Moving beyond hope

Educational theories promoting hope as the driving force, either as realizing the exercise of power or as an expansion of human solidarity, both tend to make related mistakes, as I understand it. Even though they do claim, indirectly or directly, that education can be used to liberate the individual or collectives of misfortune, the poor and powerless, they do so by establishing education as instrumental in “reduce[ing] inequality indefinitely” (Ranciere, 1991, p. 133). That is, the theoretical universe for both positions is built around the reduction of inequality, fixating inequality as the characteristic of this universe, making it the starting point for any inquiry into the world. It is as if such theories fixate inequality while making equality distant in the very act of making inquiries into the world, create the distance, and then introduce hope in between the foundational inequality and the ever-distant equality to come. So the first mistake of both of those ways of thinking, following Ranciere, is to endlessly re-install inequality as foundational in repeated calls for, and hoping for, equality through instrumental (distributive) education.

For Ranciere (1991), “whoever takes this position has only one way of carrying it through to the end, and that is the integral pedagogization of society — the general infantilization of the individuals that make it up” (p. 133). It is the infantile hoping for equality while at the same time, in and through that hope, being fixated on in-equality as necessary for the world. It is the pedagogization of society according to Ranciere, or in my terminology schoolification of society, because it requires the continuing explanation of the equality to come, so as to make passive demands of equality in the present. Also, the explanation itself repeats a figure of domination. The expert explains how equality will come, owned already by the expert, for those who are repeatedly confirmed as necessarily inferior and unequal. In short, it is the distributive paradigm of schooling at work.

So the second mistake of hope as the driving factor for change is the promotion of a society reproducing itself through the successive infantilization of its members through schooling. It is an infantilization in making the poor and powerless hope for equality, which by its very nature is impossible. In order to counteract such infantilization of all, we need to separate the real-life of persons from the role and place we are given within the societal order of distribution, since by so doing, a change of this condition is made possible according to Ranciere:

We aren’t saying that the citizen is the ideal man, the inhabitant of egalitarian political heaven that masks the reality of the inequality between concrete individuals. We are saying the opposite: that there is no equality except between men, that is between individuals who regard each other only as reasonable beings. The citizen, on the contrary, the inhabitant of political fiction, is man fallen into the land of inequality.

(Ranciere, 1991, p. 90)

Understanding living life as other than being totally defined by one’s place and role in diverse social institutions allows for the reality of living persons to break through the abstractions and categorizations of the distributive paradigm itself, and therefore also to challenge the current order of things. One can, so to speak, rise from the land of inequality. It is, in the words of Zygmunt Bauman (1999a), to dis-identify with the dominant order defining who you are. It makes it possible to challenge the dominance of instrumental education as well as the very paradigm of distributive education giving it meaning. That is, when the socially excluded claims his or her right to appear on the stage on which we all live, as speaking among all living beings and as such equal with all speaking beings, a political subject appears, and the role of education, I will claim, is to verify such emergence (Ranciere, 2007a).

If we did not make a distinction between living a life, a liveable life, and the political and social ordering of that life, education would be reduced to a tool for the continuous adjustments within the current order of things; it would be reduced to instrumental schooling.

However, education also implies alteration of orders, alteration of the way in which the world is perceived as orderly, an insight which is absolutely central for education, as for example John Dewey (1916) claims, building on the tradition of thought formed by the early Sophists.

In other words, in order to move outside the distributive paradigm which produces a vague hope for things to get better, it is necessary also to distance oneself from theories that claim that they are educational but nevertheless do not commit to equality, change and emancipation. Rather, in those theories, instead of making change possible, the asymmetry between individuals and their categorical functions and meaning in the social order of things tends to implode, as such only confirming the land of inequality. The person is the social category to which he or she is ascribed. Let me give two examples.

In the first example, in a White Paper preparing for the reformation of Swedish teacher education in 2012, a specific formulation was introduced for how to understand a child in need of extra attention in schooling. Throughout the text concerning special needs education, references were repeatedly and consistently made to the “troublesome child”, rather than a child in trouble (Beach, Eriksson & Player-Koro, 2011). That is, what made the child troublesome was understood as a property of that child, rather than contextually produced. The White Paper did ask for more research in line with such a shift in focus, which basically was more neuroscience, thereby suggesting particular and specific techniques through which the troubled child was to be identified and supported, in the process naturalizing certain categorizations as a property of the child him or herself.

Another example is the discourse of life-long learning promoted by, among others, OECD, UNESCO and policymakers all over Europe, particularly at the beginning of this century (Skolverket, 2000). Life-long learning in this discourse was not primarily about learning (Biesta, 2006), but about a particular workforce politics (Safstrom, 2004a). Besides being a policy for the creation of a flexible workforce, always ready to change jobs and training in line with shifts on the labour market, the policy also seemed to suggest that no-one should be able to stand outside formal educational systems and policies (Safstrom, 2004a). All learning could, and would, only carry value if transferred into formal learning of a particular kind.

Life-long learning, in the report Det livslanga oeh livsuida larandet produced by the Swedish National Agency for Education (Skolverket, 2000), presented itself for policymakers as a total solution for control over the workforce, at the same time as it suggested, on an existential level, that it was possible to translate all experiences into a system of points and credits. It seemed as if those experiences carried no value outside being systematized into the logic of instrumental schooling and the distributive paradigm as defining the properties to be recognized and recirculated (Safstrom, 2004a).

Both those examples suggest, I think, that it is also necessary to move beyond some progressive educational theories that, more often than not, are caught up in an arrogant attitude of educating people from an unquestionable centre of authority, and to explain who is excluded and in need of being saved, and therefore in special need of hope, thereby again establishing inequality as the natural starting point. Hope itself tends to get in the way of seeing clearly the inequality inscribed in the active ordering of people into different social positions, from which what to hope for becomes very different things.

The result is a profound infantilization of all since, for one thing, it blocks the possibility that an excluded individual person knows his or her predicament very well and also has perfectly reasonable responses to his or her “situation” beyond a passive hope for a better life — even if those responses are not acknowledged by the dominant hegemonic order (Strandbrink & Akerstrbm, 2010).

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