Australian universities abandon education

If my recent experiences with curriculum in an IT master’s programme are generalisable across all Australian universities, they have abandoned education in favour of an ideologically-laden, glorified vocational indoctrination. The metaphorical equivalent to book burning.

burning-book

That indoctrination appears to be heavily based on American plutocratic assumptions about extractive exploitation and the dehumanization of people as objects or resources in a neo-Taylorist approach to maximizing the extraction of surplus value and excluding all other factors, like ethics, social contract, notions of duty to the polity, and even the sustainability of the extractive, exploitive model itself.

To explain the truth of what are strong assertions, it is necessary first to define education and how it is distinguished from training or indoctrination.

In the Western development of schools and universities, there was a shift away from the doctrinaire scholasticism of the Dark Ages towards teaching how to question, and eventually also how one can learn new things independently of an orthodox canon, but without necessarily rejecting or undermining that canon. The emphasis was on learning how to learn, and how to think independently, which is still known as critical thinking, and still confused by many as a form of criticism rather than as a process of synthesis.

A second, but vital component of education is the inculcation of at least some basics about environmental factors, which, in the west, includes a grounding in history, politics, philosophy, and the arts. That grounding is essential in creating context for critical thought applied to these and other subjects because it helps to explain why things are the way they are, and whether they must or ought to stay the same or can (or should) be changed. That grounding is also vital in creating an understanding that thought and action in one discipline or professional area, or social activity, has consequences applying to other areas and other people. It also fosters the idea of independent innovation. This is not the kind of faux ‘innovation’ referred to when technology is stolen or commercialized or just marketed differently. But innovation of doing something genuinely differently for the purpose of achieving an outcome not necessarily motivated by profit.

In medicine this is roughly equivalent to the difference between treating flu by steaming the head over a basin of mentholated steaming water, or developing an influenza vaccine. In philosophy this is roughly equivalent to rejecting a model that emphasizes the superiority of one particular school of thought by proposing that an eclectic mixture of relevant thought can be reconciled despite apparent contradictions between the component parts. In technology this might be equivalent to conceiving of personal computing not related to mainframe technology, or of using a graphical user interface rather than a black screen command line model.

How is this different from training?

In training the dominant focus is on teaching established methods, models, and practices. The approach here is of uncritical memorisation so that subjects can demonstrably repeat processes and tasks in a predictable fashion. Like welding a reliable join every time, or preparing the same burger the same way every time.

Training does not foster independent thought, though it does not prevent it either. Master welders may well develop new ways of doing their jobs more efficiently, or qualitatively better, based on experience, observation, and the personal motivation to improve their craft. But this is not innovation. It is improving on skills and techniques. I’m not saying here that this is not important. I am saying that this is not innovation so much as iterative improvement within a craft or society. Of course, the master welder might also innovate by doing away with accepted methodology to use new materials and technology in a way no one ever tried or thought of before.

In my view training is vitally important in contemporary societies, but it is never a substitute for education, which has a much broader application in that it informs even untrained people who they are in their societies, what politics means to them, why they should vote or not vote, and how they relate to others in their societies and in the world. Training can never achieve that scope of outlook.

Indoctrination can be a benighted subversion of both education and training. In the most pejorative senses of the word ‘indoctrination’ we can observe the teaching of a deliberately fabricated version of history, politics, and/or cultural developments to suit an ideological perspective which is then directed towards training in particular skills that are deemed necessary to address the imposed conclusions derived from the fabricated Weltanschauung.

Indoctrination suborns education by giving the appearance of presenting education when really presenting ideology or doctrine instead. It eliminates critical thought, substituting it with catechisms aimed at rejecting all challenges to its conclusions, and relying on the uncritical acceptance of articles of faith. Theology is an example of this, but so are many secular religions, like communism, fascism, contemporary political correctness, and all their derivatives.

How do these distinctions relate to my recent experiences?

An IT master’s programme by coursework implies a degree of training in technical skills and methods. But it also implies education in presenting historical and technical developments in the light of recent and emerging trends to equip the successful graduate to function as a superior professional in the areas studied, or as an IT professional more generally.

The major emphasis here should be on the description ‘professional’, which extends beyond mere technicalities and describes a distinct rôle or status within a particular society. Moreover, it raises questions about the autonomy or subservience of ‘professional’ in the context of a particular business environment. So, is a professional to be seen as ‘educated’, ‘right-thinking’ (in the legal sense of that word), to be relied on as making informed, intelligent decisions? Is a professional able and willing to reject demands from a client or employer to act in a manner that would be seen as unethical by other members of the same society? Is a professional to be relied on to act in good conscience? Is a professional to be relied on not to routinely deceive and even steal?

My answer is that, when ‘professional’ is taken as a category, most people in my society should be able to answer all those questions favourably.

So when a university certifies professionalism by granting a post-graduate degree in a professional discipline, does this not imply enough education to equip the graduate to make informed and ethical decisions?

This is what I think can no longer be answered positively because there simply is not enough education contained in post-graduate degrees to address ethical and social dimensions of professionalism (and, in most cases, not even citizenship).

Instead, if my experience is generalisable, the degree attests only to a kind of training in methods, models, skills, and techniques that are deemed to be in demand in particular industries or economic activities. Worse though, instead of being supplemented by education, this ‘advanced’ training is infused with ideology instead.

The ideology is subtle in that it is not coarsely pushed as overt propaganda, but presented as a natural or necessary assumption. To illustrate this, consider the disciplines of enterprise architecture and business process management. We are told the aim here is to analyse and improve on existing ways of doing things in the name of efficiency. We are not told that efficiency has so far been a euphemism for eliminating jobs, first at the blue collar end, but increasingly now also in the middle class socio-economic stratum. We are definitely not told that examining statistics about employment, the savings obtained by sacking people in the name of efficiency are not passed on as lower prices, or higher share dividends, but are mostly absorbed in jobs growth among process police – the professionals who devise sacking strategies and oversee further iterations of the same while securing their own futures. And then, of course, there are the bonus schemes for executives, which often exceed the cost savings for which they are being rewarded.

There is a deafening silence in the academy when it comes to confronting the unpalatable truth unemployment is an economic and social cost transferred from businesses already fiddling their taxes to ordinary taxpayers in the name of efficiency and competitiveness that nevertheless have never made anything more competitive, efficient, or cheaper. What we are not told is that simply immiserating the unemployed leads to rising costs in medicine, policing, and reactive problem-solving. What we are not told is that there a consequences far wider than for our professions of uncritically adopting a mind-set predicated on predominantly American corporate models. What we are most definitely not told is that we can observe a correlation between professional or business practices and socio-economic trends. For example, we can observe a direct correlation between the MBA-driven Reaganomics of the 1980s, which persists to this day, and the impoverishment of increasing numbers of formerly employed and even comfortably well off Americans, while the rich have become super-rich, and national infrastructure decays for lack of funds.

Enterprise architecture and business process management are hardly the only areas to which these observations apply. And in none of the disciplines are we taught that in acting as professionals following predominantly American models and technology implementations, we begin to turn our own society into a progressively more American one, and that this implies corrosion of Australian democracy and social egalitarianism.

I have been fortunate to connect with many students who are not quite ready to surrender to the Americanisation of their craft or attitudes, and who recognise that in most cases when globalisation is mentioned it really means Americanisation, or, more accurately, ‘plutocratisation’, implying a new feudalism in which wealth and political power is progressively concentrated in fewer and fewer hands.

However, I see little of this self-awareness in academics, and more worryingly, in Asian students, most of whom seem to just accept authoritarianism as a given.

If my observations are at all accurate or insightful, is there a path for turning back the abasement of education in the academy?

My own conclusion is that I am witnessing the end of a tradition in education that shone quite briefly in historical terms, perhaps from the late 18th century to the late 20th or early 21st. What comes now is not yet entirely clear, but could parallel a more authoritarian approach to training and specialisation stripped of all aspects not decreed essential to the practice of that specialisation. A new craft and trades structure, like the mediaeval guilds, to match the new feudalism, with master craftsmanship being tied to ideological catechisms?

As always, it is us, all of us, who make the world what it is. There is no refuge in excuses about inevitable trends or powerlessness against superior forces. It is still us who bend, break, or resist.

Waiting for politicians to address the issues seems futile. Academics seems to have surrendered. Students do not appear interested in anything but passing grades.

So who will propose and drive home the message that education is a society-wide good with real economic value that just can’t be measured in conventional (meaning simple-minded) financial terms?

So who are you in all of this? Have you ever thought about it? What could be done to stop or reverse these trends?