Apprenticeships: Addendum #1

But the reason why I have been intrigued by apprenticeships as a model of teaching, is that it seemingly affirms, but really essentially undermines, the kind of insane capitalism that is being enforced around us today.

It seems clear to me that the satisfaction in a job well done is one of the very few things that give any sort of meaning to life; that such a satisfaction comes only after exhaustive training; and that a society which does not valorise craft at any point is in some way failing to maintain the very nails and hinges that hold it together. This is not exactly a lone and loony position: Richard Sennett appraised the craftsman in 2009, in a beautiful and important book. It is also increasingly clear to me that Australia valorises exactly the opposite: the job done-just-enough. This is a worldview I see among academics just as much as among plumbers, and it is extraordinarily resilient to critique.

Apprenticeships are primarily a mode of teaching, an almost-one-on-one tuition that, as the Monocle video reveals, depends on touch, on hearing, and cannot be easily abstracted. It is exactly the sort of teaching that, in societies such as Australian, have been just about eradicated, and replaced with large-scale, standardised, detailless, bulk teaching. Two people that have considered this process most finely are Mark Fisher in Capitalist Realism and Konrad Liessmann in The Theory of Uneducation (sadly not translated into English yet).

Mark Fisher writes about how economic pronciples of profitability and efficiency are blindly applied to public services (specifically, education), how the processes of application are deeply irrational, and the results poor:

JF: Drawing from your experience working in the public sector as a lecturer, you write about “business ontology” – a pervasive belief that market criteria by which corporations judge success (profit, debt, growth, etc) are what really matter and would benefit any and all institutions. Thus overpaid managers have been integrated into what remains of the public sector (e.g., health care, education), creating dismal “anti-productive” bureaucracies at odds with the original social purposes of these institutions. Have I got that about right?

MF: Yes, although I think it’s important to make a distinction between markets and business here. It’s often not very easy to marketise public services. So what we have instead is pseudo-marketization, a series of measures designed to simulate the so-called market, and these typically involve bureaucracy: targets, league tables, spurious quantification, the whole battery of surveillance and self-surveillance that goes with ‘continuous professional development.’

The superiority of the ‘market’ over public services was supposed to be that it minimised bureaucracy, but one of the perverse effects of pseudo-marketisation is that it massively increases the amount of bureaucratic labour that workers in public services are subject to and required to do. However, it’s crucial that we don’t accept any of this on its own terms. These measures have nothing to do with their ostensible goal of ‘increasing efficiency’, but they achieve very well their unofficial aims of putting workers into a permanent state of anxiety and normalising the near-total control of culture by business.

I use the term ‘ontology’ because what’s been constructed is a world in which only business values and practices are held to count. One effect of this is to make public service workers think that they are lucky to have a job at all. They only have their ‘unproductive’ jobs because of the generosity and hard work of those in the private sector who do the ‘real work’. This was absurd enough before the bank bail-outs. It’s utterly insane now.

Konrad Liessmann, on the other hand, proposes the concept of ‘industrialization of knowledge’. For Liessmann, all the talk about ‘societies of knowledge’ and ‘knowledge economies’ just hides the fact that, instead, we are industrialising our knowledge production. When you google ‘industrialization of education’, you will get millions of hair-raising entries that genuinely extol the benefits of education in bulk, the lower costs, the savings, etc. However, Liessmann defines knowledge not as information, but, in the long European humanist tradition, as information supplied with meaning.

Instead, Liessmann sees contemporary education (from primary to tertiary) as applying all aspects of the industrial production process:

  • division of complex tasks into a long series of very simple tasks that can be performed by untrained employees (so that the course is designed by person A, subject outline by person B, teaching done by person C, but assessment by person D – and only person A might be well paid)
  • standardisation of procedure (national curricula, multiple-choice exams, point-based merit system that equalizes a medical-science article and a literary essay)
  • high concentration of producers (mega-universities) and
  • standardised mass products (generic subjects teaching ‘design process’ or ‘theory’, recombinable into courses, as opposed to tailor-made degrees).

In this context, the most interesting thing about the ‘Polish plumber syndrome’ is that it reveals the structural inefficiency of a supposedly rational, efficiency-driven model of education such as the one above. Apprenticeships, for all their kleinbűrgerlich associations, are models of inefficient learning by all of these standards. And yet they clearly create much better plumbers, so much that people will pay more and write newspaper articles about it, too.

And more generally, the year 2011 may be the year in which many a ‘rational’ approach has been finally unmasked as structurally completely not. From our banking to our plumbing…