The Teleology of Education

A short paper I gave to a public meeting on the theme:

Against Value

organized by Sam Ladkin

The Teleology of Education and the Metaphysics of Contingency


“A thing can be a use value, without having value. This is the case whenever its utility to man is not due to labour. Such are air, virgin soil, natural meadows, &c. A thing can be useful, and the product of human labour, without being a commodity. Whoever directly satisfies his wants with the produce of his own labour, creates, indeed, use values, but not commodities. In order to produce the latter, he must not only produce use values, but use values for others, social use values. (And not only for others, without more. The mediaeval peasant produced quit-rent-corn for his feudal lord and tithe-corn for his parson. But neither the quit-rent-corn nor the tithe-corn became commodities by reason of the fact that they had been produced for others. To become a commodity a product must be transferred to another, whom it will serve as a use value, by means of an exchange.) Lastly nothing can have value, without being an object of utility. If the thing is useless, so is the labour contained in it; the labour does not count as labour, and therefore creates no value.” (Karl Marx: Capital, Vol 1 Section 1)

The question this evening is are we against the value of what we do. Of course in an intrinsic sense no, we value our own activities very highly, or at least I hope we do but do our activities have any use value? And if they do we exchange them in a way which turns them into commodities? And if so, and they do in the sense that we sell our ideas in return for a wage, in what sense can we be against value. By entering into this relationship within a capitalist society then we are by definition accepting that the commodities we produce must have both use and exchange value. Whether we like it or not we are supping with the devil and our spoons are getting shorter by the day.

All societies generate a surplus. Depending on the productive nature of that society or rather the nature of the productive forces and the social relations of production in that society, then the surplus will be distributed differently. If however, the one common and unchanging invariant of direction with regard to the distribution of surplus is that major part of it will always be appropriated by the ruling group in society and they will see this appropriation or expropriation as a natural law. The very fact that those who are in charge use the argument of the Dustman who is apparently fed up with paying his taxes for people like us to sit around discussing metaphysics shows that they have already recognised that the surplus that we are living from is generated by human labour. It has never been my experience however that these infamous Dustman and street cleaners have ever resented the fact that they pay taxes that go to higher education. Indeed this university itself was founded by ordinary working people paying voluntarily into a fund for the creation of a university for the city. I’m pretty sure that those working class people did not make sure that a proper audit trail was carried out and that each Department put forward a fully watertight aims and objectives statement. No, when I was a lorry driver and indeed when I was in the Army, I had aspirations to go into higher education and it didn’t occur to me for a second to have any resentment towards those working in higher education for sucking up my taxes. This is an ideological cloud that has been put out by a class who wishes to gather to itself ever more of the surplus that our labour creates. Value to this class is only that which can be measured in pounds, Euros or dollars. And that is the value that we do not want to see prevailing in education. And despite what is being said by many who are wedded to the current ruling class, we should be proud of the fact that what we do cannot be measured in terms of commodities.

This may be a Marxist commonplace, but nevertheless it is one that is often forgotten in an age when class, at least until very recently, seemed to have disappeared from intellectual debate and theoretical discussion. In this current economic crisis of capitalism which we are all beginning to experience, some more than others ,both within our own society and of course across the world as a whole, questions about the distribution of surplus, even the question of whether the surplus is actually being produced anymore in an era of generalised debt have once more come to the fore.

Any glance at an intellectual discussion about the nature of education immediately turns to one of utility and the value of what it is we do as educators. The idea that education should be commodified, turned into merely a tool for and more efficient exploitation of human labour albeit intellectual human labour, should not surprise us in any way at all because the extension of “generalised commodity production”, which is Marx’s basic description of the productive base of capitalism, has grown to an extent that I think even Marx failed to appreciate back in the 19th century. Commodity production and exchange have become the only and final arbiters of value. Use value is no longer of any use.

So, one of the things we need to make clear before embarking on any discussion about utility, value and education is that the economic base from which we are operating is one in which ideological decisions have been made about the distribution of surplus. It is not that there is no surplus anymore, that indebtedness has somehow swallowed up the productive surplus, but that the massive surplus that is being generated by capitalism is being distributed in a way which does not allow for the continuation of the social programs which dominated in the 30 years after the Second World War, the Trente Glorieuse.  Most of our ideas about education can be traced back to the attitude of that expansionary post-war boom from 1945 to the mid-1970s in which constant upward growth in the major industrial countries provided the surplus that enabled the expansion of the mass higher education system. Now, within that system of course, there was the consolidation of a productivist ethos. The white heat of the scientific revolution was something which spread around Europe and the advanced industrial world, in both West and East. This dialectical relationship between production, the production of surplus, the use of the surplus that was produced in order to bolster production itself through scientific technological and educational development, was one which could be maintained as long as the economic base was there to provide for it.

However, this expansionary productivist model was also based upon the inclusion of a class dynamic which was also entirely new. The 30 glorious years involved a degree of class integration and social thinking which constantly raised wage levels across society. The educational needs of the system were such that a largely illiterate mass industrial working class became less and less important and the development of an educated or at least well trained working class gained ground. This positive dialectic of production meant that evermore surplus was being generated and within the surplus, the amount being dedicated to education also grew.

However within that surplus there was also a secondary surplus which could be dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake and which was not necessarily linked to productivity, although it could be argued that general education in the humanities also plays an economic role, but of course we’re not discussing that here. And it is this surplus within the surplus which we are really talking about now and which has been identified by the new neoliberal ruling class as a surplus which is surplus to requirements.

In the 1970s, however, – I would dated to precisely 1974 and I have always wanted to write a book with that title –  a fundamental change took place in the organisation of capitalism in the Western world. A decision was taken, and we should not shy away from saying that this was a deliberate policy, rather than just an organic development, to shift investment away from the productive sector in the advanced industrial world to areas where the surplus could be produced using cheaper labour and cheaper raw materials elsewhere. This meant that education could be downgraded but also massified. The desire of the people of Sheffield example to provide tertiary education to working-class people in this city for aims but what to do with the general improvement was overtaken by a desire to make sure that more people were trained to take their place in an increasingly service orientated economy, for which very utilitarian approaches were necessary. There are lots of reasons for considering that to be the turning point which we probably haven’t got time to go into now but maybe will come up in the discussion (the end of Bretton Woods, the shift away from the gold standard, the shift of investment into speculation etc). This productive shift also went hand-in-hand with a shift in political ideology, as they always do. It is from this date that we can see the rise of monetarism, neoliberalism and Thatcherism, the highpoint of which we are only now just beginning to live through.

If we take a look at this graph for example, we can see the shift that has taken place quite clearly.

Thinking of it in purely educational terms, then the things which we now accept within the educational agenda: student loans, the culture of management within education, the audit culture etc. could never have been fully implemented under Mrs Thatcher.

I went to University from 1983 to 1987, which we were considered to be the heyday of the Iron Lady. But I was a mature student, I had just finished driving lorries for three years, had been in the Army for five years before that and I was awarded a full mature students grant, had my travel expenses paid and was actually earning more as a student than I had been as a lorry driver. That probably says more about lorry drivers wages in 1982 than it does about the generosity of student grants at that time, but the point stands that governments since Mrs Thatcher, including most disastrously the last Labour government, have driven through the process of the privatisation and commodification of education in a way which was previously unthinkable. Margaret Thatcher of course laid the ground for this and she wasn’t able to go as far as she undoubtedly would have liked or indeed as far as her economic advisers were urging her, but she played the long game and that long game has now paid off.

Let us make no mistake, a new class now runs the world, a class which is dedicated to the increased generalisation of commodity production, the subordination of all productive activity to the making of money and a commitment to the destruction of any ability of masses of people to work for their own improvement. If we are really going to argue against value in the humanities, which as I say actually means the commodification of the humanities, then we have to be prepared to take on the way in which the whole of the economy and society is being increasingly turned into one of the universalised system of commodity production. The struggle against value in education is a struggle for putting value back into society.

I don’t want to sound too much like Slavoj Žižek but when we are attacked as being an unnecessary, valueless excrescence which has a parasitical existence on the backs of those who ‘create exchange value’. I would say that we have to celebrate our excrescence and revel in the fact that – using the measures of value that are predominant in this system of generalised , indeed universalised, commodity production we are of no practical use to anyone.

The reason we should celebrate it is that it is the very uselessness of the humanities which marks out humanity. From cave drawings onwards the ability to reflect on the world, to make sense of the world, to try to create patterns out of random contingencies, to create what I call a metaphysics of contingency is the very stuff of being human, even if it has no productive value as such.

In many ways we are living through a new dark age in which the function of humanities is similar to that which created the universities in the first place; namely as repositories of abstract knowledge in the hands of a useless bunch of monks who were entirely dependent on the rest of society for their upkeep. Without those monasteries, those colleges our knowledge about what is to be human beings would be poorer.

What is monstrous about this new dark age is that this time the population are being urged to turn against the monks, to attack and denigrate them, to see them as surplus to requirements, to be envious of our wages, working conditions, our pensions. Divide and rule, that old and tried and trusted method of social control.

Of course this has a long history in Britain. This is probably one of the few countries in the world, well, two and the other one is English speaking too, in which the phrase “too clever by half” could even be dreamed up let alone used in everyday discourse. “Intellectual” in the Anglo-Saxon world has become a term of abuse to an extent not seen, I would argue, since Germany in the 1930s, when intellectuals were invariably attacked for their racial heritage and hence social unreliability.

So the question is, what easy that we are in favour of in the humanities? We cannot just retreat into the monasteries, lock the gates behind us and hope that we will be left alone. The monasteries have been taken over by the management consultants too.

What I’d like to do now is to take a look at this concept of the “teleology of education”. By this Sam means I think a teleology which has a distinctive Telos, in which what we do has to fit in with a plan for the future which will lead to the full commodification of society and with it the commodification of education and knowledge. He is against this form of value.

However, I think it is important to rescue teleology really from this, if I might say so, slightly reductionist view of what it actually means.

Heinrich von Kleist wrote a little essay in 1805 called Die Allmähliche Verfertigung…

The gradual completion of our thoughts while speaking, in which he pointed out that the end product of our thoughts is actually conditioned by the process of arriving at the end product. In the 20th 21st-century we would call this autopoiesis, the self generation of an idea out of the ideas which created, a concept taken from biology.

So so rather than see education as something which is heading towards a pre-existing teleology I would try and do a bit of a philosophical to step which locates the Telos, the outcome back in the process of its own becoming. In a sense I wish to do what Zizek is doing with his forthcoming book on Hegel and restore honour to teleology by making it retrospective.

We all live in a teleological moment in that everything that has led up to this moment here, now, was not in any sense necessary but the result of multiple, probably infinite numbers of contingent events. However, once we arrive at this point, this moment we see that everything that happened to get us to this point was necessary, but that none of that necessary process was necessary. We are our own Telos and everything that we know about the world and everything that the world is is its own Telos. This temporary Telos is composed of nothing more nothing less than all the contingent moments, all the contingent building blocks which led to its construction.

Ernst Bloch maintains that as a result we live in “the darkness of the lived moment”, not quite sure how we got here, no idea where we’re going other than innovate sense and no idea what the FAQ is going on. We are confronted then with the old Kantian question of whether we can stand outside of the darkness of our own lived moments to look at the process of which we are only a tiny part. That is what all philosophy does that is what all culture does, that is what thought does. I would go further and say that that is all that thought does and all that it should do. Our over involved nature made us into pattern identifying animals. By attempting to step outside the darkness of our own lived moments we attempt to illuminate the patterns by which we have arrived at this point, and more importantly we try to lay down patterns of where we might be going in future. In other words we try to create a Metaphysics of Contingency, a convincing story about a meaningless process.

It is what makes us human, and all philosophy, and all culture and all thinking is about the creation of that metaphysics of contingency. The awful truth about existence is of course that it is not necessary. If my mum had had the abortion that she nearly had when she got pregnant with me at a very young age then I wouldn’t be here. But there wouldn’t be an empty seat on the chair here with my name on it and masses of people weeping at my absence because I was somehow planned in to the whole thing. If the big bang or whatever it was had not happened, the universe would not have started and nothing would have happened but equally there wouldn’t be an empty cosmic chair where the universe should be, never mind a God sitting in it wondering where the hell we’d got to.

If his original e-mail to us Sam wrote

“Perhaps art is more like knowledge if knowledge is conceived to be more like the experience of art than it is
the objects of art.”

To me this is a restatement of Kleist’s position, that the experience and the process is more important than the outcome. And yet we live in a society and work in the University which is outcome obsessed. That’s understandable given that we have gradually moved to a pay-as-you-go system of education. People want to know that they are getting value for their money. What we have to do is convince them that the absence of value is the very thing that guarantees value.

I would say that that is precisely the value of art and the value of the humanities, that it has no value other than as an attempt to unravel the metaphysics of contingency and to unpick the stitches of teleology and outcome. In that sense I think we need to perhaps redefine the title of this project and commit ourselves to the education of teleology and ask how we can rescue teleology from the future orientated and instrumental Telos by making it purely retrospective. In the same way we could rescue the concept of transcendence by abandoning the transcendent and, to go on a complete Hegelian circle, rescue the metanarrative from the Telos.

A retreat into irrationalism simply because the rational already seems to be irrational is not the answer any more than it was when Dada tried it. This does not represent a negation of the negation but only a deepening of the negation. The answer has to be found in a deepening of rationality, a commitment to modernity, the Enlightenment, progress, but this time removing from all of those things any automaticity or dogmatic teleological endpoints. That way we can maintain a commitment to the teleology of education but only by seeing education as the unravelling, unfolding and development of an as yet incomplete and unknowable Telos. Kleist’s gradual completion of thought in the process of talking thus comes back to a gradual completion of education in the process of learning.

The sad truth is of course, that the utilitarians and Philistine’s are right. From their perspective. Why should the Dustman pay for me to sit in my office making up stuff about Ernst Bloch? From our perspective it makes perfect sense. We provide the means by which humanity investigates its own ontological nature and the means by which we fit in to the universal or indeed, increasingly, don’t fit in to it.

We are indeed an excrescence, a surplus within the surplus, an irrelevance within an irrelevance, and that is what is really great about us.

It is for that reason that I say that we should revel in our uselessness. We have use value but we are not a commodity, we provide a service but we are not servants. We are useless but we are vital.


One Response to The Teleology of Education

  1. Anonymous says:

    RE: – “I don’t want to sound too much like Slavoj Žižek” a resounding approval to have & the last paragraph reminds me of comments from Zizek like “don’t be afraid of being useless” – “we need a useless space” or “we need a userless – space” “don’t worry about being useless”

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