The Trouble with Excellence

Religious Fundamentalism

Fundamentalism has become a subject of general interest, and scholars have presented various reasons for its recent spread: some point to poverty and lack of education, while others to certain religious features that engender radical tendencies. According to French Islam specialist Olivier Roy, the main reason for the rise of fundamentalism is secularization. In his most recent book, Holy Ignorance (2010), Roy reiterates his older thesis that the separation of religion from culture — brought about by secularization — has a negative impact on religious life: instead of secularizing religion, it merely isolates it from culture and enables its pursuit as anti-cultural purification. This sounds counterintuitive, but his arguments are plausible. Liberalism and secular societies help produce religious fundamentalism and “deculturation” is accelerated through globalization. In a globalized world, religion is “deterritorialized” and can conceive of itself as independent from local political and cultural constraints. Representing itself as a body of “pure truths,” unmediated and unfiltered by cultural components, religious fundamentalisms become puritanical, radical take-away cults that can “function” in any cultural context. In this sense, Roy observes a global “shift of the traditional forms of religious practice—Catholicism, Hanafi Islam, classic Protestant denominations such as Anglicanism and Methodism—towards more fundamentalist and charismatic forms of religiosity (evangelicalism, Pentecostalism, Salafism, Tablighi Jamaat, neo-Sufism, Lubavich).”

Roy’s main thesis, then, is that religion became “decultured” through secularization. Specifically, Evangelism and Salafism are modern forms of religious life that eschew religious practices tied into specific traditions. “Truth” is formatted and standardized in the most culturally neutral way in order to fit everything and everybody. Because in fundamentalism religion invades everything, what is lost, above all, is the capacity — or even the possibility — to reflect religious truths against a cultural reality that is not religious. Categories like the “good life” or “good education” are no longer established by pondering centuries of lived experience (which is what cultural traditions are), but are derived from religious prescriptions alone.

Furthermore, to be compelling, fundamentalism often supports its claims with theories derived from the natural sciences. “An Islamist will speak more easily about the concordances between the Quran and nuclear physics than about those between the Quran and structuralism. Exact sciences, not the human sciences, fascinate the Islamist,” writes Roy in The Failure of Political Islam (1994). In the end, norms become more important than love and compassion, theology no longer looks toward philosophy and literature for inspiration (which is now deemed inefficient, if not heretical), ancestral practices are abandoned, and religiosity is no longer culturally visible, but becomes a display of “purity”; and information replaces culturally embedded knowledge.

Basically, culture represents a project shared by a community of people. Those who partake in the same culture do not need to believe in the same absolute truths. On the contrary, culture as a project is very much about items that can neither be quantified nor spelled out in terms of simple true-false dichotomies: they are emotions, choices, values, desires, perceptions, attitudes, interests, expectations, and sensibilities. In order to understand and communicate all these items, cultures need critical thinking, philosophy, and the human sciences. They need interpretation and historical mediation. Traditional religions — at least during their modern phases of development — were not hostile toward these critical activities. Fundamentalist religions are.


Fundamentalism Otherwise

It is tempting to compare Roy’s analysis with Bill Readings’s findings on the separation of learning from culture in neoliberal, corporate universities. Readings’s book The University in Ruins (1996) has become the classic of all criticisms of neoliberal education. His main point is that modern universities function more and more in terms of “excellence” instead of “culture.” Excellence has no qualitative content: “An excellent boat is not excellent by the same criteria as an excellent plane.” Excellence as such is meaningless: “[P]arking services and research grants can each be excellent, and their excellence is not dependent on any specific qualities or effects that they share.”

In globalized, neoliberal universities, a given qualitative learning content is not supposed to refer to culturally specific things or ideas. Why? Because in a globalized world, “excellence” is a universal standard that needs to be accepted as such. Similar to fundamentalist religions, in a neoliberal environment, the idea of culture is no longer available as a referent. On university websites, we find identical, or almost identical, “mission statements” (usually featuring repeated references to “excellence”), no matter the part of the world where the university is located. Professors all over the world are supposed to fill in the same charts of achievement. Knowledge has been impersonalized and has become accessible in the form of “information.” In the end, everyone has to live up to the same abstract standard of excellence.

During the 20 years that have passed since the publication of The University in Ruins, the neoliberal education model has only expanded; now it’s all about evaluations, quantitative measuring, control, assessment, and standardization. In a recent article in The Guardian, an anonymous author observes that “universities focus too much on measuring activity [and not on] quality,” and pointed out that the “meaningless pursuit of ‘quality’ is transforming academics into part-time administrators.”

This lack of meaning should be linked to the neoliberal culture of excellence. Some authors have traced the phenomenon to certain features of the American society and history. In 18th-century Europe, universities could still be used for the purpose of national cultural revival. “The early European universities combined an evolving sense of self-identity — partly grounded on site and partly derived from the surrounding cities,” writes Simon Marginson. The globalization process of learning began with the growth of American universities. American society is a contractual community and the establishment of “American culture” could not be seen as a final product of education. As a result, the only “value” permitted became a neoliberal notion of excellence. In the United States, writes Readings, “the idea of the nation is always already an abstraction [and] excellence can thus most easily gain ground.”


Twin Fundamentalisms?

The parallelism between Roy’s and Readings’s critiques is quite obvious. What Roy calls “deculturation” Readings refers to as “dereferentialization”; fundamentalism’s “pure truth” is “excellence” in the neoliberal university. Just like in religious fundamentalism, the bureaucratic reason of the neoliberal university seeks to establish “values” through “deculturation.” The only difference is that the neoliberal university does not use religion as the source of authoritative knowledge, but prefers techniques borrowed from the hard sciences such as statistics and data processing, which are meant to lead to higher degrees of formalization, quantification, and visibilization.

Neoliberal education, then, appears as a sort of “religion of excellence,” in which excellence is the only remaining “value” left because more concrete values would have to be established by a critical, philosophically informed reason, involving some form of historical consciousness. Further, both of them developed at the same time and under the same conditions. Both religious fundamentalism’s pure truth and the neoliberal university’s excellence are self-referential and self-interested. Both of them loathe interrogations based on a more local culture or what Wilhelm von Humboldt called Bildung. None of them intends to produce well-rounded individuals nurtured by the culture they live in, but offer instead “training” and specialized “programs.” Finally, both function very well in globalized contexts.

Such a culture of excellence is dogmatic because it is not supposed to be reflected against a screen of cultural values able to provide a relativist input. This is precisely how Roy describes the shift from culturally determined knowledge to belief:

[I]n order to circulate, the religious object must appear universal, disconnected from a specific culture that has to be understood in order for the message to be grasped. Religion therefore circulates outside knowledge. Salvation does not require people to know, but to believe.

Indeed, excellence is not a matter of cultural or intercultural reasoning, but of belief. “We believe in excellence!” is a common slogan used in marketing campaigns of all kinds. Roy explains that the word “conversion” is reserved “for changing religion [because] people do not convert to a culture.” Nobody will be led toward excellence via a critical thinking process either; one “converts” to excellence. The reason is that excellence is too abstract and too universal — just like the pure truth of the fundamentalists. On what grounds would you refuse to be excellent? Refusing excellence is not unlike admitting faithlessness. Critical thinking can lead to the adoption of certain cultural values, which come in different shades; it is unlikely to lead to the adoption of excellence as such. Values — which are always cultural in nature — need to be learned gradually; they cannot be acquired through conversion. Excellence is a different business altogether. You cannot say: “I want to be a little bit excellent.” It’s all or nothing. Just like how fundamentalists see religion.

Fundamentalism, be it in religion or education, produces an autonomous, self-referential reality based on an idea of excellence, which loses sight of the social and historical reality that religion and education were originally supposed to serve. Standardization is one of the major innovations brought about by both religious fundamentalism and the neoliberal university. The naïve objectivism through which Evangelism and Salafism operate is duplicated by neoliberal forms of education that have abandoned any cultural project. They no longer need interpretation and historical mediation. Excellence is an unmediated, absolute truth that can be produced and sold like a “take-away” hamburger. Global education has ceased to be a cultural project; its aim is to sell take-away truths that fit everybody. Fast food is particularly convenient in times of globalization — that’s why we have fast-food religions and fast-food education.


Pseudoscience and Mind Control

Both religion and education strive to create a unity of life and knowledge. The question is: Why do they count on the natural sciences to advance their project? These sciences have always had difficulties creating a unity of life and knowledge. Wherever they operate, we usually come across not a unity, but a divide between knowledge and life. The human sciences, instead, have been much more successful in producing such a unity. But fundamentalism and neoliberalism cannot use the human sciences because they have eradicated the notion of culture. They have, then, to use abstract sciences. Worse still, they have to use them in a pseudoscientific fashion.

Another reason why “deculturation”/“dereferentialization” is the preferred approach in fundamentalism and neoliberal education is that, in a “decultured” world, people can be controlled much more easily. The combination of corporatization with the strict application of “scientific” methods creates the “expert culture” of techno-specialists, or that of questionable imams, within which increasingly formal methods are absolutized.

The absolutization will always be justified in terms of abstract truths. “Objective” measuring methods are linked to the spread of the corporate university because in the capitalist economy, the profitable is most often paired with the instrumental and the technical. Approaches to teaching and administration must be based on “scientific” methods. Those of us teaching the humanities often believe, and with good reason, that all this is working toward a system of thought control. By reducing the real to numbers, neoliberalism creates a parallel reality that everybody is supposed to believe in. This has a clearly religious aspect: the “scientific” form becomes the reality and the real world disappears behind that form. And eventually reality “evaporates” through formalization. Especially in ideology-less capitalism we are told that the system it not based on any ideology, but simply on truth. It’s not difficult to detect religious undertones here.

In ancient Greek philosophy, values were ethical and could make sense only within a given cultural context. Neoliberal values are monetary and utilitarian. Or perhaps they are not even that: they are self-referential — you have to be excellent because you have to be excellent. In an algorithm-based world, this means that individualized data will be compared with other individualized data, and knowledge will be derived from this comparison alone, and not from the cultural content of the item in question.

Both fundamentalism and neoliberal forms of education spread so quickly because they are so easily exportable. As Roy writes, fundamentalism is “the religious form that is most suited to globalization, because it accepts its own deculturation and makes it the instrument of its claim to universality.” Normally, when studying cultures, just like in education, we do not evaluate mere facts (or information), but possibilities. A value is always a possible choice within a certain context; it is rarely an absolute truth. The recognition of values within certain contexts depends on the person’s background and education. In complex situations, an educated person is more likely to recognize what is “probably good” or “plausibly good,” while the uneducated one is less likely to do so.

Educated people are usually critical of absolute truths, no matter if they come from statistics or religious revelation. Facts need to be understood within a larger cultural context in order to be deemed plausible or implausible. Today, however, we see an increasing tendency to describe the world not in terms of cultural values, but in terms of fundamental truths. In the cases of fundamentalism and neoliberal education of excellence, as I’ve shown here, this “deculturation” takes the form of a dangerous combination of religion and pseudoscientific thought peddled as excellence.


Thorsten Botz-Bornstein is an associate professor of Philosophy at the Gulf University for Science and Technology in Kuwait.