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. 

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