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This madness of public discourse on schooling

Since teachers are at the centre of blame in the public discourse on schooling, the teacher is necessarily also understood as responsible for the totality of society; that seems to be why they apparently deserve blame, and if anything at all goes wrong within society, teachers need to fix it by being better, doing better. There need to be better teachers, better teacher education, better knowledge, better research, better teaching methods, better children, better humans, a better life for all. And if not, shame on you, teachers! This is the empty speech on education, its madness.

It is empty — and mad — because the desire for “better” in the public discourse on schooling is indefinite: it can always be better, regardless of how things are at the moment. This kind of empty speech might be characterized as mad because of its lack of substance, other than an endless repetition of itself. Even so, the discourse is nevertheless concretely embodied by a large number of singular speakers, teachers, politicians, and researchers, and recognized in a (tautological) logical form as: schooling will be better with better schooling.

As a purely logical form, it is no longer specific to a particular national discourse on schooling, such as the Swedish one, but instead becomes the very logic through which a certain kind of modern discourse on schooling universally takes shape (see, for example, UNESCO, 2009).

In such a discourse it is the responsibility of the teacher to always make better happen, to always do better. But since the call for infinite betterment largely lacks substance other than the urge to be better, it can be filled with whatever one desires. To be a teacher in such madness is never to be doing what it takes, never to be able to do enough. To be a teacher within this empty speech is to be in charge of impossible futures that promises to be endlessly better.

To take a drastic example, teachers were asked to bear the impossible weight of future peace in times of war, as the idea of peace education in Sri Lanka seemed to promise when I was working there in 2000: that even though total war, chaos, violence, and hatred ruled, if children were taught about peace, then there would eventually be peace in Sri Lanka. It is a kind of common naivete in such understandings of education in which brutal political realities are hidden beneath unrealistic promises of schooling, of what teachers can or ought to do (Safstrom et al., 2001; Safstrom, 2010). 1 do not mean that there was anything wrong with peace education per se, or the insight that a stable society needs a fair, just and peaceful school to reflect its peacefulness — quite the contrary — but rather that the hope placed on teachers and schools seemed so overbearingly distant from the brutal realities of civil war.

Also, this unrealistic hope tended to divert the real responsibility for peace from the grownups of the day and place it on the children to fix, when they were grown up in a distant future. It tended to reduce what can only be solved by political means to a question of schooling, and by doing so basically to adhere to a kind of anti-politics, or post-politics as Mouffe (2005) says, and to set up schooling for failure.

Inscribed in such unrealistic expectations placed on schooling is a figure of failure: schooling is made to repeat this failure again and again. It is simply not possible to not fail, since what schooling is to solve does not have anything to do with education, but with politics and government. This is also why schooling tends to be so central in ideological debates in an era of post-politics. It seems to be saying something important, but is empty, and can therefore be used for anything and be almost impossible to counter.

To explore this a bit more, and from a different angle: it is as if you, as a teacher, are to take on the wellbeing of all children in times of current suffering to build a society without suffering in the future. There is nothing wrong with such hope, if it was not understood in an unrealistic, dreamlike context with religious overtones. You are, in the discourses on schooling examined here, something of an apostle for a future kingdom of kingdoms, of paradise on Earth, of striving to establish the better of the better. At the same time as this discourse of schooling through the figure of always better is taking hold over education, the name “teacher” loses its attachment to anything real, and becomes a mantra, or rather a sign in a belief system — a pure ideology that alienates the real teacher through imposing on her or him an unbearable guilt: unbearable because it is literally not of this world.

Moreover, in the alienating discourse on schooling, the name teacher bears no value in that discourse, adds no distinction from other names, and therefore one’s destiny as a teacher is no longer one’s own. The name teacher does not attach to the real world of teaching in which one operates, but is rather rhetorically imposed onto one’s world of teaching, meaning-less at the same time as it promises all: salvation rather than emancipation. It is sucking the meaning out of what education and teaching are all about: emancipation and the possibility of freedom. This is the madness of the discourse of schooling, that it imposes emptiness on the real world of teaching, and by doing this not only alienates all involved, but makes the change itself impossible because it deals with (political) fantasy, not reality.

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