Event: Thesis Eleven Annual Lecture – Professor Susan L. Robertson

This year’s Thesis Eleven Annual Lecture will be delivered by Professor Susan L. Robertson (Monash University). This event is hosted by Thesis Eleven Journal and Australian Catholic University’s National School of Arts and Humanities.

Wednesday 30th November 2022
All welcome, drinks to follow the lecture
Register here

Left-Right, or Left Right Out? Knowledge Economies, Social Inequalities, Education and Authoritarian Populism

Professor Susan L. Robertson, Monash University

What is the relationship between social inequalities, the rise of authoritarian populism, levels of education, and knowledge societies? Hardly surprising, a number of researchers have weighed in on answering this question in light of the rise of populist politics from 2016 onwards that saw the election of Johnson, Trump, Bolsonaro, Orbán amongst others. Bovens and Wille (2018) argue that a shift in the social structures of contemporary societies across Europe now underpins a new left-right political divide or cleavage between those that are well educated (left leaning, well off, open-minded, cosmopolitans) and those who are not (right leaning, low-income, narrow-minded, nationalists). Piketty (2020), drawing on a large global data set, also uses cleavage theory to argue social differentiation by income and education has now given rise to two political elites: a high education-low income ‘Brahmin Left’ and a high-income low education ‘Merchant Right’ which in turn translates into political sympathies and voting behaviour. The solution for Piketty in Capital and Ideology is to propose greater access to higher education to help overcome divisions in societies and politics. Kitschelt and Rehm (2019, 2022), too, make a similar argument around education, income, and voting. However, though they make a strong case for the emergence of new divides arising from a shift from industrial to knowledge societies they come to rather different conclusions than that of Piketty. What are we to make of these accounts, and the veracity of their claims, especially when it comes to higher education as a solution to the divides? In this lecture I argue such accounts: (i) fail to problematise the ideational basis of the idea of a knowledge economy; (ii) view higher education as standing apart from this project (Robertson and Nestore 2021); and (iii) don’t recognise important differences across countries regarding the causes of social inequalities (Mijs 2019). I argue we need to bring into view the role of higher education in the making of global knowledge economies, competitive individualism, the intensification of social stratification, and social inequalities which are justified by ideologies of neoliberal meritocracy (Martini and Robertson 2022). In doing so, we can see how higher education is deeply implicated in shaping a new politics of resentment (Cohen 2019) by those who have been left out of the social contract, despite buying into the education race. Seen in this way, many higher education systems are part of, rather than a solution to, the problem of social inequalities.

Thesis Eleven Annual Lecture: Left-Right, or Left Right Out? image

Susan L. Robertson is Professor of Sociology of Education and currently Head of the School of Education, Culture and Society. Prior to this she was Professor of Sociology and Head of Faculty at the University of Cambridge. Susan is an internationally recognised scholar for her work on the cultural political economy of the state and education policy, transformations in the governance of the sector, rescaling, multilateralism, teachers’ labour and social justice. Susan is also a leading theorist of globalisation and regionalisation, and the role of education in mobilising and mediating transformations in the sector. Recent work focuses on education and the culture of the new capitalism, including processes of market-making in education, privatisation and neoliberal meritocracy. Susan is the founding editor of the journal Globalisation, Societies and Education established in 2003 and currently its Co-Editor-in-Chief.

The Thesis Eleven Annual Lectures commenced in 2002. Lecturers have included Bernard Smith, George Markus, Tessa Morris-Suzuki, Joanna Bourke, Maria Pia Lara, Stuart Macintyre, Alastair Davidson, Philippa Mein Smith, George Steinmetz, Ron Jacobs and Eleanor Townsley, Peter Thomas, Krishan Kumar, Keith Tester, Nikos Papastergiadis, Chiara Bottici, Noeleen Murray, Emilia Palonen, Michael Peters and Peter Beilharz.

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