Thursday 3 November 2011

The banality of 'restructuring'

After recommending to a friend that she read Erich Fromm's "The Fear of Freedom", I came across a nice collection of "Fromm quotes".. The first one struck me as apt for what is happening in education at the moment: "As we ascend the social ladder, viciousness wears a thicker mask.". Managerialism is in full-sway in Universities as they restructure in the light of uncertainty over student fees, and there are numerous reports of a "thick-masked vicousness" being unleashed on academic staff up and down the country. Most often this manifests itself as a game of musical chairs: make everyone re-apply for their jobs, but ensure there are fewer jobs than there are people.

But the 'thicker mask' that managerialism wears in such instances is made from ordinary people doing what appear to be ordinary jobs following procedures determined by senior managers. This makes me think more about Hannah Arendt than Erich Fromm. In 'The banality of Evil' Arendt made a telling analysis of the behaviour of Adolf Eichmann who famously pleaded that he was "only obeying orders". She says:
“The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal. From the viewpoint of our legal institutions and of our moral standards of judgment, this normality was much more terrifying than all the atrocities put together.”
She concludes that
"The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.”   
Nobody in Higher Education is evil. But individuals nevertheless become ambitious. Ego clouds their judgement, and as it does so can numb their sensibility to what is right. This is more dangerous at a time when sensibility to what is right is already clouded by the sheer complexity of events. At such moments, and particularly for people in power, becoming part of the mask of viciousness increases its appeal simply as a survival strategy.

Under such circumstances, there is a pathological mechanism that can set in. And with it, I fear, there is a distant but distinct possibility of evil amongst those who "never make up their minds to be good or evil". I think this is where we are now in the world. I am frightened.

Fromm would identify in the pathology the failure of individuation - the "Fear of freedom" and the choice of the herd rather than a radical realisation of self through creativity. Ironically, the real mess we are in is only revealed when we consider that the route to a radical realisation of self is education. I don't think it is an over-statement to say that for this to be happening in education is a human tragedy, and one which will have deep repercussions for our children.

Arendt knew the critical significance of education, and I could not possibly do better than quote her on it...
"Education is the point at which we decide whether we love the world enough to assume responsibility for it, and by the same token save it from that ruin which except for renewal, except for the coming of the new and the young, would be inevitable. And education, too, is where we decide whether we love our children enough not to expel them from our world and leave them to their own devices, nor to strike from their hands their chance of undertaking something new, something unforeseen by us, but to prepare them in advance for the task of renewing a common world.”  


Astrid Johnson said...

Strong stuff. Bravo!!!!!!

Anonymous said...

I commented on tWitter about this and was told to man up and comment properly. I said, Management possibly don't get the Fromm quote but, also, there are some in the sector, academics and support, that are too tired to implement the spirit of the quote. I said that Management aren't able to love the Tired back into shape. With restructures comes FUD, from every direction, which does more damage than the restructure. There's no way to write that and make it sound good when, if ejected, a colleague may never recover from the change. Some institutional situations are bad. Managements' previous trust in government and the ideal that education should be free has led to comfortable/obvious/lazy/correct decisions. Right now there is a mad scrap to survive. I want to be part of an institution that survives, that thrives. I said on tWitter that I don't have any answers, I'm naive. I think that we need to find the stars of our institution's academic and support staff, to amplify their sound. Institutions need to be as open as possible, not to cheat in order to survive but to take the crowd with them. To survive we may have to support some of their decisions and nudge in the right direction rather than resist the dodgy ones.

Mark Johnson said...

Are you referring to the Fromm quote (about viciousness) or the Arendt quote about Eichmann?
When you say you don't have an answer, I think you should think harder about an answer!

Fromm's answer is individuation through creativity. I agree with him. As a learning technologist, I am interested in how technology might help us to realise this...

Anonymous said...

Doh...the Arendt quote. The last one. Multitasking. Technology will never hold a student in thrall in the same way as a lecturer does with a good story. It breaks down when they get bored/weary of telling them. Tech can be exciting but can't reach the heights I felt as an undergrad standing with others around a coffee machine listening to the lecturer during his fag break. I'm trying to build an argument that says tech doesn't add to community but it brought me here to read this. Maybe, tech doesn't fizz with enthusiasm, it doesn't bounce, wide eyed with words that sink in. Bookmark and quote later. There is good writing but that is by the academics (just academics? aren't we all academics?) you want to have a coffee with. Thinking about it, trying to widen my thinking, and maybe getting back to a proper subject, tech may help us identify the best writing. OERs (it must be Open) plus social comment could help but that may marginalise subjects. We need to identify the most similar Wheels and aggregate them. We need to help academics understand OERs, that they should be decoupled from the institution, the course and the academic. I'm sure you know all this. We may never settle on an ontology to describe it all but it would help.


I'm with you on creativity. It's when it stops or is stopped that we fail.

Mark Johnson said...

The issue about technology is what fascinates me most. Somehow we have to understand the difference between face-to-face and online engagement. At the same time, we should be aware that online currently is dominated by text, and this may not be the case in the future.

This is why I am fascinated by 'attachment theory' as a way of situating the human relationships we have face-to-face (i.e. mother-child) with the relationships we have online. Work of Ethologists like Lorenz might suggest that there may be a point in the development of technology where our biological mechanisms of attachment may be triggered online in a very similar way to the way they are face-to-face. That would take us to a different place. I would wish it to be a place of 'conviviality' and 'individuation'...

dkernohan said...

Latest in a stream of excellent posts Mark, I've lost count of the number of people I've recommended this blog to.

"Education is the point at which we decide whether we love the world enough to assume responsibility for it" is pretty near perfect.