Here’s an excerpt from a post a little while ago over at the Deckchairs on the obligation and failure of tertiary institutions to recognise their students:
“There are students in every classroom I teach who know that politics is run by people who have more comfortable lives than they do. As far as they can tell, this is also true of our education system. Our marketing focuses on the happy groups of students with laptops having coffee, the lone beautiful thinker in the upmarket casual wear, staring into the middle distance imagining the graduate premium on her future salary clinking into the coin tray. The student barely making it onto campus because of back to back shifts at work, the student struggling with the price of coffee let alone laptops, the student trying to get through their innovative hybrid students-as-producers digital making learning experience using only their phone, sees the gap widen.”
Many of the kids who are serious about learning as a way to achieve a new level of respect, security, and comfort which they’ve not had – we do not even see them in class. For them, study is done in lonely spaces and times, where no one sees, no-one interacts with them. Or their classes are fitted wall to wall on a single day off to make room for paid employment. They are the ones caring for parents with cancer. Looking after siblings as their parents go through acrimonious divorce. Or are shaking and shuddering with depression and anxiety about what might happen if they don’t manage to get this task done, and then the next, and then the next.
In this context, mass education looks like a mistake. Or, mass education as it is currently run in Australia – unlimited enrolment places, infinitely downloadable resources, and more importantly perhaps, the attention of a teacher that is reduced to minutes across the semester according to a workload model that distributes the attention by hour and role.
What sort of educational institution would recognise its students properly?
Kate had written, immediately after her description,
“When the institution you’re already paying money to can’t recognise you, the institution that promised you so much in terms of care and attention can’t quite focus its lens on you, seems to be less proud of you than of some others, what happens next?”
The broad point of the concept of recognition in politics points to the way in which individuals are not the ‘basic unit’ of a society. Relationships are the basic unit. Me and you. Neighbours. Business and employee. Pedestrians and car-drivers. Mothers and Fathers and daughters and sons. Teachers and students, and each student and the other students.
There is a relationship of interdependence between me and you: At numerous different levels, I rely on your respect for me to be a capable, confident, and independently-functioning person in the world. My parents helped form my psyche and my confidence; my school-peers helped form my social habits and my knowledge; my teachers showed me benchmarks and norms for what counts as knowledge, as right, and as reliable, and also treated my efforts as the efforts of someone who was someone, and will be someone. My employers have given me opportunity and reward and honed my skills in doing so. And so on.
In each case, the others recognise in me one like them, an equal – not in power or wealth or talent, but a moral equal, one that shares their identity as a person, one that shares the same rights and language and ladder of development. And in living and growing and accepting that recognition, I mirrored back their recognition in acceptance of their role in my formation. My acceptance justified and corroborated their respect.
I am not an island. And neither is each student. Nor are those who teach in a University. Attention, a resource for these relationships, is required to secure recognition. And when attention is minimised to a thin, easily reproducible and distributable, and constantly assailed resource, then recognition must accordingly be fragile, fleeting, and hard to find.