Red rubber rain boots stand on a cobblestone street, white flowers blooming from their tops

(Higher) Education as Bulwark of Uselessness

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Reviewed by Gregory Zobel and Rebecca Halpern
Playful” by Tom Mrazek; CC BY 2.0

Almost two years ago, halfway through the twisting path that was my doctoral course, I found myself in Finland, at the “Critical Evaluation of Game Studies Seminar”, where, above all the “big names” in the field of Game Studies who spoke there (among which were Aarseth, Juul, and Mäyrä), one thing was indelibly imprinted in my memory: Canadian sociologist Bart Simon’s characterisation of Game Studies as a true, undeniable “bulwark of uselessness”, a field of thought that can work in resistance to all appeals to productivity and efficiency. Because what can be more frivolous, in “productive” common sense, than spending a couple of days discussing the philosophy of computer games?

As a customary “tank” player in online games, always relishing the role of defending my team mates in our small, unnecessary virtual struggles, the image stuck strongly.

As I continued climbing toward the completion of my Ph.D. in Education and Communication, largely by playing and making games within communities of amateur game designers, I came to think that this powerful image, that of “the bulwark of uselessness”, could be a conceptualisation relevant to all cultural endeavours, in their conflicting relationship with utilitaristic economic forces. I reflected on how, in the current historical-cultural moment, this bulwark finds itself attacked in its last public expressions, that is, the spaces of institutionalised education in general and University in particular, and that the fall of this bulwark, its full exclusion by public spaces, cultures and discourse, would be nothing short of catastrophic.

As a living example of these utilitaristic attacks, having recently obtained a research position at an institution aimed at promoting change in Higher Education, I have found myself involved in a variety of projects that most often, with different degrees of subtlety, involve a particular, compliance-oriented mode of learning. By this I mean an approach to learning focused on pushing people to address some specific instrumental purpose (luckily just as often noble ones, such as promoting more environmentally sustainable practices) just as all too often education itself seems close to becoming merely a tool for (much less noble) economic ends.

This is an uncomfortable position, one that I am critically coming to terms with as an engaged pedagogist and game scholar.

Because, really, what is “uselessness”?

Being part of this “bulwark” is to push every day against mainstays of 21st Century University discourse (such as the masterful victim blaming that is the modern concept of “employability”) which push to expunge cultural work from the public sight, in favor of an exclusive focus on what is considered “useful”: management and productivity. Higher Education seems not to be about education anymore, inclusive of cultural, political, epistemological and ethical considerations, but more and more about mere technical, specialised training, going as far as to quantify one’s patterning at human relationships as “soft skills” (which are usually conveniently aimed at furthering a corporate agenda: how come employers give credit to supposed “skills” like “adaptability” and “conflict resolution” and not to the likes of “political awareness” or “resistance to authority”?).

I even heard fellow researchers saying, in complete good faith, that this is what our students want, and we are therefore being democratic in providing them with theory-devoid curricula. This way they can focus on training for concrete, practical stuff that makes up the “real world” and therefore, ultimately, get a better job. And it’s not like those teachers who say so necessarily like educational institutions’ current “market orientation”. They just think it is a fact of reality, something that just is. Remembering how Alfred Korzybski (and Robert Anton Wilson) warned us against using the word “is”, it constantly appals me how close “market” and “reality” end up being in this field of discourse.

(Higher) Education is useless. This is a point of view we keep hearing more and more in the media. It started with the widespread irony on philosophy majors’ job perspectives and is now expanding to everything aesthetics or theory-related. The main point of this essay is however that we should not reject this pervasive rhetoric, and this because we can’t reclaim utility for our endeavours without implicitly submitting to the tyranny of productivity. We can’t claim legitimation using the same criteria of our opponents. We need, instead, to embrace this “accusation” to its very end, following the advice of anthropologist and system thinker Gregory Bateson on confronting paradoxical situations: there is no way out; the only way is through. Please note that there is no irony in my claim to uselessness, if not the specific choice of word (I could have gone for less provocative alternatives, such as “anti-utilitarianism” or “unproductiveness”). I am being completely straight in claiming that the role and glory of education is that it can be useless, not being bounded by criteria of production and pre-determined purpose.

Of Uselessness and Dinosaurs

Many philosophers and thinkers have proposed poignant critiques of the discourse of utilitarianism (from Marx to John Paul II, to cover the political spectrum), but still, these are just theories, not grounded in “reality” or “facts”. Let us then take a shot at this “going through” approach and, for a while, lean not on Philosophy or Pedagogy, but on so-called “hard sciences” themselves, those same, “useful”, “productive” “STEM” subjects that are being rhetorically used to push humanities and criticism outside of the academia.

There is this concept in evolutive biology, Exaptation, which describes shifts of function in evolved traits. To make a macroscopic example: Feathers (probably) initially evolved in dinosaurs for thermoregulatory purposes — a warm coat which let this atypical reptiles be more efficient and expand the spaces of their living to northern and southern latitudes. A very useful adaptation, there is no doubt in that.

Some dinosaurs, however, were not content with just being warmed by their feathers and started playing with them. They even showed them off to potential partners, and, for these unwholesome and useless practices, were probably censured as slackers, time-wasters and societal burdens by their elders and bureaucrats (please do remember this essay is a “playful experiment”).

Then, one day, maybe by accident, maybe while playfully chasing each other, maybe falling from a tree they were singing some serenade on, one of them realised that this slick coat had interesting, unexplored and unforeseen aerodynamic properties. In a few generations, a whole new dimension of being suddenly opened up, and when unforeseeable catastrophe struck in the form of an ecosystem-changing asteroid, the grandchildren of those shameful slackers were the only ones to survive, in the form of modern birds.

Of course this is a gross simplification of evolutionary dynamics (and of dinosaurs’ social structure) for narrative’s sake. Still, to quote Professor Ian Malcolm from Jurassic Park, “Life finds a way”, always, and my main argument here is that this happens way less painfully and dangerously when it has been allowed to play free. What is now useless can open up whole new worlds tomorrow. And even if it never does, it is beautiful, in that it has the markings of the play of possibility that is life and mind. It should not need to be justified against “productivity” or “learning outcomes” checklists.

All Work and No Play

This is the purpose of education for me: to allow the mind (again echoing Bateson, I use the word “mind” in its largest definition, inclusive of social and living systems) to play free of purpose itself, while neo-liberal thought pushes us into an eternal, immutable present, a perversion of the very concept of “sustainability”, as in being able to indefinitely perpetuate the same market dynamics. For this titanic task to be accomplished, there is a need to lock out the production of alternative, possible worlds, especially those who are deemed wasteful and unproductive, so that any kind of entertainment which is not closely related with consumption (or even if is not consumption of things bought, not freely gifted) is labelled as “escapism”. Which, as C.S. Lewis famously quipped, is a preoccupation of jailers.

Following this train of thought, one prominent example of these assaults on uselessness pertains the close relationship between play, games, and education. As of today the large majority of games and playful practices are still preponderantly expelled by the places of learning (and were, until very recent times, most often reviled and used as scapegoats by the media). However, at the very same time learning institutions, influenced by technocratic (and technodeterminist) stakeholders, spend millions of dollars in “serious games” and “gamification”, that is ludic (or para-ludic practices) characterised first and foremost by their “telic character”, their purposiveness, the idea that games are fun, but they are really worth our time only if they can also do some “useful work”.

Even when many of these games or “gameful” practices promote healthy or sustainable practices, on a metacommunicative level they convey another, hidden curriculum, that of surveillance, efficiency, skill or information delivery and, above all, compliance, the reduction of behavior to the useful and foreseeable.

How can we, instead, meta-communicate liberation and possibility?

Again drawing on game cultures, a good inspiration for how we can do this is the rising global movement (exemplified by the diverse likes of Paolo Pedericini, Gonzalo Frasca, Zoe Quinn and Anna Anthropy, among many others) that promotes freely creating and sharing games from extremely limited resources.

Following their example, we can liberate education by never renouncing the uselessness and playfulness that should characterise true learning, whatever the forms that “play” assumes, be it on a stage, on a musical instrument, with feathers or with an amateur, purposeless digital game we ourselves designed, developed and shared. Anything goes, as long as it eludes the hegemonic criteria of market and productivity, and preserves the voluntary, joyful character of play.

But what are the risks, if we do not nurture, sustain and promote a cultural stance that allows for what Roger Caillois calls “pure waste”? What could happen if we let this “bulwark” of uselessness that is education (and higher education in particular) fall?

The Tyranny of Necessity

Through our current digital ecologies we can play with people we would otherwise never even meet. Even better, we can create spaces for people we have never met to be playful in, and to learn together. We can go beyond the tyranny of proximity and provincialism, beyond the economic tyranny of utility, and even the ontological tyranny of necessity.

The key of my argument, however, is that the fall of this “bulwark” under the blows of efficiency and utility would indeed constitute the ultimate ecological catastrophe: Would the spaces where novel ideas can emerge unbound by efficiency or productivity be eliminated, the consequence would be no less than the simultaneous destruction of all non-actual possible worlds, collapsed in the monolithic, eternal present of the capitalist “end of history” famously discussed by Francis Fukuyama after the fall of the Berlin Wall. That is, until a further catastrophic eco-social collapse necessarily happens, due to the utmost rigidity of such system, and we go the way of the non-flying dinosaurs. (Please note that I’m not abstractly worried about “the planet”. In the words of immortal George Carlin, “The planet is fine. The people are f****d.”)

In this context, the most ethical “purpose” of education can therefore be only and exactly to critique purposiveness itself, a critique which, in its praxis, comes in (at least) two flavors:

  • To create safe spaces for the emergence of practices and systems which purposes are not known yet, and might never find one.
  • To strip existing practices of their current purpose, letting new ones, unbound by current utilitaristic imperatives, emerge.

I want therefore to conclude echoing Henry Giroux’s remarks against efficiency, seriousness and technical determinism. My appeal is to the citizens of an insidiously colonised land, spaces no more completely public, but more and more subjected to market forces and imperatives. My appeal is to get involved wherever there is the possibility of critical education through playful subversion, something that, indeed, even our current, colonised learning institutions still allows and provides space for, if often unknowingly and implicitly. See, for a paradigmatic example, the massive cheating and playful boycott practices which characterized Italy’s INVALSI standardised school evaluation tests, as a creative resistance to measurement.

Subvert mere institutionalised training into engaged, playful education because, contrary to Margaret Thatcher’s famous saying, there are, indeed, infinite alternatives. As teachers, educators, and pedagogists, our entire job consists indeed in cultivating these alternatives — these possible worlds — and this is something we can keep doing only by upholding the bulwark of uselessness: legitimating “suspensions of productivity”, both your own and others’, as “useless” spaces are actually the most evolutive ones, those that can generate alternatives, and resist the instrumental purposes, of our so-called, common-sense “reality”.

Author’s note: the present article is to be considered a “twin essay” to “Play as Bulwark of Uselessness”, submitted to the digital journal “First Person Scholar”, a journal you should check out if you are in any way interested in 21st Century media cultures. I wrote the two essays together at the same time, as a playful experiment in academic writing: beside some words or remarks, the first and last paragraphs are indeed just the same, highlighting the deep, if most often distorted (as discussed in both essays), link between play and learning.

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