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The state of education and the educational state

In order to clarify what I mean by an educational state, I will refer to two particular circumstances: firstly, what has been identified by Tom Popkewitz (2008) as the construction of the life-long learner; and secondly, to the heavily ideological introduction of so-called evidence-based research into the Swedish political context (a bill signed off by then Minister of Higher Education Tobias Krantz in 2010). What is of particular interest in these two cases is that, when brought together, they produce the neglected child as the prime motivation for a particular type of research promoted by what I call an educational state. That is, the promotion of research that is supposed to solve social problems, often having nothing to do with education in the first place, but which rather has everything to do with political issues that are not solvable by schooling, for example, how an unequal society produces winners and losers, elites and precarious populations. Such an aim and role of problem-solving research, without addressing the political context from which the problems emerge, is in alignment with a distributive paradigm of schooling, because it confinns such schooling by taking it at face value.

In his book Cosmopolitanism and the age of school reform, Tom Popkewitz (2008) argues quite convincingly that educational reforms during the twenty-first century, across North America as well as Europe, show signs of what is identified as a new cosmopolitan, the lifelong learner. This is a learner whose basic characteristic is her lack of what would complete her as a citizen - as a citizen not only of her society, but of the world as we know it: the global world. This lack within each individual is promised to be filled, but never is, by the supposed unity of the learning society in which everyone is to be included as a learner. It is an idea of a society kept together by everyone learning the meaning of that society, its history, present and future, and in which history basically is understood in terms of the evolvement of, or realization of, a natural development, of true reality successively taking form (Lash, 1999).

History as a school subject is therefore fundamentally political and explains one reality rather than another, and in other words explains by excluding certain competing realities as obsolete (Safstrbm et al., 2001). The learning society includes everyone in an all-inclusive totality, in which everything that is, already is defined from within this totality as one truth, one world. It is as much an all-inclusive as a claustrophobic reality in which competing worldviews are more or less actively excluded or subordinated as of lesser importance. The point is that the idea of the learning society is already defined within particular educational practices that order reality in certain ways, according to Popkewitz (2008).

An important aspect of Popkewitz’s analysis is that he shows how the educational practices that take shape within the educational discourses of the twentieth century do so through organizing curricular content in schooling by introducing principles from psychology (see also Rose, 1996). These are principles about learning and development and about how to live together in society, that is, principles that introduce the individual into a certain regularity and social order and ordering of life. This psychologism sets the conditions for being a subject within society, designs the inner landscape of the child, and prepares the child for using reason in a particular way to be a member of that society, says Popkewitz. Such psychologism was expressed through what at the time was called the question of differentiation, and by the introduction of differential psychology as the basis for the construction of an all-inclusive, monastic school-system (see chapter 1).

What the school subjects have in common over time, Popkewitz (2008) argues, is that they discriminate, differentiate, order and define in a hierarchical manner how to live and how to understand the world, and thereby define the moral character of the child by functioning as practices of normalization. We can now begin to see, according to Popkewitz, that for the twenty-first century the principles that organize educational reforms in North America, as well as Europe, are about a new subject within the larger discourses of schooling. This subject is formed through the idea of being a lifelong learner in which everyone is to be identified, classified and included, with no-one left behind or outside such classifications. And as the paradigm of distributive schooling entails, we are all characterized as having certain natural abilities and talents, which motivate how we are to live our lives, how we are to be treated by the state and society.

The problem, though, which I will return to in the following chapters, is that schooling does exclude some people from participating as full members of the society in which they live. This fact is not counter to Popkewitz’s analysis, but rather confinns it, since the division of who fully belongs and who does not is itself a function of schooling within a lifelong learning discourse, in which some are included in the whole, in order to be excluded and confined to the margins of that whole, as Ranciere (1999) says. That is, there is no position outside the social sphere, but some included in this sphere are living on its margins, and are seen to matter less than those who define and occupy the centre.

According to Popkewitz (2008), there are only two subsets possible within the inclusion of everyone within the discourses of lifelong learning. On the one hand, there is a cosmopolitan child who has all the needed resources for schooling, to learn, to solve problems, to cooperate and to produce. On the other hand, there is the neglected child who is accepted for inclusion but nevertheless is marginalized within the totality of the set order. This child historically often comes from a working-class home or a newly immigrant family, according to Popkewitz (2008). The unsuccessful non-cosmopolitan child is characterized by their psychologically defined shortcomings as a child with difficulties, rather than as a child in difficulties, and by their inability to adhere to a particular understanding of a rational (cosmopolitan, elitist) order. This is a child attached to their place in the hierarchical set order of things, which defines them as marginal, as neglected, as a problem to attend to, as trouble, but which, if attended to, can be normalized.

What schooling does, through its inherent psychologism, as I read Popkewitz in this context, is to organize the inner landscape of children to make them into subjects of regulation rather than education. Schooling is a discursively constructed fiction that has real consequences for how life in actual schools is organized, and how the child is administered and positioned as a subject of a particular kind (Hall, 1997). Nevertheless, I would like to suggest that schooling cannot control what goes on in schools between people. This is the case since the individual subject cannot be reduced to the category he or she is attached to by the processes of schoolification. That is, and as I understand, because being always exceeds social categorizations of that being, or with Levinas (1969), being is always “more than what I contain” (Todd, 2001, pp. 437—438). There is always leakage of life in all attempts to subdue being by social categorizations. Totalizing control is simply not possible.

I would, therefore, like to argue, in line with even if not identical with Popkewitz (2008), that educational states, that is states which understand schooling to be a major force in the making of society, increasingly promote educational research directed at the neglected child. Or, to be more precise concerning my analysis in this book, what is increasingly taking place is the promotion of a certain type of educational research directed to clearly distinguish between the successful and the unsuccessful child. It is a type of research in which the child becomes the object of research, that is, when the approach in the research itself identifies and creates the object of study, reducing the criteria used to identify the child into properties of that child.

The research constructs its object, which means objectifying the child in the process, and which therefore is also a process of reducing human life to a social category with a particular function within the set order of things. For example, the bullied child becomes a property of that child, defining who she or he is, at the same time as the function of this category is to define the borders of the normal order of things, identifying who has a voice that makes sense and who is only making noise (Ranciere, 1999; Langmann & Safstrom, 2018).

Those borders are identifiable as such only if there is an established outside from which the inside can be defined, as orderly, rational, sane, commonsen-sical, as the real reality, while contrasted with the non-sensical, the irrational, the insane, the non-real outside. As a consequence, the bullied child is often perceived as speaking nonsense, and when occasionally breaking through the compact silencing the violence, a common response is - we had no idea, we didn’t see anything! (Langmann & Safstrom, 2018).

It is a type of research in which the child becomes the object of research, as well as of learning, caring and adjustments, where the child is given the role of being nothing outside the categorizations given in the set order of things. That also explains why it is so often claimed, to continue the example above, that no-one saw anyone being bullied in spite of more or less extreme violent abuse in the open (Friendsrapporten, 2017).

The neglected child is nothing because the child is defined negatively through that which she is not and cannot become — that is, a positive member of the institutionalized order. The neglected child, in Popkewitz’s terms, or the unsuccessful child, in the discourses of schooling, is reduced to a target for the goodwill of the caring professions. Such a child is in Rancière’s (1999) terms an example of the position of the poor who are being included as excluded in the hierarchically organized social order. The neglected child is outside the meaningful discourse of those who matter, those who make sense, and as such is reduced to ‘no matter’, contrasting those who do matter in schooling, those who do materialize in the positive society. The latter ones who have the right abilities and talents confirmed through schooling.

The Swedish report Sustainable teacher education (SOU, 2008), mentioned briefly in chapter 1, despite being prepared for a reform of teacher education, describes the field of research in education by indicating what technologies are to be used in order to fashion the teachable child, in contrast to the child with difficulties, the neglected child. As a result, the commission inquiry includes long unmotivated sections such as on ADHD, and argues for neuroscience research as the key to understanding learning, particularly learning difficulties (or what could be called, in another context, for resistance to learning).

In the following, I will give a detailed account of a particular case concerning the reshaping of the Swedish school system, which was made to be in line with shifting political expectations on schooling. Again, the Swedish condition is of particular interest since it went from being a prime example to the world from the 1940s onward of a progressive public school system for all, to become a prime example of a privatized school system producing profit in the past decade (Fejes & Dahlstedt, 2018): one in which a publicly financed system of schooling is turned into private companies whose foundation is the production of profit for shareholders.

A series of articles about teacher education and current brain research (as it was called) was launched in the liberal and conservative daily press in 2007— 2008, written by the Minister of Education, leading columnists and particularly one favoured expert, a then distinguished brain researcher, Professor Martin Ingvar (who has since been involved in a scandal and disappeared from public view). In one of the few critical responses at the time to what was going on, and impossible to publish anywhere else than in a marginal research journal, Jan Bengtsson wrote:

If teachers can use brain research, it can only provide a (small) part of all the knowledge teachers need. It cannot replace all other kinds of knowledge and it cannot be used as a measure for all other kinds of research and knowledge. In the political discourse about the Swedish school, brain research has been used (and misused) in this ideological way.

(Bengtsson, 2010, p. 63)

And he adds in a note commenting on Ingvar’s article, in which Ingvar expresses opinions on a series of educational issues not related to brain research at all:

He [Ingvar] simply uses his name as a brain researcher to support well-known liberal opinions on school issues (cf. Bjorklund and Leijonborg 2005 [Minister of Education and Minister of Higher Education and Research]), i.e. without scientific expertise in the field he discusses.

(Bengtsson, 2010, p. 66)

If brain research and educational psychology were giving liberal and conservative school policy its shape in Sweden, they were aided by one more trend in educational states, that is, the promotion of evidence-based research (Biesta, 2010). This type of research is hardly new in the field of educational research; one can even claim that evidence is what defines research as such. The issue is not evidence, but what we consider to be evidence in the first place (and there is an entire discipline dealing with this problem: the academic discipline of theory of science, which was not referred to by ministers promoting evidencebased research, since evidence-based research was promoted not for primarily academic reasons, but for ideological ones).

The type of evidence-based research favoured by the Ministry of Education in the educational state, which I describe here, belongs to an area of research that is positivistic to its core and that strongly believes in the instrumentality of knowledge. That is, the value of research is judged on the basis of its capacity to produce useful knowledge - knowledge that will solve certain social issues and problems, as those are defined and understood by the authorities defining them (politicians, experts and so on), since the research itself is understood as objective, neutral, based on facts, and evidence on which to base decisions, as if that would free one from the burden of judgement (for an overview of what such a position in the theory of science entails, and how and why it is profoundly problematic, see Kuhn, 1970; Bernstein, 1983; Rorty, 1980; Biesta, 2007)

In Sweden, such political pressure for the transformation of educational research into useful research fitted well with the reshaping of schooling into a market-oriented school-system: a school-system financed by taxes, but allowing for public taxes to be transformed into profit for shareholders in private school businesses. When introduced, it rapidly become the most profitable business of all types as reported in the newspapers: Dagens Nyheter (29/9/2010, liberal) reported an average profit of 13% for private schools and the similarly privatized care professions, in comparison with 9% for all other types of businesses; Svenska Dagbladet (7/8/2010, conservative) reported on a large increase in risk capitalists operating in the free school market because it gave high returns for small investments and low risk (see also Fejes & Dahl-stedt, 2018).

At the same time, also often driven by the above-mentioned newspapers, the former idea of education in Sweden — a schooling for all understood in terms of democracy, solidarity and justice — was renamed by liberal and conservative school politics fluni (in English, fluff) (Wiklund, 2006). This renaming gained quite wide acceptance in the public domain as it was largely driven by the two dominant daily papers, Dagens Nyheter and Svenska Dagbladet, over a period of at least 10 years, and signalled and prepared for a policy shift towards schooling becoming more concerned with knowledge, discipline and order than what was said to have been the case before the liberals and conservatives coming into power.

The idea of a schooling for all was increasingly being pictured as obsolete, and instead lifelong learning in the knowledge society was considered to be more in tune with the changes in school policy implemented by the liberal/ conservative government (Alliance for Sweden, 2006). To support the political shift of schooling, research characterized by positivistic knowledge, produced by brain research, evidence-based research, science-based psychology, and leadership and efficiency studies seemed to fit the liberal/conservative agenda best (Evaldsson & Nilholm, 2009, p. 78).

All other types of educational research, and particularly critical research oriented towards justice, solidarity, democracy or freedom in education, was seriously questioned in political terms, and said to be the pedagogues’ (educationalists’) political agenda, denying theory in which those conceptions also make sense as fliint (this debate is still going on, but now fluni is replaced by postmodernism instead). Sometimes this type of anti-intellectual critique is also backed up by disciplines other than education in the universities, which saw a new market in teacher education opening up, financing their continuous existence in the hardening competitive climate in the more market-oriented university that was taking shape (Safstrom & Saeverot, 2015).

That is, what was now considered to be legitimate educational research in the political, as well as large part of the public, sphere became reduced to positivistic or quasi-positivistic research, and as such claiming a sharp distinction between fact and value, and denial of judgment as integral to any research practice (Bernstein, 1983). Taken together, this meant that almost without resistance, either from the general public or from intellectuals outside education, the entire educational infrastructure was changed to its core in a few years because education was simply not the issue any more.

What was the issue was effective schooling to compete within the global economic order, and this was considered more important than democratic ideals or education. As a consequence, profound changes to the school law and the grading system could be implemented in a few years, involving giving teachers the right to punish students; changing the admission criteria for the gymnasium (upper secondary school) and the university; changing the terms on which educational research is funded; changing teacher education and who has the right to award teacher education diplomas; implementing a new quality system for universities; and much more — in fact, more than 80 fundamental changes between 2006 and 2012, from kindergarten to higher education (Reinfeldt, 2012).

The changes were made against the backdrop of a rhetoric in which schooling was to be again delivering knowledge order and discipline. In effect, this meant that the neglected child, or the unsuccessful child in schooling, become a central problem — and the primary problem for evidence-based, psychology-based, neuroscience research to solve. The irony is, I think, that not only does such research fixate the child in an excluded position, but it does so in the name of the good. The neglected child function is the object of evidence-based research, in which the research fixates certain children in a position of being excluded, as bullied, poor, by indisputable evidence. Such research is conducted with the support of the educational state itself, which cares for all children in the lifelong learning knowledge society, while simultaneously including certain children as excluded, as already defined as marginal within society. In other words, in such a society, schooling is first and foremost related to a managerial function of the state, rather than to education and emancipation (see also Biesta, 2007).

In the next section, I will develop the concept of emancipation, as I read it, since it is not only inevitable for any education worthy of the name, but also has been at the centre of the debate on postmodernism, following from Lyotard’s (1984) critique on the rationality of knowledge in capitalistic states and his claim that such knowledge is far more dispersed and fractional than previously thought, consequently problematizing all universal claims of securing knowledge as universal.

What the The postmodern condition (Lyotard, 1984) tried to achieve, as I read it, was the following. First, he wanted to explain the new conditions for managing the world after the failures of modem society, and the role knowledge played in this failure: we now need to understand the role of knowledge differently, and how this affects knowledge producers more generally as being simultaneously both dispersed and essential for the economy and political life. Second, he wanted to design new strategies of power to deal with such a situation in a changing, multifaceted world in which no overarching rationality of knowledge makes sense. Even though the ‘report on knowledge’ was understood as quite radical at the time, it can also be understood as a way of suggesting a design for how state power needs to reshape itself in order to stay in power.

What also follows from Lyotard’s book on changing conditions for knowledge is that, if Lyotard was right in the claim that no foundational rationality can be universal, it also seems to diminish the possibility of a radical stance and a critique of the postmodern condition, and consequently excludes the possibility of critique altogether, and with it the possibility of (political) emancipation (at least if emancipation is made dependent on such a critique).

Hewlett (2007, p. 17), for example, claims that in restoring the concept of emancipation, one has to dismiss postmodernism since the latter does not lead to a programme for action, even though its methods are somewhat radical. In the following, I discuss emancipation as a political and educational concept, which can be restored without returning to modernistic ideas about the rationality of the real, which seems to follow from Hewlett’s arguments. Since the problems caused by modernity certainly have not disappeared, but rather have intensified (Bauman, 1989, 2000, 2004), there is no turning back (even if that is exactly what is longed for in today’s so-called alt-right movement’s violent nostalgia for a past that never really existed at all).

Emancipation is a rather difficult concept to discuss, since its importance in intellectual history and politics is immeasurable. Also, in education, not least since the 1970s, a wide range of educationalists continue to grapple with the idea that education and emancipation are somewhat linked, and the consequences that follow for education if the very understanding of emancipation is in jeopardy (Karabel & Halsey, 1977).

In the following, then, I do not claim a total account of the concept of emancipation, which would be beyond the scope of this book; what I do claim is simply that it is important to talk about the concept as inherently educational. In the following, I briefly discuss two thinkers who would hardly describe themselves as educationalists, but who have something important to say about emancipation — that is, who nevertheless have something important to say about education.

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