Monthly Archives: December 2008

Education as Commodity or Vocation?

Just got done reading this article: “Marketizing Higher Education: Neoliberal Strategies and Counter-Strategies” by
Les Levidow. (

I got to it through a philosophy blog centered around a fight against the marketization of education (

Its main emphasis was on the ways in which ‘neoliberal’ (new term to me), policies have made significant inroads in education worldwide, to the extent that the role of the teacher is seen as an hindrance to a more productive society. The more the student is trained in specific skills and ‘trades’ (if I can insert a word of my own) the more equipped they will be for the demanding labor market of today. And so goes the argument.

Of course a tad is a bit of slippery-slope-ism, but there are real and genuine concerns behind it all. In fact, as I read on and on, it seemed to be describing my experience at UW in the Philosophy department. It often seemed relegated as unimportant because it really didn’t produce any valuable workers, but just educated people.

Really what stuck out to me as I read through it was that the main concern of the author was over the relationship between the teacher and the student becoming not a thing of human contact, but one of consumer – producer, a commodity. The striking thing is that we Christians believe that as the bearers of the image of God we need community and relationship. As well, we hold spoken word as extremely valuable (it is the rhythm of creation as well as the rhythm of our life). So, to treat knowledge as something which doesn’t require a commitment on the smallest level reveals in my mind a materialist default; knowledge is an object which can be acquired independent of personhood. To reduce a person as well the knowledge of the world t things does not seem like something we can stand for.

All that said, those are the main things for which I appreciated this article. There is quite of bit of dire predictions, which seem to be more like horse trading than accurate summaries. Nonetheless it does tap in on some key issues on vocation and the image of God. It touches close to home for me, education is my field.

That said, here is the summary of what the article finds wrong in the world of education:

In order to develop effective counter-strategies, it is necessary to analyse the various forms of marketization and their links. While only some forms extend commodity exchange, they all extend accountancy criteria for valuing education and its human products. The ‘investment’ metaphor readily becomes literal. Universities and their staff may be held accountable for delivering the dividends in measurable terms (Demeritt, 2000: 309).

8.1 Marketization strategies
Marketization strategies should be understood as both ideological and material at the same time. As analysed above, here are some key features.

• Efficiency as progress
In neoliberal ideology, employment insecurity is attributed to a deficiency of ‘human capital’ appropriate for the ‘information society’. This problem is cited to justify curricula for adapting students to labour-market needs. Educational ‘reforms’ are presented as universal progress on grounds that they enhance efficiency, extend access, flexibly customize the content for individual needs, facilitate learning through ICT, provide accountability to students and society, yield a better return on state investment, etc. These benefits are to be measured according to ‘human capital’ criteria, or even according to money transactions. Whether they are literal or metaphorical, accountancy methods define the efficiency of educational progress, thus naturalizing marketization.

• Commodification
Prospective students are represented as customers/markets in order to justify commodifying educational services. Knowledge becomes a product for individual students to consume, rather than a collaborative process for students and teachers. Individualized learning both promotes and naturalizes life-long re-skilling for a flexibilized, fragmented, insecure labour market. By standardizing course materials, moreover, administrators can reduce teachers to software-writers or even replace them with subcontractors. Through ICT, neoliberal agendas take the apparently neutral form of greater access and flexible delivery. In all these ways, student-teacher relations are reified as relations between things, e.g. between consumers and providers of software.

• Neoliberal globalization
A global competitive threat and opportunity is invoked to justify commodifying all institutional arrangements. People are actively linked around the world through new market relations – as business partners, competitors, patrons, clients, customers, assessor-consultants, etc. This neoliberal internationalism is promoted within and across countries.

As SAP (Structural Adjustment Program) conditionalities forcibly marketize and standardize higher education in Third World countries, people there may become more willing customers for instructional commodities elsewhere, e.g. through distance education. Perhaps as a self-fulfilling prophecy, this marketization intensifies (or even creates) the competitive pressures from which universities needed protection in the first place.  Moreover, if Western academics fill gaps left by SAPs in Third World countries, then they may collude in re-colonizing the curriculum there, unless they ally with local people who promote alternative agendas.

So, take it for what its worth, but please do comment on these: What is the role in society of disciplines that have little/no monetary value?  What is the Christian understanding of vocation in relation to education?

Schaeffer on Epistemology; He is there and he is not silent pt. 3

In Schaeffer’s third chapter, he continues to his positive account of Christian philosophy, this time in parallel to the accounts he has already given in ethics and metaphysics. He spends the last two chapters of the book, (this and the next) on epistemology, because, it seems, he understands it as the central problem in our day. I agree.

Apologies for the long quotes previously, I will try to skim and synthesize more this time (not in a Hegelian sense though).

The Challenge of Epistemology

Summarizing epistemology for the Greeks:

“Are the Fates simply the vehicle of the action of the gods or are the Fates the universal behind the gods and do they manipulate the gods? There is this constant confusion between the Fates and the gods as the final control. This expresses the Greeks’ deep comprehension that their gods simply were not adequate: they were not big enough with regard to the Fates and they were not big enough with regard to knowledge. So though Plate and the Greeks understood the necessity of finding a universal, and saw that unless there was a universal, nothing was going to turn out right, they never found a place from which the universal could come either for the polis or for the gods.” (40)

On Nature and Grace:

“In nature you have the body; in grace you have the soul. But eventually we always come down to the problem of particulars and universals. In nature you have the particulars; in grace you have the universal.” (41)

“…there is a principle here; that is, if nature or the particulars are autonomous from God, then nature begins to eat up grace. … Here you can see the fridt toward modern man and his cynicism. It was born back there. We are left with masses of particluars but no way to get them together.” (41-42)

On Da Vinci and the Modern Drift:
“He understood that if you began on the basis of rationalism  – that is, man beginning only from himself, and not having anyoutside knowledge – you would have only mathematics and particulars and would end up with only mechanics” (42)

“Leonardo really became very much like the modern man. He said we should try to paing the universals. This is really very close to the modern concept of the upper-story experience. So he painted and painted and painted, trying to paint the universals. He actually tried to paint the universal just as Plato had had the idea that if we were really to have a knowledge of chairs, there would have to be an ideal chair somewhere that would cover all the kinds of chairs. Leonardo, who was a Neo-Platonist, understood this, and he said, ‘Let man produce the universals.’ But what kind of men? The mathematical man? No, not the mathematical man but the painter, the sensitive man. So Leonardo is a very crucial man in the area of humanistic epistemology.” (41-42)

“In my earlier books I have referred to Whitehead and Oppenheimer, two scientists – neither one a Christian – who insisted that modern science could not have been born except in the Christian milieu. … As Whitehead so beautifully points out, these men all believed that the universe could be found out by reason. This was their base. Modern science is the original science, in which you had men who believed in the uniformity of natual causes in a limited system, a system which could be reordered by God and by man made in the image of God. This is a couse and effect system in a limited time span. But from the time of Newton … we have the concept of the ‘machine’ until we are left with only the machine, and you move in to ‘modern modern science,’ in which we have the uniformity of natural causes in a closed system, including sociology, and psychology. Man is included in the machine.” (43)

“Jean-Jacques Rousseau is crucial at this point, because he changed the formulation from ‘nature and grace’ to ‘nature and freedom,’ absolute freedom. Rousseau and the men around him saw that in the area of ‘nature.’ everything had become the machine. In other words, ‘downstairs’ everything was in the area of positivism, and everything was a machine. ‘Upstairs’ they added the other thing, that is, absolute freedom. In the sense of absolute freedom upstairs, not only is man not to be bound by revelation, but he is not to be bound by society, the polis, either. This concept of autonomous freedom is clearly seen in Gaugin, the painter. He was getting rid of all the restraints, not just the restraint of God, but also the restraint of the polis, which for Gaugin was epitomized by the highly developed culture of France. He left France and went to Tahiti to be rid of the culture, the polis. In doing this, he practiced the concept of the noble savage which, of course Jean-Jacques Rousseau had previously set forth. You get rid of the restraints, you get rid of the polis, you get rid of God or the gods; and then you are free. Unhappily, though not surprisingly, this did not turn out as he expected.” (44)

“It is only a step, really, from men like Gaugin to the whole hippie culture, and as a matter of fact, to the whole modern culture. In one sense there is a parenthesis in time from Rousseau until the birht of the hippie culture and the whole modern culture which is founded on the view that there are no universals anywhere … We can easily see the moral confusion that has resulted from this, but the epistemological confusion is worse. If there are no universals, how do we know reality from non-reality?” (45)

“Kierkegaard, and especially Kierkegaardism that followed him, teachers that that which would give meaning is always separated from reson; reason only leads to knowledge downstairs, which is mathematical knowledge without any meaning, but upstairs you hope to find a non-rational meaning for the particulars.” (46)

“The distinctions between the forms of existentialism do not change the fact that it is the same system even though it has different expression with these different men, namely, that rationality leads only to something horrible in every area, including knowledge.” (46)

“I am convinced that the generation gap is basically in the area of epistemology. Before, man had a romantic hope that on the basis of raiontalism he was going to be able to find a meaning to life, and put universals over the particulars. But on this side of Rousseau, Kant, Hegel and Kierkegaard, this hope no longer exists; the hope is given up.” (47)

“So man makes his leap ‘upstairs’ into all sorts of mysticisms in the area of knowledge …. modern man’s mysticisms are semantic mysiticisms that deal only with words; they have nothing to do with anything being there, but are simply concerned with something in one’s own head, or in language in one form or another.” (48)

“And truly there is probably not a chair of pihlosophy of importance in the world today that teaches positivism. it is still held by the undergraduate and by the naiive scientist who, with a happy smile on his face, is building on a foundation that no longer exists.” (48)

“Polyani argues thta positivism is inadequate because it does not consider the knower of what is known. It acts as though the knower may be overlooked and yet have full knowledge of certain things, as though the knower knew without actually being there. Or you might say positivism does not take into account he knower’s theories or presuppositions. You can assume that he approaches the thing without any presuppositions, without any grid through which he feeds his knowledge.

But there is the dilemma, as Polyani shows, because this simply is not true. There is no scientist in the positivistic position who does not feed knowledge through a grid – a theory or world view through which he sees and finds. The concept of the toally innocent, objective observer is utterly naiive. And science cannot exist without an observer.” (49)

“Within positivism as a total structure there is no way of saying with certainty that naything exists. Within the system of positivism itself, by the very nature of the case, you simply begin nakedly with nothing there. You have no reason with the system to know that the data is data, or that what is reading you is data.” (50)

On Wittgenstein:

“…in this early stage,” that of the Tractatus, “he argued that down here in the world (in the area of reason) you have facts: you have the propositions of natural science. This is all that can be said; it is all that you can put into language. This is the limit of language and the limit of logic. ‘Downstairs’ we can speak, but all that can be spoken is the mathematical propositions of natural science. Language is limited to the ‘downstairs’ of reason, and that ends up with mathematical formulations.

…. Even in his early days, there were already the elements of mysticism. In the ‘upper story’ he put silence, because you could not talk about anything outside of the known world of natural science. But man desperately needed values, ethics, meanings to it all. Man needs these desperately, but there is only silence there. Wittgenstein says that there is only silence in the area of the things man desperately needs most – values, ethics, and meanings. Man knows it needs to be there, he argues, but he cannot even talk or think about it. Values, ethics, meanings are all upstairs. No matter how much we need them, there is only silence.” (52)

“The ‘old’ Wittgenstein and the existentialist really are very, very close at this particular point, though it you move from England to the Continent in the study of philosophy you find that people ususally assume that they are completely at variance.” (52)

“Thus we are left with two anti-philosophies in the world today. One is existentialism, which is an anti-philosophy because it deals witht he big questions but with no rationality. But if we follow the later Wittgenstein’s development, we move into linguistic analysis, and we find that this also is an anit-philosophy, because wehere it defines words in the area of reason, language leads to language and that is all. It is not only the certainty of values that is gone but the certainty of knowing.” (53)

“Whether we are dealing with Heidegger saying, ‘Listen to the poet,’ and offering an upper story semantic mysticism which seems to give hope, or with Wittgenstein who moves in the opposite direction and is more honest in saying that there is noly silence upstairs and therefore all we can do is define words which weill never deal finally with meaning or values; whether we looks at Heidegger or Wittgenstein, who move in opposite directions at the point of language, the interesting thing is that modern man has come to conclude that the secret of the whole thing lies somehow in language. This is the age of semantics at this very basic point.

Notice what this means to us. The whole question with Heidegger and Wittgenstein … is whether there is anyone adequately there in th euniverse to speak. … Positivism, which was an optimistic rationalism and the base of naturalistic science, has died, It has been proved to be an insufficient epistemology. But the remaining alternatives – existentialism on the one hand, and linguistic analysis on the other – are anti-philosophies which cause man to be hopeless concerning ethics, values, meaning, and the vertainty of knowledge. So in epistemology we are surrounded by a sea of anti-philosophy.” (54)

Reality and Fantasy, and Other Minds:

“… the modern cinema and other art forms go beyond the loss of human and moral categories. They point out quite properly that if you have no place for categories, you not only lose categories where moral and human values are concerned, but you also lose any categories which would distinguish between reality and fantasy.” (56)

“How do we have any categories to enable us to move into the other person’s though world? This is the modern man’s alienation; this is the blackness which so many modern people face, the feeling of being totally alientated. A couple can sleep together for ten or fifteen years, but how are they going to get inside each other’s heads to know anything about the other person as a person, in contrast merely to a language machine? It is easy to know the facade of a language machine, but how you get in behind the language and know the person in this kind of setting? This is a very special modern form of lostness.” (57)

He hits the nail on the head so many times. What is so exciting about Wittgenstein and others is that as you read them you can hear the image of God crying out “something is wrong”. I would love to work on a project of a theological critique of the later Wittgenstein, epsecially in his work On Certainty.

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