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Imperialism and the commodification of education

By Trevor Maddock
Created 16/05/2009 - 12:54

Imperialism and the commodification of education
by Trevor Maddock [0]

The philosopher, Theodor Adorno described the bourgeoisie, or the middle-class, as the class that refused to die. The term ‘middle-class’ refers to that class of free tradespeople which in feudal times existed between the serfs and the landed aristocracy and not to some contemporary grouping of middle-income-earners. This middle-class became the ruling class when it was able to impose its interests through the state apparatus. So what could Adorno mean in saying that the current ruling class refused to die?

In answering this question, I am going to broadly follow the explanation given by Hannah Arendt in Volume 2 of her The Origins of Totalitarianism, much simplified to keep it brief. Capitalism, which developed organically in Britain with the imposition of a non-interventionist state, had largely worked itself out as a national venture by the eighteenth century. The economic system relied on more or less continuous development but there was nothing left to develop; it had come to its end; it was dead. To avoid death, the ruling class extended its activities overseas, which required the duplication of the economic conditions holding in Britain. In turn, this required the abandonment of the policy of state non-intervention, and thus began the age of imperialism. In a godless afterlife, the bourgeoisie persisted.

It should hardly need to be stated the strategy of exporting capital cannot be a long-term solution, that it may put off the inevitable but it cannot avoid it. If and when the aim of universal economic uniformity is achieved there will be nothing left to develop. What do we do when there is nothing left to develop? Of course, there is an increasing likelihood that the environmental consequences of the worldwide pursuit of this development economy will bring the system to an end before it achieves its goal, and without the participation of any emerging class. The best chance for the planet is if we stop now, but there is no sign of that happening.

My previous contribution on Halbbildung [0] attracted some interesting replies. I am humbled that some people have spent time reading and considering my ideas and I thank you for your comments. The above remarks are intended to indicate my point to one reader (Pat Donnelly, April 28, 2009) in critically analysing the contemporary directions of general education: that the current restructuring of general education is part of a doomed exercise intelligible only in imperialist terms. There is one part of the discussion that I would particularly like to consider, where Paul Morrella (April 30, 2009) describes education as a product. It is precisely this idea which bedevils the current debate on education, I would argue, for this kind of conception is an essential part of the current pursuit of economic uniformity. Education is seen in this context not just as a product but as a product produced for exchange. In other words, education is reduced to a commodity.

The relations between global imperialist aspirations and contemporary general education in Australia are evident in the role played by global agreements on trade in services in the formation of education policy. The World Trade Organisation, an essentially selective private organisation, has several legally-binding agreements relating to the international liberalisation of trade. Among others, Australia is a signatory to the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS), which in particular covers higher education. The thrust of GATS is to allow international free trade in services with as few restrictions on service providers as possible; only the social control services are excluded. The GATS recognises trade in education in a multitude of ways, including through supply across borders, via the internet, through student-exchange programmes and increasingly in international students, by developing a commercial presence, through institutional expansion, international mergers, and so on. Market access includes access to all financial benefits and legal rights. I would argue that it is this conceptualisation and its associated practices that have led to the now-evident decline in education standards, experienced not just in Australia but throughout the developed world.

The process of the commodification of education is evident in day-to-day life. A private school not far from where I live now offers adult education programs. Near the school is what was once a Catholic seminary; it now houses young Asian boarders. As trumpeted in the recent Bradley Report (Review of Australian Higher Education, December 2008), Australia, among other English-speaking countries, has shown a marked success in selling its education, particularly to China and other Asian countries, while the city in which I live, Adelaide is now home to a campus of the Carnegie-Mellon University, a private research university from Pittsburgh [1], Pennsylvania [2]. The key idea in all these developments is to shape the product in order to attract the customer.

The language of the Bradley Report typifies that of the current Labor administration. It speaks of how “Twenty years ago Australia was one of the first countries to restructure to enable wider participation in higher education. The results of those changes made it a leader internationally in the movement from elite to mass systems” (p. xii). It does not discuss how that restructuring reduced the quality of the higher education provided, both for any residual elites and for the so-called ‘masses’. The Bradley Report notes a decline in standards over the last decades but it does not note how higher education was restructured from a sound tutorship system to what is now virtually ‘teach yourself’. This is what the commodification of education has brought about.

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