The oxymoron of independent education

Being a good student means being critical of everything. Including your professors.

We spend years inside the four walls of our respective universities, these authorities on ‘knowledge’. As students, we entrust them with our tertiary education; an education which, for most, shapes their future. This role comes with many responsibilities, as recently acknowledged by Australian National University. Earlier this year, ANU and the Ramsay Centre were in negotiations to develop a degree in Western Civilizations. On June 1st, ANU withdrew from said negotiations, later explained in an official update from Vice Chancellor Brian Schmidt. Schmidt cited that the “Centre’s continued demands for control over the program were inconsistent with the University’s academic autonomy.”

ANU and other tertiary education institutions understand that they are, effectively, authoritative disseminators of knowledge. Even in his statement, Schmidt acknowledged the university’s responsibility to protect that mechanism through which education is delivered to students, to keep it pure from outside influence. While we have generally come to believe that tuition should be delivered in this way, this incident raises the question as to whether or not “independence” is truly achievable today. And if not, what does that mean for us as students?

We hold on to the belief that knowledge should be sourced from universities and its academics because we are told that we should search for it there. Thus, it is not unusual for the public to hold academic institutions accountable for views of academics or collaborators. Lecturers and academics are perceived as mere conduits for the university itself. As a result, the public dismisses the idea that any independence exists between ‘knowledge’ as a concept, and the individual who provides it.

“…the public dismisses the idea that any independence exists between ‘knowledge’ as a concept, and the individual who provides it…

In 2013, the University of Western Australia was subject to considerable criticism in response to plans for a ‘consensus centre’, in which climate change skeptic Dr Bjorn Lomborg would have played a crucial role.

The criticism came from students, academics and the wider public, largely speaking out against the funding and adjunct professorship that Lomborg would have received. In their eyes, support for Lomborg gave him an authoritative platform to stand on as an educator – a knowledge-disseminator. Students who responded to the Lomborg incident felt a responsibility to speak out to prevent what they considered ‘dangerous’ ideas from being spread. But in taking up this responsibility, do they actually reject the idea that separation between teacher and content is possible?

Even academics spoke out against the appointment of Lomborg as an adjunct professor, out of concern that it would affect their professional reputations. Based on the Lomborg incident, it would seem a significant portion of the modern Australian academic community believe that strong personal views have a strong capacity to influence intellectual content.

On a day to day basis, we as students experience the influences of those academics upon their teaching, and consequently, our learning. One International and Global Studies student at the University of Sydney who wished to remain anonymous commented that lecturers and tutors have made “harsh critiques about neoliberalism without even reviewing its benefits or purposes”. Whether or not neoliberalism should be condemned or supported does not seem to be the pertinent issue, but rather, the influence of personal views without adequate supplementary material provided to students.

Frankly, there are an infinite number of decisions that are made by academics in developing the content that is eventually delivered to us as students. Economics departments will have to choose whether to focus on Keynesian or Classical schools of thought, out of a myriad of options. English lecturers will have to choose between Claudia Rankine and Ralph Ellison in their reading lists. These decisions must be made because the knowledge of the world is infinitely vast. Is it not then a natural by-product of the basic choice of having to select some amount of that body to teach, that students are unable to receive an independent and un-biased education?

Edward Said once praised Noam Chomsky’s scathing exposure of the role of intellectuals in the Vietnam War, stating that it was these very real passions of intellectuals that made them great. At university, I have found it to be the case that the most engaging and effective teachers are those who are the most passionate. The very basic human interaction of passing knowledge from one to another is of an intimacy that perhaps cannot be reduced to objectivity.

But, therein of course, still lies the problem: what happens when those passionate views bias the education supplied to students, to the exclusion of conflicting opinions? Does that mean that students are stripped of the right to form their own views with the education they are given?

What happens when those passionate views bias the education supplied to students, to the exclusion of conflicting opinions?

Let us refer back to the aforementioned INGS student – they seemed remarkably aware of the opinions of their educators and how they affected what was circulated in the coursework. As students, we cannot totally absolve ourselves of any responsibility in this interaction. It is evident that views of institutions and academics will generally play an important role in academic life, as it is out of that passion that academic achievements are usually born.

Academic institutions, such as ANU, may attempt to minimise outside influence upon curriculums, but influence and bias will always exist to some extent. Some text will be picked over another because a lecturer deems it to have been more important to their personal academic upbringing. Some passing comment will be made that goes unsubstantiated. These do not necessarily tarnish the education we receive, but are rather an unavoidable aspect of the human experience of learning.

But in search of the critical thinking skills that we are taught to hone at university, we should be aware of the presumptions that may underpin our own observations. We must be critically aware to not swallow others’ opinions whole as axioms, but to use them to form our own independent views. Information is passed from person to person, not impartially selected for our consumption by some algorithm. And in recognising this human touch upon our own learning, we can come to better understand how intellect is shaped within the minds of those teachers, and eventually, and hopefully, our own.

Soo Choi studies a Bachelor of  Arts and Law and is majoring in English at the University of Sydney.

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