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Neil Faulkner

What is a university education for? (continued)

(9 November 2011)

Published online by Counterfire, 9 November 2011.
Copied with thanks from the Counterfire Website.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Those running the education system are desperate to turn universities into skills factories in the interests of British capital. Defending humanities and social sciences is part of the struggle to prevent this attack on education.

Michael Bailey and Des Freedman (eds.)
The Assault on Universities: A Manifesto for Resistance
Pluto Press 2011, 182pp.

In this respect, the late eighteenth century was a watershed. The French Revolution ran deeper than its Dutch, English and American precursors and was significant for its exceptional level of popular organisation and mobilisation and the emergence within this powerful revolutionary-democratic movement of an embryonic proletarian-socialist tendency.

This tendency remained imprisoned within the limits of a bourgeois revolution in an essentially pre-industrial society. But it spawned an enduring French socialist tradition which would, half a century later, influence two radical German intellectuals, Karl Marx and Frederick Engels. And what made it by this time something more than mere utopian aspiration was the rise of a social class being formed by the other half of Eric Hobsbawm’s ‘dual revolution’: the industrial proletariat. Handicraft production trapped the quasi-proletariat of the pre-industrial age in a world whose dominant social horizons were those of the independent artisan and the small workshop. Factory production destroyed the petty-bourgeoisie and sorted people into two, clearly defined, sharply antagonistic social classes: capitalists and workers. Because the emancipation of the working class was inherently a collective and global project, the emergence of this class as an historical actor placed the existence of private property itself in question – for the first time since the earliest development of class society around 3000 BC.

This contradiction underlay the stillbirth of the bourgeois revolutions of 1848. The bourgeoisie feared the threat from below represented by a popular movement in which the proletarian-socialist tendency was significantly stronger than it had been in 1792. Consequently, it shrank from revolutionary leadership, and instead accommodated to the forces of reaction and absolutism. The popular movement, on the other hand, was too ill-formed and ideologically muddled to provide an alternative leadership. Counter-revolution triumphed. The tasks of the bourgeois revolution – national unity, the free market, civil rights, a liberal constitution – were henceforward to be achieved ‘from above’. The Italian Risorgimento, German Unification and the American Civil War are all, in their different ways, forms of the ‘bourgeois revolution from above’, accomplished in ways designed to minimise popular self-activity and keep the ‘spectre of communism’ bottled.

This is the historical context for the development of the contradiction with which we began: that between the general theory and holistic world view implicit in ‘universal’ education, and the need to disable critical thought in the presence of a class with an interest in abolishing private property and an increasing potential to do so. The bourgeois ‘anti-Enlightenment’ had several characteristics that bear on the character of university education today:

The development of sociology can serve as an example, as it clearly illustrates all these tendencies. It emerged during the nineteenth century as a response to the ‘social problem’ posed by the rise of organised labour in general and to the political challenge of Marxism in particular. [4] Its very existence as a discipline that studied the contemporary social order largely independently of history, economics, politics and philosophy made it more difficult to grasp the way in which social phenomena were determined by a totality of social relations and processes that was both contradictory and dynamic. Within the small frame offered by sociology, the whole became invisible and the nature of social reality remained a mystery. Critique became specific rather than general, and thus led naturally towards reformist ‘solutions’ to particular social problems rather than a revolutionary transformation of all social problems. Vocational ‘social work’ courses constitute an obvious practical expression of this.

Marxism could not be ignored by sociology. Instead, its revolutionary content was destroyed by its dismemberment. Sociology’s treatment of Marxism mirrors its treatment of social reality. Society is fragmented into a set of more or less self-contained, self-referential worlds of social experience. A widely used A-Level sociology textbook [5], for example, organises knowledge of society into the following categories: social stratification; power, politics and the state; poverty; education; work, unemployment and leisure; organisations and bureaucracy; families and households; sex and gender; crime and deviance; religion; methodology; and sociological theory. Within each of these categories, a ‘Marxist perspective’ is dutifully explained alongside various others. Only it is not explained, because it is of the very essence of Marxism that it is holistic.

Marxism can be defined as the theory and practice of international working-class revolution. It represents the continuation of the holistic approach to understanding social reality that can be traced from Plato’s Academy to the eighteenth century salons. Its synthesis of German philosophy, British economics and French socialism can be regarded as the supreme intellectual achievement of Enlightenment thought. But its essential insight – that the entire bourgeois social order was the result of contradictory and irrational processes of capital accumulation, class exploitation, and human alienation – involved it in an abrupt and absolute rupture with mainstream scholarship.

For about a century, the revolutionary potential of social theory could usually be contained within the university by simultaneously compartmentalising knowledge into hermetically sealed academic disciplines and limiting access to higher education to social elites. But the expansion of higher education during the Great Boom following the Second World War reconfigured the contradiction. As large numbers of students from relatively ordinary backgrounds entered the university system for the first time, the rigid frameworks constraining knowledge and understanding came under growing pressure. The international student revolt centred on 1968 was multifaceted, but not least were protests against academic structures and curricula that marginalised radical and generalising social theory. That is why, at the high points of struggle, when campuses were under occupation, mass experiments in creating ‘alternative universities’ took place. Thousands of young people wanted to debate critical social theories that attempted to explain the world of injustice and violence they found themselves confronting.

The neoliberal counter-revolution of the last generation has involved sustained attempts to block off this kind of educational experimentation, and to reimpose top-down control over schools, colleges, and universities. The comprehensive system, mixed-ability teaching, child-centred learning, multiculturalism, the freedom for teachers to experiment and innovate – this and much more in our schools has been under attack since the late 1970s. The universities have also changed. The work of academics has become more regulated and pressured. The humanities and the social sciences have been squeezed relative to more ‘vocational’ subjects. The abolition of maintenance grants and the introduction of fees have both impoverished students and begun the privatisation of the universities. Corporate sponsorship has corrupted the ideal of independent, free-thinking, ‘universal’ education, skewing curricula towards science, engineering, IT and vocational training. The needs of capital – where the content of education is driven by the demands of the labour market and the international competitiveness of British business – have come to predominate over those of both students and society.

‘Higher education is fundamental to our national prosperity,’ intones the 2010 Labour Party general election manifesto. ‘Demand for high-level skills is strong and growing, and the supply of good graduates is an increasingly important factor in global economic competition.’ [6] Labour is explicit that in its plan for higher education, ‘priority in the expansion of student places will be given to foundation degrees and part-time study, and to science, technology, engineering and mathematics degrees, as well as applied study in key economic growth sectors’. [7] The Tory manifesto is no different. ‘Universities contribute enormously to the economy,’ it explains in its opening sentence on the subject of higher education. [8] To underline the lesson, it offers a little homily to Silicon Valley, which is described as ‘a global beacon for innovation and enterprise’ – a success attributed to its ‘highly skilled workforce and world-class universities’. [9]

That education is partly about ‘how’ – about acquiring the knowledge and skills to perform particular productive tasks – is not at issue. Intelligent, collective labour – which depends, of course, on operational knowledge and skill – is a fundamental species characteristic. Social progress, whenever and wherever real social progress occurs, results from the growing accumulation of knowledge and skill that makes labour increasingly productive.

The point at issue is this: ‘how’ is not enough. We need to know ‘why’ and ‘what’. To know how to make a nuclear missile, a fighter jet or a water cannon does not mean that we necessarily should make them. Of course we need ‘vocational’ knowledge and skills, but we also need to equip ourselves to ask critical questions, to engage in democratic debate and to make informed choices about social priorities. In this context, ‘we’ does not include those who currently design our system of university education, for they have little interest in social priorities being collectively and democratically determined.

The expansion of the universities in the 1950s and 1960s created mass higher education for the first time. This in itself created a crisis, even though a large majority of students were still from relatively affluent backgrounds. The further expansion since then has not only quadrupled the number of students : it has also, for the first time, brought large numbers of students from working-class backgrounds onto the campuses. The volatility and explosive potential of modern universities was dramatically revealed by the student revolt of November–December 2010. The drive to privatise, corporatise and ‘vocationalise’ the universities is not only about turning out skilled labour for British capital. It is also about insulating two million higher-education students from general, critical, holistic, subversive theories of the kind which real universities have an unfortunate tendency to foster. Our rulers are desperate to turn universities into skills factories. The defence of the humanities and the social sciences, as part of the wider struggle against marketisation and instrumentalisation, is a reassertion of the Enlightenment tradition of ‘universal’ education in the interests of society as a whole and a critical task for the movement today.



4. Anthony Giddens, Capitalism and Modern Social Theory (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1971).

5. Mike Haralambos and Martin Holborn, Sociology: Themes and Perspectives (London: Unwin, 1985).

6. Labour Party, A Future Fair for All, election manifesto (London: Labour Party, 2010), 3.7.

7. Ibid.

8. Conservative Party, Invitation to Join the Government of Britain, election manifesto (London: Conservative Party 2010), p. 17.

9. Ibid.

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