Monday, March 28, 2011

Frank Furedi on Phronesis in Higher Education

Aristotle took the view that there is a range of human actions whose objectives could not be achieved according to a prescribed formula. Whereas pottery-making could be pursued through technical knowledge (techne), healing the sick required practical wisdom (phronesis). For Aristotle, phronesis was the most significant intellectual virtue because by developing the capacity for moral judgement, other virtues of character could be exercised.

From this perspective, practical wisdom helps academics to make judgements about the relevance of data and the meaning of information. And most important of all, it is through practical wisdom that academics develop the capacity to make judgements that are morally right for the situation at hand.

Like all forms of judgement, academic judgement is acquired through experience and as with every endeavour, the more varied and the more extensive its practice, the better we get at it. Unfortunately these days, society provides little encouragement for the practice of judgement.


Since universities are subject to the influence of broad cultural trends, it is not surprising that academic judgement does not enjoy the authority it deserves. Higher education has internalised the wider cultural suspicion towards judgement and has given it an institutional affirmation. Although academic judgement is rarely explicitly challenged, there are powerful institutional pressures to confine it to the margins.

Why? Because academic judgement runs directly counter to the expansion of the formalisation of university life. The purpose of the so-called reform of higher education is to displace informal relationships, networks and practices with rules and regulations. The formalisation of academic practice encourages a disregard for context.

Indeed, the justification for the invention of procedures is to ensure that there is little room for context-informed judgement. When lecturers are asked to leave paper trails and follow procedures, they are in effect forced to act in accordance with a template rather than on the basis of their accumulated practical wisdom.

The values of institutionalised standardisation, calculability and measurable achievement mean there is little call for judgement. When the ways for achieving a learning outcome are carefully prescribed, what is required is after-the-event measurement and box-ticking, and not deliberation and judgement.

The triumph of procedure over academic judgement is illustrated by an often unnoticed but important change in terminology. These days, academics do not so much judge as evaluate. Although superficially “evaluation” can be seen as a synonym for “judgement”, in a contemporary institutional context it may more accurately be its antonym.

The act of judgement invites an academic to apply intuitive knowing or practical wisdom to questions that are not always susceptible to generalisation or formalisation. It is a context-informed and often unique act of deliberation. In contrast, evaluation occurs in relation to a set of pre-existing standards. Guidelines provided to academics to evaluate students according to a benchmark may be helpful, but often their role is to spare academics the burden of making a judgement.

The ubiquitous evaluation form encourages academics to develop the skill of box-ticking, but it actually distracts them from developing their capacity to judge. It is the form and not the tacit understanding gained through experience that guides the response. This may render the act of evaluation formal and explicit, but our really significant intuitive feelings about a person or a situation cannot be communicated through template rhetoric.

Yes, university regulations insist that academic judgement regarding an exam result cannot be challenged. However, academic judgement, even in the sphere of assessment, is far from immune to external pressure. A close reading of such regulations indicates that although an academic judgement cannot be challenged, students can appeal if they can identify a “procedural error in the assessment process”. Experience shows that complaints against procedure easily mutate into the questioning of the outcome of judgement.

Examination boards are all too aware of this threat and are sometimes forced to suspend their judgement to spare themselves costly procedural wrangles. Often even the mere hint of an impending appeal regarding procedure is sufficient to bring about the alteration or modification of an exam or degree grade.

It is worth noting that, increasingly, academics and their institutions are held legally accountable for their judgement. Academic judgement has become an issue that can be challenged in court, through questions raised about whether the procedures were followed and whether a decision was influenced by extraneous factors.

In a world where process is everything, the capacity to exercise academic judgement has become compromised. For decades, schoolteachers who have been forced to teach to the curriculum have complained about the loss of their freedom to exercise professional judgement. It is about time that academics recognised that they are confronted with a threat that is not dissimilar to the dispossession of the teaching profession of their right to judge.

Academics do not need to be threatened with the sack if they exercise judgement. The current climate of proceduralism stops lecturers from acting on the basis of deliberation and judgement.

The desire to defend and preserve the unique position of academic judgement is not motivated by an impulse to protect narrow professional privilege. Judging is a creative expression of disciplinary knowledge that can serve as a prelude to conversation and dialogue. The positive potential of an act of judgement depends on the degree to which it is based on experience, reflection and impartiality. As with so many things in life, the dictum “use it or lose it” applies with force.