Wednesday 12 August 2020

The Exams Crisis: The Establishment Crumbles from Society's Children Upwards

Coronavirus is exposing the poverty of understanding of what really matters in society. If education  has been seen to be a priority at all, it is because the function of school in "keeping the kids off the streets" has been prioritised (behind lots of bluster about "learning"). 

In its ongoing development, like any organic entity, a society must exercise ways of making distinctions about things. Most of all, it must make distinctions about its own components as old components die, and new ones are born. Societies are autopoietic. Unfortunately, the ways that society conceives of its components, its structures, its purpose are determined by the established "components", most of whom have a vested interest in sticking to the old ways of making distinctions, and the old ways of structuring things.  Education is the vehicle by which nothing changes: it is supremely resistant to the demand for change, however much the world changes. While "Innovation" might be thought of as an engine for change, in fact this is education's immune system. But it's ok - because the world doesn't change too much.

Well, you can guess what's coming. 

It's not just societies that are autopoietic. People are too. Each of us, as biological entities is continually regenerating our cells in order to maintain our viable functioning in a changing environment. This is where what we call "learning" is happening. For the most part, the most important environmental phenomenon to which we have to adapt is our cultural environment - the world of jobs, money, mortgages, etc. This cultural environment sits on a substrate of the natural world which is biological and physical, but for the most part, the substrate is ignored by those busy with maintaining the culture milieu and making lots of money. 

Ignoring things is dangerous. Universities used to take the natural environment far more seriously than they do now. Fundamental inquiries into nature drove the scientific revolution. But today, nature is merely a "subject", some words on the curriculum, alongside all the other words like "accountancy" and "architecture". Its boxed-off, compartmentalised, separate. But this is the lie from where the ignorance comes.  

Our children are our natural inheritance. Their biology will come to dominate the cultural milieu when we are dead. Because of the rigidness of our thinking about our societal components, we are killing the very resource that offers hope for the future. It's as if we can't help ourselves - and that is one of the most frightening things about coronavirus - the threat of positive feedback in the biological and social system.

This isn't about kids getting into medical school or not, or kids getting grades they were awarded for exams that weren't taken terribly seriously by anyone. It's about how we conceive of the components and organisation of society, and how we create the conditions for development of its ongoing functioning. Everything that is called "Establishment" stems from the selection processes which operate on children in school. Everything is programmed for conservation of a rigid way of doing things, and this conservative impulse gets stronger the more uncertain the world gets. A number of Tory politicians (including the PM)  are saying that we need more exams. This is precisely the phenomenon of ramped-up conservatism in the light of increased uncertainty - positive feedback. 

We may be close to a breaking point. Just as the intense heat of the last few days is finally giving way to thunder and rain, so the anger of young people against a political class which is clearly incompetent may lead to a breath of fresh air. This anger has an existential and biological root, which doesn't just speak for the individual, but for the species. 

Who gets to be a doctor or a teacher? Who gets to be an artist or a thinker?  Who doesn't want to go to university? Who wants to serve in cafes or design space rockets? 

The answer must be: anyone who wants to. Equally, nobody should have to get the mental health problems, eating disorders or suicide attempts. 

Society then must organise itself to make this happen, and what it will take will be a fundamental rethinking of the relationship between nature - including the nature of our biology as sentient organisms - and culture, as the world of language and the speech acts that give us money, presidents, corporations and football matches. 

But this can only happen if society finds a new way to think about itself. It needs a language to express its use of language, in the context of the language it uses to describe its biology, physiology, and the material contents of the planet and the universe. A way of understanding the way we build things, and a way of understanding how we can build things differently. 

The establishment is crumbling. We need a meta-language to escape the trap of positive feedback which will otherwise finish us all off.  

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