Customers not Citizens: Consuming Education

Monday, 13 April 2009 17:43

In the introduction to his most famous book on education, Ivan Illich says that for most of his life he never questioned that universal free education was an absolute good. This, I believe, would be the position of most people, even conservatives. But Illich went on to argue that institutionalising education (in fact as a service industry) has led to the institutionalising of society. In other words, education serves, not to emancipate the individual but to create a slavish attachment to the institutions. Illich’s solution is to abandon institutional education (the service industry) in favour of peer to peer education, what he calls a web of learners. Illich’s book preceded the creation of the internet as we now know it, and the development of peer to peer education as a service industry in its own right! Antonio Gramsci, mulling over the same problem in his prison cell in the 1930s came up with a similar analysis and a different solution. He wanted to subvert the institution, to create a school that would teach radicalism. The state controlled most forms of discourse, including that of educational institutions, he argued, therefore it was necessary for the radical left to create its own parallel institutions to defeat the hegemony of the state.

In Ireland (and throughout those countries where the doctrines of neo-liberalism have come to dominate public discourse) education has undergone a significant, but largely unremarked change, one that may well be founded on a gramscian understanding of the necessity for the state’s total control of public discourse (the gramscian concept of hegemony). Until the advent of neo-liberalism, the stated aim of modern education (whatever its real achievement) was founded on an etymological understanding, false or otherwise, of the verb to educate as deriving from the Latin educo ‘to lead out.’ The child was largely ignorant and needed to be led out of this ignorance. A child growing up in a wilderness and isolated from its peers would learn many useful things, but nothing of the wealth of human culture. The purpose of education was to enable a child to acquire modernity, enlightenment, civilisation.

Of course, all of these terms are themselves culturally laden and the concept itself was paternalistic in all its senses. Children are not ignorant – Joseph Jacottot proved that – otherwise they could not acquire such a sophisticated knowledge of language and culture. Nevertheless, the intelligent schoolteacher could attach herself/himself to the idea of enlightenment and enabling. One could, in fact, bring the best of intentions to teaching. Good teachers were expected to teach pupils, first and foremost, to be questioners, and here, at least, was some hope for change. Such teachers could argue that their purpose was to enable critical thinking, and that such thinking was for the betterment of the individual and society. It was a modest ambition, but a decent one, founded on a a belief that individual self-realisation and social change were important values.

But following the ascendancy of the ‘business model of politics’ in Irish political thinking, the curriculum has been crowded out with ‘business’ subjects. In Ireland what was once a single subject – Commerce – has tripled into Business Studies, Economics and Accountancy so that ‘business’ teachers are now the largest single homogenous group in any staffroom. History has suffered and all but disappeared in some schools. Geography, with its study of large-scale human interactions, has been drastically reduced. The classics, which at best encouraged a long view of human existence are now taught in a handful of schools. English has had a significant injection of ‘practical’ writing and reading and the texts used tend more towards the kind of books written specifically for teenagers (itself now a massive service industry). Chemistry, Biology and Physics are now sold as gateways to lucrative careers. Mathematics is moving towards the failed strategy of ‘problem-solving’ at the behest of industry. The Irish department of education’s website says:

‘This Government believes in education, both as a means of enabling all individuals to reach their full potential and as a major contributor to our current and future economic success. These two key priorities underpin the actions set out in this Statement of Strategy.’


Which translates as: education is a means of enabling individuals but it is also an element of capitalism. Significantly, the pupil/student is referred to as an ‘individual’, rather than a citizen, a pupil or a student all of which terms imply some form of community. The ‘individual’ is the base unit of neo-liberalism. Elsewhere in the site pupils/students are referred to as ‘clients’. She is to see herself as a cog in the machine, a contributor to current profit. In the section headed ‘Focusing on the needs of our clients’, the word ‘customer’ appears twelve times including in the following contexts: ‘The Department’s main customers are the Education Service Providers, i.e., teachers, management of schools and colleges and organisations providing education services’; ‘the Department is committed to delivering quality services that meet the needs of our customers and clients, particularly learners, at all levels. This commitment is reflected in the performance management process, where quality customer service is identified as a core competency for all our staff.’; ‘The Customer Charter describes the level of service that can be expected in accordance with the 12 Quality Customer Service (QCS) principles.’, etc.

This unsubtle use of language betrays two things: firstly, the department’s certainty that its use of terms like ‘customer’ for young people, parents and teachers is unremarkable; and secondly, the increasing brutalisation of the system as a whole. Neo-liberalism has turned us all into customers (‘a person or organization that buys goods or services from a store or business’) who must approach their own state wallet in hand to purchase ‘quality services’ and who can expect ‘core competencies’. Every department of government, every county council and city council and every state and semi-state company now has a ‘customer charter’, as do banks, insurance companies, oil companies, etc. In the neo-liberal state there are no citizens. In the ‘customer charter’ for the Department Of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, for example, the word ‘customer appears’ a total of forty times, while ‘citizen’ only appears in this sentence: ‘For complaints about service delivery in relation to Immigration, Citizenship, Visas or other services at INIS, please email INIScustomercomplaints@justice.ie’. Even here, the complaining citizen or non-citizen is directed to ‘customer complaints’.

In the course of two generations we went from citizens of a republic to customers of a state. Our government became a service industry with laudable aims like efficiency and value for money. Its old-fashioned Republican ideals (like liberty, equality and fraternity, perhaps?) now relate entirely to customer satisfaction. Not so long ago, in Easter 1916, the first provisnional government of the Irish Republic declared the following:


‘The Republic guarantees religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens, and declares its resolve to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and of all its parts, cherishing all the children of the nation equally’.


‘Citizens?’ Shouldn’t that be ‘customers?’ And surely we should substitute ‘Economy’ for ‘Republic’, after all, it is the economy that underpins our rights. In which case, we shouldn’t be a bit surprised if the word ‘equality’ is dropped in favour of ‘equal access to services’ and the word ‘happiness’ is dropped entirely or at least re-defined as ‘shopping’. And if we’re going to use the word ‘guarantee’, shouldn’t it be only used in the context of banks?

And why should we accept such changes? Well, we did it at school...




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