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Higher Educational Reform Values and the Dilemmas of Change: Challenging Secular Neo-Liberalism

Written By

James Campbell

Submitted: November 30th, 2011 Published: August 17th, 2012

DOI: 10.5772/45739

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1. Introduction

The way universities articulate their mission within contemporary globalization and the challenge of globalization to substantive community values is critical to understanding contemporary reform discourse in deep context. The tension between deeply held values and the demands of contemporary economic and social change that is being driven by neo-liberal globalization manifest at diverse levels on contemporary societies. Differing views exist in regards to how to best move forward in response to globalization [1-4]. Developing nations face the need to develop the capacities and capabilities of their citizens in the broadest possible way and education is widely considered as a key institutional conduit through which this occurs. However our capabilities and capacities as human beings are deeply connected to our ability to realise and maintain a sense of dignity and moral balance in a world increasingly beset by the values of instrumental reason, competitive rationality and consumerism. As Amartya Sen has argued addressing social exclusion is a critical component of capacity building. Ensuring that human capabilities are encouraged and allowed to grow and manifest is a key component of development theory [5-7]. The key issue that animates this chapter is the extent to which contemporary philosophies of higher educational development based on secular neo-liberal theory actually inhibits the pursuit of human capability since the fundamental premise of neo-liberalism rests on a denial of the substantive, other regarding and non instrumental values that human beings possess in their commitment to moral life through faith. The problem of economically developing nations in the context of global competition and the dominance of neo-liberal ideology requires a reinterrogation of the problem of values and their proper place in national development.

In this chapter we shall discuss these broad problems pointed to above with reference to a specific national discourse. Malaysian reform in higher education provides a good example of the desire to engage with the issues of globalization and competitive pressure yet at the same time strongly assert its own independent path for higher educational institutions [8-12]. Contemporary arguments regarding the commodification and importance of knowledge [13] for economic growth and the uneven and iniquitous impact of globalization on higher education and national education systems have had their impact on universities in Malaysia [14]. Reduction of knowledge to the status of a commodity is the hallmark of neo-liberal globalization. Ensuring that Malaysian higher education converges with the principles of neo-liberal globalization is a critical aim of neo-liberal global institutions [15]. This effort pursued by bodies such as the World Bank entails seeking a deep secularization of Malaysian institutional practices under the cover of a desire to globalize and integrate with the normative values of competition, performance and individualism. These are the values that deeply inform the secular neo-liberal agenda and the approach of institutions such as the World Bank [16].

In this sense the Malaysian example of higher educational reform and the difficulties and tensions that characterise it is a useful national context within which to engage the theoretical problems discussed in this chapter. Global pressures to conform with managerial and economically driven business practice in issues such as evaluative performance indicator culture, competitiveness or moving up university rankings is a critical issue for Malaysian higher education [17-18]. The uncertainty and disquiet with the contemporary way that modernization and globalization are manifesting in Malaysian institutions of higher education is part of a broader global disquiet at what is seen as the overtly secular, instrumental, calculative and individualistic philosophies and directions that are being pursued in an attempt to increase Malaysia’s competitive position and drive economic growth in conditions of globalization, and competition [18-20].

Many Malaysian scholars and intellectuals are deeply concerned by the problems of contemporary modernity and the deep problem that modernity in its Eurocentric-Americanised form is bringing to Malaysian society [21-25]. The Malaysian government’s higher educational strategy is a critical response to the dilemmas and issues facing Malaysian higher education and contains within it a values disposition which is critical to note. Historically universities in Malaysia have served national goals of educational inclusion and development[26]. However Malaysian universities are now faced by a set of asymmetric crisis’ which challenge the very foundations of Malaysia’s commitment to cultural dignity and social justice.

Asymmetric crises which characterize the contemporary globalized environment include: with respect to values, social equity versus selfishness; in regards to resources; waste versus conservation, and finally with regards to technological development; responsive and socially responsible development versus grandiose and extravagant development [27‐28]. The deep secular nature of modernization discourse in relation to higher education frames the possibilities and problems of public policy in particular ways which produce significant disquiet and uncertainty in debates over the direction of Malaysian higher education [22, 29].

The problems of isomorphism and educational borrowing given globalization and the global forces for convergence to neo‐liberal norms and competitiveness are a significant threat to values and cultural norms. Critics point to the ‘fundamentalism’ that characterises the market discourse of ‘efficiency’ and how this fundamentalism operates in contemporary globalization [Rodrik 2001; Amin 2004]. A key problem which animates the discussion in this chapter is how the secular pretence of contemporary westernised modernization and the discourse of neo-liberalism relegate spiritual values to personal interiority and away from the main public square and thus destroy the capacities of people to truly realise their moral aspirations and capabilities in an ‘other regarding’ fashion.

The problems of reforming higher education in developing nations such as Malaysia in such a difficult environment boil down to balancing the need for engaging with the changes underway globally, but also recognizing the need to balance this with commitments to values and moral criteria that are not driven by mere reaction, or subservience to, neo-liberal and Eurocentric power [30-31]. The recognition that higher educational reform in Malaysia must be holistic and that it must combine effort to change mindsets with a protection of culture and normative values are policy prescriptions that animate Malaysian public policy [32-33]. The dynamics and forces of globalization have lead to a radical rethink in respect to the role of the University in contemporary society [26]. However these forces of change if not integrated within the cultural values of Malaysians and consistent with Malaysia’s objective national goals and sense of social justice [34] can manifest as forms of ‘captive’ mentality, where policy is driven by external agendas and express a form of imperialist power [35-36].

Cultural imperialism entails the ‘use of political and economic power to exalt and spread the values and habits of a foreign culture at the expense of a native culture.’[37, p.303] The challenge of cultural imperialism as a form of values imperialism provides a difficult task for higher educational institutions beset by the need to ‘compete’ and remain ‘relevant’ in a world increasingly dominated by processes of secularization, neo liberal marketization and consumer oriented philosophy underpinned by instrumentalist and utilitarian modes of understanding which are fundamentally at odds with important and powerful normative and cultural identities of Malaysian society. The Ninth Malaysia Plan makes an important point:

‘there is a need to strengthen the overall mindset, culture, values and social institutions to be more in step with the country’s economic development. There is a danger of the country possessing first-class infrastructure but third-class mentality. In order to pursue further growth and development, Malaysia will need to fortify its moral and ethical foundations while enhancing its mindset and attitudes towards excellence and performance.’[38, p.4]

Part of the discontent with modern globalization from an educational perspective and from the perspective of national development is the ascendancy of possessive individualism as the core referent for ethical behaviour. Individualistically justified ethics which reduces itself to hedonism dissipates what Syed Muhammed Naquib Al-Attas refers to as the ‘vital centre’[23]. The public square and in our discussion, the public higher educational institution is stripped of ethical vitality through the discourse of neo-liberal managerialism, performance and competition based on a liberal view of the self as unencumbered. Neo-liberal globalization is radically challenging conventional notions of what Emerson refers to as the ‘sovereignty of ethics’ and this poses threats and opportunities for universities and educators [39]. Economic development carries with it implicit cultural and social values. Malaysian higher education has been informed by the commitment of the state to inclusion and the educational development of its people[40] as well a commitment to moral leadership[41, p.122]. However, contemporary Malaysian society is now buffeted by global popular culture, consumerism and growing individualism [42-43]. Cultural values of care and respect and compassion are increasingly under threat by values of possessive individualism. The contemporary Malaysian influences of Islam and other religious traditions that prevail in Malaysia [44-45] is in tension with the discourse of neo-liberalism. Currently the need to ground higher educational policy in closer reference to spiritual values and social capacities is not as strongly pursued in global public policy discussions as are the demands for competitive improvements, performance regulation and the broad discourse of neo-liberalism[46].

In higher education the values that are inculcated in the new discourse of performance, competition, efficiency and knowledge productivity are articulated in an apparently secular and instrumental language usually stripped on any substantive ethical referent and used without reference to cultural beliefs. These values which are pushed by mainstream neo-liberal global institutions in their advice to developing nations are the subject of considerable debate and public reflection. In the Malaysian case debate focuses on the problems of values, social stability and national intent. Contemporary ideas of ‘development’ and globalization which present themselves as ‘irreversible’ are increasingly challenging deeply held cultural and spiritual values in Malaysia [47, p.15]. How can we understand this tension between the cultural and spiritual values that inform Malaysian society and are fundamental to understanding notions of the self and the current discourse of neo-liberal instrumentalism, individualism and number crunching performance in higher education? What is the root problem that informs neo-liberal reform discourse which puts it at odds with the way developing societies such as Malaysia engage the issue of public purpose values and education?

The following discussion seeks to propose that a critical issue in this respect is the fundamentally secularist discourse which informs and structures neo-liberalism. To understand the problems facing higher educational institutions we must first go to the root of our current malaise. The root lies in a discourse of neo-liberal rationalization with its apparently secular self understanding that dominates and informs modernity and informs that way we understand what is legitimate in institutions of higher education and what is threatening or illegitimate. Arap Kumar Sen observes that ‘the philosophy of secularism is organically linked with the discourse of modernization’ [48, p.1156]. Secular neo-liberal discourse specifically denies any authority beyond the individual the market and processes of the rational evaluations of institutions. Anouar Majid provides an interesting analysis of the development of the secular view in the following:

‘The secular worldview that emanated from the late eighteenth century and the first few decades of the nineteenth was the product of Enlightenment thought and a classical liberal philosophy whose goal was nothing less than the recalibration and redefinition of human morality to adjust it to a new social calculus that excluded traditional religious commitments (irrational as these might have been).’ [49, pp. 2-3]

Jose Casonova adds further understanding when he points out that, ‘the secularist genealogy of modernity was constructed as a triumphant emancipation of reason, freedom, and worldly pursuits from the constraints of religion’ [50, p.11]. Casonova describes the narrative of secularism as, ‘the emancipation and expansion of the secular spheres at the expense of a much diminished and confined, though also newly differentiated, religious sphere. The boundaries are well kept; only they are relocated, drastically pushing religion into the margins and into the private sphere.’[50, p.11] Chandra Muzzafar reminds us finally that, scholars now are openly discussing the idea of post-secularism in the Western context as a response to the failings and limitations of the secular paradigm [51]. This recognition of the need to critique the secularist biases and discourse that informs Western modernity and especially its aggressive neo-liberal form is the critical view in this chapter.

The key idea here is that secularism in the contemporary world relies on a binary between the rational, measurable, calculable and the irrational, unmeasurable, and incalculable. It also relies on a critical binary between the public sphere (state institutions for example) where spiritual concerns have little substantive authority and the private realm where the spiritual is considered to properly exist. The secular normativity that informs contemporary neo-liberal higher education policy needs to be identified and analysed so as to expose its nature and consequences for public policy formulation. We need to grasp the redemptive and rationalised roots of neo‐liberalism and challenge the way nature and characteristics of the contemporary secular/spiritual binary reinforces the identification of the secular with the rational and public and the spiritual with the private and irrational. Historically speaking, the prediction that religion and spiritual belief would fade into ancient memory as modernization advanced has simply been proven to be false. Yet even though the secularization thesis is demonstrably false the power of the secular imaginary in the global higher educational discourse is still prevalent [52].


2. Theory

It is the contention of this chapter that cultural values and spiritual beliefs which provide the mainstay of many peoples way of seeing the world and their place in it is considered irrelevant to the discourse of productivity, measurement and competition that characterises hegemonic neo-liberal discourse unless they mesh with an individualistic, instrumentalist discourse that privileges, ‘religious interiorization’[53, p.2] or supplement the discourse of neo-liberalism. Chandra Muzzafar makes the point that greed, self interest and self centeredness, which are all antithetical to ‘eternal spiritual and moral values’ is a key characteristic of the contemporary neo-liberal capitalist hegemony [51, p.4].

This hegemony is driven and articulated by specific institutional interests. For example the pursuit of neo-liberal reform in higher education which is pursued by global institutions such as the World Bank and advocated for developing nations such as Malaysia is driven by a secular rationality which is at odds with the spiritual social imaginary which characterises Malaysian society. Thus we have a tension between the pressures of globalization and international isomorphism in higher educational institutions: the desire to make higher educational institutions conform to calculative rationality, competition and possessively individualistic reform and the substantive commitments of the overwhelming majority of Malaysians to other regarding spiritual values [51].

The idea that spiritual belief should be included in the public square is a key characteristic of Malaysian modernization [21, 54-55] and is an idea widely spread in many developing nations. This is not without some controversy, nor is there always agreement on exactly where the boundaries of faith and public policy should be drawn. Nonetheless taken as a whole and looked at over the long duree of Malaysian nationhood the trend in Malaysian modernization has been towards a growing importance of religious influence in the public square rather than an ebbing of such influence as put by secularization theory[56]. At the same time as this trend is increasingly important in Malaysia the pressures to converge the nature practices and direction of Malaysian higher educational institutions to neo-liberal norms has escalated. These kinds of pressures are not limited to Malaysia. However the external forces in the global economy, international institutions and isomorphic pressures which characterise the discourse of higher educational reform at the global level are in distinct tension with the faith oriented values of Malaysians at the national level[51].

Contemporary higher educational discourse at the global level is characterised by a secular rationality and narrative which seeks to interiorize faith and implicitly views faith issues as of little relevance to the problems of public institutions. Neo-liberal educational policy prescriptions present itself in a rationalised and secularized discourse which dominates the contemporary higher educational policy scene [57-60]. The discourse appears objectified, instrumental and calculative yet its secular rational form finds its basis in a radicalised and rationalised Calvinism stripped of its other regarding moral sentiment. Thus we have an interesting irony in regards to neo-liberalism and the secular social imaginary within which it functions[61].

On the one hand neo-liberalism articulates its discourse in a secular fashion based on its claim to objective rationality, ‘best practice’ the ‘logic of the market’ and ‘instrumental reason’. Neo-liberalism meshes easily with Eurocentric notions of modernization based on concepts of secularization that posit reason and efficiency and rationalization as the critical regulative and constitutive elements of modernity and ‘public’ policy. Faith based ‘other regarding’ value systems including spiritual religious ones are consigned to only having authority and legitimacy in the private sphere. Thus any attempt to insist on spiritual values having some commanding influence on public policy is viewed from the vantage point of Eurocentric secular modernity as threatening and dangerous; as irrational. Neo‐liberalism sits squarely and neatly within this binary as a rational and ‘objective’ doctrine rooted in the ‘science’ of economics. This economic rationalistic and calculative instrumental view of human capability and what is the proper boundaries of public policy meshes neatly with the liberal self interiorization of religion and rationalisation of public life. Efforts to reject this interiorization are at odds with the liberal project and are thus seen as irrational, unscientific or simply backward. In respect to how the secular discourse positions the religious Other. William Connolly points out:

‘Indeed, the best definition of Europe itself—as presented by those constituencies assuming themselves to be qualified to define its core authoritatively—is the idea that to be European is to express religious beliefs in the private realm and to participate as abstract citizens in the public realm. This innocent and tolerant-sounding definition promotes Christian secularism into the center of Europe and reduces Islamic peoples into a minority unlike other minorities; they are distinctive because they alone are unwilling or unable to abide by the modern agenda.... You might even say that the inner connection between Christianity and Europe today resides in the demand, growing out of the Christian Enlightenment, to disconnect the expression of religious belief from participation in embodied practices, so that it becomes possible to imagine a world in which everyone is a citizen because religious belief is relegated to the private realm and the interior of the self.’[62, p.78]

However the irony referred to above rests on the recognition that informing this secularised rationalized discourse of neo-liberalism is its basis in the way the rationalization processes of Eurocentric and particularly Americanized modernization are themselves forms of rationalised millennial discourses: specifically, rationalised Calvinism. It is not without irony that Protestant Calvinism a serious spiritual philosophy finds itself rationalised and stripped of any non calculative moral purpose and put in the service of a secularised and morally problematic philosophy of neo-liberalism with its visions of profit, consumption and unencumbered individuality [63-67]. Connolly argues: ‘ that it is necessary today to expose and contest the spirituality invested in the contemporary evangelical-capitalist resonance machine, even as we seek to promote another set of spiritual affinities across lines of class, ethnicity, generation and creed.’[68] In short the neo-liberal philosophy which informs higher educational discourse is essentially rationalised Calvinism. This rationalization and secularization of the Calvinist redemptive ethic is reductive and stripped of other regarding sentiment which was still critical within historical Calvinism. It is no accident that the role of higher education as a beacon of ‘reason’, ‘civilization’ and ‘progress’ is now deeply influenced by a rationalised philosophy of neo-liberalism which asserts its deep messianic authority by claiming objectivity beyond faith and articulating itself in a secular discourse which marginalises any other faith imaginary through its demand that spirituality be interiorised and deleted from the public square.

Globally the higher educational industry is deeply infused with this rationalised and secularized ethos which frames and informs how ‘progress’, ‘reason’ and ‘civilization’ are understood. Susan George points out that, ‘neo-liberalism has become the major world religion with its dogmatic doctrine, its priesthood, its law-giving institutions and perhaps most important of all, its hell for heathen and sinners who dare to contest the revealed truth.’[69] It is no accident that neo‐liberal capitalism ‘presents itself as a gospel of salvation’[70, p.292]. In fact the Weberian notion of disenchantment as a characteristic of modernity is potentially misleading if understood crudely. Enchantment exists: in the millennial certainty and zeal of neo-liberalism and its advocates. This eschatological zeal and certainty informs what appears as a secularized discourse and social imaginary. It seals the ascendency and dominance of neo-liberalism by virtue of surreptitiously ensuring the prevalence of deep Protestant tropes and logical forms within the apparently secular discourse[71]. Thus we have an apparently secular philosophy neo-liberalism that is infused with millennial certainty and zeal which can only be understood in reference to the deep Calvinist roots that inform American capitalism (the most powerful form of Eurocentric modernity) which is at the base of neo-liberalism. In this sense the Weberian notion of disenchantment through rationalization if not grasped deeply, hides from view the essentially continued ‘mythic’ and ‘redemptive’ strains that characterise the rationality of neo-liberalism. The reification of Calvinist principles to neo-liberal secular rationality reveals itself as the all encompassing authority of neo-liberal instrumental reason.

How do we then understand in practical terms the way that contemporary secular discourse informs the global social imaginary of higher educational discourse? Two basic theoretical artifices inform the secularism that we find in global institutions that drive higher educational discourse. The first is what Elizabeth Shakman Hurd refers to as laicism. Laicism is a view that privileges the idea that religion and spirituality are impediments and oppositional to development and modernization. Such a view is common in higher educational discourse. A laicist reading of spirituality in higher educational debate views spirituality as an infringement on the goal and purpose of higher education by irrational belief on an otherwise secular institution. It is no accident that the laicist arguments that are implicit within neo-liberalism sit comfortably with cultural exclusion.

The second characteristic that shapes the ideology of global institutions Elizabeth Shackman Hurd refers to as Judeo- Christian secularism which sees religion as a generator of conflict and division. The ‘secularized Christian separation of church and state’ which informs this way of thinking is persuasive insofar as it implicitly excluded from consideration considerations of spirituality and belief in discussions over the missions and purposes of higher education. In a higher educational discourse characterised by these often unreflected values, the idea that the goals of higher education must take into consideration religious or spiritual values and objectives is considered at best misleading and at worst dangerous.

According to this interpretation of the way the Judeo–Christian framed secularist beliefs affect the global discourse of higher education policy the idea of spirituality being central to the mission of higher education contravene the secularized Christian separation of church and state or in our case spirituality and higher education. Shakman Hurd provides us with an important discussion of ‘the “ideological conditions that give point and force to the theoretical apparatuses employed to describe and objectify” the secular and the religious.’[72, p.2] To repeat; the theoretical apparatuses which Shakman Hurd identifies as forming the basis of the Eurocentric rationalist discourse at a global level are laicism and Judeo‐Christian secularism. According to Shakman Hurd:

‘These traditions of secularism are collective dispositions that shape modern sensibilities, habits, and beliefs regarding the secular and the religious. Secular theory and practice are given equal footing here in accordance with MacIntyre’s argument that “there ought not to be two histories, one of political and moral action and one of political and moral theorizing, because there were not two pasts, one populated only by actions, the other only by theories. Every action is the bearer and expression of more or less theory-laden beliefs and concepts; every piece of theorizing and every expression of belief is a political and moral action.”[72, p.2]

The way that spiritual belief is de‐legitimised in the core global institutions of higher educational policy does not mean that religious beliefs are not critical to many higher educational institutions (many of them private). In fact many of the most prestigious global universities have their roots as religiously founded institutions. What it means is that the deeper secular ideologies which dominate mainstream public policy discourse in regards to what a university should do, and how its success can be understood and grasped is fundamentally informed by secular reason and specifically the neo-liberal project. The neo-liberal project for higher education (which is the dominant project) is driven in large measure by a secular rhetoric which places little value on values which are not reducible to profit, instrumental measurement and economic motivations.

Organisations such as universities are considered to have performed their function when, individuals have performed and shown performance through metrics devoid of any sense of values other than productivity and the indictors for it. At a global level the secular social imaginary that informs the discourse of higher educational reform is thus in essence founded in a particular ascendency of a rationalised religious ethos that presents itself as beyond ‘faith’ and thus marginalises actually existing cultures and communities which do not share this spiritually interiorized and individualistic cultural agenda.

This secular religious binary which posits spiritual belief in the private sphere and lambasts it as irrational or dangerous when it manifests in the public sphere is the key implicit structuring discourse for neo-liberal reform to higher education. It is true that neo liberal reforms can coexist in a formally religious institution, as long as the substantive forms of governance, productivity, ideas of what counts as important knowledge are all still fundamentally driven by neo-liberal prescriptions. In other words, as pointed out at the beginning of this discussion the secular ethos of neo-liberalism can still function effectively in environments where there is formal religious belief and practice as long as the fundamental Judeo-Christian secular ethic and laicism is not threatened. Mohammad Hashim Kamali reinforces the basic analysis:

‘Historians and political theorists in the English-language literature on secularism agree on one fundamental observation, namely that secularism is a product of Christian society that emerged as a protest movement to the historical domination of the church over the state and the eventual reversal of that order after the Reformation. Whether secularism’s eventual objective is to deny God and eliminate religion altogether or just to restrict religion to the private sphere while recognizing the existence of a ‘god’ that has no say in people’s worldly affairs, “the concept cannot be comprehended outside the context of Europe’s evolution and its Christian reform movements.”’[73, p.1]

Thus is the way the secular social imaginary reinforces the hegemony of neo-liberalism on the global level. In the Malaysian case a tendency for religious and spiritual issues in the public square to be reduced to problems of legal definitions and punishment issues is also allowing neo-liberalism to drive a values agenda in higher educational institutions at a substantive level [74]. In other words, the substantive influence of neo-liberal policy in articulating forms of self regulation; based on the unencumbered and competitive individual and a calculative and evaluative rationality which reduces value to mere numbers means that arguably the inner and substantive values in higher educational institutions are being undermined despite formal commitments to the upholding of faith based values by governments in the public square. Malaysian critics have pointed to this problem specifically [75-79]. This substantive separation out of faith from the pubic square that is occurring through the dominance of neo-liberal philosophy in higher educational institutions runs contrary to mainstream opinion for example within Islam.[73]

The power of neo-liberalism on a global scale and in our case in the movement to reform higher educational institutions to its precepts is in large measure instituted through the way its policies are given as objective and rational rather than being based on so-called non rational arguments which must always be limited to the individual’s personal views and life. Thus its power rests on the secular binary and discourse which sustains it. Neo-liberal educational reform attempts to replace other regarding subjects who have loyalties and aspirations beyond consumption and personal advancement with ‘rational actors’. It should not be forgotten the extent to which secular philosophies such as neo-liberalism, ‘requires a profound change in human outlook’[80, p.30]. Smita A. Rahman argues convincingly that secular liberalism which is the corner stone of neo-liberal reform relies: ‘on a strong rationalism to fill the role that faith formerly occupied in discussions of justice and the public good.’[81, pp.39-40].

The problem is that rationalism as currently conceived in the current neo-liberal order is deeply individualistic, calculative and instrumental. Not only does this form of rationalism have little place for spiritual values which challenge its ascendency it has little place for other regarding values as well. Tariq Ramadan reminds us that, ‘the minimal governmentality proscribed by neoliberal ideology leads to an “empty” and hopeless political discourse’ [82, p.2]. The importance of Tariq Ramadan’s insight in regards to the moral emptiness of contemporary neo-liberal reform and its pursuit of the, ‘privatization of all non-commodified public spheres’ [59, p.14] is critical to understand. Understanding the power and authority of neo-liberal reform requires us to grasp the way that the way neo-liberalism fuels what Tariq Ramadan correctly sees as a kind of moral emptiness in the public square is itself derived from its implicit basis in the processes of modern secularization and interiorization of spiritual belief characteristic of contemporary western modernity.

The decline of other regarding spiritual dimensions in our institutions of higher education entails also a decline or diminution of other regarding values in all our institutions. In the Malaysian case this has led to significant public disquiet with neo-liberal reform in universities[83]. The significance of the current secular problematic to the hegemonic power of neo-liberalism cannot be underestimated. Thus secularism is in many respects a view that helps in the ‘the production and governance of neoliberal subjects.’ [84, p.149] According to Gojanskel secularism provides the, ‘ideological context of contemporary global neoliberalism and its ideal unattached, nonparticularist and spaceless subject.’[84, p.149] In fact secularism ‘as a political ideology can be traced back to early liberalism and its emphasis on universality, rationality and individual autonomy’[84, p.149] According to Gokanksel:

‘Secularism as a contemporary political project aims to keep the body in the domain of the state and in the production of a particular deterritorialized global economic order. The neoliberal individual must be free of any particularist spatial ties that prevent him or her from competing effectively in the global marketplace. From the secularist point of view religious symbols mark religious, ethnic or cultural differences onto bodies that are supposed to be neutral, rational, equal and competent in neoliberal terms.’ [84, p.150]

The steering institutions and globally powerful arguments for neo-liberal higher educational policy are fundamentally secular in orientation. The secular nature of institutions is deeply connected to the perceived ‘civilizing’ mission such institutions play in modern societies. This ‘civilizing’ mission as we have argued above is deeply rooted in a rationalisation and secularization of the Calvinist redemptive ethic of individualism, performance and calculative advancement. We must critique the way that the current globalized discourse of neo-liberal reform presents itself as universal, objectively valid and rational and how this marginalises other regarding values and spiritual traditions in the public square. The millennial certainty that characterises the neo-liberal discourse, while formally secular, is in fact deeply based on Calvinist roots which have been rationalised in the process of the articulation European modernity and it’s more aggressive and imperious American variant.


3. Fear and performance

One focus of this chapter will be on how the current neo-liberal ascendancy creates a climate of fear and marginalisation which expresses it self in forms of cultural anxiety, doubt and a desire to satisfy externally driven aims and agendas in higher education which are not necessarily in keeping with indigenous needs or values. Furthermore this cultural dissonance expresses it self in the aims and practices of higher educational institutions which become disconnected from the values and other regarding moral frameworks of their denizens. [8586].

Due to global isomorphic pressure [87-90] higher educational institutions are driven by neo-liberal managerial, evaluative, competitive and individually possessive agendas. This sense of marginalisation, fear and dismissal of ‘other regarding’ deeply held spiritual and moral values which are based on deep spiritual commitments manifests in the way Eurocentric discourse of modernity has tended to interiorize religion and spirituality and privatize it [91]. This cutting of religion from the public square and is reinforced and generated through the current dominant language of business and management discourse and the broader neo-liberal ideology that now deeply influences higher educational discourse. Critically given the importance of capability building to developmental discourse the cultural affect of neo-liberalism on developing countries and peoples is fundamentally deleterious to educational growth understood in an inclusive and non-imperious way. Indeed many may experience the demands of neo-liberalism in higher educational institutions as what Jefferey Alexander terms ‘cultural trauma’[92].

Critics point out the way that current managerial culture in higher education is deeply affecting intellectual culture. According to critics such as Kathleen Lynch; ‘the seemingly apolitical nature of the neo-liberal agenda’… ‘depoliticises debates about education by hiding its ideological underpinnings in a language of economic efficiency’. [Lynch 2006 p.7] Lynch argues that, these ‘changes are significant not only in terms of how they refocus research and teaching efforts in the university but also in terms of how they change the cultural life of the university. Not only is constant auditing and measuring a recipe for self-display and the fabrication of image over substance’. [Lynch, 2006, p.7]

Everything one does must be measured and counted and only the measurable and countable matters and can be ranked. Under current neo-liberal reform, ‘the measure of educational and research worth is increasingly one’s ability to serve what is measurable in the market.’ [93, p.7]. This reduction of what a university does to the simply measurable and the reduction of its mission to the interest of the market rests on the secularization process that underpins and informs neo‐liberal reform philosophy. This secularised and rationalised form of redemptive Calvinist eschatology which characterises the neo-liberal project is characterized by a calculative and instrumental rationality which is at odds with human capacity building understood in reference to normative other regarding values and substantive social capability. It literally generates a climate of fear.

Neo-liberalism maintains its universal hegemony and adherence to the individualistic consumption ethic through a politics of fear and cultural symbolic violence [9495]. The politics of fear manifests in several diverse yet interconnected ways. The politics of fear manifests in the discourse of global relevance and competition. The sense that universities must compete against each other and compete against so called ‘world’s best practice’ and ‘global benchmarks’ produces a sense of genuine disquiet and underneath this a deep seated fear of failure. This sense of fear is by no means accidental. Based upon a growing sense of anxiety, fear is one of the dominant yet largely understated aspects of contemporary neo-liberal globalization.

The current homogenizing neo-liberal globalization ideology does not truly recognise or accept diversity, does not accept social norms and values at the expense of individual choice and profit, and seeks to marginalise through a politics of fear forms of culture that are inimical to its ascendency. Anxiety and dread result from accepting a philosophy which is utterly at odds with deeply held normative beliefs and values. With respect to the broad discussion of contemporary neo-liberal globalisation the politics of fear is thus an important and sometimes underestimated aspect of how contemporary neo-liberal hegemony expresses itself and maintains itself. Neo-liberalism ‘otherizes’ and demonizes contending cultures that are not amenable to it as ‘cruel’ or ‘barbaric’. In essence, those cultures and social groups not amenable to liberal individualism and consumption are cast out and demonised; they become groups and cultures to be ‘feared’. A critical aspect of secularization discourse as it manifests in neo-liberalism is this demonization and rejection of non individualistic and other regarding spiritual values as irrelevant to the ‘main game’ of university objectives.

In other words, a politics of fear which infuses secular neo-liberal certainty (a certainty derived from its millennial Calvinist roots) forges a kind of public ethos which marginalises opposition and imposes a values framework on public policy discussions which is fundamentally at odds with the actually existing needs and values of developing societies. Cultures that are not amenable to the demands of neo-liberalism are thus seen as backward or undeveloped. In this respect, the politics of fear has a role in helping neo-liberalism maintain its public ascendency. Collective insecurity, doubt and moral vacuity which manifests due to the vacuity of contemporary liberal lives, presents consumption and excess as ways to address the nagging sense of loss of values and community that characterise neo liberal society. Fear is the great hidden motivator to maintain neo-liberal society and patterns of individualism and consumption[96-97]. In higher education fear is a useful motivator to keep our goals ‘relevant’ to neo-liberal aims. At the cultural and social level, fear of hopelessness is sated by consumer goods and constant stimulation and at the broader political level; fear of the other is used as motivation to maintain current inequality and dispossession. In higher education fear manifests in the power of rankings systems and the way that Eurocentric rationality presents itself as objective and beyond question.

Much of what passes for public policy and academic discussion of higher educational policy is grounded in a secular and instrumental discourse, usually stripped of any substantive normative and especially spiritual reference. In the argument made above this philosophy of neo-liberal individualism and instrumental reason generates fear and unease among those who do not share its moral vision. However as argued above it is critical to note that the roots of this neo-liberal discourse and its eschatological certainty lie precisely in its Calvinist pre-history. Thus the power of the secular imaginary that informs higher educational discourse is founded in a rationalization of Calvinist individualism which provides neo-liberalism with its moral fervour and its most troubling redemptive certainties. Jefferey Alexander makes the point broadly when he argues that the, ‘essential cultural patterns of modern societies derive from those of the earlier religious world’[98, p.86]. The dominance of instrumental, calculative, radically individualistic agendas for higher education is deeply rooted in the redemptive and particularist foundations of a rationalised secular ideology; contemporary neo-liberal global modernity. Nikki Keddie reminds us that secularization theory ‘shares the linear-progressive viewpoint of modernization theory, and is really a sub-category of that theoretical approach.’[49, p.3] [99] Instrumental reason and possessive individualistic values become the dominant and overriding imaginary and referent for self understanding and action on the world. Karen Litfin writes:

‘Modernity’s emblematic faith in technology, the doctrine of progress, the centrality of instrumental reason, the sanctity of individual freedom, the denial of the sacred – all of these have been suggested as sources of an environmentally destructive cultural tendency. The common ground uniting all of these beliefs is the secular worldview, a historically specific story about reduction of reality to matter, the triumph of human reason over the vagaries of nature, and the colonization of space and time by material progress.’[100, p.29]


4. Conclusion

The creation of sustainable social capacities and the strong necessity of recognising the place of substantive values in higher education require balancing values within contemporary modernization and development [55]. These are critical issues in regards to the direction and success of developing nations such as Malaysia. The argument in this chapter is that the secularised modernist values that underpin higher educational discourse are a root problem to address before we can come to grips with these problems [101]. The problem is not abstract as discussions of theory sometimes imply, for it manifests in the concerns of intellectuals policy makers and citizens alike in many developing nations. To what extent are we witnessing what Rajni Kothari argued was a, ‘deepening sense of crisis in the modern knowledge system’ [102, p.283].

Neo-liberalism espouses, individualism and such a way of framing the possibilities of social interaction foreclose on other cultural understandings of human life, which are more communitarian and, for example, recognise the centrality of religious values to all aspects of social life. Cultures and movements which evidence such understandings are often seen as ‘backward’ ‘illiberal’ or ‘dangerous’ and a threat to the ideas of individual freedom and individualized ethics that neo-liberalism holds to be sacrosanct. When modernizing higher education is correlated with neo-liberal ideals then the push for a breakdown of social solidarity and espousal of possessive individualism can become all-pervasive. The impact of this on capacity building in Malaysia is worth consideration[6]. What are the negative consequences on capacity building in societies whose life world is deeply imbued with spiritual sensibility, of the endless march of neo-liberal rationalization?

Contemporary neo-liberal globalization and its secularized rationality and eschatological certainty expressed both as economic dominance but more powerfully as cultural dominance provides the background for the contemporary problems of Malaysian development and educational growth. Resistance to this secularized discourse with its focus on counting, material advancement and individualism has been expressed by numerous Malaysian scholars. In the field of literature the work of Mohammed Salleh Yapaar [103] is important in critiquing perspectives that reduce religion simply to discourse. Eminent scholars such as Syed Muhammed Naquib Al-Attas[47, 101] have been staunch critics of secularism and its effects. Azizan Baharuddin [104] has also contributed significantly to the debate over secularism and faith in public institutions as has Chandra Muzzafar [74, 105] and Osman Bakar [106] to name a few. In fact the tradition of diverse Malaysian scholarship on these issues is extensive and in many respects it may be possible to argue that the post secular thinkers in the West who are now realizing the problematic nature of secularism and its false and stifling binary between the secular and faith are in a way catching up with scholars in the developing world who have argued this for some time. The great challenge of the contemporary debate over higher education is to listen to the voices from the developing world and to understand the way in which the secular discourse of neo-liberalism is marginalizing and excluding the moral values of my people subjected to it.

The contribution that Malaysian scholars and intellectuals are making to this important issue needs to be recognized. Looked at attentively the arguments put forward by critics such as Shackmann Hurd with respect to how secularized hegemony is articulated in the practical level now reinforces and supports the arguments of Malaysian critics such as Chandra Muzzafar and their critique of hegemony. The contribution of scholars as broad ranging as Tariq Ramadan, Talal Asad, William Connolly and Charles Taylor, are all providing arguments and theoretical support for the spiritually inclined positions that a wide range of Malaysian scholars have put forward for some time. The salient role that consumption and individualism plays in contemporary higher educational ideology means that the need for a central ethical role of universities within Malaysian society is therefore accentuated not dissipated. The need to address capability deprivation, cultural marginalization and exclusion becomes a critical normative issue for universities. Capacity building which is the fulcrum of Malaysian educational policy is severely constrained if it is framed within a discourse that denies the validity of spiritual values and leads to cultural trauma.

Secular modernity needs to be the subject of what Talal Asad refers to as a ‘rethink’ [107, p.29]. Talal Asad reminds us that the implicit secularist epistemology that informs the secular political view of the role and place of spirituality in our institutions is deeply flawed. Secular epistemology based on autonomous, universal rationality is the foundation stone for secularist political doctrines which characterise the ideologies of our public institutions. As an epistemic category the secular is the foundation point for the power and authority of neo-liberal hegemony. Communitarian spiritual religions and value frameworks seriously challenge neo-liberalism as a basis of claims to deeper meaning than consumption and greed. Take for example the issue of Islam which is critical to understanding the moral universe of Malaysians. Eqbal Ahmad and others such as Edward Said[108-109] have wisely reminded us is that the way neo-liberal imperialism ‘frames’ Islam and indeed any religion or culture that is not beholden to its hold is in an utterly reductive and caricatured way. Eqbal reminds us of the way cultural imperialism ‘draws boundaries ‘to deny our common humanity.’[110] How much is neo-liberal reform in educational institutions acting to stymie us from realising our common humanity and ethical selves?

A philosophical engagement with the secular nature of much contemporary economic and public policy in higher education is the beginning of a path away from the deeply problematic nature of contemporary policy prescriptions. The normative interests of specific cultures are broken apart in a process of neo-liberal globalization where ‘all that is solid melts into air’[111]. Consumer capitalism provides its denizens with ‘unexpected hopes’ that generate an individualistic ‘interiority’ which is ‘perennially dissatisfied and restless.’[112, p.4] This dissatisfaction and restlessness which drives consumerism, individualism and moral chaos is recognized by a broad array of scholars from Osman Bakar, Muhammed Salleh Yapaar, Chandra Muzzafar through to Syed Naquib Al-Attas and many others[47]. If developing nations are to truly build capacity and capability then reassessing the influence and nature of neo-liberal reform in educational institutions is imperative.

An educational project that engages the capabilities of students, teachers and the community is in keeping with the full development of human freedom tempered by the recognition that true freedom cannot properly exist without mutual respect and recognition and ultimately a recognition of the ongoing importance and vitality of spiritual values which are other regarding and not reducible to self interest [113]. In other words the deep secular and laicist way in which higher educational public policy is framed if not interrogated may lead to significant social and political problems based on the secularist modernist values which inform higher educational discourse. The secularist modernization and developmental agenda that is pursued by neo-liberal international institution sin higher education is fundamentally a form of cultural imperialism. Recognising the importance of faith in our institutions is not a precondition for irrationalism and conflict. Quite the opposite, in fact it is an important resource for redefining higher education back to its mission in service of the common good. Capacity building properly understood requires a rethink in regards to the secular presuppositions that inform neo-liberal discourse. One among many critical locations for this debate is in Malaysia a cross roads of civilizations.


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Written By

James Campbell

Submitted: November 30th, 2011 Published: August 17th, 2012