The distributive paradigm in education

Jacques Ranciere (1991, 1999) warns us that a pedagogized society is a repressive society that stultifies individuals through explicatory acts of instructing the public to both accept and live through a codified order defining who they are, as well as possible and meaningful relations within this order. It is a society in which the expert not only delivers the facts on his or her area of expertise, but also reinstates a certain hierarchical relation in which the one who knows establishes him or herself at a safe distance from the ignorant citizen, and whose authority is reconfirmed through this very process and distance. As a consequence, the citizen can simply not be informed enough, will always lack knowledge, will always in one way or another be ignorant and therefore always in need of more instruction, more schooling, indefinitely.

As a sign of this ignorance, it is often pointed out that the young are never political enough, and that a fundamental problem for liberal democracy is to come to terms with this motivational deficit (Critchley, 2007; Ruitenberg, 2010). The young are never motivated or interested enough and seem to be in an increasingly negative spiral, refusing to act properly as the demos. Something we today can see be true not only for youths but for large parts of the population all over Europe (Schmidt, 2015).

The motivational deficit problem, in a pedagogized society, in Ranciere’s terms, is for schooling to solve, that prime institution in a society of experts explaining how to live properly in a liberal democratic society. So if there is a motivational deficit when it comes to participation in liberal democracy, then there is also a motivational deficit when it comes to education, because it is through education that this fantasy is to be embodied as the truth of one’s life.

The problem, however, is that those opportunities to actually participate in a democratic society are put in the logic of an ever-distant future in schooling (Ekerwald & Safstrbm, 2015; Edling, 2009). The now is not yet, it is put on hold. To be a political subject in liberal democracy through schooling is something always waiting to happen in a distant future.

The liberal democratic society, then, becomes something of an abstracted ‘ideal’, supposedly informing the totality of living rightly in that society, rather than referring to a concrete reality here and now, and the ‘citizens’ are given the message that they will simply not learn enough because the ideal state is just that: an ideal, and as a consequence always somewhere else. Participation in the ideal state is therefore put on hold. It is not about the now in which we are living, but about something yet to come. Education, or as I will call it, schooling, becomes the process through which the young are taught that they are being educated for a time in some distant future (Safstrbm, 2010).

A pedagogized society, then, is a society embodying a certain perception of time which presupposes a hierarchical approach to all social and political life, and which tends to naturalize an unbridgeable distance within the figure of instruction in its institutions, defining the very ordered society as such as always yet to come.

Read in this way, Ranciere’s (1991) understanding of pedagogy exclusively refers to an asymmetrical relation between authority and submission, as well as the process of embodying this relation as a certain ontology defining the totality of the real, defining a well-ordered society as yet to come through schooling (and which therefore motivates that schooling is all about order). I do think Ranciere has a point, and one I will be developing as well, even though in this book I am exploring another meaning of pedagogy, one in which equality is the defining characteristic for a proper understanding of pedagogy, and not reproduction of inequality, but pedagogy thought of as a break with such reproduction of privilege through schooling for a time yet to come.

As such, I will be exploring a tradition of pedagogical thinking that necessarily is in conflict with the ideas of a well-ordered society as dependent on inequality, and progress as the constant enactment of privilege, producing elites on the one hand and precarious populations on the other. A well-ordered society is not, I will claim, necessarily reproducing precarious populations as well as elites. Rather, such society is based on irrationality and produces violent subordination of a large part of the population, and therefore is anti-democratic to its core (Ranciere, 2006).

Throughout the book, I will explore the link between pedagogy and democracy, on the one hand, as the embodiment of letting anyone partake in the continuation and change in and of society, and which therefore constitutes the very praxis of democracy; and on the other hand, pedagogy as the continuous re-instalment of freedom for the other in the present.

In a sense this chapter, like the whole book, can be read as a discussion of the tradition of thought labelled pedagogy, with its roots in the ancient Greek concept paideia, that is, as an expression of a particular way of operating within culture and society, in which freedom is continuously reinvented. 1 will return to discussions of the concept paideia, and particularly to the related concept arete, as specifically concerning pedagogy and education. Pedagogy as arete, as I will develop throughout the book, is all about incorporating the idea of freedom into the reproduction of culture and society. That is, by failing to acknowledge the power of change implicit in the tradition of thought called pedagogy, one is contributing to the oppression inscribed in the figure of explanation in a pedagogized society, rather than pointing out another possibility within the very tradition of pedagogical thinking itself. That is, in short, pedagogy, as I will understand it here, is the very possibility of opening for a future where there is none in sight (other than as reproduction of privilege), which is basically to open the potentiality of the present as such. As such, I find myself being closely in tune with the early sophist’s understanding of arete as possible to be taught, and not inherent through blood.

In order to distinguish between the different uses of ‘pedagogy’, I will use the term ‘pedagogized society’ in the meaning of the above for a paradigm of distributive schooling, for reasons I will develop further below, and save ‘pedagogy’ for the processes in which freedom is reinstalled through verifications of equality (see also Biesta & Safstrom, 2011). As such I place myself in line with the tradition of educational thought emanating from the early Sophist ideas of paideia, areté, and education (Jaeger, 1939). That is, I understand pedagogy in education to be the process in which anyone is called for, and as such a break with the reproduction of the privilege of the elite. Instead, education concerns the way in which it is possible for anyone to take a place in culture and society, and therefore also to contribute to their continuation and change beyond the present social order of inequality.

A society dominated by the distributive paradigm in education, as I understand it, is a society whose institutions instruct its citizens, inform them from a position of superiority, through explaining the necessary conditions for living, working, and being in the world, and finally regulate possible social relations and positions through unequal distribution of rights, duties, wealth, and prosperity (Rancière, 2007a; Rose, 1996; Foucault, 2002; Mouffe, 2005). It is a society in which schooling means to set the conditions for such unequal distributions, forming students, knowledge, and social relations into commodities of different value. This process of commodification, in its turn, is what makes possible an unequally ordered society of rich and poor, and explains this order as the truth of a necessary social reality (a hegemonic order in the words of Gramsci, 2003; Laclau & Mouffe, 1985).

To be specific, the commodities to be distributed through schooling are particularly abilities, talents, and skills produced through different educational technologies (Rose, 1996) and reflecting what is valued in a certain society at a specific point in time. That is, that which counts as ability and talent in a specific historical, political, and social situation is produced and codified through technologies such as individualization, teaching methodologies, testing, and grading, and are producing students’ possible subject-positions as well as the meaning of those terms (Rose, 1996; Hall, 1997). That is, those techniques define what is meaningful in a particular society, and therefore attaches value and meaning to those individuals who are formed through them.

For example, the multiple intelligences invented by Howard Gardner (Gardner & Hatch, 1989), later multiplying and fading into the background in the discourses of schooling and teacher education, still establish students as having one or another sort of intelligence, of being one or another sort of intelligence, explaining that person’s entirety of being in culture and society as dependent on a particular categorical type of intelligence. As such, the distributive paradigm of schooling is a process of identification (Bauman, 1999a) through which you are identified as having certain properties in order to be recognized as such, and through those properties becoming who you are, which legitimizes how you are treated in schooling and society.

The distributive paradigm is in this sense productive: it produces identities as well as appropriate relations between those identities, in relation to a founding principle of inequality. Some types of intelligence are more valued than others, and explain why certain people are to be better, more valued, and deserve privilege before others, whose intelligence is simply of a less valued order.

The establishment of a distributive paradigm as the main function of schooling is implicit in the establishment of a liberal democratic welfare state, as for example the Swedish one (see Husén, 1988). In a liberal democratic welfare society, as in any society, school-systems are essentially in place in order to differentiate between more or less valuable epistemologies, as well as more or less valuable individual abilities, and to distribute those into different functions in the social spheres of work and leisure (Durkheim, 1956).

For example, in one of the more comprehensive public school-systems in the world, established as part of an expanding and rich modem welfare state as that of 1940s Sweden, the major and overall educational issue, politically as well as in school research, was the question of differentiation (Marklund, 1987). That is, Swedish school-researchers’ expertise at the time was in giving rational reasons as to why to differentiate in a certain way, when to differentiate between different talents and abilities, and how to differentiate between them, so as to produce the best and most effective outcome for the individual as well as for society at large (Marklund, 1987). Interestingly enough, it was in the very research technologies themselves in which the basis for the compulsory schoolsystem was established, through what was called differential psychology (Hàmquist, 1959, 1961). That is, what was introduced was certain techniques in which abilities could be identified not only between different groups, but within those groups, as well as within individuals themselves. The schoolsystem established was able to effectively identify differentiated clusters of desired abilities on personal, group, and societal levels simultaneously, and to distribute those preferred abilities over the spectrum of the student population (Safstrom, 2004a), and as such produce wanted types of citizens.

Also, through the norms and principles of validation, and reliability within the research methodologies developed, those abilities identified attached to individuals as validated properties of the reality itself, produced by schooling, and distributed among the student population as inner natural abilities. That is, the school-system as constructed through differential psychology can be understood as a system through which certain expectations of the institution can be matched with clearly demarcated clusters of desired abilities as measurable units, and through them produce a profit or more general value (Harn-quist, 1959, 1961).

Those abilities were understood as beyond the possibility to teach [!], the abilities which the school-system was to identify and distribute were invented in and through psychological and pedagogical tests, able to “measure talents [abilities, intelligence] and other psychological factors” which was not considered to be directly related to learning but a property of the individuals themselves (Hamquist, 1959, p. 151). That is, those talents, abilities identified through the tests constructed, were considered as natural talents and abilities, as inner given properties; and institutional expectations were to select which ones would benefit the institution the most. That is, institutional expectations were to identify those abilities and talents that could be capitalized for the benefit of social and economic progress (see Hamquist, 1987; Husén, 1988).

The distributive paradigm in education was able to solve the question of differentiation by distributing individual talent and abilities into different functions in society, and thereby to be schooling a highly effective workforce for the benefit of the economy as well as individuals themselves. The individual was no longer to be bound by class hardship or privilege, but to be rewarded for their unique talent and abilities: each individual to their right [natural] place in the social order was the motto (Hamquist, 1959, p. 152). This gave rise to class mobility for the individual, but as such confirmed a natural order of the real.

Such mobility, limited only by one’s talent and ability, made (limited) change possible for the naturally talented individual, even if it meant that basic distinctions between rich and poor remained, that is, the system was in line with the existing capitalist economic order rather than operating against it. It was an integral part of, rather than an alternative to, such an order. Some of the poor were nevertheless less poor than before, and society promised to take care of basic needs such as education, healthcare and housing if the citizen accepted his or her destiny.

In general terms, then, the distributive paradigm of schooling combines (mainly) liberal and social-political ideas with the economy and with the inner lives of people, the latter being understood as clusters of abilities and talents. That is, the distributive paradigm of schooling reduces humans into clusters of talent and abilities, as they are valued in (capitalistic) society.

Schooling in this way of thinking, in other words, is all about sorting out and connecting individual abilities, needs and desires with the circulation of value in political economy (Baudrillard, 1975). The introduction of neoliberalism into educational policy does not alter the fundamentals of the distributive paradigm, rather making it even more effective in certain instances, but it does change some of its premises, particularly the value and role of the state.

The liberal democratic welfare state, like the Swedish, was regulated into a well-ordered society by releasing social tensions between rich and poor as defined by class, by giving each and every one equal opportunity to cultivate their abilities and talents through schooling, which in its turn was provided for and guaranteed by the state. The neoliberal society changes the discourse into one of choice and competition instead (Englund, 1995). The individual is now to be able to choose freely among different school forms, provided by a market, that is, the school-system is to be regulated by competition on a market rather than by being an exclusive concern of the institution. Ironically, though, this is still essentially introducing a monolithic idea of schooling, but now linked to a market regulated by competition.

Schooling as a market, introduced by political and economic neoliberalism, releases tensions in society by offering individual choice and by making individuals themselves responsible for the conditions of their life, since those conditions are now understood, in addition to perceived natural abilities and talent, as entirely dependent on a free choice without any compensatory measures for the less talented. The individuals themselves are responsible for their situation, and no structures reproducing privilege and wealth are understood to be at work in the neoliberal worldview. If there is an uneven distribution of wealth and power verified by schooling, this is understood simply as a result of choices made in terms of both the type of school, and individuals’ efforts within a particular school. What the distributive paradigm in education contributes in neoliberalism is guaranteeing there is enough choice within the totality of a school-system, so as to manage differentiation of talent according to choices made, while simultaneously limiting the range of possible choices by framing them in an ideology of competition.

What I call the distributive paradigm in schooling releases tensions in a society in which the rich get richer and the poor poorer, by making individuals themselves absolutely responsible for such a situation. There are winners and losers in competition. The distributive paradigm in education explains the necessity of such fundamental inequality, by making inequality into a natural condition caused by individuals’ own free choices, as well as the differentiated value of individuals’ natural abilities and talents, their capacity to compete with each other.

Without the idea of absolute responsibility on the behalf of individuals themselves, severe tensions would threaten to erupt and disrupt the order of things in any nation or country in which the gap between rich and poor increases. The distributive paradigm in education, then, releases tensions within its own reality by signalling a limited possibility of change for the individual (Ranciére, 1999). It is a limited possibility since the very order or logic of distribution does not change, even if life circumstances can change for the individual by doing well in competing in school and society. Basically, the rich stay rich and the poor stay poor: even though a limited number of individuals can change position, the ideology of competition remains to regulate the basic division and distance between rich and poor. Schooling within the neoliberal world order is understood as foremost a site for competition, and all its doings are to explain the necessity of this order.

I will develop further the themes that have been introduced so far throughout the following chapters. What is particularly of interest in this chapter is that the distributive paradigm in education, with its limited and limiting changerhetoric and its false and decisive promises of change, only bears legitimacy if the individual is faithful to its ideology, to the market and to competition. In other words, the distributive paradigm needs to produce hope for an individual to change their position in society in order to motivate the individual to partake in the game, despite its apparent shortcomings and injustices. The problem for the concept of hope, then, is that the distributive paradigm of schooling produces hope without the necessary conditions for this hope to be realized other than as self-promotion, in conjunction with a certain logic of capitalism and value accumulation.

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