Review by Jeffrey Tam
Nadim Bakhshov, Against Capitalist Education: What is Education For? (Zero Books, 2015) pp. 136.
Our daily routines contain a huge amount that we never interrogate, from conversations, exchanges, TV-time and meals to the repetitious paths we tread to work and back: the list in infinite. Many of these things become so habitual that, unconsciously, we begin to think it is only natural for us to go through these motions, repeating the patterns of everyday life as if instinctually. Guy Debord called such structures ‘the psychogeographical contours’ of modernity. Not only does it appear that there is no room for alternatives, but we rarely even notice that we are following these habitual structures, making it impossible to reflect on them. The education system, right from its policies to the classroom behavior of teachers and pupils, has become entrenched in such patterns, patterns which we do not even realize we are following, let alone being able to do anything to challenge or change them. Nadim Bakhshov’s Against Capitalist Education sets out to destabilize all these unconscious habits that the education system has foreclosed upon for years, arguing that (perhaps without the conscious adherence of teachers and educators) the whole of ‘education’ has become capitalist.
The book is creative, and should be seen as a critical argument that is not made directly. Instead, Bakhshov’s text is presented as a drama divided into acts. In other words, an argument about education and capitalism, something that would conventionally take the form of sustained prose, is given to us as a strange conversational dialogue instead. This attempt to subvert convention ties with the book’s main argument: that we should provide an alternative to all the shibboleths in academia and schooling and as such challenge the essay format itself. No doubt, the essay form is probably a deeply capitalist structure. Bakhshov presents this dialogue primarily through the imaginary characters of John Thoreau and George R Wells, two characters who may well be named in reference to George Orwell and Henry David Thoreau, who criticized the status quo and to varying degrees presented the idea of an alternate, improved society.
To counter the exploitation of education, the writer suggests its own imaginary utopian university – perhaps an attempt to visualize Jacques Derrida’s concept of ‘the university to come’ – Westhampton University. Westhampton is a university which aims to breed revolutionary ideas, break out of all the structures of ‘capitalist education’ and create alternatives for social, economic and political organization within education. Ultimately it aims to bring education back to its roots in enlightenment thinking, recovering it from its entanglement with business and profiteering. William Morris perhaps, is not far away. Westhampton University’s internal structures – its departments, goals and syllabuses – are carefully laid out in the book through written conversations which act also as a thought process of self-criticizing and finding a clear way out. The conversation form may be an attempt to ensure that rules are not dictated but discussed. The book may be on the conventional side of liberalism in having such a utopian vision, but it is more unique in its approach to this dream, and it certainly stimulates unusual reflection.
Bakhshov points out that schooling discourages students from challenging their schools, making them unconsciously prone to exploitation as they become predisposed to accept the system in which they function. The school becomes a power structure that recycles and re-inscribes notions of power, authority and hierarchy, values which, Bakhshov argues, serve capitalist agendas on an often unconscious level. His book, then, is the latest in the line of a great tradition of education texts. From Charles Dickens’s Hard Times, where the school room is presented as a utilitarian nightmare in which facts are poured into children until they are full to the brim, to Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, in which the freedom of children is thrown into question, authors have seen the schoolroom as an embodiment of social power structures that we need to unseat.
One area which is often seen as a radical attempt to undo existing structures is that of ‘critical theory.’ Critical theorists are often seen as the radicals opposing societal and educational norms, but Bakhshov’s text makes a different point about critical theory, arguing that that critique is never enough. He warns that some forms of critical theory may contribute to the maintenance of the capitalist status quo because they stop short of going beyond criticizing, so that in a strange relationship, both the theory and its criticized subjects, despite the perceived antagonism between them, are allowed to co-exist and correlate.
This is a book that will interest critical theorists, whether they agree with it or not, and even more so those involved directly in education, whether students, teachers or policy-makers. For those potentially interested, the author has set up an ‘Against Capitalist Education Podcast’ which discusses these issues with guests. Bakhshov’s text, for all its madness, is exceptionally thought-provoking. Whilst not every reader will be convinced by its utopian vision or its solutions, the main force of the book lies in its ability to make visible the underlying structures in the world of education that we need to spot and combat.
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Jeffrey Tam is a writer and musician born and living in Hong Kong. His book reviews have appeared in both the Hong Kong Review of Books and the South China Morning Post.