The contemporary education system is the result of trends that had their beginnings several centuries back and which culminated into legacies which cut across all levels of the educational process. The first legacy is that the educational system is an authoritarian system that functions in such a way as to reproduce itself across generations. Second, while it purports to prepare people for life and work, it fails to do either. Third, it inhibits inquiry and discourages creativity. And finally, the contemporary education system promotes homogeneity and rewards mediocrity. These legacies are embedded in all levels of education and are problematic because the cultural context within which the themes originally arose no longer exists.
Contemporary education is authoritarian, hierarchical, and centralized. It was created to indoctrinate and later train children and young adults to be productive and obedient and conform to cultural standards appropriate for the level of education than they attain. The embryonic modern school may be seen in the educational reforms during the Reformation and later the Counter-Reformation. Recognizing the scholastic method, which had dominated university education since the 12th century, as an extension of Church doctrine, Protestant Reformers latched upon the 'new learning' of the Humanists as a viable alternative. Assuming the form if not the substance of humanistic studies, reformers established town schools (it was, after all, an urban movement) whose curricula were closely watched for 'errors'. Regular visitations by Protestant church officials ensured that town schools taught good Protestant values: Martin Luther himself had taught on the university level before the posting of his theses, and Philip Melancthon, his humanistically trained captain of Reform, also served as the architect of a system of education that is still dominant, though perhaps on the wane. Melancthon adapted the humanist curriculum of history, rhetoric, grammar, poetry and moral philosophy to accommodate the Protestant tenets of total depravity and vocatio, the work for which God has called His followers.
Not to be outdone, and in direct reaction to the application of humanism to Protestant education, the Catholic Church turned to its newest order, its "Soldiers for Christ", the Society of Jesus or Jesuits. Rigorously trained in some of the hallmarks of humanism, such as classical Latin, and dedicated to recruit young boys into holy orders, the Jesuits replaced humanist instructors in those areas that remained Catholic. Humanism was suspect by both Protestants and Catholics, the former because humane studies had developed prior to the Reformation and some Humanists still retained their affiliation to the Pope, the latter because many Humanists, such as Melancthon, had become heretics. Still quite active as educators, the Jesuits and Jesuit schools continue to command respect for their disciplined approach to education.
On both sides of the fence, then, the development and maintenance of schools for pre-university students was wholly focused during and after the Reformation to affirm and transmit religious conviction and authority. In other words, education functioned as an agent to perpetuate ideology and to ensure future generations of devout Christians: Protestant or Catholic. When the Age of Religious Wars finally came to an end with the resolution that whatever the religion a ruler held would be the official religion of the people who lived there (eius regio, cuius religio) the merger of religion and the State became complete. It was very successful marriage: literacy rates were higher in the 17th and 18th centuries in the United States, the great Protestant experiment, than they are today.
This authoritarian legacy is painfully evident. New teachers in all levels comprehend the 'pecking order' quickly: school board, superintendents, principals, master-teachers, and, at the bottom of the order, students. The same is true for tertiary education; though it is perhaps more labyrinthine, students still come in dead last.
I will be teaching the visual-art course, Art in the Age of Digital Dissemination, on-line this year at Athena University. Once connected, stop by the Studio (#741). Also see, the web-site. A description of a digital-visual-art course that I taught at the University of Victoria may be pertinent here, as well as a large (unix-compressed) collection of student-essays.
In the 1990s we were promised a knowledge society. Both the sciences and the humanities would undergo tremendous expansion, becoming the principal activities of a majority of citizens. Computers and networked communications would allow us to share the multiple fruits of unlimited exploration and experimentation. Bureaucracy would be eliminated, multiplicity would triumph over standardization, human potentials would be fulfilled and the most fundamental problems -- poverty, racism, war, ecological imbalances -- would be resolved through international cooperation in the realm of ideas. The preeminence of money would finally fade away. At long last, the dreams of enlightenment would be realized.
"Gold and dollar are passˇ. Right here, feel the birth of the future: the knowledge standard!"
We all know it didn't happen. Instead we got the knowledge economy. Financial speculation. Predatory lending. Targeted advertising. Pervasive surveillance. Neoliberal ideology. War as usual. All perfected and legitimated by careerist and complicit intellectuals at a university near you.
In the 2010s it's high time to explore the roles of the really existing university in the foundation, maintenance and growth of a cognitive economy that seems intent, not on fulfilling humanity's potentials, but on achieving our destruction. Only an effective and transformative critique of the knowledge factories offers any chance of reversing the necropolitical trend that has laid its grip on global civilization. But where could such a critique come from?
A purely internal transformation is not in the cards. Across the world, universities are being restructured by an administrative caste whose interests lie precisely in the furtherance of the knowledge economy and its privileges. Yet a purely external critique, a simple exodus from the technocratic towers, is equally unlikely to produce significant results. Far too much power is generated by far too many people inside the walls.
The proposal here is one that can be tried out in all cultural and scientific fields. It suggests that autonomy is relative, aspirational and constitutively incomplete, developing only in tension with existing social forms. Autonomy is the intentional struggle of a collective self (autos) to elaborate and fulfill its own regulative principles (nomos). Such a struggle requires an outside, a gathering point, a space of deliberation but also of insurgency and free expression, where intentional groupings can mount their critiques and alternatives. But the same struggle also requires direct contact with the core cultural and scientific institutions in which we participate as workers and as citizens. The relation between outside and inside is crucial. Only by developing radical proposals and placing them to the test of really existing social functions can one hope to reveal, disrupt and transform the operations of a failed paradigm.