Saturday, June 11, 2011

Education, education, education

So, inevitably, after the backlash comes the backlash...the furore generated by A. C. Grayling's gobsmackingly cynical announcment of the New College of the Humanities (see here and here for press, and here and here for blogosphere) mutating, by the week's end, into Deborah Orr's feigned incomprehension of what all the fuss is about, or Simon Jenkin's telling us - with characteristic generosity of spirit - that the fuss is about nothing more serious than "rich pips" getting pissy about having to pay for their own education. (There is also a staggeringly odious display of neo-colonial ad hominem non-argument posted by some chap called Hugo on the Varsity website for anyone who fancies getting really irritated - waytogo laying that ghost about Cambridge fostering disgustingly complacent posh-boy privilege Hugo).

So, for those of you having a problem getting your heads around this, let's spell it out. The fuss is about capitulating to the assumption that the function of education is to be rendered only in the logic of capital. Grayling, relying - as do so many of those who choose to sell their principles down the swanny - on the 'real-worlder' defense, claims to be defending the humanities from their present peril. But, as has been pointed out (here for example), if you want to defend the humanities, then how about you try defending the humanities...Because, do you know what doesn't come under the rubric of 'defending the humanities'?...Acquiescing to the neo-liberal managerialism that insists that the humanities are 'non-productive' leeches on the public purse and are henceforth only to be enjoyed by people who can pay eighteen grand a year to be educated by a bunch of media-hungry celebrity intellectuals.

There are a number of issues here. The first is that the assault on humanities education is entirely ideological. I know that we're not generally renowned for our facility with 'real-world' things like numbers, but some of us have actually done the math, and the fact is that humanities education generally costs less to provide than in brings in, and that humanities departments actually subsidize far more cash intensive subjects like science and medicine - y'know something tells me that this might not be news to Grayling. They want us gone, not because we are too expensive, but because - in addition to our pesky habit of teaching people things like critical thinking, or political economy - humanities education and research has long been driven by an idea about education which is, at its core, fundamentally resistant to the all-consuming logic of the market.

According to this bankrupt and bare-bones thinking of the world, human capital has only two forms: you, and your friends, lovers, parents and children, are nothing but producer-consumers, units of economic activity whose adventures and experiences are valued only as offerings to the all conquering GDP-god (probably the most-favoured of all the 'realworlder' deities.) By these lights, education can only be understood as the process by which we manufacture the very best producers and/or consumers, and in so doing - by a nice sociobiological sleight-of-hand - we inadvertently contribute to the public good, making this rag bag of autonomous agents that some nostalgic pinkos would call society, collectively fitter, leaner, and more primed for opportunistic global expansion.

The logic of education as a process of 'manufacturing producers' was, it was widely noted, amply on display in the Browne report...but it has recently come to my attention that the logic of education as 'manufacturing consumers' has now also made its no doubt inevitable appearance. The recent remit for the Film Policy Review issued by the Department of Media, Culture and Sport, states that the function of that once venerable institution the BFI is now to "maximise the impact of film education" for the purpose of "determin[ing] how best to increase audience demand for film." Let's not get started with how sick I am with the government commissioning policy reviews on the basis of the unassailable presupposition that the review's goal is to "identify market failures" and assist in "building a work effectively in a rapidly changing global marketplace (yaddayaddayadda)." What is notable here - above and beyond the neoliberal cant from the managerial-speak-random generator - is the suggestion that the function of, in this case, film education, is the production of a more extensive body of consumers.

The problem with humanities education - from the perspective of the market-godhead -  is not that it costs too much, but that it sticks in the throat of a system which can see human development only in terms of the increasingly efficient manufacture of producer-consumers. Not only do we engage in some kind of weird airy-fairy activity in which there is no demonstrable relationship between inputs and outputs (we can slave at our desks for hours to no particular effect and then have some genius idea while standing in a queue at the chippie), we also spend a fair amount of our time encouraging people to ask inconvenient questions. Most importantly of all, however, is the fact the humanities are traditionally about the idea of education as the development and enlargement of human potential - of excellence, or virtue in an Aristotelian sense - and that this development is an end in itself, irrespective of its economic upshot. The clearly bonkers idea that we might understand the purpose of a human life as about something other than the production of profit, that we might choose to value our activity as about something other than the production of brute economic fitness, is, frankly, anathema to a reductive market logic hell bent on its own totalization. Consequently, it must be both rhetorically, and now literally, shut down.

The fight for the future of humanities education in this country, is not then, simply, as has often been noted, a question of the stand off between a market logic which views education as a private good, and a social democratic logic which views it as a public good. Marketization - underpinned by its neo-Darwinian assumption that the value of a human life can be adequately indexed as the fitness of producer-consumers - neatly conflates the private with the public. The economic fitness of the nation is simply, to the managerial mind, the aggregation of the fitness of all the individual members, and hence, to produce the very best producer-consumers is simply to prepare the country to best 'meet the challenges of the rapidly changing global marketplace.' To fashion an education system which produces the most efficient producer-consumers equates, in short, to the public good.

The ground we must fight on then is not the difference between public and private goods, but the very notion of good which is at work at the heart of the neoliberal world-view, and this demands nothing short than the left mustering the bollocks to clearly articulate an alternative account of what is good for a human life. Labouring under the long-shadow of liberal tyranny and shilly-shallying, this is something which we have manifestly failed to do. But time is running short now. Sure, we can - and indeed, we should - take Grayling to task for his manifest cynicism, opportunism and vanity, for his willingness to exploit our pathetic celebrity obsession and status anxiety to line his own pockets. But more than that, he should be taken to task for publicly capitulating to a 'realworld' logic which cannot tolerate the assertion of a human good beyond the production of producer-consumers. In so doing, he has made the job of resisting the encroachment of marketization in the academy that much harder. And, at the same time, he has presided over the conversion of education for the good of human development into perhaps the only thing that the market can tolerate it as, but it should least be - a luxury commodity for the rich.

1 comment:

  1. Well said Jane Jones!
    See Martin Eve and Jennifer Jones in the Guardian Education section (June 16) on projects that are as you say, 'mustering the bollocks to clearly articulate what is good for a human life' AND protesting neoliberalization of the humanities and postgraduate training.
    I quote them here talking about the various forms of protest that have emerged in the face of coalition education policies:
    'This has led to a proliferation of radical spaces - both virtual and physical - to transform or critique through a longer term, idealistic struggle. Some have been ephemeral; the University of Strategic Optimism has held 'flash-mob' lectures across London in places such as Tesco stores and outside the bank of the Royal family, Coutts & Co. Some, such as the Really Open University in Leeds and Leicester's Third University are more conceptual in nature, aiming to provide a space to reimagine and implement real, radical futures for higher education. Finally, others are theorising long-term strategies, such as the Social Science Centre in Lincoln, where education will be delivered as part of a cooperative, rather than a commercial, operation. All share similar goals, where education is presented as being something more than a commodity and students more than consumers; the university as other than a training for employment'.