Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Students Are Sent to the Rat Race Maze: Syllabus Is History: Opinion

Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Students Are Sent to the Rat Race Maze: Syllabus Is History: Opinion

Article excerpt

When Steve Sarson's first-years were tasked with a CV exercise in study time, he reminded them of values other than the market's.

First-year history students at my university take a course titled Making History that teaches them about historical research and writing.

It comprises 20 twice-weekly lectures, given by various colleagues, on broad topics such as historiography, periodisation, causation, primary sources and reading critically, and 10 weekly seminars applying those topics to particular historical subjects - the American Revolution in my case.

This year, though, one seminar required students to "prepare three things: a CV; a paragraph identifying its weaknesses; an action plan for how you are going to address these weaknesses".

Seeing these instructions, it struck me how far the "employability agenda" has progressed - to the point that it is now claiming time on syllabi at the expense of academic subjects and inculcating market values at the expense of free and critical thinking.

Making History and other modules have long integrated academic learning with transferable skills, such as finding and analysing information, then reporting on it in individual and group presentations, and in cogent, grammatical and correctly referenced essays.

The CV exercise, however, occupied the entire 50-minute session, involved no historical learning, and indeed appeared in the schedule without any relationship to previous or subsequent seminars. One out of 10 seminars devoted to employability may not seem much, but when academic study is entirely cast out of the classroom, what message does that send about its value? And when we introduce mooted "employability modules" and work placements, how much room will be left for academic endeavour?

The message given by sacrificing syllabus time to the employability agenda was reinforced by the manner in which the CV exercise was to be done. Inviting students to present their CVs in front of each other forced them to think of themselves as competitors - and even, for all but one of them, as "losers". Surely in the first semester of the first year they would learn better through cooperation? But perhaps the idea is to normalise job-market rivalry as early as possible. Requiring students to identify and devise "action plans" to address their "weaknesses" also legitimises the notion that they must adapt to the needs of business, as opposed, for example, to business adapting to the needs of individuals, communities and countries. That effect was enhanced by an absence of attention to strengths (which, if implicit in the CVs, was soon undermined by the explicit focus on "weaknesses"). …

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