Flow of Ideas


Glenn Rikowski, 13th April 2008, London


‘Utopia’ has Greek and Latin origins: ‘a place that does not exist’. But the usual meaning is ‘a place to be desired’ (Hodgson, 1999, p.4). It sets out a ‘world to come’ that is different and better than this one. Thus, it constitutes an implicit critique; i.e., says what is wrong with the world as we know it. There is a third meaning of the word: an implausible, impossible situation or scenario. For example, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels talked about forms of “Utopian socialism” – forms that they believed could not exist in capitalist reality.

Utopia and Education Today

Discussions on the concept of ‘utopia’ typically start with Thomas More’s book of 1516. More’s (1965) Utopia is divided into two Books. Book 1 is constructed as a conversation between More, an adventurer called Raphael Hythlodaye and a real-life civil servant figure, Peter Gilles. The key question the three discuss is whether philosophers should become royal servants. Book 1 pinpoints social injustices in early 16th-century England; it is about society as it was then. Book 2 is about society as it might be; envisioning an idyllic island that is very different from the England of More’s day. Hythlodaye tells about the island of Utopia, ‘Nowhereland’, somewhere in the Atlantic off the coast of America, where people lived in a radically different, and more desirable, form of society.

The first two senses of ‘utopia’ noted previously were to the fore in More’s original rendition. In this way, utopian thinking could contrast education as it is, with how it might (preferably) be; it could be used for critique of existing educational processes, systems and institutions. Yet during the twentieth century, it was the third meaning of ‘utopia’ that appeared to gain ascendancy. Milojevic (2003) indicates that:

“The battle between the ‘scientific’ and realistic’ approaches and the ‘utopian’ [have] significantly influenced political debates of the twentieth century. Somewhere, in that process, utopian was simultaneously equated with ‘unrealistic, naďve and unfeasible’. Being labelled ‘utopian’ would consequently de-legitimise a political project, by default” (Milojevic, 2003, p.442).

Ditto educational projects: being labelled as ‘utopian’ implied that a proposed education policy or practice incorporated unworldly, impractical and untenable aspects. Nice idea; but could never work, or even exist, in educational reality. Thus: “Hardly anyone talks about educational utopia anymore. We seem to be too caught up with test scores, basic skills, teacher burnout, school violence, and so-called excellence to be concerned with visions of what our schools really could be at their best” (Armstrong, 1996, cited in Milojevic, 2003, p.447).

Managerialist, technicist, neo-liberal and economistic ideologies have driven out utopian thinking from educational circles, it seems. This is happening on a truly global scale as nation states reconfigure their education system to compete in terms of enhancing the capacities of labour power within their borders. For, as Peters and Humes (2003) note:

“In postmodernity, and in the age of the knowledge economy – one of the aspects of globalisation – education becomes re-profiled in the technical-managerialist discourse: as Heidegger warned us, it becomes a ‘resource’ to be used as part of the standing reserve in the game of national economic competition” (p.432).


“… neo-liberal educational governance and the new globalised political economy of education have colluded with leftist scepticism toward grand narratives” (Milojevic, 2003, pp.447-448).

Milojevic argues that many of those on the educational Left have eschewed utopian thinking as mere whimsy. They have retreated from providing visions of the future even as their critiques of existing educational arrangements imply more desirable alternatives in education. However, as Milojevic notes:

“Utopian elements remain present in discussions on where education should be going. They are implicit in both actions in the present (as these are informed by particular desired futures) as well as in the theoretical debates” (Milojevic, 2003, p.459).

Discussions and debates on educational futures are significant in the arenas of policy formation, educational trends, curriculum development and change, educational studies and educational evaluation (Ibid.). Where these arise, some notion of ‘what is desirable’ in education, better alternatives for education – necessarily involve utopian moments and the utopian impulse. Despite the ‘de-legitimisation’ of utopianism (as messing with the pie-in-the-sky):

“Nevertheless, utopian elements remain implicit in all philosophical positions, world-views and strategic demands for social change” (Milojevic, 2003, p.459).

This includes demands for educational change too.

Paul Allman and the True-blue Utopians

For Paula Allman (2001) the most hopeless form of utopian thinking is that which bats for Utopia within capitalist society. This view implies that within capitalist society, all issues of justice, fairness and human-wellbeing can be resolved. In this mode of utopianism:

“People seem to think that measures designed to increase transparency and accountability and make liberal democracy work more effectively will make it possible to hold capital to account and force it to become a fairer and more responsible system. Somehow people must be encouraged to give up such ill-founded utopian thinking, and this is where critical education … has an important and crucial role to play …” (Allman, 2001, p.138).

‘Ill-founded utopian thinking’ presents social vistas that are appealing, yet impossible within existing society. They are myths that function to sustain and deepen commitment to a future dominated by capital.

In the sphere of education, this is manifested in education policies designed to nurture exciting and modernistic visions – yet all within the existing form of society. For example, in the fantastical education policies designed by New Labour since 1997 – with their apparent veneer of ‘excellence’ – social justice is education becomes compatible with neoliberal elements. However, as I have indicated (Rikowski, 2000), the actual working of capital and capitalist education and training – via the social production of labour power – blow apart any practical attempts or theoretical projects for reconciling social justice with capital and its form of labour power production, in which education is implicated. Victor Rikowski (2006) indicates that problems in education today are exacerbated by capitalist development, especially by the commodification of education itself.

For Allman, critical education explodes ‘ill-founded utopian thinking’ that attempts to weld projects of social justice and human wellbeing to the development of capital and capitalist society, and specifically to neoliberal economic and education policies. New Labour education policies are an archetypal example of ‘ill-founded utopian thinking’. Rather, argues Allman, what we need is a ‘critical utopianism’ (after Paulo Freire), and:

“We ‘must not fear being ridiculed for our critical utopianism or for trying to ignite the fire of hope in people’s hearts and minds’ (Freire, 1972, p.63). For some that fire may have been irrevocably extinguished and, instead, they profess or acquiesce to a truly ludicrous utopia – the belief that liberal democracy can continue to buffer us from the worst excesses of capitalism and that it can enable us to continue to live as civilized beings, regardless of the deepening and expanding of capital’s contradictions and the attendant crisis in capitalist social relations” (Allman, 2001, p.220).

This ‘ludicrous utopia’ pedalled by our political leaders, and specifically by education ministers during New Labour’s reign, has not attained widespread acceptance, for:

“…this type of risible utopianism is only lodged indelibly in a small minority and … a dialectical understanding of capitalism can rekindle the light – our hope for humanity’s future. This is a light that always burns in some hearts, somewhere; the task is to enable it to burn more brightly and widely until it obliterates the horizon of capitalism” (Ibid.).


Allman, P. (2001) Critical Education Against Global Capitalism: Karl Marx and Revolutionary Critical Education, Westport, Connecticut: Bergin & Garvey.

Freire, P. (1972) Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

Hodgson, G. (1999) Economics and Utopia: Why the Learning Economy is not the End of History, London: Routledge.

Milojevic, M. (2003) Hegemonic and Marginalised Educational Utopias in the Contemporary Western World, Policy Futures in Education, Vol.1 No.3, pp.440-466: http://www.wwwords.co.uk/pfie

More, T. (1965) Utopia, London: Penguin.

Peters, M. & Humes, W. (2003) Educational Futures: utopias and heteropias, Policy Futures in Education, Vol.1 No.3, pp.428-439, at: http://www.wwwords.co.uk/pfie

Rikowski, G. (2000) Education and Social Justice within the Social Universe of Capital, a paper presented at the BERA day seminar on "Approaching Social Justice in Education: Theoretical Frameworks for Practical Purposes", Nottingham Trent University, 10th April, 2000: http://www.leeds.ac.uk/educol/documents/00001618.htm

Rikowski, V. (2006) Problems in Education Today, Information for Social Change, Issue No.23 (summer): http://libr.org/isc/issues/ISC23/B9d%20Victor%20Rikowski.pdf

© Copyright, Flow of Ideas, Ruth Rikowski and Glenn Rikowski. Website by [whiteLayer]
Call for Authors
Printer Friendly
Order by DateAlphabetical[Close menu]