Saturday 30 March 2013

Absence, Mindfulness and Decision

I find that Easter is a mindful time of year. It is a time for letting go of what's past and renewing hopes and readiness for what lies ahead. But because it is such a meditative time, there is also an opportunity for thinking about the nature and power of prayer and meditation itself. It feels like a regrouping of strength, a gathering of resources, a process of 'listening' and authenticity which produces a general nourishment. My experience is that it works. But I am mystified as to how it works. What's the mechanism?

Mindfulness researchers have been looking at this for some years now. In a research area growing from psychology, there are numerous theories around, looking at the social and neurobiological effects of meditation. I must confess this isn't really my thing, although much of it looks interesting. I worry about the tendency (which is not universal) towards a mentalist description of mindfulness. Indeed, the polarity between mentalist and behaviourist conceptions dog most attempts to grasp what are fundamentally metaphysical ideas.

What interests me most is the relation between mindful behaviour and decision. It is, after all, the decisions we take, not whether we can retreat into a meditative state, which count. I have been arguing for some time for a model of decision-making where what is not thinkable has a causal bearing on the decision that is taken (see In other words, it is what is absent from thought which determines action, not the internal logic of thought itself. In fact, our very conception of logic is bound up with  the communicative decisions we take and the way that discourse is coordinated (as in Habermas's 'communicative rationality').

This is slippery territory, because rationality lurks somewhere - even in arguments that seek to challenge conventional notions of it, it is the best (only?) thing we have as humans for coordinating ourselves. But the challenge appears to be finding effective ways of using rationality so that we don't steer ourselves into catastrophe.

There seems to be a relationship between mindfulness and absence. We often feel disposed towards different kinds of decisions after meditation or prayer. Is the difference an opening-up of new areas of thought? If it is the case that absence causally determines decision, then we could see that if meditation determines areas which were previously absent from thought, then this would have an impact on decision.

I have a hunch (only a hunch!) that meditation and prayer are moments of determination of absence. This is what listening does. New concepts are discovered. In the process of doing this, the landscape of absences changes. From a game-theoretical perspective (see - I'm talking in short-hand to get it all down!), new concepts may be recursively applied thus changing the decision-tree and identifying new kinds of equilibrium points.

But there is another question concerning the 'brain' within which this happens. My description as it stands appears 'mentalist': it appears that the determining of absence happens within a person's head. I do not think this is what happens. As I argued here ( I think the deep experience of dwelling on an absence is deeply social. Prayer is not personal; it is social. It is social because the sensation of dwelling on something deep is quite universal, and we know that our feeling of being 'in the presence of a higher power' is the same feeling that every other member of the species experiences in these circumstances. It is not a moment of personal discovery (as it is sometimes portrayed). It is a moment of social identification borne from the realisation of a shared biology.

If this were not the case, no composer would ever be able to calculate the effect of the deep piano bottom note with a soft tam-tam and tubular bell (as in the opening of Britten's War Requiem) as being sufficiently universal to be not only recognised by a group of people as 'art' but whose emotional intention is successfully communicated.

But if prayer is fundamentally social, if it is the moment of deep identification not of the individual but of the species, doesn't that also mean it is political? 

Wednesday 27 March 2013

Politicizing Educational Technology

Technology seems to just happen to us. MOOCs are 'just happening' to us. But as the recent backlash against Google Glasses shows (see it is social change which legitimates itself according to a progressivistic logic, but for which nobody votes. There is no democratic accountability for technological change.

This is a question that Andrew Feenberg and Ulrich Beck have been asking - the challenge seems to be "how can technical developments be considered within a context of an informed political debate? How can the will of the people count in technology?" This is tricky. It is not true that all technical developments are 'off' the political agenda. Developments in biotechnology and genetic engineering are very much political issues. But developments in social technologies arguably have a greater impact (certainly a wider impact) than any of the "niche" technical developments that people worry about, yet there is little discussion about beyond 'healthy living' advice ("don't spend too much time online!", "video games are bad/good for you", etc) which appears more as lifestyle advice rather than political force.

The deep problem is one of distinction-making. Social technologies blur the boundaries between the person and their environment. It challenges us to think of what we mean by 'will' and 'freedom' in the first place. The very assumptions of democracy become blurred in the corporate strategies of global technology companies. And they, of course, like it like that.

Where do we start to draw distinctions? What measures can we use to keep our bearings? The social sciences abounds with competing theories and methodologies by which academics grapple with this - often only servicing the needs of the academic machine and academic careers rather than making concrete social progress. One theory - a cybernetic one - which I think is particularly pernicious is the "everything's a process" theory. "education's a process, society's a process, we're all in a process..!" The technology companies love that! There's nothing to get hold of in a sea of relavistic logic which is always defensible, but which invites those who can dictate the processes to run the show. The technology firms, the financial services industries are very much 'dictating the process' at the moment. Governments, the representatives of the will of the people, are dancing to their tune.

We are not processes. We are "persons". If you ask me what a "person" is, I cannot really say abstractly, except to say you and I are one, and there are things that we share: there are people we love and who love us. There are hopes and dreams and there are fears. And all people are like that, and yet they are all fundamentally different in the details. And whatever fancy ideas we have for the way the world works, those ideas take second place to our dreams, our loves, and the drive for meaning in our lives.

The essential problem of the social sciences and politics seems to be that we can't get beyond 'persons'. There is no satisfactory abstraction into institutions and social structures (although those things certainly have causal powers); there is no satisfactory abstraction into the components of experience of consciousness (yet mental process too are important). Persons are not divisible and each is different.

What does "the will of the people" mean when we look at things like this? My will is not a statement. It is not an abstraction. It is a movement towards something which I cannot tell. It is an absence. Ah! But there's a clue. Because the will of people is not the will of a person. It is what happens when many persons understand their common absences. Then politics is possible.

Our technology world is largely 'positive'. E-learning has been particularly guilty of a positive self-presentation and an entrepreneurial drive. Criticality gets pushed aside. Instead we assert things which are there, rather than the things which are left out. Politicizing technology means concentrating on the absences. It is through the process of determining what isn't there that coherent distinctions can be made. 

Tuesday 26 March 2013

Objects and Processes

Are objects processes? There is a view in 2nd-order cybernetics that this is the case. Is it right?

The qualities of processes are different from the qualities of what we think objects to be. I tend to think of  objects as concrete, intrinsically intransitive and heterogeneously composed (composed of many parts). Processes, by contrast, I think are intangible (apart from our abstractions which attempt to describe them), intrinsically transitive, and recursively composed (processes make up processes and so on). If I am a process, I am recursive, intangible and transitive. If I am an object, I am concrete, intransitive and composed of diverse parts.

How can something be intangible and yet we can say it is recursively composed? My idea of process is an object, which in turn is a process (if objects are processes). To think of myself as an object, rather than a process, I would have to say that my concreteness is certainly hard to pin down (which suggests I may be a process!), although the concreteness of a rock is a reasonable assertion. But it is not beyond possibility that rocks are processes! But I would say of myself as an object that I am composed of parts. It may be that those parts are themselves processes, and that I might be a process thinking of sub-processes. I change and yet I am the same.

This hurts my brain!

That's interesting. What happens there? These ideas of processual whirl leads my brain to hurt, and paralyze me into inaction. But part of me is hungry. What has my hunger to do with the processes? Is it just another process? A whirl in my biological mechanism aimed at maintaining the viability of my body? But my brain is equally part of that... How is my biology no more than an idea of how I might be a mechanism? An idea which has parts, recursions, etc.

I am really hungry! I need to eat! But why does this stuff about objects and processes matter? Why am I driven to sort out the difference between processes and objects? Maybe because coming down on one side of the argument or the other, I want to be right. The clambering after the truth of the matter is clambering for status - social advantage in conversation and academic debate. My "rightness" might have a bearing on my influence and power in the world. Because "I want to be right!" is related to "I want to be powerful!", which in turn is related to "I want my life to have meaning!".

If I am right about being a processes, then I am right about the recursiveness - in essence I am right about everything. That makes me very powerful ... if I am right. What I have to do is convince everyone. The promise of a meaningful life and global adoration is only around the corner!! If I am right about being an object, can I only be right about a particular object? Other objects may be different. Maybe I might persuade everyone to categorise all the different kinds of object and produce giant taxonomies! My object-focusedness, if I am right, drives everyone into a kind of bureaucratic methodological process.

But what's driving this is the search for meaning. That appears to be deeply tied up with my relations with other people. It appears to be tied up with love in some way. Meaning may be a coordinating process - a process whereby I anticipate the likely actions of those around me (and anticipate them correctly because I control them!). But the entities which are tied up with my meaningfulness are concrete: other people, who tend to be different, who defy universalising descriptions. If I am a process, they are processes. There must be some Archimedean point where our processes meet.

But there isn't. We are different. I don't think I'm either object or process. If this is (deep down) all about love, then too much thinking can get in the way! We need to concentrate on looking after each other...

Saturday 23 March 2013

Conviviality and Absence: An Interactive Theatre approach

I've been playing with some interesting technology recently. Using the Wookie Widget Store from the iTEC project, I've developed an easy way to 'present' widgets (apps) to users remotely in real-time. I cobbled this out of Wookie's default 'voting' widget, and it wasn't too difficult. But the result is that participants are looking at a web page which displays a widget through an embed code, and the activities/widgets that they can engage in can be coordinated by a teacher. I first tried this out for a talk I gave in Eisendstadt - which stimulated a lot of discussion. Although there are many ways in which this kind of real-time control can be achieved these days (Google hangouts has similar functionality, for example), this works outside the Google ecosystem. It's just a web page; no login - it just does the job.

Then I thought that rather than change the tools remotely with human intervention, why not create a 'sequencer' that sits behind a video. So there is video instruction, and as the video progresses, so the tools available change. That's more interesting, because it's a bit like watching a video, but it's also a bit like engaging in a shared activity as the video runs. Trying this out in Spain and Austria a few weeks ago has suggested that in these situations of 'shared experience' something tangible happens to learners - they talk to each other about their experiences. In a quiz, for example, when everyone is asked to vote on a question, they will turn to each other and say "what do you think?".

The level of conversation and interpersonal engagement is interesting. There is a question: do learners engage more with each other when they have a shared experience and they have a shared activity, or do they engage more with each other when they are doing different things? That is an important question, because much of the pedagogy of inquiry-based learning suggests the importance of individual needs-based activity (or at least group activity only where it is appropriate to learner needs). It is also interesting theoretically, because it relates directly to the relationship between communication and reflexivity: there are some environmental parameters which can be tweaked in order to understand (for example) how Luhmann's 'psychic' system might relate to his 'social' system; or perhaps how Harre's 'storyline' relates to 'positions' and speech acts. And of course it provides a way where those (and a number of other theories) might be tested and their absences explored.

But maybe understanding the role of absence goes deeper than just the absence in the theories. I have been suggesting recently that communicating processes implicate deeper levels of coordination of absences as well as coordinations of communications. For example, we might paint 'consensus' (which is a difficult concept) as when we all agree on something that is missing for all of us, rather than something which is present (which is how most cybernetic theories of consensus portray it). With differentiable elements (individual personal environments/shared environments) we can ask how the configurations of elements produce different communication patterns. We can ask how the dynamics of communication are related to the dynamics of personhood and the dynamics of absence.

I think this important. Because if there's one thing we are learning at the moment with all the drastic institutional changes we are living through, we are interconnected in very deep ways which cannot simply be accounted for by the concrete/present acts we make with each other. Removing one person from a team (however useful or not that person may be deemed to be) has unforeseen consequences on the whole body of people. This is poorly understood, and there is no coherent theoretical explanation. And yet it appears to be the case. It means that our intellectual life may be more deeply socially entwined than we thought. It means that distinctions between electronic social media and physical conviviality are important, and that one is not equivalent to the other. And it may mean that those institutions that thrive and those that don't will be separated by the extent to which organisational change is conducted and managed in the knowledge of the deep impacts each change has.

Wednesday 13 March 2013

The Pathology of Entrepreneurialism in Universities

Patrick McAndrew's (@openpad) talk at #cetis13 made me reflect on the increasing drive for Universities to be more entrepreneurial and the different forms this takes. Behind initiatives like globalisation, strategic recruitment of AAB students, drives in increasing retention, online initiatives like MOOCs, better analytics, etc, there are latent messages: "be more entrepreneurial", "bring in more money", "increase customer satisfaction", etc. They are the kind of demands that any business would make; they are the fundamental demands that entrepreneurialism makes. As Ronald Barnett (in his recent book "Imagining the University" and in the TES: see has commented, the 'Entrepreneurial University' is the dominant model in the sector. Yet, the idea of a university is deeply contested within the academy itself (Barnett produces a wonderful list of possible 'ideas' of the University!). He argues for the University to be a place for the exploration of 'feasible utopias' (although this has attracted some criticism in the TES, particularly from Simon Blackburn: see

My sympathies are divided between the two sides of the argument: but it is an important argument. Barnett acknowledges his debt to Roy Bhaskar, and his language is somewhat abstract as so much writing around critical realism can be (no doubt this is not Roy's fault, but if one becomes an evangelist, it is easy (ironically) to lose perspective on reality!). I think however, he lands some powerful punches, and there is a dearth of good critical writing about Universities. And Critical Realism can be a powerful way of unblocking one's thinking. Simon Blackburn's comment is much in the vein of my criticism of Sir Ken Robinson: "Well, so everything's terrible and we need more creativity/utopianism/openness/etc... what, exactly, are you going to DO about it, rather than just talk??" Barnett, as Blackburn points out, is short on practical detail.

Universities are asking some very practical questions right now: "how to attract more students? how to increase employability? how to increase retention? how to expand globally?" etc. These are the questions of the entrepreneurial university. But there are many other questions that might be asked in a university. For example, why do we never hear "how do we get students to think better? how do we get people to think about harder problems? how do we increase creativity?". One would have thought in an institution for thinking, these would be important questions. But they are not the questions of the entrepreneurial university. They are questions of the kind of university universities used to be (I don't want to give them a label - but just to say they were places to think).

The entrepreneurial model ignores these questions. It is as if it regards the failure to address the challenges of deep thinking as inconsequential as to their future and viability (and inconsequential on the society that sustains them). This is unlikely to be true, but critical engagement with the issue demands precisely the same kind of deep thinking that is precluded by the entrepreneurial model.

But the entrepreneurial model is where we are and what we've got. The thinkers are having to take shelter (Barnett's shelter, and certainly Blackburn's will probably weather the storm) whilst a brash breed take the steering wheels. But this is very frightening.

Saturday 9 March 2013

Money, Education and Tokens of Absence

Money does amazing things to us. It can reach into the darkest recesses of any personality (however much they might wish to deny its power over them) and, at the very least, cause an emotional response. A £20 note lying on the road is likely to cause most of us to pick it up (whether or not we choose or intend to keep it; the possibility of keeping it is always there). There are few interventions in the environment which can have such a strong effect on agency.

As I argued here ( the materiality of money is important. It is a thing which everyone can see. Whilst its usage and meaning is constructed, our economy depends on our capacity to ascribe causal significance on a physical token.

What is it a token for? As I argued here ( money increases capability: the flexibility with which we can act in response to the challenges life throws at us. Having money and not having money make a difference when we are faced with risks. The impact of unemployment is far less if one has the liquid assets or other private means that would ensure one didn't lose one's house. With reduced risk comes greater confidence and courage - themselves attributes that build greater capability. Without money and social risks become smothering.

But I don't think money is a token for capability, although it increases capability. In economic exchange, something to which one is attached through having the relation that we call 'ownership' is given up. Money compensates for what is lost. If there is no compensation, then we would say that the thing in question has been 'stolen', although money is not the only compensation for loss (altruistic or potlatch-style "giving" brings its own compensation, for example). But I think this compensatory aspect of money suggests that money might  be a token for anything which might be lost; it is a token of absence.

So there is a token of absence, whose use in exchange creates increased capability.

So what of education? It too, as I argued before, much like money, also increases capability. At first glance though, education doesn't appear to have a material 'token' - certainly not a universally recognised one. If it was someone's degree certificate lying on the road, I'm not sure that many people would pick it up. But a degree certificate is a token for the individual it is assigned to. But an educational certificate compensates for the loss of money by an employer. It does this by making a fiduciary statement: "this person will be able to do...". Most employers will not hand over their cash on the basis of certificates alone, but they will hand over their time in interviewing a person. The interview itself is a process of identifying whether the concerns of the employee and the concerns of the employer are compatible. The educational certificate is the first step in that process.

Understanding the processes of agreement, consensus and this kind of meeting of minds is important to understanding the relationship between the tokens of education and the process of employment. I do not think that consensus is achieved by a coordination of specific communications in agreement. I think a better explanation would look at the coordination of absences between people. It is a negative process. Communicating reveals the person by revealing their absences (the things which bear upon their being and shape their thoughts, but are not directly articulated). When two people fall in love (for example) it may be precisely around the impossible-to-articulate voids that both of them recognise that they are drawn together. To a lesser degree, the same may be true in processes of consensus.

This is important because it then allows us to consider the certificate as a 'token of personal absence'. It is the material, negative image of a person's identity which has the power (as a negative image) to draw the attention of others (including employers) into discussion. It's power lies both in what it says and in who says it (which institution). The latter matters because some certificates have a more universal recognition than others. But just as money serves as a compensator of absence in economic exchange, so might the 'token of personal absence' compensate for the effort that is expended in interview.

The processes of producing a 'token of personal absence' are opaque. Education might be a journey of self-discovery, but certifying personal absences is a game that can only be played by a few institutions. Those institutions maintain themselves on the desirability of certification, and the monopoly they hold in it. Informal learning is of course important, and some of the evidence of actions taken in informal learning can too have the property of a 'certification of personal absence'. But a degree certificate from Oxford will have more power because the absences will tend to be richer and more universally recognised.

All though our lives we go on creating certificates of 'personal absence'. These continue to operate in a way which draws others into engaged conversation with us: employers give up their time to interview us; or new acquaintances give up their current concerns to refocus some of their attention on us. Our certificates, the negative signs we bear, compensate for these decisions.

But at all levels, decision is the thing to understand. We decide to enter into education. Employers decide to employ people. The reasons for decision, however, are not (I think) causally deterministic in the linear manner of homo economicus. Decisions are made against a background of absences. If we can speak of causal determinism at all, it is that what is decided in all cases, is determined by what cannot be thought. The creating of symbols for what cannot be thought then can be seen as the most powerful mechanism for social behaviour. 

Tuesday 5 March 2013

Teleodynamics and the Forms of Knowledge

It slightly amazes me that there is still such interest in Paul Hirst's Forms of Knowledge (my post on Hirst here: attracts more hits than anything else on my blog!). Not that there's anything deeply wrong with the work - it's very good - but it dates from 1971! Has nothing changed regarding our thinking about subjects in the intervening 40 years? Yet, we see wave after wave of reform on the curriculum, assessment and school organisation. Reactionary moves like Free schools (which are rather costly!) seek organisational and institutional responses to autonomy over problems of the curriculum.

It's remarkable how some of these schools seem to be going after the 'Hogwarts' market - offering the kind of education that Michael Gove believes is good for us. This is a free school near me: I'm sure that the teachers are great and the kids and parents keen, but I find that everything about this, from the name of this establishment to the curriculum it offers speaks of deep confusion about education, curriculum, class, family and society. And that's not to mention the controversy about the incursion into the existing school and playing fields (see But there's some heavyweight backing behind this...

Perhaps that answers my question: Hirst's work was at least a serious and thoughtful attempt to address the question "exactly what do we think we are doing with education?" What happened afterwards was generally characterised by a lack of thought: Thatcher, New Labour (education, education, education) and now Gove. How the years fly by!! Education has become a political football, like a child in a broken marriage, torn apart by political rhetoric when it just wanted to be left alone - and maybe loved a little.

I wonder if the problem we face is that Hirst's work wasn't good enough. It wasn't good enough to convincingly set the groundwork for a coherent alternative to the expedient likes of Keith Joseph, Kenneth Baker, Blair or Gove. The problems of education are caused by bad theory.

Can we do better? I think we need "critical holism" in educational thinking. What goes on the classroom is related to the question of how institutions are organised, how resources are allocated by government, how families cope with the pressures of raising children, how teachers cope with the pressures of bureaucracy, right up to the question of "what sort of a society do we want to live in?" Government supporters would say "Free schools precisely aim to increase flexibility and autonomy in the classroom by giving the administration independence". But a critical holist would say "Nonsense! What you've done is redirect resources from an established system to something untried for political short-term gain (and for the selfish gain of the sponsors of the free school institutions), with scant regard to the institutions that will suffer!". There's no critical holistic thinking there.

The greatest challenge for a holistic approach, however, is where to begin. Everything is connected to everything else; every layer of  the system, from the cognitive demands on learners to the financial strictures bearing on institutions is related to every other layer. Indeed, government thinking since the 1970s has tended to be a see-saw process of focusing on one level to the exclusion of the others: boxed-in thinking has dominated education (I see this not least in my own institution, where - as in others - 'retention' is discussed in a way completely unrelated to pedagogy or assessment, because certain issues are outside the remit of the committee concerned).

I think the best place to start is the most difficult. It's "teaching and learning". We are not at all clear what learning or teaching is. But uninspected assumptions here snowball into other layers of thinking. Is learning the acquisition of content and teaching its presentation? Surely not! Is it axons and dendrites making stronger connections with reinforcement? perhaps... Is learning adaptation? Maybe... but adaptation to what? Is the teacher the regulator monitoring communications of learners as in Pask's 'teach-back'? Maybe... But... there's something missing. We can't prove any of this. They're all just metaphysical assertions (even the axons and dendrites!). But they hide their metaphysical essence behind an image of scientific respectability (thanks, Piaget)

Teaching and learning is the most difficult question because it is the most metaphysical. But metaphysics is unavoidable. I think a scientific starting point should acknowledge the metaphysics explicitly from the start: begin with what we can't know and see the effect it has on what we do know. That means beginning with the void - beginning with absence. Then things can get interesting...

Hirst's forms of knowledge are stratified entities of 'discourse'. His distinctions highlight some essential qualities and irreducible natures to particular aspects of the curriculum: Maths is different from Art which is different from French. He may be right here, but he offers no account of how this irreducibility of the curriculum arises: he just asserts it.

But taking absence into account might do this. Deacon's work on 'Teleodynamics' suggests a way in which irreducible structures emerge from an interplay between internal 'present' mechanisms and absences which form the context within which those structure emerge.

 If something like the forms of knowledge can be shown to emerge from this kind of absence-driven process, then there are some important issues that can be addressed in the explanatory power of Hirst's work. The issue of reified knowledge is addressed because the 'reification' is seen as a consequence of an emergent mechanism. At the same time, that emergent mechanism is the learning process itself.

In other words, a critical holistic perspective becomes possible with the help of absences all the way through the educational system. The absences in the learning process shape the dynamics between teacher and learner. Whilst there is teach-back and coordination, there is also the emergence of irreducible structures (habits, concepts, etc) which carry their own absences. Irreducible structures at this level interact with larger-scale irreducible structures which are similarly emergent: the curriculum, timetable, institutional forms, etc.

The education system from this perspective is an emergent entity which is stratified and irreducible. Holism allows us to see the patterns of its emergence, deeper knowledge about which can give us an indication of the kinds of intervention we might make with it. But the ever-presence of absences means that the critical/negative aspect of continuous critique allows the never-ending probing of what's missing, the determination of shared absences, and the gradual unpicking of pathologies in the system.

The ultimate aim of a critical holist approach to education is the progressive determination of shared absence, achieved through deep systemic explanation and grounded critique. 

Monday 4 March 2013

"Homo Sovietus" and an Imagined Educational Dystopia

I've been reading Andreï Makine's "A life's Music" which draws on Alexander Zinoviev's concept of "homo sovieticus" - the particular species of human being bent by the Soviet system. Zinoviev's concept was characterised by (from Wikipedia:

  • Indifference to the results of his labour 
  • Indifference to common property and petty theft from the workplace, both for personal use and for profit. 
  • Isolation from world culture, created by the Soviet Union's restrictions on travel abroad and strict censorship of information in the media (as well as the abundance of propaganda).
  • Obedience or passive acceptance of everything that government imposes on them. 
  • Avoidance of taking any individual responsibility on anything. 
  • a tendency to drink heavily
As Makine points out, Zinoviev's characterisation resonated with everyone. It was the concept everybody in the system could relate to. When everyone has a shared experience like that, a powerful concept can take root and be transformative in beginning to overturn the system.

But we all have a shared experience of education too. In the future, we might all have a shared experience of online education. If Homo Sovieticus was the result of an educational rather than a political system, what would we see? Perhaps Zinoviev's features can be transposed to education like this:
  • Indifference to knowledge and wisdom
  • Indifference to social responsibility and politics
  • Isolation from each other
  • Obedience to institutional rules and regulations
  • Avoidance of taking personal responsibility or risk
  • and a tendency to drink heavily!
We can probably recognise a few 'strategic learners' in there! But the point about Zinoviev is that everyone was like that. Could everyone become like that in our education system? What kind of education system might produce this kind of alienation? 

I find this an interesting question. Most of the time we try to design educational utopias. We tend to spend less time designing dystopias. But it's quite good fun, so let's have a go...

To produce this kind of alienation, an education system would have to be oppressive, and individuals would be unable to escape it. No professional advancement would be possible without succumbing to the education system and gaining the certification it produced. So there would need to be high level legislation which restricted the actions of employers in ensuring only those with the appropriate paperwork could be employed. Further legislation could be produced which controlled the promotion of employees to particular roles depending on the gaining of further certificates. Competencies, dictated by institutions and professional bodies, and only capable of  being signed-off by accredited institutions, would determine complete dependency on engagement with those institutions. Technology means that the scale of tracking and categorising competencies and certificates for each individual is easily managed with the help of a DNA fingerprint. There is no way of slipping through the net.

One would think that working for educational institutions would then be a safe place to be in such a system. But this is not the case. In this dystopian world, education is the biggest employer. (The jobs in sectors that education produces certificates for are largely automated and so provide few jobs, although each individual gaining certification hopes they will be lucky!) As an employer, education is a trap. Whilst each individual aims for the heights of educational virtue, the institutional system - struggling as it does to keep everyone busy - puts barriers in the way to prevent anything happening. But what does this do to the spirit of the people?

Like every human being, individuals in this dystopian education system search for meaning in their lives. They used to search for food - and at least that is plentiful thanks to the automation of the farms. But now they search for meaning in a world which is befuddling. In the complexity of this world of education, there is no way of connecting the dots. Each person hopes one day to have worked it out. But it is futile. The system preaches meaningfulness, but produces bureaucracy and petty rules. Each individual might plan their actions as 'the next step' towards a meaningful existence. But each step is thwarted by some official blockage or other "ah - but you need certified competency 2.3.5 to do that... go to this website... and there's a fee..." And then at every step of the way is an invitation to consume a bewildering and unpalatable array of financial products and services (in order to pay for education) which will further bear on the restrictions to act meaningfully for many years in the future.

So what emerges? The only meaning available is to play the system; become part of the bureaucracy. And from there the human indifference and isolation which is the hallmark of Zinoviev's Homo Sovieticus starts to reveal itself.