What’s wrong with university?

This is a draft of a blog post I wrote ages ago and shelved because it wasn’t quite perfect. In the spirit of Brene Brown and perfect being the enemy of done, I’ve been going through my drafts to get them published. Following on from news reports in the Mirror and Guardian this morning about a Cambridge University student burning money in front of a homeless man, this one caught my eye and seemed particularly relevant. So, I’ve tweaked it a little and added what I think needs to change, and I’m letting it make its way into the world.

Since starting my PGCE, I’ve been reading bell hooks a lot recently. At the moment it’s Teaching Community. In another set of wide-ranging essays bell takes on the ills of the system, providing her prescriptions and demonstrating at every turn how these play out. Lots speaks to me in her work but passages of this book exploring why gifted black students don’t feel they “fit” into universities once they get there has been a revelatory moment.

For bell, it is all about the ethos of many universities, especially those that are prestigious or rigidly traditional. Fiercely competitive and often anti-collaborative, universities fail to build a sense of community in their classrooms and lecture theatres. Students from minority and working class backgrounds find this a challenging combination. For many years I have tried to understand why I “failed” at university. I use the quotation marks because I didn’t really fail by most people’s reckoning: I graduated with a 2:1 honours degree. Yet I always feel I failed at the experience.

When I went up to Cambridge in 2004, I had certain expectations of what university life would be like. I thought there would be a certain intellectual buzz, political awareness and teaching that challenged me to expand my world view and deepen my thinking. I also expected there to be some very posh people but that the majority of folk would be like me, from more diverse backgrounds. I expected a lot of students from lower middle class homes like me. When I got there I began to realise I wasn’t as middle class as I thought I was. I was the kid from the comp with a library card.

None of my expectations were met. Except the bit about posh people. Crikey, they were everywhere! And anyone who wasn’t, seemed locked in a dogged determined fight to appear so. This was intensified by the collegiate system where your college was supposed to be your life but tended to attract very similar people. Knowing nothing about the different colleges and having no one at home or college who really knew, I accepted the line trotted out that all the colleges were pretty much the same. My college it turned out was very small and very traditional, and took a greater share of privately educated students than most other colleges.

In those first few weeks, I struggled to connect with anyone. Although everyone was jolly nice, I couldn’t really compete with tales from boarding school. I was also flat broke. I couldn’t afford the subsidised bar let alone the popular pub that charged £3 for half a pint of coke where everyone wanted to drink. I didn’t drink wine and I didn’t know how to use the cutlery at formal hall. I also had zero interest in getting drunk and having sexual liaisons. I went to a co-ed state comp: neither alcohol nor boys were novel to me. I wanted to learn and debate and change the world. No one else shared that.

Early on it became clear I struggled both with socialising and the type of academia I had ventured into. Mainly this seemed to stem from the fact I had opinions and wasn’t too shy about sharing them. I made an oblique reference to Israel/Palestine one evening at a cheese and wine party, and the room literally emptied. More invites were not forthcoming. The same became true of lectures and tutorials and essays. I didn’t have a doctorate so no one was interested in my opinion. And heaven forbid anyone should mention politics or contemporary social issues on a politics and sociology course! If a dead white man in a wig didn’t talk about it, it simply wasn’t relevant. So I just shut up and learnt the knack of producing boring dry essays that inevitably got a 2:1. I also decided that academia wasn’t for me.

After graduating I drifted from job to job, not really feeling I was where I needed to be. Now I’m back studying and reading and writing and thinking, and working in a university. And I feel I’m in the right place at last. At last I know it wasn’t me and I probably wasn’t as alone as I thought I was. So how do we overcome the way in which universities alienate students from non-conventional backgrounds? That’s a big question, too big for me to answer. But there are things we can do in our teaching to make a difference, albeit on a small scale.

  1. Build community: we need to welcome students into our classrooms, learn their names and ask them to engage. We need to move away from didactic learning experiences towards active ones where the student is expected to play an active role in the learning community, where students must work together and think together. Democratic classrooms where the teacher may lead but doesn’t dominate.
  2. Stop promulgating the mind-body split and denying lived experience: as bell hooks cogently argues universities embody the mind-body dualism of Cartesian philosophy. We deny lived experience rather than valuing it and creating a space where it can be interrogated without denigrating it. We must embrace the pluralistic discourses that may make us uncomfortable or may challenge our thinking. As bell hooks argues, we need to harness the power of stories and the accessibility of conversation. We also need to accept that we teach whole students. We may not want to be therapists in the classroom but if issues like self-esteem are barriers to learning, we have a duty to remove them (hooks, 2010).
  3. Encourage students to connect what they are learning with what’s happening out in the world politically and socially. This is not a plug for employability or doing something because employers want us to do it. This is about creating active citizens, not simply versed in the rights and responsibilities, of being part of a particular nation but an informed citizenry which can rebuild civil society. Regardless of subject area, everything we teach in universities is impacted by and impacts on wider society and culture. We are short-changing students if we don’t allow them to make those connections. Neutrality is a privilege.
  4. Stop paying lip service to critical thinking and give students the space to share their opinions and values. Critical thinking and higher order thinking skills have been steadily gaining credibility in recent years as something the generation of undergrads we’re teaching lack. This is yet another example of the intellectually lazy millennials trope, partly driven by a subterranean generational warfare and partly by employers running out of things to complain about universities not teaching students. This has led to the tick box approach of critical thinking, where it becomes another thing to embed. Yet true critical thinking, or practical wisdom as bell hooks would call it, is bigger than can you spot a fallacious argument. To teach true critical thinking we need to dispense with instrumental reasoning and the idea that there is one true answer out there to every problem. We need to embrace dialogue and uncertainty and different viewpoints. Only then do students learn to practice “discernment” and “working with ideas” (hooks, 2010, pp. 9-10).
  5. Reduce shame, embrace vulnerability and show academia is about the whole university community, not just rock star professors. Academia shouldn’t be a race to the finish line. It should be about being part of a community of scholars. We should want to build and strengthen each other. And we need that to include professional services staff as well. Turf wars, silo mentality and my-thesis-is-bigger-than-your-thesis really has no place in academia if we want it to thrive. Everyone feels vulnerable at the moment. As Brene Brown argues we live in a time defined by an imagined scarcity (Brown, 2013). We need to value our students as co-scholars, and that includes first year undergrads. We need to be open to their ideas.


Brown, B. (2013). Daring greatly: how the courage to be vulnerable transforms the way we live, love, parent and lead. London: Penguin.

hooks, b. (2004). Teaching Community: a Pedagogy of Hope. London: Routledge.

hooks, b. (2010). Teaching Critical Thinking: Practical Wisdom. London: Routledge.





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