Flow of Ideas
Education As Culture Machine

Glenn Rikowski, London, 25th September 2008

For many sociologists (especially followers of functionalism) and educational theorists, education is concerned with the transmission of culture. As noted many years ago by Lawrence Stenhouse: “Sociologists commonly conceive the function of education as the transmission of culture from generation to generation … Can such a theory, founded upon the idea of cultural transmission, illuminate the practice of the primary school and catch the essence of the traditional theory of secondary education? … [And] we shall have to arrive at a clear idea of what is meant by culture and we shall have to understand how culture is transmitted” (1967, p.1).

Of course, the concept of culture is notoriously difficult to define. Raymond Williams (1976, p.90) is useful on this issue. He noted that there are broadly three categories of the definition of culture in general use. It can be viewed as: a general process of intellectual, spiritual and aesthetic development; a particular way of life, whether of a people, a period of history, a group or humanity in general; and as the works and practices of intellectual and especially artistic activity. Education in contemporary society is heavily concerned with all three, though schools in England, with their National Curriculum, are particularly significant as transmitters of cultural – notwithstanding debates about multiculturalism (for schools) and the ‘clash of values’ (principally at the university level, but also relevant to what is happening in science and religious education in schools).

At the heart of education as a cultural transmitter is typically the question of values: that is, which values should be, and are, being transmitted. Stenhouse (1967) noted that educators need to take a critical attitude towards the values transmitted to young people as students, particularly in relation to traditional attitudes regarding gender and those supporting various elites and vested interests. However, today it seems that this critical attitude is lacking when it comes to business folk and New Labour ministers (including some recent education ministers) pushing the values of capital.

Now, capital itself, as Moishe Postone argues, is a blind social force; as a social force in contemporary society it is without ego. For Postone:

“Capital is a category of movement, of expansion; it is a dynamic category, “value in motion”. This social form is alienated, quasi-independent, exerts a mode of abstract compulsion and constraint on people, and is in motion. Consequently, Marx accords it the attribute of agency … Capital has no fixed, final form, but appears at different stages of its spiralling path in the form of money and commodities” (1996, p.269).

Thus: capital has no voice directly in society; it speaks through its human representatives. As Marx and Engels noted: “Capital is … not a personal, it is a social power” (1848, p.97).

Today, capital in its money form speaks very loudly in and about the university in England. University managers, employers’ organisations (such as the Confederation of British Industry) and New Labour ministers press upon us all, and students in particular, the values of capital in its money form. I have called this phenomenon “moneythought” in higher education:

“Moneythought can be viewed as where ideas, intellectual activities or the practical and organisational features of higher education are incorporated within or subordinated to the function of money-making. Money becomes the judge and jury of activities within the academy” (Rikowski, 2006, p.1).

The phenomenon of moneythought in higher education is made all the more concerning when students are treated as mere passive consumers. Courses, modules and skills are delivered unto students. Of course, all this is done within the apparently liberating gloss where students are ‘empowered’ by choosing their modules and increasingly choose when and where to study (through e-learning). Though e-learning has made the learning process today more interactive it is still teacher dominated. Friedrich Nietzsche exposed the one-sidedness of the educational exchange in his usual graphic manner:

“The professor often reads when he is speaking. As a rule he prefers to have as many listeners as possible; in the worst cases he makes do with just a few, and rarely just one. One speaking mouth, with many ears, and half as many writing hands – and there you have, to all appearances, the external academic apparatus; there you have the University culture machine [Bildungsmaschine] in action. The proprietor of the one mouth is severed from and independent of the owners of the many ears; and this double autonomy is called ‘academic freedom’” (1872, cited by Jacques Derrida in Conway, 1998, p.109).

This passivity, and the power of the teacher, can be challenged by setting students free as producers. The ‘student as producer’ has been championed in this country by Michael Neary via his work at the Reinvention Centre at the University of Warwick, and more latterly at the University of Lincoln. Students engaging in real academic work (producing papers for publication, engaging in research with a social and intellectual purpose etc.) can start to break down the commodification and marketisation of academic life, and in turn moneythought in higher education; though capital’s capacity to virus any social phenomenon in contemporary society cannot be underestimated. Furthermore, as we live in capital’s social universe, according to Postone, we can at best be ‘hamsters in the cage’ – until we collectively decide to bite through it.

Education as a culture machine for capital exists in other forms too. There is the way that employers’ labour power needs are given an increasingly prominent place in schools, colleges and university curricula and courses. Education becomes about reducing human capabilities to labour power: the capacity to labour. I have written much on this elsewhere (see Rikowski, 2004 and 2005). There is also the way that universities are pressured to yield up their ‘knowledge’ through ‘knowledge exchanges’ with businesses, and also cajoled to form an array of business partnerships and spin-off companies. The there are the various ways in which companies are taking over the running of frontline educational services (e.g. in schools in nine local education authorities in England, and in foreign language provision in some universities) on contracts and making profits out of the enterprise.

Voices of capital, expressed through its human representatives, speak up and propagate all (and more) of these kinds of enterprises. In this sense, in the field education:

“Culture … is, for the enormous majority, a mere training to act as a machine” (Marx and Engels, 1848, p.99).

Yet these processes also generate opposition, resistance and dissenting voices: the voices of labour; the voices of those who come to expend their labour powers in workplaces. Indeed, given the increasing rule of money in higher education through fees, many students now have to work whilst learning. They labour for capital whilst having the ‘virtues’ of capital extolled and trumpeted in the academy. Thus: education as culture machine creates the conditions for its own critique. When it comes to capitalist work there are ever fewer innocents amongst the ranks of students.


Derrida, J. (1998) Otobiographies: The Teaching of Nietzsche and the Politics of the Proper Name, in: D. Conway (ed.) Nietzsche: Critical Assessment, London: Routledge.

Marx, K. & Engels, F. (1848) [1967] The Communist Manifesto, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

Nietzsche, F. (1872) [1909] On the Future of Our Educational Institutions, in: O. Levy (ed.) The Complete Works of Friedrich Nietzsche – Volume Three, Trans. J. Kennedy, Edinburgh: T. N. Foulis.

Postone, M. (1996) Time, Labor and Social Domination: A reinterpretation of Marx’s critical theory, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Rikowski, G. (2004) Marx and the Education of the Future, Policy Futures in Education, Vol.2 Nos. 3 & 4, pp.565-577, online at: http://www.wwwords.co.uk/pdf/viewpdf.asp?j=pfie&vol=2&issue=3&year=2004&article=10_Rikowski_PFEO_2_3-4_web&id=

Rikowski, G. (2005) Distillation: Education in Karl Marx's Social Universe, Lunchtime Seminar, School of Education, University of East London, Barking Campus, 14th February: http://www.flowideas.co.uk/?page=articles&sub=Distillation

Rikowski, G. (2006) Moneythought in Higher Education, 15th October, London, online at: http://www.flowideas.co.uk/?page=articles&sub=Moneythought%20in%20Higher%20Education

Stenhouse, L. (1967) Education and Culture, London: Thomas Nelson and Sons.

Williams, R. (1976) Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society, London: Fontana.

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