Towards a moral university: critical theory, social justice and a commitment to the vicissitudes of human fate
Thinking about the future university is mired in difficulties while we remain embedded in the status-quo of current arrangements and assumptions.
This is especially so if we have an explicit commitment to greater social justice within and through higher education, as is the case with critical theory. How can we pursue greater social justice from within a prevailing, neo-liberal system imbued with injustice? Early critical theorists, Horkheimer and Adorno, were well attuned to this paradox of seeking to look beyond current social practices while so clearly situated within them.
In this keynote I look back to two rather different moments in the history of higher education in order to look forward to possibilities other than the continuance of the current manifestations of higher education, characterized by commodification, marketization and commercialization. The first of these is the Robbins Report of 1963 which has had such an influence on the shape of higher education in the UK. I will consider whether the Robbins Report did represent a radical shift in higher education and the extent to which it was successful in disrupting established interests and elites.
I will ask two inter-related questions: how radical was Robbins and how relevant to us today in this neoliberal climate? But to answer this question I want to go back even further to another document which outlines the purposes of an institution of higher education. Here I refer to the inaugural lecture that Horkheimer gave when he became Director of the Institute for social Research (also known as the Frankfurt School) in 1931. Here we have a philosophical telling of the purposes of this Institute clearly linked to it having a moral role focused on the furthering of social justice. This is, in Horkheimer’s words, a dedication to the ‘vicissitudes of human fate’ – and this is the locale of our moral university which I shall explore.
Jan McArthur is Senior Lecturer in Education and Social Justice in the Department of Educational Research, Lancaster University, UK. Her research focuses on the nature and purposes of higher education and how these relate to practices of teaching, learning and assessment. She ha
s a particular interest in critical theory and in her published work explores the ideas of Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer and Axel Honneth, applying these to higher education. She has previously published a book exploring how Adorno’s critical theory can inform our understanding of, and engagement with, knowledge in higher education for the purposes of greater social justice: Rethinking Knowledge in Higher Education (Bloomsbury). Her most recent book uses Honneth’s conceptualisation of mutual recognition to rethink the nature of assessment in higher education, where one is committed to greater social justice: Assessment for Social Justice (Bloomsbury). Due out later this year is an edited volume (with Paul Ashwin) titled Locating Social Justice in Higher Education Research (Bloomsbury). Jan is a member of the Centre for Social Justice and Wellbeing in Education and the Centre for Higher Education Research and Evaluation at Lancaster University. She is a researcher in the ESRC and HEFCE funded ‘Centre for Global Higher Education’. She is also Editor of the international journal, Arts and Humanities in Higher Education.