Right and Left against the state: education without classes

Right and Left against the state: education without classes

Education reform, whether promoted by the Left or Right, often fails to deeply address the class-based issues driving the alleged "failure" of the educational system.


"...we used to have all these individual performers who would sing before we had pre-recorded music and it’s very sad now that you just listen to this performance that’s a hundred times better." --Bill Gates 1

A while ago, on NPR's "Fresh Air" I heard about 20 minutes of Terry Gross's interview with New America Foundation corporate education reformer Kevin Carrey. He was promoting Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) which he believes will level the educational playing field, eliminating the existing hierarchy of educational opportunity by creating online access for all. 2 Carrey earnestly griped about the ways upper tier and Ivy League colleges favor white people, and rich people, admitting students based on factors such as which elite high school they attended, or what legacy family they come from. Carrey could not claim that MOOCs will get rid of these elite institution's expensive tuitions, or alter their function as networks plugging wealthy students in to top financial, political, managerial, and tech/science jobs, with a smattering of lower middle class and poor included to make it look "fair."

It is not realistic to expect a format featuring canned lectures (which Carrey says are superior to brick and mortar university lectures because you can pause them and go get a coffee) and class sizes up to tens of thousands of students, to do away with the inequality in the social and economic system at the heart of educational inequity. That's the problem. Carrey's "solution" looks at a function of capitalism-- the reproduction and maintenance of social class, in this case both supported by and expressed in the unequal access to education and opportunity, and treats it like a malfunction. He pretends to advocate an end to this two-tier system, but is really outlining a different two-tiered division within this same social system. One educational tier will be cheaper and more efficient, and this will somehow level the currently existing opportunity hierarchy within society. It's absurd on it's face, by design.

The "cheaper" part happens when you have a world-class professor, super-star author or uber-researcher tape his or her lecture series once. At this point, says Carrey, you've covered the base cost of producing the content (there are other expenses to getting a class online) and it doesn't cost any more to add one, or one million more students to the class. 

Ignore the fact that this implies dismantling the teaching profession and automating positions via pre-recorded superstars, thereby destroying tens of thousands of present and future jobs in education. It's no coincidence that this dovetails with ongoing austerity-driven attacks on public sector unions, of which the teaching profession is a stronghold.

Such efficiency comes with high social costs.With fewer teachers, you narrow the perspectives within education, eliminating differences in life experience, local knowledge, and professors' connections to regional student populations. The now redundant professors would have otherwise interacted with each other developing relevant curriculum, and they would also have, or at least they used to have, a democratic say in how their universities are run. In that older model, when it was functioning, the driving concerns focused much more on the quality of educational experiences, and the quality and direction of research, than the business model of education's narrowed focus to the University's financial portfolio and investor returns. It's not that this model was impervious to distortion by state and market forces. It wasn't. It's more that the new direction toward online super-stars is the wrong one. Providing a "cheaper" privatized version of whatever the college experience used to be--which could have included community experience, a place of criticality, and even resistance to governmental or private tyranny implicit in critical thought, is a way of dismantling a public service. The new structures are designed to facilitate the flow of capital first, and learning as a byproduct of the streamlined product.

Carrey was clear that the University model is 800 years old (old is bad) and based on "scarcity," a critique which sounds almost Marxian. So now it won't have to be. Everyone can have the computer version for "free." Included in the cost of "free" is a massive victory for the private educational companies that are positioning themselves to take control out of public hands and into their own.3

Scarcity of educational opportunity currently exists largely because funding for public education is under attack, not because the private sector has been barred from creating the kind of efficiencies that austerity is currently implementing on the global workforce. Market forces are making huge strides in restructuring Universities in a business model of education that is top heavy with overpaid manager-administrators, and bottom heavy with precarious temp-adjunct staff with no supports.

Carrey wants us to believe he is against standardization, noting that college admissions are based on standardized tests which are a "blunt instrument," and besides "who knows who wrote that college admission essay?" And yet, it does not seem likely that it would be easier to tell who wrote an essay or took a test when dealing with students online, whether a small class or thousands of people in a MOOC. Reducing the learning experience to MOOC platforms is certainly a shift toward standardization.


“Far from contesting this historical process, which is subordinating one of the last relatively autonomous sectors of social life to the demands of the commodity system, the above-mentioned progressives protest against delays and inefficiencies in its implementation. They are the partisans of the future cybernetized university, which is already showing its ugly head here and there. The commodity system and its modern servants — these are the enemy."--On The Poverty of Student Life 4

The saddest thing about all of this is that we expect this ironic concern for the dispossessed from the Right, from corporations, and the ruling class. It is less expected from other quarters, especially ostensibly radical ones. The Global Center for Advanced Studies (GCAS) has its own critique of the University from the Left.

The Center wants to go "beyond hierarchy, and beyond the antiquated 'great man'" 5 model of professorship. Yet, in the fight against this plague of elitism, "GCAS is the first higher education institution to bring together the most publicly-engaged, theory-informed faculty members in the world." In other words, the great men and women of such theory. One imagines this could eliminate the need to attend classes with mediocre professors who might not even have a book out.

The bar that GCAS sets is rightfully high, but it's tough to separate believing in the reality of one's desires from delusions of grandeur. In a Huffpost interview, Founder Creston Davis gushes that the Center is a "venue in which the leading theorists, artists, architects, etc. and students can explore and create new futures and worlds." Co-Director Jason Adams defines the problem of both private and public colleges:

"The problem with current institutions, at least in the U.S., is twofold: first, you have elite, private institutions like those Creston and I taught at after graduating (and that he studied at prior to graduating); second, you have popular, public institutions like those that I attended before graduating. In the age of advanced neoliberalism, these are, really, becoming two sides of the same coin, and it's no secret that real thinking and learning happens only rarely in either context." 6

While Adams may be identifying a banal aspect of the current education system under the pressure of a general global austerity, it does not seem fair, or particularly comradely to dismiss the ability of students and professors at these corporately besieged institutions to engage in "real thinking and learning." In fact, it sounds a lot like a sales wind up for GCAS. Within the overstatement there seems to be the implication of a lack of agency. If people in this system are unable to critique it and or fight against it, then Adams would be on to something, but the waves of adjunct organizing, student teacher unionizing efforts, protests and analysis of the situation inside the university indicates a very different picture. Rather than retreating to an island of free thought, many working-class people are engaging in acts of solidarity to take back universities and public education.

The dismissal of both private and public universities is seemingly ubiquitous among GCAS representatives. One GCAS faculty charges that "the University is basically there not to educate students, but to create power sites for professors to create places where the expert can know himself to be legitimate and can verify that through these practices of explication." 7 How does GCAS show it will be different? The GCAS anti-hierarchy of regular Joe and Jane post-academic stars includes familiar sounding names like Zizek, Hardt, Negri, Spivak, Critchley, Giroux, Grubacic, and many others. These individuals would presumably never consider verifying their own legitimacy through "practices of explication." 8 We should assume that GCAS will be the antithesis of a "power site" maybe due to the fact that it exists mainly online and is not yet accredited (this is not to defend the corrupt accreditation process). Also, "the most publicly-engaged, theory-informed faculty members in the world" don't have to prove their status through vulgar explication, because they've already proven their legitimacy in the old corrupt system, which is very convenient.

Beyond the GCAS critique of the thought-and-learning-destroying neoliberal juggernaut of the ye olde college system, there is the broader critique of our social geography. Reaching deep, Davis laments the way in which

"too often people just settle for the boring, I mean just look at suburbia and you know it's an aesthetic of death. No one actually lives in suburbia -- they go there to die. No wonder it looks like a big-ass retirement community, and all the dogs who speak for humans as they yip and yap at all the neighbors just for walking by. So part of creating the GCAS is actually doing philosophy -- a philosophy of life that refuses death. Philosophy should be about liberation and resurrection and not about conforming to a sad aesthetic society of suburban death that the wealthy colleges and universities only ever reproduce. "

It sounds good! It brought to mind Peter Fonda in the Wild Angels, when he and his biker gang are asked by a local authority figure "...just what is it you want to do?" He responds:

"We want to be free! We want to be free to do what we want to do! We want to be free to ride our machines without being hassled by the man! And we wanna get loaded! And we wanna have a good time! And that's what we're gonna do. We're gonna have a good time. We're gonna have a party!" [Gang erupts in cheers.] 9

The present leader of the GCAS gang is Honorary President Alain Badiou. In fairness, his description of GCAS goals is more than just a good time. Badiou explicates that what should be important to the students is "to learn what is a true thinking for changing the world under the principles of equality and priority of the common good against the present dictatorship of private property and individual satisfaction." 10 Another voice from GCAS states that "On the one hand, we're super suspicious of the private university. On the other hand the public university is not exactly a viable alternative." 11 It is time to give up on that musty old model.

How will the Center aim to prioritize the common good against the dictatorship of private property? The answer sounds in some ways like a private model of education. Rather than rely mainly on tax dollars, "GCAS is funded by a combination of tax-deductible monetary donations, tuition-driven revenue sources, low administrative overhead and volunteer assistance. Since our long-term goal is to eliminate tuition entirely, we are working towards new, more innovative models of funding, including crowd-sourcing and other approaches that do not implicate the student into the conventional loan-based apparatus." Basically a combination of patronage, presumably from wealthy donors, mixed with crowd-sourcing (so much better than a tax, since it's not done by "the state" and it's "innovative," like a high-tech bake sale), and volunteer labor (maybe unpaid internships like the big corporations do?). The rhetoric speaks to superceding capitalism, but the reality looks a lot more like a game of cups and balls. Things are moved around, but the results are the same or worse.

The results are likely the same because all that's been done is to create another competing school, basically a private school. No matter how amazing, anti-political, theoretical, and radical the school may be, it will do nothing to truly democratize education, especially given its extremely anti-democratic focus, with elite stars teaching only the most highly qualified students to engage in advanced studies. The one two punch of leaving behind an allegedly antiquated public school system, and providing an elite learning opportunity, does absolutely nothing to rescue the majority of students who will be left to die in underfunded public institutions as an automated and star-based system increasingly takes on the "best and brightest." Even if this option were totally free, it would fail to address the broader social inequity of the educational system. This might be ok if the mission were not so vehemently stated as the creation of a new form to replace the old corrupt one. It is nothing of the sort.

The school maintains a practical, if mildly anti-capitalist, set of goals, including removing the profit motive from any businesses their graduates might start: "In addition, students are encouraged to consider taking the CTPS: 999 course, 'Creating a Non-Profit Business,' which is voluntary. Taking this course will guide students into creating, organizing, and filing for a Non-Profit Business such as a 501 (c) (3) which will put into practice the GCAS mission into different sectors of society around the globe."

Alternatives to old school universities abound in the GCAS imagination. J. Jack Halberstram, sounding a bit like Michelle Rhee or Bill Gates, notes that there is "a crisis in public education" and that "rather than moan, GCAS wants to build 'alternative knowledge zones.'" 12 The alternative to Halberstram's vision might be as simple as organizing as a class to demand free universal college education for all through the PhD level. It is implied that the publicness of education is its problem. After all, public means "the state." Better to turn to the private sector ("civil society"), with all its wonderful opportunities for egalitarian democracy. Shucks, maybe the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation could kick in a bit? They seem to be very reform minded when dealing with our other great "crisis" of education-- the failure of "bad teachers" and the way in which public sector unions have ruined k-12 education by making it "impossible to fire bad teachers" blah, blah, blah. GCAS rhetoric sounds different at times, but it could still play a role in the college level version of the Charterization of education! That's another win for the multitude. The Post-Left and billionaire philanthropists could prove that cross-class collaboration really is subversive after all.

Cheaper, more accessible, privatized, non-public, non-state run, education provided by academic superstars, for some, is a realistic goal in our lifetimes! By thinking outside the box, we can show that it's not a class issue. When the goal is increasing efficiency, creating accessibility, and lowering the cost of the educational commodity, class based analysis is as old hat as learning in actual class rooms. Through a reshuffling of the deck of power, we can discard the old rotten edifice of free universal education for all to make way for something truly innovative. We can lower costs for privately subsidized consumers (with crowd-sourcing and donations from wealthy patrons), while increasing efficiency (by eliminating vast swaths of a now redundant brick and mortar based teaching force) and increasing quality (only superstars need teach). It's a marvelous outflanking of capital, beating it at its own game! 


sometimes explode
Apr 5 2015 20:43

I'm neither a student nor teacher (hahahaha!) at the GCAS but I am interested in it. I'm internet friends with several of the people who teach classes and attend the GCAS, and I've watched some of the very interesting material they have made public, such as Benjamin Noys critique of accelerationism.

Still- if the critique is that the GCAS isn't working class revolutionary organisation then that is plainly true. I'm not sure if it is supposed to be though. It's an experiment in alternatives in providing education that, sure, might be a little excited by the possibilities of its seminars being web-based, it's run by accelerationists so that's not a suprise, but it's equally an interesting attempt to use technology to open classes up to people who might not ordinarily be able to be at them.

The old London anti-university of the 1960s was an exciting attempt to make a publically viable space where anyone could teach anything to anyone happen in a physical space. It had a few problems though. It was also full of "great men" who often taught absolute bullshit to people. It was also based in London- so if you wanted to go to the anti-university you better be a physically and psychologically capable person living in or near London.

Mind you- when the 'great men' are faces on screens that you can actually respond to in a more intimate manner than you could in a lecture hall or so on...they seem less great. More like just more 'men'.

Sure, the anti-university isn't exactly what you've argued for. You've argued for re-taking and re-shaping the public university. That sounds like a good idea to me. It's kind of what I think needs to happen in psychiatry. We don't abandon mental health systems, treatments and hospitals entirely but we retake, reshape and radically reorient what they're used for and to what end. I don't think I could do this today. Or tomorrow. And in the higher education world? How long will it work for? Right now. Today. I realize that sounds a bit like a defeatist position but...are the revolutionary masses of students heaving and screaming to retake the university in solidarity with their equally revolutionary lecturers?

Meanwhile the 'great men' thing...well yes this is a real problem.But it's a problem of the left that anarchists will always grumble about. At the same time it isn't always such a bad thing. I've followed the development of Levi Bryant's philosophy over many years on his blog, read his books, attended a lecture he did in Scotland, and now I might get the pretty cheap opportunity to take a class with him about his book. I think that's pretty cool. Similarly, I'm thinking I might attend David Roden's classes on Posthuman Life because I'm interested in his thesis. In these two cases they are distinct philosophers working on distinct philosophies that it is unlikely someone working in another university would be able to teach as well.......because they are the authors of those philosophies.

I don't particularly want to say the GCAS is the future of education. I don't know if anyone involved in it would make that as a serious claim. It has it's upsides and it's downsides. Some of us, some who aren't looking to get into GCAS for the sake of a job (I should say I have a job because I went to uni to train) simply because the ideas/discussions had in places like GCAS are so because of the ideas/discussions themselves. And I can view these classes for $20 each rather than spending $1000s? Yeh: Speaking as a working class, working 12 hour shifts that eat most of my time, raising a family and looking into going back to a physical uni (at exorbitant costs) I'm pretty glad something like the GCAS exists on the model it does.

Meanwhile I also internet know quite a few people who do go to the GCAS. Most of them are already students in physical universities, although some of them are workers in various fields, and might well be engaged in all kinds of the struggles over and for education that you're talking about. Involvement in A does not preclude involvement in B. Infact GCAS might actually be beneficial to people involved in such struggles.....as we're keen to stress agency here we could actually ask them?

There is also a central problem with the critique presented here. On the one hand the GCAS is implicated alongside the MOOC system in missing the point that class is at the heart of the problem of education. It then goes on to suggest that struggle over eduacation can be won by retaking the university and communizing(?) it? The problem with this is related to the lack of the required degree of militancy that this would require to actually be workable. The reappropriation and repurposing of university isn't itself an end to the class society that necessitated it's reappropriation.

It would be a short lived or long term success but it would also be the kind of victory that anarchists and leftists haven't been able to achieve elsewhere. So you kind of have to wonder which project is the one that is triumphalist?

And lest it be misunderstood I have consistently engaged with accelerationists to critique accelerationism so this isn't some sort of partisanal defence. What it is is a "I think the GCAS is pretty cool and I'm glad it exists even if it isn't the revolution" kind of defense.