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The Porous University, Socialisation and Reflections by Alex Dunedin

How are we to conceptualize the notion of the porous university ? The anchor point is understanding what we mean by university, for if we know what a university is we are then in a position to imagine how it might be porous, or what porous might mean in reference to such a thing.

My interpretations are salted with the things which have become meaningful to me, being someone who has never formally gone to university but however spent a great deal of time inside them, amongst the students, academics and general staff, as well as occupying the same terrain as these institutions in geographic and intellectual terms.

What Are Universities For

Stefan Collini in his book ‘What Are Universities For ?’ opens the whole question with the following: “Asking what something is for all too often turns out to be asking for trouble. There is, to begin with, the danger of seeming to reduce a complex activity or institution to a single, narrow purpose: it is doubtful whether an answer that is both short and illuminating could be given to questions about what, say, love is for or a country is for” (Collini, 2012).

As he rightly suggests, asking what something is ‘for’ can serve as an expositional tactic which acts as a beginning to a process of exploration. I shall be taking some of the thinking of Emile Durkheim as a starting point to developing an understanding of what a university is, and subsequently, what a porous university might be…


A Primer to set up an Understanding of the University

In the work ‘L’évolution pédagogique en France’, Durkheim suggested that educational reforms reflect the general cultural context of the society in which they are embedded. From this understanding we can look at them as illustrations of the ways that pedagogy attends to the needs arising in the population which are not yet institutionalized in political society.

As well as this we can perceive the complement of the dynamic where the institutionalized superstructure manifest of the collective psyche impresses itself upon society, socializing people according to the behaviours and conventions which have become the orthodoxy.

Durkheim proposed in his sociology of education that teachers should develop an understanding of how individuals in association with others (a group) spontaneously develop a collective psyche. Building a knowledge of how group psychology acts on, in and through the individual is thus an important part of understanding education.

A class is a miniature society and not merely an agglomeration of individuals which are independent of each other (Filloux, J. C., 2001). I extend this inference to understand the larger sets of school, college and university in similar ways. In the organization of the university we come to see society in another aspect of the human social universe.

The structures which we organise are reflected, repeated and constituted in aspects of their macrocosm as much as through the individual. The social and symbolic function of an educational system has at its very nucleus kinship relations and a shared behaviour of teaching/learning or learning/teaching (Eco, 1976).

The kinship relations which I am alluding to can arguably be seeing in the social relations throughout living species. For example, if we look to when a young foal is born, among the many innate behaviours which come into play, the being encounters the world and immediately enters into a dialogue with the parent. So in this sense, the educational encounter is one which is relational – that is, learning and teaching behaviours come about as a result of a relationship bound up in the sharing of perspectives and funds of knowledge, both innate to experience and received.

Emile Durkheim
Emile Durkheim

Durkheim puts forward that the child ‘naturally enters into communication with others’ (‘Education, its nature and role’, in: Education et sociologie, p. 64). Indeed this demonstrably stays as a natural instinct and behaviour throughout life for the majority of people. As social animals we commune and gain greatly through that action in a process which is a driving part of learning.

Durkheim also examines the ‘school environment’ in terms of the social and civic education of the pupil. He describes the ‘school environment’ as being both the classroom and the establishment in which it is located. He saw it in terms of “association”, relationships which were more extensive than the family but less abstract than political society. It is here where the pupil develops ‘the habit of life in common in the class, attachment to that class and even to the school of which the class is but a part’ (L’éducation morale, p. 195).

He described the teacher as an individual making great emphasis that they are to be understood as members of a group and a profession as well. Again the enquiry into group psychology is made evident in his discussion of the pedagogical means of education. He suggests that any change in the education system must be fostered primarily by teachers as a response to the emerging social needs they encounter, parallel to those which maintain the system.

The outcome of the process of instruction in formal education depends heavily on the teacher’s attitudes in relationship with their pupils. It is clear that Durkheim sees education as a social and moral activity that is a part of the intellectual realm. He associates three purposes with education; teaching a ‘sense of discipline’, ‘attachment to groups’ and ‘autonomy of will’.

With such focuses it is hardly surprising that such an individual was to be one of the founders of the academic discipline of Sociology – the science of social behaviour or society. Placement of the university into such a context seems appropriate for this discussion. I understand education as rooted in the behaviours that arise via interpersonal relationships, and that arranged around this nucleus comes the reified buildings, rituals and ministrations that we have come to materially allude to in the use of the term university.

A university is a place where many things go on beyond the specific focus of learning and education. People are socialised into customs and conventions, meet new people and form personal bonds, grow into their lives and cement those bonds through work, love and or marriage – and possibly lust. People find careers and escape from careers; they discover societies, clubs and drinking games – be it beer or coffee. Universities indeed are spaces which foster a wide gamut of human activity and behaviour.

So if we take universities as institutional structures built around the learning/teaching behaviours of kinship relationships, which both reflect the needs of culture not yet operationalised as well as preserve existing customs and moralities, then what does it mean to make a porous university ?


Ingroup formation

On the Idea of Generating Porous In-Groups

In the modern, come post-modern, industrial society the socialization of the education system and university includes development in terms of integration and regulation. A symbolic economy has arisen which signals the practical activity rooted as part of the academic community (Brinkkjaer, U., Norholm, M., 2005). The symbolic economy itself has also become a part of the historical, material and social competencies that form what Pierre Bourdieu talks about as the person’s ‘habitus’ (Bourdieu,1989).

Habitus refers to the embodied dispositions of someone composed of the thoughts, tastes, beliefs, interests, and their understanding of the world around them. It is formed through a person’s socialization into the world through family, culture, and the education environment.

Durkheim had previously laid out that modern society has been increasingly affected through the industrialization of areas of life influenced by the social force of the division of labour. The result he suggested was a resultant increased differentiation in social roles and the specialization of social functions.

To this scheme of things he raised the concern that with this adaptation to narrowing sets of circumstance is the risk that ‘social solidarity’ will disintegrate through the stratification of society bringing about emergent caste systems. To offset this he suggested that there would be the development of values which related to the legitimization of rights and to the responsibility and role of social actors.

Pierre Bourdieu carries on Durkheim’s development of sociology by also being concerned with group dynamics. In his paper ‘What Makes a Social Class? On The Theoretical and Practical Existence Of Groups’ he starts out the dialogue with:

“It would be easy and tempting to deride the topic of this symposium and to uncover the presuppositions it conceals under its apparent neutrality. But if you will allow me just one criticism of the way it formulates the question of social class, it is that it misleads one to believe that this problem can be reduced to a simple choice and resolved by a few common-sense arguments. (Bourdieu,1987)”

What we are conceivably trying to address in the question of the Porous University is whether we can have a more open society, one where we overcome our institutionalised prejudices and biases to let ‘the outsider’s in’. As neotenous primates – how are we to overcome the basic instinctual behaviours which go towards forming in-groups and out-groups ?

Henri Tajfel illustrated that even something as simple as tossing a coin, or informing people that a coin had been tossed and that they had been assigned to one of two teams as a result, was enough to produce a measurable preference in them for members of their own team (Tajfel,1970). Taking into account that being divided into groups is enough to produce discriminatory behaviour, how do hierarchies of legitimacy factor into the non-porous nature of the academic world ?

The good news is that if we have the will we are perfectly capable of counteracting our confirmation biases and prejudices which reinforce in-group/out-group boundaries, however it does involve making a conscious and overt effort to break down the hierarchies in constructive ways. This is an emotive area as people’s identities and livelihoods are heavily invested in the intellectual capital and terrain which is proposed as being opened up.


Bourdieu continues: “This sense of one’s place is at the same time a sense of the place of others, and, together with the affinities of habitus experienced in the form of personal attraction or revulsion, is at the root of all processes of cooptation, friendship, love, association, etc., and thereby provides the principle of all durable alliances and connections, including legally sanctioned relationships (Bourdieu,1987)”

Creating a porous university in these contexts may be seen as a part of the project of creating a democratic society; one which is open by default all those who take an active interest in the life of the city. A porous university, then, is one which is open to everyone who labours to make contributions in learning and knowing and who might take part in activities with others as members of a previously closed community of peers. To be included in an educational community of peers is to be manifesting an open society which is led by knowledge rather than other orientations.

In his book ‘Democracy and Education’, John Dewey suggests: “Particularly it is true that a society which not only changes but which has the ideal of such change as will improve it, will have different standards and methods of education from one which aims simply at the perpetuation of its own customs. To make the general ideas set forth applicable to our own educational practice, it is, therefore, necessary to come to closer quarters with the nature of present social life (Dewey, 2011).”

One reading of this is that laid out are two forms of society; one which looks agnostically to evolving – a learning society; and secondly there is one which aims to maintain everything as it has been – a closed society. A learning society which is open to all the possibilities (in the form of contributing people) will have a greater landscape of knowledge resources with which to discover the means to prosper.

A society which is closed to anything other than maintaining its own customs is one which has limited its encounters and therefore its possibilities. Its scope is one which recreates all the benefits for those who are the beneficiaries, and also it recreates all the problems it generates for those who carry those burdens. It is a society which is possessed by estrangement from possibility and a disregard for an ethic of improvement.

The first form of society rings more truly of the university as a charitable endeavour. Most universities in the United Kingdom are charities which operate under charitable law. This harks back to the original formation of the universities as guilds of students back in the eleventh century.

The growth of student universities across Europe is illustrated by the statutes of the German nation which declare to be for the cultivation of “fraternal charity, mutual association and amity, the consolation of the sick and support of the needy, the conducts of funerals and the extirpation of rancour and quarrels, the attendance and escort of our Doctorandi to and from the place of examination, and the spiritual advantage of members” (Rashdall, 1895).

In this sense we might ask ourselves what it is to be charitable in the spirit of the law and the context of education. Is the porous university one which openly displays charity in its continued running ? Which of the imperatives should lead on who is to get to take part in the production of meaning and knowledge as well as the teaching/learning process – education or finance ?

Everybody has a voice that deserves to be heard

In practical terms this means that when someone not of the world of academia has made a genuine and valuable contribution to a field of knowledge, they should be acknowledged by being accredited with their contribution. To not do this is to improverish that individual and their opportunisties, and also to impoverish public knowledge itself thus limiting the development of fields to those who have been confirmed as part of the ingroup orthodoxy.

Institutionally, the university can never be porous until it has gained the capacity to value knowledge outside of it’s buildings. Honorary degrees are given to people for their achieving celebrity status, however why are people not awarded such things when a contribution to a field of knowledge has been made ? A contribution to the commons as a public good could operate like a form of PhD through publication, truly realising everyone as stakeholders in an endeavour larger than us all.


The Key is Found in the People

My perspectives of what a porous university is are coloured by what kind of society I want it to represent. In my experience the open educational practice which I have witnessed and been a part of has all come from individuals rather than the corporate systems (meaning the administrated collective actions in the field of formal education).

Throughout my life I can think of individuals who are, or were educators in universities taking me into their subject fields, their conversation, their thinking and their environments so that I may better encounter, contribute to and learn from them. Invariably these people represent intrinsically motivated individuals who have a passion for learning and knowledge which accompanies a deeply social nature.

Coming from the informal context and having never got the opportunity to go to university, they have – through their kindness, friendship, and civic nature – overturned any negative understandings which I have had developed through exclusion, and replaced them with insights that better describe the reality of the mixed up world in which we inhabit.

The porous university is exemplified by people like Dr Alexandra Richardson, Susan Brown, John Morrison, Donald Rutherford, Eileen Broughton, Roy Wilsher, Colin MacLean, Keith Smyth, Mr and Mrs Forbes, Ewan Aitken, Don Ledingham (in no particular order, the list goes on)…. all academics, but firstly socially oriented people who are led by their instincts to support learning in the living world, and fuelled by their own enjoyment of knowledge.

Each I can think of having toppled a barrier to understanding in me; each I can think of in terms of a relationship and pleasant encounter(s) which involved dialogue, communication, listening, sharing, and social exchange. They all represent the porous university and the necessary complexity which only the whole, unrepressed human individual can provide.


This relational idea of education I think is key to understanding how the formal institutions might become more porous in their capacities. Part of the answer is held in the people (as academics) having the affordance to respond to what they encounter and act as they feel is appropriate.



Bourdieu, P., (1989), Distinction, Routledge, pp 122 – 125

Bourdieu , P., (1987), ‘What Makes a Social Class? On The Theoretical and Practical Existence Of Groups’, Berkeley Journal of Sociology, Vol. 32 (1987), pp. 1-17

Collini, S., (2012), ‘What Are Universities For ?’. Penguin Books, page ix

Dewey, J., (2011), ‘Democracy and Education’, Simon and Brown, pp 47

Eco, U. (1976). A theory of semiotics. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. Pp 15

Filloux, J. C., (2001) ‘Emile Durkheim 1858-1917’, PROSPECTS: the quarterly review of comparative education, UNESCO: International Bureau of Education, vol. 23, no.1/2, 1993, p. 303–320.UNESCO: International Bureau of Education

Brinkkjaer, U., Norholm, M., (2005), What is the Relation between Human Practical Action and an Accompanying Discourse? – Discussing the Status of Practical Theory, Danmarks Pcedagogiske Universitet, Department of Educational Sociology Social Work & Society, Volume 3, Issue 1, 2005

Tajfel H., (1970) Experiments in Intergroup Discrimination, Scientific American, Inc

Rashdall, H., (1895), ‘The Universities of Europe in the Middle Ages: Salerno, Bologna, Paris’, Clarendon Press, pp 148 – 161

the main purpose of this notion is to break with the intellectualist (and intellectualocentric) philosophy of action represented in particular by the theory of homo ceconomicus as rational agent, which rational choice theory has recently brought back in fashion at the very time when a good number of economists Page 120 The Purpose of Reflexive Sociology Bourdieu

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