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When education is like bad sex

May 13, 2010

Whenever I’m asked what education is for always think of the film About Last Night (Dir. Edward Swick, 1986) based on David Mamet’s play. The film itself has bugger all to do with education. It’s about the tension between sustained love and quick sexual gratification. In one scene, Joan, a young school teacher, is asked by one of the infants in her care, ‘What is sex for?’ She replies dryly, ‘About 10 minutes’.

I love that reply. I’ve adapted it on a number of occasions in quite a different context. When I’m asked: ‘What’s today’s lecture about?’ I say, ‘It’s about 1 hour 45 minutes.’

OK, I’m not exactly Woody Allen (or David Mamet for that matter) and I’ve used the line so often that some of my students can beat me to it when someone puts the question to me. But it occurred to me this week that the retort is more than a smart-arsed reply. When I think about it there is an ironic comment in there somewhere on the banal, instrumentalisation of education.

This is something you’ll encounter frequently if you encourage students to talk about a forthcoming essay. Rarely will they discuss the ideas and arguments that might be engaged through the work. Instead there ensues a torturously dull conversation about what length the essay should to be; how many quotes the student should use; what length of an extension on the deadline for submission am I willing to grant; and ultimately, what is the ‘right’ answer, because the idea that an essay should be about formulating an argument or drawing conclusions through an academic interrogation of theories and evidence is just too speculative when marks are at stake.

I don’t want to be one of those weary old educationalists who shake their heads and complain about the poor quality of students; or one who complains that standards are slipping because any Tom, Dick or Herbert can get into university these days. Students are what they are because they are systematically encouraged to think about education in instrumental ways.

This is perfectly illustrated by the advertising campaign launched this week by a further education college close to where I live. It has been distributing leaflets and putting up posters, encouraging enrollment on part-time courses with the image of a young woman ‘nosing’ over a garden fence with the slogan, ‘The Joneses are doing it’.

So there you have it. The answer to the question: ‘What is education for?’ is: ‘Education is for gaining competitive advantage over others’, or at least ‘keeping up with the Jones’. And, of course, this is particularly urgent at a time when the economy has gone belly up and you may be anxious about unemployment. Therefore you’d be wise, as one university put it in its literature, to ‘up-skill in the downturn’. So pay-out and enrol on some or other course if you don’t want to end up on the scrap-heap. Or to put it another way: your misfortune and anxiety is the education industry’s opportunity.

Education has for a long time been about getting awards and qualifications that you can take to employers. My own position is entirely due to my education. Still education isn’t only about employability, yet you will rarely hear anybody make the case (or even mention) the many benefits to an education that are not specifically economic, such as the social, intellectual, cultural, humanist and democratic.

Life is too short to rehearse all the arguments here but when education is for competitive advantage only, then the very idea of education itself is put at risk. For the collegiality, the dialogue and the intellectual commons, through which learning and understanding are advanced are incompatible with an environment in which gaining the competitive edge is the bottom-line. That’s not to say that I don’t know aggressively individualistic academics, in fact they thrive in the education industry today.

When students see education as being purely about gaining competitive advantage then it leads to some perverse and despicable behaviour. I’ve encountered a gifted students that would contribute nothing in seminars because he didn’t see why he should share what he knew with others; most recently, I’ve come across the strange case of books being hidden in libraries, I am told to prevent other students getting access to them; and I know students who will endure three years pursing a degree in a subject they have absolutely no interest in because they believe it will get them a job: three valuable years of their youth, spent bored out of their minds, underachieving, accumulating massive debt and willing an end to their torture. It’s a little like the sort of disappointing sexual encounter referred to in About Last Night, where learning is reduced to little more than a lot of struggling, huffing and puffing before the ‘money shot’ on graduation day. Leaves you wondering though, wouldn’t it be great if we could just be a little more tantric in our approach to education?

6 Comments leave one →
  1. May 14, 2010 10:46 am

    Great piece, Rab. Really reflects many of my views regarding education.

    This part, especially, chimes with me:

    “Still education isn’t only about employability, yet you will rarely hear anybody make the case (or even mention) the many benefits to an education that are not specifically economic, such as the social, intellectual, cultural, humanist and democratic.”

  2. Rabelais permalink*
    May 15, 2010 8:50 am

    Thanks Sean,

    I’ll be at an ’employability’ conference later in the year. I intend to go armed because there is no point trying to reason with the neo-liberal evangelists pushing this agenda. I’ll keep you posted.

  3. Affer permalink
    May 19, 2010 12:57 pm

    Nice one, Rab!

    I think educayshun has been seriously infiltrated by politicians for some time. Decades back, those of a leftist-persuasion embraced Jesuit-type brainwashing opportunities; later, Tony Blair saw votes (remember “Education, education, education”?). This Statism leads to ridiculous league tables, and students being taught whatever is necessary to pass exams. Later, when I get them (in a Big Girl’s School in London), they have no reasoning power, no learning ability – only a compulsive need to ask for the answers.

    At that point, frankly, there is little to do other than to dangle the carrot of a Big Job in front of them – and that is what Governments of various hues have been doing for some time. Quite foolishly.

    There are schools that encourage learning as opposed to imposing teaching – think Montessori – but until we allow more schools the freedom to operate in the way of the Swedish system (have you ever had a Swedish student in your class? It’s refreshing!!) it’ll get worse.

    • Rabelais permalink*
      May 19, 2010 2:08 pm

      Good to hear from you Affer.

      I have had a couple of Swedish students and Belguims and Germans, all with a very different perspective on what education is for than my own students. They were/are intellectually curious about their subject, will read books and can provide beautifully constructed arguments in essay form. I’m sure there must be silly Sweds, it’s just I haven’t met any. And of course I have a few really good students of my own but rarely are they as stimulating to teach as their European cousins. I’m sure this has something to do with how our respective countries and regions think about education.

      As you say there were sections of the Left that saw in education the chance to ‘socially engineer’ change. They failed. Now we have the neo-liberals trying to do the same (and I count Blair among them). Alas they seem to be having a little more success, although the mixture of statism bureaucracy and free-market ideology at work in higher education at the moment is crucifying learning and knowledge.

      As a general rule of thumb I think a good education doesn’t lead people to predetermined answers but encourages students to identify the right questions to ask.

      PS Is that a pint of real ale in your hand?

      • Affer permalink
        May 20, 2010 4:49 pm

        Oh yes! I seem to think it was Hopping Hare…..

  4. May 29, 2010 5:14 pm

    ‘the idea that an essay should be about formulating an argument or drawing conclusions through an academic interrogation of theories and evidence is just too speculative when marks are at stake’. Absolutely spot on. And hell hath no fury like a student with a lower mark than they thought they had purchased through their tuition fee.

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