What do you tell a kid with no lunch?

So why do we think about education as having a specific monetary gain at the end? How is this part of the collusion I was talking about earlier?

I think we all attempt to make reasonable assumptions about the causes and effects of phenomena as a way of choosing different courses of action. It seems like most of social science, or academia more generally is about what causes things to happen, what might happen if you did it a different way etc. You have the more philosophical ‘meta’ schools that think about whether or not we should cause it to happen another way, or the seriously academic, what I consider to be a little navel gazing (although obviously important) activity of are we studying it the right way- are we wrong in our conclusions etc. Either way, this is an extreme version of what we all do all the time every day. We weigh up the costs to ourselves and the benefits it will bring while thinking about ways we could reduce our risk to achieve what we want. This is not only a product of capitalism. In prehistoric times the dude with the spear thought ‘This took me a long time to carve and that bison is really far away. should I throw it? Or wait?’ Anything is involved with the extent to risk versus the safety of just staying put. (or a cost benefit analysis if you will).

IMG_0076This is true of education as much as any other large undertaking in life. Is it worth the expense (the time, money, pain of revision or changing a world view) to get out of it what you expect to? What is it precisely that you expect? I think the way that we talk about education somewhat reflects our neo-liberal worldview but also an unexpressed enlightenment ideal that says if we understand something better, or can think about it in a different way we can do it better (or that there is a ‘better’ way more generally) and that our ability to think can overcome a number of other problems.

The difficulty and part of the collusion that I talk about is that in reality there is only so many ways that thinking can overcome something. I told a friend the other day that I believe the only thing we ever have total control over is our own perspective on a situation. Of course this is tempered by so many other things that shape us and that perspective. I recognise that, but I also think problems come in 2 types, the kind that can be resolved with resources and those that can’t. (or as my mother would say “there are problems you can throw money at and problems you can’t) Sometimes you will have resources to fix those first type (or money to throw), sometimes you won’t. The second category is more educational though as they are the kind that in reality you really don’t have much ability to fix at all. It might be an illness, it might be being stuck in a place that you have no control over getting out of- money can’t help, brains can’t help, the getting out or not is arbitrary and decided by someone or something so far beyond your control that you have no hope of influencing that. In that second category the attitude you have towards that situation is the only thing you can change about it. Do you find someone to blame? Try to get them to change it? (they may or may not be able to either) Do you blame yourself? Assuming it was your fault, or if you had done it differently you would not have found yourself where you are. Do you endure it? Thinking God or the universe or something has a reason for you to experience this unfortunate situation as a test, or a lesson, or a random event. In any event, its about a loss of control, something I think many of us find difficult.

So, we’ve been taught that we can control many things, and that our intelligence is what gives us better means to achieve that control. Obviously, education improves our ability to control our own destinies and the world around us, so the better educated we are and the more intelligent the more control we can have. (or thats the unstated theory)

A second part of this is related, but slightly different. People who attend higher education end up largely middle class. Even a large number of those who entered higher education not a part of the middle class achieve middle class professions upon graduation. This has been true as higher education is opened to a wider cross section of society but it is also important to note that at the same time the middle class itself was expanding in the North (economic) and West. The middle class in these places was expanding because individuals from other places (primarily asia) became a new working class with the international division of labour (supported by cheap oil that allowed for international supply chains- not a rant, just a fact). So the appearance was: enter higher ed, get a better paid job and higher standard of living regardless of social position of origin.

The thing is, the majority of people entering higher ed were middle class to begin with. Higher ed for them (us) is a refinement of skills that we have been developing for a long time some of which are about thinking and knowledge and large number are totally unrelated to academic intelligence. (Read the book Privilege I put in the reading list for more about this because its fascinating).

So we go to college/university (US/UK) and come out having networked and learned some more specific skills to take our place as the next generation of middle class managers following in the foot steps of our middle class parents.

There have been a smaller percentage of people who were not from the middle class, clever enough, and hard working to ‘prove’ that they too could learn and follow those rules, despite not being trained from birth (random fact, by age three, children from privileged families have heard 30 million more words than children from poor families– the education gap begins that early). So those hard working, clever people entered higher ed not middle class and emerged middle class, furthering the idea that higher ed was what made the difference. Maybe it does. I don’t know.

What I do know is that it is materially impossible for all people to be middle or upper class. We are all living longer (and I do mean all gapminder.com), whether living longer is an indication of quality I don’t know. There is enough food in the world for all people to eat, if it could get delivered to where it needs to be). That does not mean we can all have iPads and eat steak for dinner. The problem of saying everyone can get to higher ed, is that its really a promise that everyone could get to come out of it middle class. The assumption is that everyone goes in unequal, and comes out both equal and better off. Thats impossible! It just is. Its a lie that we tell and believe for myriad reasons, largely because although we realise life isn’t fair we don’t like to focus on that. It makes some of us uncomfortable, existentially wondering why we get to be where we are, recognizing the arbitrary nature of where someone happens to be born in social stratum. It makes others unhappy, wondering why they are/ got screwed in the lottery of birth. Allowing ourselves to believe that there is a potential for large scale class reassignment, and that shift can be all people moving upwards helps us deal with that thing that we can’t control and is uncomfortable to deal with. This is also very important to the underlying assumptions for functioning liberal democracy. (more about that later)

This is a similar fudge to the ‘students are all doing better than they used to’. A friend pointed out to me a long time ago, that if students were all doing better than students in the past, the tests themselves would be getting harder, not that there would be a higher proportion of ‘A’s. As we’ve seen with grade inflation in the US, the mark itself and the numbers of students receiving them are not a testament to the quality of education they are receiving or the abilities they have developed. The fact that we equate the two is similar to the way we equate higher education and the eventual earning potential of individuals in a society.

So, this again is only partial, but long already, so I will come back (sooner and more regularly) to finish this part of my argument. Thoughts are always appreciated although I also have a soft spot for lurkers- especially those taking care of the next generation…

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Governmentality of a new sort?

goforthVery briefly I wanted to include this. Its irrelevant to the ongoing education discussion (about which I have been quite remiss in continuing) but as it’s topical, and I feel quite good about my ability to be succinct on a complex issue I thought I would include it here. Its also a complex and interesting issue to tease out that if anyone feels inclined to comment on I would be interested to hear your thoughts.

I wrote this in response to a question on ‘This House Believes’ a page sponsored by the ESU devoted to starting debates on interesting topics in the news. (http://www.facebook.com/thishousebelieves)

This is the original:

There are two important yet distinct issues here. One is the real implications of telling young women that the ways they dress can increase their possible victimization and the other is the importance that linguistics and power can have in broader societal discourses.

Anyone who has attended the play the Vagina Monologues will know that we have reclaimed the word cunt. But what does that reclamation mean? Academics and media types are proud of the way that ‘queer’ has been ‘reclaimed’, but does that really impact a gay teen in Arkansas or Leeds when being bullied by his peers? Or does he still hear ‘gay’ as a pejorative adjective applied to a variety of situations and feel ostracised for it?

The problem with movements attempting to reclaim words imbued with negative connotations is that rarely does it impact the people on the ground who are most vulnerable to the sting of those words.

The people engaged in the linguistics debate are those who have the most power to change their own material circumstances and are often far removed from those disenfranchised and victimized people most at risk, both from the psychological harm of words but also the potential for physical harm from victimizers. The problem with reclaiming a word is that while it may have some success in some limited part of society, rarely does that penetrate to the areas where it is most needed. True, discourse change, and the utilisation of words within the ideological power elite over time can ‘filter down’, but this is a lengthy and often unsuccessful project. What is worse, is that celebration of this ‘reclamation’ (like the celebration of the reclamation of ‘queer’ and ‘cunt’) can serve to obscure the ongoing use and associated effects of the words in wider society. As I stated before, the fact that a university has a ‘queer studies’ department does not mean that young men and women are not bullied for their sexuality in myriad high schools across the world and that men in South Africa are not happy to admit to ‘corrective rape’ of lesbians. The celebration of a linguistic victory can easily overshadow the ongoing material reality of problems. Moreover, even when there is a relatively identifiable ‘victory’ in the linguistics debate it does not necessarily change an attitude, simply its means of expression. Although people don’t use ‘fag’ or ‘homo’ anymore, they just as often use ‘gay’ in the same pejorative way- new words, same sentiments.

This is not to say that sexism is not a real and important issue in society, or that words have no power. I mean instead that in the rush to claim a linguistic victory this movement, like others, has ignored bigger problems.

Words only have power in so much as they refer to ideas, assuming that there is a causal link between changing’s peoples vocabulary and changing their attitude is a little suspect. Change an attitude and they will change their own vocabulary.

The real problem with the movement to reclaim ‘slut’ is that ignores a much more important issue. The police officer’s use of the word slut to express himself was unfortunate (in the broadest possible sense), but the deeper and more sinister implications are what should really be getting attention. The fact that a man, in a position of power, with a responsibility to educate, told a group of young women that they way they dress can be directly responsible for their safety is bad. Really bad. Rape is not about sex, it is about power. It is not about a rational decision saying ‘well she looks like a better target because people will think she was up for it’. It is usually a decision taken by an irrational stranger based on any number of issues, one of which may be clothing, but are as likely to be hair colour, gait, size, or being in the wrong place at the wrong time. To indicate women have any control over that is a dangerous message to send. Moreover, if the police are giving this message as an official narrative, at the point of prosecution it will be easier to attempt the defence ‘she asked for it’ as the police obviously give it some credence or they wouldn’t be using it to educate young women. In instance of non-random rape (i.e. date rape) this is an even more insidious comment as these are the situations in which women are almost always characterised as ‘asking for it’. Telling women to deny their power over their own sexuality, and the freedom to express it through their clothing choice, while creating a mechanism for blaming them for their victimization is horrible, whatever words you put on it.

It is important to challenge injustice in society, and it is important for people to speak out against negative discourses and pejorative statements. The question is one of priorities. Which is more important? The use of a pejorative word in media? Or the ongoing victimization of those most vulnerable in society? Do you change a headline? Or change the story? The effort these movements are putting in to reclaim something linguistically would be much better spent on helping empower those young women in specific material ways, or engaging that police officer in a dialogue, exposing his superficial and damaging message for what it is. To change a societal attitude means engaging in discourse, interrogating words- both connotation and denotation. Reclamation, while important, is still about appropriation by one group.

I wanted to include a response from a friend of mine that made me think however and does need to be addressed as it gives an interesting perspective that should be looked at alongside the other. (I hope my friend doesn’t mind me posting this without referring to them)

“If you park your car in a bad part of town, it may well get smashed into for an expensive looking radio, or anything else that may be of interest; that’s not a reason for you to criticise an officer if he advises against you leaving your wallet on the seat – he probably isn’t trying to say people who leave wallets on seats are responsible for thefts, or that the system of private property is wrong, or that it absolves the thief of responsibility, or that people who do leave their wallets on their seat deserve to be a victim of crime. He is simply advising that this small modification is something which might lower your risk. If officers are advising on precautions, being overly conservative on risk is potentially good.”

There are ads all over the Tube and SE London advising not to advertise wealth by wearing large/ flashy jewelry outside your clothing as to a certain extent it might be seen as an invitation. In my neighbourhood in Portland there has recently been a rash of car break-ins especially if there was anything visible that seemed of value (although once it was for the change in the cup holder). On the neighbourhood email list it was advised that people should take in to their houses anything of value and hide things left in the car.

I’m not sure if this is analogous, and I would love to hear if people think it is. It seems to me that this is a similar message, but I’m not sure.

To a certain extent it is important if we think the motivations for rape are more about a need to dominate or an unsatisfied desire for sex. If its about power than the apparent ‘offer’ of sexuality is less relevant, unless saying that dressing in a particular ways degrades one’s appearance of personal power (although feminists would argue that the ability to dress that way demonstrates an increase in power- arguable but potentially true).

If its about sex then anything that seems inviting sexually could be construed as leaving the wallet in the car. Like my friend said, leaving valuables unprotected creates a vulnerability that through alternate behaviour might not be quite the same level of risk.

A whole other issue, which I don’t plan to go into here, but invite you to think about is about ‘dressing invitingly’. Is revealing skin an attempt to be inviting sexually? It would seem to me to be about that, whether it’s to take control of one’s sexuality for personal reasons by demonstrating mastery over invitation, or if it is about the response itself. Either way it is about creating a reaction. What then are the implications if the reaction is negative?

So many issues here! (I think I should probably also rethink my definition of brief posts)

Blaming the victim (at least a little)

IMG_0116-2I thought a quick entry, because the last few days have been a bit busy, but I want to make sure to update this somewhat regularly, or whats the point? When we left our story I promised to be highly incendiary and talk about how we all collude to create the societal problems that have lead to our problematic education system. Don’t fear, I haven’t abandoned that, but with only a little time, and a currently fading brain I thought I would tackle a short topic that has been really bugging me. Mostly because I don’t understand.

The themes of the protests about cuts to the public sector, and specifically higher ed have been mostly focused on tuition fees. Now, I think it is an important issue that needs to be addressed, but it hides the much deeper and more dangerous fact of the changes proposed by the Browne Report: the commodification of education. This is something being discussed amongst a specific group of academics, but doesn’t seem to have reached the public sphere in a clear way. For those of you who aren’t total geeks, commodification is the process of making something into a good (item) that has a specific monetary value, that can be bought and sold like a jug of milk or a share in a company. Increasingly, through the spread of neo-liberalism, we are commodifying things that we previously had a hard time assigning value (like education, culture, art etc). The thing about commodification, to be fair, is that it is also about bureaucracy. The assigning of value to know how much to apportion (give out) based on how much good each resource can do for the most people (basic utilitarianism) is important when there are not enough resources to do everything everyone wants to do and we have to find some system for figuring out the way to accommodate the most people in the most fair way possible. That usually means quantification (counting things). Quantification, in any capitalist system will invariably lead to commodification, because if it can be measured, it can be assigned an exchange value (Marx) and traded/ bought and sold (three chickens for your cow, or $50K for a year at Harvard). The problem is the disconnect between quantification and the intangible results of something like an education. It is hard to find a systematic value for something like education, or access to art, or access to outside space free of other people and pollution because it has different results for different people over time.

So, institutions are trying to get the most money they can, to fund research, to include students who couldn’t otherwise afford to attend, or wouldn’t know to apply, to give the best resources to help teachers impart knowledge, to entice good teachers to come to that institution and to create links with the rest of the world. That all seems to make sense generally. But this is the rub: Institutions, once education is commodified, recognise that one of the main ways they can add value to their particular ‘brand’ of good is to increase the revenue stream to increase the value of the ‘product’ they can offer. This leads to one of two things- selling out, or selling up (some conflate the two, but I disagree). What I mean by selling up is to make an institution increasingly elite by increasing the price of a particular education and using the funds to actually make that ‘product’ more valuable (both because people perceive it as more valuable based on the price, but also because of the aforementioned marshalling of resources that then are able to improve the quality of eduction). This is what people focus on when talking about fees and is an important argument.

What I don’t understand though, is that people seem to be ignoring the connection between commodification and selling out. A couple months ago Howard Davies was forced to resign from the LSE because of the institution’s involvement with the Libyan government and misconduct in a previously awarded PhD. I would say that this is the direct result of the same processes we are talking about with commodification. The LSE is one of the best higher ed institutions in the UK for bringing in outside funds, beyond tuition fees and public sector funding. They were criticised for talking money from dodgy sources, but at the point when education becomes a competitive market, and institutions are required to find funds in order to market and add value to their ‘product’, in fact, when an intangible item like an education becomes a ‘product’ at all, it would seem that a race to the bottom is a bit inevitable. To blame the institutions, and the decision makers in them, for attempting to navigate as successfully as possible, a system which encourages (if not requires) that specific behaviour to survive/ prosper/ offer the best education they can, it seems a little unfair and also illogical. (on a separate note, blaming the head of a college for engaging in the same behaviour as heads of state also seems a little illogical and unfair, but then I guess life isn’t so there we go)

I have been really confused why those lobbying to avoid the (seemingly) inevitable results of a system, while also decrying a really unfortunate incident for academia generally would not connect the two, when they have the same causal determinant.

Commodifying intangibles, even if it could be positive in some way is extremely problematic. Commodifying education is more so, especially when we have clear evidence of the likely outcome, which all agree is pretty negative, for academia and for the role that it can and should play in society. I don’t have a solution to offer (I know, a bit pants really, point out a problem without offering an alternative), but I do think we should be clear on exactly what the problems are. Higher tuition fees suck, but are the result of a much deeper, larger problem that is being ignored.

Education 101 or The Somali ladies sewing circle

IMG_0024-4I’m starting with this because my flatmate and I were talking about it yesterday so its a little on the forefront of my mind.

I have been struck recently (and I use that term very loosely) by how the education debates in this country (the UK) seem to both miss the point, and go for an easy political solution that replicates past cleavages but ignores the unpolitical reality currently facing this country and to a greater extent to more global reality in which we find ourselves.

Commodification of Education

Having observed both the UK and the US education I find that there are positives and negatives in each, but that the biggest problem is the classification of education as a commodity that has value to its primary possessor and very little value beyond that. The labelling of education as a good mostly for employment purposes and not for the potential to open minds, to explore the world or to contribute in unquantifiable ways to a fuller integrative civil society is problematic. I understand that this classification allows for a more egalitarian perspective that attempts to overcome entrenched social strata/expectations. I think thats important. Very important. But, if we are going to attempt to see education in any other way than functional we have to accept that life, and society is just going to not be fair. Thats not to say that it shouldn’t be fair. Of course it should, and it is very easy for me to accept that it isn’t fair because I am one of the incredibly lucky and very very few people who aren’t getting screwed by the fact that things aren’t fair.

That being said, there are greater and lesser degrees of getting screwed and the people who are able to finish secondary school, or university without having to dodge bullets, or leave their homes because of natural or man-made disasters are also doing pretty well. I think if you make it to 18 and have some choices in life you should recognise that you too are pretty lucky. I think there are a lot of people who don’t make it to age 5, or by 18 have had some pretty horrific experiences well beyond home-leaving so all of this discussion needs to be bracketed by that pretty stark reality. (sorry bit of a side rant there, should have made clear that as we get going there might be side notes to let you know more clearly the basics of where I come from)

So, where were we? Right, social strata and education. There are some people who are lucky enough that their parents are able and willing to support them studying things and completing degrees that are not strictly useful. Often they have no vocational outlet (and I include things like law, medicine, engineering in vocations). That is to say that there is no specific job waiting at the end for which they have gained the specific skills to fulfil.

There have been, and continue to be those for whom a specific scholarship or fellowship is available because they are just too obviously smart to put their brains to a specific task, but need to be free to pursue academic aims for which we may not yet understand the value. For a time, as a society, we had enough surplus (again, largely because we were ignoring those less fortunate than us who were not within close geographical proximity) that collectively we could endow a greater proportion of people who were not off the charts smart but at least relatively clever to pursue not strictly functional educational ends. Unfortunately as the geo-political reality changes our ability to command a large part of the super structure will decrease and the numbers of bright-but-not-genii who are publicly supported to pursue higher education will necessarily drop as well.

This does not HAVE to be a bad thing. It could be, but it is contingent on how it is done. Fewer people in higher education does not have to mean worse education. I heard a very few voices several months ago talking about the ways education could change to accommodate young people gaining the skills they need without incurring large debt to themselves or to the public. Industries could make better use of apprenticeships- teaching young people specific skill sets and knowledge bases while paying them, albeit a small salary, but a small salary is still better than a debt. This would be possible in a number of skill based fields from technology to service industries. There are a number of incredibly important jobs that are better learnt by doing than studying in a classroom and then learning by doing afterwards anyway. I had a friend who completed a general degree in English at St Andrews, spending 4 years and incurring huge debt for both him and his parents. After graduating he returned home and got the exact same job he had prior to leaving for university. After a few months he was able to start as a cash register person in a book shop and worked his way up to becoming a book buyer. I could be wrong, as I am not the people involved, but it seems from the outside, in this instance, that working his way up from the inside and demonstrating that he kept up with the current book market had as much to do with the position he now occupies as the piece of paper that said he did a mediocre degree in which he read a lot of books he could have read anyway. Wow. That was much harsher than I meant it to be, and I could edit it, but I am trying to be true to the stream of consciousness writing style I’m trying to adopt here.

I think its wonderful he was able to study english, to have intelligent people explaining things to him that he might not be able to figure out on his own, to have lecturers and tutors share insights gleaned from generations of intelligent people thinking about these same texts and their authors and the contexts in which they were written. All people should be able to benefit from that knowledge, and when I say benefit I mean both have access and have the personal resources to understand it. But, if we return to the original premise of this discussion the point was the commodification and the value of the possessor of a degree. The point in this instance was that the piece of paper, the ‘education’ he received from a place of higher learning was not as useful to his future employment as a keen interest in the Guardian’s book review and a quick mind that was interested in the world. In this instance education had personal benefit to him, and will probably help him in choosing good books to stock and recommend, but that he paid a lot of money (and his parents as well) to get a job that he most likely could have gotten anyway and that all that debt did not enhance his earning potential as much as promised.

A question then becomes: what is the value to seeing education in these terms? (as in, who does it serve to do so?)

A question I will continue to answer tomorrow. I have just realised that if I try to completely address each topic as much as I want to all at the same time I will be here writing for a very long time and you are likely to get bored/ overwhelmed. So, I’ll try and let you know where I’m going next. Tomorrow I want to look at/ talk about why I think we are all a little part of the colluding to see education in these terms as it serves us all. I know that most of you have just gone ‘say wha?’ in a cliched 1990’s sitcom sort of way, some because you think ‘I’m not the straw-man bad guy everyone paints me as?’ and some because you think ‘I’m totally against the spread of capitalism to a last bastion of common sense and civil society’ but I challenge you, I think we are all a part of the collusion that leads to the position we are at. So, more tomorrow on that (and hopefully we can start some conversation going/ disagreement having)!

Below are my current thoughts on where this is eventually headed. They seem a little cryptic or a little cliche right now, but I promise, it will be interesting if you stick with me.

Future directions:

The LSE effect (or the inevitable results of the commodification of education)

‘Results’ (what does it mean that everyone is ‘doing better’ than they have in the past?)

‘Class’ (How is our education system a microcosm of an entrenched class system? I want to look at this both in terms of how its happened, but also how its informed our expectations and how it is these expectations, bound up with huge political implications, that are part of the root of our problem now.)

After that we may move on from education and actually dive into politics, but I may be all about theory then, or some of you may want to know more about where I’m coming from, so we will have to see.