The instrumentalisation of Irish education, part two: The murder machine

-----Part two of two. Part one here.-----

The Murder Machine

We need not, however, look to American sociologists for dire warnings about the consequences of narrowly instrumental education. Pádraig Pearse's passionate excoriation of the British education system in 20th century Ireland prior to its independence, The Murder Machine8, is ripe for a modern re-reading.

Noting that in our native tongue, the word for education, oideachas, has its roots in the notion of fosterage or aiteachas, Pearse proclaims that 'education has not to do with the manufacture of things, but with fostering the growth of things.' For him, the inculcation of human values in education was an urgent necessity. Rather than aiming at 'to inform, to indoctrinate, to conduct through a course of studies' with the goal of implanting 'exotic excellences' geared solely towards the mass production of workers, a civilised Irish education should focus on the fosterage of 'character native to a soul'.

He ominously argues that the utter absence of freedom in Ireland has caused us to forget even what freedom means; and that in the education system, the total lack of freedom, compounded by bulky, time-consuming curricula mean that 'there is no room for education'. The ultimate consequence of all of this is dire. Perfectly mirroring the self-reinforcing nature of capitalist realism today, 'What passes for “education”,’ he says, has 'succeeded in making slaves of us. And it has succeeded so well that we no longer realise that we are slaves. Some of us even think our chains ornamental, and are a little doubtful as to whether we shall be quite as comfortable and quite as respectable when they are hacked off.'

Since Pearse wrote these words, we have gained our independence -nominally at least - but, far from taking the opportunity to devise an education system which equips our youth to understand the world and their place in it in a broad sense, we have merely swapped one oppressor for another. Worse still is that this oppressor takes its form not as Pearse saw it, as a bureaucrat in Dublin Castle enforcing a lifeless, standardised curriculum, but in the diffuse form of neoliberal ideology, as an invisible shaper of minds which denies its own contingency.

As disheartening as all of this is, the rabbit hole goes a lot deeper still should we choose to burrow further. Developments in Canada point towards one possible future for Irish education.

Despite occupying a place in the popular Irish imagination as the saner, healthier brother of the United States, a wholesale rewriting of school curricula in Ontario took place in recent years in response to perceived failings in Canada's public schools. My friend and colleague Susan Martin (who had the pleasure of teaching revised curricula in Canada) has recently written9 on the ideological underpinnings of these reforms, which she characterises as an effort to 'conscript youth into the neoliberal economic agenda as both subjects and consumers, allowing distinctions between politics and the economy, public and private, to become obscure and, ultimately, merge in a school-based “culture of achievement”.' This was achieved in part through the grafting of a business ethos onto every level of the school system, meaning that career planning begins from the day children leave kindergarten and enter grade 1 at age 6, and children can be writing and maintaining a curriculum vitae throughout their second-level studies. Martin argues that the unmistakable fingerprints of corporate Canada can be found all over the official curricular documentation, resulting in the conflation of subject mastery and workplace preparation that Mills warned about. The result is that areas like English literacy and media studies (amongst others) have become so heavily weighted towards vocational training that the result resembles the hijacking of public education by private industry. So, rather than teaching students to understand the impact of media on their lives or to understand the effects of advertising on their minds and their culture, they are instead encouraged to write advertisements and to learn how to market products. A note of caution for Ireland, should we choose to follow this path: the incessant focus on fostering workplace survival skills in place of a broad liberal education resulted in a marked increase in the numbers of early school leavers.

The transformation of the public university: now you see it, now you don't

The programming of young people to indelibly link their own identities as students to the jobs market and consumer culture starts early on in our lives. But Ireland's schools are not even at the front line of the battle for the future shape of Irish education. Having brought homo economicus through his formative years, what happens next is the crucial part. The massification of higher education provision has coincided with its colonisation by the forces of instrumental rationality both from within and without. Doing the topic justice is impossible here, but for now, I'll content myself with a few observations.

The advertisements flooding Irish radio stations for third-level colleges, particularly the private ones, provide a clue as to what is occurring. Just as grind schools seek to bypass education in the name of examination success, third-level colleges are falling over each other to present themselves as the quickest possible route to jobs in industry. Phrases like 'goal-focused training', 'real-world skills', 'learn to succeed' and even promises of lecturers that listen to you rather than the other way around (surely taking the notion of consumer-focused education to its logical, if perverse, conclusion) tempt prospective students to sign up. Indeed, one Dublin college promises that partaking in one of its courses is 'the smartest route to that corner office'.

But let us not unfairly pick on the private institutes of higher education, even if their language speaks so unashamedly to the neoliberal subject. They are, after all, privately-owned businesses. Far more interesting and concerning are the developments in our public colleges and universities, which, whilst nominally free of the profit motive, are being transformed by the same instrumentalising forces. Far from being impregnable bastions of liberal enlightenment, they have long been eyed up by a political and business class which sees in its highly-skilled researchers the  very future of capitalism. With the intersection of economic crisis and the ramping up of the 'knowledge economy' discourse, higher education in Ireland, as elsewhere, is being repurposed to save capitalism. Michael Burawoy's article is a good primer on the challenges posed by the commodification of knowledge in United States academia, but there are no shortage of warning signs which can be observed closer to home.

As well as the impending Employment Control Framework (which represents a real threat to universities' independence), the appointment of pure-bred industrialist John Hennessey to the role of Chairman of the Higher Education Authority earlier this year can be read as a sign of things to come. Speaking recently, Hennessey has called for the institutionalisation of a private sector ethos at third level, and said that universities must orient themselves to fulfilling the needs of the labour market to improve Ireland's 'competitiveness'.

University presidents have enthusiastically taken up the rhetoric of industry-focused education. An ideal case study in the genre came in last week's Sunday Independent, courtesy of DCU President Brian McCraith. Players of neoliberal discourse bingo will score a full house here - his buzzword-filled article has it all. He speaks of the need to 'establish a new culture of entrepreneurship' via ‘regular exposure to “role model entrepreneurs”', thus harnessing the inherent Irish 'entrepreneurial flair', and he calls for course design to closely reflect the needs of enterprise through the 'teaching of skills of direct relevance to enterprise'. Ding-ding-ding-ding-ding-ding-ding!

McCraith's comments are typical of this form of discourse, in that his justifications are carefully couched in the language of the 'social' as well as the 'economic', but the unavoidable truth is that the proposals that he and others outline relate primarily to the closer integration of the worlds of academia and business. We might ask where do the humanities fit into this vision? How will history, the social sciences, languages, cultural studies and so many other disciplines contribute to this dream? The fact that all current Presidents of Irish universities are drawn from the worlds of medicine and engineering provides a clue to the answer: if we do not find a way to monetise our research, we will not be part of the grand design to transform educational institutions into engines of industry.

In this context, Jacque Lacan's aphorism that 'the university is designed to ensure that thought never has any repercussions'10 is perfectly inverted: in today's brave new world, the only thought that is to be encouraged is that which does have (profit-making) repercussions. In this environment where league tables have become sacred texts, college departments have become incubators of industry and students have become entrepreneurs-in-waiting, the knowledge provided by the humanities becomes a luxury we cannot afford. Those who refuse to come down from their ivory towers and join the 'real world' by putting their hands to the tiller of capitalism will be increasingly marginalised.

It is high time that the true cost of transforming higher education into a tool of business is discerned. The 'knowledge' required by the 'knowledge economy' is not the cultural knowledge provided about ourselves and our society provided by the humanities, it is merely the patentable knowledge required by the market to sell us more material objects that we don't need and can't afford. The 'smartness' called for by the 'smart economy' is not the smartness to save our planet from over-development, environmental degradation and global warming, but merely the ability to bring to fruition a future of advanced engineering, both mechanical and biological. The Faustian bargain we have been persuaded to accept is one where we are allowed to dream of a future where we can traverse distant planets, but not of ending the unnecessary suffering of so many here on Earth.

Universities as public institutions par excellence have substantial failings. If they are to be organisations of the public, by the public and for the public, they must resolve a host of issues. These range from the failure to broaden access to all socio-economic groups (which will not, incidentally, be resolved by tokenistic 'access programmes') to broader issues of connection to and engagement with the wider public, such as the unacceptable control exerted by academic publishers over access to publicly-funded research that George Monbiot recently drew attention to. However, the market-based reforms touted by everybody from McCraith to the Higher Education Authority to the Government preclude the possibility of the truly public university coming to pass.

Getting Real

So, how is it that everyone from educators, unions, parents, and indeed religious patrons have permitted such developments to occur with such little (public, at least) opposition? Part of the answer to this surely lies in the way in which neoliberal ideology does not present itself as a belief system that can be challenged but rather as an underlying reality which simply must be accepted and adapted to. As Zygmunt Bauman suggests, the great genius of neoliberalism is that no 'brainwashing is required'11 to persuade us to live within its boundaries, and that 'all that is needed is a diffuse but ubiquitous world-interpretation able to persuade us that we have no alternative.'12

This is the 'capitalist realism' described so vividly by Mark Fisher- a 'pervasive atmosphere conditioning not only the production of culture but also the regulation of work and education, and acting as a kind of invisible barrier constraining thought and action.'13

With capitalist realism formatting the dreams, expectations and aspirations of children throughout their schooling, Fisher characterises what he sees as the political disengagement of British students today not as a symptom of apathy or cynicism but as 'reflexive impotence' - they know that things are bad, and they know that they can't do anything about it.

A neoliberal education, designed to calibrate citizens according to the templates of the consumer and the entrepreneur, tends towards the production of citizens who search for solutions to their problems in products rather than political processes. It is not surprising, therefore, to see that the only issue which reliably rouses Ireland's students onto the streets in protest is the threatening of what they see as their inalienable rights as consumers to 'free' education. Awkward and complicated issues about the equity of the 'free fees' regime, and broader questions about the highly classed nature of university access in Ireland become sublimated beneath slogans of entitlement.

Then again, it is not only students who have so thoroughly failed to recognise the commandeering of education by capital - there are few defenders of liberal education in Ireland, and fewer still who are given media access to make their case. In fact, Ireland's tradition of critical pedagogy is so weak that it is business leaders who have taken up the mantle of calling for an end to rote learning and the introduction of, for example, philosophy into second level education. After all, a modicum of critical and unorthodox thinking - so long as it is not applied to political ends - is a trait desired by modern business.

The challenge of critical pedagogy

We should not mourn the passing of the Catholic Church's domination over Ireland's schools – a domination which should never have been allowed to happen in the first place. Yet, in our rush to dispense with religiosity even as just about every source of moral authority in Ireland continues to crumble, we need to recognise the destructive, limiting and frequently cruel nature of what we have allowed to replace it.

Whatever about the damaging domination of the Catholic Church in Irish society; the clericalism and conservatism of the church, which has corrupted itself and alienated so many of its flock; and the abuse scandals which have torn apart so many lives and shattered faith in the institutional church, it is still worth pointing out that in the context of an increasingly utilitarian and instrumental education system, religious education provides a rare potential outlet for offering students profoundly different ways of looking at the world. In an environment where market values have become the only terms in which we can justify our actions, our goals and our attitudes, religious thought provides one possible basis for alternative moralities. Regardless of the

content or historical accuracy of any particular faith system, there are valuable lessons in the recognition that we can, in fact, still reflect on our fellow man as something other than a competitor to be beaten, a customer to be sold to, or a demographic to be exploited.

This is not an apologia for religious indoctrination in state schools - by all means, consign sacramental preparation and other faith-specific endeavours to outside school hours - but when the choice is between the empty social Darwinism offered by the marketplace and love-thy-neighbour, the humble love-preaching carpenter's son from Bethlehem wins every time against any number of Ireland's miracle-working entrepreneurs.

It is difficult for any of us, including progressives, to retain a critical imagination amid the   anaesthetising, infantilising capitalist realism that has so effectively stunted our capacity to imagine alternatives. Yet we must take up the mantle demanded by critical pedagogy, not least because the more the processes of instrumentalisation pick up steam the more difficult they will be to reverse.

Combating the instrumentalisation of education must be part of a broader struggle aimed at reasserting the idea of the individual as a human being rather than as a consumer; the idea of a sovereign public of citizens over an atomised mass. In so doing we may open up the possibility of rescuing democracy and transforming it into an emancipatory political project that allows us to imagine, once again, that a better world is possible. It is time for progressives of every hue to heed the words of American cultural critic Henry Giroux, who recognised that our schools and universities are more than 'instruction sites' but 'places where culture, power and knowledge come together to produce particular identities, narratives, and social practices.'14 Giroux's idea of critical pedagogy reminds us that that 'schooling is not merely about the production of skills, but about the construction of knowledge and identities that always presuppose a vision of the future.' The obvious question posed is: 'Whose future, story and interests does the school represent?'

We must decide whether it is desirable for that future to be built in the service of Mammon - on the never-ending pursuit of increasingly transient capital - or in the service of human progress. The key to unlocking the latter option is to foster a realisation of the inherent contradictions and destructiveness of the former. A grand Hobbesian war of all against all can be averted if we stop telling ourselves, through every level of our education system, that this is the state of nature in which we live. If we don't, it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy of the most tragic kind, the consequences of which we will all have to endure.


Image top: Yesterday's press release announcing DCU's Generation 21 project in wordle form.