Re-negotiation of the meaning of schooling

The role of schooling is to sort students with distributed talent and ability, and to do this within a space of values and norms through which students as citizens are to live meaningful lives in a particular society (Dürkheim, 1956). Schooling socializes, that is, both represents the norms for a successful and happy life in tune with the society in which schooling takes place, and forms self-sufficient citizens accordingly (Dürkheim, 1956).

That is, through schooling, the self is invented as a particular subject (Rose, 1996) that represents the social order in which he or she lives. Schooling is one of those expert institutions in society through which the world is explained, and in which one’s place in the social order is pointed out. That is, the abilities and talents valued are specific to the order in which one is to take one’s place. It is possible to break out of the hegemonic order of schooling, but outside the order of the normal, of common sense, there is no meaning, no positive value, no security.

Inside the hegemonic order, all are in principle explainable as a necessary constitution of that order. That is, what is explained is how reality itself is of a certain order of meaning. Inequality, then, in such a context, is no longer a result of power, but is how the real is constituted as such. To question inequality becomes close to questioning the real itself.

Therefore, to assume equality is the starting point of a radical move, it is the starting point for radical democracy to take place (Mouffe, 2005; Ranciere 1999). To acknowledge or to verify equality where there is none is therefore always to make democracy itself both possible and visible, since it opens up the possibility for the world to be different from what it appears to be at any given moment. It opens the possibility for the ambiguity of meaning.

Political conflicts are often a result of acknowledging inequality, and examples of such struggles are countless throughout history (Andersson, 2013). Nevertheless, inequality tends to be accepted in public discourses as necessary if it is understood as a natural phenomenon. If inequality is based not on power but on biolog)', on the natural constitution of the brain, on what is naturally given, then inequality can be accepted by the general public on one condition alone: as long as inequality can be motivated by other means than by referring to power and privilege, to gender, class or ethnicity, but as given by nature itself (Ranciere, 2007a).

As long as inequality is proved by evidence to be natural, ontologically foundational and not at all dependent on power, but rather on talent or naturally given abilities, inequality in such cases is only to be understood as another name for those abilities and talents necessarily unevenly distributed among populations. And a school-system in this context, itself understood as a neutral system of differentiation built on research-based evidence, necessarily needs to identify those abilities and talents and put them to justifiable use for the individual, the society and the economy at large.

As explored in more detail in chapter 1, such a foundational idea of the inequality of what are considered natural abilities, and how to enhance them in the population, is the foundation of the liberal school policies that formed the Swedish school system, which were seen as an ideal for western democracies being rebuilt after World War II (see for example Husen & Bolt 1973; Husen, 1988).

Being based on talent and ability only, the distributive school-system established through the joint efforts of politics and research was to guarantee that the great reserve of talent, which research had identified through the theory of the so-called normal distribution of intelligence in the population (Harnquist, 1961), would come to use for an expanding economy. That which a strictly class-based school-system of privilege supposedly had neglected could now, so was the idea, make society flourish. Nevertheless, inequality was now argued to be part of human nature itself, and therefore the distribution taking place through schooling was considered neutral and objective, just directing abilities and talents - fundamentally considered not possible to learn - to their naturally given place in the social order.

It seems, in other words, difficult if not impossible to separate the very idea of schooling from perceptions of inequality, if this inequality continuously and vigorously is understood as reflected in a natural order of the real. The question, though, is how natural can a specific and particular social order be understood to be? Is it the case that every society has arisen as necessarily reflecting a natural order whose defining characteristic is inequality?

Or is it rather the case, as Cornelius Castoriadis (1987) says, that the social order is not at all something natural or a reflection of a reality beyond the real, but rather is basically made up of an imagined community of one sort or another. Society, instead of being reflective of a natural order of the real, can rather, following Castoriadis, be understood as a particular kind of narrative which we share with others over time, and which is materialized as such in practices, things and relations.

Society as a certain community distinguishes itself as distinct through specific values and nonns regulating our lives. For Castoriadis, as for Ranciere, inequality is not reflected in any formation of a society as natural, but as a result of history and political will, an image, and as such belongs to the sensible formations of what we experience as the real. Inequality is reflected in practices, relations, materiality, as well as in the aesthetic formation of this reality, in the sensible realization of the real. Ranciere says:

Only individual humans are real; they alone have a will and an intelligence, and the totality of the order that subjects them to humankind, to social laws and diverse authorities, is only a creation of the imagination |... | it’s the irrationality of each person that endlessly creates and recreates this overwhelming mass, this absurd fiction, to which each citizen must subject his will, but from which each man also has the means of withdrawing his intelligence.

(Ranciere, 1991, p. 81)

The perception of a necessary inequality based on ability and talent is, in one sentence, a foundational order for how our understanding of schooling and society has been taking shape in modern society. It is an order of meaning which aims at eradicating the will to withdraw one’s intelligence from the irrationality of inequality, instead doing serious damage to many people by always asserting itself as foundational for all human interaction.

Jacques Ranciere (1999) shows not only how such an order is irrational and wrong, but also how it operates in a visually obvious way through our sublime aesthetic sensibilities, and therefore as the very experience of the world as a world of a particular kind, and as meaningful, sensible, understandable and real. Ranciere’s thinking becomes important here to better understand the potentiality of education and teaching, since both basically either confirm an order that already exists, or change how we understand the world as orderly, or do both in a complex and intricate fashion.

If it is the case that schooling also takes place on the level of the sensible, and as the formation of the real, and if schooling represents such reality in being a fundamental, necessary and supposedly natural expression of inequality, Ranciere’s critique becomes essential to enable us to show that such inequality is far from natural. Therefore it is both possible and important to search for the forms in which emancipation from such a natural condition is made possible, without at the same time subordinating the other to such a project.

That is, no-one can emancipate any other, but what we can do is point to some obvious social tensions and direct attention to them, and assume equality with any other speaking being as a condition for those tensions. Emancipation follows from acting on such realization.

In the following, I argue that despite the forces of schooling, education is still possible within schools (as also explored in chapter 2), at least conceptually; and it is an empirical task to see if this is also the case in a particular school. The following sections can also be understood as a test on schools, as well as school systems, to see whether, and how, there is education within them, or only confinnation of privilege (Masschelein & Simons, 2013). That is, whether, and to what degree, verification of equality is possible: to what degree it is possible to teach, and not only to distribute privilege over the social strata. To what degree are change and freedom possible in and through education?

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