The Degree Business Geography as a Commodity

Academic disciplines have never been insulated from wider governmental, economic or cultural forces. As David Harvey (1996: 95) famously put it, geography 'cannot be understood independently of the . . . societies in which [it is] embedded'. The 'nature' of geography is thus determined not only by internal struggles within the discipline - like those between the aforementioned Gillian Rose and her antagonists - but also by external influences. The geographer Allen Scott (1982) was among the first to analyse these influences. He argued that, though students don't realize it, their geography education (like all education) has a twin societal function. First, it is designed to make the existing order of things seem 'normal' (a legitimation function). Societies, Scott maintained, cannot remain stable if their citizens are constantly questioning and challenging the social order. Education, in his view, creates more-or-less conformist people and thus acts as an important glue to hold society together. Second, Scott also observed that education has an accumulation function. That is, it helps to produce people who will go on to become 'good workers' with the necessary intellectual and practical skills to expand their national economy.

Though this may sound like a rather crude argument, Scott was not suggesting that education is only about social control and economic reproduction. Universities in particular, he argued, have a 'relative autonomy': that is, they are partly independent of governments, businesses and the wider public. Indeed, it's that very independence that has allowed many human geographers to develop and teach Habermas's second and third knowledge types since Scott wrote his essay. But it's here that I want to make you reflect not just on what you're taught in your degree but how you value it. For this is not determined by you alone. Instead, it's partly determined for you by wider societal forces.

Let me explain. Recently, a central government minister in Britain decried the proliferation of what she called 'Mickey Mouse degrees', while another was dismissive of what he called 'ornamental subjects'. The implication was there were 'proper degrees' that all university students should be taking. But what is a 'proper degree'? The answer, clearly, depends upon what you think the goals of a university education are. For the ministers in question, it was obvious that 'proper' meant vocational degrees (like management studies and nursing) or else academic degrees (like geography and physics). Their preference for these over 'Mickey Mouse degrees' (like soccer studies) rested on the conviction that degrees should equip people to be effective workers for the future. 'Ah ha!', you might say, 'but there the ministers have got geography all wrong.' Yes, geography is by and large an 'academic' discipline (when compared with, say, urban planning). And, yes, geography students tend to be fed enough 'instrumental-technical' knowledge so that they possess the core transferable skills to be cogs in the machine that is capitalism. But what the ministers have forgotten, you might be thinking, is that geography is one of several academic disciplines that teaches lots of 'non-useful', 'non-utilitarian' knowledge. So geography, it follows, can allow students to be the kind of people they want to be -compliant citizens or subversives, depending on the case!

So far so good. But I'd suggest that the counter-view is equally plausible: that the ministers are actually correct. First, it is arguable that universities are a very good place for Habermas's second and third knowledge types to be expressed. Take critical-emancipatory knowledges like feminism, anti-racism and environmentalism. These are definitely not the kind of knowledges that satisfy the legitimation and accumulation functions that, in Scott's view, education is made to serve. But by allowing them to be expressed in universities, they are arguably neutered. Students can be 'fed' these knowledges in the 'banking' approach to learning that Watkins bemoans without any visible threat to the societies those knowledges call into question! These students still come out of universities being the kind of people that the ministers so obviously desire. Second, even if this is not true, when geography professors teach about the machinations of the World Trade Organization or why animals have rights, this is not qualitatively different from teaching about spatial autocorrelation. To be sure, the topics are varied. But, equally, in all three cases students are acquiring transferable, analytical skills that can help them to be accountants as much as anti-road protestors.

Third (and here I turn to those wider forces I promised to talk about above), the way you internalize what you learn as a geography student is structured by your expectations of your degree. And your expectations are, in part, socially conditioned - they do not emerge from you alone, fully-formed, as if you existed as a sovereign individual. In a book entitled Academic Capitalism, the educational sociologist Sheila Slaughter (1997) has argued that Western universities are losing some of that relative autonomy I mentioned earlier. For her, they are becoming more like businesses whose principal commodities are degrees and whose main market is students. In the UK, for example, government funding for universities has declined, while degree students have, for the first time, been made to pay for their own education. Heavily reliant on student funding to survive, British universities have doubled their intake in little over a decade. Meanwhile, many students are understandably keen to ensure that their money is well spent. For Slaughter, higher education has become a commodity for sale, while graduates have become higher education's commodities.

We can examine Slaughter's thesis with reference to the ideas of the famous nineteenth-century economist Karl Marx. According to him, all commodities - be they shoes or degrees - have a use-value and an exchange-value. The former is a thing's practical utility (what you can do with it), whereas the latter is its monetary worth (how much it can be sold for). The use-value of a degree is thus what you can do with the knowledge that's been accumulated over x number of years, while its exchange-value is how much that knowledge is worth to others (like an employer). In capitalist societies, Marx argued, most people must ultimately sell themselves to others (as labourers) for the bulk of their lives if they are to survive. Ipso facto, a university degree clearly contributes to a person's employability. In the 1970s, a French theorist (Jean Baudrillard) added a twist to Marx's analysis of commodities and thereby to this perspective on degrees. He argued that commodities also have a sign-value. This is the symbolic worth of any commodity within a given society. Thus a degree from Harvard clearly has a higher sign-value than one from, say, the University of Nebraska (no offence intended to students of the latter institution!). If we add Marx and Baudrillard together, we can see what Slaughter is getting at: in Western societies, exchange-value and sign-value are given such importance by people that they deeply affect the kind of use-values they look for in commodities. To simplify, in the case of higher education, Slaughter implies that students are now more likely to demand 'relevant' degree programmes (especially from prestigious universities) because this will maximize their employability. And the more that students pay for their own higher education, the more they need to be able to land a well-paid job in the first place. It's a vicious cycle.

Though you may think this argument is overstated, it at least has the virtue of challenging you to reflect on how your attitude to your higher education is, in part, structured for you. Do you view your degree as a means to build your CV or resume and become properly 'credentialized'? Or do you expect something else (more?) from it? Don't get me wrong, at some level your education should help you to secure gainful employment. You necessarily have to be concerned with the way the use-, exchange-and sign-value of your degree can combine to launch you into a career. But this doesn't mean that your degree is simply a means to the end of employment. And, even if you choose to see it that way, you can also make decisions about what bundle of skills and knowledges to take away from your university studies.

These choices and decisions matter an awful lot - for you, for society and for the discipline of geography in the future. They matter for you for the reasons already mentioned: because they shape the person you become (are becoming) as well as your future (work and non-work) opportunities. They matter for society because society consists, ultimately, of lots of people like you and me: individual agents whose actions, together, constitute, reproduce and sometimes transform the institutions, relationships and rules that structure those actions in the first place. In the parlance of sociologists, agents make societies but societies, in turn, condition what agents can realistically think and do. Though Scott was right that education is often remarkably conformist in its legitimation and accumulation functions, it is also potentially productive of people who are prepared to question the existing social order. What kind of person has your geographical education helped you become and what kind of society will your future actions promote? Finally, your expectations of your degree influence the future of geography as a discipline because they affect us - the people who teach you. As university students you can vote with your feet. If you don't like what we want to teach you, then, ultimately, we won't teach it. David Harvey (2000) provides a graphic example, recounting how few students now take his annual graduate seminar on the work of Karl Marx compared to its popularity in the 1970s - the reason being that most contemporary students regard Marx as either a curiosity or just an out-dated Victorian theorist. If Harvey's experiences were to be repeated in geography departments worldwide, then Marxist geography might, in a few short years, cease to be taught at degree level in any meaningful way. The same is true, in principle, for any aspect of a university geography curriculum: its survival is, in significant part, contingent on students' judgements as to its value.

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