Revolutionary Education? If Only

06/21/2010 11:28 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Sarah Amsler Lecturer in Sociology at Aston University (Birmingham, UK)

It sounds like the start of a good joke: a sociologist walks into a student union somewhere in the UK, Das Kapital and a map of (all of) Latin America under one arm, a giant stack of unmarked essays under the other. She approaches a huddle of students engaged in deep conversation, assuming they have been inspired by a recent lecture on experiments in participatory economics and guerrilla warfare. Instead, they accost her with advertisements of jobs for which they will not be qualified after completing their irrelevant degree, tear their essays out of her hands in a show of collective self-respect, and assert their rights by completing all the appropriate opinion surveys. In the marketplace of learning, educational justice will surely prevail.

A joke, yes. Funny? No. For this is precisely the fantasy behind David Willetts' recent comments on why universities should offer more incentives for excellent teaching than they presently do. His evidence is sound, to a point: students say they want more and better feedback, more control over what they learn, and opportunities to engage in study that is meaningful to their lives. Could we really be on the same page? Then suddenly, a logical implosion: 'when I visit student unions', Willets reportedly says to the audience at Oxford Brookes University, 'I don't find undergraduates plotting Marxist revolution for Latin America; I hear them complaining about how long it takes to get their essays returned'.

Right. No, wait. What? What do undergraduate students, Marxism, revolution, Latin America, and essay-marking turnaround time have to do with one another, or collectively to do with excellent teaching? Now this sounds like an IQ test rather than a joke. Surely, a student could write a paper about any one of these topics and receive comments in a timely fashion, or even have worked through feedback in the process. Surely, students could be politically engaged and care about academic writing at the same time. And did Willetts really think that student guilds, which at this historical moment are mainly spaces for young people to socialize on their own terms, might have become hotbeds of (other people's) revolutionary furor? What does any of this have to do with teaching?

On the surface, the two points are not related at all. The argument is elsewhere: between the lines, communicated through prejudicial stereotypes and legitimized by the subtle threat of worthlessness that disciplines both academics and students today. The images of 'Marxist revolution' and 'essay feedback' represent things. The first stands for all that the new government despises: learning that is not profitable in economic or personal terms, all forms of socialism, varieties of Marxist thought, left politics, anti-status-quo political education, radical pedagogy. The second stands for everything that is desired: efficiency, learning that is relevant to individuals because it is relevant to businesses and industries, status-quo political education, ideological neutrality in teaching, quality customer service. Both are fictional caricatures, even of themselves. The semiotic magic is in the combination, in which prompt essay feedback is transformed into a symbol for excellent teaching, and 'plotting Marxist revolution' is transformed into an image that can conjure all the repugnant ideas, identities, ideologies and practices that stand in the way of this excellence, and must be eliminated. Because the images are tied to powerful stereotypes and anxieties, none of the categories themselves need to be interrogated. You don't need to read Marx to figure it out. It's an old rhetorical trick, and a low one, but it still works fine. It works even better if no one is trained in the skills that are required to recognize it.

The negative stereotyping of critical philosophy, social theory and politics from conservative corners is neither new nor terribly interesting. What is interesting, however, is that such radical educational politics as are now being imposed could be shaped by such a low level of critical thought about what actually goes on in universities, and justified through sardonic rhetoric. The audience for the latter is undoubtedly large; it is probably even growing. But it is also not the only one, as illustrated by the very different demands being made by undergraduate students in other kinds of meetings, reading groups, conferences, demonstrations, alternative educational spaces and occupations in the UK, Europe and the US. Either they count too, or it should be made clear that they aren't the 'right' sort of students, and shan't be included in any serious political decisions. More importantly, however, the professed loyalty to students' futures in general is not entirely on the level. Educating people to get 'decent jobs', as Willetts puts it, is not a simple matter of depositing skills into students at school that they can later withdraw at work, in exchange for a salary that they can exchange for a house and other goods and services; all of which feeds seamlessly into both self-realization and national economic development. This is of course another caricature of social process, but one that is being rapidly transformed into a matter of fact for many people. There are worrying indications that the government actually believes it.

It is no secret, surely even to the politicians who may deny it, that one of the defining characteristics of work in our society today is that for many people, it is precarious and often alienating. And it is no secret that in this country, it is about to become even more so - 'big decisions' in 'tough times' are codes for other, less pleasant things. Naked market competition is well known to leave swathes of damaged and deserted people, ideas and institutions behind the few that push their way to the top, especially in areas of social life where plurality and humanism were once valued as values. Let's at least be clear that this is the agenda, rather than the critique; that ultimately it is the predictable winners of these games that really matter. What Willetts' speech makes clear is that the promises being offered to students - better teaching, greater clarity, brand assurances, quality control - are in fact promises to those who would employ them, and to all the non-student taxpayers who would like to pay as little as possible for social education. It's genius. Someone should invent a word for this strategy of convincing people that the best interests of the powerful are really their own.

Not to worry. Most undergraduate students are indeed not sitting in their unions, plotting revolutions for Latin America. One would hope that at least some of them have in fact already learned enough about post-colonialism to consider just how imperialist it might be to 'plot' anything for anyone, or taken a course in global politics that cleared up the difference between vaguely Cold War references to 'Marxist revolutions in Latin America' and the cacophony of rightist, leftist and post-Marxist movements that make the present-day South such an interesting political phenomenon. Of course, some students are now sitting -- though likely not in their unions -- discussing critical responses to the current educational reforms, thinking about what they want from their higher education, and dealing with other pressing problems that affect them in their everyday lives.

But I would hazard a guess that all students want to learn interesting and useful things taught in excellent ways by teachers that care about both them and their academic work. Support for this, yes, please. Let's have more resources for good teaching, to make great education more possible for as many people as possible. Let's have an open, public discussion about what 'relevant' education looks like in this society, and how we might be able to discover and make space for the different definitions that will emerge. But let's leave Marx and Latin America out of the equation unless we can talk about either intelligently. Otherwise, it's really is just a joke.

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