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De-institutionalizing Education: Notes on Academic Initiatives(i)

7 July, 2007

De-institutionalizing Education: Notes on Academic Initiatives(i)

The academic agenda of an institution is demarcated during its early phases of inception and remains an integral component; the “divine” aspect of its mission. Joseph Rykwert, analyzing the founding of cities and urban development at large in his book “the Idea of a Town” sets a relevant approach towards issues of urbanism.

By Aristotelis Dimitrakopoulos

Rykwert focuses on the metaphysical rather than the physical significance of founding an institution. Through the paradigm of Rome and ancient Roman cities he discusses the conceptual priorities of establishing new territories of habitation. He locates the crisis of contemporary urban development - of failed mega-plans, obsolete city sectors and deserted suburban enclaves - in the poor intentions and the absence of greater visions, faith and commitment; to spiritual poorness, egotism and excessive profiteering. He points out that these priorities inscribe the absence of deeper commitment [other than revenue] making impossible the existence and sustainability of the “developed” urban entity when profit disappears. Historically, humanity at large was based on faith, belief and traditions that address the metaphysical realm. This line of thought also defined the directives of urban growth. When all spiritual concerns evaporated with the emergence of the anti-metaphysics of blunt profiteering, the total dissolution of the urban condition became common reality. His critique shows increased relevance in the discursive context of institutionalized and commercialized education. 

Historically, academic initiatives have been founded on the basis of dedication to the arts and sciences, to the respective disciplines. In such cases, the heightened passion of growing numbers of scholars and researchers functioned as the absolute reasoning for the incubation of an institution first and the establishment of a physical locus later, for the implementation of all academic activities. The state apparatus, private associations, unions or organizations would recognize the potential intellectual gains from the introduction of educational divisions, formulating the support structures for an academic leading edge, strengthening the academic visions and streamlining the potential commercial promises of research accomplishments.

Academic Commercialization

In the context of private education and under the doctrine of capitalism, the priorities have shifted at an immense degree, often of sheer perversion, re-setting the agendas of academic institutions, or actually impairing education at large. Led by managerial priorities, growth mechanisms and profiteering, education is currently understood solely as a promising field for great revenue with minimal risk. This fact, combined with the inherent difficulty [or even impossibility] to standardize and quantify academic quality – results in poor intellectual exchange that is only hypocritically controlled through tediously quantitative assessment methods. Academic quality entails experimentation, open-ended critical thinking and questioning, serious commitment; challenges that in the territories of commercial education translate into factors of instability: risk and doubt. To fit the prescribed labels, academic activity is shrunk into a notion of blunt tutoring service, recycling set and frozen [inert] information. This also generates the commercially perfect world of e-learning [who needs an instable living organism –a teacher?]

Two main [problematic] ingredients compose the total success formula: profit-hungry entrepreneurs offering a wide spectrum of academic degrees, and ambitious but frequently incompetent customers [students] who can simply afford the service. In this simple equation, it is clear: education, scholarship and academic content are just in the way, along with anyone defending these. Consequently, if academic excellence and leadership do even not make the top-15 list of priorities for an institution, then the whole concern for quality is clearly non-applicable.

In the realms of “entrepreneurial” education, most critical aspects of the organizational system along with most official procedures and operational protocols remain under the control of bureaucratic administrative mechanisms, ensuring that no interference of the business process occurs, by anyone, not even the visions [translated as hallucinations] of the academic staff. Often these autocratic patterns of control copy the corporate ecosystem of sheer fetishism with statistics and ineffectual self-referential assessment processes.

The concept of customer service emerges as a primary ingredient for students which are absorbed in a reality that almost guarantees the result, and places the possibility of failure only in the teaching procedures and indirectly, to faculty. If both administration and customers are clearly committed to the simple goals [the awarding of degrees for a certain fee scheduled on regular payment increments], then the only questionable and perhaps disposable or even unreliable part of the equation are the teaching methods of the tutors, the teachers or professors. There are institutions where the separation between faculty and administration becomes a strategic agenda, so that customer service does not get spilled by austere intellectual standards and expectations that may inconvenience a customer/consumer.

Institutions focusing on business growth and “quality assessment” minimize education; dissolve it into its most minute ingredients, pretending that the aura and the dynamics of an active academic community may prevail even within the suppressing context of total surveillance and faceless control mechanisms. Students are the clients [profit] and faculty a necessary evil [expense and critical voice]. Online education bypasses even that issue of “imbalance” and “unpredictability”: human resources, the faculty.

Academic Procedures

The admission policy of a school reflects at a great degree its priorities and initiatives. The level of expectations and requirements, along with the economic aspect and the significance this receives in the admission process, sets a clear agenda. My academic exposure to the radically differentiated realities of National [public] Universities in Greece and private institutions in the U.S. owned and administered by few individuals but growing at publicly-owned corporation rhythms, has revealed two contrasting worlds. On the one hand stands the blind-selection procedures of the national educational system in Greece, based on nation-wide uniform exams that set often highly inflexible and sometimes irrelevant expectations but also maintaining non-negotiable and objective admission criteria. The malleable and flexible application processes of most private institutions allow for customized evaluation of skills and competencies of incoming students. However, often these procedures become a way of bypassing educational concerns and amplifying the numbers of admitted students on the basis of managerial and financial priorities. The involvement and control of this admission process by the very faculty of the school the students enter, is not always a given fact. In many cases, top-down decisions formulate the statistical data that have to be met through the selection process. The level of influence possibly exercised by the academic faculty is a clear indication of the strength of the academic ambitions of an institution.

In some cases, incoming students get fully informed of a range of policies and procedures offered by the institution, which they can use to overcome performance evaluations and potential failure through administrative, non-educational mechanisms. This institutionalized leaway establishes a problematic relation between faculty and students, distorted through the lens of liability, as an anti-challenge shield protecting the incompetent and maintaining capital flows for the institution.

Student Services

At a later stage, the control and independence that faculty can possibly exercise in assessing student progress and performance becomes a major crisis issue for most institutions. If an institution challenges or questions student evaluations made by the academic staff [grading], this lack of trust and the schism becomes a serious flaw of the system, benefiting anyone who is willing to defend mediocrity on the basis of supposedly quantitative arguments that attack the integrity of an educational process. This is a growing phenomenon particularly in private institutions, where poor students may easily dispute evaluations. This condition has terrible consequences: grade inflation, drop of the expectation level, lack of focus and dedication, fragmentation of the academic agenda into oversimplified tasks/exercises, distancing between academic staff and student/customer body, are only few of the emerging phenomena. Administrative mechanisms continuously grow to accommodate new species of student services that address such senseless “legal” issues, institutionalizing strong defense mechanisms for the incompetent, ensuring the degradation of higher education at large. In public institutions, this condition meets the hypocritically populist agendas of political agents, while in private education it ensures a continuous flow of growing numbers of customers which obviously do not qualify as intellectual elite of good academic promise.

Personable Networks

The balances to be kept are very sensitive. Clearly, there are no singular choices for the organizational patterns of an educational context. It appears that sets of relations rather than isolated decisions or policies work optimally. A fundamental ingredient of highly successful schools, in education and beyond, is the faith and trust of administration towards the very individuals that form the operating body of the institution. In other words, the strength of the personal and direct relations of the academic staff with each other and with the administration is of absolute significance, providing customized decisions, establishing ad-hoc procedures serving academic goals and considering solutions for the unavoidable logistical challenges. Faith to the promise and potential of the individual is clearly an axiom of higher education and needs to encompass all sets of relations between the various bodies within an institution. In that sense, personable networks hold the promise of immediacy and effectiveness, ensuring individuality and innovation, addressing the complex challenges that may lead towards academic excellence.

Over-institutionalized

The substitution of these networks and balances with anonymous regulations and indifferent rules leads to the constitution of a miniature police state, a panopticon conceived for unreliable, dark and suspicious characters, treating the individual as a potential fault-line within a neutral system that ensures mediocrity simply because it can not recognize uniqueness. This is a situation where individuals are held guilty until they can prove through strictly quantitative criteria that they are not. Such a condition can be torturous for students and faculty as well. In such contexts of extreme concentricity, leadership and innovation are totally unmanageable terms, inconveniencing all components of the system. Even worse, leadership and innovation are viewed as risk factors, not readily categorized or even legitimized, eventually regarded as dangerous and harmful.

The opposition between holistic educational entities striving towards academic excellence and academic-title-laundering mechanisms can be evidenced through the examination of curriculum structures. Itemized curriculum structures, senseless systematization and over-analysis of curriculum ingredients -that in theory may contribute to the formulation of an academic experience- are all characteristics that serve well the operation of bureaucratic mechanisms favoring inert documentation consisting of spreadsheets, bulletpoint-lists and graphs but contributing very poorly to the growth of a vibrant intellectual milieu.

De-urbanized Enclaves

Vibrant academic contexts would naturally still need to rely on the passion and the bonds between the persons [teachers, visitors and researchers] forming its realities. On the contrary, the amplification of logistical data and the assignment of threatening liability factors at any stage of intervention to the operational status quo of an institution, establishes a condition of fearfulness and postponement that freezes all initiatives and visions towards academic innovation. This is an issue with most private academic institutions in the U.S. where context needs to be artificially formulated, administered and managed. The non-urban campuses or the lack of urbanity and social structures makes the enrichment of and academic environment a sheer logistical challenge, depending on excessive funds, fly-in visitors and programmed events in a tabula rasa condition. This proves that the disintegration of the urban condition, the city, and the emergence of isolated enclaves for education directly affect the exchange and circulation of ideas, elimination influences and interactivities.

This comment brings back the parallel thoughts of Joseph Rykwert, pointing out that the loss of the city, the dissolution of social bonds and the fragmentation of all intentions [and their material expression –urbanism] into private interests through the perspective of quantifiable gains -profit, brings forth the incredible problematic of continuously disintegrated intellectual discourse and the erasure of communicative tools.

Article by Aristotelis Dimitrakopoulos

(i) The text is an edition of the author’s unpublished report on Architectural Education Issues, submitted at the Architectural Association School of Architecture, during his stay as a visiting teacher, June 5-23 2006.

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