Overcoming the barriers to learning

Equity, Diversity and Inclusion at WorldSkills November 2021

barriers 2

These are a few thoughts about how teachers can help learners overcome some of the barriers to their learning. This is not a comprehensive ‘how-to’ guide or a list of tips to be followed, it’s just a starting point for thinking about some of the things that can stand between students and their successful learning.

These reflections are grouped into 5 themes:

1. Understanding the barriers

2. Knowing our students

3. Building relationships

4. Motivating and engaging

5. Making the path by walking

In order to set the context, it’s worth reminding ourselves about what we are educating for. The world is a complex, difficult and unpredictable place, but it is also full of opportunities for flourishing, joy and fulfillment. Similarly, teaching is a complex, difficult and unpredictable activity which is also full of opportunities for flourishing, joy and fulfillment.

Teaching is both a difficult and a wonderful task. We are educating for lifelong learning, citizenship, caring and working, as part of a long-term investment in our community and our shared future.

We can’t make anyone learn; students have to be ready to learn and to want to learn. We can only create the conditions where learning is possible and likely. As teachers, we can’t control or change everything, but our work is important and we can make a difference.

It’s important to be clear about our aims, how we want to achieve them in practice and how we can tell if things worked. This can be seen as part of a continuous cycle of action and reflection which can map across to Ofsted’s three I’s: Intent, Implementation and Impact.

1. Understanding the barriers

What are some of the barriers to our students’ learning?

‘Internal’ barriers can include previous experience of ‘failure’, rejection, boredom, poor relationships with teachers, people in authority or other people generally.

‘External’ barriers can include the assumptions and prejudices of others about students’ abilities or capacities, lived experience of racism, sexism, classism, homophobia or the results of unmet physical or emotional needs or traumatic experiences of various kinds. These can clearly become ‘internal’.

Also, good learning is unlikely to take place if a student doesn’t have a sense of purpose or ownership of the learning process and no satisfactory answer to the question “why are we doing this?” If they start with negative feelings about the subject, the content or the context of their learning they are much less likely to be receptive.

Students may also have a sense of isolation or alienation from the group they are in, feeling they don’t ‘belong’. They may also lack confidence, have a strong fear of failure or of getting things ‘wrong’ and a resulting aversion to risk-taking of any kind.

We need to find ways to help students feel positive about the purpose, context and content of what they are doing. We also need to create the opportunity to have good learning experiences as well as to learn to deal positively with setbacks.

2. Knowing our students

We need to understand and value where students are coming from; their experience, their identity as a person and as a learner as well as their values and aspirations. This takes time, and we can’t know everything about them, but it does mean listening attentively to what they say, tuning in to their behaviours and reactions and avoiding preconceptions or unfounded assumptions.

Through our actions and reactions we need to show that we are taking them seriously and that we are ‘on their side’ and ‘walking alongside’ them in the process of engaging with learning. We also need to recognise that there are many different ways of being, belonging and engaging.

“If you are always trying to be normal, you will never know how amazing you can be.” Maya Angelou.

3. Building relationships

Education is both a very personal and a very social process. It’s not a 1-way transaction or something we ‘deliver’ to our students. It’s interactive, requiring plenty of ‘give and take’ between people who share some kind of connection. There needs to be confidence, trust and rapport, between teacher and student. All of this also takes time to build.

We need to communicate the possibility of success, model how it’s achieved and allow students to experience it for themselves. We also need to avoid creating ‘learned dependence’ on the teacher and plan for ‘letting go’ by providing opportunities for students to become increasingly independent from us through their growing experience of autonomy.

“The cultivation of learning is not only a cognitive activity, it is also an emotional and social activity”. Knud Illeris.

4. Motivating and engaging

Students are partners in the education process and must be treated as such. We need to try to create and nurture a culture of partnership and engage with them at every level, build on their current knowledge, skills, experience and aspirations. This engagement needs to be authentic and meaningful and that also takes time to develop.

This will be achieved in many different ways and no single approach is ‘best’. A successful learning environment will, in turn, be rich in: talk, quiet, enthusiasm, challenge, joy and disappointment. It needs to be a place of questioning and dialogue which is safe and calm but also stimulating and challenging. We need to show students how to learn from ‘failure’ and build on their experience of success, confidence and autonomy.

We must praise what is praiseworthy and remind students of their progress and how they’ve achieved it, without going overboard with extravagant or unjustified compliments.

“Education is the point at which we decide whether we love the world enough to assume responsibility for it…” Hannah Arendt.

5. Making the path by walking

The learning journey is not laid out like a marked road, it is about making your own path, with each learning step breaking new ground. We can get better at it through practice and we can also model learning and chart progress. If we break things down and build them up again we can help students to grasp more of the parts and more of the whole of what they are studying.

Think of yourself as an expert helper or guide rather than a performer or a benefactor.

“There is no path, we make the road by walking.” Antonio Machado.

This post is based on my presentation in the Equity, Diversity and Inclusion strand of the online WorldSkills Professional Development event for post-16 educators November 2021. All the sessions can be accessed here.

See also:

The outstanding lesson (October 2015)

The skilled learner DOES (June 2015)

Learning through conflict (November 2017)

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Finding our voice in a crisis.

Blogging in the 2020s.

It can be hard to write in a time of crisis. What can we possibly say that could be of any use to anyone? But when things are this bad, it’s also hard not to write. What good is saying nothing?

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is 2020s.pngWe are trashing our home planet, people are suffering and dying from avoidable causes, systemic inequalities are widening, injustice, exploitation and conflict of all sorts proliferate and we continue to make choices we know are unsustainable. The consequences of our failures are more evident than ever but it feels like we haven’t fully developed the ideas, the dialogue and the politics to deal with the situation in we find ourselves. We may just be coming to a collective realisation that our current ways of doing things will not get us out of this and that there needs to be sustained structural change.

There’s plenty of cynicism, despair and disempowerment around. If we are to get through safely we need to understand and interpret what’s going on, sharpen our critical faculties and find the voice to try to say something useful which can nurture positive change. We need to recognise the scale, depth and severity of all our various crises and to rigorously critique the way we think and the way we do things.  We have to search for signs of hope, new ways of thinking and workable solutions. We need to extend the practice of equality, democracy and solidarity when they are under attack.

This isn’t just a difficult moment to get through before returning to ‘normal’ by finding ‘fixes’ for each separate problem. We need to see the internal connections and ‘join the dots’. Systemic crises require systemic solutions and we have to confront ours as a whole as well as in their connected parts. Our crises are structural and they share their roots in the extreme inequalities of access to power and wealth among humans on our planet. The sensible, workable, common-sense solutions are going to be radical ones developed by people working together locally and globally, thinking outside the models which gave us the crises.

I’ve posted less in 2020 and 2021, reflecting the challenge of finding useful things to say. But I have looked for some of the ideas which can help us understand the nature of our crisis, its roots in our actions and some of the tools we need to address it:

An A-Z for a world which has to change (Mar 2020) offers a short overview of the challenges which confront us.

Rebecca Solnit on Hope (April 2020) Rebecca Solnit offers some of the most clear-eyed and inspirational advice for our times.

Resisting classification (Dec 2021) makes the case for a more careful use of categories in trying to understand the complex social world.

I want to continue to write about the interconnected and structural crises we are living with and to argue for a more democratic, and participatory politics and more egalitarian solutions.

This blog has always had a strong focus on education for all, for equality and social justice:

Decarbonising education (Mar 2020) looks at young people’s efforts to ensure that the climate emergency is properly covered in their curriculum.

Starting to rethink education (Jun 2020) makes the case against going back to normal after the crisis.

A manifesto to end educational inequality? (Sep 2021) is a critique of proposals which are not ambitious enough.

Knowledge and education for the future (May 2020) outlines Edgar Morin’s ‘seven lessons for the future’ – useful principles for curriculum design.

Reading bell hooks. (Apr 2021) is a brief response to reading the luminous ‘Teaching to Transgress’.

Freire for today (Mar 2021) is a re-reading of ‘Pedagogy of Hope’ reminding us that education is not neutral and that learning is not banking.

Seven ways to avoid a Frankenstein education. (Feb 2021) returns to the work of French educationalist Philippe Meirieu.

Learning, earning and the death of human capital. (Feb 2021) is a critique of human capital theory and the influence it still has on public policy.

Why the comprehensive college? (Sep 2020) makes the case for an inclusive, non-selective post-16 education system.

The turnaround in public exam policy in England as a result of the pandemic is described in two posts from 2020, reminding us that rapid, radical change in apparently stable systems is perfectly possible, but requires new thinking:

England’s unexpected exam revolution (May 2020)

Exam results – what just happened? (Aug 2020)

I want to continue to show how the way education is organised entrenches social divides and is not as emancipatory as we would like to think. In England, the case for a National Education Service is as strong as ever and it needs to be fleshed out and popularized.

Cultural experiences move us and change us. Over the last 2 years I’ve shared my reflections on some of the reading which I felt was insightful or influential:

‘The Ministry for the Future’ by Kim Stanley Robinson (Dec 2020) is an visionary future narrative of humans surviving the climate emergency.

Tsitsi Dangerembga’s ‘Nervous Conditions’. (May 2020) is a brilliant account of personal and political awakening.

‘Bewilderment’ by Richard Powers (Nov 2021) is a beautiful exploration of the contradictions of living in difficult and bewildering times.

‘Light Perpetual’ by Francis Spufford (May 2021) is a wonderful celebration of life and love.

In praise of lightness – Calvino’s ‘Legerezza’ (Mar 2020) from his ‘Six memos for the next millenium’ is a rich essay on the balance between freedom and attachment.

Utopian thinking and both its real-world and fictional manifestations are an important source of ideas for us.  Learning from Utopia (Dec 2021) draws on Ursula Le Guin’s classic novel of contrasting social orders ‘The Dispossessed’.

I will continue to select and recommend fiction which has the potential to clarify or transform our understanding of the situation we are in.

I started on a journey of musical discovery in 2021, guided by Clemency Burton-Hill’s ‘Year of Wonder’ which offers a different piece to listen to for each  day of the year. Readers might like to join this journey via a monthly post in 2022. ‘Listen to this’. (Feb 2021)

The solutions to our crises will emerge from collective action and reflection, so in times like these we need to be reading, thinking and writing more than ever.  Writing a blog is a good way to organize and sharing your thinking, and reading blogs is a good way to sharpen and challenge that thinking through regular interaction with others.

In 2022 I will aim to be positive while trying to do justice to the scale of what we face. As always, it’s a work in progress! My New Year wish for 2022 would be that we collectively start taking the bold steps needed to address our multiple crises and to plan for survival rather than accept catastrophe.

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Stupid gene.

Simplex and Sapiens are discussing human stupidity.

Simplex: We agree that people can do some pretty stupid things, yes?

Sapiens: Of course.

Simplex: And that some people have a tendency to do stupid things more often…

Sapiens: I guess…

Simplex: Well, it turns out we can measure this tendency experimentally and establish a Stupidity Quotient for each person.

Sapiens: That implies that stupidity is a fixed quality…

Simplex: Maybe not entirely fixed but we do think it has an inherited component.

Sapiens: You mean there’s a gene for stupidity?

Simplex: Sort of, we think we’ve identified a gene complex linked to the Stupidity Quotient.

Sapiens: Really? A set of genes which make people stupid?

Simplex: The correlation is significant, so – yes. Now we want to use the presence of these genes to work out which children might be at greater risk of becoming stupid so we can then help them. Because we’d all prefer it if people acted less stupid overall.

Sapiens: Well, yes, but isn’t that just a way of saying we should educate everyone well to help them avoid doing stupid things? Or create the conditions where people are less likely to be stupid?

Simplex: No that’s far too general. Genetics can help us tailor the right de-stupidifying strategies for those who need them most.

Sapiens: Surely we don’t need to look for genes to tell us that. It’s probably a lot to do with good teaching and social factors isn’t it?

Simplex: So we’re also going to ask teachers to help us explain why a high Stupidity Quotient correlates to doing less well in certain subjects at school. What’s fascinating is that the heritability of stupidity varies by subject and also changes over time.

Sapiens: Isn’t this all a bit tenuous? First you create a measure designed to correlate with a whole bunch of different behaviours you’ve labelled ‘stupid’ and then claim that something several levels removed is at the root of all those behaviours. It then turns out that the degree of correlation isn’t fixed anyway…

Simplex: But don’t you see how this could transform the science of teaching?

Sapiens: Not really. It all seems rather… stupid.

See also:

Challenging IQ (August 2017)

Challenging neurosexism (January 2016)

Sapiens and Simplex have also discussed:

Your dogma, my principles

Exam success boost to the economy

DNA

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Learning from Utopia

‘The Dispossessed’ by Ursula Le Guin

Anarres and Urras

What is the function of alternative political and economic systems, whether actually existing or imaginary? Is it to offer hope that change is possible, or at least to provide some perspective on our own way of life?

For instance, what would it be like to live in a society organized in a radically egalitarian way – one with a more equal distribution of power, or with no competitive markets or organized or coercive exercise of power at all?

Actually existing alternatives can be examined and critiqued in real time. The test of a credible fictional utopia is in the details of the experience of everyday life, living and working arrangements, housing, eating, personal relationships, health care, decision-making, dispute resolution, transport, cultural production and consumption, and of course social care, childrearing and education.

How might learning be organized in such a society? The whole purpose and content of education would be very different in a genuinely egalitarian society. In the absence of competition for status and jobs and the valuing of a fuller range of human capabilities, new forms of learning and educational processes would be possible.

In Ursula le Guin’s ‘The Dispossessed’ (1974), the author imagines two close planets whose inhabitants have hardly any contact with each other and live with very different social orders. Urras is rich in resources and has a number of states run under different political systems and power structures. Its neighbour Anarres is poorer and was populated generations previously by people escaping Urras to create a more egalitarian society. Anarres allows no private ownership or accumulation of power and runs broadly on anarcho-syndicalist lines.

The novel was written before the digital revolution took off and personal computing does not feature, but some of the aspects of democratic economic planning, allocation of labour and resources seem to be facilitated by computer systems and essential decisions are taken following deliberation in committees.

The story of Shevek, our main protagonist, introduces us to life on both Anarres and Urras. He has a unique opportunity to compare the systems first-hand as well as to meet the underground opposition on Urras.

In this future universe, our Earth still exists, but it is a distant and marginal presence. As if to remind us of the risks of messing things up, we hear that it is now overheated, deforested and grey – just about habitable for half a billion people making a kind of life in the ruins. Shevek meets the Terran ambassador who tells him:

“My world, my Earth is a ruin. A planet spoiled by the human species…We controlled neither appetite nor violence; we did not adapt. We destroyed ourselves. But we destroyed the world first… We failed as a species, as a social species.”

We get a few insights into education on Anarres through some of the episodes of Shevek’s life. Walking through Abbenay, the main city on Anarres, Shevek finds it ‘charged with vitality and activity’, passing open doors of workshops and factories, laundries, repair-shops, distributories, a theatre… The city’s activity is visible to all, and this transparency contributes to the sense of shared collective endeavour which includes young people.

“It was all there, all the work, all the life of the city, open to the eye and to the hand.”

“The activity going on in each place was fascinating, and mostly out in full view. Children were around, some involved in the work with the adults, some underfoot making mudpies, some busy with games in the street, one sitting perched on the roof of the learning centre with her nose deep in a book.”

Dedicated learning centres seem to be tasked with a degree of knowledge organising and sharing, teaching young people and transferring skills. They seem to use investigative and project-based learning. We’re told little about the adults who work there; their expertise and their specific responsibilities, but we do get a sense of purposeful and motivated student activity:

“He went by the learning centre late in the afternoon and watched Sadik and the other children on the playgrounds, or got involved, as adults often did, in one of the children’s projects – a group of mad seven-year-old carpenters or a pair of sober twelve-year-old surveyors having trouble with triangulation.”

Letting ‘mad seven year old carpenters’ loose with their tools sounds a little dangerous and this description prompts questions about adult accountability for the welfare and safeguarding of the children. Neglect or exploitation may be less likely in such a transparent system but risk cannot be entirely eliminated – how would it be minimised? If all adults are teachers, how is their effectiveness ensured?

There do seem to be some agreed curriculum priorities based on the Anarresti values:

“Learning centres taught all the skills that prepare for the practice of art: training in singing, metrics, dance, the use of brush, chisel, knife, lathe and so on. It was all pragmatic: the children learned to see, speak, hear, move, handle. No distinction was drawn between the arts and the crafts; art was not considered as having a place in life, but as being a basic technique of life, like speech.”

The curriculum also appears to be co-constructed as much as possible, with learners shaping their priorities together with their teachers:

“This was how courses were organised in Anarresti learning centres: by student demand, or on the teacher’s initiative, or by students and teachers together.”

The imaginary ‘uninventing’ of institutions we have come to regard as indispensable can provoke fruitful thinking about how we might invent something different and better. This is the great value of the utopian imagination.

Another way to read ‘The Dispossessed’, is as a case for a multipolar world which can accommodate alternative ways of living and ordering society. Maedda, of the rebel underground tells Shevek of the importance to people on Urras of having the really existing alternative society of Anarres to look to:

“Do you know what your society has meant, here, to us, these last hundred and fifty years? …To know that it exists – to know that there is a society without government, without police, without economic exploitation, that they can never say again that it’s just a mirage, an idealist’s dream!”

For the rebels on Urras, eager for change, the existence of Anarres demonstrates that History has not ended, another world is possible and radically different systems may be able to co-exist in close proximity.

Alternative ways of living and meeting human needs, whether real or fictional are useful challenges to our concept of the natural order. They raise important questions about power, inequality, work, leisure and shared human rights and values as well as everyday questions about how we live our lives. They show us what might be possible and how things might change.

Whether we seek to transform our own system or would prefer a plurality of systems in friendly competition, we can surely agree with Shevek’s insights that:

“Human solidarity is our only resource.”

“When you are on the bottom, you must organise from the bottom up!”

See also:

‘You either bend the arc or it bends you’, ‘Attack Surface’ by Cory Doctorow (September 2021)

‘The Ministry of the Future ‘ by Kim Stanley Robinson (December 2020)

An A-Z for a world which has to change (March 2020)

‘What if?’, dystopias in fiction. (December 2017)

More fictional dystopias. (March 2017)

Utopia as the education of our desires. (August 2015)

Reading dystopias. (July 2015)

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Resisting classification

from ‘Unflattening’
by Nick Sousanis

“Reality is infinitely diverse, compared with even the subtlest conclusions of abstract thought, and does not allow of clear-cut and sweeping distinctions. Reality resists classification.” (Fyodor Dostoyevsky ‘The House of the Dead’)

Trying to describe the world in words or numbers is a challenge. We struggle to find the language and models to represent reality and they can only offer an imperfect representation of our experience of it. To name and describe things is to classify them and to impose one perspective rather than another on our understanding of things.

We’re constantly invited to understand our social world by breaking it up into categories. People are Remainers, Brexiters, millennials, Northern, Southern, disadvantaged, privileged… From baby boomers to gen. Z, these broad-brush classifications frame much of our public debate about people’s aspirations and behaviours.

The use of these categories is often linked to a type of reification, where complex dynamic social phenomena are elevated into an organising principle (eg: ‘intelligence’ or ‘knife crime’). It’s often combined with agglomeration which takes things further by lumping together many different reified interactions and describing them as examples of the same thing. So, this ‘lump and label’ involves deciding what matters, naming it and framing it, then play it back to confirm pre-existing assumptions.

But viewing people’s characteristics and behaviours through the lens of a single category is more likely to obscure than to shine a light on reality. It can substitute for genuine debate by narrowing the range of what is considered or acceptable. Do we really believe, for instance, that ‘red wall voters’ have some unique common perspective? Or that ‘disadvantaged’ people all have the same aspirations?

We know that people are complex and have a range of views on different things and that these are changeable. We can see that these categories are crude, and yet we allow them to enter our consciousness and limit our thinking. Useful discussion is shut down and prejudices reinforced and what is presented as a fresh new idea can turn out to be a lazy old stereotype.

That said, we can’t do without categories. Naming and identifying things based on their differences or similarities can help us understand them better. At the group or population level, we need to aggregate large amounts of data about individuals in a range of ways. Social science would struggle to draw any conclusions about patterns of behaviour or social trends without being able to classify people using characteristics such as age, sex, ethnicity, income or class and the use of ‘protected characteristics’ plays an important part in helping us understand patterns of structural inequality.

We know that classifying people requires simplification and loss of detail. We need to understand the limitations and we accept them because of the benefits of being able to group things easily and to try to establish some broad general rules about them.

The process of simplifying a complex world by viewing it through a particular lens is never a neutral one. The decisions about which categories matter are loaded with assumptions and values. Defining and foregrounding particular characteristics is being done by someone, usually with power, with some purpose in mind, usually the maintenance of that power, and the choice to ignore or downplay other characteristics is just as significant.

Whether we’re dealing with heavily value-laden descriptors such as ‘dysfunctional families’, ‘unskilled workers’ and ‘deprived areas’ or less ambiguous ones such as ‘benefit claimants’, ‘non-graduates’ and ‘coastal towns’, they are selected, connected and interpreted in ways which reinforce a particular narrative or power structure. The simplistic judgements made can reinforce existing prejudices and essentialist beliefs about ‘human nature’ or ‘how things are’, correlations can slide towards half-baked explanations and definitions of ‘how things should be’.

When a single category becomes an organizing principle for policy it’s in danger of being stretched beyond its usefulness. Information about a large number of people has been split into categories and aggregated ‘upwards’ to build up broad judgements at the social level. If this high-level approach is then played back ‘downwards’ to the individual level, there is a massive loss of definition and focus and the complex blend of characteristics of real people is reduced to caricature, with the potential to mislead.

When emotive or charged language is overlaid on top of ‘established facts’, real damage can be done. For example, the poet Caleb Femi has spoken about how the racialised use of the term ‘notorious’ to refer to the North Peckham estate labelled the people who lived there, in effect blaming them for the estate’s structural and design problems.

In education too, we fall easily into the same habits. So, for example, wildly general descriptions which sum students up as ‘academic’, ‘bright’ or ‘motivated’ are routinely used to make distinctions which can influence what is offered to them and what is expected of them. When these judgements have a metric attached this can provide a veneer of validity, even if all the numbers tell us is that for a variable characteristic x there is a smooth distribution within the population from a to z with a mean somewhere around m.

So, once we have invented a measure of achievement or even ‘ability’ based on a test, there will inevitably be high and low scorers who can then be the subjects of targeted interventions and attempts at ‘levelling up’ or promoting ‘social mobility’.

The courses being taken by students can also be labelled, and these can  become attached the students themselves. So, we find ourselves describing students as ‘vocational’ or ‘academic’ as if these types of course represent inherently different types of student with distinct interests and aspirations.

Too often, definitions of ‘ability’ or ‘aptitude’ are used to support exclusionary or selective practices. Institutional decisions to keep certain students out are justified by extrapolating back from what are presented as essential categories, such as ‘academic students’, although they are based on fairly arbitrary measures, such as a test score at a particular age. The selective structures themselves can then become the justification for the selective practices, ie: ‘we select for this type of student therefore this makes us the right kind of provider for them.’

The type of provider students attend can also be used to define the students themselves. Is an undergraduate attending a more selective ‘high tariff’ university necessarily more capable than another who doesn’t? Is a school ‘sixth former’ different from a ‘college student’ or a ‘grammar school student’ different from a ‘comprehensive student’ if they are studying the same course? What do these descriptions really tell us about the students themselves and their experience of education?

Data on achievement and progression can provide us with insights into the many layers of inequality in our society. Measures of social class or income can provide a clear sense of the differential benefits which students get from the education system. Using Free School Meal (FSM) eligibility as a measure provides a binary categorisation; you’re either eligible or not, and FSM students are more disadvantaged in every respect. Using IDACI or POLAR quintiles provides a clearer picture of the disadvantage gradient across 5 categories, charting the clear educational benefits of being better off. So, for example, the poorest 20% have the lowest rate of progression to university and the richest have the highest rate.

None of this seems very surprising; these data are revealing the patterns of disadvantage rather than explaining them. The figures themselves tell us little about the mechanisms which perpetuate these inequalities. But it’s clear that the use of categories to classify people can provide the means to discriminate, segregate and oppress them.

When different categories are used together, the choice of association carries with it all sorts of assumptions about which dimensions to combine and which intersectionalities are of interest. In doing so, we risk a kind of multiplication of selective judgements leading to an algebra of confusion. For instance, to what extent is the experience of ‘white working-class boys’ associated with their ethnicity, their class, their sex, some relationship between any of these factors, or something else? What is the category ‘white’ adding to the mix? Is it simply a way of ignoring the experience of black working-class boys, denying white privilege or downplaying the impact of racism on life chances?

The way we define the challenges we face will shape the kinds of debates we have and the kinds of solutions we might want to advocate. The way we use categories doesn’t do justice to the multi-layered complexity of the world and it’s often a short cut to sweeping assumptions and flawed policy.

In some cases, we may just need to see the use of categories as a helpful first stage which suggests clues but begs many questions which need further research. In many cases, the answer may be to look at things in another way, to reframe the question or start with different assumptions; for instance, is it the social structure of privilege that is the problem rather than something inherent to those who lose out because of that structure? Could what appears to be a group ‘deficit’ be seen instead as an opportunity to rethink what we’re measuring?

So, before we draw policy conclusions based on the use of simple categories, perhaps we should ask:

  • What is the underlying issue and why are we defining it in these particular terms?
  • Why choose these categories, or combinations of categories, and not others?
  • How do the people most concerned by this issue define it themselves?
  • What underlying assumptions and definitions might we want to question?
  • What multiple perspectives could we take to add depth to our analysis?
  • What more do we need to understand before drawing any conclusions which might shape policy?
  • How will we evaluate the impact of a policy, both on individuals and systemically?

It’s not so much the use of categories which is the problem, but the choices we make, the range we choose from, the relative emphasis we give them and the social impact of the conclusions we draw from them.

It must be possible to use categories in ways which do justice to the complexity of the social world but this means being more open-minded and critical, considering alternative perspectives, including those of the people most affected, being more tentative about drawing conclusions and more careful in implementing any solutions.

Illustration: p.13 of the brilliant ‘Unflattening’ by Nick Sousanis

See also:

Edgar Morin on ‘Thinking Global’ (August 2017)

Challenging IQ (August 2017)

Reducing culture to memes (August 2015)

Education as a whole and in its parts (November 2014)

Maxine Greene, resisting one-dimensionality (June 2014)

Blob and anti-blob (May 2014)

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‘Bewilderment’ by Richard Powers

BewildermentBewilderment is an entirely rational response to what we are collectively doing to our planet. Confronted by the injustices, dysfunction and unsustainability of the world we’ve created, how can we not react with bewilderment?

This wonderful novel is both an exploration of our sense of being overwhelmed by our condition and also a potential antidote to it. In a near future only slightly more bewildering than the present, the many threats to rationality and life itself are seen through the close relationship of a father and son, Theo and Robin. Their response is also shaped by the recent loss of a third key character, Alyssa, whose memory and thought patterns are still very much present in the narrative.

Astrobiologist Theo and his neurodivergent son Robin share a lot, including Alyssa’s belief system and the mantra ‘may all sentient beings be free from needless suffering’. It’s hard to disagree with their world view, and also hard to reconcile it with the overwhelming evidence that the one ‘sentient being’ who could live up to this aspiration is doing a very thorough job of messing things up.

The parent-child relationship and its tension with the developing world-child relationship is central to the book. Robin’s difficult journey is perfectly paced, including a detour via his successful use of a neurofeedback therapy which transforms his consciousness and perception.

The story is punctuated by short planetary biographies, jointly imagined by father and son. Dvau, Falasha, Pelagos, Geminus, Isola, Tedia, Chromat, Mios, Nithar, Similis… each is a thought-experiment, an exploration of the many possible ways life might emerge and thrive in different conditions and different parts the universe. The overall effect of our exposure to these other worlds is to help us view our home planet and its inhabitants from a different perspective and a little more clearly each time round.

Stasis, for instance, is a planet very much like Earth but whose axis has little tilt meaning there is one monotone season at each latitude and the boundaries between biomes run like property lines. As a result, Stasis has no intelligent life because

“nothing needs to remember or predict much further out than now… there was no great call to adjust or improvise or second-guess or model much of anything.”

Reflecting on this, Robin asks:“Trouble is what causes intelligence?”

Theo responds:

“…yes. Crisis and change and upheaval.

His voice turned sad and wondrous. Then we’ll never find anyone smarter than us.

The specific issues raised carry universal messages. The threats to defund the very promising ‘Decoded Neuro Feedback’ therapy which is helping Robin so mcuh, of to cancel Theo’s belowed ‘next gen’ telescope and ‘Seeker’ projects searching for life beyond Earth, the risks associated with industrialised farming and the self-defeating attack on biodiversity. These are particular concerns, but they all relate to the central question: how can a species capable of such creativity also be so carelessly destructive and narcissistic?

The novel deals with the ‘planetary’ uniqueness of every human being, the meeting of inner and outer space, the finite and the infinite and the vastness of both the universe and the human mind. In effect it is an inquiry into the possibility of intelligent life on Earth let alone anywhere else in the cosmos.

Every novel communicates ideas of some kind and has the potential to change its readers’ perception of reality. We think of the ‘novel of ideas’ as having a particular ability to shift our understanding of the world and of our condition, with the possibility also of spurring us to action.

Richard Powers is a genius of the ‘novel of ideas’, combining a profound understanding of scientific concepts with the ability to weave them into very human stories. In his work, the ideas are always deeply rooted and thoroughly explored, and this is pared-down Powers; the perfect distillation of meaning, narrative and emotion with not a word out of place.

See also:

‘The Overstory’ by Richard Powers (March 2019)

‘The Ministry for The Future’ by Kim Stanley Robinson (December 2020)

‘Unsheltered’ by Barbara Kingsolver (August 2019)

‘You either bend the arc or it bends you’ – ‘Attack Surface’ by Cory Doctorow (September 2021)

Edgar Morin on ‘Thinking Global’ (August 2017)

An A-Z for a world which has to change (March 2020)

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“You either bend the arc or it bends you”

‘Attack Surface’ by Cory Doctorow.

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Attack Surface‘ (2020) is a gripping action-packed story of oppression and resistance with plenty of insights into the potential of new technologies and big data. It is also a powerful manifesto for the necessity of activism.

The central character, Masha, is a nomadic surveillance consultant employed by some very dodgy corporations to advise oppressive regimes – and she also uses her skills to help the very campaigning groups targeted by her technologies. Unsurprisingly she is highly conflicted and alienated; disconnected from both her amoral employers and from her activist friends:

“The people around me belonged where they were…They actually lived lives…They carried phones, they talked on those phones, messaged and hopped from tower to tower. They were each data-streams, converted from analog humans doing things to data that could be quantified and analyzed, by people like me, who didn’t belong anywhere.” (p.270)

Masha is challenged by her friend Tanisha (‘Neesh’) to explain how it is that the struggle for justice has achieved any progress:

“Do you have a theory of change?

I shrugged. “The arc of history is long but it bends towards justice?”…

”You know what makes it bend, Masha? People hauling on that mother, with all their strength, with all their lives. We pull and pull and pull, and then, bit by bit, it bends. People hear Dr King’s quote and they think, oh, well, if the arc of history is going to bend towards justice then all we have to do is sit back and wait for it. But the truth is, it bends because we make it bend, and the instant we let up, even a little, it snaps back.” (p.275)

When Bayard Wilkins, a veteran campaigner addresses a protest meeting in Oakland, California (‘I was there with Bobby Seale in sixty-seven’), he makes a similar point:

“I’ve been standing my ground… right here, waiting for the arc of history to bend towards justice. That arc doesn’t seem to want to bend. It wiggles and it shakes, but hard as I pull on it, hard as we all pull on it, it just hasn’t flexed…

I’m just one man and I am not going to stop hauling on that arc until it starts to move. Because there is not alternative. You either bend the arc or it bends you: you stand up, or you surrender. There’s no middle ground, friends.” (p.325)

The novel charts Masha’s long crisis of conscience; one which mirrors on a larger scale the daily choices we all face between accepting or resisting each of the aggressions and injustices we see – whether large or small. Her rationalisations feel familiar:

“Vast historic forces had brought this world into being, and I had to live in it with everyone else. If I took vows of poverty or swore myself to revolution, it wouldn’t overturn the order…We were born as individuals, and we died on our own, and even the tightest, best co-ordinated group was just a bunch of singular individuals choosing to work together for a while.

All of this was self-serving…but self-serving wasn’t the same as wrong.” (p.403)

Ange, like Tanisha, speaks for the activist with a well worked out theory of change which places humans at the centre:

“…information doesn’t want to be free …People do. People use technology to make themselves free, by using it to share and organize and connect. Freedom isn’t something technology gives you, technology is something you use to get freedom.” (p.431).

Masha is able to bring her experience of the psychology of both sides of a struggle to their discussion of tactics and understands how those in power rely on apathy and inertia whereas advocates of change need serious momentum.

“Your enemies don’t need people to disagree with you, they just need people not to care.” (p.438).

In the afterword to the novel, IT security expert Runa Sandvik, who helped develop the Tor anonymity network, helps to locate the heart of the story in its hopeful humanity rather than its dystopian technology, and advises us to:

“Make sure you understand the negative impacts – the cost – that new solutions have on our lives. Only then can we start to make better choices for ourselves and our collective future…This book is a powerful reminder that you, like Masha, can choose how you live your life. How you use your skills, knowledge and time.” (p,499).

In his author’s note, Cory Doctorow takes a clear political view of the relationship between activism and technology:

“Technology can be a force multiplier, for the powerful and powerless alike. But the use of technology by the powerless is more salient than when it is wielded by the powerful, because giving power to the powerless is a change in kind, while increasing the power of the already powerful is merely a change in degree. But that temporary power boost will be denatured by the powerful as quickly as they can manage it, so the advantage is not enough to make lasting structural changes. To make lasting structural changes, you need to use technology to change politics.” (p.501)

While the book’s main themes can be seen as technology and surveillance, it should also be read as advocating for social movements, activism and struggle and how we decide between whether to say and do nothing or engage and resist; whether to bend the arc or let it bend us.

See also:

Interview with Cory Doctorow from the LA Review of Books (January 2021)

The Ministry for the Future’ by Kim Stanley Robinson (December 2020)

What if?’ Dystopias in fiction (December 2017)

Reading dystopias (July 2015)

More fictional dystopias (March 2017)

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A manifesto to end educational inequality?

The challenge

We urgently need to address inequality and the human damage it causes, in education and across society. So, any programme with the aim of ‘eliminating educational inequality’ merits serious consideration.

The eleven proposals in the Teach First ‘manifesto to end educational inequality’ aim to go well beyond COVID-19 recovery and it’s clear that simply returning to a pre-pandemic situation is nowhere near enough. Addressing widening inequalities certainly requires an ambitious and radical long-term programme and these proposals are a positive contribution to the debate. But are they ambitious enough to make a real impact and can they help to achieve the fundamental system-wide changes which are needed?

The manifesto starts by framing its aims in terms of giving every child a ‘fighting chance’ to ‘reach their potential’. This notion of finite potential suggests an inherent cap on each student’s capabilities; how is it defined and how much of a shift in power, wealth and influence would constitute a ‘fighting chance’?

Educational activity and systems are not neutral, they can promote greater equality or inequality and they operate in a context of constant change. While we can’t fully ‘compensate for society’ that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to do those things that can help to overcome the effects of pre-existing inequalities rather than do those which reinforce them.

But we need to recognise how many of our current education processes help to create and reproduce inequalities. There are so many aspects of our current approach which are anti-egalitarian: our high stakes and age-related grading systems, the existence of selective and private providers and the quasi-markets which pit providers against each other. The obsession with labelling, sorting, ranking, segregating and rationing of various kinds, the creation of hierarchies of providers segregated by class, wealth and type of provision; all of these contribute to counteract efforts to promote greater equality.

The Teach First manifesto makes some good points, but there is no analysis of how inequalities are socially created and consolidated and the many ways class privilege, white privilege, male privilege and economic privilege operate throughout society to tip the scales against particular groups of children and young people. The scale of social and economic change needed to reverse the tendency for power, wealth and influence to flow towards the most privileged is seriously underestimated.

The proposals are set within the current system, implicitly accepting its logic. The problem of disadvantage is described in terms of deficits faced by individuals, schools and teachers, deficits which can be reversed through more support. Disadvantage is seen as a category which is characteristic of certain individuals and schools, which can be chipped away at through compensatory measures rather than looking at the society and the systems which have created inequalities and considering how we might tackle root causes.

The truth is, in tackling inequality, education faces a problem it can’t fully solve, however much extra support schools get and however hard teachers work. Addressing inequality in education only really makes sense as part of a social, political and economic project to address it across society.

The proposals

The proposals are organised under three themes: funding, inclusivity and support:

1. Funding

The stated goal of ‘an education system that is fairly and fully funded’ is a good soundbite but it begs the question about what is meant by ‘fair’ and ‘full’. How would we know when that ‘full and fair’ level of funding has been achieved?

Education’s crisis of funding is well documented and there is undoubtedly a desperate need for investment across the system. Education, youth, family and children’s services are suffering from chronic underfunding; a legacy of the austerity which has affected all public services. More resources would certainly make things better, but they won’t guarantee greater equality if the system being invested in is itself generating inequality.

The 4 proposals in this section recommend increasing resources in ways which target schools serving disadvantaged communities, providing more pastoral, family and wider support services and a pilot reduction in teacher’s timetables in 1% of disadvantaged secondary schools in England. There is also a welcome proposal to boost the Covid-19 education recovery package which echoes the recent joint call by several organisations including the Association of Colleges (AoC) and Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) for a 3-year £5.8billion education recovery programme across all sectors.

While better funding is essential, we know that the current distribution of educational resources and opportunities is highly unequal and probably moving in the wrong direction. Any new investment programme must guard against simply boosting the processes that drive inequality. Are we clear what kind of support addresses inequality? Would the targeting suggested be enough to shift the engines of inequality into reverse?

2. Inclusivity

The proposals in this section are aimed at achieving an education system that is inclusive and founded on the belief in ‘the power of a broad, ambitious, and knowledge-rich curriculum’ and that what is taught in schools should represent the full breadth of the modern British experience.

A curriculum which does justice to the challenges we face and helps prepare students to face them will necessarily be rich in knowledge. But a ‘knowledge-rich’ curriculum is simply not rich enough. It needs to be based on more than knowledge accumulation. It should speak to students’ needs and interests, develop their capacity to make sense of the world, to make different connections and to use skills and knowledge effectively for purposes of their choosing, including building their capacity to flourish as individuals, citizens and workers.

That ‘modern British experience’ also has to be set in a wider context. A more equal education in our country has to be understood as part of the global community, global challenges and the inequalities they expose. There are no references to the planetary crises we face and the collective global intelligence and solidarity which are required if we are to address these injustices and crises head-on – not in order to scare learners into apathy but to spur them to action.

There are some good proposals for positive action to achieve a more representative workforce at all levels, a very necessary aim. But these don’t challenge the structures of privilege; a society where the workforce is more representative can still be highly unequal.

This section of the manifesto does contain an exciting and genuinely radical idea which has real transformative potential: the proposal for ‘Curriculum Forums’ to support a national debate about what is taught. The idea is that these would involve a broad range of teachers, young people and others coming together to find common ground about what a rich and diverse curriculum might look like.

Such forums could bring a democratic, participatory element to the debate about the purpose of education and support a critique of current curricula and an exploration of alternatives, giving students and teachers more agency in curriculum development. This proposal offers the possibility of a dynamic, bottom-up process of deliberation and consensus-building about what the content of education should be.

3. Support

The broad aim here is ‘an education system that prepares young people for their future’ and this section includes proposals for ‘high-quality support’ to help young people leave school better prepared for employment.

These interventions are all welcome, but they don’t in themselves create new opportunities for young people in the labour market. Even if all students achieve higher levels of qualification, obtain good work placements and excellent careers education, their access to ‘good’ jobs will continue to be limited and rationed unless employment opportunities improve. In that ‘uncertain jobs market’ being ‘better prepared for employment’ won’t make the jobs market more welcoming or less unequal overall.

The final proposal to ‘give every household access to the internet, and every young person in education access to a working digital device’ is also clearly worthwhile. The digital divide is another driver of inequality and needs to be addressed with universal entitlements at a societal level.

Conclusion

A major blind-spot of the manifesto is its total silence about the role of colleges, universities or adult education in either challenging or consolidating inequalities. By focusing on schools only, the document misses key parts of the system. The college sector in particular can be a powerful egalitarian leveller because of its role in supporting so many learners of all ages to make up for their earlier lack of educational success by the age of 16.

We certainly need an egalitarian manifesto for social and economic change, and this requires a commitment to a lifelong education system which places equality, democracy, solidarity and sustainability at the centre. The proposals in this Teach First manifesto, as they stand, don’t amount to such a programme. Calls for more resources and more targeted support are welcome but they are unlikely to challenge the existing profound structural inequalities which shape the context for education.

If we are to imagine a different and more equal system and set about creating it, we will need a road map which is far more ambitious.

See also:

Learning, earning and the death of human capital (February 2021)

Starting to rethink education (June 2020)

An A-Z for a world which has to change (March 2020)

Knowledge and education for the future (May 2020)

The promise of a national education service (January 2019)

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‘Light Perpetual’ by Francis Spufford

light-perpetual‘Light Perpetual’ is a wonderful celebration of life and love. It opens with some extraordinary time-stretching to describe the impact of a split-second destructive event in wartime. Then time is shrunk and stretched repeatedly in order to follow the ‘lost’ potential lives of five of the victims with a lightness and warmth; zooming in to the detail of a day and zooming out to take regular leaps forward in time.

Michael Apted’s ‘Up’ TV films revisited their subjects at seven year intervals, observing the ways in which they were both changed and the same. ‘Light Perpetual’ jumps more than twice as far, skipping many significant events with its fifteen-year gap while somehow also doing justice to all that has happened in between.

The lives of Jo, Val, Alec, Vern and Ben are told in just a few episodes resisting the temptation to pack in emblematic, representative incidents each time. There is no neat coming-together of all the storylines showing how everyone is connected and no satisfying tying-up of loose ends. Just like real life in fact. These are not archetypes and their lives are not made to represent anything other than the mystery and joy of life itself.

The five central characters are all white working-class South Londoners born before the second world war and experiencing post-war social transformation as adults. This isn’t a book ‘about’ class, race or gender but these dimensions are woven into the various narratives. All five are constrained by the opportunities available to their working class ‘pre-boomer’ generation: too old to have grown up in a more culturally diverse community or to benefit from the expansion of higher education as eighteen-year-olds. The impact of ‘everyday’ sexism and classism as well as racism in both its systemic and its more violent forms is very real and present.

These ‘ordinary’ lives are told through ‘ordinary’ moments without placing ‘ordinariness’ on a pedestal. There is no clunking message about nature and nurture, social change or lessons learned. There is, however, plenty of learning going on, as in all lives, and despite their own uninspiring experience of school, two of the five become schoolteachers later in life, giving rise to some interesting reflections on education.

Jo has become a secondary music teacher when we catch up with her in 1994:

“…when she first taught anybody anything, the hardest thing was learning to isolate, from out of the mass of things she knew how to do with music, one thing at a time to pass on. One thing at a time, separated, is not how you yourself possess a skill you are sure of. Everything interconnects with everything else, and the natural impulse is to try and impart it like that, pouring it out in a useless torrent. Only bit by bit do you master the unnatural act of taking your own knowledge apart again, and being able to see what needs to come in what order, to build that knowledge in other minds… One thing, done thoroughly: that’s all you need. So long as it’s the right thing.”

This is a great description of the challenge teachers face to make sense of what they teach; how to find the balance between the particular new thing that needs to be understood and its connection with other things, which it what will make it all more useful. This passage is followed by a wonderful description of the class Jo teaches where she manages to get every student focused on what they are doing with their voices while also experiencing the excitement of contributing to an ensemble.

Like the others, Alec didn’t go to university as a young person, but he does study with the Open University and trains as a teacher after his typesetting skills are made obsolete by technological change. We meet him just before his first day as a working teacher in 1994, and also again at the end of his time as a primary head in 2009, under pressure to academise his school.

“You can do your best to make them laugh, and to see they eat breakfast, and to lead them through the British Museum unintimidated, but who are you to say what’s going on inside, which of them privately inhabit a hive of busy misery, impossible to communicate? You’re only a teacher, not a magician.”

Alec understands the struggles his students face and as a socialist he is not enthusiastic about the prospect of academy conversion:

“The ideological wrappings around the idea, he straightforwardly detests. All that magic-of-the-market crap; and there’s nothing wrong, either, with having one authority for the borough, answerable to voters, making decisions about schools. Yet it’s also clear that, in order to cajole schools to academise, the powers-that-be have consented to hang out one more fat fruit on the magic money tree.”

The piercing rotating lighthouse beam of ‘Perpetual Light’ shines brilliantly on these characters’ lives. With a light touch, each episode illuminates their various efforts to understand themselves, to learn to love and to try find ways to apply whatever they’ve learnt through being alive.

This has been described as a ‘what if…?’ novel because it’s framed by the device that these are the lives that never were; destroyed by a wartime bomb when they’d only just begun. But these adult lives that might have been can just as well be read as actual lives that were not cut short. All fiction is a ‘what if…?’ exercise and, bomb or no bomb, every life is framed by the absence of life. As Alec’s former wife, Sandra, says: “Everything ends. Doesn’t mean it wasn’t good.”

This is a beautifully written radiant and life-affirming novel.

See also:

Zola’s ‘La Curée’ and the corruption of desire. April 2021

The Ministry of the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson. December 2020

Tsitsi Dangarembga’s ‘Nervous Conditions’. March 2020

‘Unsheltered’ by Barbara Kingsolver. August 2019

‘The Overstory’ by Richard Powers. March 2019

‘Carthage’ by Joyce Carol Oates. February 2016

Hadrian, the enlightened pre-enlightenment leader? December 2015

Gulliver’s levels. May 2015

Grosse Fugue’ by Ian Phillips. September 2014

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Reading bell hooks.

‘Teaching to Transgress’

‘Teaching to Transgress’ is as fresh and powerful in 2021 as when it was first published in 1994. Its messages about teaching as discovery, resistance and liberation are as vital today as ever.

Reading bell hooks is like having a fascinating conversation with your best teacher – with the kind of teacher all teachers should aim to be.

This is the teacher who acknowledges you, knows you, loves you, values your experience and your identity, respects you and understands where you’re coming from. The teacher who stands alongside you in your struggle and learns as you learn, who gives of themselves, drawing on their own story and hearing yours. The teacher who helps you connect to something wider; something you don’t yet know.

A teacher who doesn’t have all the answers but gives you the confidence that they are worth searching for. A teacher who expects a lot from you, shows you how to think critically about yourself, your circumstances and the wider world. A teacher who encourages you to question, disagree, argue and resist. A teacher who values intellectual activity, who knows that learning is full of joy and who wants that for everyone.

A teacher who shows you how the ‘other’, the ‘abstract’ and the ‘theoretical’ are connected to your experience, who helps you understand how power operates and how to expose and confront injustices and oppression, whether systemic or individual.

A teacher whose committed and rigorous pedagogy cannot easily be labelled ‘progressive’ or ‘traditional’. A teacher who sees the classroom as a place of possibility and transformation; safe for everyone without being uncommitted or unchallenging. A space where equality, democracy and solidarity can be practised and built.

We often say we are ‘passionate’ about our work when we really mean ‘interested’, ‘enthusiastic’ or ‘committed’. This kind of routine hyperbole puts the meaning of the word at risk, and as ‘passion’ creeps into job adverts and job descriptions it becomes the new baseline term for simply ‘doing a good job’.

Reading bell hooks reminds us what it really means to be a ‘passionate’ teacher, and in ‘Teaching to Transgress’ we find the case brilliantly made; not for a generalised enthusiasm, but for a thought-through, focused and specific passion for what teaching can be.

This is the description of the ‘passionate’ teacher we would all want to know or to be.

We were reading ‘Teaching to Transgress’ by bell hooks for the March meeting of the Philosophy of Education reading network. For details of future reading and meetings see @PhilofEd on Twitter.

See also:

Freire for today (March 2021)

Gramsci’s grammar and Dewey’s dialectic (December 2014)

Seven ways to avoid a Frankenstein education. (February 2021)

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Zola’s ‘La Curée’ and the corruption of desire.

Rougon-Macquart #2

Emile Zola’s ‘La Curée’ (1872), translated as ‘The Kill’, is an extraordinary novel of unbridled appetites, material and sexual, and of the moral decay and rottenness of unfettered capitalism. It shares a setting and many common themes with ‘L’Argent’ (‘Money’) and features the same central character of Saccard (Aristide Rougon). Brian Nelson’s excellent translation captures all the emotional charge and vivid imagery of Zola’s writing. It would make a great TV series and offers plenty of scope for sequels to be drawn from Zola’s other 19 Rougon-Macquart books.

Zola spares us nothing in his description of the wild speculation and profiteering which powered the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few on the back of the ‘Haussmanisation’ of Paris. The construction of straight new boulevards which transformed the city also fed a chain of expropriation and corruption from government and city officials to investors, developers and contractors. The urge to improve and modernize is not a bad one but here it has been corrupted to serve the wrong people. Saccard may have occasional constructive aspirations but he is essentially a financial parasite feeding off every transaction, manipulating the speculative bubble for his own gain and relishing the destruction of the old Paris.

“Paris slashed with sabre cuts; its veins opened… It will be sheer madness, an orgy of spending, Paris will be drunk and overwhelmed” says Saccard approvingly.

The fluid, destructive force of capital is graphically described:

“This fortune which roared and overflowed like a winter torrent… a frenzy of money… The appetites let loose were satisfied at last, shamelessly, amid the sound of crumbling neighborhoods and fortunes made in six months… The city had become an orgy of gold and women. Vice, coming from on high, flowed through the gutters and spread out.”

Zola captures the disorientations of modernity; the unsettling and destabilising experience of struggling to find your way around a neighbourhood you thought you knew, coming across the shell of a building you once lived in and losing your moorings; where only money rules. The forces of production are truly making ‘all that is solid melt into air’1 with human values melting away with it.

“On either side, great pieces of wall, burst open by pickaxes, remained standing; tall gutted buildings displaying their pale insides opened to the skies their wells stripped of stairs, their gaping rooms suspended in mid-air like the broken drawers of a big ugly piece of furniture.”

The story is located almost entirely in high society among the super-rich and powerful; the perspective of the working class is absent. How did ordinary people experience the displacement and social dislocation resulting from the wiping out of their neighbourhoods? Zola makes up for this omission in many of the other novels in the Rougon-Macquart series. But here, our characters are the beneficiaries, those at the top echelons of the second empire created by Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte following his fraudulent coup d’état of 1851. This nephew of Napoleon I ‘repeats tragedy as farce’2 as the emperor Napoleon III and reverses many of the democratic gains of the revolutions of 1789 and 1848.

The moral turpitude of Saccard with his financial chicanery and of his sister Sidonie with her intrigues is matched by that of his second wife Renée, and his dissolute son Maxime, from his first wife. Saccard and Renée’s marriage is a convenient transaction which has no basis in love or mutual respect but is at least sustainable. The transgressive affair between step-mother and step-son is based on erotic desire but is clearly doomed. What Brian Nelson describes as Zola’s ‘remarkable symbolizing vision, expressed in dense metaphoric language’ is at its most heady in the sensations which arouse Renée’s desire in the tropical greenhouse of the house in the Parc Monceau:

“Poisonous flowers… flowers resembling eager sensual mouths… hungry bleeding smiles…  bent and twisted tendrils pushing in every direction… pungent perfume… strong acrid breath… disturbing organic rotting smells…”

Just as vice flowed through the Paris gutters, Renée and Maxime’s sin…

“…had sprouted as from a dunghill oozing with strange juices.”

And Renée is described as:

“a strange, voluptuous flower grown on the compost of millions.”

But when the chips are down, the men make the rules, and ‘La Curée’ is also a story of the powerlessness and exploitation of women in the Second Empire. Towards the end of the story, Renée sees herself in a mirror as she is, naked to the world. Despite having asserted her desires, exercised some freedom to make choices and dominating her lover (‘she was the man’) she is the one who has been violated and expropriated and the men just get away with it. They are guilty, their social and financial networks are guilty, the whole of Paris is guilty.

Beyond the depiction of the universals of greed and lust, Zola also offers us some very modern insights into the commodification of desire and celebrity. The way Renée obsessively scrutinizes the details in photographs of her friends and other society beauties in her album, looking for every blemish, seems to anticipate the image-conscious culture of social media. And when Sidonie takes the opportunity of a social call to casually promote a brand of soap or an elastic belt developed by some of her contacts, is she not acting as a nineteenth century ‘influencer’? The market will always find ways to shape our desires and our consumption.

Even Renée’s discreet maid Céleste is complicit, but her complicity is also a transaction. She is a sort of ‘anti- Renée’ avoiding any emotional bonds that could harm her and seeing money as a secure way to build her future, unbeholden to any man. Having saved up her target sum, Celeste has no further use for Renée or any need to pretend to any attachment to her. Her discretion was purely instrumental, getting her what she needed to achieve her goals.

Zola built the Rougon-Macquart series around some key concepts, one of which was a notion of the recurrence and persistence of inherited personality traits. But I think that in ‘La Curée’, he shows how the moral collapse of his characters is the results of a society that has got its values wrong. They are perpetrators but also victims, not principally of their heredity, but of a corrupt system which puts greed ahead of humanity.

Notes:

  1. “All that is solid melts into air, all that is sacred is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.” Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, ‘The Communist Manifesto’ (1848).
  2. “Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce… the nephew for the uncle…” [Louis Napoleon’s 1851 coup d’état for Napoleon’s coup on 18 Brumaire of the Year 8 (9 November 1799)]. Karl Marx, ‘The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon’ (1852)

See also:

In praise of lightness – Calvino’s Leggerezza (Mar 2020)

‘Unsheltered’ by Barbara Kingsolver (Aug 2019)

Primo Levi on work and education (May 2016)

Useful work v. useless toil’ by William Morris (Dec 2014)

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Freire for today

What can we learn from reading Freire today?

The work of the Brazilian educator Paulo Freire (1921-1997) was rooted in his adult literacy teaching among dispossessed and disempowered communities in Latin America and elsewhere and was influenced by both Marxism and liberation theology. The centenary of his birth is as good a time as any to ask what reading Freire can offer us.

I think Freire’s core ideas are absolutely transferable to the work of teachers today and here I will draw on ‘Pedagogy of Hope’ (1992) which is part memoir, part reflective return to the key themes of his earlier seminal ‘Pedagogy of the Oppressed’ (1972).

Understanding oppression and the need for liberation

Freire sees the key task of education as liberation, and this starts from an understanding of oppression. Many of our social relations are based on inequality, exclusion or oppression and too often education reproduces these. Freire’s use of the categories of oppressor and oppressed comes from settings where the reality of those categories was all too clear. Inequality, exploitation and oppression are still with us even if their patterns and configurations have evolved.

Liberation is not something that teachers do ‘to’ their students – but ‘with’ them, and the starting point is always respect for the experience learners bring with them. No one can liberate others, people acting together liberate themselves. Emancipation needs to be collective, involving collective reflection and action:

“We invent the possibility of setting ourselves free.”

“A more critical understanding of the situation of the oppressed does not yet liberate the oppressed, but it is a step in the right direction.”

Freire sees exclusion and failure as forms of oppression:

“We need to move on from the idea that those who have ‘failed’ are to blame as individuals, rather than the social structures and the way they operate.”

The American educationalist bell hooks writes about the influence of Freire on her work in ‘Teaching to Transgress’. She describes how before reading Freire, she was ‘in resistance’ without the language to speak about it. Freire provided a language and made her think deeply about ‘the construction of an identity in resistance’ and understand the importance of that moment when we begin to think critically about ourselves in relation to our political circumstances. bell hooks also speaks about the anguish she felt in relation to the ‘phallocentric paradigm’ of his model of liberation and the sexist language in his work. She approaches this as a process of critical interrogation rather than outright dismissal and the result is that bell hooks has been able to weave threads of Freire’s work into her feminist pedagogy.

Respect and challenge

We need to start from the culture and knowledge of our students and respect and understand it in its context. However, this should not prevent us from challenging and extending their experience:

“Starting out from students’ knowledge doesn’t mean circling around this knowledge for ever. It is a starting point in order to go beyond it.”

Education as work

Although Freire’s dialogical methods draw on what students already know and think, he is certainly not advocating unstructured programmes which simply follow the learners’ desires or a path of least resistance. From a starting point of mutual understanding and respect, teachers need to be able to take their students out of their comfort zone and this will be hard work:

“It is the teachers’ duty to challenge learners and their certainties as well as to respect their cultural context.”

“Learning, teaching and knowing are not entertainment, neither are they insipid, boring, busy-ness. They are difficult, demanding … and pleasant.”

“We cannot excuse ourselves from the hard, heavy work of serious, honest study.”

Learning is not ‘banking’ and teaching is not ‘transmission’

Learning is an activity which is continuous with living rather than distinct from it and people need to be regarded as both shaping events and being shaped by them. Teaching and learning involve critical dialogue.

Learning is not the ‘banking’ of accumulated knowledge. Amongst other things, this also speaks to the commodification and marketisation education which has taken off in the decades since Freire was writing. Qualifications, grades, types of education providers and students themselves are often regarded as commodities with assigned market value in the educational economy, and can be traded for economic and social advancement or ‘social mobility’.

“Content cannot simply be transferred or deposited … the teacher cannot transfer knowledge, they can present it for discussion, analysis, exploration and development.”

“Teaching and learning are moments in a larger process of knowing.”

“Humans are both the subjects and the objects of their history and society.”

For Freire, to teach is to ‘re-learn’ alongside the student – each time it happens it’s a kind of renewal of knowing and this cannot be mechanical or predictable. Knowing is not a commodity which can be passed on without the critical engagement of both teacher and student.

“Teaching is not simply transmission. The teacher re-cognizes the object already cognized and remakes their cognition in that of the learner.”

“Teaching is a creative, critical act and not a mechanical one.”

Gert Biesta writes in ‘The Beautiful Risk of Education’ that Freire’s achievement is to provide a dialogical alternative to the idea that emancipation can be transmitted by the teacher; handing people the truth about their oppressive condition. Instead, Freire sees it as a process of collective discovery of the structures and practices of oppression. Emancipation aims to restore a connection between human beings and the world, and the role of the teacher is to reinstigate dialogical and reflective practices and link people back to the world.

Education is never neutral

Neutrality is not possible for teachers, they have to choose whether to challenge or perpetuate exclusion and injustice. They need to take sides when it comes to equality, democracy, emancipation and solidarity as experienced by their students. Teachers should not indoctrinate their students by telling them what to think:

“The educator must defend a position rigorously and passionately while at the same time stimulating and respecting the contrary discourse.”

The possibility of change: reading the word through reading the world.

Freire describes change-making as a kind of labour, shaped by our language, our own experience as well as our utopian imagination:

“Creating a better world is not a matter of idealism but of imagination and conjecture. Transforming reality is human toil and we have in mind a design of what we are about to make.”

“Changing language is part of the process of changing the world.”

Liberation is transformative and requires a sense that things can change and a different future is possible. Being resigned to things being ‘as they are’ is an obstacle to liberation and to ‘dream’ is a a kind of pre-figurative practice:

“When the future is considered as a given, which will reproduce the present, there is no room for the dream, no room for education, only training … The dream is necessary for political action and is fundamental for the crafts-person projecting what they plan to make.”

Freire sees an organic link between language and the possibility of social change and human connection. Our understanding of the world can provide a way into the written word which in turn provides us with a fuller understanding of the world:

“Language is the route to the invention of citizenship.”

Freire argues that we become fully human through the dialectic between action and reflection. This praxis involves reading the world and reading the word.

Knowledge and curriculum: what should we teach?

For Freire, the aim of education is to help people shape their lives and their world. To achieve this, students first need to ‘name the world’ and recognise that they can be subjects of their own life story as well as objects in the lives of others. Deciding what to teach is itself a way of defining value and exercising power and oppressing others and he suggests that we open up the full spectrum of various types of knowledge for scrutiny.

“Curriculum is not neutral… content is not property to be held or possessed … choosing content needs to be democratised.”

“We cannot train professional people without an understanding of ourselves as historical, social, political beings and how society works.”

“Knowledge emerges only through invention and re-invention, through the restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiring people pursue in the world, with the world and with each other.”

“We need to understand the links between popular knowledge, common sense and scientific knowledge.”

Freire’s philosophy

Freire’s philosophical framework recognizes the wholeness of the world while acknowledging that for us to make sense of it, we need to both ‘break it down’ and ‘build it up’. Teaching is often about helping students understand the relationship between parts and wholes:

“We must understand the relationship between parts and wholes… respect the local without rejecting the universal … treat them as ‘salt and seasoning’. It is a mistake to get stuck in the parts and lose our vision of the whole, just as it is wrong to float above the whole, renouncing the parts.”

Limit situations, generative themes and the awakening of critical consciousness

Freire’s broad approach to dialogic pedagogy was not intended as a formulaic method and he was concerned when some practitioners treated it as a rigid method. Nevertheless, the adult literacy techniques he pioneered are worthy of study and development.

What Freire calls a ‘limit situation’ is one where people are stuck in a state of oppression which may appear to be inevitable or natural and which they cannot imagine going beyond. Today, we might call this a ‘teachable moment’. Getting beyond the limit situation requires learners to understand more about underlying causes so that through some transformative action they can create a situation where greater humanity is possible.

The work required includes building up a ‘vocabulary universe’ of ‘generative words’ to match the ‘thematic universe’ of learners’ current situation.  This can become their language of social and political discourse and action. This critical decoding or ‘naming of the world – and the word’ is the start of a praxis of critical reflection, ‘conscientization’ and ultimately emancipation.

This approach has some parallels with community organizing, in its emphasis on identifying urgent needs, articulating winnable demands and working out what needs to be done to win them.

Understanding what education can, and can’t, achieve

While celebrating the transformational potential of education, Freire makes no claim that critical literacy in itself is enough. We cannot expect education on its own to do all the heavy lifting and ultimately, we need a certain humility about the power of learning to bring about change in the world.

“We need to avoid both the idealism that claims a power for education which is doesn’t have, and the objectivism which denies it any power to make a difference.”

Freire’s caution about the limits of education chimes with Philippe Meirieu’s ‘unbearable lightness’ and Gert Biesta’s ‘beautiful risk’. It reminds us that while education has tremendous potential to transform, that transformation cannot be predetermined.

All quotations are from ‘Pedagogy of Hope’ and ‘Pedagogy of the Oppressed’.An earlier version of this post was published in the issue 102 of Post-16 Educator (Jan-Mar 2021)

Pedagogy of Hope’, ‘Teaching to Transgress’ and ‘The Beautiful Risk of Education’ have featured, among others, for discussion by the online Philosophy of Education Reading Network. To find out more about the group’s monthly meetings, follow the group on twitter at @PhilofEd

See also:

Seven ways to avoid a Frankenstein education (Feb 2021)

Knowledge and education for the future – Edgar Morin (May 2020)

An A-Z for a world which has to change (March 2020)

What is learning? Philippe Meirieu (July 2014)

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Seven ways to avoid a Frankenstein education.

Seven ways to avoid a Frankenstein education – Philippe Meirieu.

The French educationalist, Philippe Meirieu, in his 1996 book ‘Frankenstein Pedagogue’ reviews popular accounts of attempts to fashion a person to a maker’s design. Such fictional person-making often proves futile and can end up as monster-making, which is why it makes for such great stories.

Meirieu examines the stories of Pygmalion, Pinocchio, The Golem and Robocop and, of course, Mary Shelley’s extraordinary and tragic tale of scientific over-reach.

The book’s subtitle is ‘the myth of education as manufacturing’ (le mythe de l’education comme fabrication) and Meirieu considers the dangers of education as person-making and our repeated attempts to use education to shape people to our pre-dertermined design; a generally disastrous project.

Meirieu suggests we need a ‘Copernican revolution’ in the way we teach. This requires us to give up on any ‘Frankenstein’ educational project of constructing people to a blueprint. But it doesn’t mean giving up completely or giving in to our students’ every whim. Meirieu argues that education should flow from the relationship between its content, the social world which generates it and the students as they are. It should allow students to construct themselves as a ‘subject in the world’ while understanding the present they exist in, the history that has created them and the future that they themselves could create.

Meirieu recommends that to avoid the Frankenstein project, we need to accept seven propositions:

  1. Education should not be about satisfying our wish to create people but about welcoming our students into the world as people who have a history as well as a future; indeterminate and different from the past.
  2. Students cannot be shaped to a master-plan and it is inevitable and healthy that students will resist attempts to shape them. If we insist on trying, then disengagement and conflict will follow.
  3. Knowledge and skills cannot be reproduced or transmitted mechanically. Students have to re-discover them for themselves as part of their own learning project.
  4. Students need to make a personal commitment in order to learn and no one can learn for them. That personal ‘decision to learn’ is the way to overcome the preconceptions, expectations and assumptions which can limit them.
  5. Teachers can create the conditions for learning even if they can’t control their students’ commitment to learning. Teaching doesn’t automatically lead to learning, but teachers can help to make sense of the process and create the setting for students to ‘do something new in order to learn something new’.
  6. Education should nurture students’ growing autonomy. Autonomy is enhanced every time a student acquires something new, makes it their own or re-applies it in a new context. This acquisition is not transmitted by the teacher but it is central to the educational transaction.
  7. Teachers don’t have total power; this is the ‘unbearable lightness’ of teaching. The teacher does not really control the process and can only create the conditions for students to learn. Every learning moment is unique and pedagogic theories are only ever a fragile approximation of the practice of teaching. Educational thinkers such as Pestalozzi, Freinet, Makarenko, Don Bosco, Korczak and Tolstoy have acknowledged the yawning gap between the way they express their ideas about teaching and the reality of ‘thought in action’ during the actual process.

These conclusions could be regarded as a counsel of despair by teachers who want their work to make a real difference to their students. But reminding us of the power teachers don’t have can sharpen our focus on the power we do have; the ability to understand and work with students as and where they are, rather than as and where we might wish them to be. This is not just about being a ‘guide on the side’, but understanding both the limits of teacher power and the great potential of teachers to nurture learning. Education is transformative and does involve construction, it’s just that teachers are not the only people on the building site.

Gert Biesta touches on many of these themes in ‘The Beautiful Risk of Education’ (2014) which explores the impossibility of making education predictable and risk-free. Here is Biesta summarizing Meirieu’s views:

“He argues that to think that education can be put under total control denies the fact that the world is not simply at our disposal. It denies the fact that other human beings have their own ways of being and thinking, their own reasons and motivations that may well be very different from ours. To wish all this away is a denial of the fact that what and who are other are precisely that: other.” (Prologue)

In ‘Frankenstein Pedagogue’ Meirieu is describing education as a form of co-production, or sympoiesis; a term I came across in Donna Haraway’s ‘Staying with the Trouble’ (2016):

“Sympoiesis is a simple word; it means ‘making-with’. Nothing makes itself; nothing is really autopoetic or self-organizing… Sympoiesis is a word proper to complex, dynamic, responsive, situated, historical systems.” (chapter 3)

For Meirieu, education is torn between poiesis and praxis. Poiesis is the activity of making something which can be completed. To reduce education to poieisis would be to see the student as a thing whose predefined success can be fully achieved. Praxis, in contrast, is a continuing process which is worthwhile in itself and can never be said to be fully complete. It is the interaction of ‘thinking and doing’ between people aiming to get a better grasp on reality; open, uncertain, social and full of new possibility.

I have translated the seven requirements fairly freely from the French so any loss of clarity or meaning is mine.

See also:

What is learning? Philippe Meirieu (July 2014)

Market autonomy or democratic autonomy? (May 2016)

Democratic emotions in the face of barbarism – Philippe Meirieu (April 2015)

Educating after the November 13th attacks (December 2015)

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Learning, earning and the death of human capital.

Is there a clear predictive relationship between the amount of education ‘received’, as measured by qualifications achieved, and future earnings? The idea is strongly held by many policymakers and it plays a part in the public debate about investment in education and training. Claims are regularly made that achieving a particular qualification will boost an individual’s lifetime earnings by so many thousand pounds, or conversely, that lower educational achievement, for instance as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, will automatically lead to millions of pounds in lost earnings.

The problem with such predictions is that:

  • they are misleading, unverifiable claims about future earnings based on extrapolating from current earnings premiums into a future economy and labour market;
  • they promote a simple mechanistic relationship between learning and earning which takes little account of economic and labour market changes.

These sorts of claims flow from orthodox human capital theory which assumes a strong connection between education and the labour market and a cause-and-effect relationship between qualification levels and future earnings or labour market advantages. This set of beliefs is critically examined in some detail in a new book ‘The Death of Human Capital?’ by Phillip Brown, Hugh Lauder and Sin Yi Cheung.

Human capital theory has been influential in shaping the way education is viewed and it is often the basis for justifying investment in education, promising a ‘win-win’ link between higher levels of education and the promise of well-paid jobs. But learning isn’t earning and more investment in education, while justifiable for many good reasons, does not guarantee higher earnings. Trying to estimate the economic returns of education is a complex business and depends on who is doing the learning and the context they will be seeking employment in.

At best, the evidence shows only that more education meant more income in the particular conditions of the ‘golden era’ before the 1973 recession, when income inequality was less wide than now, and when far fewer people received higher education. Since then, there have been fundamental changes in the relationship between education, employment and incomes. The highest earning ten percent have pocketed an increasing share of earnings, inqualities have widened and the global auction of for both high-skilled and low-skilled jobs has tended to depress everyone else’s relative incomes.

Faced with the evidence, human capital orthodoxy has adapted its claims to suggest that it is actually investment in specific skill sets, rather than education in general, which is most likely to increase earnings. But these ‘special case’ arguments based on allegedly scarce ‘high-productivity skills’ don’t really bear much scrutiny either. The Bank of England has concluded that the impact of qualifications on wage growth is in decline. There is also evidence that working class, black and women workers consistently get lower returns from qualifications and that the gaps are widening. The reality is that far from being a sure-fire fast-track to upward mobility, gaining qualifications provides no guarantees. Winners use their existing market power to their advantage making it very difficult for everyone else, however hard they try, and the authors conclude, slightly depressingly, that:

“educational achievement does not translate into equal labour market opportunities.”

Labour markets are not simply based on skills competition but also on cost competition and globally there has been little growth in good-quality jobs, the opposite in fact. And, so:

“The failed promise of orthodox human capital theory needs to be addressed if we want to improve the quality of life for all rather than the few in both developed and emerging nations.”

The book is not just a critique, the authors also propose an alternative approach which they frame as an other kind of human capital theory although it seems very different. This rejects accounts based on labour scarcity and the idea that we are all in a skills competition with education’s role to provide ‘bundles’ of valuable human capital which generates a flow of income throughout our lifetime, due to its relative scarcity.

The starting premise for this alternative approach is the reality of job scarcity and the inherent problems of creating enough good quality jobs that match the skills and capabilities of the workforce. The authors also examine the socioeconomic foundations of human capital theory and argue that human behaviour is not like other forms of capital and that we need a better understanding of what people want from work. Crucially, they highlight the systemic inequalities in the distribution of opportunities for people to develop their capabilities; inequalities which can’t simply be explained by investment by differences in investment. The authors argue that addressing this requires a transformation of the ‘structure of opportunities’.

It is true that technological change has destroyed more jobs than it has created. But in our crisis-ridden economies there is no shortage of work that needs to be done to support human survival, sustainable and just forms of human development. It’s just that those types of work happen to be undervalued in our current economies. This suggests we need an alternative economic policy based on developing human capacities to meet human needs sustainably and guaranteeing full employment and a living income for all. We don’t have to accept either labour scarcity or job scarcity as inexorable.

The authors argue that our social and economic relationships with each other and with work can’t easily be translated into capital. New patterns of employment will require new modes of earning and learning and we need to redefine and redistribute the benefits of economic activity, the ‘productive dividend’, more equally in order to enable human flourishing across society. We also need a wider understanding of educational purpose, productive contribution and the quality of life.

They conclude that we are in a race against time and that orthodox human capital theory is an impediment to the creation of a more inclusive and economically viable future. The new human capital proposed by the authors is far more than an adjustment of the current orthodoxy, it requires nothing less than:

“re-imagining education, work and the labour market for a different economic and social world.”

If we continue to make the case for investment in education on the basis that it generates higher future earnings, we narrow the scope of what education and training can aspire to for people and for society. I think that the new approach based on human capabilities, human needs and social justice can dispense entirely with the ‘capital’ metaphor, which I see as an unhelpful straitjacket. In the same way, I think the title of this useful book could dispense with its question mark.

The book’s contribution is only part of the story. A fuller account of how to deal with the social and economic crises we face would combine this analysis with the ‘build back better / build back fairer / build back greener’ agenda and look something like a global green new deal with economic and social justice at its core. In this spirit, this book could usefully be read alongside Ann Pettifor’s ‘The Case for the Green New Deal’ and Guy Standing’s ‘Basic Income’ or ‘Plunder of the Commons’.

‘The Death of Human Capital?’ is a convincing demolition job which should finally seal the fate of Human Capital orthodoxy, although dismantling deeply held belief systems can take time and some policymakers will no doubt remain attached to it for a while. And far from undermining the case for investing in education, discarding human capital theory creates new opportunities to make that case broader, richer and stronger.

See also:

Starting to rethink education (June 2020)

What is social capital? (July 2016)

Capital as metaphor (June 2016)

Do qualifications create wealth? (Jan 2015)

Exam success boosts the economy by £1.3Billion? (Dec 2014)

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‘Listen to this’.

There’s something to be said for being told to ‘listen to this’, ‘look at this’ or ‘read this’. An important aspect of any educational programme is presenting learners with something new or re-presenting something familiar in a new context. And that means allowing someone else to choose what to offer us; to curate part of our experience following their plan or curriculum, if only to introduce us to the unknown which we can then explore ourselves.

The experience of listening, looking or reading is absorbing and valuable in itself. It’s personal to each of us and doesn’t have to have a wider purpose. It’s also part of our development as social beings with a stake in human culture. And ‘listen to, look at, or read this’ inevitably leads to ‘think about this and how it connects to other things’ and then also to ‘share what you think about this’.

Think about how many times others recommend something to us that they think we must listen to, see or read. They want us to be moved or changed, in the way they have been, and they want us to be able to share that experience. It matters to them because it could matter to us too.

Our cultural life is both intensely personal and highly social and while we make our own path through it, we can benefit from experienced guides and teachers to help us find ways in and make new connections. When we take their advice, we’re allowing them to curate a small part of what we experience, helping us find a common language to share what it means to us.

When it comes to ‘classical’ music, Clemency Burton-Hill is an experienced guide and ‘Year of Wonder’ is an accessible route map; inviting us to listen to a single different short piece every day of the year and to read a single page of context for each one; about the piece, about the author’s personal response to it, about the composer, or just a related anecdote. This is just one selection and it doesn’t claim to be a canon or to provide systematic coverage. It’s a playlist that can be of interest to any of us, and the ‘listen to one new thing every day’ approach could also contribute to all sorts of music education programmes.

But why the scare quotes around the word ‘classical’? I’ve enjoyed listening to this kind of music all my life and it’s important to me, but I think that calling it ‘classical’ implies a distinction between ‘high’ art and ‘low’ art and signals that it’s an elitist activity or some kind of luxury good. So I don’t like the c-word and I agree with Alex Ross, who starts his brilliant book ‘Listen to This’ by saying:

“I hate classical music: not the thing but the name. It traps a tenaciously living art in a theme park of the past. It cancels out the possibility that music in the spirit of Beethoven could still be created today… I wish there were another name.”

Clemency Burton-Hill does use the term, but acknowledges in the introduction to ‘Year of Wonder’ that the cause of classical music is not served by

“…those who assume it is ‘superior’ to other types of music” or by “those who, deep down, believe it must remain the preserve of people with certain backgrounds… which is opportunity-hoarding at its most lazy and repellent.”

Far from hoarding or mystifying, we need to tear down the barriers of elitism, spread musical opportunities around more equally and embrace the full range of our shared musical heritage in all its diversity. Like all cultural activity, making and appreciating music is social and it’s always taking place in a cultural-historical context. We are all music-makers, music-sharers and music-critics. 

We may know what we like, but ‘what we like’ doesn’t come from nowhere and it isn’t static. It’s the result of our experiences, the cultures we’ve engaged with, our choices and those of others around us – all of which are in constant movement. And there is always going to be something out there that we’ve never heard and might like, even if we don’t know it yet.

So, I started on the ‘Year of Wonder’ journey in January 2021 in a spirit of curiosity and openness; prepared to spend a few moments every day listening to the recommended pieces and possibly to share some discoveries along the way.

See also:

Lessons without words: 10 things music teaches us about life (Nov 2014)

The keyboard and the music (Dec 2014)

A level minority report: dance, music, philosophy ( Feb 2016)

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