Dividing the whole
Raising this idea of the possibility of an educational theory, described here as the possibility' of freedom and change in and of the world, of living a divine life, and as such a condition for thinking democracy, still risks subordination of the individual to a collective oppression, since, as Ranciere (1999) reminds us, the world in the current historical and political moment is essentially divided between those who have access to power and wealth and those who do not.
It is therefore vital, I think, to adhere to Ranciere’s understanding of democracy as the possibility both to divide that which presents itself as a whole, and to count the parts of society differently (Ranciere, 1999). This is critical for educational theory to remain educational: that is, to give room for freedom and change in the very constitution of education in a divided world, in a divine world.
Seen from this angle, the crisis of schooling in the European nation-states is that schooling all too often is not about the world at all, but is instead feeding an abstract representation of one world, one society, one people. This may entail reducing educational policies to concern only with socialization and qualification (Biesta, 2010). But it may also reside — and this may be harder to accept — in the claim that schooling is exemplary for democracy: that the schooling system in itself is the institution in society that guarantees the very possibility of democracy.
This idea of schooling as necessary for democracy is almost a truism in various influential documents, from OECD (2012) to the local school curricula, which seems increasingly to lose any meaning for those affected by schooling (Langmann & Safstróm, 2018; Almquist, 2011).
Instead of materializing such an abstraction into an experience of the everydayness of life in the school, it seems only to be speeding up an ongoing abstraction of, and refusal of, democracy: turning democracy into a dead object, into a limited schoolbook object, not really affecting the course of life at all (as one student actually said when interviewed in a research project on learning democracy; see Ekerwald & Safstróm, 2015).
When democracy is not understood as intimately connected to the everydayness of living, but is detached from experiences of living in the present - and understood instead as a product of an alienating schooling system — the actual experiences of social life are fashioned in direct opposition to schoolbook democracy.
The consequence is more or less systematically to exclude democracy as a meaningless abstraction, to live one’s life, to recognize one’s own reality (Ekerwald & Safstrom, 2015, pp. 44—47). This means not only that democracy as an expression of the will of the people is increasingly renounced by youths in order for them to recognize their own lives, but also that by being forcibly included in a schoolbook democracy, it is as if democracy itself is making violence on those youths.
As a young student said when interviewed about his understanding of democracy in class — the teacher decided on everything, even what we were to think and say (Ekerwald & Safstrom, 2015, p. 48). Democracy in schooling, then, carries no meaning outside an abstracted version of itself, disconnected from living a life in the present. It is something else, somewhere else, but not here and not now, and not something through which your present life can be understood; it is an alien abstracted reified construction which carries no meaning. Democracy becomes empty and meaningless other than as a name for your violent subordination under the laws of schooling: schoolbook democracy is representing the will of the people, but without actual people.
Through this process, democracy itself becomes an empty signifier. This is also, I think, why democracy as the will of the people can be understood as being based on people as one. That is, if democracy does not refer to the doings of actual people, which would come down to an endless diversity, difference and pluralism, it can then be claimed by those in power that they represent all, but in which this all signifies an abstracted conception of one unified whole repressing diversity, difference and pluralism.
As such, a reified conception of democracy is surely legitimating political power, but only as abstracted from any connection to the pluralism and diversity of the living world of self and other. Rather, schoolbook democracy signifies the death of a diverse, multifaceted people, instead erecting the objectifying oneness as an abstracted version of the people. The distributive paradigm of schooling in schoolbook democracy, as such a paradigm amounts to the inclusion of all, therefore only contributes to the legitimation of political power based on the oneness of the one right people (Butler, 2015).
That is also because of the idea of schooling as the inclusion of all always comes down to someone specific. That is, as Popkewitz (2008) has pointed out, the idea of all in schooling is always about some rather than others, the idea of all being a singularity, a preferred starting point, and as such instrumental in upholding the privilege of a predefined, abstracted and superior all. It is pivotal for inequality to work. Schoolbook democracy works by the exclusion of those who do not fit the conception of all, who do not have the talents or abilities required. Traditionally this conies down to working-class kids, immigrants and other so-called weak groups in society.
When, as in Sweden, schooling is subordinated to the rules of the market, the oneness of the market, its rules and regulations of conformity within an already abstracted liberal democracy, reinforce oneness rather than making plural the very condition of its operations. That is, the force of the market operates as a way of flattening out variations that cannot be identified within its logic. Comparisons and competition regulate what is possible in schooling. It turns schooling itself into a game of comparisons and competitions, and reduces all other aspects of living a life in the present to be insignificant fluff (/him) (Berardi, 2017).
Schooling as an expression of a simulation model of this kind, then, becomes a place for the production and automation of a certain finality, where the limits of learning are defined, explained and valued in their finality', and where the value of such learning is identified, through its instrumental usefulness, in the exchange of grades for economic success and social power (Safstrom & Man-sson, 2015). Reality itself is staged as an economic reality', ordering society and possible relations within it in terms of automated behaviour, at the same time as the possibility of the divine life of two in the world is extinguished.
The third force of abstraction affecting the ideas of education and democracy is simply the impossibility' of being part of the people. The proposition “I am the people” shows not only the complexities of the idea of the people, but also the impossibility of embodying such a position, since it is false, and seems rather be pointing to fascism. This would, in effect, claim that the existence of every I is dependent on a moral law connecting the single I with the oneness of the people and with generations, history, land and nation, in consequence establishing a nostalgia for the one people equating to nation and land and a core identity as the foundation for social and political power (Traverse, 2019). In such a context, “I am the people” is exclusively an expression of power based on the moral law and a foundation for dictatorship.
But the proposition “I am the people” is also true, since if I am part of this democracy, “I am the people” - who else could I be? I am the people as much as you are the people. Democracy, as well as any idea of the people as foundational for democracy, needs at least the figure of two, as I explored above. It needs, as I call it here, the divinity of two, the ambiguity of the self and the other; ambiguity as to the very openness in which newness can emerge.
This double nature of the expression “I am the people” shows how oneness as an abstraction of an undivided whole can function through a system of schooling in which exclusion of the poor and powerless is done on the basis of abilities and talents distributed against the backdrop of a schoolbook democracy. Because the poor and powerless are included in the abstracted conceptions of democracy, but not otherwise recognized, they are included as excluded in a way that, in Ranciere’s (1999) words, “subjectifies the part that of those who have no part” (p. 38).
Thus the growing problem in Europe is not that precarious populations have left democracy, but that democracy has left precarious people behind in abstraction and miscalculation. The betrayal of European democracies, as I understand it, is to be found in the very real split of the people into those who have access to power and wealth and those who do not. This fundamental rift is then concealed falsely, through schooling, behind an abstracted idea of one undivided people’s democracy, preventing the poor from appearing as other than a silent confirmation of the same abstraction.
At the same time as the poor and powerless, the wrong people, are placed off stage, they are reduced to a silent mass whose only function is to confirm the abstraction. By establishing school-systems as performers of the wrongdoing of counting poor people out, the role of schooling in such a construct not only becomes empty of the very force of education, empty of the possibility of change and freedom, but also anti-democratic to its core.
The real problem, then, with the decline of educational theory as foundational to educational systems in diverse European countries, is that such a loss risks contributing to, rather than hindering, the political space that opens up for fascism’s re-entry into history. Fascism, neofascism or post-fascism risks becoming the only alternative to unite the people as one with its history and land in a nostalgic idea of the future, recognizing those who have been left behind as included in an absolute oneness defined from the centre.
The conceptual problem that arises, as a consequence, is not that the public can no longer define itself, as Dewey (1954) claimed it must do in any functional democracy, but rather the reverse: that the public can define itself too well, and by doing just that excludes any possibility' of diversity, difference and pluralism, excludes democracy and, for that matter, education. To be able to claim an educational theory subject to freedom and change, one needs, in other words, to learn how to count differently, supplementing the part that has no part, as Ranciere says, in the equation. This is achieved, I suggest, by a claim: I am the people too.