Taking the ‘he’ out of higher education

The feminist challenge to Enlightenment ideas of knowledge and rationality has undermined the project of HE.

Joanna Williams

Joanna Williams

Topics Politics

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In the 1860s, Emily Davies began her campaign for women to be allowed access to universities in the UK. One hundred and fifty years later and female students now outnumber their male counterparts at nearly every university in the country. Yet I suspect that rather than celebrate this apparent triumph for sexual equality, Davies might well have been more surprised to discover how the substance of higher education has changed – and not for the better – in the intervening years.

Upon co-founding Girton College for female students at Cambridge University in 1869, Davies expressed her intention for it to be ‘a college like a man’s’. What she meant by this was that the same subjects should be taught, in the same way, and to the same academic standard, as in the male colleges. She had previously suggested that the best girls’ schools ‘are precisely those in which the masculine subjects have been introduced’ (mathematics, Latin and Greek), and she carried this view into higher education, insisting that for women to have anything other than equal access to the same knowledge as men would result in their education being forever considered inferior.

How things have changed. Today, many feminist academics working in social science or humanities departments in British universities no longer campaign for female students to have equal access to the same knowledge as men; instead, they argue that the very notion of ‘a body of knowledge’ is oppressive, patriarchal and elitist, representing only the concerns of those who are ‘pale, male and stale’. They seek to replace the dominance of one hegemonic, patriarchal body of knowledge with the recognition that there are multiple bodies of knowledge, each one constructed according to the life experiences of traditionally subordinate groupings, with women (and feminism) to the fore. These other bodies of knowledge are to be afforded equal value with more traditional notions of academic knowledge.

So, where once women battled to be allowed into lectures and fought to sit exams, today many feminists in the academy argue that traditional teaching methods employed by universities are representative of an historic, white, middle-class, patriarchal hegemony and as such need to be ‘disrupted’, as they alienate non-traditional students. Lecturing is considered representative of a male tendency to preach and profess – and, in so doing, to silence the audience. Apparently, seminars also represent a male desire for competitive one-upmanship, where confrontational arguments win out over seemingly more constructive attempts at intellectual compromise. The assumption of these feminists is that female, working-class, and black and minority-ethnic students will feel out of place in such an educational environment. Instead, many feminists argue for ‘learner-centred’ practice that promotes cooperation rather than competition, with personal reflection or peer assessment replacing examinations.

In practice, this means seminars where the student voice is privileged over that of the lecturer, who sees herself as facilitator rather than teacher. This means there is little opportunity, or expectation, that students misunderstandings will be corrected: indeed ‘misunderstandings’ cannot actually occur if everyone is expressing the truth as it is to them. In other seminars, curriculum content is student-led; this means that areas of knowledge previously considered part of the canon may be ignored if the students involved decide it is not relevant to their needs. Alternatively, there may be an overarching theme to the taught session, such as narrative structure, but with students free to choose their own texts, thereby making coherent discussion virtually impossible.

Such calls to change pedagogy go beyond altering teaching and assessment methods. Rather, they signify a shift in the fundamental sense of the purpose of a university today, and what it means to be a student. Whereas Emily Davies supported the Enlightenment view that a rational, scientific understanding of the world could be achieved through independent scholarship, today’s feminists are critical of the traditional, not to mention universal, goals of academic enquiry: rationality, objectivity and the pursuit of truth.

The nature of academic enquiry, of seeking greater understanding of the world, is predicated upon a spirit of academic freedom and intellectual risk-taking. In order for students to partake of such a project as the potential intellectual equals of their lecturers, they first need to prove themselves capable of following rational debate and presenting logical arguments. Yet it is precisely this notion of the student as a rational, autonomous, independent learner that has come under attack from some of today’s feminist academics. As far as they’re concerned, the idea of a rational, autonomous student is a myth rooted in white, Western constructions of the self. They suggest the concept of the rational individual has been created by free-market neo-liberalism, with people hoodwinked into believing they are fully responsible for their own choices and future. This argument has very serious consequences: when universities can no longer defend the notion of the autonomous student, an individual academically free to pursue independent intellectual thought and logical arguments, the entire project of higher education is undermined.

The early campaigners for women’s right to attend university assumed female students were just as capable of academic independence and rationality as their male counterparts, and as such deserved equal access to the same research and scholarship. Now, however, many feminists promote the idea that there is no body of knowledge worth learning. Higher education is merely about students engaged in personal projects of transformation and recognising their own privileges and limitations as they share experiences.

The concept of the rational independent learner has been criticised for excluding non-traditional students. Perhaps more damagingly exclusive is the notion that non-traditional students, or indeed all students, are incapable of realising intellectual autonomy and exercising rationality in relation to academic debate. When knowledge is reduced to experience and students to passive learners, then the whole academic enterprise becomes futile. Surely this isn’t what Emily Davies campaigned for?

Joanna Williams is education editor at spiked. She is also a lecturer in higher education at the University of Kent and the author of Consuming Higher Education: Why Learning Can’t Be Bought. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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