Ansgar Allen (University of Sheffield)
It is hard to exaggerate the sad plight faced by today’s educators. They operate in a realm whose most rarefied airs once tasted sweet. Now they are simply evacuated.
Their landscape of value has been ploughed over by widely recognised forces. These have been variously denounced as the reductive powers of commodification, audit, managerialism, performativity and that abstract beast, ‘neoliberalism’. Educational researchers have been bemoaning such attackers for decades now, yet few would admit that in their wake the situation has become, as it strikes me, decidedly post apocalyptic.
This refusal to admit the full consequences of educational destruction is extraordinary, since it is clear enough that for some conditions have become intolerable. Educators are quitting the profession rather publicly today, writing embittered, valedictory articles and emails, ranging so far as the recognisable form of a suicide note.
It is striking that whilst those remaining in the profession may be at times rather despondent, they refuse to give up hope entirely. Their optimism may be forced, but it is still a force to be reckoned with.
Their difficulty nevertheless, is that in this cynical age heartfelt commitments appear naïve. We have come to doubt the noble aims by which education was once justified. Under constant attack, today’s educator lives by ideals that are only ever vaguely expressed. When old ideals are resurrected, they generally appear in a cluster, hiding behind one another for mutual support. When mentioned, they are accompanied by the sound of swallowing, betraying lack of conviction.
Educating without conviction
Let us consider in all honesty, the value of our highest educational values: I suspect that ‘education as an emancipatory endeavour’, would strike many as a little over the top these days. We in the liberal west believe ourselves to be largely emancipated already. ‘Education in pursuit of social justice’ receives far more attention. And yet, it is now divorced from the dream that social roles could be occupied based purely on merit, and wealth could be fundamentally redistributed. The realisation of that dream became ever harder to imagine as sociologists explained with evermore sophistication how inequalities are subtly reproduced. In effect, the aspiration to achieve social justice effectively killed itself as a result of its own truthfulness. Finally, in an age of ‘impact’ and ‘knowledge exchange’ ‘education for its own sake’ is only guiltily admitted as an ideal, for it still bears the whiff of its aristocratic origins. It is tainted by association with wealth and leisure, falling as it does under the shadow of its very own ‘ivory tower’.
These observations are worth making since their effects condition how educators now go about their profession. Despite forcing a smile, today’s educators are dominated by an emotionality of despair.
I feel the misery of today’s educator most acutely at university meetings, where a depressed resignation to institutional and political imperatives holds sway. Here comes yet another drive to secure the financial future of our employer, and by clear implication ours too, through higher student recruitment, better reputation and more research funding. At times it feels as though we discuss little else, falling a little too prematurely before the wheels of that juggernaut, which seems to be squeezing any space left for thought, and thoughtful teaching, from our working lives.
This despair is most acutely expressed as a kind of desperation, where colleagues grasp on to anything at hand that will give them purpose. This, I think, explains why hollow institutional drivers towards a more ‘inspirational student experience’ (for the sake of fees), or more ‘world class research’ (for the sake of funding), are rarely greeted with the open contempt they deserve. Indeed, some academics find themselves rather drawn to these imperatives, perhaps despite their better judgement, hoping against hope to find something in them worth rescuing.
The educational narcotic of constant activity
In this desperate search for hope and meaning we encounter the effects of a longer battle. As Nietzsche once argued, when an older framework of value begins to fall away there is a deep sense of loss. If that framework cannot be rescued in some form attempts are made to import other values as substitutes. This, for Nietzsche, represents an intermediate stage in the overall ‘revaluation of all values’ he hoped to encourage.
So we are left with the following transcendental compromise: Once God the aboriginal giver of value departs, principles of universal happiness, reason, justice, humanity, and so on, are slipped into the place left vacant. This sleight of hand takes place without bringing into question the entire evaluative framework upon which such universals continue to depend. In effect, the framework is perpetuated by substituting transcendent values for a transcendent God. Values are still placed above and beyond us against which we remain as before: human, all too human. Hence Nietzsche’s challenge to those bold enough to accept it, is to abandon this metaphysic altogether and build values from the bottom up.
It is regrettable, and this is my argument, that Nietzsche’s suggested formula for replacing the old metaphysic of value has already been ‘solved’, in advance, by government. Educational institutions are today flooded by initiatives launched by government and sponsored by business that promise to deliver an educational good. The sense of loss experienced when transcendent values become doubtful is largely solved today through the ceaseless adoption of these initiatives and their accompanying techniques. The loss of value which afflicts education is, in other words, papered over by the educational narcotic of constant activity. Values are today constructed in situ through the everyday, often grotty reality of educational work.
A banal example
Let’s take a typically banal example from academia where whole days are spent batting out emails. And let us candidly admit that when we are consumed by the task, the effort to reduce our email inbox to a more respectable number of unopened messages affords its own distinct flavour of job satisfaction. Of course this is a futile exercise, since email traffic is unstoppable and much of it is generated through one’s own activity besides. Yet here in the academic’s inbox, promptitude itself becomes a virtue. A timely reply helps academics feel that they are there for students and colleagues, having prioritised their needs, perhaps above one’s own. This combination of efficiency with conspicuous speed, mixing perpetual availability with the glib affability of one’s responses, begins to define what a good educational encounter looks like. It ‘gives value’ to one’s work, in the sense that achieving good, cheery email etiquette begins to orient and give meaning to one’s work as a professional educator. A lighter inbox becomes equivalent to a good day’s work.
And so returning to the transcendental compromise identified above, the erosion of faith in higher educational values is not experienced as acutely as it should be, because educational values have already been brought down to earth. Values are embodied in the various techniques that are available to education today, techniques that instrumentalise our hopes, fears, vulnerabilities and emotions. These techniques are wilfully adopted, allowing educators to embody the values these tools create through use. In this way, instead of working towards the fulfilment of transcendent ideals, educators give value to their work, through work. When transcendent ideals are lost educators become more, not less, committed to the job.
So when examining the constant barrage of fresh imperatives, new techniques and essential procedures that dominate today’s classroom, school and university we should not ask: How do they warp the educational endeavour, distort it, distract it, and so on. Rather, we could ask how they give education meaning, value and substance through their adoption and use.
This predicament is not easily resisted. The temptation as one faces up to a climate of forced cheer is to become relentlessly solemn, even manifestly gloomy, as one recognises the plight of contemporary education for what it is.
Admittedly, those seeking to resist on these terms would be more or less immediately dismissed, simply because of their gloom. It is considered enough of an accusation to declare that someone lacks hope, that they have nothing to promise, nothing positive to contribute, so as to dismiss them entirely. Against this dismissal, those attempting some kind of rebellion should point rather insistently to the deep pessimism of educators still cleaving, despite everything they have seen, to the remote hope of educational redemption. The unique claim of those revolting would simply be that they, unlike others, have come to terms with their own melancholia.
Their objective would be to call a spade a spade, or better still, to recall all tools that are digging away ceaselessly in search of an educational good. Educators exhaust themselves only more willingly once the value of education becomes uncertain. Their doubts are abated through constant activity, through the sense of value they gain when tools are in use.
In halting, they would be forced to consider the educational endeavour with a coolness it rarely receives, and ask: Shall we continue? And if so, according to whose agenda?
[1.] For some recent accounts in the media by teachers leaving the profession see: Sloggett, Chris. ‘This is why I am among the thousands leaving teaching this month: Excessive accountability, an unhealthy level of suspicion and an obsession with statistics has made this an impossible career path’. The Independent. Thursday 10 July 2014. Burton, Sam. A teacher speaks out: ‘I’m effectively being forced out of a career that I wanted to love’. The Independent. Monday 15 September 2014. Hawkins, Pauline. Why I’m Resigning After 11 Years as a Teacher. Huffington Post. 16 April 2014. And for recent accounts by academics leaving the profession see: Jarosinski, Eric. #failedintellectual. The Chronicle of Higher Education. 30 June 2014. Warner, Marina. Diary. London Review of Books. 11 September 2014. Katsari, Constantina. Leaving academia: ‘I can offer more to the public outside the university system’. The Guardian. Friday 22 November 2013. See also the recent case of Stefan Grimm: Parr, Chris. Imperial College professor Stefan Grimm ‘was given grant income target’ Times Higher Education. 3 December 2014.
Ansgar Allen is a lecturer in education at the University of Sheffield, and author of: Benign Violence: Education in and beyond the age of reason (Palgrave, 2014) This article draws on: Allen, A (2015) ‘The Cynical Educator’ Other Education, 3 (1).