srhe

The Society for Research into Higher Education


Leave a comment

How our teaching encourages naïve skepticism

by Jake Wright

This post is part of a series tied to a special issue of Teaching in Higher Education that will be published in March 2019. The founding idea behind this special issue was to spark a re-evaluation of what higher education needs to do to respond to the post-truth world, especially from the perspective of individual educators. The twelve papers, nine of which will be accompanied by posts here on the SRHE blog, take different perspectives to explore the ways in which higher education is being challenged and the responses that it might make in terms of curriculum, pedagogy and professional practice.

A common problem instructors face at the introductory level is naïve skepticism. Such skepticism is not the result of some thoroughly considered view of truth, but rather a reflexive, unthinking rejection of universal truth. It can take the form of claims like, “Well, that may be true for you,” or “that’s just your opinion.” Of course, claims like this might be warranted for certain propositions, like whether a hamburger is delicious, but seem clearly out of place for clearly factual questions like whether humans cause climate change or whether increased access to guns leads to an increase in gun deaths. Such claims also might be warranted given a particular, well-developed skeptical view like scientific anti-realism, but these sorts of nuanced, well-supported views are not typically the sorts of views introductory students bring with them to class. Thus, a natural question one might ask is why students would do this, especially if the point of education is to gain knowledge.

In my forthcoming paper, “The truth, but not yet: Avoiding naïve skepticism via explicit communication of metadisciplinary aims,” I argue that there are a variety of reasons why students might be motivated to adopt naïve skepticism. Many of these reasons have to do with the students themselves. For example, they may be at a stage on Perry’s intellectual development framework that predisposes them to such claims, or they may have moral commitments to tolerance and diversity that seemingly obligates them to adopt a purely relativistic view of truth. 

Some reasons have to do with the claims that are themselves at issue. Research has shown that claims that are normative, controversial, and unsettled are more likely to elicit relativistic responses, and for disciplines like mine – philosophy – if it’s not normative, controversial, and unsettled, it’s often not worth talking about. Even if you’re not a philosopher, nearly every discipline faces such questions. We must ask ourselves what the normative implications of agreed-upon facts are, we must interpret evidence that is unclear, and we must choose theoretical lenses through which we interpret our data, and such choices are not always as clear-cut as we would like.

In addition to the above reasons, I argue, students’ naïve skepticism is also the result of our teaching. In other words, many of the otherwise justifiable pedagogical choices we make carry with them the unfortunate consequence of encouraging naïve skepticism in our students. Let me give an example. One common strategy for presenting normative, controversial, and unsettled claims is to “teach the debate,” or present the most plausible views in their best light without explicitly settling on one as clearly preferable. There are many excellent reasons why one might want to teach the debate. The instructor may be trying to develop particular skills (eg metacognition and critical thinking) that may be negatively impacted by declarations of truth by fiat. Epistemic humility may be called for. Teaching the debate may encourage discussion or respect the effect of instructor/student power dynamics. As I said, these are all excellent reasons, but these pedagogical benefits come with a cost. 

When teaching the debate, especially at the introductory level, the emphasis of the course often shifts from one of discovering the truth to being able to demonstrate particular disciplinary skills. For example, suppose I assign a paper asking students to argue for whether or not the mind is a purely physical entity.  If I teach the debate, students will have three broad options to choose from: the view that the mind is purely physical; the view that the mind is purely non-physical; and the view that the mind is made of physical matter, but has certain non-physical properties. If I’m teaching an introductory course, I can expect my students to have only the most rudimentary understanding of these views. They do not, nor should they be expected to, understand complicated versions of each position built upon decades of disciplinary activity. Further, what I’m ultimately interested in is whether my students can demonstrate certain basic philosophical skills, like argument construction and analysis. Thus, the standards on which I am grading my students hew much closer to “show me you can do a thing” than “tell me what the fact of the matter is.” It shouldn’t be surprising in such circumstances, where topics are presented without any indication of which competing view is correct and when assignments assess skill development rather than truth discovery, that students feel comfortable declaring that there simply is no underlying fact.

The question, then, becomes what we should do about this. As I argue in my paper, I don’t think the proper response is to abandon pedagogical techniques like teaching the debate. The pedagogical benefits they bring with them would reduce such a response to throwing the proverbial baby out with the bath water. The most common response has been to maintain our pedagogies while directly confronting the naïve skeptic. When a student declares there is no truth, we try to point out why they obviously don’t really think that. But such strategies fall flat. The naïve skeptic may abandon (or feign abandoning) their view for the nonce, but they often quickly return to it after the discomfort of direct confrontation has left them.

Instead, I argue that we should work to overcome naïve skepticism via a reconception of our introductory courses as an extended discussion of metadisciplinary aims and how those aims differ from the particular aims of the course itself. In other words, I suggest undermining the conditions in the course that give rise to naïve skepticism itself by moving students away from the defensive posture that comes with direct confrontation, addressing the prior commitments that students bring with them, and giving students the opportunity to interrogate whether a particular discipline is able to discover truths about the world.  There’s much to say about how the strategy plays out in practice, but space prevents it here.  For a detailed discussion, though, I would encourage you to read the article, which I hope you find useful and thought-provoking.

Jake Wright is a senior lecturer in the Center for Learning Innovation at the University of Minnesota Rochester. His research focuses on the pedagogical and ethical justifications for in-class practices at the introductory level. He can be found on Twitter (@bcnjake), Google Scholar, and PhilPeople.


3 Comments

Experts, knowledge and criticality in the age of ‘alternative facts’: re-examining the contribution of higher education

by Neil Harrison

Higher education is in danger of sleepwalking into a crisis. There is a growing assault on the very idea of expertise and on the experts that hold it. As educators, we need to respond decisively or risk a slow drift into irrelevance.

The starting points for this post need little rehearsal. The digital revolution has put potentially limitless information at the fingertips of most of world at little or no cost. Social media have opened up new lines of communication that enable individuals to reach unmediated audiences that would not have been possible even ten years ago. However Continue reading


Leave a comment

All swans are grey when you’d rather not look

by Paul Temple

Peter Bernstein, in his book Against the Gods: The Remarkable Story of Risk (Wiley, 1996), argues that risk was the revolutionary idea that defined modernity: “a rational process of risk-taking…provided the missing ingredient that has propelled science and enterprise…[into] our own age” (2). Bernstein argues that an understanding of risk enabled people to think about the future in a new way, and, crucially, to see that they might have some control over it. Tomorrow need not be like today.

I don’t know about you, but when I last completed a risk register entry, it didn’t quite feel as if I was pushing the boundaries of modernity. I always made sure that my entries were completely in the red sectors of the form: high risk of failure with catastrophic consequences and no mitigating actions possible. This was for two reasons: Continue reading


Leave a comment

Minding the gender gaps in European higher education

by Juliette Torabian

Click on the title followed by ‘version française’ below to jump to the French language version of this post. We continue to encourage submissions such as the one below to include perspectives in languages other than English. Please send all contributions to the editor, rob.cuthbert@uwe.ac.uk

l’UE: L’inégalité des genres dans l’enseignement supérieur toujours bien présente! (version française)

Minding the gender gaps in European higher education

Fostering equity and equality between men and women and reducing different forms of gendered discrimination has taken centre stage in the European policies of the past two decades, for example in the pact for gender equality (2011-2020).

Gender equality policies and legislation have also proliferated at national and institutional levels, in an attempt to reduce existing vertical and horizontal gender segregations which have traditionally favoured men. For example, 23 out of 28 European Member States have established a voluntary or legislative quota for political parties and their parliaments to ensure women representation. To tackle the gender pay gap – which is one of the most persistent horizontal gender inequalities – in the UK and in Germany, for instance, companies are now required to establish transparency in their salary and bonus systems.

Similar policies have been applied to academia and research. In Austria, for example, there is a 40% quota for all university committees and universities are awarded additional funds for appointing women professors. In the UK, the Equality Challenge Unit monitors and supports equity and equality among staff and students in higher education, and in Sweden extra support is provided to women approaching professorship. Such initiatives also exist, in different degrees and forms, in Belgium, France, the Netherlands, Germany, Denmark, and Finland, according to the EIGE report.

Have these multiplying initiatives transformed gendered norms and stereotypes in higher education systems and helped creating equal opportunities for both men and women? The reality is not as promising as one might wish for.

One basic issue arises from the distorted interpretations of gender equality as a concept. Increasingly, it is used as an equivalent to women’s rights and empowerment in the so-called battle of the sexes.

Within this distorted perception, “the oppressed becomes the oppressor”- to use Freire’s words. Instead of rewarding institutions where outcomes for women practically equal those of men, the tendency is for near-parity or women outperforming men to be applauded – while in both cases the actual participation levels are hidden and/or ignored. In effect, this worldview harms men but harms women even more severely. It objectifies women in institutions’ tokenism while no actual shift in power relations has taken place.

This perplexing view has a direct impact on access and success in higher education. In many OECD countries, particularly those with higher income, boys are more likely to repeat a grade, dropout of high school, and opt for directly entering the labour market rather than higher education. This has led to a ‘feminisation’ of bachelor’s programmes (58% female graduates). The choice of fields and progress in the level of study remain gender segregated. Women are more likely to study undergraduate programmes considered feminine, including education, business, law, social science, health and welfare. Men, on the other hand, study in engineering and STEM fields and outnumber women at PhD levels – that is, if they opt to enter university.

Gender inequalities that still persist are indeed causing considerable economic loss of public and private investment in higher education. “Across the EU, women have better educational outcomes than men (44% of women aged 30-34 in the EU completed tertiary education, compared to 34% of men)”, yet receive an average of 16%  less hourly pay.  Around 10% of their wage difference remains “unexplained” according to the 2018 EU report on equality.

Likewise, according to Eurostat’s 2017 report, 22.4% of the European population are at risk of poverty and social exclusion. We know that men are increasingly shunning higher education. It is also clear that “those with only upper secondary education have earned around 50% less than those with a tertiary education between 2000-15 in OECD countries”. The prospects for the average European household poverty rate in the next decades sound worrying with less educated men and lower paid educated women. It may be, therefore, fair to say that gender equality policies- in their current forms- have not delivered equal opportunities and are not fit to create sustainable societies.

I have elsewhere expressed my concern on access policies that can be carrying a “Cinderella syndrome”, hence betraying the promise of higher education in bringing social change. I reiterate my argument here with regard to the current formulation and application of gender equality policies and quotas in European higher education.

Despite some progress, gender policies have systematically failed in ‘undoing’ gender stereotypes. They are – at least partially – responsible for : increasing inequality of access for men to a majority of undergraduate fields of studies; maintaining the proportions of men and women in fields traditionally assigned to their gendered roles; and not having completely reversed trends in salaries and representation of women at professorial and higher management levels in universities. Evidence from a recent study in France has also shown the failure of gender-related quotas. It argues that having more women on appointment committees has, in fact, had reverse impacts and dramatically cut the number of female academics getting hired.

It is time to mind and close the gender gaps that still persist and to redress the new ones we have fabricated by the inadequacy of our gender policies in higher education systems.  Or, We could confide it to AI, but that might make things worse!

Juliette Torabian is a senior international specialist in education and sustainable development. She holds a PhD in Education from the Institute of Education, University College, London and a Masters in Development from SciencesPo, Paris. Her research focuses primarily on comparative higher education policy and practice, social justice and gender equality.

l’UE: l’inégalité des genres dans l’enseignement supérieur toujours bien présente!

par Juliette Torabian

Au cours des deux dernières décennies, l’équité des genres et l’égalité entre hommes et femmes ainsi que la réduction des différentes formes de discrimination fondée sur le genre, ont été au centre des politiques européennes; par exemple, le pacte pour l’égalité des genres (2011-2020).

Les politiques et les législations dans ce domaine ont également proliféré aux niveaux national et institutionnel dans les États membres européens afin de réduire les ségrégations de natures verticales et horizontales entre hommes et femmes, favorisant traditionnellement les hommes. Par exemple, 23 États membres européens sur 28 ont établi un quota volontaire ou légal pour la représentation des femmes au sein des partis politiques et dans les parlements. Pour faire face à l’écart des rémunérations entre hommes et femmes – l’une des inégalités horizontales des plus persistantes – au Royaume-Uni et en Allemagne, par exemple, les entreprises sont désormais tenues d’instaurer une transparence dans leurs systèmes de rémunération et de primes.

Des politiques similaires en matière de genre ont été appliquées dans les universités et la recherche. En Autriche, par exemple, il existe un quota de 40% pour la composition des comités universitaires mais également une compensation financière pour chaque affectation de femme académique. Au Royaume-Uni, « Equality Challenge Unit » surveille et soutient l’équité et l’égalité au sein du personnel et des étudiants, tandis qu’en Suède, il existe un mécanisme de soutien supplémentaire aux femmes en phase d’accéder aux plus hauts niveaux académiques. Selon le rapport EIGE (Institut européen pour l’égalité entre les hommes et les femmes), de telles initiatives existent également, à divers degrés et sous différentes formes, en Belgique, en France, aux Pays-Bas, en Allemagne, au Danemark et en Finlande.

Ces innombrables initiatives, ont-elles réussi à transformer les stéréotypes dans les systèmes d’enseignements supérieurs et par conséquent à créer des chances égales pour les hommes et les femmes ? La réalité n’est pas aussi prometteuse qu’on pourrait espérer.

Un problème fondamental découle de l’interprétation erronée du concept de l’égalité des genres. Il est de plus en plus utilisé comme synonyme des droits et de l’autonomisation des femmes dans la prétendue bataille des sexes.

Dans cette perception tordue, “les opprimés deviennent les oppresseurs”, selon Freire. Au lieu de valoriser les institutions où les mesures prises ont donné lieu à des résultats concrets assurant l’égalité des femmes et des hommes, la tendance serait davantage à applaudir la semi-parité ou bien les femmes qui surpassent les hommes ; alors que dans les deux cas le taux réel de participation en général demeure ignoré pour ne pas dire dissimulé. En effet, cette vision nuit aux hommes mais nuit encore plus gravement aux femmes. Les femmes sont ainsi stigmatisées à travers des mesures purement symboliques sans aucun changement à l’horizon dans les rapports de force.

Cette conception perplexe de l’égalité des hommes et des femmes dans l’enseignement supérieur a un impact direct sur l’accès à l’université et sur le succès dans les études. Dans de nombreux pays de l’OCDE, en particulier ceux où les revenus sont les plus élevés, les hommes sont plus en proie au redoublement, à l’abandon de leurs études secondaires et à opter pour le marché du travail plutôt que pour les études supérieures. Cela s’est traduit par une « féminisation » accrue au niveau des licences (58% de femmes diplômées). Le choix des filières et la progression du niveau des diplômes restent dominés par les stéréotypes de genre. Les étudiantes sont davantage enclines d’obtenir une licence dans les filières dites féminines : le droit, les sciences sociales, l’enseignement, le commerce et la santé. Alors que les étudiants choisissent davantage des filières d’ingénieur, des sciences et des technologies, dépassant en final, le nombre de femmes titulaires d’un doctorat, -si bien sûr ils poursuivent leurs études supérieures.

Les inégalités de genres qui persistent entraînent une perte économique considérable en termes d’investissements publics et privés dans l’enseignement supérieur. “Dans l’ensemble de l’UE, les femmes obtiennent de meilleurs résultats scolaires que les hommes (44% des femmes âgées de 30 à 34 ans dans l’UE ont achevé leurs études supérieures, contre 34% des hommes)”, mais perçoivent en moyenne 16% de moins en salaire horaire. Considérant que 10% de cette différence de salaire, reste « injustifiée » selon le rapport 2018 de l’UE sur l’égalité.

De même, selon le rapport d’Eurostat 2017, 22.4% de la population européenne est exposée au risque de pauvreté et d’exclusion sociale. Nous savons que les hommes s’éloignent de plus en plus des études supérieures. Il est avéré que « ceux qui n’ont suivi que le deuxième cycle de l’enseignement secondaire, ont gagné 50% de moins que ceux qui ont fait des études supérieures entre 2000 et 2015 dans les pays d’OCDE ». La prospective d’un taux moyen de pauvreté au cours des prochaines décennies dans les ménages européens comptant des hommes moins scolarisés et des femmes éduquées mais moins bien payées, est inquiétante. Il serait donc juste de dire que les politiques d’égalité de genre -dans leurs formes actuelles- ne sont pas susceptibles de créer des chances égales pour une meilleure cohésion sociale.

A d’autres occasions, j’ai exprimé ma préoccupation à propos des politiques d’accès pouvant entraîner un “syndrome de Cendrillon” trahissant ainsi la promesse de l’enseignement supérieur pour assurer un changement social. Je considère donc que le même raisonnement s’avère juste quant à la formulation et l’application actuelles des politiques et des quotas en matière d’égalité des genres dans l’enseignement supérieur européen.

En dépit de certains progrès, les politiques en faveur de l’égalité des sexes ont systématiquement échoué dans la « suppression » des stéréotypes sexistes. Ces politiques sont au moins partiellement responsables : des inégalités d’accès des hommes à une majorité des programmes de licence ; de maintenir le statu quo de la représentation des deux sexes dans les filières traditionnellement associées à leur rôle social respectif ; et enfin, de ne pas avoir complètement inversé les tendances des niveaux de salaires et la représentativité des femmes dans les hautes fonctions universitaires. Effectivement une étude récente en France fait écho de l’échec des quotas. Elle établit que le fait d’imposer des quotas pour la présence des femmes dans les comités de sélection, a eu de facto des répercussions inverses et a considérablement réduit le nombre d’enseignantes embauchées dans les universités.

Il serait peut-être temps de traiter une fois pour toutes, l’imbroglio des disparités persistantes entre les genres et de réparer nos politiques qui par leur inadéquation, fabriquent de nouvelles formes d’inégalités dans nos systèmes universitaires en Europe. Ou bien, confions cela à l’intelligence artificielle,… à nos risques et périls !

Juliette Torabian est une spécialiste internationale dans le domaine de l’éducation et du développement durable; PhD de Institute of Education, University College London; Diplômée de SciencesPo – Paris; ses recherches sont concentrées sur l’analyse comparative des politiques de l’enseignement supérieur, la justice sociale et l’égalité des genres.


1 Comment

Having faith in the university

by Søren SE Bengtsen and Ronald Barnett

A heightened gap between the university and society is now evident. On the policy level, discourses of excellence, world-classness and value-for-money press upon universities while, on the societal level, there are calls for impact, skills, employability and marketable knowledge. Additionally, in a post-truth and fake news era, universities struggle to establish their legitimacy, and some students even report that they may actually be doing themselves a disfavour by taking a higher education degree. All this is symptomatic of a wide societal, and even worldly, sudden loss of faith in the university. Continue reading