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The revival of educational thought

Educational theory, for example in the UK (philosophy of education), Germany (Allgemeine padagogilt), Norway and Sweden (pedagogik(k)/allmdn didaktik), has been challenged by shifting political demands on educational research on the one hand; and on the other hand, corresponding shifts of priorities within universities (for an analysis of the consequences for educational theory in teacher education, pedagogik[k], see for example Safstrom & Saeverot, 2015). Such marginalization of educational thought has been understood as quite necessary, from the viewpoint of nation-states, in order to secure control over systems of schooling and to guarantee that they are truly understood in their proper context - that is, in their materialization not only of the idea of the nation, but also of mirroring the foundational economic order of that nation (Bowles & Gintis, 1977).

The result of these beliefs and strategies is the marginalization of education as a tradition of thought in its own right, since in such a context no educational theory is either needed or possible to formulate. What seems to be needed instead of educational theory is, rather, an application of other theories (mainly psychology, and recently medicine) dealing with particular problems in constructing and re-constructing the nation-state through its educational systems (Popkewitz, 2008).

A problem with this state of affairs is not only that it becomes increasingly difficult to understand what an educational problem is or could be, but also that the very idea of education itself seems to vanish into yet another technical problem of learning, or into a sociolog)' of the function of educational systems within society and culture (Englund, 1990). Today, when we see not only conservative forces gaining popularity but also, and much more seriously, fascism (Arnstad, 2016; Poulantzas, 1979) or neofascism, and post-fascism (Traverso, 2019), re-establishing itself all over Europe (Riley, 2019), it becomes even more acute to reconnect to the core traditions of thinking in educational theory, since educational thought is, by its nature, I will claim, anti-fascist.

Educational thought is, in other words, about freedom (of the other) and a presence able to embrace a sense of freedom for the individual as well as the community in which the individual lives (Biesta & Safstrom, 2011). Fascism, in all its versions, is, in contrast, about a certain pessimism towards the possibility of such a presence, and replaces freedom with an idea of a moral law that conglomerates all individuals and generations into a single nostalgic tradition and purpose of a people as one and undivided. In fascism, each individual is the nation and the land, and their purpose in life is to fulfil the moral law on which the nation is supposed to be founded. Higher than any self-interest, the moral law of this kind is understood as representing the value of being itself, in tune with morality as such, and therefore also more important than the individual freedom of a singular life or death (Arn-stad, 2016; quoting from Mussolini, 1933).

Within such a reading of fascism, the problem of seemingly vanishing educational thought within the European nation-states, and the accompanying econ-omization/globalization of schooling, emerge as seriously dangerous strategies where schooling can no longer be a prophylactic against fascism, but indeed risks becoming a catalyst for the revival of fascism in all its different stages and shapes (Traverso, 2019). This is particularly true where the admission of neoliberalism has reduced education to a system of schooling for competition for position in the market - replacing the idea of freedom within education with adaptation to supposed laws of nature as interpreted by, for example, psychology (and lately medicine), and increasingly regarded as conditional for a well-ordered society.

Referring to his theory of justice, Rawls (1996) says about the function of what he calls a well-ordered society of justice as fairness: “it argues that the laws of nature and human psychology' would lead citizens who grow up like members of that well-ordered society to acquire a sense of justice sufficiently strong to uphold their political and social institutions over generations” (p. xlii).

Liberalism, or more precisely Rawls’ theory of justice as he recounts it, is therefore not only reducing educational change to subordination to the laws of nature (as interpreted by psychology) within culture and society, but is also reducing education to the task of leading citizens according to those laws. That is, it is these laws of nature themselves that not only guarantee a stable and well-ordered society, but also embody real educational content.

From a general viewpoint, therefore, when it comes to schooling, it is not the possibility for change and freedom of and in culture and society that is the driving force for Rawlsian political liberalism, but the pursuit and unfolding of the law itself. From this perspective, replacing moral laws with the laws of nature puts us in the current situation of growing fascism, in the sense that both rely on an idea of unchangeable law as an absolute frame of reference, alongside the accompanying idea that certain people embody this frame of reference.

The point is, by not recognizing education as a form of lawless praxis, necessarily enshrining the vital possibility of unpredictable change and freedom, education is stripped of its defining tasks: of planting at the centre of culture and society a radical openness, which in turn makes democracy possible.

An understanding of educational change unfolding following a predetermined law, either of nature or of morality itself, places an unchangeable content at the centre of culture and society. This then ultimately underpins the claim, made by some, that such content is immanent in culture and society; a true manifestation of culture and society — and as such only within the reach of some people (the talented ones with the right set of natural abilities) at the cost of others (who lack those talents and abilities), who are then deemed to be at the periphery of the true culture and society (this idea is developed below as the foundation of the key distinction between the people and the population).

The ones in charge of our destiny then, according to this logic, are understood as naturally chosen leaders, and the role of schooling is to identify them. This also implies identifying those who do not qualify who lack the supposedly natural abilities and talents it takes to lead; identifying the ignorant ones, the neglected children, the ones to be led; identifying (in the strongest meaning of that word) those to be cared for.

The consequence of stripping education of its differentia specified leaves not only a theoretical problem, but also a very real problem, since it tends to create a mechanism for exclusion at the very centre of society, and to exalt this as the same mechanism through which the system of schooling can and should work. This, what I would call an anti-educational impulse to regulate through systems of schooling, instead of including people in an education in which freedom is central, has consequences in line with what Dewey already warned of in 1910. In arguing against Kant’s categorical imperative as foundational for education, Dewey says:

As long as moralists plume themselves upon possession of the domain of the categorical imperative with its bare precepts, men of executive habits will always be at their elbows to regulate concrete social conditions through which the form of law gets its actual filling of specific injunctions. When freedom is conceived to be transcendental, the coercive restraint of immediate necessity will lay its harsh hand upon the mass of men.

(Dewey, 1910, p. 75)

According to Dewey (1910), it is not only that freedom cannot be about tomorrow if it is to have any meaning today, but also that if education is understood as an exercise of moral law or laws of nature, it inevitably leads to regulation of the masses and their concrete social conditions. Such regulation cannot educate democratic humanity, which was Dewey’s goal for education, but can only be leading towards the production of a cadre of executers willing to regulate the masses by pre-set principles defined through an equally pre-set, unchangeable law.

This results, for Dewey, not only in the pernicious promotion of a non-democratic society divided between regulators and regulated, but also in paralysis of educational change and freedom. Education as regulation then feeds the idea that such regulation through systems of schooling is necessary for social stability. From this standpoint, no educational theory is needed or possible, because the problem is no longer about education, but about the regulation of the masses by an elite of regulators.

Hence, by reinforcing a limited idea of educational change as a positioning within the socioeconomic structure, and by reducing freedom to a moral law founded on the nation or the market or even something called democracy — or all three united, the people are reduced to nothing other than a mass, prone to manipulation and control. There is no freedom possible, and no education: only regulation and therefore manipulation of the masses, within a frame of pre-set laws defining the totality of the real as unchangeable and immovable to its core.

In these sombre conditions, to re-think education, or to re-connect to educational thought, is not nostalgia for a lost past, but a necessary move in order to have any possible future at all - that is, a future not already foreclosed by those who own the means of interpreting the laws and regulating the masses in accordance with those laws.

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