Friday 5 November 2010

Learning fetishism and the ontology of educational institutions: A response to Graham Attwell

I had a thoughtful response from Graham Attwell (see after yesterday's post. He said that I "seem to think institutions exist outside social, political and cultural forces in society". Of course I don't - in fact the very opposite. I ought to say, however, that I used to be more sympathetic to Graham's position than I am now, having done a lot of work on Personal Learning Environments - only to see learners and teachers struggle with the concepts and technologies and feel alienated by the process.

What are the ontological implications of the ultra-personalised anti-institutional model of education proposed by those advocates of learner-driven education? It is an individualistic model of a society of learners seeking to increase personal power (I want my learning and I want it now!), yet strangely unconcerned with the morphology of their collective agency and the institutional forms it takes. (Despite the fact that most advocates of this are employed by institutions!) Institutional overthrow is one thing (but be careful what you wish for!); but to suppose the individual is separable from those collective social forms which shape them (starting with their families) seems to me to be a category mistake: persons, it strikes me, are not singular entities, and learning is not an individual activity. To think otherwise is what I would call 'learning fetishism'.

My argument is that persons as agents reproduce and transform the social structures they inhabit, and in turn are conditioned and constrained by those social structures. Learning is tied up in the process; it is not an end in itself. This structure-agency ontology is well-known in sociology, being associated with Giddens, Bhaskar and Archer (although they disagree on the details!). Learning Fetishism wants to change the structural context of education as a way of changing the agency of individuals so that ideal 'learning' processes as ends in themselves emerge in those individuals. But this is to fail to see the symbiotic co-determination of agents and structure. Institutions and the learners are a single organism, making it very difficult to intervene in structure without addressing individual motivations which are shaped by structure and contribute to its existence. Usually, such structural interventions don't work because individuals don't see 'what's in it for me'. The extreme end of learning fetishism seeks to remove the institutions so as to remove the structural impediments to transforming agency. But this is like taking a scalpel to part of the organism without knowing what that part really does. The consequences (were there to be a realistic peaceful way of doing it) are likely to be terrible. These are the natural consequences of the mistaken belief that learning is an end in itself.

Learning fetishism I think is a form of utopian idealism which I now believe is quite pernicious. It is not that people with this view are not well-intentioned: clearly they are. But they leave the door open to those who aren't, who may seek to destroy institutions for their own purposes - and our current government, with its sharpened scalpels at the ready, is showing some worrying signs of wanting to do this. If we're not careful, we'll be back on Hayek's "Road to Serfdom" (see

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