Friday, 26 November 2010

Kettled and Scuttled

Student protests in England were this week treated to the recent enthusiasm of democratic governments for what is called "kettling," that is, for the police practice of shepherding protestors into a designated public space, there to spend the chief of their anger in relative containment. Much shock and outrage has been expressed at the undemocratic nature of this procedure, seeming as it does to restrict the right to freedom of speech and movement that is supposed to be a founding principle of democracy. What goes unnoticed, however, and partly because of the outlet for outrage provided by the very marginal constitutionality of kettling, is the extent to which protest is, in a general way, kettled by liberal democracies whose tolerance for protest works to make protest effectively impossible. If one feels bemused at the manner in which the fervour of protests against the invasion of Iraq or, in this case, against the removal of the cap on student fees, is followed, as night follows day, by an almost total apathy, certainly by no further action or "protest," one might reflect on the fact that a political regime built on the toleration of different viewpoints is in this sense highly pernicious: it is impossible to criticise it without supporting it, impossible to protest against it without buttressing it. A politics of tolerance fulfils itself most completely, is justified most totally, in the performance of its tolerance towards opinions directed in protest against itself; the more powerful the criticism, the more jusified the regime; the louder the protest, the more secure the establishment. A more thorough kettling is impossible to imagine. What is interesting, however, is that in this context the small-scale kettling of students two days ago is the nearest we have come to real protest, in that it reifies the endemic kettling of a liberal democratic state in a way that no amount of free-ranging marching about Whitehall could achieve. In being kettled, the students' protest became effective in a manner that it never could have on its own. Which leads one to think that the practice of kettling will not longer be employed by liberal democratic governments, who will no doubt justify its relinquishment on the grounds of its removal of the right to protest...

...but we can turn to find that this very same equation regulates the matter that the students were protesting about: the future rise in student fees. Students are angry that, from now on, they will have to pay more for their education and that they will spend many years in more debt than they do now. Here again, the students are being kettled, herded into a small space and made to feel outrage at it, when there is a much graver herding, a much more general kettling, going on, unseen, all around. For the issue of what students pay for their education, the concern being felt that they will be made to pay too much, provides a useful defusing of what out to be outrage at the extent to which, irrespective of how much they pay, students in England are not being educated at all. Here is another exerpt from "The Browne Report":
Higher education matters because it transforms the lives of individuals. On
graduating, graduates are more likely to be employed, more likely to enjoy
higher wages and better job satisfaction, and more likely to find it easier to
move from one job to the next. Participation in higher education enables
individuals from low income backgrounds and then their families to enter higher
status jobs and increase their earnings. Graduates enjoy substantial health
benefits – a reduced likelihood of smoking, and lower instances of obesity and
depression. They are less likely to be involved in crime, more likely to be
actively engaged with their children’s education and more likely to be active in
their communities.

Again, the naivite of a Browne who gives not a nod to the fact that the socio-economic conditions that make people more likely to participate in higher education are also those that make them less likely to be obese or commit a crime, the fact that participation in higher education is an effect of money and class much more than it is of some simplistic notion of aspiration and choice, must be glossed over for the moment, in order that we give due attention to the manner in which what is termed "higher education" in this excerpt is defined implicitly as "higher education to..." realise certain goals, the goals of money, status, physical and mental stability, and children who will want money, status, and so on. The idea that education, real education, true education, "higher" education, ought to teach people to identify and pursue their own goals, to identify and pursue the guiding principles of their own lives, to work out what the good life is and to learn to live it and to justify it to others, evidently is not one that Browne understands, and, given that the government has announced that it is to take on board the recommendations of the Browne report, not one in which our government is interested either. No, in England at least, one is "educated" in order to fulfil the life to which one is assigned, in order to submit to the demands of capital, in order to be obedient, in order to get into debt and spend a lifetime repaying it, in order to contain one's mental life within the parameters of "normality" and one's girth to 34". In England, education is kettling on a grand scale; that it requires the intermittent apparently draconian measure as an outlet for the steam of a populace that would otherwise explode with containment is in the nature of things, and resultant in nothing more than the whistling of an orderly kettle, boiling away to make a pot of good English tea.

But, if "education" is kettling, it is a kettling far more serious than any other, for it kettles the very skills that we require to identify and to question our kettlings. It is, in fact, more like a scuttling than a kettling, for we are left, after an English "higher" "education", as emptier vessels than we were beforehand, with nothing much more than water between our ears.

There may be an interesting post script to this, however: if the rise in student fees really does have the effect of preventing quantities of people from attending university, the resulting diminishment in the government's effectiveness in thoroughly kettling its population may eventually produce a reversal of government policy so as to make "education" once more more affordable. If so, the reversal will no doubt be advertised as the government's acknowledgment that a "higher" "education" is something that none of its citizens should be made to do without...

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Pigs Will Fly

The Browne report confirms a trend long in the emergence: the commodification of learning and the elevation of "student satisfaction" to the standard of educational success:
Higher education in England has a reputation for high quality. Student satisfaction is high, high enough that England is one of the four countries in the world that feels able to survey students and publish the results. But the system should not be complacent about quality. Student satisfaction has not improved significantly in recent years.
Leaving aside the hopeless myopia of a Lord Browne who cannot see to consider the possibility that only four countries in the world are misguided enough to judge the sense of satisfaction of students as an appropriate measure of the quality of their education, it is strange that, in a country whose famous philosopher's most famous words warn us to prefer to be Socrates dissatisfied than a satisfied pig, the grotesque equation of satisfaction with learning continues to flourish unchecked. Since ancient times, it has been accepted that the price of a true education is precisely the comforting sense that our needs are being satisfied, that we are provided with all we could wish for, that nothing else remains to be done. Socrates was known as the gadfly, that tiny, persistent and deeply dissatisfying insect that drives the animals it preys upon to a constant changing of position, swishing of tail and general hunt for another kind of life. That, for Socrates, was what true education involves: a never-ending needling, a persistent sense of unease, a constant searching for a better place than this one, for a truer time than now.

But Socrates was put to death, and, since then, all gadflies have been gradually banished, so that educators, as they are still called, are more like the masseur than the gadfly, smoothing away what remains of human pain at what we have and human ache for something better, oiling us up so that our cog doesn't stick the machine. But Browne, like the machine he serves, is subject to an endemic absurdity: he must see more and more satisfaction, just as the machine must make more and more profit; to plateau, even to improve "insignificantly," is to fail. And so he commits our education system to cranking itself up again so that students feel more satisfied, and then cranking itself up again so that students feel more satisfied, and on and on and on. Even the sky's no limit, so pigs will fly but then they must go into orbit.

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Don't Laugh in Bed

There is a stock device of comedy which juxtaposes the precautions usually taken by, say, householders to protect their property, with the success sometimes wrought by the one who, rather than erect his defences, goes out to meet the intruder with such an unexpected degree of alacrity, with such oddity and force, that the tables are turned and the intruder scampers off with great speed and in high dudgeon at the indignity that his attempt at crime has just suffered. For an offensive enthusiasm can, on some occasions, function better than anything else to vanquish our would-be assailants; and it is, in the main, a funnier prospect than the other option.

And this, it turns out, is the principle behind that quintessentially British humour that seems never to outgrow what, in other cultures, remains a largely teenage phenomenon: delight, almost hysteria, at references to sex. Take Bridget Jones: a "loose" remake of Austen's Pride and Prejudice, both in the sense of bearing an only shadowy resemblance to the earlier work, and in the sense that its greatest departure is probably constituted by the altogether less uptight antics of its characters and the generally indulgent attitude to sexual behaviour of the society it portrays. It is cut through and through with would-be humorous episodes and observations concerning, for the most part, something on the theme of sex: Bridget hasn't had any for a while; Bridget played naked in Darcy's paddling pool when young; Bridget is stared at in a deliberate manner by Mr. "Titspervert"; Bridget indulges in what is still an illegal sexual practice in Britain; Bridget's uncle, who is not her uncle, enjoys placing his hand on her behind; and so on it goes, involving not just Bridget, but all its characters, in what are intended to be funny conversations and situations of a softly sexual nature. And then, we remember Austen's Elizabeth, patently not given to engaging in any such conversations or situations, and thereby, in contrast with her modern-day counterpart, revealed to be altogether repressed.

So we might think. And so we would be very wrong. Austen's characters and their society certainly do seem to have had the most wonderfully complex ways of hiding from sex in all its forms - the fact that Pride and Prejudice's Lydia must, in preparation for her marriage but subequent to having already eloped, remain with her uncle rather than returning to her father's house is one very ordinary example of this - but Bridget and her lot are just the same. For the British association of sex with humour is the contemporary equivalent of what we now identify as the Victorian assocation of sex with sin. Bridget actually laughs in bed, while having sex, which is about as likely (arguably, far less likely) to contribute to the success of the occasion as her quoting from some religious treatise on the evils of what was about to happen (or, in this case, about, embarrassingly, not to happen). Bridget, with so many of her compatriots, is like our besieged but eccentric home owner, holding her fort, not by erecting a set of complex and stalwart defenses but by riding out to meet the enemy with an eager gusto that will dampen his spirits by too concentrated a dose of his own medicine. But wait. This suggests that the practice is a gendered one, the preserve of women when confronted with men. Not at all: it is the strategy of both British men and women, when confronted with sex, that is, with sex as intimacy, sex as skill, sex as complex adult relation, sex as highly-involved exchange, sex as anything other than the enthusiastic-aggressive mania that is sex as joke.

The Victorians tended strictly to conceal their legs (and those of the furniture on and at which they sat) to defend against thoughts of what lies between them (a very good device, we might think, to interestingly generate such thoughts); their descendents tend to demand a constant and almost total revealing of legs (the current fashion for wearing tights as if they constitute the complete clothing of the lower body is the concession made to winter by this demand), and every other body part, if possible all at one time and with great hilarity, which is a very good device, we must concede, to kill stone dead any interesting thought about what might lie between them. Sex may no longer be a sin, but it is more effectively forbidden by having becoming a great laugh.