Don’t get your Lyotard in a twist, Peter Munz

University Futures and the Politics of Reform in New Zealand
Michael Peters and Peter Roberts
Dunmore Press, $34.95,
ISBN 0 86469 350 8

During the last fifteen years, our universities have been transformed from moderately well-functioning collegiate institutions educating students into polytechnics which are universities only in name and all but state-owned enterprises, run by managers who employ teachers to instruct students in vocationally desirable and useful skills.

The change is gigantic and, on the whole, totally detrimental in that the new universities which have emerged  are, with a few minor exceptions, ceasing to provide an academic atmosphere in which minds can be cultivated – an atmosphere all the more essential in our free-market society in which the compelling, ancient and traditional cultural guide-lines have been eroded to make room for profit maximisation and economic rationality.

In the old, culture-based societies, nothing but training in vocational skills was needed, because cultural guide-lines were taken for granted. In modern, loosely-knit, free-market societies, there is a crying need for the cultivation of minds to take the place of the culture which has disappeared. The present book fingers the thoughtless application of economic free-market neo-liberalism (often directly inspired by Business Round Table thinking), as the ultimate cause of these changes. It explains how the changes have been brought about, recklessly, hastily and piecemeal, without any proper overall scrutiny of what they amount to, least of all without a single thought about the wisdom of assimilating academic life to supermarkets, insurance companies and car assembly plants by placing them all in the hands of professional managers. In short, the book makes compelling reading for anybody interested in genuine academic education.

University Futures is not just a historical account of these changes. It is also a carefully and soberly argued criticism of these changes and highlights especially three salient mistakes condoned by our Ministers of Education and the Parliaments which connived at them.

First, it explains that, as a result of the transformation, students are now supposed to know exactly what their self-interest is so that they can choose the courses and the institution which provides the wares they intend to buy. Ever since Adam Smith flaunted the idea that we can safely rely on self-interest to guide us and that we need nothing else, critics (from Karl Marx on the left to Max Weber on the right) have pointed out that in a modern society, divorced as it is from its traditional culture and, therefore, deprived of a cultural backdrop, there is no real way by which people can tell what their self-interest is. Secondly, the book draws attention to the nefarious role played by the New Zealand Qualifications Authority, which divided time-honoured knowledge into portable units so that they could be marketed to students and so that universities and polytechnics would compete for students to sell these units to. Thirdly, it exhibits the mischief caused in academic situations by the Hawke Report, which introduced the notion that charters should define educational outcomes and performance be measured.

Such thinking reflects the “language of managerialism” in such concepts as “mission statements”, “strategic plans” and “performance indicators”, which have nothing to do with the traditional governance of the university. The search for knowledge and the teaching of it are open-ended and unpredictable and therefore incompatible with the idea that one can lay down the future. When academic institutions, dominated by the management theory called “scenario-building”, are led to “rehearse the future”, they cease to be academic. Genuine knowledge consists, instead, of ever new alternative ways of understanding the world. Readers who doubt the book’s reservations about such thinking, should consult Karl Popper’s writings on the deadening  consequences of “rehearsing the future” when one is dealing with knowledge. To “rehearse the future” is to drop Darwinism and relapse into creationism.

Enough said. The book is a clear denunciation of the mistakes our politicians have made and is especially commendable because it does so without rancour and passion. This way, the glaring mistakes are all the more obvious and the authors’ carefully researched documentation makes a completely convincing case.

However, the book is marred by chapters 3 and 4 on Foucault and Lyotard – both irrelevant and superfluous. Peters and Roberts try to make out that these French philosophers are on their side. On the contrary, I would suggest that while these post-modern French thinkers do object to proper university education for reasons other than those of neo-liberal economists, they have nonetheless provided ammunition for the politicians responsible for the misguided transformation of universities into vocational, skill-training institutions. For if – as Foucault has argued – knowledge is nothing but a hollow excuse for tyrannous power, and if – as Lyotard keeps arguing – one should stop teaching knowledge because it is an act of imperialistic aggression, then university education over the last two centuries has been barking up the wrong tree. And the sooner universities stop promoting both knowledge and globally recognisable rationality the better.

The authors’ error of judgement about Foucault revolves around his use of the word “discipline”. He did not mean by it, as the authors seem to think, a field of study, but the arbitrary and irrational habit of marginalising people by declaring them either criminal or insane so that one could “discipline” them. The invocation of Lyotard is particularly confusing. The authors, justifiably and meaningfully, denounce as “globalisation” the neo-liberal obsession of reducing all education to its market value. Lyotard, too, denounces “globalisation”. But he means by this term the habit of subsuming the way indigenous people chant their myths under an umbrella of universal meta-narratives. Lyotard’s rejection of globalisation is the direct opposite of the authors’ rejection. Lyotard, wrongly, attacks rational knowledge; the authors, rightly, attack the reduction of knowledge to marketable commodities.

If anything, Lyotard’s and Foucault’s devaluation and relativisation of knowledge must have been a comfort to the politicians who have transformed our universities from collegiate institutions, in which knowledge was cultivated and passed on, into institutions in which mere managers are contracting instructors to impart vocationally useful skills.

Peter Munz is Emeritus Professor of History at Victoria University of Wellington.

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