The sublime objects of education policy

Year: 2012

Author: Clarke, Matthew

Type of paper: Abstract refereed


Governments of various political persuasions strive to identify themselves through their education policies with the twin values of quality and equity. Yet both quality and equity are problematic notions: conceptually complex, rather than obvious, and politically contested, rather than innocent. Complexity notwithstanding, however, both concepts are typically deployed in educational policy as if their meaning was transparent and their implementation merely technical.

This paper argues that the 'transient stabilizations' resulting from policy's iterative nature – the ways in which it is articulated and rearticulated across spatially and temporally varied political contexts, without ever being definitively tied down – provide the operative conditions within which quality and equity function as what I am describing as sublime objects of contemporary education policy. Thus, the paper argues that not only are the values of quality and equity complex and contested notions but that they function as forms of the Kantian/Lacanian 'sublime', as things that are at once elevated and elusive, fascinating and capturing us as 'policy subjects', whilst at the same time being perceived as constantly under threat and hence in need of constant re-inscription.

Drawing on Žižek, the paper distinguishes between two senses of the sublime, the 'dynamical' and the 'mathematical', where the dynamical sublime refers to the experience of being overwhelmed or overawed by the sheer force of nature, while the mathematical sublime refers to the experience of being humbled by intimations of the infinite, whose totality exceeds the grasp of our finite conceptual capacities. I argue that the mathematical sublime, which evokes desires for 'a theory of everything', resonates with educational policy discourses around quality, with their aspirations to provide comprehensive maps of knowledge through national curricula and to obtain an omniscient gaze on the achievements of students, teachers and schools through testing. Likewise, between the dynamical sublime, with its associated feelings of beauty and reverence, resonates with educational policy discourses around equity, which promise enjoyment through the sense of ennoblement associated with solidarity and justice. Drawing these connections provides critical insights into the operation of the discourses of quality and equity in education, whilst also suggesting potential possibilities for critique that may contribute to theoretical and practical resistance.