Thursday, 24 May 2012

What is growth?

Economic growth appears to be over. At least for the time being. Which is a good time to ask "exactly what is over?" For when we think of growth, we think of this:
Over time, we are monetarily richer. Why does that convey meaning? Perhaps because over time we can see ourselves being able to acquire things which we weren't able to do before. But of course, what it is that we might choose to acquire is dependent of economic forces outside our own individual growth. Fundamentally, it may be that growth is an increase in possibilities where more of the world shows potential to us because we see that we can do more with it; we anticipate more. Consequently, growth may be related to an increasing sense of meaningfulness in life.

That is revealing because the experience of contraction is often accompanied by depression, bewilderment and a decreasing sense of meaningfulness: things that were meaningful before, where we anticipated much, now seem less promising; hopes are dashed, and so on. That's pretty much the mood in UK HE at the moment!

I argued here ( that education "is the possibility of an increase in possibilities". What does that have to do with growth (economic or otherwise?). If we see economic growth as an increase in the meaningfulness of the world brought about through increasing capital assets, education presents the possibility of increased meaningfulness through increasing intellectual resources which underpin increased communicative power. Communicative power unlocks new possibilities, including of course, the acquisition of capital assets which themselves can render more meaning in the world.

What I'm arguing is that economic growth and education are very similar: essentially they are existential concerns which seek meaning in life, where meaning is seen as a 'structuring of anticipations' (following Leydesdorff). Intellectual development can off-set capitalist behaviour because it too can render the world meaningful in ways which do not require (or even critique) capitalism. 

What might all this mean in the emerging education industry, where education is subject to capitalism, and where capital become essential to the unlocking of education opportunities? It is perhaps no surprise that this should happen: once the scope for capitalist growth in terms of increasing profits and exploitation has been exhausted, capitalism should turn towards that enterprise which shares its drive for meaning. 

This need not be altogether bad, although no doubt there will be much that's bad in it because there is so much scope for confusion. But a confused education system simply cannot deliver meaning. Confusion is the antithesis of meaning. 

What is required in both our economic thinking and our educational thinking is a deeply critical examination of what they are about and how they inter-relate. In particular, how they relate to the meaningfulness of individual lives is of fundamental importance. 

When people die, they usually leave behind two significant things:
  • the assets they acquired in life
  • the vestiges of the communications they made (in letters, blogs, and in the memories of those they loved)
These are tied up together and they develop together. In a life, there are many threats to both the assets (through catastrophic loss, bankruptcy, etc) and to the communications (breakdown of relationships, poor attachments in childhood, etc). 

The central educational question is an economic one; the central economic question is an educational one. We have looked at the world through one eye only; now we need to open both eyes and perceive the depth of a human life.

1 comment:

Simon Grant said...

Indeed, the concept of "growth" seems now to be hotly contested. Can we not separate human growth and development from economic growth? If that is difficult, perhaps we need to devote more time and energy to the clarification?

The first thing to do is never to use the term "growth" without specifying the thing that is supposed to be growing. The time has come when calling growth "economic" no longer satisfies the need to specify what is growing.