Education, education, education...

Students at a free IF Project seminar

Students at a free IF Project seminar

By Jonny Mundey

"Emancipatory politics must always … make what was previously deemed to be impossible seem attainable" (Mark Fisher)

Students often think they are at the cutting edge of political change, but could that actually ring true in the context of the general election? Arguably, taking a look at higher education is a useful way of getting a purchase on Corbyn’s achievement. Many political and philosophical undercurrents swirl beneath the numbers that make up the extraordinary snap-election result. None may be as significant as the sense that those supporting Corbyn’s Labour did so in part to see public services run in service of the public good, not the profit motive. This challenges free market orthodoxies that have been masquerading as plain old common sense for decades. Private is efficient, choice equals freedom, competition drives excellence. Really? Voters are no longer convinced. What is normal, i.e. considered common sense. What ‘the voting public will accept’ - has changed. In fact, to paraphrase Mark Fisher, what was previously ‘presented as necessary and inevitable’ has been revealed to be “a mere contingency”.

Labour argued that the institutions that provide healthcare and education in the UK are not compatible with market thinking and this has resonated with voters. For many the defence of the NHS is the prime example, but another policy stood out amongst Labour’s pledges; the promise to abolish university tuition fees. This surely contributed to the surge in support for Labour amongst younger voters, but the argument behind this pledge is just as crucial: not all services can be run like a business. 

Students hit the papers last week for just showing up at the polls. That is a welcome development (when I was studying in Manchester a few years ago there was widespread dismay the day after a BNP MEP was elected, partly it seemed due to low student turnout). That said, the figure of the student has been politicised in a broader sense. The ‘marketisation’ of higher education in recent years has seen students recast as consumers. This has been narrated as a good thing by successive governments (even while part-time student numbers have dropped by 56% since 2010 and arts and humanities courses have been cut across UK universities). 

What the application of free market principles to higher education fails to acknowledge is that knowledge is a public good, not a consumer product. You cannot reduce the value of a degree to the future salary accruing to an individual student, because higher education provides more than training for a well-paid job. Universities can and should provide a space in society where thinking critically and deeply is recognised as a good in itself. Everyone in a democratic society is a thinker. This is something that the Corbyn campaign appeared to fully grasp in the emphasis placed on universal access to education. If we want to be part of an egalitarian society that is resilient enough to take on the frenetic, polyphonic, accelerating reality of 2017, it will pay to recognise the support shown last week for putting the public good before the market. Higher education is a test case for this.

Jonny Mundey is co-founder of The IF Project

Thinkers wanted! Applications open for 'Thinking Without Borders'

Applications are open for the new IF project course, Thinking Without Borders: A Short History of the Present. The course will begin in late April 2017, thanks to the support of the Big Lottery Fund.

Thinking Without Borders is a free 10-week course in university-level humanities. It will explore contemporary concerns such as truth and lies, power and freedom, nations and rights, culture and identity as seen from the perspective of writers, historians, philosophers and artists.  

We’re all getting cleverer... but we also need to think critically

The humanities encourage critical reasoning: students at IF’s 2016 Thinking course discuss Marcel Duchamp’s artwork “Fountain"

The humanities encourage critical reasoning: students at IF’s 2016 Thinking course discuss Marcel Duchamp’s artwork “Fountain"

By Peter Wilby

A few months ago, I was talking to James Flynn, an American-born academic who discovered what became known to psychologists as “the Flynn effect”. He showed that, across the world, average IQs had risen by roughly three percentage points every decade since at least 1930, and almost certainly much longer. To put his findings at their crudest and most dramatic, the average person living in the early 20th century would, if given a present-day IQ test (where the average is by definition 100), score between 50 and 70 and therefore now be regarded as mentally retarded.

Since there can be no biological explanation for this phenomenon – which is not seriously disputed by reputable psychologists, though Flynn is not one of them but a political studies specialist – the explanation must be environmental. According to Flynn, modernity makes us brighter through its extra years of education, greater of supply of jobs that require abstract thinking and analytic abilities, leisure pursuits (such as video games) that make greater cognitive demands, and media that bombard us with visual symbols.

Most Britons and Americans in 1900 thought of the world in concrete, utilitarian terms. Ask them what dogs and rabbits had in common and they would say that we use dogs to hunt rabbits. To say they are both mammals would have been meaningless to them even if the term had been familiar. Modernity puts a premium on abstraction and classification. It requires people to put on what Flynn calls “scientific spectacles”.

Moreover, Flynn argues, those spectacles raise the quality of moral debate because they make people take the hypothetical seriously. He told me how he challenged his father’s racial prejudice by saying “what if your skin turned black?” His father regarded it as a “dumb” question: “who do you know whose skin has ever turned black?” Racists still exist, Flynn conceded, but they never answer in that fashion and, in general, modernity puts racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination on the defensive.

So, if we are all using scientific spectacles and raising the level of our moral reasoning, how would he account for Donald Trump’s success? The answer, you may think, is that much of Trump’s support came from voters who don’t have college degrees: 67 per cent of white non-graduates backed him. But among white graduates, he also got a majority (49 per cent against Hillary Clinton’s 45 per cent). 

Evidently, level of education alone didn’t account for Trump’s success nor, I believe, would IQ even if we had data on how his voters perform in tests. Moreover, Flynn says there is no evidence that presidential debates on TV have become more analytic over the past half-century. If anything, they have become less so. Using emotive language to get a visceral response is still the best route to political success and, if we read across from Trump’s voters to Brexit voters, that is probably true in Britain too.

Flynn offers two explanations. First, the rise of visual culture has a downside: far fewer people read serious novels and history. “They live in a bubble of the present, believing what they are told because they have nothing to position it against.” Second, students learn to use scientific spectacles largely in specialist, utilitarian contexts. Even the best universities don’t produce good citizens or even try to do so.

What all this suggests is that, in designing an education system that will more closely serve the needs of what people like to call “the real world”, we have lost something important. We are not giving graduates, let alone non-graduates, the skills of critical thinking. These are embedded in humanities subjects -- history, philosophy, literature -- which also take us, or should take us, deeply into the realm of moral reasoning. As the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Nicholas Kristof once put it, the humanities “give us a toolbox to think seriously about ourselves and the world”. And that toolbox should be freely available to everyone, whether or not they want to or can go to university. Then perhaps we may get better levels of democratic debate and better political decisions.

Peter Wilby is a columnist for the New Statesman and former editor of the New Statesman

Calling all free thinkers! Applications are now open for 'Thinking: a free introduction'

Calling all free thinkers! Applications are now open for 'Thinking: a free introduction'

Applications are open for the new IF project course, Thinking: a free introduction. The course will begin in January 2016, thanks to the support of the Big Lottery Fund.

Thinking. Everyone does it, but what does it mean to think critically?

We are offering a 10-week interdisciplinary course in university-level arts and humanities that will introduce how writers, historians and philosophers think - and how the methods they use enable us to interpret the world and the complexities of human experience.

Find out more...

A Lesson for Higher Education from the Spinal Cord Repair Breakthrough

The most memorable aspect of BBC Panorama’s heart-warming account of a significant breakthrough for people paralysed by spinal cord injuries was not the skill of medical staff, the brilliance of scientists or the bravery of Darek Fidyka, the Polish man who is undergoing the gruelling and risky treatment, it was the dedication and generosity of all those involved. And it provides lessons for the way we fund higher education.

School's in for Summer: The IF Humanities Summer School 2014

The IF Humanities Summer School took place across June 2014, giving students a taster of a range of humanities subjects. Early evening Lectures and discussions introduced undergraduate-level Literature and Classics (why read them?), History (what do historians do? How do interpretations of the past become relevant in the present), Visual Arts and Film Studies (what makes some paintings and films better than others? How do you 'read' a music video critically?) and Political Philosophy (the relationship between freedom and social justice). 

IF makes The Guardian education pages

Screen Shot, IF Project in the Guardian, March 2014

We were delighted to be featured in The Guardian education section.  

"So what about a university for the humanities that is completely free? Not a MOOC (massive online open course), which leaves students to learn at home alone, but a university that, though it would have an online element, would also have, at its core, first-hand contact with academics and other thinkers, and one that would also offer the stimulation of mixing with other students. The idea sounds impossible but..." Read more.


Barbara Gunnell (IF Co-Founder) writes for openDemocracy on how one of the best university systems in the world is being reshaped to suit the needs of business.

Read an extract below, or the full piece here

Since 2012 and the increase in university fees, effectively to £9,000 a year, there has been a steady erosion of logic in the debate about universities, their funding and the fundamental purpose of a university education....

If the core principle is that an individual should pay for a degree-course because it might secure him or her a better-paid career over a lifetime,  then surely this would apply equally to secondary school education. Those who have a secondary education are clearly more likely to get higher paid jobs than if they finished school or stopped paying attention at, say, 11. But, you could argue, why is the taxpayer coughing up for any individual child to have a better career?  Why not save the taxpayer money and make parents pay for any secondary education (if it is needed). Poorer families could of course take out loans to finance their children's secondary education as they now have to do to finance their university education .

And why stop there? Children who absorb basic primary skills are more likely to get a job than those who can barely read or write. Should the state be paying for this? Since an increasing number of jobs today - shelf-stacking, warehouse packing, cleaning etc – require no formal education at all, why not abandon the whole state education exercise? Those who want their children to have a better career can simply hire tutors and if needs be take out loans on behalf of their toddlers.  

In short, if an individual’s education at any level is seen purely an investment for a future economic return to the individual, then perhaps the government has no business spending any money at all on education. 

Degrees of privilege

IF Founder Barbara Gunnell's recent piece for Open Democracy addresses the inequality in access to higher education in the UK today.

Read an extract below, or the full piece here.

"The pretence that the university system today is still broadly meritocratic is becoming harder to sustain. It rests on two pillars of faith: firstly, that access to university is via ability rather than class, race or social status; and, secondly, that money worries need not deter any school-leaver with the will and ability to go to university.

But the first pillar is crumbling under the weight of evidence that access to university, particularly higher-status universities, is far from equal. The second is contradicted by watching working-class families simply priced out of higher education. They have been hit first by the scrapping of the Education Maintenance Allowance which had helped families keep 16-19 year olds in school long enough to take A-levels, and then by the daunting debt burden of three years of university fees and living costs."