Kerr needed a rap session with Freire

First, I’ll start with a very terse critique of Kerr’s The Uses of the University turned “multiversity.” I give anyone, including Kerr, credit for engaging in any reasonably thoughtful discussion of the university because higher education discourse often inspires a deer in headlights level of frustration (I would say he pushes, at the very least, to the brink of paralysis).

I felt a palpable sense of angst throughout this reading, despite agreeing with a number of points throughout Kerr’s account. I couldn’t shake a constant sense of distrust towards an individual at the pinnacle of privilege, speaking so clinically, and dispassionately about his own subject – ironic considering his biography. Kerr took the structuralist portrayal of the university slightly too far for me, but considering his time, and position (I am calling the kettle so black right now…) it would seem pretty difficult to avoid. This is not to say that there isn’t tremendous value in revealing the skeleton and arteries of large institutional organisms. I think in part, his methods are an overture to what I believe is a core purpose of the university (see 4th paragraph). But since we live in America, and it’s election season, the myriad problems of bureaucratic systems with gargantuan societal mandates are all too familiar to us. And in national politics as in the university, binarism rises to the top of the discourse most of the time.

My fatigue with partisan, radical discourse in mainstream politics today makes me loathe to broach the “university” and “multiversity” nomenclature. I also didn’t find it particularly riveting. Instead, I want to talk about what I think Kerr’s discussion missed. His account of the two great university traditions, the British undergraduate system, and the German graduate system, is the most he speaks on the role of teaching and learning in the university, besides a brief aside about technology’s potential to supplant instruction, and free up research time. This is a true blunder. If the academy were to put the same level of value on teaching as on scholarship, (and perhaps unsilo the two) I think it would help clear up a lot of discord about the “university,” inside and out.

How to improve teaching and learning? Hire scholars who are good teachers. They exist, and the two practices don’t need to be mutually exclusive. I’m talking about people who care deeply about critical pedagogy. I think critiques on the merit of liberal arts colleges versus community and technical colleges matter a little less when students are equally given the space to develop critical literacies and are empowered to become scholars in their own right, no matter their discipline of interest or level of advancement. Unfortunately, the current system of faculty tenure and promotion fails to make room for teaching, let alone incentivize it. The contingent faculty labor band aid damages the situation more. Yet despite this, many faculty still find opportunities to drive critical pedagogy into their curricula. They’re doing this without fanfare or additional remuneration? There must be something to this teaching thing.


Relate any number of topics to the text: the university’s role in perpetuating the class system, fueling neoliberalism, the corporatization of the university, college as commodity

What can critical pedagogy fix? What can’t it?

Respond to this quote:

“This creates new roles for education; but it is also part of the process of freezing the structure of the occupational pyramid and assuring that the well-behaved do advance, even if the geniuses do not. The university is used as an egg-candling device; and it is, perhaps, a better one than any other that can be devised, but the process takes some of the adventure out of occupational survival, and does for some professions what the closed shop has done for some unions.” p. 83-84 of The Uses of the University by Clark Kerr.

3 thoughts on “Kerr needed a rap session with Freire

  1. tperson

    Kerr Needs……A History Book

    I also enjoyed your writing. It is absolutely excellent.
    You made some excellent points but I would like to speak to Kerr’s example of the British and German University systems and his examination of the historicity of the University system. He traces the history of the university back to the ancient Greeks. This belief sets up what I see see as a prevailing undercurrent of race and class division. It sets up the university as a Eurocentric system and places knowledge squarely under their purview.

    The ancient Greeks in fact traveled to Egypt during the Persian invasion(c525 CE) and studied their ancient philosophies, medical and mathematical knowledge from there. The University of Timbuktu was established in the year 982. Among its notable achievements in curriculum was the circle of knowledge, much akin to the Socratic circle which raised important questions for discourse. This reading never took into account the viability of knowledge from these places or included the examination system of ancient China.

    Without this incorporation of other knowledges or accurate historical knowledge of global university origins, we will always perpetuate race and class divisions within the academy as what is constituted as worthy knowledge within academe is controlled by only a few. I believe that critical pedagogy can combat this if the focus of teacher positionality is an added focus. Teachers must examine their beliefs about knowledge and where it comes from, who owns it if anyone, and how they can empower their students to help create the next levels of knowledge

    1. Sakina Laksimi Morrow

      Tracy, excellent response. I’ve had a vague and unstudied knowledge of ancient North African-Middle Eastern scientific discoveries and reverence for intellectual and artistic development both in formal and informal education contexts, and would love to pick your mind some more about what you know in regards to Non Euro-centric roots in higher education. I do agree that not only is division and stratification produced through the “Idea of the University” as articulated by Kerr, but the ways in which the narrative about the history of the university is presented racializes intellectualism right out of communities of color and places them at the crux of London (Imperialism) and Berlin (Fascism). In other words, intellectualism has been white-washed, socially and historically. I do agree that a critical pedagogy is the anti-dote to this skewed construction of the history of academia and the future of higher education.This is also very much related to our construction of “civilization” and the “civilized” as a technology of assimilation to Anglo-Saxon ideology embedded in racial hierarchy and cultural superiority.

      I am very much interested in counter-narratives, counter-discourses and various post-colonial lenses from which to examine power and knowledge (in a Foucauldian sense and beyond). Critical Pedagogy is a dynamic and messy process of un-covering and re-covering hidden and marginalized voices in history alongside of students; in changing the power dynamics in the classroom with the risk of loosing control and at the same time creating the conditions for unraveling what we think we know and what we can come to know; in leaving the classroom a bit uncomfortable and/or depressed but with more questions for the next time.

  2. Sakina Laksimi Morrow

    Oh man, I really love this post and your writing style.

    The piece on the professoriate is especially resounding as I think about these issues specifically as they relate to us Graduate students in general, and myself in particular. The academic landscape has become excruciatingly competitive, with stock being placed in research and publication, and politics (lower case). The privileging of scholarship over teaching is widespread and prevalent, even in so-called teaching colleges where the publish-or-perish environment is not so entrenched. Tenureship has become the neoliberal arm of higher education, and stratification of educators and students alike persists across the board. For example, my experience teaching both as an adjunct and then as a full time “visiting” instructor, I was able to see some patterns of (racial) stratification both on the side of faculty and students. Let me preface this by saying that Mercy College has a 70 percent adjunct – 30 percent full time faculty ratio. It is an extremely diverse college with a healthy population of color. Attending adjunct events, you would be pleased to see the diversity that exists amidst the part-time faculty. Attending full time faculty events was another story altogether. The vast majority of full time faculty was white, led by a white president from Texas. The implications on potential to earn and grow are implicit if you consider the enormous wage gap between the part-timers and full-timers. In fact, even adjunct overload pay rate is higher than base pay-rate for adjunct faculty. To put t more bluntly, in addition to a salary and benefits, full time faculty receive 2800 dollars for eery additional overload course. Adjuncts have been receiving 2000 dollars per course for almost a decade. Literally, per course, their time and effort is worth less.

    Similarly, classrooms have a diverse student population. However, walking into Honors classrooms, ratios changed. It is notable to mention that one can only be in the Honors program by invitation at the time of acceptance. That means that academic merit during the time at the college does not qualify students from joining this club. This hyper-segregation is subtle and masked behind anesthetized language.

    I am sorry that this doesn’t address the provocation exactly. I’ll do another one tomorrow when I get off my high horse.

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