Friday, May 29, 2020

Does Higher education need a Reformation?

Last year I visited Wittenberg and that famous door where Luther pinned his 95 theses. It was to change the world, irreversibly. I have written about the important and lasting roles of religious leaders such as Confucius, Buddha, Jesus and Mohammed, as well as religious educators such as St AugustineLuther, Calvin and Ignatius. Much of what we see in the calendar, structure, hierarchy and teaching in our Universities is deeply rooted in their religious origins. In may ways academe was never revolutionised by the reformation. It was already, by then, a network of institutions that carried on without interruption. My argument is that it is due its Reformation.

Whatever you may think of Peter Thiel, he’s smart. I don’t just mean business smart but intellectually. PayPal entrepreneur, first investor in Facebook, predictor of the financial crisis and so on… impressive CV. Sure he’s an extreme libertarian, with some extreme views, but we need people who pop our conventional bubbles. So, when I heard him utter the following in an interview, it hung around in my head, until I was compelled to expand on it… Here’s the phrase, ‘Higher Education is like the Catholic Church on the eve of the Reformation’. That’s a damn interesting observation. I've written about Illich, who drew parallels between schools and the church in Deschooling Society but Thiel captures both a diagnosis and treatment in this one phrase. He’s talking Reformation.

What Thiel went on to explain, was that like the Catholic Church, HE had turned into a global, institutionalised phenomenon that demanded increasingly large sums of money from people, for an experience that is much the same year after year. The cost of indulgences as well as the transfer of productive wealth into the non-productive church, was a major catalyst for the Reformation. People were literally becoming indebted to the level of indenture to the church. This was impoverishing the populace while enriching the institutions. $1.6 trillion of student debt in the US. and similar problems arising in Europe? Even the rich, were handing over huge sums, not to charity but to the Church. This is reminiscent of hedge-fund manager Paulson, who recently wrote a cheque for over $400 million to Harvard. This is buying personal prestige (used to be salvation), not in any way moral progress.

The insidious side of the Catholic Church was the threat, that if you didn’t pay up, you were damned. This same powerful idea has been nurtured by University-educated politicians and HE lobbyists. If you don’t get a Degree, you’re damned as a failure. They perpetuate the myth, that if you don’t go to University, you’ll go to some sort of economic hell, never being admitted to the heaven that is gainful employment. Bryan Caplan has written, in The Case Against Education, a solid case showing that this promise is largely (approx. 80% signalling). If he is right, then huge amounts of money, that could be usefully spent elsewhere is being wasted.

Monastic campuses
Like the enormous building projects by the Catholic Church, Universities are spending untold sums of money on monumental buildings. The occupancy rate of their existing property is already ridiculously low, as it was and is with churches, yet the capital budgets keep on rising. It would be more accurate to say, that like the Catholic Church, campuses have become huge, self-sufficient, monastic communities, almost towns within cities. Board and lodging has become a significant revenue stream for many institutions. In some cities they almost overwhelm everything else. With University Rankings they also have their Cathedrals; Ivy League in the US, Oxbridge in the UK.

Teaching as preaching
The dominant pedagogy is still the lecture, basically a sermon to a compliant audience. There’s a lectern, a lecture, designed for the one-way transmission of knowledge, surely as far from contemporary needs as one can imagine. Stuck with a Medieval pedagogy, founded, through necessity in an age when there were no books, the dominance of the lecture lives on as a shameful, religious, pedagogic fossil. Even worse is not recording lectures. Imagine a journalist not publishing their pieces in print or a novelist not putting their work into print? Denying students access to that lecture for revision, note taking, reflection, rewinding (especially if students are being taught in their second language) and so on, is pedagogically bankrupt.

Crisis of relevance
We seem to have reached a position where HE has drifted in terms of relevance, whether it is the degrees offered, the way they are taught or the exaggerated promises. It seems to have lost its way a little, just like the Church in the 16th century. Rather than serve our needs it often seems to be serving its own needs. With falling enrolments, suspicion about the worthiness of a degree when everyone has one and the high cost, is leading to arguments that question its relevance.

Higher Education's increasing distance from practical skills, unless they involve high salaries (medicine, vets, engineering, law, architecture…) has turned them into seminaries, with the academic priesthood writing ever more obscure manuscripts for smaller and smaller audiences. The scriptoria and libraries are being flooded by manuscripts, most of which are read only by the authors and reviewers. It has become increasingly scholastic, moving in decreasing circles of relevance. The ballooning world of third rate Journals, which are rarely read, and full of low-level research has happened as the incentives have been around publication (no matter where) rather than teaching and learning.

Undue political influence
We have politicians who almost universally went to University, leaders who largely went to just two Universities and many Ministers who did one particular course at Oxford, PPE, a medieval hangover (replacement for Classics). Maybe the idea of a trained Priesthood for politics isn’t too far-fetched. Beyond this David Goodhart in his book The Road to Somewhere identifies an emerged 'graduate class' that now dominates politics and the professions imposting their views on others. Brexit indicated that many had had enough of this views. 

Academic dominance
Like the scholastic age (the Dark Ages) this has also led to the decimation, in some economies, of vocational education, which they are desperately trying to revive. As HE sucks the life out of vocational learning, we find ourselves in Europe with HE heavy economies struggling, while the German, Austrian and Swiss economies thrive. Hold on – isn’t that where the Reformation hit originated and spread from? Luther, Calvin, Knox… There are serious questions being asked about so much time and money being spent on abstract, academic pursuits at the expense of other needs in society, such as those who do not go to college, healthcare, social care and so on.

Off for Christmas? Off for Easter? The University calendar is punctuated by holidays, largely determined by religious and agricultural concerns. The Michaelmas terms starts on the feast day of St Michael, the start of the academic year. This adherence to a rigid timetable with only one entrance date per year makes the system primitive and inflexible. It meant that workload for faculty and students couldn't be spread more reasonable across the sort of timetable that the rest of society had adopted.

The Catholic Church was none too pleased when the printing revolution produced Bibles in local languages and thinkers who questioned their authority. They found themselves losing control of knowledge; its censorship, means of creation, production and distribution. That’s because the Reformation was, in part, amplified and accelerated by a technology revolution – printing. Similarly, the resistance to the use of technology in teaching and learning has led to little more than recording lectures and resources on a Virtual Learning Environment (VLE). They were ill-prepared for Covid, rushing to replicated lectures on Zoom and struggling with the more sophisticated forms of online learning that have been around for decades, including online assessment.


The Church, which taught in Latin, kept their power by excluding people from reading in their own languages, suddenly found that people were not only reading scripture in their own languages but also writing and challenging the orthodoxy. The Enlightenment came fast on its heels. Now we have a technological revolution that is no less Copernican, the internet, which democratises, decentralises and disintermediates the learning game. I expect this revolution to have a similar effect on HE, driving access to knowledge and learning through a new means of creation, production and distribution. Rather than accepting increasing costs, we should demand lower costs, better access, and a future where education is not seen as built on elitism and scarcity but on scale and abundance. One beneficial effect and almost immediate effect of the reformation was a push for universal education and access. That stuck. This, in our modern age, is what we need in tertiary education. What I’m arguing for is not the extinction of HE but a Reformation. The Reformation did not destroy Christianity and its ethos. It was strengthened by shedding its obsession with money, indulgences, outdated processes, hierarchy, priesthoods and elitism. In fact, the Reformation led to the rapid expansion of our Universities and a change in their character, awy from religious centres towards more secular, intellectual environments. We need something similar today - a rethink about their purpose, processes, pedagogy and payment.