Monday, 27 September 2010

Shenton, Newman and the Idea of a University

And now the question is asked me, What is the use of it? (John Henry Newman, The Idea of a University)

Philosophy, like sociology and psychology, is one of those degrees that people do when they're not quite sure what vocation they want to follow. It's a fun-time 4 years, open to stoners, egocentrics and those that love the sound of their own voice, who will finish the course even more confused at what they want to do in life and probably end up working at a convenience store. (Senator Ben Shenton) (1)

While Senator Shenton may have an argument in respect of media studies, and even in respect of sociology and philosophy (although I would dispute that, and return to it later), his knowledge of psychology is abysmal. He seems to assume (and I fear this is a widespread assumption), that it is on the same level as all those self-help guides one finds in such proliferation in the book shops.

Let me correct him with regard to psychology. A psychology course involves detailed knowledge of biology, cognitive neuropsychology, statistics, linguistics, language pathology, cognitive development etc. It's not exactly a medical course, but a psychologist needs a working knowledge of neurology.

A clinical psychologist, for example, would be expected to be able to carry out neuropsychological assessments using a standardised test battery (including research and understanding of the assessment, organising the subtests, scoring, analysing and initial preparation of a formal report) as part of a comprehensive multidisciplinary assessment of clients in the memory clinic. A working knowledge of pharmacology is also needed for any medicinal interventions.

It's worth noting that psychology degrees throughout the United Kingdom are fairly similar in their course content, because the British Psychological Society requires that certain areas must be covered if a degree is to be accredited. So what is typical of one is typical of all - there are no Universities offering an easier option.

Indicative degree structure:
Year 1: Basic psychology, research methods and statistics and key skills.
Year 2: Core areas including research methods and statistics.
Year 3: Empirical project in psychology (not a literature review) and options particular
to a department.

Core areas include:

Cognitive Psychology Perception, attention, learning, memory and language
Psychobiology Basic neurochemistry, neurophysiology of nerve transmission, hormones and behaviour, biological bases of behaviour
Social Psychology Attitudes, attributions, prejudice, social identification, conformity, obedience
Developmental Psychology Perceptual, motor and cognitive development during infancy
Individual Differences Genetic, environmental and cultural influences, psychological testing
Conceptual and Historical Issues Scientific method, social and cultural construction of knowledge, history and
philosophy of science
Research Methods and Statistics Research design, quantitative methods including statistical tests

Some of the statistics involves:

Descriptive Statistics
Samples, populations and the normal distribution.
Making Inferences: Confidence Limits and Statistical Significance
Analysing Data from Repeated Measures Experiments
Analysing data from independent groups: Continuous and Ordinal Measures
Analysing Data from Independent Groups: Categorical Measures
Relationships between Variables: Correlation and Regression
Introducing Analysis of Variance (ANOVA)
Analysing questionnaires and measurement instruments
Correcting Spearman correlation for ties.
Exact significance of a correlation in Excel.
Calculating Kendall's Tau-a Correlation
Report writing

There is a worked example here of the chi-square test (which is one of the easier statistical methods), which anyone who still has not been disabused of Senator Shenton's idea may care to look through - "fun time" it is probably not, except to a mathematician (I enjoyed it).

I know at least two people who went for a psychology course thinking it would be some kind of soft soap Freudian, talking shop option - and after quite a shock to the system - the amount of mathematics and neurological information involved is not trivial - they gave up after a few weeks. And nearly all undergraduate degree courses in Psychology are now BSc as opposed to BA, reflecting the scientific weight of the subject. Incidentally, neither of them now work in convenience stores.

I hope this corrects the misleading impression given by Senator Shenton - I am intrigued to know the exact source of his information as it is clearly not trustworthy - as this is clearly not a course for "stoners, egocentrics and those that love the sound of their own voice"! However, to date, he has not seen fit to return my email; perhaps because his opinion on the matter is so easily refuted, or perhaps because he prefers the sound of his own voice to listening to arguments.

But let's now also look at philosophy, which is not itself perhaps capable of practical ends. I would still argue that it is not a "simple" course, and I would challenge Senator Shenton to dispute that with any of the notable philosophers such as Simon Blackburn, Mary Midgeley, Michael Ruse etc. They would certainly eat him alive! One facet of philosophy which is extremely useful is in helping to uncover assumptions and critically examine them, and often people believe something is true (such as the idea that psychology is a pop-science) simply because they have not examined their own assumptions, and don't want to.

Another argument comes with Newman who argued in his seminal work, "The Idea of a University", that "Knowledge is capable of being its own end. Such is the constitution of the human mind, that any kind of knowledge, if it be really such, is its own reward." Against this, Newman saw what we might term the Shenton approach to knowledge, which is nothing new, because he heard it sounded in Cato: "The fit representative of a practical people, Cato estimated every thing by what it produced; whereas the Pursuit of Knowledge promised nothing beyond Knowledge itself. He despised that refinement or enlargement of mind of which he had no experience.".

Newman expands on this in some length, explaining the criticism he is finding on the subject of education, and University Education in particular; and when one considers that he was writing in 1852, it is notable that the same kind of criticism which Senator Shenton is bringing is nothing new.

Now this is what some great men are very slow to allow; they insist that Education should be confined to some particular and narrow end, and should issue in some definite work, which can be weighed and measured. They argue as if every thing, as well as every person, had its price; and that where there has been a great outlay, they have a right to expect a return in kind. This they call making Education and Instruction "useful," and "Utility" becomes their watchword. With a fundamental principle of this nature, they very naturally go on to ask, what there is to show for the expense of a University; what is the real worth in the market of the article called "a Liberal Education," on the supposition that it does not teach us definitely how to advance our manufactures, or to improve our lands, or to better our civil economy; or again, if it does not at once make this man a lawyer, that an engineer, and that a surgeon; or at least if it does not lead to discoveries in chemistry, astronomy, geology, magnetism, and science of every kind.

He find this first stated in Locke, in which we find an enlightenment idea of education. It is interesting that what began as a philosophical argument has now become part of the mainstream thinking, at least as far as University Education is concerned, and even with some people, as far as more general education is concerned.

The author to whom I allude is no other than Locke. That celebrated philosopher has preceded the Edinburgh Reviewers in condemning the ordinary subjects in which boys are instructed at school, on the ground that they are not needed by them in after life; and before quoting what his disciples have said in the present century, I will refer to a few passages of the master. "'Tis matter {159} of astonishment," he says in his work on Education, "that men of quality and parts should suffer themselves to be so far misled by custom and implicit faith. Reason, if consulted with, would advise, that their children's time should be spent in acquiring what might be useful to them, when they come to be men, rather than that their heads should be stuffed with a deal of trash, a great part whereof they usually never do ('tis certain they never need to) think on again as long as they live; and so much of it as does stick by them they are only the worse for."

And we can see this is in the idea of vocational education, which is certainly good, but which is not the whole of education. There have been moves in the past, of varying success, to take those pupils who were deemed not to be capable of academic education, and move them to more vocational education - the 1944 distinction between Secondary Modern Schools and Grammar Schools was one example, although the selection process was wedded to a flawed testing procedure (using so-called IQ tests).

But if we take the principle that utility is the final end of education, why try to make this distinction. Isn't is, as Locke, argues, a waste of time? The question to which anyone wedded to utility in education needs to ask is - why stop at University? What not make the whole of education and the curriculum purely designed for practical ends? For the average school leaver, is it going to damage their career if they cannot solve a differential equation, or determine the cosine of an angle, or be able to determine the ratio of chemical compounds by titration? Most of modern mathematics and science within the school curriculum is evidently not of practical use - should it therefore be discarded?

Now one ground which is argued is that it teaches the ability to work in practical and abstract ways, and that effort can be transferred to other subjects. Someone who applies his or her self to school work may equally be able to apply these disciplines to other professions which are quite remote from that. Newman returns to this with the health of the body - a healthy body, he argues, is capable of many things, so that health is good in itself, in that it prepares the body for many activities. In this respect, he argues, subjects like philosophy and theology sharpen the mind.

Again, as health ought to precede labour of the body, and as a man in health can do what an unhealthy man cannot do, and as of this health the properties are strength, energy, agility, graceful carriage and action, manual dexterity, and endurance of fatigue, so in like manner general culture of mind is the best aid to professional and scientific study, and educated men can do what illiterate cannot; and the man who has learned to think and to reason and to compare and to discriminate and to analyze, who has refined his taste, and formed his judgment, and sharpened his mental vision, will not indeed at once be a lawyer, or a pleader, or an orator, or a statesman, or a physician, or a good landlord, or a man of business, or a soldier, or an engineer, or a chemist, or a geologist, or an antiquarian, but he will be placed in that state of intellect in which he can take up any one of the sciences or callings I have referred to, or any other for which he has a taste or special talent, with an ease, a grace, a versatility, and a success, to which another is a stranger. In this sense then, and as yet I have said but a very few words on a large subject, mental culture is emphatically useful.

And in fact, as a letter in the JEP from Benjamin Smart, notes:

The vast majority of philosophy graduates find graduate jobs within six months of graduation (See the Guardian 20 November 2007); many in the finance sector so crucial to the Island. Why? Because reading philosophy develops an individual's ability to critically analyse arguments, to question assumptions, to formulate clear and developed arguments, and to be careful to analyse even the smallest details in literature. These are qualities essential to success in many careers.

Of course, in the appendix to his proposition, along with the opening remarks on philosophy, Senator Shenton cites all kind of whacky University subjects:

David Beckham studies - Staffordshire University, UK
Doctorate of Philosophy in Ufology - Melbourne University
Surfing Studies - Plymouth/Melbourne
Star Trek - Georgetown University in Washington

- what he fails to take into account, however, is that before any financial support is given to University courses, the applicant must say what course they are going on. He has no evidence of any Jersey students doing any courses like these, because of course there have been none. The Education Department would not provide funding. It is the classic example of the "straw man" fallacy - to present the worse possible scenario, and take it as the norm. Trained in assessing various logical fallacies of all kinds, I suspect most students of philosophy would have spotted it a light year away.

The Philosophy of Utility, you will say, Gentlemen, has at least done its work; and I grant it,-it aimed low, but it has fulfilled its aim. (John Henry Newman, The Idea of a University)



Anonymous said...

Great post. Thanks.

Ugh, It's Him! said...

When my sister-in-law was doing her psychology degree, she enlisted my help in proof-reading some of her work. Not a soft option, judging by the stuff she showed me.