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Schooling without ambiguity and change

In the totalizing logic of the educational states, schooling works as the representation of the totality of the real, of the cosmopolitan lifelong learner in Popkewitz’s (2008) words, by pointing out the place for the neglected child; by so doing it maintains the hierarchical and absolute reality of a naturalized inequality. No ambiguity in the identification of the neglected child, of the unsuccessful child. Its positioning is evidence-based. No change is possible and therefore no education is possible either, only schooling as confirmation of a naturalized inequality.

Again, the distributive paradigm of schooling has no room for education, the possibility of emancipation, for things to be different than what they appear as within its ordering of reality into the cosmopolitan child and the neglected child; into the successful child and the unsuccessful child. That is, what is missing is a dimension of freedom and change, the possibility of dis-identifica-tion from the hierarchical order of schooling practices, identifying the child as an object of measures to be taken, but as such just explaining the necessity of the positioning already in place for the neglected child.

Following Laclau, what is missing in schooling is the freedom of, and possibility of, dis-locating the child from the un-appealable logic of the totalizing either/or logic that imprisons the child in a fixed position. This freedom, however, is not total freedom (which would be an absurdity), but difficult freedom that always is bound to unfreedom, and always negotiated in an ambiguous space of the same time. That is, the ambiguity of freedom/un-freedom comes into play outside the logic of either/or. Freedom/un-freedom has to be thought simultaneously in order for freedom to do its work.

What Laclau can help us see, I think, is that education and schooling are always negotiated ambiguously at the same time; that is, in my reading, education can happen in schools but only in tension with the larger discourses on schooling, the belief that it is through schooling for all that a society is built and secured. Emancipation can take place in interactions between people in particular and concrete schools, not in spite of, but also because of, the larger belief in what schooling is to achieve in educational states. In this lies a fundamental ambiguity of education: it happens in the interplay of freedom/un-freedom, and every attempt to fix this ambiguity necessarily kills off the possibility of freedom altogether.

I find Laclau’s argument about emancipation helpful in two ways. First, it situates emancipation and freedom in education in a state of ambiguity in a precise manner and secondly, introduces the idea that freedom is central in that context. In other words, freedom as an ambiguous possibility is central for any understanding of education, but not without its constant tension with un-freedom (Biesta & Safstrom, 2011). Laclau’s argument is a structural argument, which I do not find problematic in itself, but is as such not directly comparable with Ran-ciere’s understanding of emancipation, which is rather aesthetical than structural.

Rancière and emancipation

Biesta, in exploring Rancière’s understanding of emancipation and its inherent relation to education, claims that equality is as central for “the logic of education” as it is for “the logic of emancipation” (Biesta, 2010, p. 53). Neither of these logics operates as pure in the sense that they would be separated from practice and only explained in the realm of theory, says Biesta, but they are rather to be understood as practices in themselves.

Education and emancipation are practices of the confirmation of equality, that is, equality is an assumption that can be confirmed only in a concrete situation in which people are committed to equality. This commitment, though, is of a particular kind, says Biesta: it is “/loipwe are committed ... and how we express and articulate this commitment” that matters, and not “that we are committed to equality, democracy and emancipation” (Biesta, 2010, p. 57).

I do think that there is something inherently important brought to the fore by the commitment itself, since it carries ethical meaning, that the very act of being committed compels one to the how, as ethically grounded devotion, open-ended, and without any pretence or preconceived bias. Without such open-ended devotion, it would simply not be commitment at all, as far as I understand, but rather the reinstitution of, and fixation of, one’s ego as that ego taking form within a particular worldview projected onto the other.

According to Biesta, what Rancière does is to introduce “a critical difference within the discourse of emancipation, equality, and democracy” (Biesta, 2010, p. 57). In summarising this difference concerning the larger discourses on emancipation Biesta says:

For Rancière emancipation is not based upon a fundamental dependency of the one to be emancipated upon the one who emancipates. Also, for Rancière emancipation is not based upon fundamental inequality between the one to be emancipated and the emancipator. And, finally, Rancière’s understanding is no longer based upon the fundamental distrust in the experiences of the one to be emancipated to the extent that emancipation can only occur if the experience of the one to be emancipated is replaced by a proper and correct understanding.

(Biesta, 2010, p. 58)

Instead of the repetition of the emancipator’s ego and worldview, and the following reinstallation of hierarchy, emancipation starts with the assumption of the equality of intelligence. This is an assumption not to be proved but to be practised, to be verified in concrete situations, and when such verification is indeed practised and committed to, one is acting based on emancipation (Rancière, 1991).

In the following section I will discuss schooling, as has been explored above, with Ranciere’s understanding of equality, but will also adhere to Ranciere’s critique of the idea of progress, an idea that is central to the educational policies of educational states. I do this to qualify my understanding of emancipation and to link it to my general analysis and critique of the distributive paradigm of schooling.

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