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Daily Archives: October 25th, 2014

Glenn Rikowski

Glenn Rikowski


Glenn Rikowski, Visiting Scholar, Department of Education, Anglia Ruskin University, UK

A paper prepared for the Philosophy of Education Seminars at the University of London Institute of Education 2014-15 Programme, 22nd October 2014.



The capitalist crisis of 2007-09 cast a grim shadow over social existence in developed Western nations. The fallout from the banking crash of September 2008 post-Lehman cascaded over welfare, health, social services and education provision in the form of austerity measures, the drive to cut sovereign debt levels, the erosion of workers’ living standards and vicious service cuts and taxes aimed at the poor and disadvantaged (e.g. the bedroom tax in the UK).

On the back of this maelstrom, the Journal of Education Policy (JEP) celebrated its 25th anniversary by running a special issue on ‘Education, Capitalism and the Global Crisis’ in 2010[1]. The JEP is to be congratulated on unveiling articles addressing relationships between the crisis of 2007-09 and education: it was unusual for a mainstream education journal to dedicate a whole issue to this topic. However, with the possible exception of Clarke and Newman’s (2010) contribution[2] it could be concluded that little progress has been made in understanding relations between capitalist crises and education since Madan Sarup’s classic Education, State and Crisis: A Marxist Perspective of 1982. Furthermore, there seemed to be a coy elision regarding the constitution of crisis within or of education itself. The crisis of 2007-09 was basically ‘economic’ in nature, it appears, with various spill-over effects for education: e.g. cuts in expenditure, deepening educational inequalities and rationing of access to higher education (Jones, 2010). Thus: education crisis was derivative of, and consequential upon, economic crisis. Furthermore, the economy, or the ‘economic’ system (for structuralists) is the starting point for analysis of education crisis.

The notion that an ‘education crisis’ can only ever be derivative of a capitalist economic one begs the question as to whether all crises can only ever be basically economic in nature; only ‘economic’ crises fundamentally put either the whole capitalist economy and society at risk, or, are the foundation for crises in other parts of the social system but still basically ‘economic’ in nature; thereby generating spectres of reductionism, economic determinism and crude renditions of historical materialism. On the other hand, references to ‘crisis’ litter media reports and academic outputs in relation to all kinds of topics – and there is nearly always some kind of ‘education crisis’ foregrounded by the print media. In terms of everyday usage the concept appears to have extensive legitimacy, though Gamble notes that ‘the term crisis [is] being thrown around fairly indiscriminately in everyday discourse’ (2009, p.7).[3]

It should be borne in mind that the concept of crisis can be traced back to the writings of Hippocrates (c. 460 – c. 370 B.C.) in ancient Greece, where it was used in relation to medicine, specifically indicating the turning point in the course of a disease or medical condition. In such writings as Epidemics, Book 1, Hippocrates used the concept of crisis to denote the point (the turning point) at which a patient either began to make a recovery from illness, or the disease won out and death resulted (Hippocrates, 1983). Furthermore, reading the ground-breaking work on crisis by Janet Roitman (2011 and 2014), which built on the classic text on the topic by Reinhart Koselleck (1988), indicated that an exploration of the concept of crisis beyond the economic sphere could be a worthwhile project. Maybe there could be essentially ‘education crises’ after all, and with this in view, this paper is structured into three parts, as follows.

Part 1 begins with a rudimentary outline of the concept of crisis. Madan Sarup’s (1982) classical theory of education crisis is then explored, coupled with some evidence showing that Sarup’s approach still has relevance for today (with contemporary examples drawn from the United States, Australia and England). It is demonstrated how contemporary accounts of the 2007-09 economic crisis could supplement and deepen Sarup’s account, whilst also avoiding the issue of the possibility of definitive education crises. This is followed by a brief outline and review of some work by Vincent Carpentier (2003, 2006a-b and 2009), which, although manifesting more sophistication (and much better data) as compared with Sarup’s classic work, nevertheless falls prey to subsuming education crises under economic developments. In the same context, David Blacker’s work on The Falling Rate of Learning and the Neoliberal Endgame (2013) is examined. This is an attempt to apply Marx’s notion of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall (TRPF) (via the work of Kliman, 2012) to developments in education in the United States (primarily). Blacker stamps the TRPF on contemporary education and thereby develops an original account of education crisis. Yet nevertheless, his rendering of education crisis is still derivative of economic crisis. Blacker also fails to pin down what a falling rate of learning actually is. He prefers to focus on a fall in the mass of learning and the elimination of learning, instead. These developments rest on economic, but also environmental, crisis. This first part of the paper ends with a brief critique of Crisis Fundamentalism: the notion that real, bona fide crises can only be economic ones. This is what the concept of crisis in education is concerned with.

Part 2 takes another tack: a different starting point, an alternative methodological approach. Rather than viewing education crises as flowing from economic ones, it explores the concept of education and what it is to be an ‘educated person’, and then seeks out possibilities for education crises within educational phenomena, institutions, processes and ethics. Such crises are crises of education, it is argued. The work of R.S. Peters (via Robin Barrow, 2011) is the focus here. There is an attempt to work through what an ‘education crisis’ might be on the basis of Barrow’s rendition of what he (Barrow) takes to be the four key components of Peters’ conception of the educated person. The discussion of some of the consequences of this approach is deepened through bringing the work of Janet Roitman (2011, 2014) to the keyboard. Rather than providing a history of the concept of crisis, as in Koselleck (1988), or providing a new (and improved) concept of crisis, Roitman shows the various ways in which the concept has been, and can be, put to work. Hence, Roitman’s approach to crisis is ‘put to work’ on R.S. Peters’ work on the educated person, pace Barrow. The last base in Part 2 examines the notion of ‘education for its own sake’ and what I call ‘island pedagogy’, flowing from the work of Furedi (2004a and 2009) and his followers. The argument here is that this approach to education crisis falls either into an ethics of blame or conjures up an education Colossus; a kind of Nietzschean figure with a monumental drive to learn and teach, unsullied by material interests and motivations. This approach is also basically idealist, transhistorical and sociologically naïve. It is also the flipside of Crisis Fundamentalism (education crises derive from economic ones – crises in education): quintessentially education crises can only arise within the educational sphere itself – leading to a kind of Educational Crisis Idealism (crises of education).

The Conclusion argues that we need to think about crisis in relation to education and economy in a new way: such crises are not essentially ‘education’ or ‘economic’ in nature. An anti- (rather than post-) structuralist perspective rooted in class struggle is advanced as a way forward, and neither Crisis Fundamentalism (crises in education) nor Educational Crisis Idealism (crises of education) will do. It also discusses the question of whether, and why, exploring the issue of crisis and education is a worthwhile pursuit for critical educators and theorists and for those who wish to move beyond capitalist education and society.


The whole paper can be downloaded at Academia:

Glenn Rikowski at Academia:


[1] Journal of Education Policy, Vol.25 No.6, November, edited by Stephen Ball, Meg Maguire and Ivor Goodson. A book based on this special 25th Anniversary was produced by the same three editors, also called Education, Capitalism and the Global Crisis, in 2012 (Ball et al, 2012) – but with some additional articles.

[2] Clarke and Newman (2010) explore the notion that crises are ‘socially constructed’ and the roles discourse and social power play in these constructions.

[3] See also: ‘Crisis is much overused in everyday discourse. 24-hour news lives by manufacturing crisis. Most of them are entirely ephemeral. Any event that is in any way out of the ordinary or where there appears to be conflict and the outcome is uncertain becomes labelled a crisis’ (Gamble, 2010, p.704).