Friday, 2 April 2010

Mental health in higher education

It was fascinating this week to visit a conference on mental health (in fact, mental health in higher education) which was not a mainstream psychiatry conference on the latest EBM-based developments and yet seemed more different from a philosophy conference even than that.

In part this was simply a predictable aspect of being a visitor from a methodologically distinct area to a conference on social science and educational theory. But the alienation went a bit deeper than that and seemed instead to turn on a kind of ideological difference.

Two presentations struck me with the same worry. One was a plenary paper on ‘threshold concepts’ which sketched some of the aspects that such concepts would have, but without actually defining them very satisfactorily. (I assumed and perhaps still assume that a threshold concept is a concept presupposed by others within an education: whether empirically or analytically. But the one example exemplified merely being on the threshold of possessing a concept not a distinct nor higher order concept.)

Afterwards the audience warmly embraced the notion, picking up the fragments we’d been told and investing them with quite distinct interpretations (as was clear from the discussion). I was struck by the fact that no one was suspicious of whether anything had been proposed. The assumption seemed to be that knowledge, not even just a conceptual innovation, had been shared in an almost Biblical sense of glad tidings.

No audience of philosophers would have accepted this. The default assumption would be that nothing interesting had been said until clearly indicated otherwise. I wonder whether the audience is so suspicious of psychiatry and those who shape mental health service provision as well as those who shape higher education that there’s no energy left to be academically suspicious closer to home.

A second presentation on a module of critical psychology very successfully outlined an atmosphere I would pay to avoid (the aim to uncover deep rooted assumptions and oppressive thinking practices; to stress art (artivism!) and creativity; and to reposition the teacher as being a co-learner). And yet at the same time the justification for the assumption that there is oppressive thinking that needed ‘deprogramming’ or the content conveyed by all that art and creativity was simply missing. The clearest impression was that the speaker had been inducted into a kind of cult. But again, there was no critical angle to the questioning (although I later found at least one audience member as sceptical as me).

Other papers were interesting and I’m sure I could have learnt some concrete results. But the main effect was one of caution: there are areas of mental health research which are pretty much off limits to a jobbing philosopher. The Beltane Fire Festival of the university circuit.