Sunday 24 October 2010

Poverty and 'Widening Participation'

Poverty is often associated with the absence of something in someone in comparison to others' possession of it. Causal connections are then made between the absence and the social and physical ills that are caused by it: starvation, stigma, crime, unrest, etc. What tends to happen in this chain of thinking is that an attempt is made to identify the absence, and measures are taken to remedy it. But identifying the absence in poverty is a tricky business, and frequently the failed social attempts to 'plug the gap' testify to a misidentified absence. Logically, this might raise a methodological question: "how to better intervene in the alleviation of poverty through better identification of absences"...

But I wonder about absence in the first place. Each human being, as such, possesses the requisite regulating mechanisms for maintaining viability in a remarkably wide range of environments. That some starve, or survive only a few weeks is not through any absence within. It is through trying to exist in particular hostile environments: war zones, drought-ridden landscapes, etc. And whilst some of those environments are physical (drought), more often than not the very presence of human life in those areas is the result of pathological social forms which destroy human life.

Rather than defining poverty as absence, I would prefer to define it as 'blockage'. For the capacity to transform social pathologies rests in each one of us. That we continue to reproduce them is not from any absence, but because our agency to do so is blocked: usually by ourselves and our ideas of our abilities.

Understanding blockages means understanding the relationship between reflexive processes and social transformation; between agency and social structure. And this is where education comes in.

Education is about removing blockages. But we have traditionally seen higher education as an elite activity. The powers of 'unblocked' reflexive transformation of social forms as belonging to a few. But we no longer have a world where a division between the elite and the masses can be managed (and attempts to manage it like this always resulted in catastrophic conflict). We have a world deeply inter-connected, where connections are  fashioned out of conflicting value positions, where the agency of each individual irrespective of their social position carries risks which have a bearing on everyone else.

Maybe the only way to make such an inter-connected world work is to move towards a global understanding of the power of the individual. And such a global understanding of the power of the individual starts with the individual recognising their power and learning to use it effectively and responsibly. And this requires the removal of blockages.

Higher education is not the only way to achieve this, but it might be the most effective. It works because it creates a context for critical free communication, unlike the everyday world where communications tend to be more constrained. This is particularly important in those parts of the world where any sort of personal freedom is highly constrained. Through free critique individuals can learn to unblock themselves (if they learn nothing about this, then higher education is not doing its job!), and in becoming more unblocked (freer) as individuals they become (by my definition) less poor through being able to realise the power of the resources latent within them.

So why is our current government intent on hitting those institutions that work to widen participation in education? Short term thinking about costs and benefits and consumer models of education are very dangerous. There is, frankly, a poverty of thought: government has its own blockages - a vestige of an elite education system. I worry that the costs to society and the world of not widening participation in education are far graver than the costs of providing it.

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