[iDC] The Aims of Education

Ken Wark warkk at newschool.edu
Wed Sep 7 23:51:37 UTC 2011

Trebor asked me to post this. Convocation address for the start of the
academic year 2010-11.

McKenzie Wark - The Aims of Education
The New School Convocation
Thursday, September 2, 2010

My fellow educators (by which I mean everyone, as we are all educators),

Since our topic today is the aims of education, I thought I would start
by imagining how my students would approach such a question. I imagine
the first thing they would do is: consult the oracle. Not the oracle of
Delphi, the oracle of The Daily Show: Jon Stewart.

Not long ago Jon Stewart's guest on The Daily Show was Tim Pawlenty, the
human face of conservatism. While Stewart lobbed surprisingly softball
questions at him, Governor Pawlenty explained how we can completely
privatize education. Students will just buy their education a course at
a time via iTunes on their iPads. Along with downloads of Lady Gaga
videos and, for that matter, The Daily Show, you could just download
Philosophy 101, or more likely, Marketing 101. I'll come back to this
vision, both thrilling and chilling, of education.
Students don't get all their information by consulting the oracle. They
also practice a complex kind of divination using randomly cast spells,
or in other words, Google. Using Google somewhat carelessly, one gets at
least a fair glimpse of what commonsense opinion is about the aims of
education. This commonsense opinion about education is curiously

One finds, for example, that American education is a complete failure,
and yet it is the best in the world. One finds that everything can be
fixed so long as the private sector does it, and yet the private sector
can only fix education with massive amounts of public money. As to
whether education is working on not, this is a simple matter of
administering standardized tests. And yet what education produces when
it works is unique and creative individuals.

On the more specific question of the aims of education, one finds
surprisingly little, other than this striking paradox: the aim of
education is just to get people jobs, and yet at the same time it is
supposed to create well rounded, ethical individuals imbued with the
American spirit of service and citizenship. This is what a student using
Google may or may not discover.
Now, it's a commonplace among educators to make cynical remarks about
our students. And while I don't doubt that my own Lang College students
really do get some of their knowledge of the world from Jon Stewart and
Google, I also think they can stand back and think critically about just
such so-called knowledge.

The first thing I would imagine a critical student of education today
would discover is this: knowledge is supposed to be different from doxa,
from the received and unreflective opinion from which it struggles to
free itself. And yet education, the process of producing and reproducing
knowledge, is nothing if not surrounded by doxa.

For those of us on the inside as it were, for those of us who are
educators, the struggle is to separate knowledge from doxa, from habit,
from prejudice, from the self-evident. We educators don't take kindly to
groupthink, or to compulsory agreement. For instance, I took a job at
SUNY once, and they made me sign an oath of loyalty to New York State.
Imagine that: a loyalty oath, to New York State. I immediately started
thinking about how I might betray my state, and become a secret agent of
Connecticut, or maybe one of the Dakotas.

In short, as educators, we are surrounded on the outside by those for
whom education is nothing but the continuation of doxa, of the
contradictory world of opinion, to which one is supposed to swear
allegiance. Our position seems an embattled one. Education seems to be
in crisis. But when was it not in crisis? Perhaps there's comfort in the
thought that crisis is our business - and business is lively. At least
we are not, like Socrates, obliged to drink the hemlock, although if
standardized testing makes its way into higher education, hemlock might
In the west at least, we tend to take the Greeks to be our ancestors in
creating institutions of critical knowledge, within and against the
social realm. What the schools of philosophy were to the Greeks: the
Stoics, the Epicureans, the Peripatetics, the modern university is to
us. And like us the Greeks also had institutions for producing doxa.
What the theater was to the Greeks Hollywood is to us. What Sophists
were to the Greeks, lawyers, consultants and lobbyists are to us.

One would not want to push this comparison too far. Aristotle did not
have to grade papers. But three things seem to me worth dwelling upon.
Firstly: in what way did Greek thought diverge from the doxa of its
time? How was it able to think beyond its social conditions of
production? Secondly: it what way were the limits of Greek thought the
limits, not of a form of knowledge, but of the social order from which
it sprang? Thirdly: what more ambiguous and unacknowledged legacies have
the Greeks left us?

Greek thought diverged from doxa by a critical reflection on it in its
own terms. This is Socrates at work: what do we mean by justice? What do
we mean by faith? What do we mean by education? We can free thinking
from certain habits. We can use language with an awareness of what it is
and how it works.

This is the negative aim of education. This aim of education is to work
in and against common sense. At this the Greeks excelled. While the
sophists were busy teaching everyone how to be their own lobbyist,
Socrates begins a quite different practice. One that separates thought
from interest narrowly and immediately conceived.

The limits to Greek thought are surely in the positive aims of
education, in terms of what one creates and maintains in the place of
doxa. This is where the limits of a social order start to impinge and
set limits on what can be thought.
As the product of an aristocratic culture in a slave society, Greek
thought is famously uninterested in the practical arts. The Greeks were
brilliant designers, in architecture, in the applied arts, and their
greatest achievement in the sciences - geometry - surely owes as much to
the skilled labor of the artisan as to the philosopher, but you wouldn't
know it from reading their philosophers.

Greek thought was hostile to the performing arts, but nevertheless owed
unacknowledged debts to it. My Lang College colleague Paul Kottman has
written quite persuasively on how Plato takes the act of seeing the
sphere of political action with one's own eyes (thea) and empties it of
all its material and embodied content. Political theater becomes
political theory.

Kottman is close here to a line of thought that is foundational for my
own discipline, media studies. Plato is ambivalent about his own medium,
about writing. The written text goes out into the world as an orphan,
departing from the aristocratic realm in which knowing the parentage of
everyone and everything is all important.
Put simply: the aristocratic slave city-state produced a knowledge that
could separate itself in part from everyday doxa, but which was
indifferent to the design of things, ignored its debt to the performing
arts, and was ambivalent about its own form of communication.

If the limitations of Greek thought derive from the aristocratic and
slave nature of its society, surely in our modern democracy we have
transcended those limitations. America, as de Tocqueville showed, is a
democratic culture which, whatever its limitations, at least stands
aside from those that bind aristocratic orders.

It seems every other month the New York Times Book Review is giving
space to some new rehash of de Tocqueville, which makes me wonder if de
Tocqueville is not now a very pure kind of American doxa. Is it not
possible that America today is an aristocratic society? Perhaps an
aristocracy of a new type?

To cap it all, this new kind of aristocratic order also has one of the
worst features of Athenian democracy: the demagogues. Alongside
Marketing 101 and Lady Gaga, stuSpend any time with our contemporary demagogues, and one is reminded of
the pioneering media sociology done at The New School in the 40s by Hans
Speier. What he called post-democratic communication was characterized
by contempt for reason, by slogans, rumors and emotional blackmail. It
appealed to a mass population that lacked a sense of social obligation
and yet which did not feel in control of its own destiny. Does this not
sound like a blueprint for Fox News and its Tea Party progeny?

In such a context, the first aim of education might be to endure. To
persist against a public that complains about the cost of education but
still wants the lifetime benefit of the higher income that a college
education affords. To survive against a pseudo-private sector which
thinks business can do it better, but only by getting government
subsidized loans for students to whom it offers marginally useful
training programs. To survive against demagogues who threaten the
integrity of education because nothing is a greater threat to demagogues
than education. To survive against a kind of techno fetishism, which
imagines the solution to everything is a new product from Apple.

Of these dangers I want to speak only about one. The economics of
education I leave to the economists. The less said about demagogues the
better. President Kerry has been prescient and articulate in addressing
the dangers of for-profit education. I want rather to say a few words
about the last, about Governor Pawlenty's vision of an education - fully
privatized - but also downloadable onto your iPad.

This is partly because this is closest to my field of media studies, and
partly because it's the subject of a major conference being organized
here at The New School by my Lang College colleague Trebor Scholz.

Plato is right to worry, in the Phaedrus, about what happens to the
written text that goes out like an orphan into the world. But it is not
as if orality, oral communication, was a guarantee against it. Orphaned
oral communication is called the rumor. Likewise, its not the lecture
downloaded from iTunes that's the problem. It's the severance of the
downloaded ‘content' from the reciprocal practice of question and
comment between teachers and students. Education is not content, in
other words, but a particular kind of communicative process.

What might lead one to forget this, however, is viewing education solely
as a commodity. Commodities by definition have measurable values and
occur in simple transactions between a buyer and seller, whose
obligations to each other are limited. Whatever education is, it is not
just a commodity. It is always, at the same time, a gift relation, a
relation that binds its parties in mutual obligation, and in which
giving away ones attention is what produces value. Education values the
gift of attention. Education is the valuing of the gift of attention.

Part of the challenge of being at The New School is that the legacy of
this school prevents one from ducking the demands of a changing social
order. Being at The New School obliges us to come up with an education
that can respond both to what this social order is, and which is yet
also aware of its deficits. Being part of The New School is a special
obligation. Sometimes I think we should just change the name of The New
School to The Old School and make it easy on ourselves. But while we
continue to be The New School, we are both custodians of the past and
custodians of the future.

Interestingly, the elements that did not come together for the Greeks
are the same ones which do not really come together in this strange new
aristocratic America. And they are also the same elements in which The
New School has areas of particular strength: design, the performing
arts, media and their relation to what we would now call a social
science indebted to philosophy. We have a unique opportunity to
experiment with new alignments between these fundamental kinds of
communicative practice.

What would a future education loof the thing from the creation of its concept? Which acknowledged the
dependence of knowledge on culture, as well as their difference? Which
treated the new digital forms of communication as a genuine domain of
free inquiry?

Stanley Fish is the author of a persuasive and influential argument to
the effect that the aim of education in any discipline is simply to
produce good quality work within the discipline. Of course the existence
of The New School is itself a refutation of that argument. It was
founded by people who were not content just to dig their disciplinary
burrows deeper. They saw the aim of education as a broader working on
the difference between received ideas and knowledge as the critique of
received ideas. They saw that the tensions of the social order passed
through education itself, and hence education could not merely perfect
itself as a thing apart.

The founders of The New School were not dogmatists. They had no program
to impose on anyone. As one of our founders, James Harvey Robinson put
it: "I have no reforms to recommend, accept the liberation of
intelligence." And yet that in itself is enough. The aim of education is
the liberation of intelligence, from dogma, prejudice, superstition,
sophistry, slogans, fear-mongering, naïveté, spin, trivia, pedantry,
wishful thinking and the rest. The aim of education is to negate the
given, and in so doing, throw into sharp relief both what is right and
what is wrong with the social order. Education is not outside of the
incessant struggle to make the world. It is one of the essential moments
of that struggle.

The aim of education is to be a provocation to thought; the aim of
thought is the renovation of the world.

And with that, may I wish you all a thought provoking academic year.
Thank you.

Prof. McKenzie Wark
Culture & Media, Eugene Lang College
65 w11th st New York NY 10011 USA

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