Throat clearing

Whoah, so things got a little inactive here.

Lots of the usual things going on – teaching, research, applying for jobs, autumn holidays – just not much of it registered on this site. But let’s kick back into gear and get some material circulating again, shall we?

To that end, here are some thoughts on what it means to be successful in education, prompted by a recent study of international benchmarks and Australian education policy. The wider point here in the background is that education is a political institution, directly related to the kind of society you live in (see: Plato, Aristotle). We forget that today. We think it’s about maximising funding, ensuring the psychological business of accumulating advantage without unduly harming children, etc. So, a step back is in order.

Success in education is only meaningful in light of outcomes that are relevant within one society or another. If I know Japanese language and culture, this capacity is only well-regarded if it is esteemed in the society in which I live – for example, working as a translator, or living in Japan. This does not mean that a person educated elsewhere is wholly incapable when they move, as people do, from one country to another. To learn is in part to be a well-regarded member, that is, a recognised member, of a society.

In assessing mathematical, reading, or scientific abilities, teachers, parents, organisations and governments abstract away from the practical contexts of knowledge (this was Dewey’s criticism). Qualifications and test results in themselves are merely indicative of certain abstract capacities that may or may not happen in a given context, and may not be very important in lived experience—they are not by themselves essential to individual well-being. They are therefore only a rather partial indicator of the likelihood of well-being. A mere corollation. Exploring the conditions under which one is an esteemed and recognised member of society, however, is a much stronger indicator of the potential likelihood of general social well-being.

Over the last 25 years, Axel Honneth has developed a wide-ranging critical social theory based on the central concept of interpersonal recognition. The theory seeks support in empirical social-scientific evidence, while also ambitiously attempting to locate structural mechanisms of personal identity, community solidarity, and legal institutions within forms and processes of mutual recognition.[1] The central idea of Honneth’s theory is that an individual person cannot attain a satisfactory and socially competent self-identity without the affirmative recognition of their social partners in everyday interaction. Full, flourishing, individual life is a social achievement. Reciprocally, the individual is essential to the moral and social development of those others. The individual plays a positive role in creating and maintaining the conditions that secure their freedom, and the freedom of others. There is therefore an interdependence of actors, across all the many different areas of society that engage one another – from within families, and local community groups who treat each other in various kinds of ways, such as love, neighbourly solidarity, collaborative partnership, respectful distance, and even simple commercial transactions. At the level of populations, even legal institutions are conceived as relations of recognition insofar as a person is recognised as a bearer of rights, as equal to all before the law, and so on. Implicit within all of these different kinds of relationships, it is possible to identify historically particular modes of recognition. While we do not always speak this way, when life goes well for us, it is usually thanks to many others, as well as our own efforts.

The flipside of this somewhat rosy, participatory view of society however, is that many of us do not experience regular conditions of respect. Instead, many social movements of the past, and many groups’ lives today are in fact constituted by disrespect. This realisation, that disrespect brings people together, and gives them a claim against others – a claim of justice – highlights how recognition can claim to not only explain how social movements have occurred, but also to ground the standards around which collective actions are organised. It’s when people experience the violations of these historically articulated norms (they are not outside of history), that they can call their experience “disrespect”. Interestingly enough, when researchers asks children who’ve been removed from mainstream education because of their disruptive behaviour about their relationships with teachers, it is the experience of injustice that stands out in their answers.

When we consider education, as a political institution, we can see quite clearly that it occupies an interesting position in the social framework of Honneth’s theory. Firstly, and as I’ve argued above, education doesn’t sit in one sphere alone, but performs a bridging function from one to another. Schools and Universities help develop individuals for mature society in a way that the intimate sphere of the family would struggle to achieve. This background provides a coherent set of reasons, therefore, for why education can never be reduced to being merely preparation for work. Education instead provides a much deeper and more important function in modern democratic societies. It provides a carefully designed environment in which the subject can increasingly master the autonomously directed action required for self-sufficient engagement in the public world – which includes, but could not be limited to, paid employment. At the same time, schools are so clearly places of social development: this environment is structured with many kinds of reciprocal norms that, once again, as subjects age and develop, they must show increasing facility with. From law (school rules and authorities), to ethical norms for discourse in the classroom and playground, to everyday friendships and fledgling romantic attachments, schools are a concentrated social ecosystem in which one can observe a thousand kinds of interaction. Schools therefore are a designed social environment in which subjects can pursue, practice, and perfect the sorts of interaction that will increasingly be expected of them in the public realm.

[1] See principally Axel Honneth, The Struggle For Recognition (1995), Disrespect (2007), and Freedom’s Right (Polity, 2014).



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