[iDC] Doing away with universities?

John Hopkins jhopkins at neoscenes.net
Mon Feb 13 13:36:43 EST 2006

Okay, some reflections on Trebor's post...  let the drama continue...!

>In response to John's post:
>Academia is an easy target. Sure, there are those ivory tower,
>dead-wood-professors that you describe. The faculty meetings, -- I have
>not been at a single one that had the character of what you describe.

well, it is a long discussion -- and to be sure -- and actually 
re-reading my comments -- I didn't think I had mounted much of a 
critique -- rather just some off-the-cuff observations and dramatic 
prognostications.  The critique I leave to situate in a place where 
there is more time and attention to pay it.  And to a time when the 
critique of institution can be seen as a dialectic reciprocal to 
distributed systems.  And where the critique points to actual ways of 
positive and transformative lived-praxis to countervail what can be a 
heavy and temporarily de-moralizing prospect.

It's a bit like saying to everyone in Europe working in the Cultural 
Industry sector -- that they should not critique the operations of 
the State or City government -- as that is where their funding comes 
from 90% of the time.  Let's then dismantle all organizations which 
do so...

and, yes, of course, each institution, by its constituent individuals 
and their inter-relation, by the moment in history, by the greater 
social infrastructure it is embedded in, is different to some degree. 
And there are (and were) some places where the energy of that human 
relation overtakes the structural drag inherent on institutionalized 
relation and there happens explosive creative release -- to such a 
degree that years away, kilometers away, others are inspired.  But I 
can imagine in those special situations a key ingredient is at least 
an implicit awareness of the weakness of the incumbent institutional 
structure -- to the degree that another (open) way of structuring 
relation is apparent and becomes the 'natural' solution.

but I cannot imagine why NOT to critique social institutions -- any 
and all of them -- especially in a wider dialogue where possible 
solutions, possible ways of transformative creative praxis are 
examined, experimented with, and refined.  Please give me some 
reasons NOT to probe deeply the structures and inefficiencies, 
hegemonies, and such of dominant social structures?  If not some one 
who has spent considerable time at many different institutions (more 
than 20 countries), WHO is qualified for this task? -- or is it that 
you think it shouldn't be done at all?

To be sure, because Higher Education is the social institution with 
which I have the greatest knowledge of, aside from corporate 
petroleum & extractive materials business, it is the focus of my 
scrutiny.  So, again, how can one effectively talk about and put into 
praxis (facilitating) distributed systems without knowing what 
principles lay behind social organization and dynamics?

Around half -- probably 500 of the people with whom I have regular 
contact with also have some relation to academia.  A majority of 
those people, and I think this represents the general academic 
population -- have been teaching at one institution, and with the 
exception of perhaps a sabbatical year off to research based 
somewhere else, most do not have experience at as many schools as I 
do.  So, I believe I have something of a unique database to share. 
But then again, doesn't everyone?

I have an extremely low tolerance of the accoutrements of institution 
-- for example, ones which designate that deference be paid to an 
individual simply on the fact of their position in the institution. 
For me this is bogus at best, and stultifying to creative action at 
worst.  I choose to relate at what I call a granular level when I 
function in institutions -- by granular I mean that level which looks 
at any others in the institution as equal elements -- equally 
important to interact with regardless of position in the 
institutional structure.  And, as you  might imagine this has caused 
me problems, but it also has its rewards.

And another measure I make of these institutions are from the stories 
I am told by students -- I know, often in the faculty viewpoint, 
students are not viable sources of information -- but between 
listening to students and the numerous faculty I run into, I hear 
plenty of anecdotal information that supports my critique.  Selective 
hearing?  maybe.  everyone filters what they experience in life.

People, friends mostly (versus 'professional connections'), bring me 
in (pay me) precisely because I have a principled and praxis-based 
point of view that is not tied up with local power structures.  And 
the point of view includes a principled critique of power relations 
in order to set up a dialectic for a deep practice-based 
understanding that is of the power of networks and distributed human 
systems.  Human systems are of course about power relations (I use 
the interchangeable term "energy" as it is more global and ties those 
relations into other systems of relation) -- and how can you 
effectively change a specific relation of power without understanding 
the principles behind that relation.  Of course, one can operate on 
trial-and-error, but...

I believe it is important to share an experience-base that is 
somewhat unique.  That's one reason I teach.

>Universities corporatize. That is all true. There are many far reaching
>problems! Over the past year or two I encountered many who truly disdain
>universities flat out. Fair enough. Let's hear the arguments. But for
>one, more often than not, the critical faculty that  people contribute
>to the knowledge-factory-debate was acquired during university study in
>the first place.  And secondly, how much moral high ground can we claim
>if we are part of this educational system. I consider guest lectures,
>workshops, conferences and their attached (if very modest) financial
>gain as being part of academia. So often people voice this all-out
>disregard for academia while being part of it and having benefited from
>it intellectually. I find that very contradictory and bizarre.

I have gained intellectually through contact with other humans -- 
alive and dead, f2f and distributed -- independent of the particular 
social structure.  You might say that the universities are of some 
great value, but I look at any other human as having great 
teaching/learning value irrespective of their particular position in 
whatever social structure they happen to inhabit.

>Generalized, sweeping accounts help very little. What actually happens

well, my expressive abilities to tend to be a bit dramatic -- to make 
a point to the university students I have worked with for the last 19 
years, I suppose, but this is also IMHO the direct effect of the 
limits of the reductive process of writing.  I must say that I very 
much dislike that factor, and have honed my abilities in direct f2f 
discourse over the years rather than honing my writing skills per se. 
I remember struggling with an email discussion with Geert a few years 
back as he was preparing -- practically begging to conduct it at 
least by IRC or telephone even, rather than writing.  But I think it 
is rare for those who write well or speak well to have the other 
skill as well.  At least, I am not one of them.

I would characterize my sweeping generalizations as one small element 
in a much large point-of-view which I cannot always articulate as a 
base in a single email.  I find that a dialogue on fundamental 
principles that allows a deep, meaningful critique as well as framing 
structure on which to build a transformative praxis takes a focused 
10 to 20 hours -- there is much dross to be gotten rid of!

>in universities is quite variegated. There is much of the horrible
>horribleness that John describes but there are also very many pockets of
>difference. This system influences and shapes many thousands of people
>every year. It's no peanuts. It has effects far beyond its firewalls.

Yes, of course, the pockets of difference can be correlated to the 
individuals who are open in their approach to the Other.  Open 
students, Open faculty, Open administrators, Open people.  From my 
experience they seem to exist sprinkled somewhat randomly througout 
any population anywhere -- you never know when you may stumble upon 
one and have one of those lovely eye-opening experiences.

>Can we really doom the university to a slow death (as John suggests)? Do
>students really turn their back to the university? I don't even see a
>modest trend in that direction. The university is quite alive but not

Again, using the example of the Univ of Phoenix -- 130 campuses -- 
what is the economic impact of half-a-million students NOT going to 
traditional universities!  It must be more than modest...  And, isn't 
is a relatively accepted fact (of history) that social structures 
change, large ones usually die a more or less slow death, to be 
replaced by others...

>well. What are alternatives? Is network culture strong enough to take
>over? With regard to new-media art education universities are, at least
>in the US, the main locus for such work. They have the often-expensive
>hardware needed for advanced tech projects. They are a breeding ground
>for friendships. They facilitate human encounters. There surely are

Any place where humans can engage f2f in open connection is precisely 
a breeding ground.  You think that universities have a corner on this 
market?  I don't think so -- the pockets are distributed in many 
different places.  If you believe in yourself that they happen only 
in the university, I'm afraid that you are missing MANY learning 
opportunities outside that system.  It is a little like saying that 
that the only valid learning to take place in a conference is when 
the formal, institutional conference-like events are taking place -- 
the panels and paper readings -- and that everything else is noise. 
I would disagree!

>distributed efforts. And I am not talking of e-learning or long-distance
>learning, which I'd only support in select, rare cases.  But outside
>universities there are of course countless tech forums online, chat
>rooms, art projects that frame themselves as self-organized
>universities, online repositories and more that constitute learning
>communities. But that does not replace the complex layers of education

But you maybe don't make a distinction between education and 
learning.  Education is the acquisition of a socially-mandated level 
of skill or knowledge.  Learning is an open-ended and very amorphous 
result from the open engagement of one with an Other.  It can happen 
at any time and in any place -- the basal conditions are the relative 
states of open-ness of the two people in their engagement.  In 
principle, the weight and structural constraints of social 
institution put a LIMIT on that open-ness in some way (in our case, 
for example, the way that grades interfere with open interaction 
between the teacher and the student).  An awareness of the character 
of those applied limitations relies on a deep understanding of what 
exactly institution is and what is does to the individual.  This 
understanding, in my experience requires a deep critique of the 
social institutions followed by a mapping of the possible 'solutions'.

>and sharing that take place in a graduate university context. In Europe
>there are a few places that do amazing work in that area (i.e. DeWaag,
>V2) but that does not change the fact that most educational work still
>takes place in universities. Some people spit fire when they talk about
>academia. I like and appreciate many of them very much. But I still
>wonder, and respectfully ask, if there is not a bit of personal
>biography-driven reasoning behind such total rejection. Perhaps this
>argumentation relates first of all to personal life style choices?

see above.  I would not deny that I am a product of my background, 
and I have made a series of personal choices regarding my 'position' 
in the larger social system -- don't we all?  And isn't the 
accumulation of consequences of those choices which constitute 
life-experience and the subsequent sharing of the same a phenomenal 
process of learning?

>  >John wrote (in 1998):
>>"the revolution will  not be televised, it will simply be a praxis
>>embedded in the network that is community. the occupation is of the
>>network, is of each other's lives, is of being, is of body, it is of it
>>all." neoscenes is about the creation of personal spaces where-in the
>  >individual realizes the potential of individual and collaborative
>>creativity. it is about seizing the opportunity presented by the
>>internet and contemporary tele-communications to create active spaces
>>that are autonomous of the traditional 'institutions of higher
>>learning'. it is about sharing."
>This is an impressive statement, especially given the year that it was
>written. Bey's TAZ meets network culture. I definitely see the value and
>power of collaborative, distributed research. This list (and many

and I definitely do NOT place an ultimate value on "online groups as 
realistic alternative to the university" at all as you remarked to 
Brian. The quotation above is for a project that grows out of a deep 
understanding of human-to-human connection and collaboration in the 
space of human-to-human interaction.  Telecom 'solutions' are not the 
basis or fundamental principle for human connection. (Social) 
technologies including language all affect human interaction.  And 
these technologies all limit human connection in some way.   I have 
promoted the awareness of technologies that can aid in human 
connection -- I was an active node in the global mail-art network for 
years before the Internet surfaced in the popular view.  I used the 
technology of the postal system to connect and collaborate with other 
humans.  In  my teaching, along with a deep critique of institution, 
there is a parallel critique of technology.  I could put you in 
contact with some of my students, and perhaps they could illuminate 
this process -- better than I can via email...

I can say also that my thoughts and actions in the classroom were 
radicalized before ever reading about TAZ -- I would point to Paolo 
Friere as an example which very much impacted my view of the 
classroom as a space for deep transformative change of all parties.

>others) in a way does just that. There are wide fields of possibility
>indeed. Alternative or parallel economies of sharing have to be reckoned
>with. The potential is in the exchange of information and of group
>formation online. But does that replace the heated debate in the
>university cafeteria or the seminar room? I believe that a skillful
>enmeshed structure would work best. For me, this discussion is not
>motivated by a death wish for the university. There are already islands
>of autonomy within "institutions of higher learning." Rather than
>pursuing an, perhaps, utopian extra-institutional position, I argue for
>cross-pollination between online groups and brick and mortar
>institutions. I am particularly interested in ways in which bootstrap
>initiatives can influence and perhaps even subvert traditional,
>corporate, educational institutions.

And if there isn't a serious problem with traditional universities -- 
again, how do you explain that just the U of Phoenix alone, as a 
viable alternative has 130 campuses and, last I heard, half-a-million 

Anyway, spleen is vented for the moment -- please recall that I am 
still deep in the recovery stages of a severe accident that I had 7 
months ago, I have not been teaching for a year now, and am situated 
in the exotic locale of rural Northern Arizona.

Oh, and Trebor, BTW, I hope to make my first flight out of this place 
next month to NYC -- any chance of arranging to meet some of your 
students ;-))



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