Monday, 8 June 2009

The University of Utopia: Radicalising Higher Education

Thursday 4th June 2009, University of Lincoln

This conference echoed Thomas More’s (1516) call for universal civic education, where the highest pleasures are those of the mind. The conference asked whether there are alternatives to the current culture of vocationalism and academic capitalism in universities, and the questions of whether universities should serve the needs of the economy, or whether they should produce responsible, critical citizens.

The conference was organised by Prof. Michael Neary, Dean of Teaching and Learning at the University of Lincoln. This institution, he claims, has committed itself to a Humboldtian concept of a university where social considerations shape the university and the individual commits themselves to shaping the world around them as a result of their education.

Keynote speakers at the day conference were:
Ron Barnett, Institute of Education - who offered optimism based on the fact that universities have been around for centuries, and they are survivors. He argued for feasible utopias and the institution of four critical concepts which can take us into these utopian spaces: the therapeutic university (it should provide students with succour); the liquid university (it should enable us to deal with fluidity and change); the authentic university (as society encourages the inauthentic, the university should encourage authenticity); the university as an ethical space.

Antonia Darder, University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana: “Breaking the Silence: A study into the pervasiveness of oppression”. This was a moving talk on a theme familiar to students and faculty from the cultural margins of the academy in the United States. Universities very often pay lip service to the notions of equal opportunity and diversity. Meanwhile the student body, faculty and administrations of those universities remain predominantly white in demographic and in ethos. The kind of radical scholarship which might transform them is often the object of suspicion, and its practitioners deemed irrational. Power structures in the university are not dislodged by their policies of diversity, rather the university itself is a vehicle of containment of oppositional voices. Just as long as marginal subjects conceal their social, historical and spatial origins, and alternative ways of being and thinking, then they are acceptable. If they challenge the prevailing structures, then they are viewed as renegades. Furthermore, within the curriculum or university structures, if there are attempts to acknowledge difference, these will be seen as indoctrination – so called ‘political correctness’. Professor Darder showed a movie, made by UIU-C students and faculty that captures some of the constraints and instances of resistance on that campus.

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