‘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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‘The Ministry for the Future’ by Kim Stanley Robinson

Fiction can change the world and the didactic approach or the ‘novel of ideas’ can be compatible with good storytelling. Like any work of art, a work of fiction can change us as individuals and, through us, help to make a difference. A powerful novel can both educate and motivate while telling a story well, and the most compelling stories are often those that teach us the most.

‘The Ministry for the Future’ by Kim Stanley Robinson is one of those potentially world-changing works of fiction. It has human characters and a narrative arc, but what matters most is the meta-narrative which is about nothing less than global human survival over the next few decades. Robinson has produced a handbook for the near future, a manual for action, using the same large scale social imagination and descriptive power evident in all his writing, whether set in the future (eg: The Mars trilogy, Aurora, 2312) or in re-imagined pasts (eg: The Years of Rice and Salt, Shaman).

Kim Stanley Robinson has described his work as speculative, rather than predictive:

“…more of a modelling exercise…you run this line in history, see what the conclusions are and don’t worry about the fact that it’s one of an infinite spread.”1

As the UK prepares to host COP26 in Glasgow in November 2021 (the 26th Conference of the Parties to the UN Paris Climate Change Convention) we know there is a lot at stake and we fear that we may be doing too little too late. Here, Kim Stanley Robinson imagines the creation at COP29 in the mid-2020’s of a new global agency – nicknamed the Ministry for the Future – to press for change where national governments have proved inadequate.

The themes of the book are those that preoccupy us today as we confront our multiple global emergencies. The catastrophic impact of climate change and unsustainable and inequitable systems of production and consumption. The urgent need for effective action on a global scale and on many fronts. The social, economic and political challenges of developing and implementing the kind of policies that could achieve a better, fairer and more sustainable world. The resources of hope, creativity, determination and collaboration which humans need to draw on to make change possible. This book has them all, and successfully packing this amount of scientific, social and political imagination into one novel is an extraordinary achievement.

The book is punctuated with didactic interludes, which make up a toolkit for renewal, rather like an encyclopaedic ‘Whole Earth Catalog’ for the 21st century. Each one provides a thread for the complex fabric of alternatives, all of which we will need and most of which already exist in some form: critiques of unsustainable growth and consumption and widening global inequality, better measures of progress, equality and ecological footprints, carbon taxes and economic incentives to decarbonize, alternatives to markets and the neoliberal world order, Mondragon-style co-operative networks, permaculture, rewilding and habitat corridors, basic income and job guarantees and many more. As we take all these ideas in, we begin to see how they might work together to give us some chance of survival.

Speaking about this ‘layered’ approach, Kim Stanley Robinson has said:

“The real is too big a term to be comprehended and so you break it down into lots of smaller systems that are trying to explain the whole. Together, you get a mega-system or a stack of systems.” 2

And of the climate emergency he has said:

“The story we’ve all been told is that the system is robust, permanent and massively entrenched…surplus value has always been appropriated out of the natural world in increasing circles, and now we’ve run out of circles, so the expansion crashes and the biosphere too…and so you try to find a pocket utopia where you’re not actively damaging the world. (but) No local solution is sufficient…” 2

Elsewhere, he adds: “No one solution will solve the climate change problem…so you’ve just got to try everything that seems good.”1

Despite the many setbacks and disasters on the way, the direction of travel presented in ‘The Ministry for the Future’ is positive and unstoppable and there is a bracing optimism about the possibility of change. Spoiler alert: we get to share the global sense of elation when at last, after all the action that’s been taken, atmospheric CO2 levels turn around and start to fall decisively; from 475ppm to 454ppm.3 By COP58, presumably in the early 2050’s, it is possible to perceive:

“… a break point in the history of both humans and the Earth itself, the start of something new … the birth of a good Anthropocene.”

Is this a utopian scenario? It’s certainly about the construction of a new reality, but it’s absolutely grounded in today’s challenges and solutions and it doesn’t make any of it seem easy. ‘The Ministry for the Future’ offers us the outline of a possible route to a better place, one where humanity could start to get things right.

Writing about modern fictional utopias, including Kim Stanley Robinson’s work, in his brilliant ‘Archaeologies of the future’, Fredric Jameson says:

“What is Utopian becomes … not the commitment to a specific machinery or blueprint, but rather a commitment to imagining possible Utopias in their greatest variety of forms. Utopian is no longer the invention and defense of a specific floorplan, but rather the story of all the arguments about how Utopia should be constructed in the first place. It is no longer the exhibit of an achieved Utopian construct, but rather the story of its production and of the very process of construction.” 4

‘Educate, agitate organise’ is the activist motto coined by William Morris in the late 19th Century. As we face the prospect of global catastrophe in the 21st century. this book will certainly educate its readers. It’s then up to us to decide whether, and how, to agitate and organise. Kim Stanley Robinson has imagined for us the kind of urgent global initiative we need, can we now create our own Ministries of the Future in time?

See also:

Decarbonising education (March 2020)

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

The Overstory’ by Richard Powers (March 2019)

Edgar Morin on ‘Thinking Global’ (August 2017)

Notes:

  1. What the hell do we write now? India Bourke, New Statesman (09/01/2020)
  2. The realism of our time, interview in Radical Philosophy (Feb 2018)
  3. Atmospheric CO2 has risen from 315ppm in 1960 to 415ppm in 2020.
  4. From chapter 13 The Future as Disruption in Archaeologies of the Future by Fredric Jameson (Verso, 2005)
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Why the comprehensive college?

When we talk about education, we are talking about both the personal and the social – the ‘small’ and the ‘big’. As individuals, what we know and can do goes to the very heart of our identity. We are engaged in a lifelong construction project of ‘making something’ of ourselves, of knowing ourselves and finding ourselves – something which is uniquely ours. At the same time, education is also about our relationship with others and our ability to work with others.

We learn from others, with others and through others. What we know and can do is expressed in relation to the social world. So, becoming educated is as much to do with society as with our own personal motives.

This means that when we discuss education we are always talking about both the small and the big; about ourselves and our own needs but also about the needs of the wider society. The debate about what kind of schools, colleges or universities we should have – comprehensive or selective – may seem to be purely at the ‘big’ system level but it has its roots at the ‘small’ personal level; in other words, what does this actually mean for me or my children? When talking about the need for a comprehensive education system we are addressing both the personal and the social, thinking small and thinking big, and trying to make sure that self-interest and social interest coincide.

I want to make 3 key points:

  1. Comprehensive education is as important as ever.
  2. It is as necessary post-16 as pre-16.
  3. It needs to be applied at the level of the whole system in order to really work.

When we make the comprehensive case, we can do it on the basis of:

  • Fundamental beliefs, principles and values: it’s the right thing to do to promote greater equality, democracy and fairness.
  • Evidence and data about student achievement, social research and international comparisons: we know that like-for-like comparative studies generally show that selection does not lead to better outcomes.
  • Experience, which is a kind of evidence: while we value research, we also need to trust in our own lived experience of teaching young people in schools and colleges. This experience should be heard and respected.

The comprehensive idea has a long history; we can go back to Horace Mann who campaigned for the common, non-sectarian, free, universal public school in 19th century Massachusetts. Or John Dewey who said: “The democratic faith in human equality is belief that every human being, independent of the quantity or range of their personal endowment, has the right to equal opportunity with every other person for the development of whatever gifts they have.” And Jane Addams: “The good we secure for ourselves is precarious and uncertain until it is secured for all of us and incorporated into our common life.”

I’m going to draw on my own experience; over 35 years working in education, 22 of those in post-16 colleges, 16 as a principal and 10 years at Newham Sixth Form College (NewVIc). All of that time spent in comprehensive, diverse urban settings. I could add, as a parent of 4 children, all of whom attended comprehensive schools and sixth form colleges.

I’ll start with NewVIc. The college was created in the early 1990’s in a wise and brave decision by the London Borough of Newham. Wise, because it was informed by principles, evidence and experience – including the experience of creating 2 new sixth form colleges in neighbouring Waltham Forest in the late 1980’s when, incidentally, I chaired the Education Committee and saw through the implementation of that reorganisation. Brave, because it was controversial; school sixth forms had to be closed and there was inevitably some opposition. At a time when staying on rates, achievement rates and progression rates were very low, the project was motivated by a strong belief that young people in Newham could do at least as well post-16 as students anywhere else in England.

It took an elected, accountable local authority to have the debate and make the plans and see them through. There was no question of creating a selective sixth form to serve only the highest achieving students.

Like other similar projects elsewhere, the experiment worked. Participation, achievement and progression have all soared in Newham since NewVIc opened. What was created was a college which aims to meet the educational needs of the full 16-19 age cohort and it’s been a successful, ambitious learning community by any standards. For instance, the number of ‘disadvantaged’ students progressing to university is regularly the highest in the country, an increasing number of students progress to Russell Group universities every year, and high numbers of students who left school with low GCSE grades also make it to university after 3 or 4 years of further education. These are students who wouldn’t even get a look in at the selective sixth forms and would have been written off as ‘no hopers’.

So where are we now? Is this comprehensive project under threat? Yes it is. The proliferation of selective sixth forms in Newham and other areas has created a de-facto selective system, albeit without the public debate which preceded previous changes. What does this mean for the comprehensive provider? We know that the existence of a ‘grammar school’ necessarily makes other local schools look more like secondary moderns even if they aim to be comprehensive. Is it possible to remain comprehensive when you are surrounded by several highly selective providers? When the context has clearly changed, should a comprehensive college give up on its aspiration to serve the whole age cohort?

What are the arguments? First, we need to ask: what is the case for segregation by prior achievement? Why is it so important to separate young members of the same society who are going to live and work together?

Proponents of selection argue that:

  • “The post-16 curriculum is more specialised, students’ needs are more diverse at this stage and selection simply sorts and groups them by their interests, focusing better on different needs.”

In all the colleges where I have worked, the diversity of students, of curricula and of need made the case for offering everything in one college. In effect they were an Art school, a Business school, a Science and Engineering academy, a liberal studies sixth form, a retake college, a special needs provider snd kn some cases an adult education provider, all under one roof, with no incentive to push students into any route other that what is best for them.

  • “By 16 we know who the ‘academic’ students are, and they will do better if they are with other students like them”.

This kind of deterministic labelling only holds students back, denying them the possibility of growth or change. There’s no evidence that equally qualified students do any better in a selective setting.

  • “Structures don’t matter. All that counts is good teachers and good schools.”

This fails to recognise the social setting and the messages being sent to students and parents about who and what is and isn’t valued. By placing institutional walls between students, for whatever reason, we limit opportunities for achievement and social cohesion and we risk reproducing existing patterns of success and failure.

By providing new reasons to turn people away, selective provision feeds people’s wish to get into somewhere which might reject them. This defines aspiration in competitive terms; you have to beat someone else to get that place and where you get in becomes more important than what you might do there. Selection changes us, it shapes our view of ourselves and each other and our model of human potential and human progress.

Since the creation of these local selective providers, we started to hear promising and ambitious students telling us they were ‘not good enough’ or ‘too thick’ to get into a ‘good’ college because they’d been rejected by one of the selective providers. This is not how we chose to talk about aspiration and it’s certainly not the language of a comprehensive system.

In summary, comprehensive colleges are alive and well and they have a track record of success – the evidence can be seen across the country. But they are often surviving in a harsh climate, where the institutional environment, the qualification system and the education market all encourage sorting and ranking of institutions and the creation of hierarchies of students and programmes.

We’re living in a difficult period; a time of fracture and division. If we want to address the many challenges which face us; economic, social, democratic and environmental; inequality, injustice, violence and prejudice, we will need a modern, comprehensive, public education system which is fit for purpose and which can foster a democratic culture in which everyone has a stake. The ambitious, successful and inclusive comprehensive college will be an essential part of such a system.

Based on a talk given at Newham Sixth Form College (NewVIc) in June 2018.

See also:

Many colleges in one (April 2015)

The comprehensive college (Feb 2014)

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Exam results – what just happened?

Most years, the national drama of A Level and GCSE results days in England plays out in two distinct but related acts one week apart, focusing on the performance of the education system and the young people navigating their way through it. We get to share the joy and disappointment of candidates and to agonise about ‘standards’ based on upward or downward trends. There is often some discussion of education inequalities; by ethnicity, by class, by school or college type and between male and female students. ‘Social mobility’ and widening participation in higher education get some attention. And then things move on.

This year, we experienced a wild, turbulent, continuous national psycho-drama with a constantly changing plot and contradictory narratives. It was a full-blown crisis with elements of both tragedy and farce, and the dazed audience hardly had time to keep up with the various U-turns and reversals of fortune.

It’s not the most life-threatening of the dramas unfolding around us, but for the students most affected and for the English education system overall, much damage has been done. We now know the outcome, and although it’s too soon to predict all the future ramifications, the consequences have already been serious and many lessons will have to be learned.

We may not yet be ready to write even the first draft of history for this issue, but it is useful to start jotting down some notes towards an outline of that draft. Education is a complex system with many separate interconnected parts and we need to try to understand how they interact at different levels to have any chance of grasping the whole. Responding to a crisis effectively, rather than staggering from one quick-fix to the next, requires the ability to take an holistic view. In this case it means taking into account the impacts on people, individually and collectively, including their feelings and perceptions, the policies and processes of the various agencies involved and the purpose, ideology and politics of exams and assessment more generally.

A complex system contains multiple interacting sub-systems, each with its own dynamic. The outcomes of these interactions at different levels are not predictable. Such a system doesn’t lend itself to the kind of linear decision-making where someone can use a policy lever at the centre to guarantee a particular policy outcome such as greater fairness or equality. Instead, when things are changing fast, issues which previously seemed marginal can emerge and grow in importance, tipping points are reached and new problems become major concerns. If the system isn’t able to ‘correct’ itself quickly enough then what seemed like a fairly stable structure can simply topple over. The flap of the butterfly wing triggers the storm or the calm water becomes a tsunami.

This year’s results crisis

So how did a set of A Level results which were actually ‘better’ than those of 2019, achieved through a process designed to be as fair as possible, manage to cause such controversy and come to be seen as such a disaster?

The scene was set on the results day of a smaller nation with a different exam system. The concerns raised in Scotland helped to frame the debate in England by raising key questions, such as the extent of adjustment and its impact on students by socio-economic status. Within a few days, the English A Level results were causing controversy before they were even known.

A few of the key stages:

Adjustment became ‘downgrading’

It was known from the beginning that some adjustment would be applied to Centre Assessment Grades (CAGs) to correct for inconsistencies between centres and to aim for a broadly stable grade distribution. But there was also a sense that the CAGs would carry serious weight, even if some might need to be adjusted downwards. As soon as it became clear that 39% of CAGs would be adjusted downwards, the story became one of ‘downgrading’ and of a lack of trust in the centre assessment grades. Perhaps if the proportion being adjusted had been lower, 10% maybe, this might not have become such an issue. Faced with the scale of the changes, the narratives of ‘most CAGs will not be adjusted’, ‘only 4 in 10 CAGs will be adjusted’ or ‘96% of final grades will be the same or one below the CAG’ just didn’t cut it.

A ‘fair’ formula became unfair

Exams aspire to objectivity and applying a formula sounds objective. A well designed, formula will achieve what you want it to. However, with so many factors to consider, the key question was how would these various factors would weigh against each other, and that weighting was lost in a rather opaque algorithm whose ‘fairness’ people were asked to take on trust. In the end it was possible to criticise the algorithm both for what it did take into account, such as institutional history, as well as what it seemed not to, such as institutional subject value added. Without absolute clarity, the suspicion of inhuman, formulaic, ‘computer says no’ methods took hold.

Some cohorts were treated differently

Even if the formula had been fit for purpose, it seemed it wouldn’t apply to everyone. Small cohorts, of which there are many in the system – particularly post-16, are not susceptible to statistical adjustment, while larger ones are. This meant that the grade profile of smaller cohorts would be more likely to draw on unchanged CAGs despite being just as prone to ‘optimistic’ prediction as any other cohorts. Once this became clear, the conclusion was that centres with larger cohorts, such as colleges, would be proportionately disadvantaged and this was then borne out by the data for grades A and C.

In a high-stakes norm-referenced system, high grades are a valuable currency for progression. They are the ‘prizes’ which have scarcity value and are effectively rationed. For such a system to demonstrate that it is fair to all, in its own terms, the distribution of these high grades has to be seen to be based strictly on ‘merit’. But when this year’s small cohort effect saw the proportion of A* and A grades jump by a factor of 15 times more in private fee-paying school sixth forms than in colleges, any argument that this was deserved broke down. The claim that the system had not generated any more inequality than usual could no longer be believed.

Candidates and centres felt the impact

Once centres saw their results, it was clear that they were simply wrong on an unprecedented scale. For example, colleges with large and fairly stable cohorts were seeing their grade profile and value added fall below anything they’d seen in recent years. They were experiencing very high rates of CAG ‘downgrading’; well above 39%, and often 50% or more. The CAG predictions had taken account of real student performance and an historic understanding of their value added, applied subject by subject and student by student, but they seemed to have counted for little.

The next day, the shock and anger of college and school leaders were shared by many of their students as they received their results. Too many of them felt let down by a set of arbitrary and inconsistent processes which were completely outside of their control.

People lost confidence in the system

At tipping points, the key is often the balance of how people are feeling; their perceptions and anxieties about a process which affects them deeply. Being judged, measured, sorted and classified against common standards feels personal. It goes to the heart of our sense of worth and where we are placed in relation to others speaks to our sense of fairness. In the end, candidates and those who cared about them were more concerned about relative fairness within the class of 2020 than any potential unfairness to the classes of 2019 or 2021. There is a debate to be had about what ‘maintaining standards’ means – but defining it simply as ‘achieving a very similar grade profile year on year’ just couldn’t hold up against the evidence of systemic unfairness.

Going ‘full CAG’ became a serious option

Given that the Scottish government had already conceded this, it became a viable proposition for the other nations. It was resisted for some time on the grounds of ‘maintaining standards’ between years and not all stakeholders called for ‘full CAG’ as they could see its limitations. It would make it impossible to adjust any centre grades at all, risking exchanging one set of inequalities for another.

Independent agents, such as Oxbridge colleges started to announce that they would be considering CAGs for admissions because sticking to the calculated grades would make social mobility worse. Each of these separate decisions undermined the case for calculated grades and tipped the scales back towards the CAGs. As time ran out to resolve the problem, the choice became a binary. Centre Assessed Grades had to be better because the alternative was worse. With GCSE results looming, there was no good reason for any A Level U turn not to apply to GCSE too.

Anger, mistrust, and blame

A week after the ‘first’ A Level results day, students received their new ‘corrected’ grades based on the CAGs but preserving some which had been adjusted upwards. GCSE grades were issued as scheduled, also based on ‘CAG plus’. There was talk of mass complaints, data requests and litigation as some students still felt aggrieved about their final grade with some of this anger now directed at their centre.  There were also claims that some schools had approached CAG-setting very differently and might want the whole process to be re-opened for them. The idea that all these concerns could be adequately addressed through an individual appeals process, which tends to favour the ‘sharp elbowed’, became problematic.

In summary

A process which had started with broad support in principle foundered in its implementation through an accumulation of effects, the scale of which had not been predicted. These emerged gradually and amplified each other. Trust and confidence were eroded and the narrative of ‘ensuring fairness in a difficult year’ became harder to sustain. Whatever the strength of the ‘maintaining standards’ argument at the start, it was overwhelmed by the evidence of ‘greater inequality and more high grades for the better off’.

What next?

The first draft of history is still to be written but we now know how this phase of the results drama ended – we have ‘full CAG plus’ for both A Level and GCSE. As we continue to pick over the causes and consequences of this year’s process, we also need to hold on to all our underlying concerns about the system as it was, in order to consider what needs to be done to build a better, fairer system.

See also:

Before the A Level results were published, I wrote here about the questions which needed to be asked. I also wrote here about the particular challenge of grading post-16 GCSE retakes in English and maths.

England’s unexpected exams revolution (May 2020).

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Starting to rethink education.

There are different ways to think about life after a crisis. One is: ‘let’s try to get back to things as they were as quickly as possible’, another is: ‘we can’t go back to things as they were, this is an opportunity for fundamental change.’

The ‘get back to normal’ approach has its appeal; a desire for stability and security. But given the deep cracks in our society which have been exposed it must be clear that ‘things as they were’ is neither acceptable nor sustainable. So many layers of inequality have been revealed and so many assumptions called into question that there is an imperative for change.

What change though? We can each write our personal manifesto for a better world, making the case for particular initiatives we favour. However, what will bring social change is a collective shift in the consensus around what kind of common future we want. If we are to use the moment of crisis to re-evaluate our society, our economy and our democracy, we need to engage in a dialogue about what matters to us and what broad direction of travel we can agree on.

Without setting out a detailed programme, some of the elements of a possible consensus are starting to emerge and could be built on:

  • A general desire to ‘build back better’ in a way which is sustainable and life-enhancing.
  • A greater understanding of the reality of existing inequalities and injustices and their history together with a determination to work for greater equality and social justice.
  • A renewed valuing of the work that contributes to community resilience, health and flourishing and the vital importance of this ‘economy of care’ and the egalitarianism, solidarity and educational work which underpin it.
  • An understanding of the positive potential of an enabling state in protecting citizens and supporting them through economic and social change.
  • A recognition that when today’s crisis recedes, we will still face plenty of others which will require determined and concerted action on at least as great a scale.

Working together to build a better future is hard work and we won’t agree about everything. The dialogue will be political, but shouldn’t be the exclusive property of any single political party or movement. The process needs to be open and transparent and to allow for incremental progress, experimentation and a range of solutions at different levels.

We have had ‘national conversations’ before, but this one is more urgent than ever. We need to frame the questions and the debate in a way which is democratic and inclusive, and which could start to generate and build solutions in which everyone has a stake. This cannot be ‘business as usual’ or policy making by focus group.

Education has a part to play in supporting and informing this discussion as well as itself being a subject of debate. The purpose and organisation of education need to be revisited and this process has started with a number of consultations already contributing. There will be more and here are just a few current examples:

UNESCO Futures of Education

UNESCO has launched a global debate on how knowledge and learning can shape the future of humanity and the planet. It is framed in the context of persistent inequalities, social fragmentation, and political extremism which have brought many societies to a point of crisis, while accelerated climate change highlights the fragility of our planet. UNESCO notes that advances in digital communication, artificial intelligence, and biotechnology have great potential but that they also raise serious ethical and governance concerns, given that promises of innovation and technological change have an uneven record of contributing to human flourishing.

The Futures of Education project is founded on a belief in the transformative power of education: “knowledge and learning are humanity’s greatest renewable resources for responding to challenges and inventing alternatives. Yet, education does more than respond to a changing world. Education transforms the world.”

This idea is to mobilize the many rich ways of being and knowing, involving young people, educators, civil society, governments and other stakeholders, guided by an International Commission and reporting in November 2021 with a vision of what education and learning could become.

The appeal of this process is its global ambition and reach, but there is always a risk that this may lead to big talk and little action. The only way to shape it is to get involved, and resources are available here to support engagement this summer. In the UK, the Climate Commission will be running student focus groups in July and colleges, schools and universities could also organise forums to engage in this global consultation.

ASCL Blueprint for a Fairer Education System

ASCL, the UK school and college leaders union, has produced this blueprint to promote debate about how to ensure that all children and young people in our society can benefit from a high-quality education, noting that at the current rate of progress the ‘attainment gap’ will take more than 500 years to close.

“We think that one of the richest countries in the world in the 21st century can do better. Our Blueprint for a Fairer Education System will explore ways in which we might improve the life chances of all children and young people and narrow the attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and their non-disadvantaged peers at the end of secondary school.”

The questions asked include: What and how should children and young people be taught? How should teachers and leaders be identified, developed and supported? How should the education system be structured? How should the education system be funded? How should we judge if the system is doing what we want it to?

The call for evidence is now closed, but ASCL will be publish the blueprint in the autumn and this should prompt a lively debate. The submission from the Association of Colleges can be read here.

Independent Commission on the College of the Future

Focusing on the college sector in the UK, the Independent Commission on the College of the Future is asking two fundamental questions: What do we want and need from colleges in 10 years’ time? What changes are needed in order to achieve this?

This is set in the context of the seismic shifts which are happening across the UK, from demographic change, the climate emergency, the technological revolution and the changing demands of the labour market and it is premised on a belief that colleges are key to responding to these challenges.

The Commission’s progress report in November 2019 described colleges as being at the heart of an education ecosystem and addressed the role, scope and focus of colleges as an essential part of every community, the need for lifelong, flexible learning for the future and for innovation, sustainable funding and regulation to reinforce trust in the system.

The Commission continues to hear evidence and to deliberate, with a view to influencing the UK government’s agenda for Further Education.

Shaping the future.

Reviews, enquiries and commissions won’t in themselves solve our problems, but they can move our thinking forward, develop the ideas we need and start to gather people around a new consensus. The extraordinary time we are living through and the scale of the challenges we face require ambition and radicalism. We need to raise our sights and start sketching out the outlines of national and global education policies which can contribute to the wider agenda of human survival and flourishing.

In her wonderful book ‘Hope in the Dark‘, Rebecca Solnit offers many definitions of hope in a time of crisis, one of these is “the belief that what we do matters”. If we believe, as UNESCO does, that education can transform the world, then we must urgently realise that transformative potential as we need it more than ever and we have to hope that what we do can matter enough.

See also:

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

Knowledge and education for the future (May 2020)

Decarbonising education (March 2020)

Rebecca Solnit on Hope (April 2020)

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Knowledge and education for the future.

Edgar Morin’s seven lessons for the future.

When the French sociologist Edgar Morin was asked by UNESCO for his thoughts on education for the future, he organised his proposals around seven key aspects of human knowledge and understanding.

In his introduction to Morin’s text (1999), the then Director-General of UNESCO, Federico Mayor made the case for change:

When we look to the future, we confront many uncertainties about the world our children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren will live in. But we can be certain of one thing: if we want this earth to provide for the needs of its inhabitants, human society must undergo a transformation. The world of tomorrow must be fundamentally different from the world we know… We must strive to build a sustainable future. Democracy, equity, social justice, peace and harmony with our natural environment should be the watchwords of this world to come… at the base of our way of living, of governing our nations and communities, of interacting on a global scale.

Education in the broadest sense plays a key role in this because it is one of the most powerful instruments of change. One of the greatest problems we face is how to adjust our way of thinking to meet the challenge of an increasingly complex, rapidly changing, unpredictable world. We must rethink our way of organizing knowledge. We have to redesign our educational policies and programs. And as we put these reforms into effect, we have to keep our sights on the long term and honour our tremendous responsibility for future generations.

Edgar Morin did not propose a curriculum framework or educational blueprint, his suggestions are in effect a response to the question of ‘how to adjust our way of thinking’. His aim was to identify key challenges that educational programmes should try to address if they are to better equip us for the future.

Edgar Morin’s suggestion is that these aspects of knowledge should be included in educational programmes and adapted for different cultures and societies. His starting point is that the knowledge on which we base our understanding of the human condition is always provisional and open-ended, leaving us with many uncertainties and unanswered questions and leaving room for philosophical and cultural interpretations.

In summary, Morin’s seven perspectives on knowledge for the future are:

  1. Knowledge and error: The purpose of education is to transmit human knowledge but also to teach what knowledge is; its structures, its weaknesses, and its capacity for error. Knowledge cannot be treated as a ready-made tool to be picked up and used without some understanding of its nature. We need to know about knowledge if we are to confront error and illusion and be armed in the fight for lucidity. We need to study the properties and processes of human knowledge as well as the psychological and cultural conditions which make us vulnerable to error and illusion.
  2. Knowledge in context: Our learning needs to help us grasp the broad, fundamental problems and also to situate partial, circumscribed knowledge within these. A fragmented learning divided into disciplines can prevent us from connecting parts and wholes. We need learning that can see subjects in their totality, their context and their complexity. We need to develop our capacity to place information in a context, within a whole, using methods which help to show the connections and influences between the parts and the whole in a complex world.
  3. Teaching the human condition: The human condition should be a key subject of education. Humans are physical, biological, psychological, cultural, social and historical beings. Separating this complex unity of humanity into disciplines can make it harder to understand what it means to be human. We need to become aware of both our complex personal identities and our shared identity with all other human beings. Can we assemble and organize the knowledge dispersed in natural and social sciences, literature, philosophy and art in a way that shows the interconnections, the unity and the diversity of all that is human?
  4. A global identity: The future survival of the human species is a global challenge. An understanding of rapid global developments and a recognition of our global citizenship is now indispensable for all of us. We need to teach global history, and this should include the ravages of oppression and domination, past and present, and an understanding of how all parts of the world have become so interdependent. We need to teach about the complex configuration of global crises and show how human beings share common challenges and a common fate.
  5. Confronting uncertainty: Science has helped us achieve much certainty, but it also reveals new kinds of uncertainty. We need to learn to navigate the sea of uncertainty which flows around our islands of certainty. Education should include the study of uncertainty, whether in the physical, biological, or social sciences. We should teach about dealing with the uncertain and the unexpected and help people develop strategies to respond to new information and to manage risk.  History shows how unexpected many major events and accidents have been and how unpredictable the course of the human journey. This should prompt us to be ready to confront the unexpected and educators should work at the very outposts of our uncertainties.
  6. Understanding each other: Understanding each other is both a means and an end of human communication. Our global survival calls for mutual understanding in all directions. An education for the future needs to develop mutual understanding among human beings at all ages and levels. This also means studying the nature of misunderstanding from its roots to its effects, including the origins of racism, xenophobia and discrimination of all sorts and their relationship to the exercise of power. This should also form the basis for an education for peace.
  7. Ethics for the human species: Education should address the three dimensions of the human condition: the individual, the social and the global. An ethics for the human species requires both control of society by the individual and control of the individual by society, ie: democracy. It also calls for global citizenship. This ethics cannot be taught through moral lessons, it needs to take shape in people’s minds through a growing awareness that we are simultaneously individuals, members of a society and members of a species. Every one of us carries this triple reality within them. Any truly human development must include a blend of individual autonomy, community participation, and sense of belonging to the human species. Education should not only contribute to an understanding of our home planet, it should help this find expression in the will to realize our global citizenship.

(I have paraphrased Edgar Morin’s own summary, any additions or misinterpretations are mine)

Two decades on, as we face a health emergency, a climate and environmental emergency, multiple global crises, conflicts, inequalities and injustices as well as the distortions of fake news and the threat of authoritarianism, Morin’s seven perspectives provide us with a good starting point for any educational project which aims to prepare us for the future. More than ever, we need the continuing commitment of UNESCO and others to an education which addresses global challenges and which places human rights, sustainability, peace and democracy at the centre. It falls to today’s educators to apply these perspectives to shape an education fit for the future and our current predicament should only serve to inject a greater sense of urgency into this work.

See also:

Seven Complex Lessons in Education for the Future (UNESCO, 2001)

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

Decarbonising education (March 2020)

Edgar Morin on ‘Thinking Global’ (August 2017)

A global crisis requires a global politics (March 2017)

The global economy of care (May 2016)

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England’s unexpected exam revolution.

One consequence of the Covid-19 pandemic is that we are embarking on an extraordinary national experiment in the way young people achieve their exam grades in England; switching from a heavy reliance on externally set and marked written exams towards much greater trust in teacher assessment.

Our education system has never seen such a rapid assessment turnaround. It was made necessary by the shutdown of school and college campuses for most students and the cancellation of this summer’s GCSE, A Level and other public exams.

England’s public exam system is complex, fragile and expensive, requiring careful management. From its origins in the School Certificates established over 100 years ago it has grown massively and now serves multiple purposes and audiences.

Public exams provide young people with rites of passage, generate evidence of learning and are used as passports or barriers to progression and as labels of success and failure – both for students and for the institutions they attend. The stakes are high and results prompt national debate about standards, along with being used as measures of national progress and competitiveness. They can also reveal deep social inequalities while providing a veneer of objectivity for them.

The sheer number of exams set and sat, the high dependence on external terminal assessment, the level of grade differentiation, the amount of checking and analysis required to establish validity, the degree of moderation and standardisation needed to achieve consistency and the mass of performance data generated; all this needs close management. It’s not surprising that the machinery required to run the system is so complex.

Previous changes, such as the switch from A*-G to 9-1 grading at GCSE or the move from modular to linear A Levels, required careful planning well in advance. This time, the revolution is happening in the space of a few weeks, steered by Ofqual, the exams regulator. In effect, the very experts whose job it is to hold the superstructure of exams together are now tasked with showing how well we can manage without it. Together with the exam boards, they are having to design a new system almost from scratch while keeping the interests of students and their progression at the heart of all their decisions.

We now know in broad terms what teachers and centres will be expected to provide by June for every student entered for an exam. In most cases it boils down to two things: a centre assessed grade based on the evidence available and a ranking within each grade for all students entered for that exam.

This is a radical shift. The current system’s dependence on external assessment suggests a lack of confidence in teacher assessment whereas this new process requires a high level of trust in teacher judgement. This is very welcome and, once established, that public expression of trust is something which could be built on in future.

Everyone involved will want this process to be valid and robust so that this summer’s grades can be valued and respected across the board, including by the colleges, universities and employers to which students are planning to progress. But we need to ensure that it doesn’t disadvantage those students already most at risk.

Clearly, every student’s education has been disrupted this year, but not all will be impacted equally. There is some evidence that black and minority and disadvantaged students are more likely to have their grades under-estimated and go on to perform better in exams than predicted. Without exams this year, this under-prediction could disadvantage many.

Ofqual will be undertaking an equality impact assessment and this should take into account any evidence of systemic under-prediction and try to correct for it. And if the system can’t predict precisely what grade every single student would have achieved, the least colleges and universities can do is to be flexible about their entry requirements and generous in the additional support they provide for the Covid-19 cohort once they progress in the autumn.

Equality concerns also apply to the proposed additional autumn exam series. Opening this up widely could undermine this summer’s grades and lead to new inequalities, so it is important to clarify exactly who this is for. Rather than being offered to anyone who is dissatisfied with their result, this opportunity should be for those candidates who couldn’t be assessed in the summer or whose progression is in serious jeopardy. The focus in the autumn should be on supporting students to move forward and succeed on their new programme rather than looking backwards and spending time improving on a grade they achieved in summer 2020.

Two further issues should be considered if the process is to be as manageable and fair as possible:

First, combining all the gradings and rankings coming in from colleges and schools nationally requires some moderation and standardisation. We know that this will take into account three main elements: the previous results in each centre, the expected overall national results and each student’s prior achievements – generally the strongest predictor of results. There needs to be maximum transparency about how the national statistical model for adjustment will balance these factors. While the global pattern of results may be fairly predictable, what matters to each candidate is that their personal results represent their achievements as fairly as possible. This is particularly tricky when applied to post-16 GCSE re-takers whose progress is less easy to predict because they are not a whole age cohort and are more ‘bunched’ around a few grades.

Second, large centres need help with ranking very large numbers of students. It is reasonable to expect teachers to rank the students they teach. Without this, it won’t be possible to create a sliding scale to which any statistical adjustment can be applied. But ranking every individual candidate on their own ranking point in a centre where there are several hundred in a single grade is neither practical nor more accurate. Take GCSE maths; around 100 colleges enter over 500 students and some more than 1,000. In comparison, England’s 3,500 secondary schools enter an average of 150 Year 11 students each for GCSE maths. It would make sense to limit the number of ranking points per grade and to allow centres to place some students on the same ranking point. After all, in an exam, several students can achieve the same score.

This process, and the issues it raises, reveal a system which is very sensitive to minor changes. Because the stakes are high, grade boundaries become cliff edges and small differences in outcome can have life-changing consequences. But should the distinction between grades 3 and 4 or 8 and 9 at GCSE, or between an AAB or an ABB at A Level really be so critical?

This year’s unexpected turnaround shows that major system change is possible. Once we get through this, we should take time to consider whether we really want to return to things exactly as they were. We could have a debate about what we’ve learnt from 2020 and the benefits of increasing trust, reducing the stakes, spreading the risk and dialling down the pressure. We might well conclude that simplification would be in the best interests of students, their teachers and their places of learning.

See also:

AoC response to the Ofqual consultation on grading A Levels and GCSEs (April 2020)

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Tsitsi Dangarembga’s ‘Nervous Conditions’.

The personal is political, and this wonderful book is both entirely personal and deeply political. Nervous Conditions (1988) is the story of Tambudzai, a young woman growing up in rural Zimbabwe (then known as Rhodesia) in the late 1960’s, told entirely in her words. Her personal struggle for emancipation is seen through her eyes and her experiences and emotions are those of a determined and single-minded individual trying to make sense of where she comes from and where she might be going.

The development of Tambudzai’s feelings about the challenges she faces is meticulously charted and we share the lessons she learns as she learns them. At the same time, her situation and the options open to her are shaped by the structural sexism, racism and colonialism  which are ever-present.

Tsitsi Dangarembga avoids explicit sociological context-setting or political analysis, showing rather than telling, immersing us in Tambudzai’s lived experience and allowing it to speak for itself without the perspective of hindsight. Through Tambudzai’s story, we become aware of the difference between the poverty and hardship of her rural home and the relative affluence of the mission where her uncle runs a school, between ‘traditional’ and ‘Western’ belief systems and between the value attributed to Shona and English. We see how gender, race, culture, language and education all intersect as signifiers of status, and currencies of respect.

Soon after moving from her village to the mission, Tambudzai describes her feelings:

I expected my sojourn to fulfill all my fourteen year-old fantasies, and on the whole I was not disappointed. Freed from the constraints of the necessary and the squalid that defined and delimited our activity at home, I invested a lot of energy in approximating to my idea of a young woman of the world…

For Tambudzai, reading voraciously is a major part of this transformation:

Plunging into these books I knew I was being educated and I was filled with gratitude to the authors for introducing me to places where reason and inclination were not at odds. It was a centripetal time, with me at the centre, everything gravitating towards me.

Tambudzai’s awareness of the structures of male power and white power and the realities of subjugation emerge gradually from her accumulated experience. Her cousin Nyasha is one step ahead in developing her race and gender consciousness and for Tambudzai, Nyasha’s perspective is both fascinating and unsettling. Should she also be challenging the authority of the man who is making her liberation possible through education? Should she also question the system which seems to offer her the opportunity for emancipation? While present and troubling, these decisions are postponed in the interest of getting on with the all-important self-education project she has embarked on.

Tambudzai is expected to commit to transforming her life and that of her family while also accepting the many oppressions of racism and sexism. She senses that she will only have one opportunity and is determined to grasp it. But she is simultaneously experiencing liberation and subjugation, with the added challenge that the principal agent of both is a single individual, her uncle Babamukuru, a man she can neither completely hero-worship nor completely reject.

Tambudzai finds herself caught between the solid certainties offered by her benefactor, on condition of conformity and the questioning and challenging of everything he stands for which emanates from his daughter Nyasha:

I thought my direction was clear; I was being educated…these were the goals and this was how we would reach them. Babamukuru was my touchstone who showed me that this was true…But Nyasha’s energy, at time stormy and turbulent, at times confidently serene, but always reaching, reaching a little further than I had ever thought of reaching, was beginning to indicate that there were other directions to be taken, other struggles to engage in besides the consuming desire to emancipate myself and my family.

Tambudzai’s story is full of reminders that she lives in a deeply unequal and hierarchical society with many layers of oppression, some more explicit than others. While her experience to date provides few first-hand interactions between black and white people, there are many portrayals of the various ways women confront or negotiate with male power, whether rooted in tradition or acquired through education. On a visit to her homestead, Tambudzai witnesses a family conference which excludes most of the women affected. The women’s responses to the debate help her see that:

…it was frightening now to even begin to think that, the very facts which set them apart as a group, as women, as a certain kind of person, were only myths; frightening to acknowledge that generations of threat and assault and neglect had battered these myths into the extreme, dividing reality they faced…

When Tambudzai later debates tradition and ritual with Nyasha, her cousin delivers “a lecture on the dangers of assuming that Christian ways were progressive ways” and makes the link between colonial power and the denial of culture:

‘It’s bad enough’ she said severely, ’when a country gets colonised, but when the people do as well! That’s the end, really, that’s the end.’

Reflecting on another family conflict, Nyasha again provides the opening for a different way of looking at things:

You grow and you compensate. You have to. There’s no other way. We’re all trying to do it, you know. All of us. But it’s difficult when everything’s laid out for you. It’s difficult when everything’s taken care of. Even the way you think.

The story takes us up to the beginning of another major transition in Tambudzai’s life and education, and leaves the reader eager to know what form her full emancipation will take and how she will confront the multiple injustices in her life and in her country. Nervous Conditions feels like the first instalment of a broader ‘coming to consciousness’ story and Tsitsi Dangarembga has written two sequels: The Book of Not (2006) and This Mournable Body (2018) following Tambudzai into adulthood through and beyond the Zimbabwean liberation struggle. While the political themes in Nervous Conditions are allowed to emerge gradually from personal experience, we can expect them to burst through into the foreground in these sequels.

This powerful novel demonstrates how intertwined the political and the personal are through being so personal in its telling and so political in its impact.

See also:

From Bamako to Timbuktu (Jul 2015)

W.E.B DuBois: black liberation and education for all (Feb 2016)

What if? – dystopias in fiction (Dec 2017)

Abdellatif Laâbi – attesting against barbarism (Dec 2016)

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Rebecca Solnit on Hope.

In a crisis, it is easy to despair. ‘Don’t mourn, organise!’ is a good mantra in such situations. Mourning has its place, but our response should be neither blind despair nor blind hope. We need to understand the objective reality and to build our hope from a sound base. We must mourn, analyse and organise, oppose and propose, critique and build.

Another much quoted mantra is Gramsci’s: ‘pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will’. This offers a good warning against both wishful thinking and resignation. But as the writer Mike Marqusee pointed out in a 2012 piece, ‘intellect’ and ‘will’ should not be seen as being opposites. Relentless pessimism can be debilitating but excessive optimism can compromise intellectual clarity. We need rational grounds for optimism. To make hope real we need to invest in it and, in Mike Marqusee’s words, engage in ‘a determined search for the levers of change in the here and now coupled with the imagining of a just and sustainable human society, a better human future which is a necessary prelude to making that future a concrete possibility.’

Rebecca Solnit’s brilliantly lucid contributions to understanding the threats and opportunities of our current crisis are great example of this approach; constantly snatching hope from the jaws of despair. Her extraordinary and beautiful ‘Hope in the Dark’ (Original written in 2005, updated third edition in 2016) is just what we need; now and in future.

The hope it describes is not unfounded wishful thinking or “the belief that everything was, is, or will be fine” but a hope grounded in a clear-eyed understanding of what we face and have faced, as well as the possibility of what we could create based on our new awareness.

The dark we are in is not a total absence of light. In fact, there is enough illumination to perceive all around us the elements of different and better ways of doing things. The hope “is in the dark and the edges, not the limelight of centre stage” but it can be detected.

Listing some of Rebecca Solnit’s definitions of this form of hope creates a kind of poetic catalogue of praise for thinking, understanding, imagining, learning and acting in the world and for the world:

Hope…

is a forward-directed energy

is a power you don’t have to throw away

is an alternative to the certainty of both optimists and pessimists

means facing realities and addressing them

is an embrace of the unknown and the unknowable

demands things that despair does not

is not a prize or a gift, but something you earn through study, through resisting the ease of despair

is about broad perspectives with specific possibilities that invite or demand that we act

is an account of complexities and uncertainties, with openings

is a basis for action, not a substitute for it

is not a door, but a sense that there might be a door at some point

requires clarity; seeing the troubles in this world … and seeing what might lie beyond these situations that are perhaps not inevitable and immutable

is the belief that what we do matters, even though how and when it may matter, who and what it may impact, are not things we can know beforehand

gets you there; work gets you through

is only a beginning

See also:

What coronavirus can teach us about hope – Rebecca Solnit (Guardian 07/04/20)

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

Decarbonising education (March 2020)

Edgar Morin on ‘Thinking Global’ (August 2017)

A global crisis requires a global politics (March 2017)

Young people between hope and despair (December 2013)

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