Roberto Unger on school as the ‘voice of the future’


In his excellent book ‘The Left Alternative’ the Brazilian philosopher and politician Roberto Unger proposes a new way for progressives to think about the future and start creating the good society.

Unger suggests we should not give up on the central promise of democracy which is that people’s ‘constructive genius’ can be applied to the task of achieving greater equality and a better life. According to him, today’s two main lefts have not achieved this. The ‘recalcitrant’ left seeks to halt markets and globalisation without having a practical alternative, the ‘surrendering’ left has accepted markets and globalisation and merely seeks to humanize their impacts. In Unger’s view we need a third type of left which aims to democratise the market and deepen democracy itself.

This book is about how we could overcome what Unger calls the ‘dictatorship of no alternatives’ which can paralyse those who want to make real change. It gives examples of how we could apply our social imagination through small practical steps in each realm of social practice within the framework of big ideas about the direction of travel. The task of the imagination is to do the work of crisis, ie: radical change, without precipitating crisis:

“The possible that counts is not the fanciful horizon but the adjacent possible deployed in the pursuit of movement in the desired direction.”

Unger suggests that the left should always prefer solidaristic and reconstructive approaches and one of his 5 institutional ideas to define its direction today is to ensure that social policy is about empowerment and capacity building. Education can contribute to anchoring social inclusion as well as individual empowerment by developing people’s conceptual and practical capacities. Unger proposes a system of public education that equips, informs and frees the mind by a method of teaching at once analytic, dialectical and co-operative.

In Unger’s view, education should prepare young people to engage in an ‘experimentalist’ culture, it should be analytic and problem-based rather than simply informational. It should encourage co-operation rather than isolation or authoritarianism. It should proceed dialectically; exploring contrasting methods and views rather than appealing to a closed canon of doctrine. He prefers exemplary, selective deepening rather than attempt at encyclopaedic coverage.

For Unger, the school must be the voice of the future, ‘rescuing’ its students from their specific contexts and experience and consequently it should not be the passive tool of either the local community or the government of the day. It must compensate for inequalities rather than reinforcing them – but the authorities must intervene when basic standards are not being met.

Unger is arguing for a form of lifelong education which develops people’s practical and conceptual capabilities, allowing them to move from job to job and participate in collective production, care, learning and innovation:

“The school must not only equip the child with the tools of effective action. It must also endow them with the skills and habits of perpetual, piecemeal experimentation. In every domain of thought and practice it must teach people how to probe and take the next steps.”

For Unger, building solidarity is also vital and informing and inspiring the practical organisation of the responsibility to care for others is one of the greatest concerns of education.

This is a book which inspires. It is filled with hope that society can recognise and nourish everyone’s constructive genius in order to reduce human subjugation and increase our opportunities to revise and improve things. It provides us with a good basis to question our education systems and curricula and to imagine better ones.

Unger reminds us that after the experience of the 20th century, people are right to be wary of proposals to reorganise society. But it would be wrong if this caution created a sense of closure or of an ‘end of history’. This would be an illusion fuelled by a lack of imagination. Today, powerful messages about alternatives can rapidly resonate around the world and once tried out, some will seem inevitable.

This is not a book about education policy with detailed prescriptions for change and Unger’s visionary gradualism is not a blueprint for a better world. However it offers encouragement to those who sense that if we really want a better world, things need to be done very differently and who want to make a start right here, right now.

See also:

Learning is dialectical

Gramsci’s grammar and Dewey’s dialectic

Education as a whole and in its parts

Education without metaphors

Martin Robinson has also written about Unger here.


About Eddie Playfair

I am a Senior Policy Manager at the Association of Colleges (AoC) having previously been a college principal for 16 years and a teacher before that. I live in East London and I blog in a personal capacity about education and culture. I also tweet at @eddieplayfair
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