Re: Education, business and work

John McCreery (jlm@TWICS.COM)
Fri, 18 Oct 1996 10:27:47 +0900

First, a round of thanks to Ron Kephardt, Jim Martin, Stephanie Wilson,
Arthur Baron, and, especially, Wade Tarzia for the civility and good humor
of their contributions to this issue. (I really did fear that I would
ignite some flames with my extended rectal metaphors....)

Gary Palmer writes,

"As an anthropologist, Ron Kephart knows as well as anyone that isolating
the university from capitalism is probably impossible. He could
do us all a favor by giving us a thorough cultural analysis of
the university as an expression of late 20th century capitalism.
This would enable us to see how our situatedness within capitalism
constrains and distorts the university, but also creates

I can't speak for Ron, but from my perspective a prolegomena to the
analysis might go like this.

(1) Our academic culture and the wider popular culture in which it is
embedded are, in significant part, shaped by the peculiar Western European
social/political/ cosmological opposition between the church and the state,
the sacred and the secular, which was justified within Christendom by
Jesus' statement that we should "Render unto Caeser what is Caeser's and
render unto God what is God's," and is now enshrined in the American

(2) The origin myths of the university (as I understand them; I make no
claims to real historicity here) suggest that the university is a secular
version of the monastery, a place of refuge from war and economic strife
where knowledge of a "higher" sacred value is preserved and enlarged.

(3) Thus, at it's founding, the university is already a liminal creature,
with its secular status already in conflict with its sacred mission. Should
university faculty be celibate? Or allowed to be married? Obliged to live
"in-college" or allowed to maintain homes and families in the secular
world? Should they, as modern analogues of monks be expected to take vows
of poverty or should they be allowed to sell the fruits of their labors and
accumulate collective, if not individual, wealth? Our present debate is the
latest round in a long and on-going discussion of how to resolve the
university's sacred/secular ambiguity.

(4) The university is (here I follow Bourdieu) an example of social capital
whose value lies in creating distinctions between those who possess
"higher" education and are thus at least candidate members for the elite
and the hoi-polloi condemned to "lesser" things because they lack this

(5) As "capital" the university is subject to economic forces. In a;
thorough-going market economy the university faces the same marketing
problems as any purveyor of luxury goods, i.e., how to expand sales without
diluting the "sacred" value that is only sustainable through a combination
of high demand and low supply.

(6) Arguably, critical theorists who insist on denying the distinction
created by giving what the university teaches a special "sacred" status get
precisely what they are asking for. Instead of being, say, Lord & Taylor,
the university is now Woolworths or K-Mart, a purveyor of kitsch instead of
status symbols.

(7) Now, let us suppose that Ron is right, that knowledge is not property,
whose value lies in "I've got it, you can't have it," but a public good
that like miraculous loves and fishes can be endlessly divided without
diminishing its value.

I am, in fact, inclined to share this view., but find myself wrestling with
its consequences.

Why, for example, should we condemn plagiarism? Why not insist that our
students' write down one thousand times and thus commit to memory whatever
we take to be valuable?

Why, for that matter, should we allow original thought or the writing of
more or better books to be the ground of superior status within the

If faculties are not the secular analogue of monks, living under special
disciplines in exchange for the tithes they receive, why should there be a
university at all?

The curious thing is that the market has answers for all these questions.

We condemn plagiarism because what the market values is novelty, new things
that people will buy.

For the same reason, we allow and encourage originality.

The university? There seems to be a case that there are synergies to be
considered. Throwing a lot of intelligent people together in campus-like
settings will produce more things that people want to buy than if they are
working in isolation. (see Microsoft, for example).

What, then, of those who work on things too esoteric to attract a market?
Like their ideas, they too may be literally bankrupt.

My suggestion would be that to counter the all too bleak consequences of
this thorough-going market ideology, we must think through just what it is
that we will hold sacred, just what it is that we will hold value enough to
put at risk "our lives, our fortunes, our sacred honor." But, then, I, too,
am the product of the myths that shaped my childhood.

Does anyone here have better suggestions?

John McCreery
3-206 Mitsusawa HT, 25-2 Miyagaya, Nishi-ku
Yokohama 220, JAPAN

"And the Lord said unto Cyrus, 'Shall the clay say to him who moldest it,
what makest thou? Let the potsherd of the earth speak to the potsherd of
the earth." --An anthropologist's credo