BOOK REVIEW: “Higher Education: A Critical Business”
Open University Press / SRHE 1997 by Ron Barnett
REVIEWER: John Hilsdon, University of Plymouth
A Call for Permanent Revolution?
Now ten years old, “Higher Education: A Critical Business” remains
a classic. It is highly regarded by many academics, being one of the most frequently cited works on the topic of „criticality‟ in higher
education. It is a book about the work of universities which asks questions about the nature and uses of knowledge. Does it also have relevance to those wanting to learn about critical thinking for studying at university? At the micro level of „how to‟ its usefulness may seem limited – but anyone‟s approach to criticality is likely to be influenced by this book if they are prepared to read it in depth. It represents some serious „thinking about thinking‟ - although its
approach is broadly social-philosophical rather than being about developing particular skills for thinking, or an exploration of cognitive processes. For these reasons, it is likely to suit some readers more than others.
At the outset, Professor Barnett describes his notion of „critical
being‟ as including thinking, self-reflection and action: “Critical
persons are more than just critical thinkers. They are able critically to engage with the world and with themselves as well as with knowledge” (1997, p1). In this sense critical being is an approach to life, thinking and criticality that a university educated person should aspire to.
Barnett suggests that critical thinking, though long held to be an activity fundamental to universities in the „west‟ is not a sufficient concept for the modern world – it is critical being we need. He
argues that we have no account of what critical thinking really is and that this lack of attention to criticality undermines the stated objectives of our higher education systems to enable graduates to „take on the world‟. He warns us against the „critical thinking
industry‟ (for which, read the mechanistic „study skills‟ approach) with its instrumental agenda, serving only particular purposes or subject related functions („disciplinary competence‟) yet ignoring
the need to critique the overall enterprise and context of higher education itself.
Critical being is a fundamentally existential notion or project. Barnett talks of the need for those aspiring to criticality to develop their own social and personal epistemology. In other words, as
society places different kinds of value on different kinds of knowledge, individuals need to be able to be aware of – to place
themselves - in their wider social context and see how their own notions of what counts as knowledge are influenced. Such self-critical awareness encompasses the notion of contesting or challenging what is „given‟ – rather than merely seeking acceptance
or assimilation within a disciplinary community. Barnett calls this the „transformatory‟ purpose of higher education – that we are not
only changed as individual persons through our learning, but can also facilitate change in the world as a result. Referring to the underpinning role of critical theory in his own development, Barnett speaks of an emancipatory experience through critical being – a
process of releasing ourselves from the shackles of beliefs or knowledge systems which serve to limit human potential.
Modern society seems not to be in control of itself – the various
social and environmental crises, of which we are now more acutely aware than at the time Barnett was writing, are indicative of the fact that the „enlightenment project‟ has gone wrong! His response
is to repudiate an elitist notion of higher education as totally inadequate to the issues human society now faces. Instead, we need a higher education that places criticality at the centre of its enterprise.
Criticality can be seen in terms of levels and domains. As regards level, we begin with skills for questioning, progress through an awareness of the standards of reasoning within disciplines, and work towards a wider ability to undertake critique by bringing new perspectives to bear. The three domains of criticality Barnett identifies consist of knowledge (critical reason), the self (critical reflection) and the world (critical action). To date, our universities have concentrated rather narrowly on the domain of knowledge –
and in many senses remained at the level of skills rather than moving towards critique. Critical thinking seen as the deployment of cognitive skills by individuals is inadequate - it is “thinking without a
critical edge” (p17).
Barnett brushes aside the debates between those who see critical thinking as context dependent or as independent. He thinks that whether students already have some kind of innate critical thinking capacity that can be developed, or whether they need to be working within the context of a discipline to develop this capacity is the wrong question. Focussing on this leads to debates about whether or not there is a single set of skills for thinking that educators can engender in their students, or whether they are specific to disciplines. In this “critical thinking takes on the burden of supplying a general culture of the mind to the whole higher education system”
(p 64). Rather than becoming bogged down in this, his concern is rather with the purposes of being critical – and for this he argues
we need to examine the three domains referred to above: of knowledge and ideas; of experience of self; and of action in the world.
There is an attempt in this book to explore the thorny issues of postmodernism (exploration of differences in views about the nature of truth, implying a relativistic approach) versus universal rationalism (especially the Habermassian concept of standards of reasoning and criticality that all humans should agree upon as indispensable in examining claims to truth). Barnett weaves his way around the issues and concludes that it is at least possible, with a real commitment to criticality, to open up thought to critique both from the use of critical standards derived from within the discourses of its own discipline AND from standards developed in other subject areas: we can “… be both locals and cosmopolitans with respect to critical thought” (p33). It is the bringing in of notions associated with selfhood such as will, authenticity and emotion that enable those of us involved in higher education to transcend overly cerebral approaches, and to embrace an emancipatory vision of critical being: “ … to live the critical life in higher education, and engender a critical spirit” (p34).
Drawing attention to the increasingly „action‟ oriented ways of
knowing that are permissible in universities, Barnett cites as examples action-research, problem-based learning, learning outcomes and competency based curricula. Where is the role of critique in such approaches, where reward mechanisms such as self-assessment against performance criteria seem to imply that the skills under development are beyond question? When operational competence replaces academic competence, there are limited opportunities for critical thought, Barnett argues – yet our need for
the latter is now greater than ever. His position is that we need to develop a conception of reflexivity which allows collaborative approaches rather than mere individual reflection. In this we have to understand the modern (post-elite) university as an organisation that can provide new cognitive resources for the community through “the reconstruction of the critical university” (p59). Such an
organisation would be characterised by “open conversation where
the end is uncertain” (ibid), not just between academics but
between management and all other staff. This will be a challenge and will be resisted “because the cost-benefit returns will be poor”
yet “the managerial role has to be reconceptualised as opening up the possibility of academic community” (ibid).
Barnett sees his vision of a critical university as a vehicle for bringing about “a learning society in its fullest sense” (p167) –
where students are encouraged to critique both ways of knowing and of acting in the world rather than focussing narrowly on skills and „what works‟. For such a university, three conditions are necessary: First, “students have to be exposed to multiple
discourses” (ibid) – and not just intellectual ones, but practical and experiential ones too, within their programmes of study. Secondly, they must be exposed to “wider understandings, questionings, and
potential impact of … (their) intellectual field” (p168) undertaken by
reaching out from the academy and engaging with society at large as a part of the enterprise of study (this would certainly accord with at least the form of current thinking as represented by the Leitch report (2006) on the future of education). Thirdly it requires a “…
committed orientation on the part of the student to this form of life. The willingness to see ones own world from other perspectives ... the willingness to risk critique ... this calls for heroic dispositions on the part of students” (p169).
My own reading of this book has been a journey of highs and lows. I have just re-read it after about six years, for the purposes of writing this review. I remembered it with affection from my first reading. The picture Barnett uses as his frontispiece, of the student standing unarmed and with unbelievable courage – with real critical spirit -
directly in front of the tanks in Tiananmen Square in 1989, is still arresting and moving. It encapsulates the remarkable notion of commitment to emancipation that Ron sees as ideal in our higher education academies … and yet, though I travelled with Ron, I have
departed from him a number of times along the way. I have returned, willing to hold to critical being as an ideal worth striving towards. I cannot help but imagine that the response of any academy to relentless criticality (like the „permanent revolution‟ of
Trotskyism!) would be unlikely to be supportive – for how could the
academy itself survive such onslaughts? How might disputes be settled or decisions made?
Of course, he concludes that a higher education for the critical life will “… not be comfortable, for students, for their lecturers (now become educators) or for wider society” (ibid). And yet, as higher
education “ … becomes a business securing its position in the marketplace,” Barnett warns, it must also take its “rhetoric about
criticality seriously” and “ … as instrumentality and performativity
tighten their grip, so higher education for critical being becomes a necessary counter and a means of injecting a creative and transformatory element into society” (p170). How exactly the
academy will be able to secure its market position whilst also promoting this uncomfortable criticality and demanding these heroic
student dispositions is not quite clear! Nonetheless this book offers a beacon towards which we might strive. In relation to critical thinking it makes very worthwhile reading since it takes us beyond the individualistic, the skills-based or the discipline-specific ideas that prevail in most other literature in the field. Moreover, it gets us thinking anew about what we are doing in universities, for whom and for what purposes – and that can only be to the benefit of us all.
Ronald Barnett is Professor of Higher Education and Dean of Professional Development at the Institute of Education, University of London. His books include „The Idea of Higher Education‟ and „The
Limits of Competence‟.
John Hilsdon, University of Plymouth, 02/08/2007