Book Review: The Cynical Educator by Ansgar Allen

Review by Gary Peters

Ansgar Allen is a lecturer in education at the University of Sheffield, UK, and is the author of Benign Violence: Education in and beyond the Age of Reason (2014, Palgrave), The Cynical Educator(2017, Mayfly), and Education and Philosophy: An Introduction (2017, Sage) with Roy Goddard.

On the very day that I write this review of Ansgar Allen’s excellent book The Cynical Educator, the headline news in many newspapers is on the excessive rewards and payoffs of certain Vice Chancellors; my Wife has just failed to secure a promotion at her University, one she richly deserved (OK, I would say that), yes, the guy in the suit got it, making it five guys in suits running the show now; I have just read a review of my latest book that is all too familiar with its not so subtle blend of cruelty, arrogance, condescension, self-servitude and naked self-promotion, hell-bent on dissuading anyone from reading let alone buying the said book: that’s ‘peers’ for you. There is, as always, a lot of shit around and it is very cynical shit. Following his leader/teacher, the cynic Diogenes (who regularly defecated in public), Allen devotes quite a bit of attention to shit, understood as a symbol of truth-telling, provocation and outrage in the face all of the other shit just mentioned; but is it enough to pitch one obscenity against another within an educational context that is loathsome in its blatant inequities of power and reward and sickening in its promotion of self-seeking egotists using the ‘peer’ review as weapon? Probably not, but at the very least, Allen’s book does quicken the pulse a little, while also reminding us that we are all both capable of and worthy of contempt. Part of the problem is that this book is written both for and also from the position of those who are (as described on the front cover) ‘ground down,’ ‘disenchanted’ and ‘exhausted,’ resulting in a ‘weakened and weakening’ form of cynicism that is complicit with the very institution that it resents and bemoans in equal measure. As such the sovereign cynicism of those fleecing the system for personal gain, the highly lucrative consultancy culture whipped-up by pre-REF-tension and the greasy-pole politics of daily ‘collegiate’ life hardly get a mention, Allen preferring to save his contempt for abstracted annoyances such as academic referencing protocols, external audits, research impact agendas, knowledge exchange initiatives and so on. When he does eventually turn to the sovereign cynicism that he both desires and yet lacks, he can only conceive of it in Sadean terms where, as he describes it: ‘Sovereign man may achieve mastery, but he does so by annihilating all things, including himself’ (142): so back to weakness and nothingness. I think the Jags and Range Rovers clogging up senior management car parking spaces (indeed, the fact that they have a parking space at all!!) suggest a powerful cynicism or cynicism of power that is far from self-destructive and, as such, worthy of criticism. Problem is, Allen saves some of his best contempt for those very ‘critical educators’ who, just like the weak cynics of which they are a variant, serve the system precisely by critiquing it and those who flourish within it. While being music to my ears, I was left with the question, one that eternally returned while reading this book: so what dowe do exactly? Anything? In a book that is relentless in its hounding and annihilation of philosophical, religious, aesthetic and political forms of ‘hope,’ are there any alternatives offered here? No, not really, but then why should there be? Academic credibility? An original contribution to knowledge effectively shared? Emancipation? More shit.

True to his cause, Allen starts with a nice gesture, publishing through the fiercely independent Mayfly Books rather than any of the ‘big’ publishers that academics are drawn to like iron filings to a magnet. As Mayfly describe it themselves: ‘the publishing industries are vying for total control of the ever-lucrative arena of scholarly publication, creating a situation in which it is increasingly hard to publish works grounded in research and in radical interrogation of the present.’ This is true, but such truth is itself ultimately self-destructive. If such publishers are ‘vying for total control,’ then they can only achieve this by precisely publishing ‘works grounded in research and in radical interrogation of the present:’ which, of course, is exactly what they do.So Allen’s gesture is just that a gesture (empty or not) but the strength of his book is that he knowsit: he’s a cynic remember.

Written in a pithy, at times quasi-aphoristic style that occasionally takes on recognisably Nietzschean overtones, this book is from the outset intent on eschewing prevailing academic conventions. Assertive rather than dialogical, contemptuous of the moribund logic of question and answer, devoid of any recognisable research methodology (hooray!), this is a text that, uncluttered by endless references to one’s dreaded ‘peers,’ has real immediacy that kept me hooked throughout. That said, there isa bit of a cop-out: having made a big thing about not constantly referencing other texts, Allen treats us to something like fifty full pages of notes and references at the end! This reminded me of Frederic Jameson’s essay on Adorno in Marxism and Formwhere he discusses the latter’s use of extensive footnotes as a kind of parallel book running alongside (or beneath) the main text. With The Cynical Educatorwe seem to be getting a cynical book followed by a not-very-cynical book tucked away at the end: but it’s a move in the right direction, and at least the cynicism comes first.

The quasi-Nietzschean style notwithstanding, as well as the inspiration Allen clearly gets from Nietzsche (although he’s against ‘inspired’ teaching and academic writing as such), there is something very un-Nietzschean about this book. This difference is announced on the very first page, indeed the very first word of the first page: ‘our.’ Nietzsche would never utter such a word without irony. One of the appealing characteristics of Allen’s writing is that he does not exclude himself from what he attacks (although attack is putting it too strongly). This is an immanent critique in the purest sense of the word (although, again, critique is not the right word either). All the way through it is ‘our,’ ‘us,’ ‘we,’ without a hint of the irony evident in, for example, Nietzsche’s ‘We Scholars.’ No, Allen bends over backwards to assure us that he is ‘one of us.’ Here is a taste:

This book takes aim at you and me, at our cynical attachments to education and the educated person. It unearths the teacher within us. It confronts us with our own disavowed cynicisms only to affirm them. (4)

This book takes aim at the conceit of educated people…the good of the educational good is assumed everywhere and without question. Precisely here their conceit resides—a conceit which is yours and mine. (12)

Disarming as this is, it ultimately conspires against any real puncturing of the morality-soaked, herd-like consensus that sucks us into its all-engulfing current; no matter how ‘radical’ we might like to think we are. Allen is cynical enough to understand this better than most, but one suspects it cannot save him from being washed-away along with everyone else who are offered the same choice by the institutions they both deplore and sustain: sink or swim.

Like Allen, I don’t have any answers, and I certainly don’t have any thought-through alternatives that would seek to challenge his own snake-like self-devourment. What I do have are a couple of final thoughts on why this is, in spite of its ambition, nota Nietzschean book: and this is merely an observation not a critique.

Of all of Nietzsche’s texts, Allen draws most frequently on The Birth of Tragedy, whereas when I think of cynicism I’m reminded, rather, of his essay ‘On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life,’ in the Untimely Meditations. While I have always been drawn to this essay because of its account (surprisingly rare in Nietzsche) of irony, in the present context it is worth remembering the manner in which he also introduces cynicism into the discussion. Here are two key passages:

It [the oversaturation of an age with history] leads an age into a dangerous mood of irony in regard to itself and subsequently into the even more dangerous mood of cynicism: in this mood, however, it develops more and more a prudent practical egoism through which the forces of life are paralyzed and at last destroyed.1

Close beside the pride of modern man there stands his ironic view of himself…his fear that his youthful hopes and energy will not survive into the future. Here and there one goes further, intocynicism…according to the cynical canon: as things are they had to be, as men now are they were bound to become, none may resist this inevitability. The pleasant feeling produced by this kind of cynicism is the refuge of him who cannot endure the ironical state.2

A pedantic point, no doubt, but in The Cynical EducatorAllen introduces a whole host of overlapping and often almost indistinguishable terms or concepts: Cynicism (uppercase C), cynicism (lowercase c), nihilism, pessimism, irony, mastery, sovereignty, absurdity, comedy and so on. Looking at what Nietzsche says above one thing is clear: care needs to be taken in distinguishing between terms that resonate in subtle yet very different ways. And another thing that is clear: Nietzsche was no fan of cynicism, any more than he was a fan of pessimism (his gripe with Schopenhauer), but, again, for very different reasons. And one last question: why can’t the cynic ‘endure the ironical state?’ Presumably because irony is ‘wedded to youthful hopes and energy.’ Allen, along with his fellow cynics, would see this hope as wedded to a post-romantic ideology that eternally promises what can never be delivered, and that for him is thepredicament of ‘our’ education and for ‘us’ educators. I wonder if Nietzsche’s attempt at a non-romantic concept of hope, tied to irony rather than cynicism might offer one alternative to Allen’s bleaker (but perhaps more believable) vision of the future? One captured by Kafka’s famous words: ‘there is an infinite amount of hope in the universe, but not for us.’ Perhaps it is the ‘us’ that is the problem: something that Nietzsche recognized better than anyone.

Cynicism or Irony, hopelessness or hopeless-hope: either way, The Cynical Educatoris a brilliant provocation that should be read by anyone in academia who feels their life is shit and that they are surrounded by shits. That’s all of us, right?

Gary Peters is Professor of Philosophy and Performance at York St John University.

Nietzsche, F. ‘On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life,’ in Untimely Meditations, translated by R. J. Hollingdale. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983, p. 83.

2 Ibid., p. 107.

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