Flow of Ideas
On Education for Its Own Sake

Glenn Rikowski, London, 17th October 2005

In the Times Educational Supplement of 7th October 2005, Jill Parkin wrote a very timely and hard-hitting critique of New Labour's Academies programme. This was especially significant in the light of Mansell et al's (2005) front page report on academies in the same issue of the TES. Their report indicated that:

"Not one of the 28 schools replaced by academies was in special measures at the time of closure, despite ministers' insistence that the £5 billion academies scheme is tackling educational failure."

Schools Minister Jacqui Smith had indicated in the summer that academies were making good progress as they had replaced 'failing schools', noted Mansell et al. Not so, apparently; none of the schools were technically or officially failing (i.e. in special measures as stipulated by the Office for Standards in Education) when they were converted to academies (Ibid.). Only two of the schools had ‘serious weaknesses’ when they were moved down the academies road.

Thus, with reports like this headlining and front paging the Times Educational Supplement then Jill Parkin's analysis comes along at as strategically embarrassing moment. As Parkin (2005) noted:

"Behind it [the Academy programme] there's an assumption about "the masses" that steps right out of the 19th century - that work and profits are all."

Furthermore, Parkin has an alternative to this dismal educational philosophy: 'education for its own sake'. This is education for the sheer love of doing it. Notes Parkin:

"Of course, if we work and have family responsibilities, we are all cogs in a wheel, but we are also much more. Flawed as they were, both grammars and comprehensives [types of secondary schools for non-UK readers] recognised that the masses in the mill towns, the pit villages and the docks could dream, think and appreciate. Education for its own sake is easily sneered at, but it gives some of the keenest enjoyment mankind knows."

Now, advocating 'education for its own sake' as an alternative to 'education for work and profits' does have its appeal. It poses real education against capitalised and commercialised education for the money fetish. It sounds more wholesome, worthwhile and human even. However, in posing 'education for its own sake' as an education ideal we are likely to let the developing forms of capitalist education and training off the hook.

What we need is more analysis of capitalist education and training in order to see the nature of the beast we are up against. I have spent the last 25 years developing such an analysis, and whilst I would gladly rally round the flag of 'education for its own sake' against the anti-educational perspective of 'education for work and profits', I would not join up to this cause as an alternative to the analysis and critique of capitalist education and training. I would not put speaking out for 'education for its own sake' as a higher priority than the analysis and critique of capitalist education and training.

Education for Its Own Sake

The problems with arguing for ‘education for its own sake’ are varied. First, in these hard-nosed days of key skills, the hydra-headed phenomenon of the vocationalisation of all known subjects and topics and the increasingly assessment- and outcomes-based approach to learning it is hard to see how an effete and airy 'education for its own sake' can begin to turn the tide without some massive social movement to stoke its fires. Those such as Parkin will cheerily sing its praises but offer little in the way of how a commitment to such learning might be generated and enhanced.

Secondly, in higher education and by stealth in the schools’ system in England, the twin spectres of money and debt loom ever larger. Higher education fees have concentrated the minds of some students so that they choose more vocational degrees partly in order to maximise their chances of paying off debts. This fits in with the vocationalist agenda for a 'mass' higher education system very smoothly. Those students from affluent backgrounds can more readily make higher education choices where their love of particular subjects is not overshadowed by their need to pay off debt after they have got their first degree.

Thirdly, as Mary Evans (2004) makes clear, in the UK higher education system the culture of audit, outcomes-based learning and targets is 'killing thinking' in numerous ways. Compliance to government and employers' agendas for debt-ridden students but increasingly for fear-ridden staff is what is occurring on an expanding scale. Of course, there are still occasional outbursts of principled action by the likes of the George Fox 6; where six courageous students at the University of Lancaster peacefully protested about the commercialisation of the university (which included messing with arms dealers and GM crops companies - see Indymedia UK, 2005; and Blair, 2005). But defending 'education for its own sake' against predatory capital (which sometimes flaunts its profit drives over human betterment), given the huge raft of laws now available to the British state, becomes ever more perilous for individuals and groups [1]. The culture of higher education in Britain today is a most unhealthy social and educational environment in which 'education for its own sake' can take root and flourish.

Fourthly, it is hard to think of a time in the history of the world when 'education for its own sake' has actually existed. The social form of education is always conditioned by the nature of the society in which it exists. Perhaps for some individuals, or for some groups of researchers or academics, teaching and learning may have existed relatively independently of broader social forces. However, as a general principle underpinning the operation of whole educational systems or even whole institutions or departments the existence of 'education for education's sake' is shadowy indeed.

This last point raises the question of whether there can be a kind of ‘island pedagogy’. This is where ‘education for its own sake’ can flourish in particular places within the educational system in England. An 'island' of 'real education' may be possible within a sea of commercialisation, capitalisation, labour-power production, profit-making and mongering, fear of debt and fear of non-conformity and market failure (i.e. not enough students bringing in the flow of money).

Island Pedagogy?

Island Pedagogy is the notion that strong-willed individuals can buck the trends noted above and 'get back to where we once belonged' with 'education for its own sake'. This is basically the position taken by Frank Furedi (2004) in his book, Where Have All the Intellectuals Gone? Confronting 21st Century Philistinism. For Furedi, the problem is largely one of a lack of will, gutlessness amongst so-called intellectuals, especially those within academic life, today. Furedi ends his book by noting:

"There is very little that we can do to force the elites to give up their instrumentalist and philistine world view. But we can wage a battle of ideas for the hearts and minds of the public. How we do it is one of the key questions of our time" (p.156).

Yet Furedi provides no real answer to this question. How can 'education for its own sake' be made to win through against the tide of instrumentalism?

Furedi is a sociologist, and to my mind he takes a very unsociological view in clinging to the possibilities for Island Pedagogy in the face of the growing capitalisation of education, especially higher education, where he operates. He avoids analysing the trends that drive independent thought and existence in academic life off the face of the educational landscape at worst, or underground (through marginalisation) at best. Furedi fails to tackle on the monster that threatens his idyll: the virus of capital invading all areas of educational and social life.

Island Pedagogy appears to be wishful thinking on a massive scale. The forces of capital are gaining strength in education, in all sectors. Thus, it would seem to me that the place to start, and here is a real job for intellectuals, is the relentless critique of capitalist education and training.

Critique of Capitalist Education and Training

In my view, we take our eye off the ball if we conjure up some tranquil scenes where worthy souls can engage in Pure Education unsullied by the drives of capital. There is no Island of Real Education. Similarly, bleating about 'education for its own sake' is a comforting diversion when the wolves of capital are tearing the educational landscape apart. It takes bottle to banish such dreams, and on this score Furedi is right to point to mainstream, careerist academics who blunder into the arms of capital whilst schizoid-like holding onto their Educational Ideals. Yet Furedi ultimately is also in this dreamlike state, holding out 'education for its own sake' as a panacea and Island Pedagogy as a strategy in these troubled educational times.

Critique must become the sword with which we slay illusions in education today. It is illusions in our leaders, our systems of education, our ideas about these systems and our capacity to hope from something better from them that betray us.

Critique must become the first moment in an anti-capitalist educational outlook (see Rikowski, 2004). In the current state of the anti-capitalist movement, only on the back of critique can our dreams ultimately take on real significance and power.


[1] See George Monbiot (2005) on the draconian laws now available to the British state that makes effective protest technically impossible. There is always some law or other to stop it if the police or government so wish to dredge it up.


Blair, A. (2005) Students face jail over protest, The Times, 26th September, p.10.

Evans, M. (2004) Killing Thinking: The Death of the Universities, London: Continuum.

Furedi, F. (2004) Where Have All the Intellectuals Gone? Confronting 21st Century Philistinism, London: Continuum.

Indymedia UK (2005) George Fox Six on Trial from 26th September, at: http://www4.indymedia.org.uk/en/2005/09/323778.html

Mansell, W., Luck, A. & Paton, G. (2005) Ministers ‘misled’ public on academies, Times Educational Supplement, 7th October, p.1.

Monbiot, G. (2005) Protest is criminalised and the huffers and puffers say nothing, The Guardian, 4th October, p.27.

Parkin, J. (2005) Academies' glitter may be fool's gold, Times Educational Supplement, 7th October, p.22.

Rikowski, G. (2004) Marx and the Education of the Future, Policy Futures in Education, Vol.2 Nos. 3 & 4, pp.565-577. Available online: 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=

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