Sunday, 26 June 2011

Education and the Litany of Memory

Litanies are very repetitive. Each time the a petition comes around (typically a prayer to Mary or Jesus), it is different... and the same. In music, the technique of 'litany' is one where a melody is continuously repeated and harmonised in different ways. All this seems closely related to the idea of 'eternal return'. Because in 'eternal return' we see patterns and archetypes return but always with a different colour or harmony. So King Kong is the same as Beauty and the Beast which is the same as Cupid and Psyche... and so on.

Composers and novelists often use the technique of litany to indicate the symbolic eternal return. Berlioz is the best example in music: the idee fixe in the Symphonie Fantastique (see below)  is a melody which occurs throughout the work, from the ball to the countryside to the scaffold.

What does it represent? the burning love for a woman which through all the trials and tribulations of life endures.

Elgar's 1st symphony has a different sort of musical idea and story, but uses a similar technique.
There's something in this about the recognition of patterns (I'm reminded of Jung's comment that all cognition is re-cognition). We constantly feel ourselves to be "where we started and know the place as if for the first time". 

What happens with each passing-through of the melody? Where does it go to? How do we know it when it returns?

What about each passing-through of a phase of education? How do we know it when it returns?

Related to this is the possibility that education is always changing and always the same. Music works in the similar way: always changing and always the same. Luhmann would say that the code of communication keeps changing around a central 'contingency formula'. Education today is not the education of 1945 or the education of 1420. Each of those oriented around a central contingency formula (which Luhmann calls 'cultivation'), but the code is fundamentally different. In 1420, the curriculum was the medieval trivium and quadrivium and the purpose was ecclesiastical education. In 1945, the curriculum was much as we have it today, and the purpose was feeding the economy with workers and consumers. In 2011, both the curriculum and the purpose of education are questions which the education systems of the past don't seem to help us answer. 

But I think the code of education of 2011 is radically different from the code of education even in 1945. It is wired to the economy in quite a different way. Yet the contingency formula is the same: cultivation. 

The code of education, I think, is like the  harmony of a musical litany: recolouring an idee fixe, where motifs (archetypes) keep returning, but the code makes them appear at once different and the same. Technology is clearly part of the transformation of the code. And it may be that the continuing transformation of the code leads to continuing recurrence of the motifs. This is the way that education always goes round in circles!

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