Beyond Public Education

This is a paper I gave with Sam Sellar (now at Manchester Metropolitan University) at AARE in Perth in 2015. It’s… well… a somewhat controversial line.

Beyond public education

Sam Sellar and Greg Thompson


Privatisation is one of the biggest issues currently facing education globally. The entry of new non-state actors into education policy making and service provision has been enabled by state restructuring. The state has become an enabler of network governance with private companies, NGOs and philanthropic actors. One response to this changing politics has been the mobilisation of Education International and teachers’ unions in response to the global education industry seeking to maximise economic opportunities opened up by state restructuring and technological changes that create new opportunities to profit from data work in education. What is being contested here is the ideal of public education in the face of political and technological challenges to its integrity. In this paper, we draw on the work of Deleuze and Guattari to problematise these new relations between thought/learning, public education, technological change and privatisation.

For Deleuze, thinking or learning does not occur through recognition; it requires disruptions of perceptual and cognitive schema. Something must force us to think and thought is a deterritorialising force. In their collaborative writing, Deleuze and Guattari developed a theory of the relation between capitalism and State formations that attributes a deterritorialising function to capitalism and a reterritorializing function to the state and the family. Each of these institutions, which can be considered primary sites of education in capitalist societies, provide a model for thought and desire that captures learning in pre-existing territories. In contrast, the deterritorialising force of thought and capital raises interesting questions concerning possible affinities here. Moreover, as an anti-Platonist, Deleuze does not recognise transcendental forms and thus provides no conceptual grounds for conceiving of an ideal ‘public’ against which the privatisation of education can be opposed. Deleuze is also critical of actually-existing-democracy due to its consensualism and its alliance with essentialist groundings of human rights. But, Deleuze and Guattari are also strongly critical of the commercialisation of education and of conceptual work by the advertising industry. Using Deleuze and Guattari’s seven axioms of capital as outlined in A Thousand Plateaus presents us with interesting problematisations of the relations between learning, democracy, public education and privatisation that unsettle the coordinates that usually structure debates about these issues. The paper will develop a theoretical argument concerning these problems through readings of key texts on public education in the Deweyan/progressive tradition of educational scholarship.


Our paper seeks to unsettle a particular problematisation: public versus private schooling. In this respect, our paper may have been more appropriately titled, Beyond public versus private schooling. Specifically, we are interested in asking what it is about public schooling that should be affirmed; put differently, what is it about public education which is important? This is a very significant question, particularly given our current times where the project of State-owned education, usually conceived as a public good, is on the cusp of change effected by forces both within and without the State. We will propose that the answer to the question about what should be affirmed is no longer a matter of which organization funds a school or school system, or the principles of access that govern that school or system, rather what matters most in our contemporary times will be the relationship between thought (understood as the move beyond thought “as a model the process of recognition – in other words, a common sense or employment of all the faculties on a supposed same object” to become “as involving encounters which escape all recognition; or as confronting its true enemies, which are quite different from thought; or as attaining that which tears thought from its natural torpor and notorious bad will, and forces us to think” Difference and Repetition p.xvi), commercial organisations (understood as edu-businesses, new policy actors and networks) and the State (which is entering into new partnerships with edu-business and instantiating new policy networks that in and of themselves are trapped in the traditional image of thought).

In other words, our thinking about public education has poorly prepared us to work against its commercialisation because the logics that have sustained public education are being deployed in new ways by commercial interests to effect change. In this, we use Ball and Youdell’s (2008) distinction between the privatisation of education and privatisation in education, defining the latter as ‘the opening up of public education services to private sector participation (usually) on a for-profit basis and using the private sector to design, manage or deliver aspects of public education’ (p. X). Our focus here will be on privatisation in education, or the reconfiguration of public education that has occurred with the restructuring of the state and new opportunities for edu-businesses “symbolic of new and complex forms of governance, characterised by the formation of new policy networks and communities of expertise, new transnational policy discourses and new knowledge flows” (Thompson, Savage & Lingard, 2016, p.1). However, the language of privatisation can be confusing because it can be understood to include the provision of education by any non-government organisation, from the Catholic Church to Microsoft. We will prefer the term commercialisation, and the notion of commercialisation in education, in order to sharpen the focus on for-profit modes of education.

In particular, we draw on the work of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari to open up the problem of commercialisation in education. Public education has become a placeholder for a variety of progressive arguments about liberal democracy, social democracy and a specific version of egalitarianism. These definitions of public education tend to focus on its importance for democracy; that is, a belief that inclusive access necessarily strengthens the demos. Within these powerful logics of sense, critiques tend to focus on commercialisation as containing threats to democracy: for example Harvey’s (2005) term the ‘accumulation by dispossession’. This accumulation of dispossession occurs in two ways, first when any public good is turned to private profit (commercialisation), and second when a few profit from unequal provision of what ought to be an equally available public good (elite schooling). However, as we have stated above, the problem with this line of thinking is that it is precisely the values of equity, quality and inclusivity that are central to the claims of commercialisation. One thinks here, for example, of Pearson’s for-profit schools in Africa. In searching for new ways to think through this problem, we turn to Deleuze and Guattari’s line of critique that does not begin with values (e.g. democracy). The problem with thinking public education through its apparent or ideal values is that this becomes a circular argument, what is valued is what is taught and what is taught, is what is valued. Thus, the commonly held argument that public education is a democratic good elides the fact that it serves a particular economic structure that it replicates through the values that are inscribed. In other words, if the highest value of thought is to create a new way of thinking, when public education remains a mask for modes of capitalist individuation and cognition, we remove a possibility of thinking otherwise and indeed perpetuate the logics that commercialisation requires to reconfigure public education.

Our presentation will be divided into three main parts. I will begin by providing a brief outline of commercialisation in education and why this constitutes the most pressing challenge to public education today. I will then draw on Deleuze and Guattari’s final collaborative book, What is philosophy?, to consider their argument as to how commercialisation affects the conditions for thought; that is, the relation between commercialisation and the limitation of the concept. Greg will then consider the relation between thought and the State; a relation that is analysed at length in Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus. We will conclude by problematizing the prevailing understanding of public education as a moral endeavour: it is not a matter of public versus private but rather rethinking public education as pedagogic practice rather than concern with funding.

Commercialisation and computerisation: A brief history of teaching machines

If we are posing commercialisation as central to the problem of public education, then we must begin by asking: When did public school systems first invite commercialisation? And what was the problem for which commercialisation was presented as a solution?

The commercialisation of education has a long history. An early example would be the provision of text books by private publishers. Commercialisation has only become a pressing and highly politicised issue recently because it has intensified greatly and changed in nature due to the computerisation of teaching and assessment. We are seeing the creation and spread of teaching machines that dramatically affect education policy and practice, however, teaching machines have a long history in schooling.

The earliest patent of an educational invention was registered in 1809 for a method of teaching reading. By 1936, there were nearly 700 devices patented for educational uses (see Mellan, 1936). Yet only a few of these meet the criteria specified in the earlier definition. Most fall short on one or more dimensions. For example, George Altman’s apparatus for teaching arithmetic, patented in 1897, was self-controlling, provided a means for the learner to respond, and provided feedback about the correctness of the response. (Benjamin, 1988, p.704)

Furthermore, banks and other commercial organisations have long sponsored education programs as a means to build brand loyalty and capture consumers (e.g. Dolomites). And the introduction of computers into schools, as with many other institutions, production systems and areas of everyday life, created new opportunities for commercial interests in public education following the Second World War. Apple introduced computers into schools in the 1970s and others followed, leading to schools having to make a choice between operating systems from the 1980s onwards. The point is that there is nothing new about commercial interest in public education. However, it appears that there is an intensification of the surplus value that can be extracted through public education, and the scale of mobilisation to extract that surplus value is changing the public education assemblage, the purpose of this assemblage and the various de- and re-territorialisations effected.

For example, companies such as Pearson are reworking their business models to move from a focus on publishing to a focus on measuring learning outcomes, analysing education data and developing adaptive learning programs? Edu-business are also now actively opening for-profit schools, English language centres and proliferating the provision of other assessment services. We are seeing a shift from selling education inputs (textbooks) to using expertise/technology to measure performance, personalise learning and shape policy debates. Furthermore, in these reconfigure public education assemblages, profit can become the reason for public education as evidenced by charter, and free schools in various contexts.

Teachers’ unions around the world, led by Educational International, are now acting in a concerted way to oppose and resist these new modes of commercialisation. Opportunities for, and the profitability of, commercialisation in education are speeding up dramatically with the computerisation of learning. But there is another more complex answer that can be drawn from the work of Deleuze and Guattari.

Deleuze and Guattari: Commercialising the concept

Critics of commercialisation, such as teachers unions, argue that it undermines the quality and equity of educational outcomes for students. Arguments tend to focus on: (a) the reconfiguration of the purposes of education; (b) unequal patterns of access to education based on capacity to pay; and (c) worsening outcomes for those who cannot access premium services and products. But there are challenges for this position, for example the provision of for-profit education in circumstances where public education is not available. If FPE could provide better educational outcomes for students that would not have access to education otherwise, then arguments about equity and equality become difficult to sustain. While arguments about the purpose of education may retain their force in these cases, arguments concerning the relation between profit and equity may lose their traction.

Critiques of commercialisation tend to focus on the social relations of education (purposes and access), but do not directly address the question of how commercialisation affects thought and learning. It is unclear in the position above whether commercialisation remains suspect if it was accessible to all (subsidization) and produced excellent outcomes. The problem with basing arguments against the commercialisation of education on a notion of the public good or questions of access is that it cedes the ground on intellectual rigor. If commercial organisations can demonstrate better learning outcomes from their products and services, or that these products and services can be provided in a way that contributes to the public good, then proponents of public education are placed in the position of appearing to defend their own interests (jobs, salaries, conditions) rather than the importance of learning and thought as a collective project.

Deleuze and Guattari provide a different conceptualisation of this problem (that privatisation of commercialisation is and, rather than focusing on the practice of education, that the problem is money rather than learning). In other words, the question is not who funds or profits from education but rather whether the practice of education of education can intensify thought, and result in substantive learning. This problematisation does not begin from a moral position, but rather an argument concerning the relation between capital, understood in this context as marketing, advertising, professional training etc and the concept. In the Introduction to What is Philosophy?, Deleuze and Guattari (1994) provide a brief history of the concept, from its origin in Greek philosophy to recent challenges to philosophy from the human sciences that seek to transform concepts into the collective representations of different peoples. The most recent period in this history is singled out by Deleuze and Guattari for sharp critique:

Finally, the most shameful moment came when computer science, marketing, design, and advertising, all the disciplines of communication, seized hold of the word concept itself and said: “This is our concern, we are the creative ones, we are the ideas men!” … Marketing has preserved the idea of a certain relationship between the concept and the event. But here the concept has become the set of product displays … and the event has become the exhibition that sets up various displays and the “exchange of ideas” it is supposed to promote.

What is central here for Deleuze and Guattari is that commercial training focused on the communicating information, which they see as an ‘absolute disaster for thought whatever its benefits might be, of course, from the viewpoint of universal capitalism’ (p. 12). Deleuze and Guattari juxtapose communication with creation: a conception of pedagogy as a violent and unpredictable process of learning as the production of concepts and subjects (see Biesta 2006). Of course, this mode of pedagogy simply cannot be packaged up as a standardised educational service.

The question that emerges here is: How does commercialisation affect the conditions of possibility for thought? For Deleuze and Guattari the commercialised relation between the concept and the event is an impoverished one. What is of utmost importance is raising thought to its highest creative power. We can see the importance of this emphasis in Frederic Jameson’s observation that it has become more difficult to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. From this perspective, the creative force of thought is both jeopardised by, and is perhaps the only remedy to, the banal communication of information for profit.

Deleuze was very critical of information and communication, or at least communication based on common sense. To explain and justify this critical position, it is necessary to briefly rehearse the central claims of Deleuze’s ontology. Like many of his contemporaries, Deleuze can be understood as a philosopher of difference for whom being is understood as becoming in a world of pure immanence. For Deleuze, the world is an immanent or ‘flat’ multiplicity of series in which there are no original models, in which another essential, secret world is not to be found behind appearances or simulacra. The question of models and copies thus occupies an important position in Deleuze’s ontology. Deleuze (1994) argues that the formal and moral distinction between models and copies that is dramatized in Plato subordinates difference to identity. Our debates about public schooling conceal a specific genesis of each public school as a ‘fallen’ copy of the ideal form. Each public school it is supposed, both as a concrete entity that ‘works’ and as a trope for political debates, in some way borrows legitimacy from its simulation of the idealised form. In this, the public school is [insert quote here about de jure].

Thus, the public school borrows much of its authorisations, and indeed signifying systems from a perceived relationship to an ideal public school. This ideal public school is an aspirant; it contains all that is ‘good’ and ‘desirable’ about education itself. Of course, this only works if we ignore the devastating critiques of the public school (remembering that they were not talking about private education) advanced by Foucault etc. The good and desirable are insigned in many ways, in the articulation of the school as the key institution of liberal democracy (forgetting that much of the theory that defenders of public education work with is revolutionary in nature, wanting to disrupt liberal democracy), in its virtue as an inclusive institution, in its egalitarianism, ignoring the fact, of course, that in a classed system where schools serve communities vastly different in terms of material resources, this appears to be a context dependent claim.

However, as Deleuze reminds us, the Platonism inherent in this articulation is flawed, both in that the recourse to an ideal form is a non-sense, and in that misunderstanding of the temporal, it falls victim to repetition, affirmative change is not possible while we see the public school as descended from, and in lineage to, an ideal form. This extends the critique of commercialisation from questions of purpose and access to questions of whether what is accessed can even by substantively considered ‘learning’. However, Deleuze and Guattari are also critical of the State, arguing that it provides a model of thought that also inhibits learning in the strong sense of this term. Does public education, the provision of education by the State, provide a creative alternative to the communication of commercial training? 

Deleuze and Guattari: Thought and the state model 

In A Thousand Plateaus, Deleuze and Guattari advance a theorisation that one of the reasons that capitalism is so effective, so successful, so ubiquitous, is the way that it organises, produces and encourages thinking and centres of thinking that are essentially repetition. In particular, this is affected first, through the relation between the State and the image of thinking that ‘passes’, is acceptable and second, through the ways that this dogmatic image provides a surface for various capitalist (and often schizophrenic) schizzes. Thus, public education has essentially become State education, a dogmatic image of thinking about both ‘the public’ and ‘education’ that is becoming colonised by a specific desire to commercialise because that dogmatic vision stresses a specific moral vision. However, as Deleuze and Guattari remind us, capitalism (or commercialisation in this context) is essentially axiomatic:

Not only, as Hegel said, does every State imply “the essential moments of its existence as a State,” but there is a unique moment, in the sense of a coupling of forces, and this moment of the State is capture, bond, knot, nexum, magical capture. Must we speak of a second pole, which would operate instead by pact and contract? Is this not instead that other force, with capture as the unique moment of coupling? For the two forces are the overcoding of coded flows, and the treatment of decoded flows. The contract is a juridical expression of the second aspect: it appears as the proceeding of subjectification, the outcome of which is subjection. (…)The extreme perversion of the contract, reinstating the purest of knots. The knot, bond, capture, thus travel a long history: first, the objective, imperial collective bond; then all of the forms of subjective personal bonds; finally, the Subject that binds itself, and in so doing renews the most magical operation… The State is assuredly not the locus of liberty, nor the agent of a forced servitude or war capture. (…) There is a machinic enslavement, about which it could be said in each case that it presupposes itself, that it appears as preaccomplished; this machinic enslavement is no more “voluntary” than it is “forced”. (A Thousand Plateaus, p. 460)

One of the reasons that public education is becoming commercialised is because of the project of public education itself! The challenge then, if we decide that public education must be defended, is to push public education to become ‘ambulant’, that is, as institutions that rediscover the movement of the metallurgist, neither of the space of the nomad nor of the striation of the State. And this is the challenge, if we consider the governance of public education as ‘fixing’ movement within the walls of the governed town (thinking here for example of national teaching standards, curriculums and assessments), then engagement with the wildlands necessarily involves a new image of thought, a wilding if you like. Without it, we may as well accept that commercialisation is becoming-public education, and forget our strange, romantic nostalgia for some idealised, value of public education.

Thought contents are sometimes criticized for being too conformist. But the primary question is that of form itself. Thought as such is already in conformity with a model that it borrows from the State apparatus, and which defines for it goals and paths, conduits, channels, organs, an entire organon. There is thus an image of thought covering all of thought; it is the special object of “noology” and is like the State-form developed in thought.This image has two heads, corresponding to the two poles of sovereignty: the imperium of true thinking operating by magical capture, seizure or binding, constituting the efficacy of a foundation {mythos); a republic of free spirits proceeding by pact or contract, constituting a legislative and juridical organization, carrying the sanction of a ground (logos). These two heads are in constant interference in the classical image of thought: a “republic of free spirits whose prince would be the idea of the Supreme Being.” And if these two heads are in interference, it is not only because there are many intermediaries and transitions between them, and because the first prepares the way for the second and the second uses and retains the first, but also because, antithetical and complementary, they are necessary to one another. pp.374-375


We never really finalised the conclusion. We will do, one day.

It is easy to see what thought gains from this: a gravity it would never have on its own, a center that makes everything, including the State, appear to exist by its own efficacy or on its own sanction. But the State gains just as much. Indeed, by developing in thought in this way the State-form gains something essential: a whole consensus. Only thought is capable of inventing the fiction of a State that is universal by right, of elevating the State to the level of de jure universality. p.375