, for individuals as well as for states and societies. This is why education is so vehemently contested; because they who can make a claim to control the future, to show that their version of the future will be better, can make a claim to power. The close relationship between education and governance lies here, where prediction lays claim to political authority.
Perversely, education’s full effects are unseen until the future, which is why the “impact” of education is so hard to measure. And yet we continue to try to do so, because of the idea that the (potential of the) future should somehow be demonstrable in particular ways, in the present. This is a heavy demand; not only is learning simultaneously an individual/subjective and a social phenomenon, but its effects are not “complete”, nor fully visible in the present. The time of learning continues even when the time of assessment is over. For this reason the measurement of learning is one of the biggest stumbling blocks in education governance, even as governmental and public desire for certainty — validated by numbers — increases.
The task of education is never complete. Criticisms continue in perpetuity because education never achieves the aims and goals set out for it, which appear to be a series of moving targets that multiply as oppositional viewpoints battle it out in the spheres of policy and public debate. Education has never “succeeded” because we have not yet had a utopia by anyone’s definition, and because there are some problems that simply defy the remedy supposedly provided (the mitigation of capitalism’s negative effects by literate democracy is one that comes to mind). All this is not to say that we should be losing hope or giving up on some idea of education as a good thing, as important. My view is not one of cynicism. Rather, I’m keen to know and understand the past and in what ways we may be unconsciously reiterating historical problems in the present; my hope is that we can somehow avoid perpetuating what we continue to critique.