Commodities do not produce critiques

We often find ourselves in a crowd where any mention of the larger picture of capitalist world order is rubbished as mere rhetoric. But this was surely not the case when the discussion panel was chaired by Dr. K. N. Panikkar, convened by Shri. C. P. Narayanan and was constituted by Shri. Prabhat Patnaik, Shri Nainan Koshy, Shri Pannyan Raveendran and Shri P. K. Biju. Venue: Session on "Education System for Kerala in this Changing World Order" at the second day of Third International Congress on Kerala Studies.

Prof. Patnaik focussed mainly on the cause and effects of commodification of education. This is gist of the talk he delivered.

He opened his address by trying to make clear what he means by commodification in this context. Education system has always been a means of production and all those who have undergone a formal education are products of the system. But what makes the present different is that, as opposed to a diverse and vernacular production process, the present trend is to standardise the education system. Just like many products lost its identity when the production agent changed from a skilled craftsman to an automated factory, the products of present day education system also stand a chance to loose their individual identities and become a stock of standardised, labeled and tagged products. Needless to say, such commodities do not produce critiques.

Next, he went on to identify the cause of this commodification. In a country like India with a large reserve army of unskilled labourers, unskilled labour can be bought by capital at subsistence rates. But the production process also demands some amount of skilled labour. Here, since the size of the (skilled) reserve army is small, the salary levels tend to be much higher. This salary gap generates a class which is ready to spend heavily for the education of their children and there by an opportunity for the capital to again pitch in and sell education as a commodity.

He pointed out that this commodification of education is antithetical to the social purpose of education for the following reasons.A standardised education system, geared towards mass producing skilled labourers, leaves no room for creativity. Such an education system not only de-socialises the students, it results in a systematic destruction of resistance itself. In his opinion, IITs and IIMs can be considered successful not when they feature in the Times Higher Education rank list, but when their products refuse to take dowry, rise above casteism and shed their feudal vestiges. In reply to a question from the audience, he mentioned that the present metrics used to measure the quality of an academician, like the number of publications in refereed journals, number of patents, amount of funding etc are imperialism's ways of exerting its control over our education system.

In my experience as a teacher for five years, I had so often come across the symptoms of commodifciation of education. Though we had put up some fragmented resistances, there was no clarity on larger picture. Hence I rushed to meet Prof. Patnaik after his talk, and asked him what can people in the academia do to reverse this process of commodification. May be I get too naive when excited! He replied:

"You cannot fight imperialism just from within a campus. That fight has to be fought on a larger stage. Let us realise that the best we can do with in a campus is a holding on exercise."

He had no confusion on that. There is no alternative to class struggle. This was a great relief to us after hearing so many romantic proposals for soft revolutions during the last few days.