cynical educator

Today’s education system may be making professionals into Cynics, but the answer is collective struggle, not ancient philosophy, argues Dominic Alexander


Ansgar Allen, The Cynical Educator (MayFlyBooks 2017), 243pp.

The cover of Ansgar Allen’s The Cynical Educator provocatively announces that we, as educators, ‘need more cynicism, not less’ given that the educational profession is ‘ground down, disenchanted, but committed to education. Unable to quit, yet deploring everything education has become.’ There are numerous reasons for education professionals, from primary teachers through to academics, to feel increasing disillusion and even disgust with the systems in which they work. Quite recently, an ex-primary school teacher, quitting his job, paid for a poster saying: CHILDREN! YOU ARE NOT DATA (the cynical might note he was also advertising his professional skills at the same time as protesting).

It is undeniably true that the way education has been subject to commodification, ‘data’ driven evaluation and target setting, increasing hours, decreasing pay, and ever rising stress, has driven more and more people out of the profession, so a strategy for fighting back is needed. And, indeed, we still do care about what we do.

This is part of our problem, argues Allen; the value of education needs to be more thoroughly questioned, and indeed, approached with a ‘Cynicism’ inspired by the ancient philosophers of that name. Allen rightly points out some deep contradictions in the nature of the whole education system, as it cannot escape being embedded in an unequal society. In fact, the ‘catastrophe’ of present-day society, elicits only ‘more education’ as the answer. Yet, because education perpetuates the system which creates catastrophe, it is itself laying down ‘the intellectual and affective foundations for another century of rampant growth, exploitation, pollution and barbarity’ (p.2).

Allen’s argument unfolds often through strings of paradoxical aphorisms, but there is certainly a perceptive diagnosis of the consequences of the liberal, or neoliberal, exaltation of education as the only answer to inequality and poverty: ‘Education is under attack more than ever for failing to deliver on its promises, but rarely doubted itself. Few see how its failures are systematically produced, and necessary’ (p.4). In a competitive and individualistic market society, geared towards huge rewards for a tiny number of the most successful, and austerity for the majority, the promise that education will bring success and happiness rings increasingly hollow. In practical terms, the massive debts incurred in acquiring degrees raises serious questions about the value and sustainability of mass higher education. These are the sorts of problems that Allen alludes to in questioning educators’ commitment to education.

From this kind of starting point, it might be expected that the argument would proceed to examine how the education system is designed to embed class, training some to various ranks of labour, and others for places among the elite, for example. Certainly, Allen shows awareness of these sorts of issues, but the focus tends to be on educators’ attitude towards an unattained ideal of education. ‘Education’ is, in his analysis, inherently self-defeating. An example of the nature of the problem is the inability of academia to threaten the system: even radical scholars ‘recommending little, prescribing naught, they oppose nothing definitively’ (p.8). Moreover, ‘the university machine … grasps on to small pockets of enthusiasm it misreads and misrepresents as an affirmation of its kindly mission’ (p.9).

So, for Allen, the path to solving the problems of education lies in doubting its very value and purpose. The core of the book is a philosophical history and assessment of the ancient Cynics, and an attempt to find in their notions a way forward which would break what he sees as the present ‘impasse’. This history is written in a lively and engaging manner, and for those with an interest in philosophy, this is worthwhile even when the reader might be in disagreement. Nonetheless, as an answer to the problems of the whole education system in the present it is decidedly problematic. In appealing back to an ancient school of thought, it is necessary to view the problems of education in the abstract, as if they are created by the nature of education itself. In practice, this absolves the institutions and social relations through which education happens in the present from any systemic critique.

Most particularly, class is functionally absent in the discussion, despite being acknowledged as a factor here and there. The Cynics themselves were, after all, elite aristocratic figures, and their radical doubt about the values and institutions of their society might seem provocative and radical on the surface, but were not at all meant to threaten the existence of the ancient social order. Allen recognises this, of course, noting that ‘we cannot understand ancient Cynics, without cheapening it or turning it into respectable philosophy’ (p.7), but doesn’t draw the conclusions which should follow.

It was not after all aristocratic Cynics who were persecuted by the Roman Empire, but the Christians with their peculiarly different solidarities, which were, for a time, seen as a real threat to the authorities. Bearing this in mind, if ideas are not understood through the historical context of particular class relations, it is difficult to find any argument about their relevance to an entirely different society particularly convincing. Just to start with, all the Classical discussions of education were exclusively concerned with the lives of ruling class men.

Large parts of Allen’s argument, as it looks at the development of philosophy through the centuries, turn out to be quite dependent upon Michel Foucault and his literary approach to historical documents. This leads to a common methodological problem that bedevils scholars who try to move from classical literature, across the middle ages, to the present. There is the presupposition that medieval sources directly represent something real about what was happening at the time, as Classical texts are assumed to do. This is almost invariably a mistake. Thus, the discussion of education in the context of Christianity takes seriously a whole complex of intrusive and demanding requirments around baptism that entailed a ‘machinery of self-purification’ (p.45).

These sorts of involved instructions for Christians happened in books, rather less so in reality, so Foucault’s style of literary analysis tells us rather less about ‘educational’ patterns than it might seem. The approach tells us about what was happening in the minds of a very few religious intellectuals, rather than how ‘education’ was practised and understood more generally. This is a pity really, as the Christian Church in the medieval period did gradually embark upon one of the first attempts at mass education, which therefore does have some relevance to our present issues.

In contradiction to Foucauldian assumptions, the medieval Church was, in practice, mostly uninterested in the inner lives of ordinary Christians, and tended to be suspicious, at best, of popular ‘enthusiastic’ movements which did try to rouse lay people’s personal involvement in religion. As a consequence of this common misapprehension, Allen attempts to draw a distinction between ‘pastoral power’ over a flock and ‘regimes of force’. The Christian Church was certainly both at all times, and, like all other institutions, needs to be analysed in material, historical terms.

Leaving all this aside, Allen’s argument proceeds on the assumption that the idea of education as it developed is indebted to the pastoral concept, and its ills are therefore located in the intentions and understanding of educators: ‘A priestly class and its descendent educators have common interest in making those in their care ill.’ And further, the ‘Christian and, by extension, educational pastorate has a “life-interest in making mankind sick” – where “making sick is the true hidden objective of the Church’s whole system of salvation procedures”’ (p.69). That is to say, that priests and teachers would be out of a job if people were not in need of salvation or education.

There are some truths in all this. There are indeed certain kinds of power relationships in all education systems which do need to be interrogated. However, the problems of privatisation, targets and overwork, to which Allen alludes at the start, are not born of anything inherent to ‘education’ as an abstract concept, but are rooted in the nature of modern educational institutions as functional parts of a capitalist, as opposed to feudal or ancient, mode of production.

The extreme abstraction of the approach here makes it difficult to see how Allen envisages educators adopting his form of ‘Cynicism’. Symptomatic of this problem is the way in which the different parts of modern educational systems are never distinguished clearly; is his argument specific to the university system, which is most often referenced, or are earlier stages also at issue? The latter seems to be the case, but this is never really clarified.

In any case, Allen’s perspective goes far beyond the particular or the historically specific. He argues that we abandon the idea that education can do away with what is ‘bad’, as ‘bad or “evil” things are acknowledged as the motor behind attempts to redeem existence in the first place.’ Once we accept the essentially tragic nature of existence, then we have ‘the makings of an eternally vigilant educational mindset which constantly interrogates the moral purpose of education’ (p.175).

Education is being assessed here at an abstract level, and it is the idea of it that is being dissected, even as Allen complains that modern practice has drained education of specific content. It is in relation to this point that we encounter Marx for the first time. Allen compares the universalisation of education with the commodity fetish:

‘By analogy, “education” only became a fantastical ideal, and hence a fetish, once it was necessary to abstract education across diverse contexts, establishing a principle of equivalence … across unequal contexts’ (pp.154-5).

This analogy seems, however, to miss the rather more direct connection education has with the transformation of use values into abstract exchange values. The circulation of exchange values depends upon the existence of abstract labour, and the purpose of capitalist mass education is to habituate individuals to existing in and accepting a world where as persons they will be subsumed beneath their usefulness in the exploitation of abstract labour.

This another reason why it matters particularly that Allen does not draw clear distinctions between the various stages of education, since initially in the modern development of the university system, it was, somewhat, outside the commodification process compared to schools. As the former too became part of a mass system, the university was subjected to the same pressures that have always compromised the rest of education. Room for any illusions that education is primarily a humanistic endeavour has been and is being squeezed out of educational practice, from primary schools at one end to universities at the other, due to financial and ideological pressures from successive governments.

However, Allen complains that educators ‘will not give up on the idea that theirs is a noble cause’, and that the notion of ‘“education for its own sake” is only guiltily admitted as an ideal, for it bears the whiff of aristocratic origins’ (p.92). For most of the book his advocacy of a ‘cynical’ approach seems to be simply a direction to abandon illusions about the positive purposes and possibilities of education, but, by the end, the argument seems to turn back on itself. Allen latterly admits that the educator, following his revision of Cynicism, nonetheless ‘must just about maintain a belief in the civilizing illusion of education’ (p.176).

The actual capitalist education system remains unchallenged in this ethic, which becomes no more than a personal existential understanding, rather than any strategy for the transformation of reality. Allen’s major touchstone besides Foucault is Nietzsche, whose philosophy is capable of recognising the existence of power relations, but is fundamentally blind to the nature of class and real historical development. Above all, Nietzschian philosophy can only countenance individualistic perspectives.

The missing dimension is therefore class and collectivity. The mass modern education system is contradictory, as it was created to serve certain needs of capitalism, yet at the same time it really is driven in part by a need for a fuller development of human beings, their capabilities and understanding. Capitalism creates the conditions whereby a richer unfolding of human life could be possible for all, even as it undermines and blocks the practical achievement of such goals at every turn. A genuinely democratic education system really could contribute something definite, even liberating, to the development of human beings. Rather than embracing any kind of ‘cynicism’ (with a small or a large ‘C’) about that possibility, educators need to defend it.

Educators’ intentions can certainly be co-opted and compromised by ideological and material pressures on our institutions, but the embryo of an education based around the exploration of human capabilities, and not for capitalist advantage remains in existence. The answer for educators is not to turn to an individualistic and inward-looking philosophy, but to build solidarity and to act collectively, in demanding an education system fit for human beings rather for abstract labour.

Dominic Alexander

Dominic Alexander is a member of Counterfire, for which he is the book review editor. He is a longstanding activist in north London. He is a historian whose work includes the book Saints and Animals in the Middle Ages (2008), a social history of medieval wonder tales, and articles on London’s first revolutionary, William Longbeard, and the revolt of 1196, in Viator 48:3 (2017), and Science and Society 84:3 (July 2020). He is also the author of the Counterfire books, The Limits of Keynesianism (2018) and Trotsky in the Bronze Age (2020).