Sunday, 7 April 2013

Profit over Education in Alberta

This year, universities and colleges in Alberta became the target of a brutal assault by the Provincial Conservative Government. These post-secondary institutions face 20% budget cuts as well as pressure to restructure and better contribute to the province's economic growth, by becoming part of the nightmarish vision called Campus Alberta.  In a letter to universities across the province, Minister of Enterprise and Advanced Education, Thomas Lukaszuk, describes his vision for advanced education. It is meant to promote "lifelong learning" in Alberta students. It ensures a "skilled and productive workforce", excellence is "research, innovation and commercialization" and a "competitive and sustainable" economy. 

I hope that this attempt at transforming public advanced education into a training ground for major corporations will be met with fierce public resistance. I hope students and profs in Alberta will be inspired by the Quebec student movement in 2012, which was so massive and relentless that it triggered provincial Elections and the rejection of  Jean Charest's Liberal Provincial Government. 

Like in Quebec, our provincial government's declaration of war on education should give rise to a public debate about the role of education. (See my earlier post "On the Quebec Student Strike")

By this I don't mean a conversation taking place between a few dusted academics and chameleonic politicians behind the closed doors of the Legislature or on some secluded resort in the Canadian Rockies. 

No! We have had enough petty, meaningless negotiations. 

A real public conversation takes place in the agora and during the deliberation all public institutions should stop running. One can't deliberate whether to take out the trash while taking out the trash. One should stop in order to think. Similarly, the universities should stop in order to think. The government should stop in order to think. 

This halting of operations is achieved by massive protests, people flooding the streets and paralyzing the city. 

In a period of economic dictatorship any abrupt cessation in the operations of an institution, be it public or private, is seen as anathema. When the workers of Canada Post, Air Canada, and Canadian Pacific Railway went on strike, the Harper Government promptly introduced back-to-work bills. In inverted totalitarianism, the absolutist regime inherent in unfettered capitalism, strikes and other public protests are opposed with two arguments: they affect the economy and they endanger public security. This only shows how poorly capitalism fits with democracy and the process of democratic deliberation. 

These difficulties aside, the main question shaping a genuine conversation about education should be: what's the role of education in general and post-secondary education in particular? or, What's the good of education? 

Capitalism is characterized by the use and abuse of instrumental thinking. In the capitalist's relentless search for profit, everything becomes a commodity, something which can be sold on the market. Everything becomes a means to an end: making more money or economic growth. 

In modern-day capitalism, education and knowledge have also became commodities. What we witness is a gradual shift in our thinking about education: education is now an investment, it is choosing a career, building a base for the rest of your life. You have to pay for it and hope to God it turns a profit. Purchase it, become a product, join the workforce, and sell yourself. In spite of the good associations the phrase "lifelong learning" triggers in our minds, there is nothing noble about what Minister Lukaszuk means by it. It just means that if you buy education and find yourself unemployed you'll have to be willing to buy more education. That is, do more training, develop new skills. You're never too old for consuming education. You can consume it till you die. 

The educational system thus becomes a mechanism turning people into products to be sold on the slave market. That is, the workforce. 

This catastrophic outlook is an outcome of abusing instrumental thinking; an abuse internal to the logic of capitalism. 

This is why it's worth reminding ourselves why we value education in the first place and what sort of good it was taken to be. Many of the things listed below will sound familiar, if not tired and preachy, but the goal of enumerating them is recalling the initial framework of thought about education. And guarding ourselves against the capitalist attempt to hijack and transform the concept.  

Education is a good in itself which can also have instrumental value. However, it is always more than its instrumental value. We value someone being knowledgeable or lucid even if his knowledge has no immediate practical application. For instance, we respect someone for knowing ancient history or having a good command of Latin, even if this knowledge doesn't turn a profit. We appreciate someone who's able to think critically about social and political issues even if he happens to be the garbage man or the plumber. 

These are qualities which define humans as a species and exercising them is good in itself. Education means expanding your mind, your consciousness, and reaching your full cognitive potential.  It means being a full member of society, aware of your social and political responsibilities. It means having a civic and moral sense, being a guardian of civilization, history, and culture, and being able to think critically and participate in conversations regarding social problems in your community. This is why we want people to be educated. 

Notice that there's no mention of economic growth. 

Someone might object: "Right, but what's wrong with adding economic growth to the picture? After all we want smart people to use their skills for the end of economic prosperity!"

Well, the danger of starting to speak in terms of economic growth is mutilating education by commodifying it. Moreover, in capitalism, the obsession with turning a profit makes people lose their humanity. Humanity becomes an inconvenience. Consciousness, autonomy and self-determination are things to be eliminated. So there is an intrinsic tension between the value of economic growth and the values which define education. 

To make this point more vivid, let's take a closer look at the value of autonomy and individual freedom. Cognitive scientists and psychologists agree that our brains reach full maturity only at the age of twenty-one. That is, the frontal lobe which is the area responsible for decision-making and long-term planning is fully developed only after twenty. The individual is only then fully centered and ready to take on the responsibilities of an adult. Until then, the teenager only plays at being an adult and his experiments should take place under the adult supervision of parents and educators. (see Robert Sylwester's book The Adolescent Brain: reaching for autonomy)

But now, in capitalism, the teenager is expected to make career decisions and borrow substantial amounts of money for their education. So, these developing brains are expected to make life-decisions although it is proven that they can't. 

But wait! This is not an accidental feature of capitalism. No! It's called marketing. Being an unreflective consumer of goods and services is the capitalist paradise. People working in advertizing are the first to point out that ads are aimed at our lower-level cognition, the type of cognition we share with non-human animals. They aim at triggering feelings of pleasure and security by astute manipulation of images, colors and sounds. The capitalist mode of production wants consumers to have the intellectual development of children for as long as possible. Like non-human animals, children are easy to manipulate. In capitalism, the stupider people are, the better. 

Capitalism promotes subhumanity. It takes away the burden of consciousness and responsibility from man, and lets him wander naked in a fabricated Garden of Eden. A lost child sucking a lollipop at Disneyland.   

Manipulating tender minds in such brutal ways also has life-long negative effects. As Noam Chomsky points out: 

"Students who acquire large debts putting themselves through school are unlikely to think about changing society. When you trap people in a system of debt, they can’t afford the time to think. Tuition fee increases are a “disciplinary technique,” and, by the time students graduate, they are not only loaded with debt, but have also internalized the “disciplinarian culture.” This makes them efficient components of the consumer economy."

It follows that capitalism, as opposed to the way it is advertized by people like Bill Gates, is actually a war against brain development and leads to the evolutionary regress of the species. Capitalism is lobotomy practiced on a global scale, with the ice-pick of advertising. (An aspect captured nicely in the movie Idiocracy.)  Capitalism will also lead to a historical and political regress, giving rise, as Chris Hedges suggests, to neo-feudalism. Both these hypotheses are worth considering seriously. But I don't think this is the type of research which leads to innovation or commercialization. It doesn't fit Lukaszuk's dark vision of the pursuit of knowledge. So, if you're a scholar interested in such outlandish issues like the history and future of capitalism or the effects of capitalism on human cognition, you'll have to learn how to conduct your research on an empty stomach. 

Finally, let me consider a brief objection. I like to call it the "They took our Jobs!!!" Objection and I talked about it in previous posts: "Of Jobs and Blow-Jobs" and "Emil Cioran's Criticism of Work". For some reason, I imagine a fifty-year old man, with a double chin, and blood-shot hysterical eyes making this objection. Let's call him Joe. Joe is a mechanic and his hands are big, dirty and rough. There's a deep crease in his brow when he frowns. He does frown as he makes his quick point: Education gets us jobs. Without jobs we die.

Let's take a step back and clear our minds. Do we actually want to work in the alienating and sordid jobs modern capitalism has to offer? And who says you either work or die? First, we don't value work in and of itself, but we value freedom and the capacity to live meaningful, happy lives. As Bertrand Russell argues in his famous essay "In Praise of Idleness", we value active leisure, doing what we want, as opposed to working for others. 

But, Joe quickly points out, then we lose our jobs and can't pay our bills. And then we die, homeless and starved. 

But wait a second Joe! This only speaks about the perversity of capitalism, the fact that it is institutionalized slavery. Large scale abuse of human beings. But, as history teaches us, we have to say no to slavery in all its forms. We have to rise up against it! Spartacus didn't say: Oh, we're slaves, but I guess that's ok cause it gives us a roof over our heads, a piece of bread, and some  sex  now and again, if we're lucky and win in the arena. No, he grabbed his sword and began butchering his masters.  If someone says ''Do X or die!" you do your best to overpower him, if possible. You don't just tolerate that situation. And rejecting capitalism is surely possible, as world history teaches us.

I hope Joe likes Spartacus.

In this process of resistance and rejection of capitalism it is also important to recall general outlooks or attitudes we have towards life, which are not yet affected by the instrumental thinking of a mercantile spirit. One can feel a sense of wonder towards existence, a sense of gratitude and solidarity towards others. Values like love and friendship exist only against this background. And many things are good in themselves. Sex is good, although for prostitutes it can also turn a profit. Reading Shakespeare is good, even if you're not an English teacher and you don't want to become one. Playing sports is fun, even if you're not a professional athlete. Having a family is good, even if you don't plan on exploiting your wife and children and make them work in your factory or on your farm. 

To sum up, a rational conversation about the role of education should start by recognizing the dangers of capitalist-instrumental reasoning. Then, it should heed new scientific findings about the development of the brain. One reasonable suggestion is making education public and mandatory till the age of twenty-one. Thus, rather than be trapped in a prison of debt, teenagers will learn how to be autonomous individuals, and have a civic sense. As a result, the educational system will give rise to genuinely free, rational individuals, rather than zombified consumers. 

This is why, in response to the provocative actions of the Provincial Conservative Government, Albertans should take to the streets and fight this horrible incarnation of the spirit of unfettered capitalism.
"Teachers and Students under Attack! What do we do? Stand up, fight back!!!"

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