Thinkly Deeply

256px-Deep_in_thoughtOne of the core commitments of WITADA is to explore the forces that create and inhibit social change and in order to do this we need a commitment to thinking deeply about these issues. This is all the more serious given that the University system, which has historically had the mandate for teaching and encouraging critical thought, seems to no longer be able to fulfil this role. 

Sometime ago Universities stopped focusing on the development of critical thought as a core component of a student’s tertiary education and replaced it with an emphasis on job readiness. For me, critical thought, or thinking deeply, is a core feature of academia, knowledge generation and research in all its forms. It signifies a commitment to thinking ‘outside the box’ and being able to explore issues in their complexity and their depth, to questioning and pulling apart concepts that we might otherwise take for granted so that we can understand them better, challenge them, generate new ideas and knoweldges. 

Many others have shared this concern about the direction of Universities. Stanley Aronowitz, Benjamin Ginsberg and Christopher Newfield and others have all written in depth about these concerns. Now Henry Giroux’s latest book ‘Neoliberalism’s War on Higher Education’ has added to this collection. All of these writers have a common concern – the influence of market values and the corporatisation of Universities over the past 30-40 years and the way in which this has severely restricted the capacity for critical thought (in all disciplines, not just the social sciences). 

Universities now rely on corporate funding for much of their business including their research programs. So curriculum as well as research is being strongly influenced by priorities imposed by the corporate sector which includes specific forms of research as well as the job readiness of graduates. 

For University graduates this means that we are producing more compliant workers who have not had the opportunities to learn the skills required to think broadly and deeply and therefore to challenge existing ways of doing things. There is a confusion here about the significant differences between vocational education and higher education where the purpose is less on skill development for specific jobs and more on the development of critical thought and learning. My point here is not that skill development is less important than critical thought but rather that both are required to ensure that we continue to focus on expansion and development, on creating new ways and new ideas to assist us to move forward. 

 In terms of research there are also serious implications. Over time many great ideas have come from academic institutions and the freedom of thought that has been encouraged and celebrated there. But it seems that the freedom that academics once had to explore new ideas is now severely curbed. On a very basic level, it is very difficult to attract large scale funding for a research project that might seem a little crazy because it is ‘outside the box’ and yet most new and creative ideas have started out seeming a little crazy at first. 

So what are the implications of this for knowledge generation? My concern of course is that we will stop encouraging research and knowledge generation that embraces this deeper level thinking and therefore our efforts to create change will be less effective because they will not be based on a thorough and in-depth analysis. 

During my time as an academic in the 1990s I could feel the tide of this change in a very palpable way. In essence it was this that prompted me to leave the University and seek other opportunities for what I called, academic activism. Our challenge may be to explore other avenues and opportunities to embrace the process of knowledge generation and activism in meaningful ways. It no longer feels to me that Universities are the places where we can go to achieve this. Whilst I do not believe that a group such as WITADA can meet all of this need, I think that it might be able to take at least a step in that direction.