Just Wanna Know

Revolutionary Propaganda Organ

Friday, May 12, 2006

Selling Values and Education

1. Immigrants are like buyers: When they come to a country, they look to see if they like the values. If they don’t like them, they don’t “buy” them. They make up new ones or keep their old ones. The host country’s values are thus worthless.

2. Schools are like markets: The students are buying education from teachers, who sell them their wisdom. If the students aren’t satisfied, they reject that wisdom. The wisdom is thus worthless.

(All this above and all that follows is a very crude way of putting it, but it might be correct in a certain way.)

First we can make the more relevant point, in light of recent debates. Immigrants come to America and negotiate to see what America has to offer. If they see nothing of value--that is, if they don’t buy into America’s values (or are excluded from buying them, if the price is prohibitive)--then America’s values are, quite literally and from a capitalist perspective, worthless. This is because they have not been sold--there has been no exchange, no transfer. We know that value does not reside in the commodity itself but in whatever is paid for the commodity when it is sold. In light of this necessity, it might be possible to see immigration--particularly illegal immigration--as vital to any nation’s continued self-image, since it affirms the value of its values (whatever those might be).

If there’s no one knocking down the door to get in, and then finding it profitable to stay and even assimilate the country’s values—in other words, if there’s no demand, no market--then all that Americans believe in is worthless (valueless, without exchange value) because nobody’s buying it.

(How strangely fitting that, even as the US attempts to impose its values in Iraq--some sort of exchange of values in a coerced market--it rejects the potential exchange that could come about from Mexicans and Central Americans who want to evaluate first-hand the value of American values--again, it produces a coerced market. Another contradiction of free trade capitalism?)

Now, the one that’s going to get me into trouble: education. I know this sounds awfully neoliberal, but it may just be how things exist under capitalism. Schools have become markets for knowledge (or maybe they always were). Students pay tuition bills, and then the instructor presents readings and tests the student’s ability to retain the concepts and information contained in those readings.

A first (minor) point is easy and commonplace: If the students don’t get something they can and do use, then their education is worthless. This is obvious, but it still imparts use value to the commodity of education. The problem here is that payment for the education comes before the education, sometimes long, long before the education. Payment is up front, cash on the barrel, at the beginning of a given semester (or year, in the case of some liberal arts colleges). The money is then “lost” to the buyer if the education doesn’t (nearly) equal what was already paid. Nevertheless, the buyer (student) always has the opportunity not to buy--in the end, all markets are buyers’ markets, because if the buyer doesn’t pay real money, then what is being sold has no value at all.

So the neoliberal argument can have practical use in a classroom setting: “Since you’ve already paid your money, you might as well cooperate in class so you get your money’s worth.” But the point here is that conflict should be expected between student and teacher, because the positions are asymmetrical (as the buyer, the student has more power than the teacher) and also because communication is taking place between individuals who are differently socialized. See below, but in education as in life, communication across communal boundaries must always precede socialization, which in turn precedes community. We might think of these communities as languages. In other words, students and teachers do not understand each other because they’re speaking different languages. The purpose of the engagement is to learn one another’s language (or even develop a new language), and—some might argue—for the student to learn the teacher’s language. But as the buyer, the student has power over the teacher that the teacher doesn’t have over the student. Thus there is greater potential for the new language to be influenced by the student than by the teacher. This is a wonderful thing, and perhaps the only reason to keep teaching.

Sometimes the usefulness of education comes long after the course is over. For example, a professor told me in 2002 that my analysis in my semester project had been “Kantian”--since it came from a Marxist, I took the comment as a slight and dismissed it. Then in 2005 I discovered (very dimly) Kant in Kojin Karatani’s Transcritique: On Kant and Marx (also very dimly understood, but where all this is coming from). I recognized ways of thinking in the book that I also like, and I remembered what the professor had said. Suddenly, what I had rejected as being not worth the money--the professor’s statement--achieved value in my mind. (Of course other parts of the class had already been of proven use value). But my understanding of the course’s use value is irrelevant to the point Karatani makes here. The value of the education was already realized when it was paid for—when, in January 2002, I paid my tuition bill.

(I paid nothing--the bill was zero. What does that mean? A detour follows: Who paid the bulk of Yahya’s Spring 2002 tuition bill? First, I had a fellowship paid for by the federal government, which recognized that training scholars of the Middle East is a valuable thing for the government to do. But the tuition paid by the government was only $1,500. Ordinarily, out-of-state tuition was $3,500/semester. So second, the university ate the cost of the additional $2,000 of “out-of-state” tuition that it was due. Why? Because the university recognized that it is valuable for the university to have federal sponsorship for its graduate students. Third, the other students at my university subsidized part of the education, since they recognized that it is valuable for them to attend a university that trains graduate students in the traditional [non-money-making] fields--their education holds higher prestige, because graduate students attract “high-powered” faculty members, who raise the prestige of the institution. It’s a well-known fact that undergraduates and graduate students in business, law, and medicine at these Research I institutions subsidize, through either higher tuition [law students, etc.] or lower return on their time investment [300 undergraduates in a survey class, etc.], graduate education in the humanities, fine arts, and liberal arts. If these fields have any value at all, it is here. Finally, it costs much more than even $3,500/semester to educate someone like me, probably more in the range of $20,000 or more. So the majority of the cost of education was transferred to the taxpayers of Texas? No. Even the taxpayers don’t really pay very much. Texas is a rentier state, and UT is no exception--both derive much of their income from rents from the oil and gas that happen to reside [or to once have resided] under the state’s soil, as well as from taxes on the industries that process and sell these natural resources, and their employees [for the government], and from the interest and dividends that continue to accrue from invested principal [for the university]. When 3.2 million acres of land for the university were accumulated between 1839 and 1882, no petroleum was known to exist there, so the taxpayers are out only what they would have got for this “worthless” West Texas grazing land from a private buyer—not much at all. [Had the taxpayers sold it to a private individual, that buyer, instead of the university, would have benefited from the petroleum, but not the state.] As a result, the taxpayers really don’t cover much of the cost of maintaining state-sponsored higher education, and this is more and more the case. So who paid? I dunno. The only person I can think of is the potential, future (to 1882), private investor who would have become a millionaire after purchasing several thousand acres of cheap West Texas land on which oil would be discovered. That person paid dearly, but that person doesn’t exist. So nobody paid the bill, there was no exchange, and my education is worthless? No, it has value. I have already traded my educational status for several teaching and tutoring jobs, as well as other grants, all of which paid real money. That’s the point of circulation—the buyer turns into the seller and vice versa. But perhaps there was some surplus value along the way...)

Anyway, here’s the gem that started all this drivel (from Karatani, pp. 71-72):

“As human beings, we are all born children and learn language from our parents (or their equivalents). As a result, we come to share common rules. Likewise, in our daily communication with others, we must always have incommensurable domains, though we do not always remember this surprising fact. Thus communication must, in reality, become mutual teaching. If there is a system of common rules, it is achieved only after the event of the teaching/learning relationship. In the beginning, this mutual relationship is asymmetrical. And this is the most fundamental aspect of communication. Again, this is not an anomaly—it is our daily state of affairs. Rather the anomalies are commonly considered to be the ‘normal’ cases, namely, in the dialogue that takes for granted a common set of rules, as one big merry party or symposium....

“In this context, “teaching” has nothing to do with authoritarian hierarchy, because the teaching (or psychoanalytic) position is the lesser one, subordinate to the others’ (or analysand’s) demand for understanding. In the context of the political economy, teaching is ‘selling’ one’s knowledge to the other. Marx made this fundamental point very clear in his theory of exchange: The individual commodity never contains the substantial value that classical economists claimed was immanent in it. It cannot have a value (or even use value) if it is not sold (exchanged). And, if not sold, it is a thing to be simply discarded. The ‘selling’ position is subordinated to the ‘choice’ of the buyer (the possessor of money), and their mutual relationship is the epitome of asymmetricity.”

(Read more about Karatani in reviews by Shaviro [Part I and Part II] and Zizek [PDF].)

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