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We are condemned to learn

Towards higher education as a learning society


Author - Dr Ted Fleming


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Lifeworld colonisation

The lifeworld is the background consensus of our everyday lives, the vast stock of taken-for-granted definitions and understandings of the world that give coherence and direction to our lives (Habermas 1987: 131). It is ‘a storehouse of unquestioned cultural givens from which those participating in communication draw agreed-upon patterns of interpretation for use in interpretive efforts’ (Habermas 1990: 135). He defines the lifeworld as ‘the intuitively present, in this sense familiar and transparent, and at the same time vast and incalculable web of presuppositions that have to be satisfied if an actual utterance is to be at all meaningful, i.e. valid or invalid’ (Habermas 1987: 131).

Problems arise when the system invades the practical domain of the lifeworld and intervenes in the processes of meaning-making among individuals and communities in everyday life. The system world of the state administrative apparatus (steered by power) and the economy (steered by money) set their own imperatives over those of the lifeworld. Habermas develops the concept of colonisation to describe the relationship between system and lifeworld in capitalist society. It is reminiscent of Gramsci’s concept of hegemony where everyday practices (culture, recreation and interpersonal relations) are impregnated with the logic of the dominant ideology.

This is the crisis of late capitalism because if the lifeworld exists as a prereflectively, always already there set of assumptions on which we base our conversations about what we really need and how we want to live together in society, and if this is controlled by money and power, then our real needs and wishes are not identifiable. Instead, the needs of the system prevail and our public debates are compromised and distorted. The lifeworld is colonised by the functional imperatives of the state and economy, characterised by the cult of efficiency and the inappropriate deployment of technology (Habermas 1984: 12). As a result individuals and groups increasingly define themselves and their aspirations in system terms and see themselves as consumers and clients (Habermas 1987: 356).

The steering media of money and power have become so effective that individuals ‘become invisible,’ are seen by the economy as consumers and human resources, and by the political–legal system as voters or clients of bureaucracies (Kemmis 1998: 279). When systems function in this way, they are perceived to be natural and common sense, indifferent and beyond one’s control, and not subject to democratic accountability. The colonised lifeworld sees those things that are supportive of and consistent with the imperatives of the economy as common sense. Habermas calls this the uncoupling of system and lifeworld and both the lifeworld and the system are in need of transformation.

Here we can see the beginning of a radical understanding of how the discourse of HE is colonised by the functional imperatives of the state and the economy. This is probably the most far-reaching insight from Habermas of interest to this paper. The commercialisation of HE is one example of how the functional imperatives of the management model have come to hold a dominant position in HE. The values and practices of the economy, expressed both in the demand for changes in governance and management, come from the economy where a different set of imperatives (to those of HE) holds sway. The problem is compounded by the demise of the state which has become a cheerleader for the economy and sees itself as running the economy rather than running society. The challenge for HE is both to resist the colonising forces of the system and to identify a critical role in the light of this analysis.

Under this threat from the impact of the economy, HE is in danger for becoming uncritical in its acceptance of technology and technical rationality as ways of perceiving all problems as amenable to technical solutions. The same technological dominance is sedimented in the priority given to research funding for the physical sciences. Useful knowledge is often framed exclusively as technical and instrumental.

In the neo-liberal Celtic Tiger where there is only an economy and no society, where there are consumers and clients rather than citizens, the danger is that HE will see students as customers and teachers as service providers. This colonisation by the neo-liberal economy is the crisis facing HE. Everything is judged by money. The price of everything is measured and students become unit costs and FTEs. Power and money are not the imperatives of the lifeworld. Its solidarities can neither be coerced nor bought.

Colonisation is everywhere and is visible even at the level of architecture and campus design. For instance universities and colleges design and create spaces for learning. New campus buildings sediment the primacy of teaching in formal lecture theatres. New buildings create wonderful spaces for students to gather and for staff to lecture. But minimal space or even ‘useless space’ is created outside class halls for those conversations and discussions that are spontaneous, informal and which contribute to the social glue of interaction. In such spaces the most important learning might take place – if these spaces existed. In contrast, space is frequently occupied by commercial ventures, banks, coffee shops and mini-supermarkets. Shopping does not oil the wheels of interaction or learning. Instead of being members of a public sphere, students (and staff too) are invited to consume, to become – even between classes – contributors to the economy! The physical structures give important messages about how one might act. An alternative brief for campus design might ask this question. What kind of space would support the most interesting interactions, the most provocative debates and the most critical questioning among students?

E-learning offers another example of how the system imperatives can invade pedagogical practices. The constant ability of the tutor through the computer system to monitor, measure and mark the interactions of students on-line are good examples of these dangers. While public debates argue about ASBOs (anti-social behaviour orders) for young people, HE is quietly electronically tagging staff and students using electronic card systems for doors, e-learning monitoring and library access. All learning and work is minutely scrutinisable in an electronic panoptic.

What can be done? We cannot ignore or destroy the system. It has functions. But it is possible to insert lifeworld values, caring behaviours, ethical concerns and principles into the system and so resist and reverse colonisation. Habermas provides critique and theoretical support for those who continue to hope and work for a more rational society. Higher education has a role to play in this (Collins 1991: 7). The social goal toward which education strives is ‘one in which all members of society may engage freely and fully in rational discourse and action without this process being subverted by the system’ (Welton 1995b: 57). Habermas’s concept of the public sphere implies the possibility of creating a discourse that will protect the lifeworld from the system, preserve democracy and reconstruct civil society.

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