Monday 6 December 2010

The redescription of educational reality

There is something mad about education. The madness is made more apparent when those who are part of the system which is to blame for the current crisis vocally support the student protests against the political response to that crisis.

I think there is a problem with those who are part of the system "protesting". The students ought to be protesting against them too: "what do you do that's worth £9000 a year of public (or my) money?" It's a good question isn't it?

I'm interested in the madness because the protesters (students and 'insiders') seem to balance each other out. Their values deep down are conflicting, and the end result is a sort of impotence which guarantees some degree of stability. Of course, if the protesters sorted out the inconsistencies in the deep values of those who support them, then as I said yesterday, they would win a victory. But let's assume they don't do this. What will happen? My guess is the protests will peter out, particularly in response to minor concessions. The system will remain stable. Education may remain unchanged. Some universities will become even more powerful (that's ominous!). Students will reluctantly pay their fees. Bad debts will occur in the future, but that's tomorrow's problem.

Pathology in individuals is borne out of confusion: an inability to unpick the double-binds that we are tied up in. In cybernetics, Ashby tells us about 'requisite variety': that only variety (the number of states a system can exist in) can absorb variety. But the logical consequence of this is 'requisite pathology'. A pathological system occurs when variety is out of control, and this can happen with confusion and crisis. But one mad individual may provide the requisite variety for another mad individual thus producing a stable system. This may be what happens with the protests.

Requisite pathology I think is a realistic way of looking at the world. It has something in common with Kauffman's idea of the 'edge of chaos'. Most cyberneticians like to think that variety can be managed in a rational way which can be planned for. But how variety is really managed is much more complex, multi-layered and dependent on social dynamics which defeat the best attempts to engineer all-in 'solutions'.

I think if we really want to change the education system, we need to understand the mechanisms of requisite pathology. Ultimately, new categories are required which can help individuals identify the double-binds they are caught in. Historical figures who effect massive social transformation do it through a process of redescription, allowing individuals to untie themselves from their current pathologies (of course, over time they create new ones!). Jesus and Marx are good examples. Jesus brought new categories about love and freedom; Marx brought new categories about work and equality. What redescription can address our current pathologies?

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