by Sue Nichols and Garth Stahl
Aspiration is centrally concerned with becoming, and inherently frames the present in terms of the future desired self. The moment at which a young person graduates from school is a nexus point for aspirational narratives. Graduation brings to fruition a goal that was aspired to – the attainment of a secondary school qualification – and at the same time makes not only possible, but necessary, new aspirations). The focus of our study is on the experiences in the post-school year of a cohort of 16 young men living in Australia. The post-school year is the very process of disentangling the self from one of society’s strongest institutions (the school), as well as the learner identities associated with it, which is of interest to us and contributes to our understanding of the post-school year as a space in which different aspirations become possible.
Aspirations, self-making and higher education in the context of neoliberalism
In current neoliberal times, aspirations are constituted according to an ‘ideology of performocracy’ whereby performativity is grounded in a market ideology ‘where it is a winning performance that counts’ and where the daily goal is to ‘“achieve’ a competitive advantage, whether for individuals in the competition for credentials, jobs, or income” (Brown, 2013, p. 687). Individualism is expressed in terms of a ‘moral system’ (Ball and Olmedo, 2012, p. 88) where a lack of success in exploiting such opportunities is constituted as a personal failure rather than a failing of the state (Francis, 2006, p. 191).
The Life After School Project
What makes the study of gendered aspirations difficult in the current context is the alignment between the neoliberal discourse of aspiration, and a modernist discourse of gender equity. The former emphasizes individual achievement rather than group membership, and the latter represents the current times as the culmination of progress towards a state of equality between women and men. Both are progress narratives. Gender is implicitly woven into the official discourse of university aspiration through its targeting of specific groups who are seen as representing untapped potential in the population. Amongst this group of ‘potential aspirees’, young men from working-class backgrounds figure largely.
The Life After School Project, funded by the Hawke Research Institute, was a longitudinal multiple-case design study, which followed 16 young men across their first post-school year. Participants were recruited from three high schools (two co-ed and one single-sex) and, while the majority was enrolled at the University of South Australia, there were representatives of all three of the major local universities in the cohort. The cohort included young men from a range of cultural backgrounds including Anglo-European, Asian and Middle-Eastern. Amongst the group were those whose parents had attended university as well as some who were the first in their family to attend higher education.
A salient theme in our research on localized Australian masculinities in relation to aspirations was the notion of egalitarianism. Egalitarianism is defined through a disposition toward ‘fitting in’ and the Australian national meritocratic rhetoric of a ‘fair go’ where no one is better than anyone else. This is represented in an easy-going nature of going with the flow, being open, waiting to see what happens, not stressing about it, comparing self with others who take things more seriously. As our participants navigate the shift from high school to university, we consider how adhering to an egalitarian disposition is interwoven with the process of renovating their identities.
In understanding Australian masculinities and relation to aspirations we critically consider how presenting an egalitarian – or ‘easy-going’ subjectivity – plays are role in negotiating aspiration, especially aspirations that are neoliberal. As our participants navigate the shift from high school to university, adhering to and disengaging from an egalitarian disposition is interwoven with the process of renovating their identities. In the Life After School Project we see a learner identity responding to pressures and undergoing renovation through a process of transition. Our participants are required to manage a situation in which aspects of the ‘easy-going’ high school identity may not translate easily into a university context which emphasizes individual responsibility. It would appear full abandonment of the ‘easy-going’ identity would have negative consequences not only for their learner identities, but also their masculine identity formation.
Blog adapted from:
Nichols, S. & Stahl, G., (2017) ‘“Gotta get that laziness out of me”: Negotiating masculine aspirational subjectivities in the transition from school to university in Australia’ In Stahl, G., Nelson, D., & Wallace, D. (Eds.), Masculinity and Aspiration in an Era of Neoliberal Education: International Perspectives. Routledge, New York.
Sue Nichols is an Associate Professor in Education at University of South Australia. Twitter: (@suemarynichols). Garth Stahl is a Senior Lecturer in Education at University of South Australia. Twitter: (@GarthStahl).
Categories: Sociology of Education