Clyde Street

Learning, Teaching, Performing

CCK08: Week 11 Possessive Individualism Revisited in the Post Historical University


I am resisting the calls of my garden to write an early post about CCK08 Week 11 readings. My morning started with this error message whilst trying to access George’s (2008) paper:


(I wondered if this was one of the ‘new dangers’ mentioned in Michael Peters’ paper but such is the capability of the techno-culture that I was able to access the paper on-line some thirty minutes later). I did download Michael Peters’ paper Higher Education, Globalisation and the Knowledge Economy and started my reading.

I enjoyed Michael Peters’ analysis. I have lived through the period he describes and analyses. I studied social science at the University of York (1970-1973) at a time of student activism nourished by events at the Sorbonne in 1968. I was involved in higher education in the UK from 1978 to 2002 and witnessed at first hand the tectonic changes occurring in the status of the university and the value (in both senses of ‘value’ – benefit and cost) of higher education.

I have extracted three points from Michael Peters’ paper that strike me as fundamentally important:

I want to take a different tack and suggest a form of the university that does not break entirely with the founding historical discourses and their single unifying ideas but preserves them, adapts them to new conditions, reinvents and redefines them as an imaginative basis for resistance against the narrowing of thought (Michael Peters, 2007, p.21).

The existence of a philosophical ethos as a permanent critique of our historical era (after Michel Foucalt quoted in Michael Peters, 2007, p.24).

We must begin to understand the new techno-cultures in relation to the university where the radical concordance of image, text and sound sets up new exigencies and promises for pedagogy but also new dangers (Michael Peters, 2007, p.24).

I do believe that higher education has a vital role to play in the second order questioning of knowledge and cultural reproduction. I believe too that agile institutions must engage with the ‘radical concordance’ available to them and accept the volatility and disruption educational technologies bring. It was fortunate that after reading Michael Peters’ conclusion to his paper I was able to move on immediately to George’s paper.

I think George develops the “new exigencies and promises” for pedagogy very well. I do believe that accreditation in the postmodern or post historical university is a very important issue. Away from the system of higher education I am perplexed by the status anxiety universities have about qualifications and research rankings. I understand that I may be missing a fundamental economic point here but believe that epistemology and pedagogy are not the sole reserve of higher education institutions. I do believe that courses such as CCK08 provide “an imaginative basis for resistance against the narrowing of thought” but realise that there is a tension between non-hierarchical approaches to learning and a formal credit model of participation.

In my post about Utopian education I mentioned Michael Young’s biography of the Elmhirsts. I did not mention that Michael Young was a founder of the Open University and a former pupil of Dartington Hall School. He writes about his time at the school with enormous affection in The Elmhirsts of Dartington (1982) … “before I had always longed for the end of the term … now it was the other way round: I longed for the end of the holidays”.

Michael (Peters) and George identify for me the possibilities of a different kind of education afforded by our present context. Michael (Young) emphasises for me the possibilities of a libertarian approach to knowing that is intoxicating. (An obituary printed in The Guardian exemplifies this approach.)

I want to conclude this post with mention of Crawford Brough Macpherson in deference to the co-hosts of CCK08. Whilst in my period of ferment at the University of York I did study political philosophy and whilst reading Hobbes, Locke et al I came across and read with enormous interest The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism (1962). I think his arguments resonate wonderfully with this week’s discussion. C.B. argues for the repair of the philosophical arguments of the rights of an individual forged in the crucible of seventeenth century debate. The repair that is needed is one that “would bring back a sense of the moral worth of the individual and combine it again with a sense of the moral value of community…” (1962, page 2).

One must be able to postulate that the individuals of whom the society is composed see themselves, or are capable of seeing themselves, as equal in some respect more fundamental than all respects in which they are unequal (1962, page 272).

The dilemma of modern liberal-democratic theory is now apparent: it must continue to use the assumptions of possessive individualism at a time when the structure of market society no longer provides the necessary conditions for deducing a valid theory of political obligation from those assumptions. (1962, page 275).

… technical change in the methods of war … has created a new equality of insecurity among individuals, not merely within one nation but everywhere (1962, page 277).

Wikipedia notes that Macpherson claimed that what he had always been trying to do was to “work out a revision of liberal-democratic theory, a revision that clearly owed a great deal to Marx, in the hope of making that theory more democratic while rescuing that valuable part of the liberal tradition which is submerged when liberalism is identified as synonymous with capitalist market relations.”

My thinking is that in a postmodern and post history context we must continue to address authority and the civic responsibility of the individual. Michael Peters has indicated one way of addressing the role of the University and George’s paper has given voice to the agility required to transform that University. Radical concordance brings the Sorbonne days back to me and that wonderful opportunity to contemplate how local action can address ‘false consciousness’.

Perhaps I should be off to the barracades rather than the garden!

Author: Keith Lyons

Clyde Street has been my WordPress blog since June 2008. I write about learning, teaching and performing.

3 thoughts on “CCK08: Week 11 Possessive Individualism Revisited in the Post Historical University

  1. Greetings from Austria.
    How can I contact you?

  2. Thank you Keith,

    I have really a lot to learn from your posts.


  3. Pingback: CCK08: Week 11 End of Term Feeling? « Clyde Street

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