Fly on the Wall – What is Your Education Worth?

We’ve all been there: a hand brushes a hand for an instant, eyes lock furtively and flit away, nostrils catch a scent of an other. Momentary intersections and exchanges form much of our human experience. Wordless yet memorable, these ineffable intersections range play a crucial role in interactions, ranging from romantic coquetry to professional body language. Often we think of exchanges as economic, but all of socialization embodies rituals of give and take and mutuality. For us, money is central, but what if our culture was based not on a monetary economic planning but on negotiated exchanges of the spontaneous and intimate sort? What if we related to one another as much in terms of the exchange of ideas as in the exchange of objects? As AU students, this latter possibility piques my interest. Many folks are suspicious that postsecondary education leads to just a piece of paper, so perhaps a society not based on symbolic paper value such as money would value learning and creativity in deeper and more appreciative ways.

I saw just such a prospect mentioned in a social media conversation. One commenter said: “I think we need to reorient ourselves from the idea that people’s value comes from what they produce. … Perhaps we switch back to a gift economy as the tribal islands in the South Pacific once were, your value to the tribe is created by what you’re able to give the others. A society where tipping is the norm. Where instead of selling things, we provide service and hope it’s worth a tip from another.” This adds another facet to the eternal question asked of University students: what are you going to do with that? Given the realities of the job market, the value of our AU education may best be investigated by an investigation of needs and their fulfillment by way of use value and exchange value. If another world were possible it surely would address these fundamental facts of life.

As organisms, we need to feed and to inhabit tolerable climes. We may literally reside under a rock and subsist on fungi, but we must do so within the parameters of heat and nutrition that our species requires. While some may wonder if distance education students really do live under a rock, given their isolation, we nevertheless do fulfil a need by being here. Better careers to support our families and flourishing selves that lead meaningful lives are two needs AU fulfils.

Needs are not so simple, however. We presume them to arise naturally yet our needs are moulded and massaged by those in our surroundings. Karl Marx noted that “Production not only produces goods; it produces people to consume them, and the corresponding needs” (Marx, online). Needs arise biologically and are channelled socially. Jean Baudrillard bases his analysis of consumer society on the realization that “what produces the commodity system in its general form is the concept of need itself” (Baudrillard, 70). We may unwittingly be taught to believe what we are told we need. Our needs, such as we define them, are fulfilled in the context of a consumer society awash in advertising. We all know this fact yet it’s worth considering when looking at how we fulfill needs like food or clothing. When we buy things they appeal to us at a social level; their presentation strikes a chord almost as though they had a life of their own with their own persona and associated quirks. Pierre Martineau suggests that “any buying process is an interaction between the personality of the individual and the so-called ’personality’ of the product itself” (Martineau, online). We might ask, then, what our needs would look and feel like in a culture devoid of commercials. How would we rate our intellectual needs which, hopefully, AU seeks to fulfill?

Use Value
“Use value is not as natural as would first appear either. Like the famous feminist phrase, a man needs a woman like a fish needs a bicycle, the utility of a product depends on the desires and expectation of the buyer. We presuppose the usefulness of something at our risk; it’s no coincidence that salesmen often use the term “you’re gonna want” such and such; they are hoping to plant the seeds of inevitability, namely the inevitability that we will come to desire what they are selling. Appealing to others easily translates into appealing to the lowest common denominator (think of: but wait, there’s more). We risk missing out on authenticity when we define ourselves by what we own; and participate in a belief system where “all individuals are described in terms of their objects” (Baudrillard, 20).

South Pacific islanders used religion to understand their contact with objects brought to them by colonial forces. Cargo cults arose to explain the arrival of goods by ship. Islanders would pray and gather onshore in anticipation like millennials camping out in lineups awaiting the newest iDevice or Harry Potter sequel. A society where people were in close contact with nature and production was being replaced by one where mysterious forces provided the means of life. Scientific American notes how advertising dovetailed with this new metaphysical approach to the consumption of goods:
“The Cargo Cult had a name for the diety in heaven. He was called John Fromm. It is not certain how this name arose but quite possibly it was from American soldiers identifying themselves by their place of origin: i.e., I am John from Indiana or I am John from Minneapolis. Some clever business began marketing products under the name John Fromm. For example, soap bars were labeled John Fromm Soap. When it was a choice between ordinary soap and God’s soap, it was no contest. It was clear which one would get you heavenly clean.”

This was a far cry from a society where we take others at face value and genuinely consider what they have crafted, grown, played, or written. If something is not “for me” it can still radiate value because of the passion of its maker. Many productions are not so directly utilitarian as soap; our AU studies, for instance. Let’s face it, a lot of folks don’t think a university education is worth much unless it translates directly into big money. It behooves us to encourage open-mindedness when it comes to the products of others’ labour: our toils in the obscurity of academia may seem limited to our future employability, yet a society that values each for what they can produce would mean that our education is valued and, in turn, we respect and value the products of others for what they have in common with ours: the personal and human quality of their creation.

The key here is that identifying with an object is not the same as identifying with a person; commodity fetishism is where social relations such as occur in sweatshops are masked such that we forget or are unaware of who actually made the product we buy. For Baudrillard, commodity fetishism is where “where social relations are disguised in the qualities and attributes of the commodity itself” (Baudrillard , 64).

We don’t see the conditions under which our clothes are produced in the same way we don’t realize that what seems an inevitable and practical purchase has been made to appear that way by advertising. Baudrillard states that “use value, indeed utility itself, is a fetishized social relation, just like the abstract equivalence of commodities. Use value is an abstraction” (Baudrillard, 64). Marketing may limit our ability to know what we truly desire: “contemporary alienation: in the process of consumption internal conflicts or ’deep drives’ are mobilized and alienated in the same way labour power is in the process of production” (Baudrillard, 15). A worker with no control over processes of production is not so different than a shopper in a mall striving to fulfill himself when there is nothing on offer that will do the trick. In a different society, with more human to human contact at the level of production and consumption, exchanges surely would be more fulfilling. As AU students we experience this as we interact directly with course material rather than experience it as one student among an anonymous throng in a lecture hall. Our tutors also provide a direct connection that professors in brick and mortar universities do not always provide with consistency.

Exchange Value
The flipside of use value is exchange value. For a gift economy to function participants must produce things (even cupcakes or knowing glances) that not only fulfil themselves but that others find enjoyable too and are willing to give something up to get. Intellectual onanists need not apply, it would appear (Merriam-Webster, online). A third type, symbolic exchange, does yield protean potential. “Symbolic exchange gives objects an individuality which rips them out of sign-, use- and exchange-value. Each object becomes unique, ambivalent and reciprocal or reversible with other objects” (Robinson, online). When the meaning of something is open to creativity then both producer and consumer may find fulfilment that suits their desire. Children are great at this when an object like a cardboard box and irrigation sprinkler becomes a spaceship and ray gun.

An Intellectual Gift Economy?
What would AU students have to offer in a gift economy? Besides the employment we already attain, the hard currency of knowledge need not be limited to trivial recreation (impressing friends with answers to Jeopardy) or mundane practicality (writing reports for businesses). Both have their place and yet the intangibles of our education may serve us in ways we had yet to conjure in our imaginations. A better question might be: what would participants in a gift economy value most? Basket weaving and cabin building come to mind but so does that ambiguous word that at times incites sighs of boredom or annoyance: philosophy. In a society bereft of the abstraction of money, one where the economic scaffold of exchange has been laid bare like a denuded emperor, surely philosophical discourse would lead to vistas of wonder for those who were once pejoratively labelled intellectuals. Like salons in 18th Century Paris, and the Royal Society in London, people with any and all ideas might exchange them in a spirit of mutual inquisitiveness and respect that the internet, replete with vicious spam wars and comments sections best never perused, has never known. Emoticons might give way to thesauruses. Meandering thoughts, complex and erudite or tangled and pastiche’d, might find value in ways as yet undreamed.

At its best, our education draws fresh water out of the springs of our selves and allows us to be reborn into the future with new tools for our practical dispensation. Critical thinking, that boon tied to education like a sail to the mast of productivity, is just the tip of the iceberg. Not unlike journal-keeping, long valued for its therapeutic and creative effects, essay-writing (despite the existential dreads it often unleashes) is a form by which we become who we are. It’s us on the page and we unfurl ourselves like a sea cucumber projecting its entrails into the sea to ward off a predator. If we ever live in a society where everyone feels free to express what is inside them and to accept the same from others, then perhaps exchange value will reap new realms in terms of our ability to truly express what Marx dubbed our species being (Marx, online). After all, we are human beings as well as human doings. If we can put our being into words and truly listen to the words of others then who knows what heights our humanity may reach.


Jason Hazel-rah Sullivan is a Masters of Integrated Studies student who loves engaging in discourse while working in the sunny orchards and forests of the Okanagan.

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