Saturday, 22 March 2014

The Social Ontology of Education and Managerial Delusions

I'm writing an EU bid at the moment for which there's a really exciting international consortium coming together. No guarantees that the thing will get funded of course, but what's interesting is the fact that everybody I've shown it to 'get's it' (even if they will have powerful critical things to say about the detail). Deep down, it is a project about the social ontology of education and how it relates to society - and where technology fits in the relationship.

Although education is deeply contested (something which naive managers pretend isn't true: "Universities are businesses," they snarl), there are real things about educational experience which are pretty universal. The problem is that they are so deeply embedded within human experience that we struggle to find the words to articulate it, and because of that we struggle to organise ourselves to facilitate it. In place of attempting to articulate realities, we busy ourselves with the educational artifice of assessments, marketing, retention, certificates, and so on - and very quickly we lose sight of reality altogether. The hope for all those labouring under the pathological, naive, idiotic, greedy, power-crazed (and in some cases, downright nasty) lunatics who appear to be running our institutions at the moment is that reality always bites back in the end.

Where do we start with a social ontology of education? Conversation is not a bad starting point. Education is about people talking and listening with each other. It is through conversation that learning happens, and it is through conversation that we come to know that learning has happened. Some conversations are deeply powerful. One hopes in a university that Professors are those with whom one might expect a powerful conversation (although the title of 'professor' is no guarantee of this!). Powerful conversations are those moments of mutual opening of souls where there is a sharing of the abyss that each of us in daily life prefers to look away from - Hegel puts it: "The spirit is this power that looks the negative in the eye and stays there". Powerful conversations build courage, confidence and reveal new possibilities. The fundamental result of any powerful conversation is that new kinds of conversation become possible: usually this is made possible by asking powerful questions of each other. In a university, many powerful conversations involve people who are dead, who hold their part in the conversation through the books they wrote, or the art they created in their lifetimes. One of the functions of academics in the university is to facilitate the conversations both of the living and present (students, other academics) and of the not-yet-born. For the latter, we must leave behind our contribution to the discourse. Technologies give us new ways of doing this (I was fascinated to learn that Tony Benn not only kept vast quantities of records of his political life, but also maintained the various technologies - tape recorders, video, etc - which were necessary to revisit these: this is precisely what I mean about facilitating the conversation with the not-yet-born)

The most important thing about conversation, the most important skill that professors ought to learn (but rarely do) is the skill of listening. Conversation is talking and listening with each other. But now we come to the reality bite-back moment and the problem with our current crop of educational managers. They believe education is about certificates, assessments, income and graduation photos. Some students are led to believe this too - although the belief tends not to take them very far. They may well agree that powerful conversations are important - providing they deliver income. But deep down their 'production' model of education leads them to believe that people should be talked-at, not talked-with. As the hysteria kicks in prompted by falling rolls and poor retention, so there's an ever shrill demand from managers talking-at (or yelling-at) their staff: "you teach well, or we'll terminate your role! We'll replace you with cheaper, keen, young 'new blood' lecturers! We'll take them fresh from their PhDs in Oxford and burn them out, then replace them. That's the future - There Is No Alternative! Dissent will not be tolerated!"

Talking-at or Talking-and-listening-with? There's the ontological tension. We've had two years of this nasty business in institutions up and down the country. The signs are not good. As a PhD student said to me recently (who is likely to become 'fresh meat' staff somewhere or other), "Well, they think they're using these young lecturers and burning them out, only to replace them. In reality, those young lecturers will use the institution and it'll be worse off for it." There are already signs that the transplanted organs are being rejected by, or are rejecting the body. That's ontology for you!

The real question now is about the attachment between the body of staff who represent an institution, who have powerful conversations with their students, and managers whose ontological view is delusional. The sinews are stretched to breaking point. What next? Well, it's an interesting moment!


cj said...

It is an interesting moment. Sadly it's not about right or good ideas but powerful allies and the nonsense agenda of the managerialista finds a fairly predictable response from the good folk in the trenches. Time to be a little less obvious, visible and compliant.

Professional Coursework Writing Service UK said...

Education is not just about certificates and Degrees.It opens the mind and broadens the horizons.

It teaches us the moral values, manners and listening to each other.It teaches us mutual respect, love and sacrifice for each other.