Rebekah Nathan’s My Freshman Year: Part 2

In the first part of these reflections on Rebekah Nathan’s My Freshman YearI looked at how Professor Cathy Small’s pop-ethnographic immersion into undergraduate life at Northern Arizona University might be considered an example of a minor academic genre of disciplinary reflection that bridges the perceived gap between research and teaching within higher education. By choosing to take ‘student culture’ as the site for her anthropological research, Small not only provides an engaging, entry-level introduction to anthropology but also provides anthropological insights relevant for teaching and learning more generally. Most notably, she notes how the academy’s idealized vision of ‘student culture’ as primarily a learning community has become fragmented by the competing demands of working and consumer lifestyles (the domination of abstract labour), one of the effects of which is to transform the activity of individual learning into something more “work-like” as students are required to work more efficiently at being “students”. In this second part, I want to consider the implications of this in relation to the idea of communities of learning in the context of the professionalization of social networks more generally.

3. Learning Communities

If student culture has become ‘professionalized’ as another facet within the fragmented demands of working life, what happens to the academic communities that academics idealize as the imagined basis of student culture? In a recently published article on the history of teaching excellence, I traced the emergence of the idea of teaching excellence within the English educational policy to what Bill Readings characterized as the growing “Americanization” of global higher education (Readings 1996: 4), and situated this in the context of the influence of Ernest Boyer’s re-conceptualization of scholarship (and so the teaching-research nexus) in response to theories of human capital and prompted by anxieties over the need to develop a learning society.

One aspect of such Americanization that I didn’t have time to talk about in that article is the influence of Boyer’s emphasis on “communities of learning” in the Carnegie Foundation’s  Campus Life: In Search of Community (1990). Although Boyer wasn’t the only or the first to discuss communities of learning, the practice of which can be dated in the US back to Alexander Meiklejohn in the late 1920s, Tinto (2003: 7, n.1) attributes their recent popularity to a series of reports and studies in the 1980s and 1990s, including Alexander Astin’s Achieving Educational Excellence: A Critical Assessment of Priorities and Practices in Education (1985) and Boyer’s College: The undergraduate experience in America (1987). I have traced the influence of the latter’s  work upon American and British Higher Education policy, first as US Commissioner of Education in the late 1970s, where he had sought to shift federal priorities from mere quantitative access to education towards the qualitative promotion of educational excellence across the sector, linked to the increasing demands of what he referred to as the learning society, and then as the president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching in 1980s.

As Cathy Small points out in My Freshman Year (44), the Carnegie Foundation’s Campus Life: In Search of Community responds to the same issues of the social and cultural fragmentation of the student body that she had experienced in her own project. Boyer attributed a ‘declining quality of life on campus’ to the fragmentation caused in part by a growing and increasingly diverse student body:

During the last fifty years …enrollments have exploded… Women, minorities, and older students have enrolled in larger numbers, making the nation’s campuses intellectually richer and culturally more diverse. However, strains and tensions associated with change have also become apparent in campus life …It was in this climate that The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, in cooperation with the American Council on Education, launched a study of campus life …Many of the issues faced by colleges and universities reach far beyond the campus. America seems to be increasingly divided, racial tensions seem to be increasing, the gap between rich and poor has widened, and self-indulgence is celebrated, while service is undervalued. However, when all is said and done people do need one another. No one can make it alone. If colleges and universities cannot find common goals, if higher education cannot overcome the intellectual and social separations that so diminish the quality of life on campus, what can be expected from society at large? But, if purposefulness, openness, justice, discipline, caring, and celebrativeness can become hallmarks of campus life, not only will the integrity of higher education be affirmed, but perhaps renewal of the nation can also be realized. (Boyer 1990: 1-5 )

In response to a declining sense of national cohesiveness – the hallmark of capitalist modernity, it should of course be noted, since at least Matthew Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy – the Carnegie Foundation proposed six principles of an effective learning community that could provide the model for wider cultural unity: to be educationally purposeful (the sharing of academic goals and work between students and staff to strengthen teaching and learning), open (the uncompromising protection of freedom of expression and civility), just (the honouring of the sacredness of the person and the pursuit of diversity), disciplined (the acceptance of group obligations and the guidance of well-defined governance procedures), caring (the sensitive support of the well-being of each member and the encouragement of service to others), and celebrative (the affirmation of the heritage of the institution).

At the heart of many of these principles is a vision of the recognition and reward of teaching excellence, understood in terms of active, critical and lifelong learning fostered within learning communities:

Still, as the first priority, a college should be committed to excellence in education, and college, at its best, is a place where students, through creative teaching, are intellectually engaged …And yet at a college or university of quality, the classroom should be the place where community begins. Educator Parker Palmer strikes precisely the right note when he says, “Knowing and learning are communal acts.” If we view student life from this perspective, then strengthening community rests not just with counselors, chaplains, residence hall supervisors, or the deans, but also with faculty who care about students and engage them in active learning. With this vision, the great teachers not only transmit information, but also create the common ground of intellectual commitment. They stimulate active, not passive, learning in the classroom, encourage students to be creative, not conforming, and inspire them to go on learning long after college days are over. We urge, therefore, that colleges and universities reward not only research and publication, but great teaching, too. (Carnegie 1990: 12)

Although Boyer (1987: 15) claimed he did ‘not wish to romanticize the notion of “College as Community”,’ his reference to Parker Palmer’s To Know As We Are Known: A Spirituality of Education (1983) attests to a deeply spiritual ‘recovery of community’ (to quote the title of Parker’s preface to his work), one that would seem indebted to Boyer’s and Parker’s shared Christian faith (Jacobsen & Jacobsen, 2014). Indeed, Parker’s rejection of an objectivist model of education for the ‘risky business’ of a living encounter between subjects (Parker 1990, Parker 1998: 16, Parker 2015: 9-10) anticipates more recent work by Gert Biesta and is perhaps rooted in a similar Christian existentialism (cf. my own engagement with Biesta’s work here:

This spiritual ‘renewal of the nation’ through the ‘recovery of [the learning] community’ – a moral economy that underpins Boyer’s own political economy of human capital – also suggests the social limits of Boyer’s educational vision, which precedes from the family and culminates in a vision of individual character (cf. Boyer 1996: 4-8). Roth and Lee (2006: 28) have pointed out similar problems in recent theorizing and implementation of learning communities and the associated idea of communities of practice, which are ‘artificially fitted into dualistic epistemologies that reducing knowing and learning to the individual within the disciplines of psychology or to the collective in the sociology of education’. The critical theorist Walter Benjamin, as I’ve described elsewhere, regarded these limitations as inherent to bourgeois educational theory, which he claimed revolved in an undialectical manner around the two poles of psychology and ethics.

As Roth and Lee argue (2006: 28), this idealistic and individualistic conception of learning communities overlooks a number of problems: there is little consensus in the scholarship regarding what exactly constitutes a learning community; learning rarely involves a single, homogeneous community of practice but usually several distinct communities with different practical motives; and the totality of exchange relations that characterize any community in wider society is often absent within formal education. In other words, recent scholarship on learning communities has a tendency either to generalize the term in such a way that it merely characterizes something largely omnipresent within formal education and so undistinctive (for the purpose of their statistical analysis of National Survey of Student Engagement scores, for example, Zhao and Kuh (2004: 9) define a learning community as ‘a formal program where groups of students take two or more classes together’) or else to capture distinctive developments that are more disciplinarily specific and so unrepresentative of learning as a whole (‘most of the handful of multiple-institution studies that have been reported,’ Zhao and Kuh (2004: 8) point out, ‘are from the two-year college sector or focused on students in specific disciplines such as engineering,’ where the development of learning communities involves a shift away from ‘expecting students to come up with the “right” answer which is characteristic of traditional pedagogical approaches such as the large lecture class’ to ‘peer learning and interaction’).

As Roth and Lee (2006) point out, attempts to measure the efficacy of learning communities revert to individualized metrics of grade increase – and one would expect, in the near future, earnings increases – that overlook a larger sense of the wider social impact of learning communities, or even of higher education in general, for those that don’t experience them, or differentials between different kinds of learning communities or levels of education, since members of an institution or a society can’t all be in the same learning community or enjoy the same “elite” education without undermining the nature and cohesion of that community or institution itself. To make the obvious point, analyses need to reflectively incorporate methodologies capable of demonstrating that grade or wage differences produced by the presence of learning communities, or education more generally, aren’t actually the result of a negative impact upon those lacking or regarded as lacking such experiences or credentials. To the extent that the promotion of learning communities expresses a sense of wider social fragmentation, it is hard to imagine that these can be overcome by educational means, in the way Boyer imagines, because education fails to collectively and cohesively address the root causes of this fragmentation and is likely to exacerbate such divisions.

Small suggests in My Freshman Year that some kinds of learning communities may also contribute to the very fragmentation of the academic body they are intended to overcome. As Small argues, there can be a ritual function to certain kinds of teaching practices, that through their very performance attempt ‘to establish the perception of the classroom’ according to a powerful ‘shared American ideal of community: a place of equality, informality, intimacy, and reciprocity’ (93). This can be seen in the obligatory, round-robin class introductions and small-group discussions and presentations that permeate learning in higher education, activities that – as effective and significant as they are – reassert the value of the individual and the small group at the expense of the larger community precisely because there is no practical possibility of larger community. Indeed, the international students Small speaks to identify ‘the frequency of group [work,] projects and presentations’ as characteristic of a distinctively American academic approach’ (82).

Indeed, the multiplication of these community-building groups actually makes it more difficult to cohere into a larger whole:

…efforts at building community [often] compete with the demand for choice… Because requiring common experiences is vastly unpopular…AnyU, like many universities today, encourages community through elective participation… The proliferation of event choices, together with the consistent message to “get involved,” and the ever-available option of dropping out, creates a self-contradictory system. Students are confronted with an endless slate of activities vying for their time. Every decision to join something new pulls at another commitment, fragmenting the whole even further. Not only people but also community are spread thin …With varying degrees of success, this was the pattern of “community involvement” that operated at various levels of the university: a multiplicity of voluntary activities, a handful of participants at each, and renewed efforts to create new activities that were more relevant and attractive, resulting in an even greater proliferation of choices and fragmentation of the whole …They genuinely want to have a close community, while at the same time they resist the claims that community makes on their schedule and resources in the name of individualism, spontaneity, freedom, and choice. (43-47)

This suggests, perhaps, that the ideal of the learning community, preserved as a residual, ritualistic and collective memory within education as a response to wider social transformations, is no longer adequate to the mass system of higher education produced by those very social transformations. Or, to recontextualize the words of the German cultural critic and philosopher Siegfried Kracauer (1995: 326), truth is threatened only by the naïve affirmation of educational values that social changes have rendered unreal, which therefore deflect attention from the external damages of society onto the private individual; under these circumstances, the educational experience of fragmentation, disorder and distraction is closer to the truth of social reality today than any spiritual invocation of community.

4. The Social Network

For Kracauer, as for Walter Benjamin, these broader social changes were not simply the result of, but nonetheless often received their clearest expression in, the newest technology. Taking a cue from Kracauer’s and Benjamin’s analyses of the affect of cinema on the modern work of art, Small’s insights about communities of learning and their difficulties may be analysed in the changed context of the ‘social network’ encapsulated by contemporary digital media.

Moving beyond Small’s own research, what I’d like to speculate here is that her insights from 2002 can be seen to anticipate not merely the way new digital social media and networks quickly came to dominate contemporary student culture, exacerbating the division, fragmentation and distraction that the focus on community had sought to overcome, but also often originated out of the context of campus life she was in the process of examining. If one intellectual history of social media, for example, can be traced from American social psychologist Stanley Milgram (and even, via Milgram’s use of the Californian F-scale, to Adorno, Frenkel-Brunswik, Levinson, Sanford, Fromm and the Frankfurt School) and his “small world” experiment with its purported ‘six degrees of separation’ (Travers and Milgram 1969) to the corporate entrepreneurialism of (1997) and Friendster (2002), this skyrockets in the R&D networked culture of post-millenial universities. Milgram sought to develop the ‘theoretical machinery needed to deal with social networks,’ demonstrating through empirical research that such networks are ‘in some sense tightly woven, full of unexpected strands linking individuals seemingly far removed from one another in physical or social space’ (Travers and Milgram 1969: 441 & 426; others such as Kleinfield (2002), have questioned the scientific validity of his claims). Milgram’s (1984) own infamous experiments concerning obedience to institutional structures of authority and the “cyranic illusion,” in which an interlocutor fails to detect that a speaker is relaying the words of another transmitted by hidden radio, further suggest the extent to which such social networks might also function asocially, that is, coercively, deceptively or instrumentally.

Facebook, for example, was infamously developed by Harvard undergraduate Mark Zukerberg from his 2003 program “face mash,” which compiled photographs of Harvard students from hacked university ID images and compared for students to rank in terms of attractiveness. An earlier project, CourseMatch, enabled students to make decisions about courses based on which and how many students had enlisted on specific courses and Zuckerberg also expanded on face mash by compiling images of Augustan-era paintings and allowing other students to share notes before an art history exam:

In one class—one of his stupid Cores called Art in the Time of Augustus—he’d supposedly fallen so far behind that he’d almost forgotten about an exam that was going to be worth a large percentage of his overall grade. He’d had no time to study for the damn thing— so he’d reportedly figured out a unique way of dealing with the situation. He’d created a quick little Web site where he posted all the artwork that was going to be on the exam and invited people in the class to comment—effectively  creating an online crib sheet for the test. He’d essentially gotten the rest of the class to do the work for him—and he’d aced the exam, saving his grade. (Mezrich 2009: 73)

Xiaonei (now known as Renren), meaning “on-campus,” was founded by students at Tingjing and Tsinghua universities in 2005, and for a long time ‘primarily targeted and restricted its use to college students’ (Martinze-Aleman and Wartman 2008: 4). Evan Spiegel’s Snapchat app may have began life in 2011 as a final project in a Stanford product design class but it infamously originated in the context of sexting anxieties. These ‘dorm room companies’ certainly built upon the technological and corporate resources of existing social media and capital investment that had begun to flood into universities in the wake of concerns over automation and the learning society, but the specific success of their innovations emerged from the – sometimes misogynistic, alienated and asocial – characteristics of contemporary campus life, what Small herself encountered as an increasingly networked, professionalized and instrumentalized “culture”.

‘When I asked students in interviews whether they felt they had a “community” at AnyU, most said yes,’ Small writes:

But what they meant by community were these personal networks of friends …small, ego-centred groups that were the backbone of most students’ social experience in the university …There were few open invitations in these exchanges …Among members of the same network, however, there were constant interactions… for many students, their social lives at the university consisted of repeated contacts with the same people, who constituted that student’s personal network. Once networks were formed, usually by the end of the freshman year, students tended to stay with their groups, maintaining intense and frequent interactions with their network and more superficial and sparse contacts with others. The way that student social life is formed necessarily affects issues of diversity’ (55 -58)

To be clear, I am not suggesting that social media is responsible for the kind of fragmentation described but rather that it emerges as a response to the same changes in social conditions that produce such fragmentation and often functions as a highly effective response to it. For the same reason, nor am I suggesting that social media could be used as a way to overcome such fragmentation and recover the lost sense of community sought by Boyer and others. Just as the competing demands of work and consumer culture intrude upon the time, space and community of learning, so the personal networks Small describes remain multiple and diffuse, and, with the proliferation of social media, can continue to  endure virtually, further permeating the university. While Small argues (143) that the coercive social norms that permeate learning could be identified with the mode of discourse Michael Moffat (1989) characterized as “Undergraduate Cynical,” it remains important to assess to what extent these norms have developed as distinctive expressions of the professionalization of the social per se. 

5. Social Capital

Milgram’s work on the small-world problem heralded ‘what was to become a major area of study in the sociology of communication: the study of social capital’ (Lunt 2009: 125) and much recent scholarship (Ellison, Steinfield, Lampe 2007, Cadima, Ojeda and Monguet 2012, Newton 2013) has sought, often in rather uncritical ways, to analyze social networks of learning in terms of social capital. The latter has been defined by, among others, Robert D. Putnam (1995: 65):

By analogy with notions of physical capital and human capital – tools and training that enhance individual productivity – “social capital” refers to features of social organization such as networks, norms, and social trust that facilitate coordination and cooperation for mutual benefit.

For Putnam (2009:19), social capital refers to connections among individuals and the social networks that arise from them, whereas human capital refers to individuals. As Putnam (1995: 72, quoting Wuthnow) points out, although the rise of small support groups may be considered a counter-trend to the perceived decline of social capital associated with community, these networks of small groups (which might be said to mirror the rise of new kinds of learning communities through seminars and small groups projects) might actually represent the opposite:

Small groups may not be fostering community as effectively as many of their proponents would like. Some small groups merely provide occasions for individuals to focus on themselves in the presence of others. The social
contract binding members together asserts only the weakest of obligations. Come
if you have time. Talk if you feel like it. Respect everyone’s opinion. Never
criticize. Leave quietly if you become dissatisfied ….We can imagine that
[these small groups] really substitute for families, neighborhoods, and broader
community attachments that may demand lifelong commitments, when, in fact, they
do not.

Similarly Cadima, Ojeda and Monguet’s (2012: 297) research suggests that social networks might hamper learning, to the extent that learners tend ‘not to go to the channel of the highest quality of information, but rather to go to the channel of the highest accessibility,’ that ‘interaction is much more common within a group than inter group, so people in the same group tend to have the same ideas and opinion, to interpret the past in the same way and to have similar expectations of the future’ and so that ‘some students were structurally advantaged or disadvantaged as a result of their network positions.’ Rather than addressing the attempt to foster the social capital of social networks of learning in a more critical vein, they instead conclude that an understanding of social network analysis itself might provide a powerful tool for students in relation to learning communities, because ‘enhancing students’ awareness about social structure can have potential effects on their performance’ (Cadima, et al. 2012: 302-3).

This conclusion is based on research related to the improved performance – in terms of evaluation, promotion and retention – of company executives educated in the network of social capital through corporate leadership programs, but only for those actively engaged in the learning process (Burt and Ronchini 2007: 1180). This suggests not that all social networks yield improved learning performance but that an awareness of the role of social networks permits some students to harness social capital more instrumentally; contrary to the claim such networks better engage students in the learning process, it also suggests that such awareness is predicated on the active engagement in learning that such networks are themselves proposed to produce. One might even surmise that the performance of active engagement – whether faked or genuine – is the precondition for success not because it contributes directly to gains in learning but because it is rewarded by peers and educators (and the failure to exhibit such engagement – whether genuinely or cynically – is punished). The professional student, the learner who works at performing learning most efficiently, is acquiring the soft skills, including manipulation of social capital, demanded of human capital in the professional workplace.


In light of such claims, it is odd to consider that a small number of recent commentators have proposed an unlikely source for the recovery of a learning community in the increasingly fragmented world of social networks. Tokumitsu (2017) has recently argued in defence of the lecture, on the basis that what is often overlooked in standard criticisms of the lecture – that students retain little information – is the very social dimension that, I have suggested, learning communities are praised for:

Far from being one-sided, lectures are a social occasion. The regular timing of lectures contributes to their sociality, establishing a course’s rhythm. The weekly lecture, or pair of lectures, draws students together at the same time and place, providing a set of ideas to digest while reading supplementary material and breaking into smaller discussion sections. Classrooms are communities, and typically lectures are the only occasion for the entire group to convene physically. Remove the impetus to gather — either by insinuating that recorded lectures are just as effective or by making the lecture optional — and the benefits of community disappear …While lectures won’t necessarily introduce students to their best friends or future partners, they do require attendees to get dressed, leave the house, and participate in a shared experience …Like a metronome, lectures regularly punctuate the week, grounding other elements of students’ lives by, for instance, encouraging regular sleep schedules and study periods, which can also reduce anxiety and stress. …If public lectures did not draw sizable crowds, then museums, universities, bookstores, and community centers would have abandoned them long ago. The public knows that, far from being outdated, lectures can be rousing, profound, and even fun.

To this, we might add, in the context of the preceding discussions of some of the pedagogic limitations of social networks of learning with respect to individuality, accessibility and diversity, that (good) lectures – somewhat paradoxically – might offer a renewed time and space for collectivity, equality and independent thought. Tokumitsu argues that (good) lectures encourage a process of active listening; the critical theorist Oskar Negt (Krause and Negt 2006) goes further and suggests that the opportunity for ‘unburdened listening’ also contributes to a process of public thinking not only for the lecturer but also the student:

In this way, I could fascinate people with what I call public thinking. I have learned this from Adorno …Adorno spoke based on his notes almost without preparation, just like following one of my favourite texts, Kleist’s “On the gradual formulation of ideas while speaking”. This has always induced students to also think by themselves and learn …Myself and others have learned much more through such lectures than by any other means. The seminars with Horkheimer and Adorno for example with about 20, 25, 30 people were really depressing and painful, because the pressure to not only look intelligent but also to say intelligent things, has put students under so much stress. In contrast unburdened listening (entlastetes Zuhören) depends on some measure of anonymity and this anonymity has something productive about it.

Ironically, perhaps one of the most misattributed quotes concerning education not as a process of knowledge transmission but intellectual engagement – ‘Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire’ – most likely derives from Plutarch’s (1927) lecture ‘On Listening to Lectures’, where he insists that ‘right listening is the beginning of right living’. Negt may be referring not only to Kleist but to Plutarch when he insists on the value of unburdened listening; for Plutarch, the hearer, no less than the speaker, has a function to perform in the lecture, ‘for he is a participant in the discourse and a fellow-worker with the speaker …just as in playing ball it is necessary for the catcher to adapt his movements to those of the thrower and to be actively in accord with him, so with discourses, there is a certain accord between the speaker and the hearer, if each is heedful of his obligation.’ The ‘mind does not require filling like a bottle, but rather, like wood, it only requires kindling to create in it an impulse to think independently and an ardent desire for the truth,’ Plutarch insists, and if a person ‘comes to another to share the benefit of a discourse, and does not think it necessary to kindle from it some illumination for himself and some thinking of his own …he gets, as it were, a bright and ruddy glow in the form of opinion imparted to him by what is said, but the mouldiness and darkness of his inner mind he has not dissipated nor banished by the warm glow of philosophy.’

Or, as Small suggests, gesturing to what I want to suggest as the principle of the “good-enough teacher”:

Most seniors will agree that they’ve forgotten much of what they learned from classes, even from the semester before. Looking back on college, they will have claimed to have learned more about themselves, their abilities, and their relationships than about subject areas. And when all is said and done, they will be satisfied with their college experience: 87 percent will rate it “good” or “excellent”.’ (131)

In the third and final part of these notes, I want to return to some of the limitations of Small’s own anthropological insights in the context of the relationship between the teacher and the student not a hierarchical distinction between two separate identities but as a spectrum or medium along which it is possible for both teachers and students to traverse.

Works Referenced

Boyer, Ernest L., 1987. ‘College: The Undergraduate Experience.’ Harvard Colloquium on the Undergraduate Experience in America.

Boyer, Ernest L., 1990. ‘Characteristics of a Community of Learning’.

Boyer, Ernest L., 1996. ‘The Commitment to Character: A Basic Priority for Every School.’ Update on Law-Related Education 20:1, 4-8.

Burt, Ronald S. and Ronchi, Don, 2007. ‘Teaching Executives to see Social Capital: Results from a field experiment’. Social Science Research 36, 1156-1183.

Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, 1990. Campus Life: In Search of a Community. Princeton: The Carnegie Foundation.

Jacobsen, Douglas and Hustedt Jacobsen, Rhonda, 2014. ‘The Religious Roots of Ernest L. Boyer’s Educational Vision: A Theology of Public Pietism’, Christian Higher Education, 13:1, 17-28.

Kleinfeld, Judith, 2002. ‘The Small World Problem’. Society 39:2, 61-66.

Krause, Monika and Negt, Oskar, 2006. ‘The Production of Counter-Publics and the Counter-Publics of Production: An Interview with Oskar Negt. Interviewed by Monika Krause’. European Journal of Social Theory 9/1: 119-128.

Lunt, Peter, 2009. Stanley Milgram: Understanding Obedience and its Implications. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Martínez-Alemán, Ana and Wartman, Katherine Lynk, 2009. Online Social Networking on Campus: Understanding What Matters in Student Culture. New York and London: Routledge.

Mezrich, Ben, 2009. The Accidental Billionaires: The Founding of Facebook. A Tale of Sex, Money, Genius and Betrayal. New York: Doubleday.

Milgram, Stanley. 1984. ‘Cyranoids’. The individual in a social world. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Nathan, Rebekah, 2005. My Freshman Year: What a Professor Learned by Becoming a Student. London, Penguin Books.

Palmer, Parker J. 1990. ‘Good Teaching: A Matter of Living the Mystery’. Change Magazine (Jan/Feb 1990).

Palmer, Parker J. 1998. The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Palmer, Parker J. 2015. ‘Prelude’. The Aleph Bet of Israel Education. 2nd Edition. the

Plutarch, 1927. ‘On Listening to Lectures’. Moralia. Volume 1. Loeb Classical Library Trans. F. C. Babbitt. 201-259.*.html

Putnam, Robert D., 1995. ‘Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital’. Journal of Democracy (January 1995), 65-78.

Putnam, Robert D., 2000. Bowling Alone – The Collapse and Revival of American Community. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Readings, Bill, 1996. The university in Ruins. Cambridge, MA/London: Harvard University Press.

Roth, Wolff-Michael and Lee, Yew-Jin, 2006. ‘Contradictions in theorizing and implementing communities in education’. Educational Research Review Vol 1: 27- 40.

Tinto, Vincent, 2003. ‘Learning Better Together: The Impact of Learning Communities on Student Success’, 1.8.

Tokumitsu, Miya, 2017. ‘In Defence of the Lecture’. Jacobin.

Travers, Jeffrey and Milgram, Stanley, 1969. ‘An Experimental Study of the Small World Problem’. Sociometry 32:4, 425-433.

Zhao, Chun-Mei, and Kuh, George D., 2004. ‘Adding Value: Learning Communities and Student Engagement’. Research in Higher Education, 45:2, 115-138.

Moment of Danger for the Last Survivors of Critical Theory at Adorno’s Funeral

Disagreeable situation. The funeral service in the chapel of Frankfurt Cemetery, where Theodor W. Adorno’s coffin was laid out, was thoroughly bungled by Max Horkheimer. He refused to accept his friend’s death as a fact. And as an omen of his own approaching death there was nothing about it that seemed to him worth commemorating. He did not want to give an opinion to what music Adorno would have approved of or considered appropriate.*

Toward the end of the event, the speeches were of undisciplined length and one of the side doors of the chapel was opened. A large group of students could be seen possibly ready to use violence, with the student leader Hans-Jürgen Krahl at their head. They glanced in. Ushers closed the doors. Did the student want to disrupt the funeral? “Kidnap” the coffin as a provocation and appropriate Adorno – as part of a Critical Theory which, in fact, they had never disowned – as a dead man?

The coffin was brought outside on the hand barrow. THE OLD MEN OF CRITICAL THEORY crowded demonstratively around it. Would they have stood a chance against the kidnappers? They didn’t think of that. The crowd of students followed along a parallel path; no one watching them knew, whether their attitude was threatening or whether they wished to show sympathy and respect for the deceased. The group itself hadn’t even fully discussed it.

A thundery downpour surprised the funeral procession when it was halfway. The heads of the SCHOLARLY MEN wet, their clothing, too, soaked. No one from “Critical Theory” had an umbrella. Further lengthy speeches at the graveside. Slow work by the cemetery workers as the coffin was lowered into the grave. There were still handfuls of earth, individual bunches of flowers to be thrown down. The lines to pay respects to the widow. All of this with a wet head.

To save the minds who later made their way to the house of the Suhrkamp publisher Siegfried Unseld, I order large pots of WARM BEER to be prepared. According to Grimms’ Fairy Tales this is a precaution against catching cold. The warmth and the alcohol get the aging blood moving through the veins again. Meanwhile three student assistants are drying the heads of the SCHOLARLY ELDERS with hair dryers from the household. And so they were saved.

For the moment they were saved: not emotionally, but physically. Twenty years later the planet discharged the last of these wise thinkers. The world was never the same again.

* Gretel Adorno, Theodor’s wife, remained apathetic, passive. She was the only person who could have imposed a better program. She blamed herself for his death. For so many years she had watched over the genius in every crisis, and then for one moment this summer, although no one around her confirmed it, she had been inattentive. With the result that this man died.

– Alexander Kluge, The Devil’s Blind Spot: Tales From the New Century. Trans. Martin Chalmers and Michael Hulse (New York: New Directions, 2002), pp.307-8.

During the pre­vious semester, Adorno’s decision to involve the police in clearing student oc­cupiers from the Institute for Social Research (the Frankfurt School’s depart­mental unit at the University of Frankfurt) had caused controversy. While some regarded Adorno’s reliance on the authorities as a betrayal—a siding with the enemy against the common cause of social progress—others tended to agree with Adorno’s assessment of the radical activism of some students as misguided or even, in the words of his former research assistant, Jurgen Habermas, as a form of “left-wing fascism.” …In a patricidal reversal that pitted parts of the Student Protest Movement and the New Left against one of their theoretical fathers, Adorno was sub­jected to a series of institutional and personal attacks at least since 1967. and leaflets proclaiming that “Adorno as an institution is dead” (“Adorno als In­stitution ist tot“) were circulated during his lectures… But the most notorious incident was yet to come. During an April 1969 assault, an instance of “planned tenderness” which has come to be known as the “breast action” (Busenaktion), three female sociology students wearing long leather jackets invaded the lecturer’s podium, sprinkled rose and tulip petals over Adorno’s head, attempted to plant lipstick kisses on his cheeks, ex­posed their naked breasts to him, and provoked him with erotic pantomimes. Adorno, attempting to protect himself with his briefcase, proceeded to exit “Hörsaal V” (“Lecture Hall V”). This attempt to embarrass Adorno publicly was a sign of the larger structure of misunderstanding between Adorno and those student activists who had grown increasingly impatient with their theoretically-minded teacher’s reluctance to engage in street interventions and other forms of political activism.

  • Gerhard Richter, Monatshefte, Vol. 94, No. 1, 2002 

The last surviving member of the first generation of Frankfurt School critical theory, Leo Löwenthal, died on 21st January 1993.



The TEF and Technical Education

When I submitted the final version of a recently published article on the Teaching Excellence Framework for English higher education (as part of a forthcoming special issue on ‘Education, In Spite of it All’), I was aware that much of the policy and regulatory detail was likely to change in the time between submission and print publication. The article therefore focused, as much as possible, on providing a broader historical context for the TEF, relegating specific details of policy and regulation to footnotes.

Since then the Higher Education and Research Act, which was hastily passed into law by May’s government at the end of April 2017 before parliament was dissolved on 3rd May, has deferred the introduction of differential tuition fees linked to TEF results (see footnote 4 of the article), meaning all universities participating in the TEF and meeting eligibility requirements will be able to increase their fees in line with inflation until after a review in 2020. Without this rise, the real value of fees will continue to decrease, as they have been (marginally) for the last 5 years.

Under the Education (Fees and Awards) Regulations 2007 for English higher education, brought before parliament in the last months of Blair’s government, only students who have been resident in the UK or EU for at least three years prior to beginning their course qualify for these fee caps. Fees for international and postgraduate students are not capped and so already tend to rise annually, based in part on increases in inflation (UCL, for example, warns international and postgraduate students to expect annual fee increases of between 3% and 5%). The Higher Education and Research Act 2017, however, makes reference solely to the Education (Fees and Awards) Act 1983, which was brought before parliament in the last months of Thatcher’s second government and only exempts international students from fee regulations, making it easier to revoke the 2007 regulations following Brexit. Until the 2007 regulations are revoked, qualifying universities will not be able to legally discriminate between UK and EU students and the government has also guaranteed access to student loans to cover these capped fees for this and next year.

The Higher Education and Research Act confirms that international students will continue to be included in the net migration target. In March, the Office of Budgetary Responsibility revised down its forecast of student numbers in England, based on lower than expected UCAS entrant data, in part relating to lower numbers of 18 year olds and in part on a drop in applications from EU students. They acknowledge significant uncertainty around their forecasts as the UK exits from the EU, when EU students are likely to fall into international status in relation to visa restrictions, tuition fees and access to student loans.

When the cap for tuition fees rises in September 2017, for the first time since their trebling in 2012, this will be based on the unfreezing of the current cap and reversion to existing legislation. In May 2016, Jo Johnson, the Minister of State for Universities and Science, announced that this would be 2.8%, based on the Office for Budgetary Responsibility’s forecasted RPI-X figures (the retail price index, excluding mortgage payments), although the Office of Budgetary Responsibility has noted that its definition of RPI inflation does not meet accepted international statistical standards but is required as an input into its fiscal forecasts.

The new Higher Education and Research Act stipulates that the Office for Students must publish the fee limits for each higher education provider’s courses for the following calendar year. The Act allows for the exact timing of this publication, and consequently the date at which fees for the following year to be set based on forecasted inflation, to be prescribed by further regulations. The fees for 2017-8, for example, were set at 2.8% based on forecasts from 16 months earlier. Since then inflation has risen sharply, with RPI-X currently standing at 3.8% and Q1 forecasts for 2018, 2019, 2020 and 2021 at 4%, 3.3% and 3.1%. As Mark Leach has written, ‘In 2017-18, fees would be £72 higher per head if they were based on last week’s [November 2016] forecast [of 3.6%] than that from March [2016 of 2.8%]. Multiply by 15,000 undergraduates and that’s £1 million lost in a university’s income.’ This also means that universities may be tempted – where they are able, without breaching consumer protection law – to increase fees annually for existing UK (and currently EU) students, as they currently do with international students, to avoid further erosion of value and financial shortfall for each of a three year degree.

The Higher Education and Research Act imposes certain additional conditions on universities being able to charge the maximum fee, above and beyond a more general eligibility requirement related to minimum standards, including ‘a public interest governance condition’ which protects the academic freedom to question and test received wisdom and put forward controversial or unpopular opinions without jeopardy. It also makes provision for the possibility of requiring ‘an access and participation plan condition’ relating to equality of opportunity to promote under-represented applicants. The Act also makes provisions for the Office for Students to fund institutes of higher education to provide educational provision to connected schools and colleges.

The publication of the Conservative Party Manifesto this week provides insight into how these changes enacted in the Higher Education and Research Act will proceed following the forthcoming general election. It confirms that the Conservatives intend to reduce annual net migration to the tens of thousands by bearing down on immigration from outside the EU and that this figure will include overseas students. Wonkhe have suggested that current migrations statistics might be corrected on the basis of new data on the lower number of international students who “overstay”. But it might also involve aiming to reduce the overall number of international students through a toughening of visa requirements, although wonkhe have also questioned how this might be done without meddling in academic quality and standards. Any reduction in immigration would need to be offset by an improvement in skills and training, a central focus of the pledges.

Other aspects of the manifesto reaffirm what, in the recent article, I characterized more generally as the ‘Americanization’ of UK educational policy. One aspect of this is Conservative’s aim to focus investment on university-based R&D, on the model of the US. More generally, ‘Americanization’ involves linking national economic productivity with educational reform via theories of human capital:

Fulfilling Our Potential (BIS 2015, 10), in which the TEF was introduced, begins not with a discussion of teaching excellence but of how ‘increasing productivity will be the main driver of economic growth in years to come, and improving skills are an essential component of this.’ The 2016 White Paper (BIS 2016, 5) which formalizes the introduction of the TEF identifies universities as ‘among our most valuable national assets, underpinning both a strong economy and a flourishing society’ and ‘Powerhouses of intellectual and social capital’ that produce success as a knowledge economy. Fixing the foundations: Creating a more prosperous nation (HM Treasury 2015) proposes in its section on ‘Skills and Human Capital’ that long term investment in education is required through the radical reform of schools, Further Education and Higher Education, including the introduction of the TEF.

The UK’s employment rate is now 74.6%, the highest since records began in 1971, but inflation has outstripped real wage growth (the Resolution Foundation has said this decade is set to be the worst for pay growth for 210 years), while productivity has fallen in the first quarter of 2017. Clearly, then, the attempt to link national productivity and investment in human capital through educational reform is only set to grow and strengthen. The point in my recent article was to challenge some of the recent critical discourse regarding the neoliberal commodification of higher education and the promotion of the student as consumer, which tends to therefore overlook:

how the focus on quality of education and on teaching excellence are connected to the need for state-directed interventions within the education industry in order to increase national productivity in the interests of capital, in a way that conceives of learning as a form of productive investment and therefore situates and obligates the student primarily as producer: of their own—and collectively, the nation’s—future income and, significantly, of their own learning.

Thus the Conservative Manifesto promotes a National Productivity Investment Fund to address the UK’s slow productivity growth and promises to:

establish new institutes of technology, backed by leading employers and linked to leading universities, in every major city in England… [that] will provide courses at degree level and above, specialising in technical disciplines, such as STEM, whilst also providing higher-level apprenticeships and bespoke courses for employers… [and] will enjoy the freedoms that make our universities great, including eligibility for public funding for productivity and skills research, and access to loans and grants for their students …[including] a UCAS-style portal for technical education …[to provide] ‘real choice between technical and academic routes at sixteen’.

To do so, the Manifesto also promises to ‘launch a major review of funding across tertiary education as a whole,’ with ’employers [placed] at the centre of these reforms.’

Andrew McGettigan has pointed out how this departs from January’s Green Paper on Industrial Strategy, which had announced a ‘relatively limited startup capital budget’ for such Institutes of Technology to ‘concentrate on sub-degree provision (only up to level 5),’ without any references to links with leading universities (level 5 qualifications include diplomas and foundation degrees, whereas level 6 qualifications are degree apprenticeships and Bachelor degrees). That Green Paper focused on ‘high quality two-year programmes for 16 to 19-year olds and extend to the highest skills levels, leading to full professional competence in a number of defined occupations’. It claims to expect ‘most Institutes of Technology to grow out of high-quality provision’ already offered at levels 3, 4 and 5.’

As I wrote in 2012, it is important to contextualize the ongoing transformation of tertiary education in relation to comparable changes in primary and secondary education, because it is through control of the point of intersection between these that the government’s political intent is most effectively realized. It is therefore important to note that the Conservative’s previous reforms of technical education involved the use of funding agreements put in place for academies and free schools to introduce University Technical Colleges for 14 to 19-year olds:

Labour’s academies were introduced in 2000 as a way of injecting private sponsorship and governance into underachieving schools by removing them from local authority control (themselves a modification of the Conservatives’ ill-fated City Technology Colleges). They differ from the plethora of ‘maintained’ schools in being independent of direct control by local authorities, and from fee-charging and independent private schools in having a model funding agreement direct with central government. Like universities and private schools, academies are typically private charities with a corporate structure limited by guarantee rather than shares (hence not-for-profit). Initially the remaining capital and governance were to be supplied through sponsorship by a not-for-profit educational company, although this investment is no longer a condition of such companies running academies (thus erasing one important distinction between academies and free schools).

The first UTC, the JBC Academy in Staffordshire, was opened in 2010 and there are currently 48 colleges open, although in the last two years 5 have closed (Lancashire, Greater Manchester, Daventry, Hackney and Black Country) and one converted to a free school (Royal Greenwich), with others reportedly on financial warnings citing low numbers. However, a Spectator article from last autumn pointed out that the ‘government is handing new financial packages to UTCs and encouraging them to join ‘multi–academy trusts’ — the charities which oversee most mainstream secondary schools in England,’ as being part of ‘a trust gives more financial stability and also enables direct marketing to pupils in the trust’s other schools.’ The previous Conservative Party Manifesto promised to continue the expansion of UTCs to ‘ensure there is a University Technical College within reach of every city’ and a few months ago it was reported that Justine Greening, the Secretary of State for Education, has decided to change ‘the law to require all local authorities to write to parents of 13-year-old children about UTCs that might be attractive to their children’ and ‘to allow principals of UTCs to visit local schools and tell students about some of the opportunities available at their colleges’.

The Spectator article also points out that UTCs will be exempt from new regulations coming in this September that requires ‘pupils failing to achieve a national average score in their primary tests must re-sit the papers at secondary school,’ providing an incentive for schools to offload academically “failing” students towards more vocational routes. Combined with the re-introduction of selective secondary schools, then, it is possible that we are witnessing an attempt to socially engineer the tripartite system of secondary education anticipated in the 1944 Butler Act, although its promise to introduce Secondary Technical Schools alongside grammars and secondary moderns, never fully materialized.

Although there has been much recent criticism of UTCs for low students numbers, especially of young women, poor attainment figures and diverting resources from existing schools and colleges, advocates have suggested that these problems stem from the admission age of 14 being too young. Although the Green Paper and the Manifesto extend the principle of university-sponsored technical colleges from diploma to degree level, it is unclear to me whether their focus on post-16 education suggests an extension of or backtracking on UTCs and it will be interesting to see whether the government has abandoned them, diverted by its new focus on selection, or not.

Wonkhe suggests that the ‘extensive section of the manifesto covering technical education can be read as a direct challenge to universities.’ McGettigan also reads the new higher institutes of technology promised in the Manifesto as an intervention designed to challenge post-92 universities to shift provision from ‘mainly ‘classroom’ subjects in the arts, humanities and social sciences’ to STEM subjects. It is significant that the only discussion of the arts and humanities in the Manifesto makes no reference to education, only to the regeneration of towns and cities through investment in arts and culture outside of London, including relocating publicly funded arts and cultural organisations, such as Channel 4, out of London.

What is clear from the Manifesto is that the free school program will continue, that, under the supposed threat of a change in charitable tax status, ‘at least 100 leading independent schools will become involved in academy sponsorship or the founding of free schools in the state system,’ and that the ban ‘on the establishment of selective schools’ will be lifted. As well as sponsorship by independent schools, this continued expansion of academies, free schools and grammar will be partially funded by ‘mak[ing] it a condition for universities hoping to charge maximum tuition fees to become involved in academic sponsorship of the founding of free schools.’ The Higher Education and Research Act eases through this program further with its provisions for requiring ‘access and participation plan conditions’ and for the Office for Students to fund institutes of higher education to provide educational provision to connected schools and colleges.

In 2012, I argued that:

The rapid expansion of academies and free schools legislated by the Academies Act of 2010 therefore ‘blur[s] the divide between the independent and state sectors’. As with higher education, one notable aspect of this process is a counter-movement of existing private independents to take on closer government and financial regulation by either converting to academy status themselves or becoming sponsors for new academies. Last year the Guardian claimed that private schools were ‘lining up’ to become free schools, and although the defeat of a backbench revision to the Academies Act that would have permitted them to select intake has perhaps dampened enthusiasm, for fee-paying schools floundering financially during the recession the temptation to take on state funding whilst keeping their independent status remains strong. The government has also been pushing for closer collaboration between private schools and academies/
free schools, encouraging the former to provide educational leadership and financial sponsorship for the state sector. Many may dismiss such moves as mere posturing by the private sector, a cynical concession for self-preservation (particularly with regard to their VAT exemption). But, as McGettigan reports, the Coalition is currently set on extending VAT exemption to all providers of education, including commercial enterprises, and there has been little or no political will to meddle with the private sector by either the current government or the last Labour one. For the most academically successful ‘maintained’ schools and for the poorer private schools, conversion to academy status will ensure a clear allocation of central funding during times of severe cuts in both public and private spending on education.

The focus on expanding technical education in terms of quantity and quality is therefore set to involve a reallocation of investment in the tertiary sector, especially in London, away from the arts and humanities and towards STEM subjects, in the hope of increasing national productivity. This will be done through an increased pressure towards credentialism, in accordance with the recent extension of compulsory education or training to the age of 18, predicated on further nation-state intervention, regulation and control. Significantly, it will be access to cash increases in tuition fees that partly cover this expansion, meaning that state-educated arts and humanities students may find themselves funding such investment not only through subsequent taxation of earnings that subsidize tax-breaks for independent schools but also through the university sponsorship of secondary education, all the while being told that the cost of their education must be burdened by them as an investment in their human capital.