“Non-learners ‘may lose benefits'” is one of the most bizarre, frightening, Orwellian headlines I’ve read in a long time. How did the concept of ‘learning’, or indeed ‘benefits’ become so thuggishly appropriated and cheapened by a government department? The double-speak in this sentence is truly shocking. ‘Learning’ is now defined as turning up to a government approved institution to do time; not an opportunity, not a state of mind or an inclination of the spirit, not a passion, but a threat issued with menaces. And if you refuse to ‘learn’, and have state aid refused to you in your hour of need, this will be expressed as you ‘losing benefits’.
‘Education, education, education’ as a New Labour slogan was bad enough – what kind of advert is it for education when a privately educated lawyer cannot say more on the subject than to repeat the topic three times? But now there is a new horror from Gordon Brown – his priorities, so the BBC article says, will be “excellence, excellence, excellence.”
It’s a shame that Mr Brown appears not to have read Bill Readings’ book The University in Ruins; or perhaps he has, and he is hoping that we haven’t.
Today, all departments of the University can be urged to strive for excellence, since the general applicability of the notion is in direct relation to its emptiness. Thus, for instance, the Office of Research and University Graduate Studies at Indiana University at Bloomington explains that in its Summer Faculty Fellowship program “Excellence of the proposed scholarship is the major criterion employed in the evaluation procedure.” This statement is, of course, entirely meaningless, yet the assumption is that the invocation of excellence overcomes the problem of the question of value across disciplines, since excellence is the common denominator of good research in all fields. Even if this were so, it would mean that excellence could not be invoked as a “criterion,” because excellence is not a fixed standard of judgement but a qualifier whose meaning is fixed in relation to something else.[…] So to say that excellence is a criterion is to say absolutely nothing other than that the committee will not reveal the criteria used to judge applications.
Readings, B. (1996) The University in Ruins. Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press, pp 23-24.
The case is argued beautifully over 20 pages of prose like this, and at the end of it, it is very hard to take the word ‘excellence’ seriously again. If, as Readings argues, the term is meaningless in a context such as the one quoted above, how much more meaningless is it when it is just repeated by Gordon Brown with no context at all. And how much more frightening when a meaningless term is allied to a threat of withdrawing benefit.