Sissy Velissariou: Ideological Discourses of the White “Bible” on Education and Training

Sissy Velissariou: Ideological Discourses of the White “Bible” on Education and Training

“The White Paper on Education and Training: Teaching and Learning/Towards the Learning Society” (pub. by the European Commission in 1995) is a text of seminal importance because it seeks to outline an overall approach to education in the E.U. I’ll start with a crucial passage which serves as its fundamental working principle: “IV. Directions for the future: Everyone is convinced of the need for change, the proof being the demise of the major ideological disputes on the objectives of education. . . . The end of debate on educational principles: Heated debates concerning the organization of education and training systems - including debates on content and training methods - have taken place over the last few years. Most of these debates now appear to have come to an end.’ (W.P.23).

As with the end of history, of ideology etc, the end of debates on education, especially when voiced by the Commission, must set us on our guard against the eschatological certainties of this kind of declarations. For example, one of the four changes, of which presumably “everyone (who is “everyone?”) is convinced,” is the break down of “the ideological and cultural barriers [that] separated education and enterprise” (23). I’ll try to show that, for all its technocratic and seemingly neutral tenor (or, actually because of that), the W.P. inscribes an intensely ideological logos that aims to achieve that thing which is precisely what the authors seem to consider as already given/finished: to convince the E.U. citizens that there is only one way to “the new learning society,” their own way, because they are those “who have knowledge.” Knowledge of what? Of the global economy, its rules, competition and competitiveness, a knowledge (real-politick) from which the W.P. draws its political legitimation. The trouble is that the social rift that the Commission locates between “those who know and those who do not” (30), ironically also applies to what a number of thinkers (Habermas, Bourdieu etc), but more importantly, public opinion in the E.U., have alerted us to: namely, the actual dramatic rift between the European people and a remote, bureaucratic, technocratic centre of power in Brussels, which, on the basis of a strictly economic rationale, has transformed politics into an issue of administration and management (Habermas in Novoa,53).

The W.P. is particularly interesting as an uneasy coexistence and often contradictory articulation of a number of discourses which fall into three categories: a) an economic discourse of the learning/information society, which identifies knowledge with technological access to information (knowledge=skills, education=training), b) a neo-liberal discourse on education and c) a democratic rhetoric on education as a civil right, equal opportunities and social consensus, in the context of the construction of a (common) European citizenship. However, the relative instability of the overall structure of arguments, I hasten to add, does not put at stake the coherence and consistency of the dominant discourse which is purely economist insofar as it semantically reduces society to economy. [This over-determination of the social by the economic instance is particularly noticeable in later “Communications”, as, for example, in “The role of the universities in the Europe of knowledge” (Feb. 2003) where “the knowledge economy and society stem from the combination of four interdependent elements: the production of knowledge, mainly through scientific research; its transmission through education and training; its dissemination through the information and communication technologies; and its use in technological innovation (4)].

Reforms on education are no longer supported by reference to equality, social justice and moral obligation, but are legitimated on the basis of the maximum efficiency in the exploitation of human resources, something which emerges as the new model of progress (Kazamias 573). The arguments put forward serve the vision of a Europe synonymous with precisely this kind of progress, which, in its turn, sets the following objectives: 1) the European economic competitiveness on the global market (catching up with the USA and Japan), 2) the European higher education’s competitiveness (again) with the American universities and 3) an education that would be instrumental in the development of a common European cultural identity/citizenship.

The “uneasy coexistence” of elements within this ideological project is glaringly obvious in the “Introduction”. This starts with the assumption that education/training “have now emerged as the latest means for tackling the employment problem” (1). [This is really refreshing considering that in Greece the dominant attitude has been that the universities are RESPONSIBLE for the unemployment]. The WP concedes that the Maastricht Treaty (articles: 126/127) states explicitly that the EU role can only be supportive of and subsidiary to education that remains within the area of competence of the member states. However, it also explicitly states that the European countries “today have no other option”: globalisation has boosted the possibilities of access to information and knowledge (2). At the same time, traditional employment (full time and permanent jobs) “appears to be in decline” (6). So, “there is no single pattern to follow in one’s working life, but everyone must be able to seize their opportunities for improvement in society and for personal fulfilment” (3). [At this point, as indeed in all the Commission’s documents on education, this supposedly objective and matter-of-fact language, in which very often the subject of purely political statements has been elided, masks an important ideological gesture: the politics of depoliticisation which, as Bourdieu has argued (1), setting economic forces on the loose, that is, outside any democratic and collective control, attributes to them a teleological and fatalistic force. What has been called ‘globalisation’ is presented as a natural phenomenon and, therefore as an indisputable economic necessity, and not as the result of a conscious political choice, which, at times is not even aware of its own destructive implications]. The individual’s “pivotal role” in Europe as a “just and progressive society based on its cultural wealth and diversity” (2) relies on a broad knowledge base in the face of unemployment. The Introduction closes with a statement that seems to mitigate the gesture that the WP is performing throughout, namely, the examination of education/training in a technological context: “[Their] essential aim … has always been personal development and the successful integration of Europeans into society through the sharing of common values, the passing on of cultural heritage and the teaching of self-reliance”(3). The above statement is indicative of the new ideal of education, which seeks to reconcile a European cultural identity, based on a common heritage, with the exclusive emphasis on the individual and his/her responsibility for his/her access to knowledge and, therefore, integration into the learning society. The crux of the matter lies in the latter part, i.e. “the teaching of self-reliance,” which both presupposes and promotes the demise of the welfare state that neo-liberalist policies have already effected, and are still bringing about, in Europe. In the Conclusion, a common European civilisation is praised because of its “long history” and complexity, and so is “the legacy of a tradition which made Europe the first to bring about a technical and industrial revolution, and thus change the world.” At the same time, the European identity is defined as follows: “being European is to have the advantage of a cultural background of unparalleled variety and depth” (53-54). [I will not tackle issues such as, for example, how we define “Europe,” how real differences and divisions within a supposedly common European culture are repressed, whether there has been such as a historical entity as Europe—see, for example, “the Europe of the Middle ages and post-medieval times had to face up to the Byzantine world, the Arabs and the Ottoman Empire” (Le Goff, 53). Nor will I discuss the absence of any emphasis on Europe as a multicultural and multiracial society. For sure, the ghosts of immigrants do not haunt a text that is premised on a homogeneous Europe] It is not accidental that nowhere is mentioned that the welfare state is an integral part of this common heritage that the WP considers a European asset. The welfare state is a massive achievement in itself. Ironically also it is central to what the Commission precisely calls for: a Europe capable of maintaining full awareness of itself. However, those changes that have jeopardised the welfare policies and practices are presented in terms of their psychological implications, that is, “a deep-seated call for stability and collective security”, which, according to the WP, “unfortunately” can turn into “a reactionary reflex to change” (53).

Each one of us has to adapt to change, a complex change brought about by three major challenges: the information society, the impact of internationalisation, and scientific and technological knowledge. In the context of education this march of progress outlines a notion of knowledge which is synonymous with information and is quantified in terms of the amount of information. Most of the time, its content is neither discussed nor specified but is mainly identified with the access to technology and the acquisition of relevant skills. Overall, technology as progress emerges as a value in its own right because it places “people in a close relationship with one another” (5), though it is also fraud with problems. The WP locates two important dangers: The first danger, directly related to the information technology, has to do, broadly speaking, with the new worker species produced as a result of the new working conditions. The second danger, more tactile and immediate, is “uncertainty for all and for some … intolerable situations of exclusion” (2). First: the interactive on-line communication networks across continents and from one office and floor to the other decentralise tasks, and, therefore, are conducive to “a higher level of individual autonomy for workers.” But, as the WP notes, information technology results in “[the workers’] less clear perception of the context of their actions” while, simultaneously, making them more vulnerable to changes in their environment “because they are mere individuals within a complex network”(6). A question arises and a doubt is expressed as to whether the CONTENT of the educational software promotes or, on the contrary, diminishes the knowledge of the individual to “the lowest common denominator, which brings about the loss of people’s historical, geographical and cultural bearings” (7). However important the content of the taught material is, it nonetheless does not emerge as a central concern but mainly appears in the context of the competition with the US, which dominates the educational software market. It is deeply ironical that the lamented loss of the historical and cultural specificities of individual identity is inherent precisely in the globalised economy and in the attendant dramatic shifts in the definition of labour and the new work conditions, which the EU promotes in its fatal competition with the US and Japan. The magical word which at large sums up the above process is “flexibility” which presupposes what Giddens has called “disembeddedness”, that is, the extraction of social relationships from their local context … and their reconstruction within unspecified/unfixed spatio-temporal areas” (in Kazamias, 559-60). The spatio-temporal fragmentation of the subject and his/her diffusion into multiple levels outside specific cultural, social and geographical denominators implies not only his/her division into diverse identities shaped by different worlds, but also his/her loss of control over the labour process itself.

The Commission shows an acute awareness of the structural problem in the way people relate to, and construct themselves in and through, their work. It is also conscious of the individuals’ increasing difficulty to respond to diverse geographical and cultural contexts and to comprehend and synthesise fragmentary and incomplete information. The answer to the problem lies in the task of school to impart a broad knowledge for the understanding of the world on the basis of common European values. So, broad knowledge of this kind emerges as the European cultural resistance to technological assimilation. Interestingly, however, this broad education (literature, philosophy, science and technology) can also be provided outside formal education as the increasing convergence between business and the world of education has shown (10). And the WP quotes from the report of European industrialists on education (Round Table, 1995): “The essential mission of education is to help everyone to develop their own potential and become a complete human being, as opposed to a tool at the service of the economy; the acquisition of knowledge and skills should go hand in hand with building up character, broadening outlook and accepting one’s responsibility in society” (10).

The imperative however is that the individual adapt to labour market changes, and this is where the real problem is. “The development of all human resources” (the new collective subject) is not easy because the information society brings about the exclusion of the most vulnerable groups (unemployed, women, unqualified young people etc). This condemns them to long term unemployment, but, more significantly, to the loss of their belonging to the social body as organic members. Broad knowledge and initial and continual training are offered as solutions to the potential “rift … between those that can interpret; those who can only use; and those who are pushed out of mainstream society and rely upon social support: in other words, those who know and those who do not know” (9). Three remarks: 1) the absence of the object of the verbs “interpret” and “know”[what?]. The ghostly object slides into and is implied by the word “use,” that is, technology. Therefore, the object of knowledge is identical with the process, which is access to technology, 2) The subject of the above verbs, i.e. “those,” is not named. At the same time, the silencing of the specific classes, which are subjected to exclusion/marginalisation, dissolves the unnameable term “social class” into incapacitated individuals, 3) welfare services are implied in the vague term “social support,” so they are clearly reduced to the dustbin of the mainstream society.

The thorny issue of the causes (because of the E.U. neo-liberal policies) of social exclusion are naturally silenced. Social exclusion, which, as admitted, has become widespread in recent years especially in urban areas hit by unemployment (28), is treated as yet another natural phenomenon and thus as a mere fact. As a result, policies such as positive discriminations, a second chance for initial/continuing training for non-qualified young people, life-long learning etc might be useful remedies but cannot heal the very real malaise that has been spreading in Europe. “Strategies of inclusion/exclusion of different social groups in the information society are producing, now more than ever before, silent zones” (Bourdieu, in Novoa 45) inhabited by the marginalised and the repressed such as, for example, the unemployed, the urban poor, the immigrants and others. The problem of social exclusion, far from being purely economic, is essentially political insofar as it emerges as a major threat for “the legitimated inequality” which is the prerequisite of social integration (Stasinou17). Exclusion, therefore, indirectly involves the major issue of social consensus to the harsh economic and educational policies, which have become increasingly visible to the citizens of the member states, though conceived and implemented by experts outside collective control. Hence the Commission’s effort to combat social exclusion, on the one hand, by building a common citizenship in a democratic Europe which would ensure the proper function of democracy (10) and, on the other, by ensuring “equal rights in education”.

Consequently, European citizenship and “equal rights in education” emerge as the cornerstones of integration into, and the smooth function of, the trans-national formation that the E.U. is. However, there are serious problems in the ways in which both citizenship and education as well as their interrelationship are perceived. I consider T. H. Marshall’s following statement an excellent paradigm of what, by analogy with the problem of poverty, is the crux in the E.U. logic concerning equal rights in education: “The Poor Law considered the demands of the poor not as integral part of civil rights but as their exact opposite in the sense that these could be satisfied only insofar as those who set the demand would cease to be considered citizens in the real sense of the word” (57). “Equal rights in education ... in the context of equality of opportunity” (W. P. 23) is not exactly the same as education as a social right. Neither does it presuppose education as a public and free good. In the W.P. the emphatic and continuous reference to the individual, individual autonomy and initiative and to the ethics of personal responsibility presupposes and implicitly accepts economic and social inequality This logic is perfectly in tune with the New Right’s polemic against “the culture of dependence,” by which they mean the body of social rights that have been established by the community. To this is juxtaposed a “business culture” according to which the individuals ought to promote their own personal prosperity whereas the state’s intervention is limited to what amounts to philanthropy (Bottomore 154, 185). [It is very indicative that the Communication on the role of the universities, laments the absence of a philanthropic tradition in Europe, in contrast with the USA. This lack is held responsible for their underfunding while, at the same time, fees are (also lamentably) limited or even prohibited to “allow democratic access to higher education” (13)].

Therefore, the dominant discourse of the W.P., that is saturated with the word “individual,” as in individual mastery, potential, employability, choice etc, constructs a new definition of society as a sum of individuals outside any specific cultural, political and historical contexts. The demise of collective agency as the motor of history is the reverse side of the individual as the protagonist of progress. Consequently, we should not be deceived by the text’s modest attempt to relate at some point the role of the individual as the main protagonist in the learning society with its intention to highlight the importance of school in the shaping of “responsible” personalities (28). Historical evidence testifies to the instrumental role of schooling and of education systematisation and expansion in the formation of the modern capitalist state. In the course of the 19th century general education emerged as the sine qua non for the smooth function of parliamentary democracy and of industry (Marshall 59). At the time, education as a public and free good was effected as the result not only of social struggles but also of the increasing recognition by the ruling classes that, in order to avert socially explosive situations, they have to offer it as such to the dispossessed (Politi, 26-27). Even the guru of neo-liberalism, Milton Friedman points out that “a stable and democratic society is impossible without the minimum degree of literacy and knowledge on the part of most citizens and without widespread acceptance of some common set of values. Education can contribute to both” (86). Therefore, the irreplaceable role of the state intervention, however minimal, in offering public education is not rejected by Friedman, who, moreover, emphasises its importance in imparting to ethnic minorities in USA “some measure of conformity and loyalty to common values”.

In other words, the basic neo-liberal assumptions that a) general education is a strategy towards citizenship and b) consumerism is compatible with citizenship are very much at the core of the E.U. perception of individuals as consumers, users and citizens (WP 11). However, citizenship is not an individual but, on the contrary, a public positionality shared by all those who are full members of a specific society. In Marshall’s definition, citizenship is constructed by three kinds of rights: the civil ones (i.e., the freedom of speech, thought and faith, the right to property etc), the political ones (i.e. the right to participate in and exercise political power) and the social rights: “a whole range from the right to… economic welfare… to the right to share to the full in the social heritage and to live the life of a civilised being;” hence the crucial importance of education and public services (43). Let’s briefly see whether, for example, in the bleak landscape of higher education in Europe, citizenship, as a term that implies a social rather than an individual entity, is really possible. Higher education is offered as the terrain par excellence for E.U. educational policies that are “legitimated” by the “indisputable” logic of the market and of the new industrial processes/services. The reason lies in the unique role of the universities “in research and exploitation of its results thanks to industrial cooperation” (Communication, 05.02.03, 2). In order to catch up with the US the technocratic Communications on higher education suggest a new competitive model of university. The new European university should be capable of drawing a substantial income by selling services to the business sector and ethically accountable to its “stakeholders,” i.e. the students, the public authorities and last but not least the labour market (13). And because running “a modern university is a complex business” professionals from outside the academic tradition should be invited to undertake its efficient management (17). Teaching self-reliance and investing in human resources is a crucial part of the new mission of the European universities, which is to attract and invest in the best talents and to develop excellence. “Excellence,” a term that permeates recent Communications, is a serious issue that cannot be exhausted here. I only want to draw attention to Bill Readings’ remarks that excellence is “an entirely non-referential term” which “functions to allow the University to understand itself solely in terms of the structure of corporate administration” (29). Because the University’s accountability is synonymous with accounting, the investment of resources in centres of high performance brings about the demise of humanities along with the disappearance of “weaker” departments. Within this economic reductionist context, which does not even bother to pay lip service to any kind of values outside those of the market (let alone humanist ideals) the troublesome issue of consensus within political and civil society has shrunk into the Member States’ common consent to the need of excellence in research! In fact, the universities are rebuked for having spent at least 50 years without “really calling into question the role or the nature of what they should be contributing to society”(Com. 05.02.03, 17, 22).

But as Thatcher once said, “there is no such thing as society,” except if by society we mean the sum of stakeholders. To revert to citizenship, historical experience has shown us that civil, political and social rights do not always coexist (the Soviet Union). For example, the purely social right to education is an empty gesture once the civil and political rights have atrophied, or worse, have become nominal. Therefore, we should be very cautious when the WP refers to literature and philosophy as the necessary equipment that would help the individual to “question constantly and seek new answers” endowing him/her with “powers of discernment and a critical sense”(10-11). Powers of judgement and the development of critical faculties are very important as the foundations of citizenship, but there are two problems here: First, that they are basically restricted to school, as is testified by the demise of humanities at the university. Second, “active citizenship” also presupposes the civil right to freedom of speech which, however, “has little real substance if, from lack of education, you have nothing to say that is worth saying, and no means of making yourself heard if you say it” (Marshall 20). The trouble is that the zones of silence have been spreading over and slowly engulfing “human resources [which] are the Union’s main asset” (Communication, “Education and Training 2010”, 11.11.03, 5).

Works cited:

Bourdieu, Pierre. (23-9-2000).“Εν?ντια στην πολιτικ? απολιτικοπο?ησης: Οι στ?χοι του Ευρωπα?κο? κοινωνικο? κιν?ματος». (Against the politics of depoliticization). Trans. Keti Diamantakou. Nea

Commission of the European Communities. (11.11.2003). Communication from the Commission. “Education and Training 2010.” 1-28. (05.02.2003)“The role of the Universities in the Europe of Knowledge.” 1-23. (1995).

White Paper on Education and Knowledge: Teaching and Learning/ Towards the Learning Society. http://www.cec.lu/en/comm/dg22.html.

Friedman, Milton. (1982). “The Role of Government in Education.” Capitalism and Freedom. Chicago: Chicago UP. 85-107.

Kazamias, Andreas. (1995). “Ευρωπα?κ?ς εκσυγχρονισμ?ς και εκπα?δευση.» (European Modernisation and Education). Eds. Kazamias Andreas and Michalis Kassiotakis. Ελληνικ? εκπα?δευση: Προοπτικ?ς ανασυγκρ?τησης και εκσυγχρονισμο?. Athens: Sirios. 550-586.

Marshall, T. H. (1994). “Citizenship and Social Class.” Eds. B. S. Turner and P. Hamilton. Citizenship: Critical Concepts. London: RKP, vol. ii. 5-44.

Marshall, T. H. and T. Bottomore. (1995). Ιδι?τητα του πολ?τη και κοινωνικ? τ?ξη. (Citizenship and Social Class). Intr. and trans. Olga Stasinopoulou. Athens: Gutenberg.

Nóvoa, António. (1996).“L’ Europe et l’ éducation: ?léments d’ analyse socio-historique des politiques éducatives europeenes.” Ed. Winther-Jensen Thyge.

Challenges to European Education: Cultural Values, National Identities and Global Responsibilities. Frankfurt: Peter Lang. 29-79.

Politi, Gina. (1997). “Στου κ?κλου τα γυρ?σματα.» (The spinning of the wheel). Politis 43. 26-27.

Readings, Bill. (1995). The University in Ruins. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP.

L'École Démocratique, 08/11/08