I Never Thought I’d Quote the Pope: Self-Interested Pragmatism and University Rankings

Pope Francis
Pope Francis’s encyclical Laudato Si’ is best known as being the document in which the pontiff addressed climate change.
I have not read anything by a pope or gone to church since it was a mandatory part of my childhood. So I find myself quite surprised that I recommend you read the Pope’s latest encyclical, particularly sections pertaining to education. Pope Francis eloquently states the problem with the current emphasis on education as a consumer product that focuses on “self-interested pragmatism.”

When universities are servants to consumerism – rankings being central to this context – they become leaders in self-interested pragmatism rather than leaders in expanding and facilitating debate and discussion that benefits the commons. The short-term gain of a good ranking is substantial and for the most part further benefits already wealthy institutions. But what about the opportunity costs?

To be considered a top university through popular ranking systems requires money  – lots of it and in some areas universities do make a significant amount of money such as from student tuition, research contracts, and commercialization. Some universities have also made money by taking military contracts to develop weapon system. They’ve taken money from businesses that are polluters and through doing so provide academic validation to an industry harmful to the planet. If the main bottom line is revenue this makes sense, but if universities acquiesce to these pressures without regard to how these decisions impact the commons, should the commons be expected to protect universities?

Increasingly there are questions of the relevance of university. The internet provides a plethora of “how to” resources with short videos on everything to how to build a drone, or a 3D printer. You can even find the information to diagnose yourself. You can learn about art and watch documentaries. Do we even need universities when we have an ever-changing buffet of information on the Internet? The key is that information is available, but where does knowledge and wisdom come in?

What may not be readily available by watching how to videos (which I watch with great regularity) is judgment of how this technology might impact others or the multiple ways of coming at different problems. It is through dialogue, debate and exposure to the searches for knowledge of others that we can come to different ways of thinking about scientific problems and understand our actions in relation to human dignity and the survival of the planet.

I can’t measure the learning of a student who came to me after my best friend from high school, Dr.Heidi Janz, now a disability studies scholar, came to a class I was teaching. It was through discussion and her teaching that he realized he understood lives like hers as nothing but suffering – as lives worthy of pity but not worth living. He explained to me how the class pushed him to look at his own prejudice, and his responsibility to transform his practice as a special education teacher. What do we lose when we become consumed by the need to measure and rank the complexity of education?

Big business does not have a history of protecting the commons, whether that commons be schools, the air we breathe and/or water we drink. Universities are places that have a unique role to expand imaginations of the common(s) through debate that draws on research, theories and theorists of present and past. It is through these debates that the orthodoxy of the market that has pervaded society can be challenged to create and recreate ways of thinking. If universities are about the commons – if they care about where they exist and who supports them, they must weigh the opportunity costs not just in terms of dollars but sustainability and human dignity. Universities need to be leaders in facilitating this debate with civil society if they are to play a responsible role in the stewardship of commons.

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Michelle L. Stack

Michelle Stack is associate professor in the Department of Educational Studies at the University of British Columbia, Canada. Her research centers on the role of media and market logics in the transformation of education; media education; and media-academic communication aimed at expanding public debate about what a good education is. Prior to becoming an academic Michelle was a communications director and policy consultant.

Michelle can also be found on twitter at @MichelleLStack

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