Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Veblen on Education: From Shamanism to Widening Participation and Marketisation

The last chapter of Thorstein Veblen's "Theory of the Leisure Classes" is about education. Published in 1899, Veblen's analysis is stark and remarkably prescient. Veblen sees "education" as having not shaken off its sacramental origins, presenting itself to the "leisure classes" as a means of becoming 'priests'. His style is florid (to say the least), but what emerges is a powerful satire which rings very true today:
"The recondite element in learning is still, as it has been in all ages, a very attractive and effective element for the purpose of impressing, or even imposing upon, the unlearned; and the standing of the savant in the mind of the altogether unlettered is in great measure rated in terms of intimacy with the occult forces"
We may not see this today in the relationship between the graduates of education and the rest of society (unless those graduates come from 'elite' institutions, in which case such a provenance is I think still regarded as a kind of 'occult' connection) However, in the relationships between those who consider themselves 'lettered' and those who don't, there is I think, still an element of 'impressing' and 'imposing upon' that goes on. I was thinking this as I watched the opening of #ALTC2013 yesterday looking at a rather unimpressive bunch of (largely) old men (including a government minister) in whose dead hands one would never wish to leave education. They set themselves up (without often realising it), as so many do in education, as:
"The priestly servitor of the inscrutable powers that move in the external world [...] stand in the position of a mediator between these powers and the common run of  unrestricted humanity; for he was possessed of a knowledge of the supernatural etiquette which would admit him into the presence."
Veblen's point is not so much about what education does, but what the predilection of the 'leisure classes' is. To some extent, pretense at membership of the leisure classes is now not only desirable, but mandated  by society. But it only pretense. Yet in mandating this pretense, the engines of the education industry can be fired on the inauthentic dreams of students. With this, so the engines of social difference and inequality of risk distribution drive the value conflicts and networks of wants and desires that (fundamentally) keep the rich getting richer. It's not just education; the cult of 'celebrity' (to which many academics aspire as well as X-Factor hopefuls) is no less an aspect of the occult than high learning.

Veblen points to evidence for his association with priestliness and learning in the obsession with rituals  in the University: "the learned class in all primitive communities are great sticklers for form, precedent, graduations of rank, ritual, ceremonial vestments, and learned paraphernalia generally." Later he says "Even today there are such things in the usage of the learned community as the cap and gown, matriculation, initiation, and graduation ceremonies, and the conferring of scholastic degrees, dignities, and prerogatives in a way which suggests some sort of a scholarly apostolic succession." Of course, we all know graduation is bollocks. But the insight lies in understanding what kind of bollocks it is! [Should I say 'bollocks' there? - not very priestly, is it! Fuck it, I should say "bollocks"!] What's with the 'Mace'? What's the Harry Potter thing about conferring degrees? "These usages and the conceptions on which they rest belong to a stage in cultural development no later than that of the angekok and the rain-maker."

But he also has something to say about what we call "Widening Participation".
"Ritualistic survivals and reversions come out in fullest vigor and with the freest air of spontaneity among those seminaries of learning which have to do primarily with the education of the priestly and leisure classes. Accordingly, it should appear, and it does pretty plainly appear, on a survey of recent developments in college an university life, that wherever schools founded for the instruction of the lower classes in the immediately useful branches of knowledge grow into institutions of higher learning, the growth of ritualistic ceremonial and paraphernalia and of elaborate scholastic 'functions' goes hand-in-hand with the transition of the schools in question from the field of homely practicality into the higher, classical sphere. The initial purpose of these schools, and the work with which they have chiefly had to do at the earlier of these two stages of their evolution, has been that of fitting the young of the industrious classes for work. On the higher, classical plane of learning to which they commonly tend, their dominant aim becomes the preparation of the youth of the priestly and the leisure classes - or of an incipient leisure class - for the consumption of goods, material and immaterial, according to a conventionally accepted, reputable scope and method."
Veblen's rather stark characterisation of class might strike us as a bit harsh, but broadly I think he's spot-on. What he then says is a powerful acknowledgement of we would call the 'marketisation' of education:
"it is also no doubt true that such a ritualistic reversion could not have been effected in the college scheme of life until the accumulation of wealth in the hands of the propertied class had gone far enough to afford the requisite pecuniary ground for a movement which should bring the colleges of the country up to the leisure-class requirements in the higher learning. The adoption of the cap and gown is one of the striking atavistic features of modern college life, and at the same time it marks the fact that these colleges have definitively become leisure class establishments, either in actual achievement or in aspiration."
This is why we should be worried about our current conception of Widening Participation and how it relates to the market. It looks like a trap!

Then we have something about Vice Chancellors as CEOs:
"it may be remarked that there is some tendency latterly to substitute the captain  of industry in place of the priest, as the head of seminaries of the higher learning. The substitution is by no means complete or unequivocal. Those heads of institutions are best accepted who combine the sacerdotal office with a high degree of pecuniary efficiency."
Blimey! We've got one of them! (says everyone in HE institutions up and down the country!)

"There is a similar but less pronounced tendency to intrust the work of instruction in the higher learning  to men of some pecuniary qualification." (Do the accountants run your institution??)

"Administrative ability and skill in advertising the enterprise count for rather more than they once did, as qualifications for the work of teaching. This applies  especially in those sciences that have most to do with the everyday facts of life, and it is particularly true of schools in the economically single-minded communities." (Do you want an MBA?)

Veblen goes on to discuss what this means for knowledge, and for science in particular. I will write about these aspects later because they contain, I think, the beginnings of something that might help us fix education. But the extraordinary thing about this work is that it was done over 100 years, and this is precisely what we see around us. Most of our 'Red Brick' Universities were less than a century old when Veblen wrote this (many were not much older than my own institution). Yet, now we regard education as a human right, sacred in some obscure way, etc. We worry that education is being 'destroyed' by marketeers, governments.

Exactly what are we talking about? Are we not playing the 'priestly game' of the leisure classes in even discussing it? Would we not be relieved to find ourselves transported out of  our troubled institutions into the Elysian fields of Cambridge?

Perhaps Veblen is right: we need to get a grasp on the occultish forces that have caught the 'education debate' from all sides.

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