Posted tagged ‘Steven Schwartz’

The well educated student

April 21, 2011

Professor Steven Schwartz, Vice-Chancellor of Macquarie University and author of a recent very stimulating post on this blog, has asked whether there should be ‘a “canon of classics” we should expect our students to be familiar with, ranging from fiction to works of science and philosophy’. He has suggested some possible titles that might form part of such a canon, and as you would expect this prompted a fairly lively discussion.

In fact, the question could also be framed more widely: what level of knowledge should we expect students to have beyond the specifics of whatever it is they are studying? In addition to being literate, should students also be numerate, should they have a basic grasp of the major principles and insights of science and engineering, should they be able to display a good knowledge of political and philosophical debates, should they have a good understanding of the major cultures and religions, should they have an appreciation of the great works of art and of music?

Some of this is about how our young people are educated at school, and to what extent they are encouraged there to expand their knowledge and understanding. It is also about how we see citizenship in modern society, and what we expect people to know about. But it is also important not to see education as being solely about acquiring a museum of knowledge and the arts, but rather to develop also a sense of engagement with new trends and developments in society and culture. General knowledge needs to be forward looking as well as historical in inclination.

But chiefly all this is about ensuring that we do not encourage young people to specialise too early in life and to lose sight of the many elements of knowledge and culture that allow us to maintain a civilised and tolerant society. That is the challenge.

Measuring influence in today’s world

January 30, 2011

Maybe you have heard of Justin Bieber, maybe you haven’t. So here’s a very short biography. He is nearly 17 years old. He is a singer. He has released one well-received album. He has a Twitter account with nearly 7 million followers. And according to some noise published earlier this month, he is more influential than Barack Obama. Actually, let’s tell the whole truth, according to the same survey Obama also lags behind Lady Gaga, who has just short of 8 million Twitter followers. You may be starting to get the idea: President Obama has a Twitter following of ‘only’ about 6 and a half million.

So what’s this all about? Are we just measuring Twitter followers and concluding that this must be the sole basis of power and influence? Well, not quite, but very nearly. This league table of influence was brought to us courtesy of the website klout, which describes itself as the ‘standard for influence’. In fact klout is one of those internet success stories, and it has suddenly caught on. According to its own website, this is what it does:

‘The Klout Score is the measurement of your overall online influence. The scores range from 1 to 100 with higher scores representing a wider and stronger sphere of influence. Klout uses over 35 variables on Facebook and Twitter to measure True Reach, Amplification Probability, and Network Score.’

So let me reveal my own influence: according to klout, my score is 53. Let’s see how that compares with others. Well, the would-be next Taoiseach Enda Kenny beats me by one point and comes in at 54. But I am happy to report that he is the only Irish politician who is more influential than I am, and that no Irish university president or Scottish principal comes even close to competing with me. But I am not the most influential university president globally. Professor Steven Schwartz of Macquarie University is an exact tie with Enda Kenny, at 54 points.

What are we to make of all this? Should we just laugh at such nonsense and conclude it’s trivial? Or is there an argument somewhere to be made about the changing nature of influence in the new world of instant communication?

I wouldn’t spend two minutes worrying about whether Barack Obama really is less influential than Lady Gaga or Justin Bieber, but I would point out that he is in this league table at all, which almost no other politician is. In fact, as we well know, this is entirely connected with his presidential campaign, which took off in part because he was smart enough to understand the political potential of the internet and social networking. We don’t yet see the Chinese president in any of this, but sooner or later, with the Chinese people’s voracious appetite for the internet, that too will come in some shape or form.

As for an academic dimension, some worry that the major source of modern day influence, Twitter, may actually be trivialising scholarship, forcing all academic knowledge into 140 characters and celebrating celebrity rather than vision or insight; this is the theme of an article by Professor Tara Brabazon (klout score: 50) in Times Higher Education. There is a hint in this kind of critique that if you can prompt someone to re-tweet your most recent 140-character thought then neither you nor the thought nor the re-tweeter can amount to much. I can understand why one might say that, but I believe it to be wrong. The message of scholarship doesn’t change, but the means for disseminating it do; if that were not so, we’d be publishing our work on hand-printed vellum.

I suspect that Stephen Hawking is not concerned that his klout score is only 50. But he is there on Twitter, and so are many others who want to share their knowledge, often by referring readers to more detailed presentations of it elsewhere. It would be foolish to believe that using the new media to broaden the scholarly community and shape its influence is wrong.

The global impact of higher education policies

December 15, 2010

Yesterday the British House of Lords also approved the new system of higher education financing for England, by a comfortable majority. Therefore it is now expected that in 2012 universities will be able to charge fees of up to £9,000. Actually, more accurately I should say that universities will be able to set a rate (up to a maximum of £9,000) for tuition that will, in many cases, be recovered from students some time after graduation.

In a sign of how such major policy adjustments can have an immediate global effect, the new English model has been the subject of discussion in a number of countries, including Australia. In this article in The Australian newspaper the possible impact on higher education strategy is considered, though the writer concludes that because of a booming economy the Austrtalian government may not want to go down the same road as in England.

The same article also reports that the Vice-Chancellor of Macquarie University, Professor Steven Schwartz (mentioned here in a recent post), is asking some important questions about the English policy decision of not providing state funding for the humanities. He said that ‘even in narrow economic terms, the strong record of arts and humanities in driving the creative media industries should encourage policy-makers to question the wisdom of preferencing some disciplines over others.’

The debate about higher education funding is now becoming a global debate, and it is not unlikely that a global model will emerge. It is unlikely to be a model under which university studies are funded entirely by general taxation.

Higher education as seen in Australia

October 7, 2010

In the world of higher education there cannot be many people who have, serially, headed three universities. In fact I only know of one, and that is Steven Schwartz, now Vice-Chancellor of Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia. The two universities he ran before Macquarie were Murdoch University (also Australia) and Brunel University in the UK.

Although Professor Schwartz has often courted controversy in the way he has run the institutions of which he was in charge, he is also a very thoughtful public commentator. He is a polished communicator, with a presence on Twitter and with a blog. In the most recent blog post, he argues that higher education exists to serve the economy, but the way it does this should be driven by the promotion of ‘critical reasoning, self-directed learning and constructive scepticism’. In other words, he believes that the justification for the cost of higher education is the value it adds to the economy, but the method by which it does this should be intellectual and interdisciplinary: education rather than vocational training.

It is an attractive perspective, but perhaps it breaks down a little when we consider programmes that serve professional bodies in subjects such as law, accounting, engineering, medicine, and so forth. So we may need to ask again whether such professional qualifications should be provided at all at an undergraduate level, or whether they should become the business of postgraduate professional departments only. It’s worth a discussion.

Universities and wisdom

August 5, 2010

Not many university heads make much of an effort to influence public debate on anything very much. One exception to that general rule is Professor Steven Schwartz, Vice-Chancellor of Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia (and formerly Vice-Chancellor of Brunel University in England). While often controversial, he has addressed issues of higher education in a modern society and other social, economic and cultural matters. Like one former Irish university president, he has a presence on Twitter, and he blogs.

Right now Professor Schwartz is planning to deliver a public lecture with the title ‘Wise up: restoring wisdom to universities’. Here he will argue that universities need to ‘teach wisdom’ and to point to the importance of ‘practical wisdom’.

It is not absolutely clear to me what he has in mind when he talks about ‘wisdom’ in this context, but presumably he will address questions of understanding, knowledge and judgement, and whether in a practical setting higher intellectual and ethical values can be integrated into the curriculum. At any rate his views are always worth listening to. For those of us too far away to come to Building c10A on his campus on August 25, I hope the lecture will be published online later.


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