Monday 4 March 2013

"Homo Sovietus" and an Imagined Educational Dystopia

I've been reading Andreï Makine's "A life's Music" which draws on Alexander Zinoviev's concept of "homo sovieticus" - the particular species of human being bent by the Soviet system. Zinoviev's concept was characterised by (from Wikipedia:

  • Indifference to the results of his labour 
  • Indifference to common property and petty theft from the workplace, both for personal use and for profit. 
  • Isolation from world culture, created by the Soviet Union's restrictions on travel abroad and strict censorship of information in the media (as well as the abundance of propaganda).
  • Obedience or passive acceptance of everything that government imposes on them. 
  • Avoidance of taking any individual responsibility on anything. 
  • a tendency to drink heavily
As Makine points out, Zinoviev's characterisation resonated with everyone. It was the concept everybody in the system could relate to. When everyone has a shared experience like that, a powerful concept can take root and be transformative in beginning to overturn the system.

But we all have a shared experience of education too. In the future, we might all have a shared experience of online education. If Homo Sovieticus was the result of an educational rather than a political system, what would we see? Perhaps Zinoviev's features can be transposed to education like this:
  • Indifference to knowledge and wisdom
  • Indifference to social responsibility and politics
  • Isolation from each other
  • Obedience to institutional rules and regulations
  • Avoidance of taking personal responsibility or risk
  • and a tendency to drink heavily!
We can probably recognise a few 'strategic learners' in there! But the point about Zinoviev is that everyone was like that. Could everyone become like that in our education system? What kind of education system might produce this kind of alienation? 

I find this an interesting question. Most of the time we try to design educational utopias. We tend to spend less time designing dystopias. But it's quite good fun, so let's have a go...

To produce this kind of alienation, an education system would have to be oppressive, and individuals would be unable to escape it. No professional advancement would be possible without succumbing to the education system and gaining the certification it produced. So there would need to be high level legislation which restricted the actions of employers in ensuring only those with the appropriate paperwork could be employed. Further legislation could be produced which controlled the promotion of employees to particular roles depending on the gaining of further certificates. Competencies, dictated by institutions and professional bodies, and only capable of  being signed-off by accredited institutions, would determine complete dependency on engagement with those institutions. Technology means that the scale of tracking and categorising competencies and certificates for each individual is easily managed with the help of a DNA fingerprint. There is no way of slipping through the net.

One would think that working for educational institutions would then be a safe place to be in such a system. But this is not the case. In this dystopian world, education is the biggest employer. (The jobs in sectors that education produces certificates for are largely automated and so provide few jobs, although each individual gaining certification hopes they will be lucky!) As an employer, education is a trap. Whilst each individual aims for the heights of educational virtue, the institutional system - struggling as it does to keep everyone busy - puts barriers in the way to prevent anything happening. But what does this do to the spirit of the people?

Like every human being, individuals in this dystopian education system search for meaning in their lives. They used to search for food - and at least that is plentiful thanks to the automation of the farms. But now they search for meaning in a world which is befuddling. In the complexity of this world of education, there is no way of connecting the dots. Each person hopes one day to have worked it out. But it is futile. The system preaches meaningfulness, but produces bureaucracy and petty rules. Each individual might plan their actions as 'the next step' towards a meaningful existence. But each step is thwarted by some official blockage or other "ah - but you need certified competency 2.3.5 to do that... go to this website... and there's a fee..." And then at every step of the way is an invitation to consume a bewildering and unpalatable array of financial products and services (in order to pay for education) which will further bear on the restrictions to act meaningfully for many years in the future.

So what emerges? The only meaning available is to play the system; become part of the bureaucracy. And from there the human indifference and isolation which is the hallmark of Zinoviev's Homo Sovieticus starts to reveal itself.

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