This book is about the assumption of equality in education, often understood as a defining concept as well as a political ideal of the left. Even if this ideal increasingly is challenged or simply left behind as obsolete, also by the left, in this book I will show that equality is an assumption that is necessary for education, and particularly for what we can call non-instrumental education beyond a distributive paradigm in education. The critique of different characteristics of what I call a distributive paradigm will be laid out through the chapters, particularly building on the French political philosopher Jacques Ranciere’s (1991, 1999, 2006, 2007a,b, 2009) arguments on equality and related concepts. That is, for Ranciere equality cannot be a goal or a hope for a distant future, but has to be an assumption we start with, something we verify as already there if equality is to have any bearing at all for anyone. Because, if equality exclusively is something to strive for, inequality is by definition made into our starting point, forever confirmed while heading out for a distant goal, itself elusive, while inequality stands fast. For anyone who is in favour of equality, that would be unacceptable. Also, for Ranciere equality is not a property of an institution, but is only something that can take place between people. That means that theories, strategies and policies that put up equality as a distant goal of the institution, as for schooling, instead of promoting equality, make inequality itself foundational. Such instrumental policies, practices and strategies tend to repeatedly confirm inequality while pushing equality into a distant future. In instrumental education, inequality functions as a silenced condition for the anticipated equality to come, in an ever-distant future.
John Dewey (1916) understood education as a micro-cosmos of (modern) society, meaning that education in any society, according to him, can be studied as an expression of the assumptions, imaginaries and hopes that make up the socio-sphere of that society. Also, for Dewey, the future was a necessary component of schooling, since the future continuously organized educational experiences of the world, realizing projections of a possible future in the present, and as such tapping into the energy that would lead the society ahead, to make it possible for society to change. In his theory of valuation,
Dewey (1939) develops a theory of value in which the ends are present in the means by which one strives to reach the ends-in-view; the ends are, as such, always present in the means forming the future as ends-in-views. The present, in other words, for Dewey contains both the possibility of a world as well as the potentiality of future. That means, as I understand it, that Dewey’s educational thinking cannot easily be reduced to instrumental education, but rather shifts around some of the conditions for instrumentalism, for example, that instrumentalism requires a sharp distinction between ends and means, which Dewey goes beyond by showing their interrelatedness in the present. Instrumentalism, on the other hand, relies on logic in which the effectiveness of the means to reach an already set goal is the rationale and instrumental teaching practice of filling that gap between means and ends. For Dewey, as I read his pragmatic education, teaching in the present means rather orienting oneself towards the world as well as pointing out its potentiality (see also Biesta, 2017).
That is, the possibility of a future in and of the world in education tends to be embedded in the concept of teaching, and as such, necessary for education to take place at all. I will argue in this book that the assumption of equality, and the verification of equality in processes of teaching, are necessary for education to emerge beyond instrumentalism. It is the assumption of equality that makes it possible to break out from instrumentalism in education. The problem with instrumental education, in the final analysis, is that it creates self-referencing frameworks, and itself can be understood as a property of such frameworks. Self-referencing frameworks make change impossible and reduce education to processes of adjustment to that which is already given, rather than breaking out from it. Education without a conception of change is simply not education at all.
In this book, I understand teaching not as a property of the institution, that is, not as instruction, but as a process that takes place also in institutions, but basically whenever equality' is confirmed. Teaching, as I understand it, is the verification of equality. Understanding teaching in this way is in tune with how teaching is conceptually established by the first educational theory' in the western world, as formulated by the early Sophists in 500 BCE. Werner Jaeger (1939) explains how educational theory comes into history as the possibility' for anyone to be taught anything at all, and as such teaching is established as a break with the reproduction of privilege through education. Educational theory comes into the world as a theory of radical change, as well as understanding teaching as that process in which such change is possible, that is, as a verification in which anyone can be the bearer of culture and society, not only an elite. Therefore, and as I argue in different ways throughout this book, education, to be education in the first place, is by necessity' for anyone. To argue for public education for all is, as I understand it, to argue for the possibility of education beyond instrumentalist education and the distributive paradigm which only reproduces privilege for an already advantaged few.
Even so, equality in education is, in a way, beyond politics in the narrow sense, and has more to do with what theorists such as Chantal Mouffe (2005) call the political, that is, roughly the possibility of, in Ranciére’s (1999) words, dissensus, beyond liberal ideas of distribution (Rawls, 1996). Liberal politics as concerning the distribution of goods, rights and positions among people in society are in tune with instrumental education, since it is through educational systems that the distribution of a “right place for the right man” (Harnquist, 1959) is supposed to take place. Education as the distribution of places and spaces over the span of the population tends to be a function of instrumental education. I will, therefore, argue against understanding education as effecting distribution of value through educational systems. Instead, I will understand education, and particularly processes of teaching, as taking place in the sensible formation of a world, and as such making the world possible, bringing out the potentiality of a future in the present by verification of equality.
Ranciére’s (1999) often cited concept partage du sensible is translated into English as distribution of the sensible, making dissensus (as divided consensus) incomprehensible. Partage is not distribution, but in French means sharing (as dela in Swedish), connoting the simultaneous sharing and dividing of the sensible, and as such taking form in the socio-sphere as dissensus (divided consensus).
Connected to this problem in translation, I think, is the reading of Ranciére through Foucault, in which the police order (the resulting shared and divided world as upheld by institutions) is understood in discursive terms, as first and foremost describing the (negative) function of power. I will not primarily read Ranciére discursively through Foucault, even though I see the value of such readings, but rather I read Ranciére as opening up for the ongoing poli-tico-aesthetical formation of the world by verification of equality', not primarily focusing on the negative effects of power, even if they are acknowledged as such. It is also in this context that Ranciére’s thinking makes so much sense for educational theory', since it conceptualizes the potentiality inscribed in the formation of the world, a world made possible in the present, as well as open for radical change, that is, making education and emancipation possible here and now, which makes another future possible beyond the authoritarian capitalism in which we live.
My methodology in this book is to make clear the logic through which certain perceptions of the real take form through instrumental education and the distributive paradigm, and to point out what (negative) consequences that leads to for the possibility of equality and a liveable life for all. But also, to always try to get to that burning point in which the potentiality of a future shows itself through the possibility of change. I will understand teaching as verification of equality, as making a radical change as well as a liveable life possible for all, to break out from self-referencing frameworks, which is basically to break out from the capitalist hegemony of the real.
Important for my methodology, then, is a commitment to educational theory, that is, to radical change, rather than to a pedagogy of hope. Despite this, I do share with many a hope for a future that does not just see the rich get richer and the poor poorer while the resources of the Earth are emptied more and more rapidly; and a hope for an education that is not only confinning the already established privilege of an elite, but actually does educate and not just reproduce class, gender and other types of privilege. Even so, I still understand hope as conceptually problematic. While hope is important on an everyday basis - maybe even existentially necessary — it still works poorly as a strategy for counteracting the authoritarian capitalism under which we live, mainly because the logic of hope functions so well with instrumental education and the distributive paradigm. What we need instead of hope, for things to get better, is rather a commitment to radical change, a commitment to educational theory. I develop this theme further in chapter 1, contrasting hope with commitment, and argue for the latter as necessary for education and for the assumption of equality to do its work. In chapter 2, I discuss some of the challenges to educational theory and suggest that radical change and equality is necessary for any conception of education beyond instrumentalist education. Particularly, I discuss emancipation as inherent to educational theory. In chapter 3, 1 expand on the idea that education and teaching are mainly about the verification of equality; and in chapter 4, I develop a conception of teaching that breaks away from the distributive paradigm of schooling. Instead, I focus on the passion of teaching within what I will call a community of poets, to focus on the often-overlooked foundational ambiguity' of education and teaching. In chapter 5, I return to the beginning of educational theory to show how radical the very thought of education and teaching is from its very first formulation, and also how intimately linked education is with democracy, that is, educational thought is a prerequisite for democracy rather than the other way around. In chapter 6, I discuss the concept of culture and society, and particularly the relation between them as the verification of polycultural society in and through education. In chapter 7, I make a rhetorical shift from a pedagogy of the oppressed to a pedagogy of the depressed, since the times we are living through are producing depression on a scale hardly seen before as a consequence of the systemic aggressions of neoliberalism and the end-of-the-world scenarios produced by the current climate crisis. In chapter 8, I bring the underlying line of argument into the open by discussing the meaning and functioning of ambiguity in educational theory.