Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Historicism and Institutional Fear: What price 'best practice'?

Karl Popper's "The Poverty of Historicism" carries a dedication:
"In memory of the countless men and women of all creeds or nations or races who fell victim to the fascist and communist belief in Inexorable Laws of Historical Destiny" 
Historicism is a common rhetorical device: sweeping accounts of history are used to provide backing to some crazy (and otherwise indefensible) scheme. But historicism, particularly for Popper, was a deeper trend in the social sciences where accounts of the past are methodically analysed to reveal 'laws of society' which are then used to predict the future. These two aspects, the rhetorical and the methodological, are related. For rhetoric, one need look no further than Hitler's speeches (for example, http://www.hitler.org/speeches/02-01-33.html), but it is also inherent in the kind of TINA (Mrs Thatcher's "There Is No Alternative") formations that typified not only the draconian and self-serving measures of the 1980s, but also the austerity agenda of recent years. Without wanting to compare Thatcher to the Nazis (tempting though it is), the formal similarities are striking.

Rhetorical historicism's danger is that it slips off the tongue so easily and hypnotises an audience into uncritical acceptance. It abstracts everything; it refers to no real people, no real situation; it avoids everything fleshly, embodied and human - yet it is the surest sign that whatever hare-brained scheme the rhetoric of historicism is marshalled to defend, it will spell unpleasant embodied experiences for everyone other than those who promote the enterprise (and it will get them too in the end!). There is no more urgent and telling demand for critique: critique in such instances is the difference between slavery and freedom.

Audrey Watters at the #cetis14 conference at the University of Bolton last week highlighted the abuse of history in education, and the latent historicism in sweeping accounts of the development of learning technologies. These have the same purpose - to paint a picture of the inevitability of the current policy (or in Audrey's case, products) of the person or corporation presenting the account. Audrey's job is to critique this with historical examination.

Education is vulnerable to the abuses of historicism, both in terms of rhetoric and methodology. Because learning is both fundamentally metaphysical and continually concretised for the purposes of the education system, a history of the "development of learning and teaching" can pick and choose its way between narratives (for example, "once we had information transmission... now we have social construction of knowledge"): it all sounds plausible. But we can't see what happens in peoples' heads. So who's to know any better? The propositions are unchallengeable, which is why they appeal rhetorically. The confusion is there to be exploited! I can't imagine that Comenius's ideas of education, or Rousseau, Vygotsky or even Freire's ideas were really that different: teaching and learning doesn't really change because human beings don't really change. Only discourses about what we think teaching and learning is change (usually in the light of developments in the organisation of the education system, not through some blinding scientific insight) - but the discourse is not the same as the act of teaching and learning: the map is not the territory.

This creates problems when we try to determine 'good practice'. It creates more problems if we attempt to punish 'bad practice' with dismissal. The discourse of the 'good' and the 'bad' is framed by the needs of  the education system - its "quality procedures", its organisation, its funding - not the needs of society or the needs of individual learners. Its like trying to punish bad artists: it will come down to the judgement of the powerful as to what is good or bad, and at the very least, they are in a poor position to judge: Constable and Van Gogh find themselves on the rubbish heap, whilst Jack Vettriano is promoted to Dean (for commercial acumen and artistic endeavour)!

What is less clear is that the doctrine of 'good' and 'bad' practice is also historicist. It uses precedent from incommensurable situations, ignoring the incompatibilities and the details whilst pulling out general trends and features of the good or the bad. It abstracts surface features and characteristics which can be easily identified by those with little knowledge, but which tell nothing of deeper processes. Like all historicism, it absents real people, real bodies, real situations. Ironically, whilst education rhetoric rightly extols the virtues of inclusivity and accessibility, the very issues of "acknowledging the whole person" are excluded from the way that teachers themselves are measured.

Historicism as methodology was, for Popper, disastrous precisely because of its failure to describe whole situations: "if we cannot know the whole of the present state of mankind, we cannot know the future of mankind" (an important lesson for those interested in Agent-based modelling in society! - another story...) Furthermore, it is impossible to predict individual human action. And there is an added twist to the managerial imposition of methodologies for determining good and bad practice.

All methodologies in the social sciences interfere with experimental subject: there is no detached observer viewpoint. But nothing interferes with an experimental subject such as a teacher in a university more dramatically than a climate of fear. Whatever laudable aims one might have for determining good or bad practice, the implicit threat of redundancy produces oscillations in the organisation which produce entirely unpredictable results. If the fear extends (as it well might) to those who are in charge of the enterprise, who commissioned the inspection in the first place and who wish to assert their authority, it is likely that rather than admit a terrible mistake, they instead pursue their inspection policy with a zeal that only serves to increase institutional instability. The mechanisms are set in place for institutional disaster. What of teaching and learning then? What price 'best practice'?

Our current enthusiasm for managerialism in institutions rests on historicist doctrines which were once associated with communist and fascist governments. Now the same doctrines are at the heart of our institutions - and particularly those institutions like universities whose purpose is contested. It is up to the leaders of those institutions to read people like Popper and to spot the dangers inherent in their situation. It is up to the rest of us to remind them.

1 comment:

Astrid Johnson said...

Strong stuff!