Saturday, 13 December 2014

Queer Education, Powerful Knowledge and the big "YES!": Some thoughts on #SRHE2014

I'm slightly embarrassed to say that the most profound experience I had at the fantastic #SRHE2014 conference was catching a symposium at the very end when all the papers had almost all been delivered and there was a discussion going on. The session was a 'first' for the SRHE on Queer theory and Education recommended to me by Catherine Cronin (Thanks!). The atmosphere in the room was completely different from anything else I had seen in the conference (all of which had been of an exceptionally high level of academic engagement) - indeed different from anything else I have seen in any conference.

Throughout the conference, there'd been quite a lot of talk about about Michael Young's idea of 'powerful knowledge'. Sue Clegg's brilliant keynote (see mentioned Morrow's work on "Epistemic access", and Ray Land talked about "ontological shift" (it was Land's presentation on the relationship between threshold concepts, Perkins's "troublesome knowledge" and ontological shift which really helped me to get to grips with the intellectual territory). All of these are important concepts in determining what it is we might mean by "higher learning" - a question of great significance at a time of market-driven widening participation, educational consumerism, fetishism, etc. Yet I was slightly troubled by Land's presentation of "troublesome knowledge": wasn't this reinforcing the division between the institution and the rest of society? Wasn't it simply feeding back to academics the cosy message that they were the purveyors of the powerful/troublesome knowledge, and their role in that power relation ought to be defended? Land argued that the knowledge existed in communities which traversed institutional structures reaching out into society through other institutions like hospitals, professional bodies, etc. I wasn't entirely convinced. It still seemed that the "powerful knowledge"/"troublesome knowledge" argument was upholding a function of education as the maintainer of what Illich calls the "scarcity of education".

Illich's battle was against what he saw as 'regimes of scarcity' - whether it was in education, health, energy, transport and even gender. I agree. Working for the University of Bolton (and there are many institutions like it), the regime of scarcity of knowledge is always the principle ontological barrier that academics face on a daily basis: the fact that perverse institutional structures (not really Bolton's fault - everyone's fallen into this), regulations, ridiculous learning outcomes come into head-on conflict with real lives and real experiences, difficult educational histories, social disadvantage and lack of employment. The function of those structures is too often to uphold scarcity: it is too often to say "no" when students submit their assignments, when the institution was only too happy to say "yes" when they enrolled not on the basis of any deep educational mission, but on the basis of market forces and managerial pathology.

I don't really buy the "Powerful knowledge" argument, nor do I accept "troublesome knowledge": indeed I think it may be pernicious. "Ontological shifts" do happen - but they are not scarce: they happen everywhere. I think what matters are "powerful conversations". It's the social dynamic between people, whether teachers and learners, or learners and learners, which changes lives, not knowledge (what is that, anyway?!). Institutions serve as the hosts of powerful conversations, and traditionally have been good at this. Powerful conversations are always fearless and always intellectually honest. As market forces erode institutional governance, fear takes over the institution, accountability compromised and core mission forgotten, the space for powerful conversations, troubling conversations, challenging conversations is also eroded (witness the Thomas Docherty case at Warwick). This erosion is not an erosion of some abstract "knowledge"; it is a real material erosion: removal of people who "don't fit" (another declaration of scarcity - again see Warwick's current round of redundancies); deprivation of funding to areas of the curriculum where critical challenge might emerge (the arts and humanities) and concentration of funding on fetish areas (sports cars, etc) or STEM areas where political critique is virtually impossible: STEM declares scarcity of 'technical knowledge' when that too is all around us.

Why is that session on Queer theory so important? Because it was a big "YES" rather than a "NO". I don't know the Queer literature (I've got a lot of reading to do!). But (and I don't know if this fits at all with the literature - I'm bound to upset somebody!) I have long thought that George Bataille's critique of rationality as a veneer over deeply irrational taboos resonated with what I heard Vicky Gunn describing as the problem of binary oppositions in our educational thinking. "YES" I thought. More importantly, Bataille's analysis of those deep, erotic impulses in human life was that they were simply a big "YES" - "assenting to life even in death". This is fearlessness. This is what makes us thirsty for knowledge; the "NO" only comes from fear. It's not that we all want to get laid (although most of us probably do), it's that this is the fire that makes us human. Isn't it the wellspring of knowledge?

Isn't it everywhere?

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