Sunday, 26 April 2015

The plight of higher education in North America

Madison University Newspaper
I am on a visit to the US and Canada, mainly to study approaches towards the scholarship and teaching, along with colleagues Mandy Hlengwa and Masebala Tjabane from Heltasa. But I also attended the American Education Research Association (AERA), which took place in Chicago last week. It is interesting that social justice is a key concept in education here, to the extent that it features in course titles and the present president of AERA complained that it has become such a buzz word in the US that it is devoid of meaning. Other interesting trends at the conference were the notion that education and society in the US is resegregating, and that neo-liberalism has affected higher education perniciously. Key features of this in various North American settings are the decrease in state funding for public universities and the increase of fees, leaving parents in debt. According to noted US social justice educationist Lois Weiss, who spoke at AERA, this means that given the size of the fees parents pay, students will have to pay for their parents when they retire, but it is increasingly difficult for graduates to find jobs. Higher education is less likely to guarantee employment for the middle classes than in the past, and interestingly, according to her, students with a more international biography are more likely to find employment in big companies.

Mandy, Masebala and I had the opportunity to interview Henry Giroux, who is now a distinguished professor at MIIETL at Mc Masters, and he had very interesting things to say on this and other matters. (I will post some video clips of the interview once I have worked out how.) He added that there has been a huge increase in 'sessional' lecturers, ie. part-time lecturers, in order to cut costs and that these tend to earn below the minimum wage. This information is illustrated during our trip to the Madison, Wisconsin university state system of about 160 000 students, where the Governor of Wisconsin has ordered the education of posts by 400 staff members. He has also ordered a stay on student fees for four years. This is evident from the front page of the university newspaper. How ironic, that as strategies to increase the numbers of youth that have postgraduate education proliferate, the same governments decrease the working conditions of academics, support the idea of higher education as a commodity, and increase the cost of higher education. We need to watch these trends in higher education in South Africa. We might argue that we already suffer from many of these problems, but our administrators and policy makers do tend to look to other university systems, including in the global North, for bright ideas.
Henry Giroux

Giroux shared with us his ideas about the task of higher educators, that we should be defending higher education and its role in advancing democracy in society. It should also ensure that students become both more critically literate, as well as more proficient in whatever domain they are studying. By way of example a graduate doctor must be made aware of his or her role in society, but at the same time, he would not like to be operated on by a doctor that has not been well trained. Also relevant for those of us who work in academic and professional development, is his appointment at Mc Masters centre for teaching and learning, MIIETL. He made the point that this field tends to be characterized by an empiricist approach to knowledge, and that his post at MIIETL is bucking this trend. I would like to think that the SOTL @ UJ project is another example of this.

Here is an interesting extract from the interviews on Henry's views on theory:

[Students] begin with the assumption you have to know theory, then maybe a problem might come along, you just impose the theory on the problem.  That doesn’t work, I’m sorry.  Even Stuart Hall, before he died, recently, he said he was so disappointed with cultural studies because – you see cultural studies was never meant to produce critical theory.  It was meant to use theory as a resource to address important social issues.  I mean policing the crisis which is really one of the hallmarks raised out of cultural studies came out of a problem.  The problem of mugging, you know, police brutality in England.  And I think I see too many instances of where – don’t get me wrong.  I think that learning the geneologies of theory is important and I can’t imagine any university not teaching it.  Teaching the geneologies.  But I think we do it from the wrong perspective.  I think that what we do is we tend to enshrine the theories in such a way that they now become too abstract.  They become rigid.  They become isolated.  You know they seem to exist in a world that is removed from any sense of worldliness.  Any sense of what it means that – I teach my kids C Wright Mills. I talk about Gramsci. I talk about a variety of theories that they’ve never heard of.  I don’t go for fashion except if there’s something there that are really crucial that I think matters to them.  And my colleagues hate that, you know.  They want me to be – I talk about things that are important.  But I of course I talk about Foucault.  I talk about Marcuse. W.E. I talk about DuBois.  I mean, I talk about DuBois before I talk of RanciĆ©res, that’s for sure, you know.  And I think that the notion that the  university professor is a celebrity following in the footsteps of a kind of fashion theory is surely the hallmark of a dead professionalism.  That’s how I read it. I read it as a dead kind of professionalism.  It’s political in the worst sense in that it undoes what the relationship between knowledge and power should really be. It turns into something static and obscure.  I edit two book series, three journals and, you know, the stuff that I get that is so impenetrable that you would have to take LSD – and go on a trip of some magnitude to be able to even penetrate it.  And I always right back and I say, why do you write like this?  What’s the point.  I don’t get it.  Explain it to me.  They never respond.  They can’t do it.  And so I don’t understand why we need to subject our students to this. 

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