Book Review: ‘Capsule Education’

Patrick Ainley


The Consumer Experience of Higher Education, The Rise of Capsule Education by Deirdre McArdle-Clinton, Continuum 978-1-4411-7919-7 (pbk), £27.99

I read this book as a treat after two week’s marking. At this point I should stop because the state of higher education in Ireland so presciently described by Deirdre McArdle-Clinton and published in 2008 has become the new order in England today, one consequence being a rigid policing of largely imaginary ‘standards’. In the competitive isolation with which English HEIs are meeting the market in tripled fees, no one must therefore bring their institution into disrepute by admitting – or exposing, as this book does – that things are not as they appear to be. So, let me quickly clarify that in agreeing with her diagnosis of the consequences of what DM-C calls Capsule Education, I am not attributing anything she says to my own institution because her diagnosis applies to all HEIs and, indeed, and perhaps even more presciently, to schools and colleges also.

Just yesterday, for instance, I met a Cambridge University tutor who told me she instructs her tutees in the correct use of apostrophes. Perhaps it does not matter that undergraduate essays are randomly sprinkled with apostrophes and that, as every marker sees, students rarely spell, punctuate or paragraph properly and often have only a shaky grasp of grammar. For McArdle-Clinton, these are symptoms that result from not reading, or, rather, from reading only ‘bits’ from the internet cut and pasted together with inevitable plagiarism. Despite the widely recognized need for a foundation year to sort this all out, especially in subjects necessitating the understanding and application of mathematics, leave alone to induct students into an academic culture that has not (yet) completely abandoned its struggle to survive, and to give students – and often staff – time to read, the delusions of Vice-Chancellors, exam boards and recent governments in ever rising standards are sustained. Critics are derided by e-enthusiasts as grumpy, old and soon-to-be-retired under-raters of all the ‘experiences’ students/customers are consuming on-line; or denounced as elitists seeking to revert to minority HE. Meanwhile, students remove themselves from any meaningful involvement in an education become increasingly instrumental: ‘Let’s pretend like I give a shit!’ as a student T-shirt proclaims. Staff participate in the charade and at worst share the illusions in the simulacrum of quality they maintain, pandering to parents ‘less concerned with what their children learn than with the certificate and what they will earn’ (p.48).

Deirde McArdle-Clinton punctures this pretense. Hers is a general cultural critique, sparked by the observation of pre-packaged potatoes in a supermarket ‘presented for sale in capsule form’. Like medicine ‘absorbed without the distress or effort of chewing or tasting’ (p.2), learning is sugar-coated and drip-fed fed to customers/students through notes instead of books. ‘This realization was the beginning a journey from potatoes to postmodernism.’ (p.1) While blaming neo-relativist twaddle for this descent into the ubiquitous irony of the new postmodern orthodoxy, what McArdle-Clinton describes is an outcome of commodification for which she offers no historical account but which in England is about to take a great leap forward with Students at the heart of the system. Nor does she provide evidence for it beyond unspecified surveys of staff and students, undertaken for this revamped PhD and anonymised for probably the same precautionary reasons indicated above. This does not matter!! The book will provoke the same strong reactions as in this reviewer so that, before it is too late and new and younger dispensers of capsule education, graduate through a system they accept as normal, or with which they have no opportunity but to comply in desperate economic times, those who can still understand will endorse the recommendation with which the book closes by calling for a national commission on Irish higher education.

Given all the other problems facing Ireland, this is unlikely to happen; or make much difference if it did. However, there are similar calls in England for an independent inquiry into – hopefully – the whole of education from postgraduate to primary schools. Perhaps especially in the latter, synthetic phonics exemplifies ‘capsule education’ and will have the same predictably disastrous consequence of constricting the ability to make meaning by making connections, imposing instead a tyranny of transparency that explains to students/customers/consumers exactly what they have to do so as to turn their outcomes into quantifiable and thereby comparable commodities for audit and sale. This behavioral training effectively dumbs down learning to reduce rather than raise the standards it claims to save. Teachers and students can use the critique this book presents against the current knee-jerk reaction to traditional rote-crammed academicism.

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