Thursday, 2 February 2017

Universities: garnering profits from teaching the obvious.

Recently hospitalized by a kidney stone I was delighted that Science has bestowed medical knowledge on such as my son who is currently studying for a degree in nursing. I am also delighted that he is learning the pathology and aetiology of diabetes as, with such knowledge, he will be able to help a lot of sick people. Such science is a wonderful thing. Then I read one of his essays – one that addressed the contentious proposition that a ‘holistic’ approach to a patient was the most beneficial one. Apparently various ‘studies’ (I apologise early on for the plethora of quotation marks that you will encounter in this piece – the content just seems to lend itself to them) have suggested that it is best to view Mrs Dawkins in bed 12 as not merely a case of icterus or jaundice due to hepatitis, exhibiting skin discoloration amongst other things, but as a human person unlucky enough to be suffering from such a condition. It is also, apparently, important to take into account that she has emotions and is part of a social, familial and cultural network. These conclusions have been arrived at using both 'quantitative' and 'qualitative research methods' the studies inform me. They are based, thus, on sound psychological method. Similarly, my daughter, pursuing a degree in Business Studies showed me an essay in which she felt obliged to quote various studies which had ‘discovered’ that ‘toxic’ leaders of corporate business organisations were generally a bad thing when it comes to commercial ‘outcomes,’ measured in terms of profit and loss.

My immediate reaction to the above is to say something vulgar like “No shit Sherlock” and then, following on, to notice a strange choreography going on. My children both know that patients in hospitals are real people and not just disembodied medical conditions and they could easily guess that ‘toxic’ leadership is seldom successful, but, in their role as learners in our universities they have to learn the steps of the dance. Step one is to put such common sense aside. Step two is to ape a kind of gaping ignorance which does not know these things and then, step three, having read the requisite studies with their dates, their list of names and their peer-reviewing and replication studies, affect, gratefully, in step four, to have ‘discovered’ these astonishing news items. They are asked, in this choreography to behave like religious acolytes who have just received a revelation handed down from on high by a Moses-like authority. In their essays they then cite such authorities, demonstrate that they have learnt the new gospel and are waved through the various hurdle gates that represent progress in acadaemia. They will have joined in the academic gavotte and been duly rewarded with the qualifications they need to take up a career in their chosen areas during which they are far more likely to assume rather than discover the edicts of common sense.

When one pans out and surveys this academic ballet – largely centred around ‘studies’ in the discipline of psychology as opposed to the old –fashioned sciences of physiology, maths, chemistry etc – one sees a vast self-justifying industry dedicated to the discovery of the obvious and to dressing it up as epiphany. Whole careers and university departments are founded on this process and, for the most part, society and the media go along with it. And yet, given that my children knew about toxic leadership being, generally, undesirable and people being people before they even set foot on the threshold of acadaemia, can this vast superstructure of ‘learning’ not be seen as a vast and redundant luxury larded on top of the human condition?

In philosophy there is a device, first invented by the 14th century scholastic philosopher and theologian William of Ockham known as Ockham’s razor. This advances the idea that, in explanation and theory building one should use the principle of parsimony. That is to say that if one can explain something without assuming this or that hypothetical entity there is no ground for assuming it. Now, if one applies a form of Ockham’s razor to modern psychology-based acadaemia and pares away all the intellectual blubber and unnecessary superstructure of studies that discover the obvious, the commonplace and the everyday as revelation one might remove a whole unnecessary and self-perpetuating industry from our universities. Indeed, based on nothing, it might simply implode as the famous South Sea Bubble did in the 18th century or as the Fannie Mae and Freddy Mac subprime mortgages and credit default swaps did in 2008. That the western universities can indulge in such pointless and questionable intellectual luxury is, in itself, revealing. Were real world economics to shift so that this vacuous dance could no longer justify itself the whole apparatus of teaching the obvious might crumble so that only useful and real learning remained. The dance would be over and the accompanying instruments unstringed.

The problem is, of course, that there would be enormous resistance from those who benefit from this industry and from the universities themselves who put a large number of bums on seats by ‘teaching’ its content. They would almost feel they had lost their raison d’ĂȘtre should such a loss occur. This is due, perhaps, I might daringly aver, to their raison d’ĂȘtre having become the creation of profit rather than the furthering of real learning.

From where does all of this derive? It derives from a peculiar psychological model that considers itself to be based on a rigorous intellectual discipline. It assumes that human beings are tabulae rasae about whom we know nothing and about whom everything is to be discovered like a new species of rodent found in the jungles of Borneo. However, this assumption is a fallacy because before we don our white coats, take up our clipboards and enter the psychological laboratory we are already endowed with enormous quantities of knowledge and common sense without which we wouldn’t be able to even interpret the first sentence in the psychology text books. To pretend that all this prior knowledge is absent in ourselves, in others and, particularly, in our students, and that we enter the lab as erased units is simply to push intellectual contortionism to unfeasible limits. It is on this mistake that the teetering architecture of the edifice of psychological studies is based.


  1. It's only easy if you know the answer. I don't think that common sense can be assumed in students. If you look at how much common sense is taught in the national curriculum you might get closer to the students' starting point. Whether it is 'proper academic'? it is a step in the right direction for them to attempt to critically evaluate such things. Degrees are a bit dumbed down perhaps but I don't recall doing very much different back in the 90s.

  2. But the job of the degree teachers is to teach the degree subject not common sense which is supposed to be, by definition, "common" to all regardless of profession. You can't start from the assumption that some people behave as if they haven't spent even one day in the world. One has to trust to life to teach such things to them. It's like when nurses send a green young nurse to ask for a long stand from another ward. The penny drops pretty quickly. You can't formalise this in a teaching curriculum.