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What's left of Education?

Updated: Aug 8, 2021

Hello & Welcome! A sunny morning in the office saw me pondering the questions of my proposed thesis & ideas around how education of the self, and acquisition of knowledge is reliant upon the prior education of "the other" (the phenomenon of epistemological interdependence as observed by Schmidt 2008). Indeed I've written/spoken about this in the blog and podcast #21 titled "what does it mean to be educated" Since I am an aspiring Social & Scientific Epistemological Philosopher, the thought occurred to me: Does this explain why academia seems to lean more towards the left of the political spectrum? Arguably the social sciences as a discipline are very left leaning, and regular readers and listeners will not be at all shocked to hear that I share some sympathies in that direction, which then lead me to an exploration of my own potential bias in this area Our view of the world creates the world we view. Actual statistical studies pointing to left leaning political variations in academia are pretty easy to find, although most are very broad brush. That left wing liberal views are disproportionately present in the institutions of learning seems fairly well accepted, so assuming this to be true, it leaves us with a few questions. The various bits of information and opinion on the web that address these questions will of course view them through their own political perceptions of "good" or bad", and as such the conclusions of each piece then reveals something of themselves in their evaluation of this phenomena. The mere fact that there is registered acknowledgement of "over representation" of any political affiliation within institutes of learning says two things. 1) It is acknowledged that our values and opinions about the world will affect how we teach others about it.

2) There seems to be a view that these institutes of learning should endeavour to remain objective, rational and dispassionate observers and curators of knowledge, set apart form the political "distractions" of that which they study. Micheal Oakenshaw, suggests that:

"A university is an association of persons, locally situated, engaged in caring for and attending to the whole intellectual capital which composes a civilisation. It is concerned not merely to keep an intellectual inheritance intact, but to be continuously recovering what has been lost, restoring what has been neglected, collecting together what has been dissipated, repairing what has been corrupted, reconsidering, reshaping reorganising, making more intelligible, reissuing and reinvesting" In my view what is being said here does lean heavily on the idea of pre existing knowledge, and speaks towards an evolutionary approach to discovery. It aligns with the idea of the "basic scientific model", endless cycles of hypothesising, testing, revision and retesting, to prove or disprove propositional knowledge. But it doesn't leave room for the "revolutionary idea". That hypothesis with a loose "hereditary lineage" Those paradigm shifts in reasoning and moments of clarity that have given us leaps in thought and it's outcomes, and often result from the application of "but what if?..." The "AHA" moment of creative thought. The innovation.

Indeed it will come as no surprise that Oakenshaw advocates from a conservative position. His focus on preservation and not innovation in the above passage is what intrigues me. Noah Carl in his Lackademia piece includes a quote from Allister heath of the telegraph:

“There was a time when universities set the political agenda; today, too many appear to be mere angry onlookers, giant left-wing content factories with little practical relevance.” Harking "back" to this time when universities "set the political agenda", is an interesting way of presenting the point. One might suggest that this is alluding to the products of those universites, namely srtudents, going on to be the leaders of their day, and thus carrying the inferences of their teachers with them. And yet, I'm old enough remember the conversion of the UK's polytechnics into universities (early to mid nineties) & "back in the day" universities weren't all that accessible to people who were below a certain income threshold. Those people who could access university education therefore tended to be......yup conservative, with a capitalist economic view. So who was it that really taught them their social and political views? Did they bring them to their chosen institute of learning, already formed? Have we got cause and effect reversed here?

If one were to accept this ,then a more nefarious view of Heaths comment as a thinly veiled jab at the "caliber" of the modern university student might result. One who since the early '90's could have come from a very different demographic, bringing with them their own social experiences and opinions? After all, aren't some of yesterdays students todays academic professors..?

The affect of time here is important, because perhaps we are only now seeing that the seeds planted by that polytechnic to university shift, and the "democratisation of university access" have grown quite the strong tree, which now seem to be bearing it's fruit. Not everyone is going to like the taste however.

But hang on, just precisely how far back does "back in the day" go here? The intolerance of intolerance creating tolerance?

In the early 20th century John Dewey formed a union of American Professors in response to the firing of Edward Alsworth Ross. Ross was fired because he objected to the railroad ideas of the university Parton, Jane sanford, who was the widow of the university founder and industrialist Leland Stanford. What was Ross' foundations for this objection ? Racist opposition to immigration, since he was a eugenicist. So, the liberal idea of a union was born out of the perception of mistreatment of someone who today would be vilified for their ideas. weird huh?

All this happened long before the polytechnics, so we have to look elsewhere than the mid 1990's for any cause/affect relationship, since the seeds were planted long before that. In my recent work on knowledge I spoke of "process: knowledge. "knowledge how" The praxis (doing) of education imparts this type of knowledge upon the learner. They learn how to learn. They also value learning, since if they did not they wouldn't be there. If one looks at the social models that align with socialist/capitalist economic viewpoints and liberal/conservative social ones, there could well be a clue here. The study by neoliberal advocate think tank "the Adam smith institute" suggests political affiliation is not a function of IQ (a short hand for intelligence that does have some failings but thats for another time) So what then? In my view the answer lies in a reimagining of the two scales for political affiliation that their report uses. Neo liberalism assumes one can be economically capitalist (right wing) whilst simultaneously being socially liberal (left wing) That these sliding sales are independent in their function and conception. But I would disagree, in my view they have something of a cause and effect relationship and rather than being separate they are like two scales on either side of the same ruler. Moving a place holder along one side would automatically affect the reading on the other. Why so? Because in the world we inhabit the causes and effects of economic and social policies are not separated. The process of learning how to learn, to critique and conceptualise, question and qualify information in the creation of knowledge highlights the contradiction of the "capitalist liberal" or "socialist conservative" viewpoint. Open mindedness, arguably necessary for academic enquires is anathema to authoritarian structures. Of course personal experience and environment, what is sometimes called societal "privilege" also plays a part here. I'm not a fan of the term privilege since I believe is turns people's ears off. I much prefer the term "negative freedoms" meaning "the ease with which one is able to make ones aspiration become reality" The education process also highlights our inter dependence upon "others" to (achieve) greater or lesser degree's.

Conservatism and Capitalist ideas are at their heart individualistic. To use a phrase from my military service ..its akin to "being jack" Making a "jack brew" for example would be sorting yourself out with a cup of tea, and not bothering to see if your mates want one. "Learning" as we know doesn't progress very far from application of this approach. Furthermore "education" is in itself a political act. The universities are not just "libraries of knowledge with caretakers of wisdom" They are creators and agents of "change", active power structures that build and produce the thinking of the future, thinking that will inevitably have a focus, a purpose and a drive. Just look at the first place ultra right wing despots seek to contain and control and you have the answer. To control/limit knowledge & thought is to control the people. Schooling during the "separate but equal" fallacy of American racial history, or the protestant/catholic divide during Northern Irelands troubles are other examples. Limitation on internet access is the same concept.. just wider spread. The currency of knowledge is no longer "banked" solely in university spaces, therefore censorship of thought, whether through economic means or otherwise is harder to achieve. (if you're not sure just ask trump/pence) So, in summary if we are looking for reason that might explain why the academic machine currently leans to the left, just look at the experiences of the people who arrive there to commence study. They are the product of the time and society in which they live, and so inevitably are their current, and future opinions. Will it ever swing back to the right? I'll keep an open mind.

Got any thoughts? Email me @


Lackademia - why do academics lean left - Noah Carl How should we treat left leaning bias in universities? Mark Brolin.

Why is there a left wing bias in universities.

Research confirms left leaning bias in universities. When did the left start to dominate academia?

Why are professors liberal and why do conservatives care.

Neil Gross (2013)

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