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Friggin’ in the Riggin’ – What is the purpose of education?

March 17, 2011

Below is a contribution to Purpos/ed’s ongoing debate about education. Purpos/ed is a non-partisan, location-independent organization aiming to kickstart a debate around the question: What’s the purpose of education? You can join the debate here.


I was just going to leave this post blank with a poignant full stop at the end of it, an admission perhaps that I’m not sure what the purpose of education is anymore. After a decade of working in universities it’s easy to lose your co-ordinates. It’s like spending too much time at sea in a violent storm. Eventually any port will do. In the meantime all your energy is devoted to holding together the leaking, rusting hull beneath you. Either that or you succumb to the temptation to retreat from service and spend all your time simply friggin’ in the rigging.

In all my time teaching in higher education I can’t remember a single occasion when I’ve received a clear signal from my superiors about the substance of the work I’m meant to be engaged in. Or maybe I have but it got lost in the blizzard of idiotic directives, initiatives and memos. I do recall having impressed upon me the importance of ‘retention and progression’; I’ve been instructed to ‘embed’ entrepreneurship into my teaching, but this eventually gave way to the apparently more modest ambition of ‘employability’, probably when it dawned upon those at the top that we can’t all be entrepreneurs. After all, someone has to do the shit jobs. Then there is the ‘skills agenda’, which is dedicated to turning higher education into a training course that produces ‘industry ready graduates’, a term which has a chilling, Stepford-like ring to it.

If I sound a little exasperated I suppose it’s because I’m sure that before I worked in the ‘education industry’ I had a very clear sense of education’s purpose. If you’d ask me what it was 10 years ago, or shortly after graduation, I’d have answered in a shot: education, I’d have said, is about the development of the human intellect and imagination. And even though that might not necessarily further the skills agenda or increase employability (or whatever the fuck you do with employability), it’s still pretty cool. Because right there — in the ambition to make us smarter and cleverer — is the possibility that the world might just be made a better place. And I don’t mean as those Victorian grandees did that education should remake the world in their own bourgeois image — all sweetness and light. Education isn’t prescriptive in that way. Rather it is the first step upon the road to freedom; a journey on which we are just as likely to discover a world that is disturbing and frightening as it is delightful. But it’s a world that is no less awesome for that.

Education liberates. That’s why it makes political elites nervous. That’s why their preferred method of schooling is indoctrination and training. A genuinely educated people, after all, would find their oppression and exploitation intolerable. And that’s why what education is and who gets it is such an explosive issue because education is potentially revolutionary.

Now, you can say what you like about the above. You can accuse it of being madly ambitious or just plain naive but at least it sounds sort of noble and exciting when compared to today’s prevailing wisdom, which has set about privatising and commodifying education.

Today education is conceived of as an instrument of aggressive individualism, with prospective students encouraged to make a personal investment in their future as a means by which to achieve competitive advantage over all the dolts and proles in the job market.

Purpos/ed’s initiative is so timely, because in these desperate times many of us welcome the opportunity to restate what we think education is for and what made us want to be a students and teachers in the first place.

I’m sure many will baulk at my assertion that education is revolutionary but I wonder could we agree on one thing? Could we say categorically that education is not a commodity and therefore not for sale? That would constitute an important start on the road to establishing what education is for.


I’ve enjoyed all the contributions to the Purpos/ed debate. Here are links to a few that really resonated with me: the rebellious and curious Jennifer Jones and Stephen Downes, who spent ‘at least as much time learning outside the formal system as within’, reminding us that schools, colleges and universities have no monopoly over education. Also check out Old Andrew, an argumentative, pedantic, old curmudgeon for sure, but an interesting blogger and he’s not wrong when he says education should make us smarter.

37 Comments leave one →
  1. March 17, 2011 7:59 pm

    Good stuff, and questions that very few in positions of power seem to be asking. Except for Oxbridge educated tories who want to smash education for the working class. Have you seen this? Be interested in your thoughts on it.

  2. CharlieMcMenamin permalink
    March 17, 2011 9:52 pm

    Well, I agree. Education – the stimulation of curiosity – is one of the points of life, or at least of a life well lived.

    But you know I agree with you on this subject.

    So I have a different question. Why do you think other people – your students and their parents being the key sub set I’m interested in – don’t think like this?

  3. Rab permalink*
    March 18, 2011 8:54 am

    Hi Garibaldy and Charlie,

    The fact that Paul Greatrix is having to point out something which is so fucking blindingly obvious – that consumerism in education won’t work – is interesting in itself. The notion that no matter what the problem, in no matter what sphere of life, the answer is always ‘the market’. And even if there is no particular problem, then assume that sooner or later there will be and the answer will be … (yep, you guessed right) ‘the market’ is tiresome. Is it really inconceivable that people who are sick wanted to be treated as patients rather than consumers and people who want to learn want to be treated at pupils and students?

    As for what students and parents think? Actually some of them do think like me. And after a ‘meet and greet’ session with me at an open day, even those who didn’t think like me before, leave thinking like me! Seriously.

    Most parents and prospective students have been encouraged for years to think of education in instrumental ways – primary, secondary, tertiary, job, death. But somewhere in them – that bit they preserve for the last vestiges of their humanity – they know that education isn’t training, or indoctrination, or socialiasation. They know deep down that education has something to do with improvement – and not improvement in the pusillanimous sense of greater ’employability’ – moral improvement; the common good, that sort of thing. They know this, they just haven’t heard it for a long time.

    Nobody in the mainstream makes the argument anymore that education is about making the world better and maybe it’s about time they did. Otherwise you leave the agenda setting to fucking idiots like Lord Browne (I mean, WTF, the former CEO of BP. What qualified him to report on HE?)

    • eilidh m permalink
      March 19, 2011 10:50 am

      This may be a bit off-topic and naive, but I can’t understand why Browne – apparently not just a titan of industry but a man of science and fellow of many learned-sounding societies( – isn’t being dragged across the coals for putting his name to a scientifically unsound report which blatantly ignored research findings inconvenient to policy makers. The Browne Report’s failure to mention that whenever focus groups of parents and students were asked if they would support higher tuition fees and reduced state support for universities the majority said ‘no’ may just be a reflection of current and past governments’ regard for ‘research’ as justification for what they wanted to do anyway. But it’s curious that this cack-handed report isn’t being publicly pulled apart by promoters of the same STEM subjects in which its author is qualified. While he’s not actually an academic, couldn’t the argument be made that he’s bringing science itself into disrepute?

      • Rab permalink*
        March 19, 2011 1:48 pm

        Neither naive or off-topic. I share your reservations about Browne’s conclusions and the way in which he reached them. But I feel that the recommendations contained in his report were kind of inevitable. As I said earlier, no matter what the question the answer is always assumed to be: ‘roll out the free market’; turn everyone, in every instance, into a consumer.

        There’s no science here, no method, no genuine public debate: just dogma.

  4. March 18, 2011 10:04 pm

    Improvement. There’s a word and a culture that has all but disappeared, and the left and society generally is much the worse for it. Who needs improvement when you have an ipad or sky sports? Ugh. Part of the disappearance of a whole culture, the decline of trade unions and all the rest of it.

    Also are students now more interested in if they can get part-time work than the facilities available at university, and what they might learn?

  5. backwatersman permalink
    March 18, 2011 11:14 pm

    You might not be very impressed by the idea of “sweetness and light”, but I think you’d be able to find a fair amount of common ground with Matthew Arnold (not really “bourgeois or a “grandee”, I don’t think, BTW).

    But (as a parent) I’m very much in sympathy with what you’re saying.

    • Rab permalink*
      March 19, 2011 8:51 am

      Hello Backwater,
      Good to hear from you.

      Your right about Matthew Arnold. I have more time for him than the post implies.

      I teach a 1st year module on cultural theory and popular culture, which starts with Arnold, takes in FR and QD Leavis, the Frankfurt School, a bit of Orwell and up to the postmodern theorists, with a few others in between. I set Matthew Arnold up as a bit of a straw man at the start because I know the students will find his opinions alien and unsympathetic to their own cultural pre-occupations. The idea that culture might be edifying and educational seems strange to many 18 year olds. But I find that after a semester of thinking about popular culture, many of them reappraise Arnold. When they consider the popular culture that they participate in – commercially driven, dedicated almost solely to the pursuit of profit and pleasure – and compare this to Arnold’s ambition that culture should be educational, it’s interesting to see their reactions. I don’t know of any that race home and throw away there ipods and DVD collections, but many of them develop a much more critical relationship to the popular culture they engage with.

      • teachingbattleground permalink
        March 20, 2011 8:59 am

        Mention of Arnold just reminds us how narrow the range of contributions to Purpose/ed have been. Hard to believe we could have seen all these contributions and this, a comment on an unscheduled contribution, is the first mention I’ve seen of Arnold. Has Newman even been mentioned at all?

        The debate has never gone back further than Dewey, and most of it seems to regard Sir Ken Robinson and Sugata Mitra with their deschooling rhetoric, apparently warned-up from the 1970s, as the final word in the philosophy of education.

      • backwatersman permalink
        March 20, 2011 9:15 am

        Sounds encouraging. Funnily enough, I was taught by Queenie Leavis. I’m not sure what she would have made of your arse (the one at the top of the blog) – though perhaps that’s not a question you’ve given much thought to.

  6. Rab permalink*
    March 20, 2011 1:40 pm

    Welcome Andrew,
    I know what you mean about the narrowness of the debate. But I think it’s a sign of the times. What I mean is, it’s interesting that we’re having a debate about what education is for at all because isn’t it blindingly obvious? As you said yourself: education should make us smarter. Education is about improvement. But somewhere along the way many seem to have lost sight of that.

    Education gets confused with socialisation and training. The purpose of education, apparently, is to serve and be subservient to the economy. The very idea that there should be a ‘philosophy of education’ sounds antiquated or just downright perverse. If education is conceived of as improving at all, it is purely in terms of the competitive advantage it can give you in the market place. That means that education is predicated upon the not that there are winners and losers (there has to be if its about competition).

    I meant it when I said I’ve never had any substantial direction form my superiors about what we’re doing in higher education. I get sent on various courses to train me in e-learning, digital feedback and assessment etc, but nothing with the ambition of introducing me to what the purpose of higher education is. Those conversations are confined to ‘water-cooler moments’ with colleagues, when we talk about our work. But we’re making it up as we go along; enthusiastic amateurs looking for a language, a discourse, a tradition into which we can insert ourselves. But it’s hard work.

    Purpos/ed looks to me like people trying to recall something that has been buried and forgotten. I think its debate is narrow because so many of us in education are just so unused these days to thinking and talking about this stuff in any formal sense. It’s just not something we’re invited to do. For instance the government would rather make dramatic changes to HE on the advice of a former CEO of an oil company than consult seriously with the professionals who work in universities. That says is all really.

    • teachingbattleground permalink
      March 20, 2011 2:35 pm

      Don’t forget that when it isn’t about socialisation and training it’s about personal happiness and fulfilment. Anything really that doesn’t explicitly refer to knowledge or the intellect.

      • Rab permalink*
        March 20, 2011 3:01 pm

        The purpose of education is happiness and fulfilment. No. That doesn’t work for me either. In any case, isn’t happiness and fulfilment the business of drugs and religion? I suppose it would be cheaper to give ’em all prozac that put them through school.

  7. Rab permalink*
    March 20, 2011 1:43 pm

    Queenie Leavis would have been welcome to my arse. There’s plenty of it. Still, it must have been fantastic to be taught by someone of that stature. I always wished I’d been a student of Raymond Williams, who was himself a student of FR Leavis, I believe.

    • March 20, 2011 2:32 pm

      Williams taught Terry Eagleton. Perhaps you ought to be relieved he never taught you 😉

      • Rab permalink*
        March 20, 2011 2:36 pm

        I like Terry Eagleton. He makes learning about ideology fun and postmodernism funny. What’s wrong with that?

        Also doesn’t Eagleton have a house on the north coast?

        And didn’t Williams teach Stuart Hall? I met Stuart Hall’s daughter once at a wedding (she was bride’s maid).

        My brushes with greatness are always close but never intimate.

      • March 20, 2011 7:28 pm

        Stuart Hall I am impressed with. Eagleton much less so. And isn’t postmodernism a joke in and of itself, and thus doesn’t need to be made funny?

  8. March 20, 2011 6:16 pm

    As a mature student, education for me is all about access. Access to a world beyond the blue-collar drudgery that I have come to loath, and to the wider world that I glimpsed during the few years I spent travelling. I just want to arm myself with qualifications that will enable me to do a job that I enjoy, in a place that I want to be.

  9. Rab permalink*
    March 20, 2011 6:58 pm

    Welcome John,
    Like you I was a mature student back in the mid-90s looking for something beyond the blue-collar drudgery that looked to be my lot. Since then I’ve discovered white-collar drudgery :0) But the education; the knowledge; the introduction to a whole world of thought and ideas, that never gets dull.

  10. March 20, 2011 8:28 pm

    “…could we agree on one thing? Could we say categorically that education is not a commodity and therefore not for sale?” <<Oh, I do hope so. Having recently come across some quotes from that hoary old elitist, Hayek on what he called 'the grand society' (sound familiar?) I started reading what he had to say about Education. The second to last paragraph on p.6 is the best bit –

    Hayek's argument is that there's nothing more brutal than a completely level playing field because it always allows the most gifted to succeed. If you fail, it's because you're crap, not because the system is not fair. Simple solution; make sure that the system's not fair. Go figure…

  11. March 20, 2011 11:35 pm

    A superbly succinct perspective amid a debate that often threatens to spill digital ink for pages on end.

    Usually I feel compelled to take the debate at the high altitude of concepts and abstracts but I recently found an incentive to take it to the specifics of ground-level trenches. I found myself directed via tweets and blogs to the newly released University College Falmouth open online course in Screenwriting.

    Since screen production and screen studies has been my schtick for 15 years I entered reading and listening to the course with great enthusiasm only to wind up shell shocked and appalled. The problems you allude to in your post above of commodification and ’employability’ were stark in this course predicated on Dictation and ‘Rules’.

    I’ve written an article critiquing the course’s utter lack of pedagogy and educational worth entitled – Bad Medicine: Screenwriting courses that might be bad for you. And upon reading your post and surveying the purpos/ed discussion I feel I am in similar territory.

    Thanks for a great blog.

    Mike Jones

  12. Morag permalink
    March 21, 2011 10:04 pm

    Wading in here from scratch (and with no special knowledge except my own experience and reading, not related to the student fees debate) …

    Schooling and Education are two different things. In my opinion, schooling (= formal education) is largely about providing a compliant workforce, educated to a certain level. Although the quantity of illiterate kids released to the wild each year suggests they are not much good even at that.

    Education is a much wider term and encompasses what I try to provide for my two boys: I want to develop their natural curiosity and interest in stuff, not force them into a national curriculum which will bore them stupid if delivered like most state schools do. For a year, we home educated and we LOVED it. The boys learned so much without any formal learning at all – we travelled, we went to museums, we stopped off at artisans’ workshops. My older son (8) taught himself chess and poker (!!) from his Nintendo DS.

    Even now, 3/4 years on, my boys are still thrilled by learning stuff, and to me that’s the value of education. All the famous clever guys in the past made massive breakthroughs based on a private education or just the opportunity to explore the world for themselves. To have lunch while my 10 year old explains plate tectonics to me is simply astonishing.

    Sorry, that was a bit of a diversion, but my point is that education, done well, serves a huge purpose in developing our ability to think, and therefore to come up with great ideas.

  13. Rab permalink*
    March 22, 2011 9:38 am

    Welcome Cheryl, Mike and Morag,
    Thank you for your comments.

    Cheryl, Hayek is chilling, but is’nt ‘the grand society’ more Wallace and Gromit than Cameron and Clegg?

    I’m looking forward to reading your post on the screenwriting course. I’ll leave a comment there.

    I had reservations about leaving my own kids with the school around our corner. It’s a great school in many respects, but like others having to struggle with idiotic directives from government. Do you remember the last government’s instructions to schools that children as young as 6 or 7 should be receiving careers advice? I told my 6 year old that if anyone asked him what he wants to be when he grows up he should tell them a Jedi Knight.

    • Cheryl Reynolds permalink
      March 22, 2011 1:07 pm

      I’m sure if anyone had ever touched Hayek’s cheese, he would have been the first to tell them to get off!

      However, worth remembering the apocryphal tale that in berating the more moderate Tory Wets, Thatcher reached into her handbag and pulled out a copy of Hayek, slamming it on the desk and saying, ‘This is what we’re going to do…’

      Also that his notion of the grand society is shot through with ideas about withdrawal of state involvement in providing public services and the primacy of the market.

  14. Rab permalink*
    March 22, 2011 2:16 pm

    Indeed, Cheryl.

    There’s an interesting book, written by one of the Tory ‘wets’ of that period – Ian Gilmour. It’s called Dancing With Dogma. It’s not the sort of thing I’d usually read but I’m glad I did. His critique of Thatcher’s attidtude to the universities is interesting. Worth digging out for a look at. Seems that Thatcher disliked universities because they were full of leftists and not as decisive in their research conclusions as think tanks.

    • Cheryl Reynolds permalink
      March 22, 2011 8:03 pm

      Oh, I’ll have a look. I’m researching the new University Technical Colleges and trying to build up a fuller picture of the policy context, so this sounds like useful background.

      I never said, did I? I think your post is the best of the 500 word contributions I’ve read so far. Top notch. Thanks… though my colleague’s wondering why I keep getting emails with ‘Media Studies is Shit’ as the subject : )

      • Cheryl Reynolds permalink
        March 22, 2011 8:05 pm

        …actually, it’s worse than that. Just checked ‘Media Studies is Shit’ is the sender. ‘Friggin in the Riggin is the subject’…

  15. Rab permalink*
    March 23, 2011 4:23 pm

    Sorry awful titles turning up in your email inbox, Cheryl. As a Media Studies lecturer I get a pit of stick about the title. Although you’d be surprised how many people find the blog through searches like ‘media studies is crap’ or ‘rubbish’.

    It’s very nice of you to say that my propos/ed contribution is the best of the 500. I’m quite chuffed about that.

    Your research sounds interesting. I shall watch out for that.

  16. March 24, 2011 11:06 am

    I like to keep my colleagues wondering. I used a quote from your post for the purpos/ed #3×5 activity Hope that’s okay?

    • Rab permalink*
      March 24, 2011 2:16 pm

      That’s fine, Cheryl. Actually it’s very flattering.

  17. March 29, 2011 8:59 am

    Comrade – stop it now. You’re gushing.

    But seriously, this discussion thread seems to have touched a real nerve that rather puts into perspective the recent UCU dispute over pension cuts. Although it’s a serious issue that the bastards are cutting pensions right across the public sector with the kind of zeal last seen on the killing fields of Cambodia, and it’s right that we resist, maybe it’s time the UCU make a proper stand over something so fundamental as the real purpose of higher education?

    Maybe we should organise something counter-intuitive like one-day teach-ins where colleagues from all disciplines do ten minute mini-lectures for students and staff (including admin and ancillary) on a fundamental idea, principle or thinker in their subject. A bit like TED on a smaller scale.

    I don’t know if it would really work in practice but it would be worth trying and it might put our employers and the media in the embarrassing position of having to condemn it as a form of “industrial” action.

    Maybe we should move now from talking about reclaiming higher education for what it really is – and there seems to be a real consensus about that if this thread is anything to go by – to doing it?

    Or am I being naive?

    • Rab permalink*
      March 29, 2011 4:37 pm

      I think it’s an exellent idea, AA. It’s so easy to vilify workers in the public sector who with draw their labour, as being somehow uncaring about the pupils, students, patients, victims and public they provide services to.

      Maybe a cancellation of normal classes; a 24 hour occupation and marathon teach in would be better. I will put it to my UCU committee tomorrow.

      I think it’s about time we found more imaginative ways to carry on disputes with our employers.

      • March 30, 2011 7:37 am

        I’ve wondered about refraining from external examining rather than everyone going on strike for a day. That would throw a much bigger spanner in the works and contributions could cover costs to individuals. But it would hit students waiting for final grades. A teach in sounds much more benign and positive.

  18. March 29, 2011 7:57 pm

    I see Liverpool John Moores is going to charge £9,000

    There was also a report a few days ago about the higher than expected fees leaving a £1bn hole in the education budget. The tories must be going buck mad – universities staying open, and charging the same as the “elite”.

  19. FALCON permalink
    April 9, 2011 8:58 pm



  1. Purpos/ed — #3×5 – Education is not a commodity
  2. 500 words for Purpos/ed « Learning Technology jottings at Goldsmiths

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