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Monday, December 3, 2012

Education: slavery through the illusion of enlightenment?

13 days ago @AlexEdneyBrowne (twitter) asked for my thoughts on Stephen Joyce’s comments regarding engineering enrolments at the University of Auckland (apologies for my belated response). I refrained from writing too soon, because I had a few questions that I didn’t have answers to. I still don’t have those answers, but my views are little more reasoned (but only a little). This post reflects on Joyce’s comments, but not in the way that you might have thought.

According to Stephen Joyce, education is about meeting the demand of the market and the market currently demands that prospective University Students undertake engineering degrees because there is a shortage of engineers in NZ and if an institution does not comply, then the government can go in and force compliance.
"If they want us to be more directive, I'm more than willing," he said. "I'm watching them really closely to make sure they do respond to what the market wants, and if they don't, I can go and tell them how many they should enrol for each department." 
Legality aside, the Minister’s comments reflect the state of our education system. This is the system Labour and National have determined for our country. A system where market conditions are emulated within education institutions to privilege a few through the appearance of catering to the many.

Recently, I was directed to a George Orwell quote:
"The further society drifts form the truth, the more it will hate those who speak it"
In my view, this applies to the Minister’s comments. I’m not saying that I agree with what he said, only that what he said reflects the reality of education in our country.Our education system is more about meeting the skills shortages in the job market and less about enlightenment. The rest of this post considers education in general but randomly refers back to the Minister’s views.  

I watched a snippet of a lecture by Noam Chomsky ‘Education: for whom and for what?’ see:

Chomsky distinguished between two groups: those who consider that education is for the privileged, i.e. the intelligent minority who occupy decision-making roles in society and those who consider that education is for everyone. I have no idea how Chomsky concluded his lecture but my argument is this:
Our governments propagate that education is for everyone but it (the education system) operates to maintain the intelligent minority. Arguably, a public education system indicates education is for everyone; however, requiring a criterion for entrance acts as a restriction on the proposition that education is for everyone.
Education is for everyone – only in the sense that we have a public education system. It’s an illusion to silence the masses in order to retain minorities in specific areas.

Education is for the privileged – in the sense that those who perform better receive advantages as a result of their performance.

An argument against this is the argument from equality. Equality in the sense that everyone has the same access so there is no privilege and those who outperform their peers deserve the benefits for their work. I agree in part with this statement. It takes considerable effort to attain grades of excellence (in the A range). So institutions should reward those who manage to attain those grades accordingly, right? Here I take issue. University grades are awarded through various types of assessment, predominantly examination. Some people are just good at taking exams, while others are not. The system privileges those who are good exam takers.

I disagree with the argument from equality in the sense that not everyone has the same starting point. I have discussed this in various past posts, but I will briefly discuss it here. A persons ability to attain grades of excellence at University is not just dependent on the work they put in at University. There are pre-existing factors that will affect a students performance. For instance, the school you attend prior to University, the subjects available at that school, relationships with teachers, relationships with family, time available to complete the work required or to understand the material…the list is endless. We have created an education system that does not take into account morally arbitrary differences in a students life.

Here is what I want to say about grades. There are limits on how many grades of excellence are awarded. You will not find a class where every student achieves an A grade. Our system moderates work so that only a certain number of students achieve A’s. Presumably, the argument is it increases competition and forces students to study harder to reach their full potential. This is not about full potential, for the teacher it may be, but for the institution its about ensuring that only a few students fill the spots of the intelligent minority. You must attain grades that the institution sets in order to complete at a post-graduate level e.g. Honours and Masters degrees. Even the language used to define post-graduate qualifications reflect the truth of the ‘intelligent minority’ thesis.

The limitation on the number of excellence grades awarded is akin to the way in which money is kept scarce. It controls what people can and cannot do. If you don’t meet the requisite grades for post graduate study, then you are precluded from undertaking those courses, just like if you don’t have the money to pay a debt, you remain indebted. Scarcity forces the status quo to privilege a few. High grades are essentially academic capital. The more academic capital you have, the more academic capital you have access to.*

 Chomsky points to David Hume to make a similar point:
"NOTHING appears more surprising to those, who consider human affairs with a philosophical eye, than the easiness with which the many are governed by the few; and the implicit submission, with which men resign their own sentiments and passions to those of their rulers" 
How does all this relate to the Ministers comments? It does so by looking at the influence of the market on education. It is in effect a form of slavery. Let me attempt to qualify this. If the market demands what subjects or courses students take in order to meet those demands (and the government work to enforce those demands) then education is about state commodification of students for use by corporations. It is slavery because we are subject to whatever conditions the market determines for us. Here is the question I am struggling to answer: Do we freely chose our course of study or are we simply conditioned to think that we are freely choosing to pursue that path?

*This is not a criticism of those whom have achieved high grades. Its a criticism of the system.