Reclaiming Learning – concluding thoughts

Here at this point of conflict inside the spiral process of knowledge as ideas, concepts, principles and insights are fought over, we begin the process of positioning ourselves, a stage in the struggle for self development. This is a point of the highest personal anxiety, where Lenin’s straight line becomes a path of escape from the spiralling of learning, development and being, this is the point where the claim for a quiet life, for non involvement, is grounded and grows on that tree and is therefore culpable in the struggle. There is no opt out clause here, except death. This is also the point at which we can begin that practical questioning of our place in the world, those myriad straight lines of common sense ideas and taken for granted positions that lead us into our own 21st century quagmires. At this point take time to reflect, cast off academic propriety (you probably already have on reading this…well done for getting this far) and just think of the absolute and almost stunning banality of such ‘clerical obscurantism’ as human capital and nudge economics ( Thaler and Keller 2008) a text damned and silenced within a year by the world banking and economic crisis, a banality then that locates regular historically located crises in our humanity rather than in its condition at one point in time and social space.

The possibility of despair is great, that comes with the almost crushing weight of the world (the human condition), so it is precisely at this point in the struggle that a recognition that what it is to be human (self development, to know that I’m human) emerges from that process we call relationships with others that can drive forward those collaborative projects that actively challenge the attenuated conceptualisation of the individual that underpins dominant notions of identity, notions that will admit the relevance of relationships but not their primacy in creating self, Bakhtin’s dialogical self, if you will (Shotter 2005).

It should be clear at this point that the relationships we enter into do not have some mystical quasi spiritual status that draws us into being. There is no plea here for a volk at worst or some vague sense of community at best. No, rather it is a sense of self and identity that develops through the struggle with others, so that at any one time it can contain those emotional dimensions of self that we call happiness, sadness, purpose or lack of purpose.

This is the process of learning, we can use the skills of reading, writing, speaking in this process but we should not reduce the process to these human skills, in this sense the skills we acquire in the field of practice that we call education become part of those critical resources we can use with others to drive forward our development as a species.  This return to Vygotsky becomes an advance that is so wonderfully encapsulated in Brendan Keneally’s poem (2003: 60),

“Though we live in a world that dreams of ending
that always seems about to give in
something that will not acknowledge conclusion
insists that we forever begin.”

Not a bad place to begin a point of departure into our future on this planet and not a bad definition of a reclaimed learning that will not acknowledge that this is as good as it gets.

We begin with a history and the formidable weight of human productive energy, if we can believe that the expropriation of that history and the utilisation of that energy can be combined and then act on that combination we not only reclaim learning, we also create a new critical resource for all those social and economic struggles against capital. That resource historically points to the contradiction in capital that it has both freed and enslaved. At the same time with the development of this resource we could begin to locate the development of freedom in our self development (Humanity) and locate slavery (oppression and exploitation) in those social and economic structures we have thrown up in a collective development of the species since our emergence as a qualitatively different species (modern Homo sapiens sapiens) some 200,000 years ago (the Human condition). The starting point is a questioning of that claim that there is a fundamental human pathology as old as modern homo sapiens that can be called the human condition. The journey should continue with the process of negating those early collective endeavours of hunter gatherer societies (our humanity then) with an examination and celebration of how collective development today can lay the basis for a free self development, it is not a denial of 200,000 years and it may contribute to another 200,000 years of life for us on this planet.

This is essentially the struggle between our common humanity and the human condition revealed through a re – appropriation of that process that both pulls us into the world and enables us to grasp that world and change it, the process of learning.

“What is to be done?”

The danger of conclusions is that they precisely sign off, draw a line, end!

But not to conclude provides no beginning for any one else, this is not some clever (or conversely puerile) paradox.

How can a conclusion stimulate thinking and ways of acting that begin with our capacity to act on the structures we live and work within? In the literature of Trotskyist sects you often found the part sentence, “The working class must….!” Very much like the stopped clock there were occasions when their demand for our action was right, only to be ossified as space and time in the social world moved on from midnight. So there is the problem, how does the owl of Minerva change its habits and take wing at dawn instead?

This is no time for lists of proposals for a range of social forces to follow. Rather it is the time when, while resolutely resisting all the attacks on whatever gains that have been made in existing society we also set out all the intellectual and practical resources we have for claiming our identities, our individuality, our foresight as human beings.

We should struggle at every level of society, a dialectical moment, process, when we embark on the struggle against capital through out society. So at these moments the most apparently modest intervention in the personal resistance to our modification and manipulation resonates with universal resistance and, crucially with new collective ways to encourage and stimulate self development.

Remember that the bigger battles, the resurgence of Trades Unionism, the resistance to global exploitation and war not only strengthen people materially they create a confidence and an intellectual space for each individual to participate in change. For Academics mired in regimes of conformity, trapped in the ideology of the global knowledge economy, the simplest attempts to, say, transcend modularisation provides that light at dawn for new practices, new ways of being that here today actively act on that moment when we all realise our capacity to either submit or challenge: Let me end with a big thought and one of my beginnings!

I began here with a quote cited in 1986 from the work of an educational philosopher who is considered to have been an analytical philosopher of Education concerned only with the analysis of ‘strictly defined methods and techniques’ in pursuing an understanding of Education ethically and cognitively. It is slightly naughty because this where my interest in Peters begins and ends, for me the rather dated concern to get things right has been outstripped by the breath taking progression of human development and destruction that actually necessitates a return to those bigger questions. The question I propose is reasonably simple, can I in my discussion, teaching and learning about one of the foundational disciplines of Education Studies, Philosophy, set out on the path proposed rather contradictorily by Peters, who consistently rejected such ‘big’ thinking in his work? Or maybe the ‘can’ is wrong, should I in fact be getting on with this task as part of a much bigger project of developing critical thinking and practice in the field.

I will start (again) with a fairly bald statement, Education as a field of practice is dominated by big ideas: dominant ways of thinking about education are governed by a set of assertions about  the process of learning and the practice of teaching.  Process and practice are judged to be worthwhile and useful if they:

1. Play a measurable (quantifiable) part in child development. This incorporates notions of what constitutes childcare and upbringing and is enshrined in the Every Child matters agenda and the common core of skills for the children’s workforce. That current government policy may cut the public service expenditure in children’s services does not erode dominant ideas about family, upbringing, discipline and the discourse of responsibility and obligation placed on each individual, a discourse with roots in possessive individualism.

2. Explicitly develop measurable skills across the life span. The dominant trope here is that the process of learning and the practice of teaching come together as training. Training is the recognisable and quantifiable relationship between a provider and purchaser underpinned by an instrumental rationalism that dominates in the field of practice precisely because each person enters that field of practice as an individual:

“The self – governing individual constitutes the ultimate unit of the social sciences; and that all social phenomena resolve themselves into decisions and actions of individuals that need not or cannot be further analysed in terms of superindividual factors.” Page 888, Joseph Schumpeter (1954) History of Economic analysis, New York, OUP.

“The important doctrine that all social phenomena, and especially the functioning of all social institutions, should always be understood as resulting from the decisions, actions, attitudes, etc., of human individuals and that we should never be satisfied by an explanation in terms of so-called collectives (states, nations, races etc).’ page 91, Karl Popper (1945) The Open Society and its enemies, London, Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Methodological individualism of this kind however does not sit with a libertarian approach to individual conduct in the dominant discourses, ideas and concepts at play in current educational practice, policy and vision. Rather it is coupled with and underpins a neo conservative moral project emphasising the duties and obligations that frame instrumental rationality in current strategy and policy. The purchaser and provider are at work producing particular products and commodities. The student  / pupil begins her instrumental journey as a purchaser of the product and at the end of the process emerges as  a commodity herself in what is asserted to be a global market in the knowledge economy. This ideological slight of hand is one shared by most policy makers and politicians and taken for granted as the ‘given state of affairs’ by many people on the field of practice. This ideological construct, globalisation, is in effect the conceptual framework for disciplining training and education precisely because each individual is obliged and has a duty to take her place in a world dominated by:

  • The Global Knowledge economy and a global managerial and technocratic staff.
  • Global Governance: Global discourses of governance
  • Global Super Capital: The ‘myth’ of the ‘stateless and nationless multinational company.
  • Global space and time.

Process and practice are judged to be worthwhile and useful if therefore they can be disciplined in a dominant  paradigm: schooling. This paradigm is the site of struggle over who disciplines and indeed forms the ideological struggle between those whose conception of free schooling would place that discipline firmly in the hands of capital and those who remain wedded to some form of social democratic model of control in the global knowledge economy.

Herein lies my problem, there are clearly very strong political, economic, social and philosophical ideas at play here. To respond with polemic and rhetoric at the level of appearances is fine, we can point out that free schools as policy will not lead to parental control precisely because economic reality dictates that the resources of capital are required to fund educational institutions. The point is however I remain

trapped within a particular paradigm, I can refer to and quite rightly defend the gains of the post war settlement, or what remains of that settlement, but I cannot free myself from the ideological terrain on which my intervention takes place. This is the point at which I need to reassess the critical resources I have at hand in order to effectively challenge the historically specific rule of capital in my field of practice. I have to work and re work ideas, concepts, methods of thinking that I have inherited to make that move that challenges hegemonic ideas about how we should educate, teach and learn, that challenge in turn needs to return to practice, helping overturn mere existence through the actualisation of experience. This simply is the point at which not just I, but many of us, refuse to live, exist, in the old way and begin a process of experiencing practice that actively creates transitional ways of being, of becoming, of developing that constitute new material forces not just at the local level, but internationally: at this point I acknowledge my intellectual debt to the struggles of those in the global South who have got on with that task:

“The Philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.” Karl Marx (1976). Collected Works, London, Lawrence & Wishart: p 8.

The key issue here is that the move towards a critical teaching and engagement with the process of learning is trapped, as much as my head might create phantom freedoms I remain part of the academy, part of a schooled and disciplined environment, part of a categorising and controlling network with Brecht’s challenge ringing in my ears:

‘As man is only human, he must eat before he can think, fine words are only empty air, they are not his meat and drink.’

I’m trapped and complicit in a world that offers fine goods to those of us lucky enough to live and breathe in one small part of the global north and one small part of our structured and at times overwhelming social space. In this context the temptation to simply give up is powerful, but help is at hand in the very depths of my subject field, in the historical reach of human thinking and practice across history, in the critical resources I can work over with colleagues and students. This is where I (no! We) can begin.

What do you think?


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2 replies »

  1. Hi there,
    I’m indebted to work done in Popkewitz and Fendler ‘Critical Theories in Education (1999), Routledge, pages 118 – 120 by Stef Callewaert for providing a framework for dominant paradigms in education and schooling, often re reading one’s work in public is an important part of both developing one’s thoughts and recognising their genesis. The work on globalisation is clearly based on my reading of Terry Wrigley’s writing for JCEPS.
    My next task is to take up some of the conceptual work I have done recently around Hegelian conceptions that Marx firmly grounded on their feet. It is often said that Marx turned Hegel on to his head, but actually that is where Hegel began! Marx’s grounding of the dialectic however does continue to raise the problem that it its focus on species being and its development could be regarded as narrowly ableist. Where does becoming and development lead when memory, for instance leaves?

  2. Thanks for your info it will assist in my research.

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