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Closing the Gap in Education?

Marginalisation of Education Through Performativity in South Africa

Towards a Radicalisation of Education

Yusef Waghid

Stellenbosch University

The publication of Jean-Francois Lyotard’s classic text, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, in 1984, spawned much debate and controversy about postmodern framings for education, the most significant of which were on the concepts of ‘performativity’, ‘performance’, ‘incredulity’, ‘nihilism’ and ‘paralogy’. Unlike those who associate the use of these postmodern framings for education with a philosophical movement of deconstruction, which foregrounds the place of language and discourse and the challenges of foundational certainties (or grand narratives) in thought and action (Lemert in Edwards 2006, 273), or the promotion of individualism and lifestyle practices commensurate with neoliberalism (Featherstone in Edwards 2006, 273), or the offering of space for forms of radical and emancipatory politics, which bring to the fore issues of gender, race, ethnicity and sexuality (Ellsworth in Edwards 2006, 273), I wish to talk about a radicalisation of education through critique. I want to answer an ontological, ethical and epistemological question: Why should critique be considered as a postmodern purpose of education?

To perform means to ‘show’ and ‘demonstrate’ what one is doing (Usher 2006, 286). That is, one makes ‘public’ and ‘transparent’ what one is enacting in order to make oneself ‘count’ in the eyes of others (Ball in Usher 2006, 286). Through the performance of ‘the postmodern condition’, Lyotard made himself count publicly and transparently by conveying powerful performative meanings. One would not necessarily associate a politician’s public mutterings as performances of this kind, as they might not be accountable. Learners in public schools can be considered as engaging in a ‘show and tell’ assessment regime because they quite anxiously want their work to be judged by educators – so they perform. Likewise, researchers in universities are increasingly held accountable for what they do through various forms of research performance assessment regimes (Usher 2006, 285), whether they are applying for an NRF (National Research Foundation) rating, publishing an article in an accredited journal or acquiring external funding for project work. As Usher (2006, 285) argues, ‘What is happening here is that researchers are making themselves count in relation to the measures of excellence defined in these regimes and are at the same time and by the same means themselves held to account’.

But performing in this way can also be enabled by ‘performativity’ – that is, utilising those technologies that bring about systemic efficiency or the optimisation of efficient performance (Usher 2006, 280). If one’s NRF rating, one’s publication in an accredited journal and one’s winning of external funding is about positioning the university in the ‘league table of excellence’, and hence about enhancing the prestige of the university, then the emphasis of research may switch from enquiry to application, from ideas to outcomes, and perhaps away from the academic virtues of ‘truth’ seeking and the ‘disinterested’ pursuit of knowledge (Usher 2006, 282). In this sense, the performance of academics becomes too performative. Performance in itself is not a problem, but performing solely for the sake of performativity – that is, ‘a pragmatics of hard-headed calculation’ (Usher 2006, 286), which is associated with ‘how many one can produce and gain’, would reduce the work of researchers to a much maligned, ‘business dominated technological determinism’ (Poster in Usher 2006, 283). Such technological determinism should not be the purpose of education, for that would reduce education (as we find in outcomes-based education – OBE – today) to a regime of ‘mastery’ (Edwards 2006, 277). Mastery represents a form of completion, an end to learning, and points towards a position of finality and closure. Further, attempts at mastery (such as through OBE) – increasingly inscribed in discourses of standards and targets – only point to the inability of many to master whatever has been prescribed (Edwards 2006, 277).

Nowadays at some institutions in South Africa one often witnesses an acceleration of academics’ promotion because their performances are deemed excellent through the game of audit – that is, having so many articles, book chapters and an NRF rating. Yet it is nevertheless true that some of them might not even be able to articulate a coherent argument, or critically and playfully engage with the untidiness and complexity of the current education situation (say in South Africa). They fail to imaginatively destabilise (or what Lyotard refers to as paralogise) performative language games. They attempt to ‘master’ research, but dismally fail in their attempt to do so. How many learners have left our public schools, told that they have mastered the outcomes, yet go into the world with an inability to read and count? (For endless examples of impoverished schooling refer to Toxic Mix (Bloch 2009)).

If the purpose of education is not to perform mastery, how would performing critique help us to reconfigure it? In tackling this question I take my cue from Alasdair MacIntyre (1985) who, in After Virtue, notes that the Enlightenment project, though providing us with traditions of liberty, equality and democracy, has been excessively ambitious in the sense that ‘its deontological justifications have proved to be flimsy, giving way to base emotivism that has deprived contemporary society of a normative vision of goodness, which has in turn been detrimental for education’ (Gray 2006, 316). Education has abdicated its task of engaging in ethical deliberation and visioning about the good life and has increasingly become an instrument of performativity within the global economy, concerned solely with transmitting the knowledge and skills needed to prepare for economic productivity. It acts as a mere agent of epistemological and economic instrumentalism and has relinquished its primary mission of cultivating goodness in people (Alexander in Gray 2006, 316). I wish to take up the monumental task of reclaiming goodness by reconnecting education to critique, so that education can be meaningful and avoid instrumentalisation.

This brings me to the question: What should the discourse ethics to guide education comprise? In the main, education cannot just be about imposing one’s views on others (as the acquisition of mastery requires most of the time), but entails actually engaging others by offering some justification for one’s reasons. In turn, others should be persuaded or dissuaded by one’s reasons. If others find one’s reasons palatable or unpalatable, this could only be on the basis of their proffered justifications. A discourse-oriented education is one underpinned by norms of justification through making one’s point clearer to others, who in turn offer an account of their reasons for agreeing or disagreeing with one’s arguments. This kind of discourse ethics makes education more deliberative, as others are afforded opportunities to engage with or disengage from one’s points of view. It is connected to what Seyla Benhabib (2006, 48) refers to as democratic iterations – those linguistic, legal, cultural and political repetitions-in-transformation. A democratic iteration is characterised by acts of reappropriation and reinterpretation. One simply has to engage in an unending debate with others through democratic self-reflection, self-determination and public defensiveness. It is a profound sense of democratic reflexivity that appeals to recursive questioning and reiterated justifications (Benhabib 2006, 48).

To my mind, democratic iteration is precisely what we require in South Africa to make sure that the education system we now have to implement has been subjected to democratic reflexivity and recursive justifications. This means listening to the views of those involved in the implementation of the National Curriculum Statement and to ‘talk back’. Only then can outcomes-based mastery in education be avoided, because performing democratic reflexivity and recursive justifications would render the educational project as a narrative that is always in the making, to borrow a formulation from Maxine Greene (1996). Democratic iteration or talking back does not have to be non-belligerent or non-distressful just because we think we need to continue the conversation. Sometimes we can articulate our reasons with a sense of roughness and distress, even to the extent of making others feel uncomfortable; otherwise our conversations would be unduly policed (by ourselves and others) and often would be frivolous or useless mediations. Hence, the notion of mastery does not sit easily with democratic iterations because the latter always subject the self-mastery and mastery of the subject to incredulity (that is, an inability to believe) or a loss of faith in the regimes of mastery.

Rather than being a route to mastery, education might be better considered as a condition of ‘constant apprenticeship’ (Rikowski in Edwards 2006, 277). If education can be considered as the continuous perpetuation of apprenticeships, iterative learning communities would evolve in which teachers and learners engage in meaningful work, subjects studied would generate new understandings, and learning would be mediated through active experimentation (Alexander in Gray 2006, 320) or what Popper (1989, 33) refers to as ‘learning through making mistakes’. In fact, learners would be encouraged to be reflective about why their way of thinking is desirable (or not), and these communities would be performing teaching as opposed to training, and engaging in genuine learning as opposed to mechanical learning (Alexander in Gray 2006, 321). Through such a discourse, ethics teaching would be understood as a moral activity that seeks to strengthen the moral agent within. It would empower students to make moral choices more intelligently on their own, which may involve some training but should culminate in understanding and independence that are expressed concretely (Gray 2006, 321).

I now attend to the question: How can critique help us to perform education non-instrumentally, that is, to radicalise education? In response to this question I take a closer look at the university today. From the outset, I want to acknowledge my personal paralytical complicity in the academic position the South African university has assumed since the first democratic elections in April 1994. When I joined the university sector two years after the establishment of the new government I witnessed, without the freedom to speak out, how the newly elected African National Congress (ANC) government legislated one higher education policy text after the other: from the 1996 White Paper on the Transformation of Higher Education, to the Higher Education Act of 1998, to the National Plan for Higher Education in 2001.

At the core of these education policy initiatives has been the government’s most serious ambition to break (some would argue symbolically) with the apartheid past, while simultaneously advocating for a university (the now 23 universities and universities of technology are the result of mergers of the previous 15 universities and 21 technikons) that can satisfy utilitarian demands in the service of the government and the public. Thus one finds that the National Plan proposes the achievement of 16 outcomes, ranging from increasing student access – particularly of black communities – into the university sector, to enhancing their (students’) cognitive abilities with respect to technical and professional competences, which would not only ensure greater competitiveness in an ever-evolving labour-market economy, but also increased participation as democratic citizens in service of the ‘public good’. In a way, the university in South Africa has been coerced to produce what Derrida (2004, 95) refers to as ‘businessmen or technicians of learning’.

Moreover, the performative role of the university is enhanced through the government’s funding formula, which favours subsidising the university according to student enrolments, throughputs and research publications in what have become known in South Africa as accredited journals. This means that a faculty’s funding is secured through its technical compliance with student input and output, and publication output. As a result, rigorous scholarship seems to be exchanged often for increased student throughput and publications, and the impending state subsidy. From my conversations with colleagues, it seems that academic rigour and belligerent supervision are waning and that research in the university has been ‘pledged in advance to some utilitarian purpose’ (Derrida 2004, 111). Too often I hear that the country requires many doctorates to be economically competitive. The old cliché ‘publish or perish’ has assumed a monetary priority because of technical and fiscal demands.

How odd that we are continually reminded that the university cannot survive if throughputs are not sustained! Such instrumental utilitarianism implies that the university in South Africa is an institution without autonomy. And a university without autonomy cannot by definition be a university, but rather a marginalised institution. For Derrida (2004, 104–105), a university that is autonomous ‘must be able, according to Kant, to teach freely whatever it wishes without conferring with anyone, letting itself be guided by its sole interest in truth’. Contrary to such an idea of the university, the South African university has abandoned its internal quest for truth to become instead a technical agent of state bureaucracy. Annually, the subsidy gains of the university are determined by the quantity of research outputs, student enrolments and throughputs as part of the government’s control of the imperatives of technological production. Recently, the vice-chancellor of a prominent university was reminded by the government’s spokesperson that his institution should transform, considering the state subsidy the institution receives. Such a not-so-unusual demand from the government confirms its concern with guiding the universities towards serving the government’s interests.

Of course I am not suggesting that the university in South Africa should not have ends (that is, aims and objectives). But if instrumental ends are the only outputs of the university system, then the university has lost its soul – it has been marginalised. This assessment implies that the university ‘is there to tell the truth, to judge, to criticise in the most rigorous sense of the term, namely to discern and decide between the true and the false; and if it is also entitled to decide between the just and the unjust, the moral and the immoral, this is so insofar as reason and freedom of judgement are implicated in it as well’ (Derrida 2004, 97, emphasis in the original). Some instances that confirm the erosion of the university’s power and freedom to take a stand on issues of true and false, right and wrong, include: the South African university’s reticence during the xenophobic violence that erupted in certain parts of the country last year; some academics’ refusal to support their colleagues where voices in favour of the ‘freedom to speak out’ are silenced by a populist vice-chancellor; and the calculated reluctance of many former white Afrikaans-speaking universities (such as the one I am working in) to condemn publicly the humiliation of black workers by some white students, who insisted that the workers consume liquid contaminated with urine.

At the level of research, the university is in even deeper trouble. Increasingly the university can be seen as dancing to the tune of large business corporations that invest enormous sums of money in research to support utilitarian purposes. As Derrida (2004, 143) confirms, ‘the end-orientation of research [I would add in South Africa as well] is limitless’. For instance, my institution has made the pursuit of research to achieve some of the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) an overarching strategic priority. This means that research should be aimed at achieving the following goals: combating pandemic poverty, promoting human security (from food security to peace initiatives), maintaining and promoting human dignity, promoting democracy, and promoting and maintaining environmental sustainability. If the university (with specific reference to my institution here) endeavours to pledge in advance the use of research for some techno-scientific purpose, then the possibility that fundamental or basic research might be neglected is a stark reality. Does agricultural research in poor farming communities contribute towards eradicating poverty when the produce is still under the control of the rich farmers who now become increasingly entrepreneurial? Does research in violent communities secure peace if some people are challenged to deal with the choice of engaging in drug trafficking in the face of unemployment? Does research about democracy necessarily ensure that societies behave according to the ideals of democratic action? What I am wondering is whether this kind of envisaged ‘end-oriented’ instrumentalist research actually achieves its desired or intended consequences. The fact of the matter is that the university in my country has been pursuing this kind of instrumentalist research for some while and very little, if any, substantive societal changes have ensued. By far the majority of people remain poor and joblessness escalates. But perhaps this is not what the university is supposed to be doing? It is for this reason that I now focus my attention on what the university ought to be doing.

In the wake of the university’s technocratic commitment to produce students who can serve their communities, as indicated in the university’s vision and mission statements: to produce students who can professionally, vocationally and technically be attentive to the demands of the public good (of course, as determined by the government), I now wish to elucidate what seems to distinguish ‘technicians of learning’ from scholars of knowledge (the latter constituting the university ideally), before moving on to a discussion of how to reconstitute the place of critique.

Following Derrida’s neo-Kantian analysis, ‘technicians of learning’ are in fact former students of the university who have been educated to perform functions to meet the ends determined by the state and not the ends of science – the latter being the work of scholars at the university. Technicians of learning wield enormous power, not only as a result of displaying technical mastery within their professions – whether as doctors, journalists, lawyers, magistrates, accountants, geneticists, biochemists, engineers, teachers or theologians – but also as a result of their influence on and shaping of the public sphere. For Derrida (2004, 96), ‘they are all representatives of the public or private administration of the university, all decision makers in matters of budgets and the allocation and distribution of resources… all administrators of publications and archivisations, publishers, journalists, and so forth’. In a way, they are technical consumers of knowledge(s), who professionally serve their own interests and those of the public. University prospectuses clearly confirm the interest of all current South African institutions in producing ‘technicians of learning’ who can vocationally practise their careers of benefit to the public. But, of course, herein also lies a potential danger to the university.

Technicians of learning, like most state bureaucrats involved in the technical administration of knowledge(s), often present themselves as judges and decision makers in the public practice of their careers. Mostly they usurp the right to judge and decide on the performance of their professions without being subjected to the authority and censorship of the university and its faculties (Derrida 2004, 97). How common is it today for some doctors to prescribe inappropriate medication, or for some teachers to use archaic learning strategies without conferring with the university, or for some judges to wrongly convict an innocent person? The point is that technicians of learning often use their university-acquired qualifications to parade as quintessential paragons of knowledge(s), who at any time may usurp the power of scholars of knowledge to decide and judge. Yet this is not what they have been educated to do. But perhaps the university has stripped itself of its responsibility to judge and decide on the true and the false, with the result that technicians of learning now masquerade as producers of knowledge(s).

Reconstituting the place of critique in the university is first of all an attempt at recognising and invoking critique. The value of critique finds itself rightfully associated with ‘thinking’ that no longer lets itself be determined by an obsession with techno-economic performativity. As for Derrida, so for me, critique is a form of dissonance and questioning that is not dominated and intimidated by the power of performativity. ‘This thinking must also unmask – an infinite task – all the ruses of end-orienting reason, the paths by which apparently disinterested research can find itself indirectly reappropriated, reinvested by programs of all sorts’ (Derrida 2004, 148). This thinking is always asking: ‘What is at stake (in technology, the sciences, production and productivity)?’ It is a kind of critique that allows us to take more risks, to deal openly with the radical incommensurability of the language games that constitute our society, and invites new possibilities to emerge. Critique is a matter of enhancing the possibility of dissent and diversity of interpretations (Burik 2009, 301); of complicating what is taken for granted, pointing to what has been overlooked in establishing identities (Burik 2009, 302); an active opening up of one’s own thought structures that is necessary for other ways to find an entrance (Burik 2009, 304). In a different way, it is performing a radicalisation of education away from marginalisation because radicalising education is innately concerned with creating possibilities for dissent, diversity of interpretations, complicating the taken-for-granted and opening up to the other. Perhaps only then as educationists can we ensure that education does not remain marginalised in South Africa.

This brings me to a discussion of how a critique-based education system can actually work with reference to my own teaching. At the beginning of each academic year, I teach a module to postgraduate students in their final year of a professional teaching qualification. The title of the module is ‘Theoretical Perspectives on Diversity and Inclusivity’. The module aims to teach students – about to become high-school teachers – to use aspects of democratic citizenship education in their classroom practices. The demographic composition of the class is overwhelmingly white (90 per cent). One of the reasons for this anomaly in a country where the majority of the population is black is the fact that many black people do not speak Afrikaans – considered to be the dominant lingua franca at the institution where I work.

For the past three years, I have employed a critique-based strategy within the module, aimed at educating the students to become deliberative inquirers. I have been teaching deliberation in relation to three issues that have gained prominence in South Africa: racism, blind patriotism and xenophobia. I introduced students to three video clips of incidents related to these phenomena. They were then asked to give an account of why racism, blind patriotism and xenophobia are societal ills that should be eradicated. Working in groups, students had to justify to one another why these societal ills are detrimental in the process of cultivating responsible citizens after decades of apartheid rule. What ensued was that some students gave explanations of why these ills surfaced and other students critically evaluated the explanations. The groups then offered their arguments against racism, blind patriotism and xenophobia to the entire class. Randomly, I asked students to respond to other students’ reasons, thus taking one another’s reasons into a zone of systematic controversy. Critically evaluating one another’s reasons has always been done through listening to what the other had to say before agreeing or disagreeing, and this was then followed by giving an account of their own reasons. As the university teacher, I eventually considered the reasons offered by the students before giving my own reasons, after which students could evaluate those reasons. Sometimes students became annoyed with other students for what they perceived to have been an articulation of ill-conceived reasons. It was my task to emphasise that respect demands that we can disagree (even belligerently) with one another’s reasons and that we have to tell one another when we think the other is wrong. Thus, through listening, evaluating and re-evaluating one another’s reasons, deliberation was fostered in the university classroom.

However, what sparked much heated controversy in the class was the remark by a white student that the racial prejudice and racist actions perpetrated by five white students against elderly, black workers at a university residence in 2009 could be seen as a response to the killing of some white farmers in the country. One of these five white students urinated into a prepared meal for black workers to show how gullible and ignorant blacks are in the country. Of course, the humiliation of people should not be tolerated. Similarly, the brutal murder of some white farmers is an abhorrent and barbaric act. However, to argue that racially degrading behaviour can be justified as a response to the farm killings is not only an ill-conceived argument, but also the expression of an irresponsible view. It was at this point that even white students belligerently disagreed with the views of a fellow student. The most defensible argument raised against this ill-conceived view, promulgated by Amy Gutmann (2003), recognises that freedom of expression should not be left unconstrained when an injustice to others is perpetrated. The white student who attempted to rationalise the racist incident suffered some kind of distress, which is not unusual for the kinds of deliberations I encourage in the class. The debate became very heated and one might have expected students to leave the classroom. Yet conditions of deliberation had already been engendered in the class for some time, which meant that such an act was not necessary.

The point here is that even when deliberations are belligerent and distressful, students should continue to participate in them. Eamon Callan (1997) explains that the idea of deliberation does not entail an attempt ‘to achieve dialogical victory over our adversaries but rather the attempt to find and enact terms of political coexistence that we and they can reasonably endorse as morally acceptable’ (Callan 1997, 215). Through deliberation, university teachers and students disturb complacency or provoke doubts about the correctness of their moral beliefs or about the importance of the differences between what they and others believe (a matter of arousing distress), accompanied by a rough process of struggle and ethical confrontation – that is, belligerence (Callan 1997, 211). If this happens, belligerence and distress give way eventually to moments of ethical conciliation, when the truth and error in rival positions have been made clear and a fitting synthesis of factional viewpoints – such as happened in this class – is achieved (Callan 1997, 212). This is an idea of deliberation with which I agree – where no one has the right to silence dissent and where participants can speak their minds. And when university teachers and students can speak their minds, they are also prepared to take risks that will prepare them well to enhance justice in their society. University teachers and students who are prepared to challenge forms of injustice in their society, such as racism and barbaric murders, do so for the sake of achieving democratic justice – they act as responsible citizens willing to take the risk of speaking their minds.

In essence, deliberative argumentation prompts students and teachers to question meanings, imagine alternative possibilities, modify practical judgments, foster respect and develop critical engagement. Teaching students through and about deliberation would go some way in cultivating a critique-based educational discourse in South African universities.


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Callan, E. 1997. Creating Citizens: Political Education and Liberal Democracy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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Closing the Gap in Education?

   by Ilana Snyder and John Nieuwenhuysen