Flow of Ideas
Nihilism and the De-valuation of Educational Values in England Today

Glenn Rikowski, London, 10th February 2008


“Nihilism is the belief that all values are baseless and that nothing can be known or communicated. It is often associated with extreme pessimism and a radical skepticism that condemns existence. A true nihilist would believe in nothing, have no loyalties, and no purpose other than, perhaps, an impulse to destroy” (Pratt, 2001, p.1).

The Death of God

For Friedrich Nietzsche, the ‘death of God’ was an awesome event as our values are no longer guaranteed. Where once they were objective, sanctioned by the highest of powers, without God our values become mere human. They become decadent, either as veils for self-interest, or means for establishing hierarchies or domination. Byrnes (2008) notes, quoting Dostoevsky, that: “Without God, everything is permitted” (p.33). Thus, our efforts to construct secular value systems without invoking the Almighty fail to provide the ‘objective’ values we seem to hanker after. Nietzsche’s solution was to re-value the old values, but without having God as bottom line security. This attempt failed. Similarly, Byrnes indicates that all our projects for reconstituting values on a secular foundation have also proved inadequate. Notions of ‘human rights’, ‘natural rights’ or the happiness principle all resolve themselves into lone thinkers, institutions, governments, or supra-national organisations attempting to impose tablets of values as objective human-centred values. For Byrnes:

“We have forgotten … that this objective morality did not exist separately from God; He was its source. No act was wrong in itself, it was wrong because God said so. Buried within the mulch of generations of practice, assumption, agnosticism and unchallenged belief are the real roots of our deep-seated notions of right and wrong, of freedom, liberty and natural rights” (2008, p.33).

Hence, if we wish to ground notions of human rights and the like as objective values (values not resting on some human preferences) then we require God to provide this objectivity.

The Devaluation of Educational Values

Educational values have suffered the same fate following the ‘death of God’ as any other values: their objectivity and validity dissolves. This can be seen in the work of Blake et al (2000), where:

“They indicate how the abyss of nothingness (the de-valued values) at the core of education policy, where discussion about the purposes and goals of education is substituted by instrumentalism and managerialism, is the centrifugal (but negative) force conditioning developments in contemporary education and training. The ‘crisis of value’ in education is a precondition for the generation of such phenomena as the school effectiveness/improvement movements, targets, funding systems umbilically tied to outputs, the drive to produce human capital and much else in this gloomy educational landscape” (Rikowski in McLaren and Rikowski, 2001, p.10).

Educational values today de-value themselves whenever there are attempts (via government education policy, or on the basis of some apparently hopeful ideas generated by academics, think-tanks or whoever) to realise them; to put them into practice. These values either fall back on themselves or become inverted, absurd or simply mock us.

Blake et al (2000) give many examples of how educational values in contemporary England de-value themselves. Thus, they explore technicist conceptions of literacy and ‘performativity’, where these are “above all devoid of value, nihilistic” (p.92). They examine vocationalism that expunges values and practices not conducive to employability. They take particular issue with the school improvement and school effectiveness industry – where questions of the purposes of education are sacrificed to efficiency.

In my own work, I have shown how the notion of apprenticeship becomes de-valued when set within the context of capitalist society and education and training policy in England (Rikowski, 1998). Mastery is never attained: we become lifelong apprentices and lifelong learners – always at the mercy of changes in the labour market. Susan Devine (2006) shows how those concerned with moral education in schools are faced with the shifting sands of morality swept in by winds of relative values generated by changing social priorities.

The Case of Widening Participation

It might be useful at this point to explore a particular example in more depth regarding how educational values de-value themselves in England today. Regarding this, I have foundPatrick Ainley’s though-provoking article in this week’s Times Higher Education (Ainley, 2008) instructive. ‘Widening participation’ is one of the most cherished values in higher education (HE) in England today. It is concerned with trying to ensure that certain groups of people under-represented in universities are brought into the fold of higher learning: students from certain ethnic minority groups, working class students and disabled people in particular.

However, as Ainley indicates, within the context of a policy of ‘employability’ for the post-1992 universities (harnessing higher education to labour power enhancement and development) the policy of widening participation is undermined. First, New Labour’s target of getting 50% of 18-30-year-olds into HE by 2010 cuts adrift certain mature students; a group of people who were part of the widening participation project of the mid-1990s. Ainley also shows that for the ‘great research universities’ the widening participation project is not a major concern. Worse, this policy is being used by the ‘selecting elite’ universities to ‘cream “bright working-class” applicants in the way the grammar schools did” (Ainley, 2008). Thus: a new hierarchy is developing in HE in England. Furthermore, those ‘training universities’ who take the widening participation as a core mission pursue it ‘on a reduced unit of resource’ without the ‘extra support necessary for “non-traditional” students’ (Ibid.). Therefore, argues Ainley:

“Widening participation is a cruel con, but the people academics fool the most with it are themselves. The government target of half of 18 to 30-year-olds entering higher education by 2010 presents itself as a professionalisation of the proletariat, but it disguises a proletarianisation of the professions. Not only the academic profession, but the professions graduates will enter – if they are lucky” (Ainley, 2008).

Hence, as pursued practically, within the labyrinth of capital, widening participation in HE loses its value educationally. Ainley works through the logic of the policy to show how it results in 2-year ‘fast track’ McDegrees, foundation degrees and the new McDips (diplomas to replace A-levels). So: widening participation into what? For many universities it will be participation in institutions that are becoming increasingly like further and vocational colleges, and meanwhile the elite universities will maintain the privilege of providing largely ‘real education’ where employability has a lower priority, but where, ironically, students end up getting better jobs.


In the context of capitalist society, widening participation as an educational value devalues itself. But must this always be so, with all educational values taking the same nihilistic route once attempts to practically realise them are made? Blake at al (2000) believe that nihilism can be overcome by ‘creating the conditions where new values can emerge, values that do not de-value themselves as we attempt to realise them’ (Rikowski in McLaren and Rikowski, 2001, p.10). Yet I found their attempts show how this can be done in their book unconvincing. This is because as long as we have capitalist society it is not values but value that is significant. Value is the social energy that maintains and powers the social universe in which we live; the social universe of capital (Rikowski, 2007). It is surplus-value that ensures this social universe expands. In this social universe, values (including educational values) are subject to corrosion, dissolution, corruption and inversion (becoming their opposite). Educational positives become negatives, which only negativity and critique can expose. Bringing God ‘back in’ is always a desperate last throw of the dice to re-ground values, including educational ones; to try to give them ‘objectivity’. But why bring back a product we have already thrown away as useless?


Ainley, P. (2008) The cruellest con of all, Times Higher Education, No.1831, 7-13th February, p.28.

Blake, N., Smeyers, P., Smith, R. & Standish, P. (2000) Education in an Age of Nihilism, London: RoutledgeFalmer.

Byrnes. S. (2008) Keep the faith, New Statesman, 4th February, pp.32-33.

Devine, S. (2006) What is Moral Education? Information for Social Change, No.23 (summer): http://libr.org/isc/issues/ISC23/B8%20Susan%20Devine.pdf

McLaren, P. & Rikowski, G. (2001) Pedagogy for Revolution against Education for Capital: An E-dialogue on Education in Capitalism Today, Cultural Logic: An Electronic Journal of Marxist Theory and Practice, October, Vol.1 No.4, at: http://eserver.org/clogic/4-1/mclaren&rikowski.html

Pratt, A. (2001) Nihilism, The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, available from: http://www.iep.utm.edu/nihilism.htm

Rikowski, G. (1998) Three Types of Apprenticeship, Three Forms of Mastery: Nietzsche, Marx, Self and Capital, a departmental paper, School of Education, University of Birmingham, 5th June: http://www.flowideas.co.uk/?page=articles&sub=Three%20Types%20of%20Apprenticeship%20-%20Three%20Forms%20of%20Mastery

Rikowski, G. (2007) Marxist Educational Theory Unplugged, a paper prepared for the Fourth Historical Materialism Annual Conference, 9-11th November, School of Oriental & African Studies, University of London: http://www.flowideas.co.uk/?page=articles&sub=Marxist%20Educational%20Theory%20Unplugged

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