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