Monday, October 01, 2007

Learning, elitism and liberation

Freens in Springburn has written a beautiful defence of liberal learning and an angry denunciation of the bureaucratisation of education:

It's now dominated by bean counters whose odious jargon and deadly Benthamite bottom line overwhelms anything like a sense of liberal learning’.

I am hugely sympathetic to his views and share his admiration for Patrick Geddes, anarchist educator and one of the pioneers of the University extension movement. Interestingly, liberal education is one of the points where radicalism and conservatism almost meet, as witnessed by some of the quotations in his post, from Michael Oakeshott and William Johnson Cory.

However, I cannot fully agree with the conservative critique of 'relevance' that these writers express. Oliver Kamm has also written in the same vein and I have objected here. It strikes me that 'relevance' is an important tool in finding a way in, to open and engage with minds and, simply, give people the means to earn a living, and often a better living than the one they may have been brought up to expect. When I teach I am acutely aware that I need to do two things – help the students to learn and to think, and help them to pass; they need and want both. Exclude the first and the process is meaningless and mind-numbingly boring, without the second they have little chance of better employment.

Unfortunately, the conservative critique has little time for social mobility. There was a time either side of the war when University extension lecturers worked on the basis of going and preaching to workers about the purity of learning without accreditation; learning should be simply for the delight of 'intellectual betterment' or even 'for democracy'. 'Why do you need a degree?', would be the heartfelt question. Of course the obvious answer would be, 'So that I can get a cushy, well-paid job like yours', something that would threaten the tutor's elite status. The growth of certification, and in my own working life this has included Access courses for those who were sometimes demeaningly referred to as 'non-standard students', has been an engine of mobility. Hardly surprising then that non-accredited adult education became mainly the preserve of the retired. This does not mean that liberal learning is in itself a pointless luxury, as today's funders seem to suggest, but that liberal and instrumental aims are complementary rather than contradictory and that instrumental aims can be about more than paid work.

In a second post, Freens explains exactly what he means by the notion of 'relevance' he deplores. It is one that produces a patronising curriculum deemed fit for the 'less academic'. Again I agree - how I hate the casual assumptions behind common phrases such as 'raising aspirations' (how about meeting them first) and 'those able to benefit', as if only a limited number of people can learn in Higher Education. He is describing a stratified education system, one layer based on vocational and the other on academic education. Despite appeals for a parity of esteem, it is the old secondary grammar/secondary technical divide writ large. It is no surprise that the divide has a strong correlation to social class.

In a genuinely egalitarian education system the two would not be seen as mutually exclusive. However, where I see a conservative critique of 'relevance', I do not sense universalism but elitism. What is more, this rejection of 'relevance' per se was also used to express a sense of disdain for innovation and this narrow conservatism in curriculum helped parts of University adult education, in particular, to stagnate in the 70's, making it vulnerable to attack from both right and left wing utilitarians.

Despite this reservation, I am fully with Freens about the damage that is being done at the moment, especially by bureaucratisation and managerialism, but I want to go further. I would argue that a narrowly restricted vocationalism, once we move beyond functional literacy, is actually reactionary and that liberal education is a tool of liberation. I want to illustrate this by reference to two older pieces.

The first is by Jeremy Seabrook, always an interesting writer, whose response to 9/11 was typically idiosyncratic. It is a flawed piece in that it argues that the ‘root causes’ of terrorism are to be found in Western actions. But he doesn’t pick out the usual suspects. No - he sees the main cause resting with degrees in Business Studies. This might sound bizarre, but it is rather shrewd. He spotted that those attracted to terrorism and fascist organisations are not the oppressed, but those who expected privilege and were disappointed. They saw that they could regain their superiority through political power and domination rather than employment.

The marketing of business qualifications in the developing world has produced well qualified but unreflective and unemployed graduates. They are a pool from which fascistic organisations can recruit. Narrow vocationalism, together with a desperation for the fees of overseas students, has created a generation of potential recruits to jihadism, extreme nationalism, and communialist authoritarianism throughout the developing world. The picture is overdrawn, but the link between an instrumental education, purely for economic self-interest, and radical authoritarian sympathies may be one worth exploring.

The second example emphasises the positive virtues of liberal learning. It is from a book that was a best seller in Europe but did not do as well in the UK. Viviane Forrester’s, 1999 book The Economic Horror is a critique of economic orthodoxy by a writer whose roots are in the study of literature rather than economics. In the middle of the text she breaks away to discuss the importance of poetry. Whereas I have forgotten most of the book, this section has stayed with me. The following is a long, though heavily edited extract. The whole section can be found between pages 62 and 66. It is clever in that she attacks a leftist anti-intellectualism and 'anti-elitism' that has also underpinned much of the assault on liberal learning. Instead of countering it with a conservative defence, she reclaims liberal learning for the left.

… in 1978 during a colloquium at Graz in Austria, when one of the speakers asked the very international audience whether they knew Mallarmé, ‘a French poet’, the whole audience burst out laughing. Imagine not knowing Mallarmé! Later, an Italian speaker expressed his indignation at that laughter. He also mentioned some proper names. ‘Do you know them?’ We knew none of them. They were those of machine gun brands. He was back from a country he cited as an example, a country in the throes of civil war where ‘90 per cent of the people’ knew those brand names‘ while 0 per cent of them knew that of Mallarmé’. Hence we were all elitist, affected snobs, in short, ‘intellectuals’. He contemplated us with disgust, with wrath in his eyes. Humble and sheepish … the hall gave him an ovation.

Something made me uneasy, I rose to speak and heard myself saying that it might not be desirable to find it quite natural for an immense, a huge majority to have no other choice but to be ignorant of Mallarmé. A majority that had not chosen not to read him, but that had had no chance whatsoever to read him or even know his name. While our very denigrator showed he was no stranger to that name since he was able to deplore our erudition.

The systems that more or less slowly, more or less obviously, more or less tragically lead to dead ends would be far more endangered and their power much better controlled if Mallarmé had more readers, or at least more potential ones. The powers are not mistaken here: they know very well where the danger lies. If a totalitarian regime is ushered in, the first thing it instinctively does is to seek out its Mallarmés and suppress them or send them into exile, however small their audience.

The work of Mallarmé is not elitist. It tends to break the straitjacket hampering us, to decipher language, its signs and its discourse, and thereby makes us less deaf and blind to all that is hidden from us. It tends to extend our personal space, exercise, refine thought and make it flexible - thought alone enabling criticism and lucidity, those powerful weapons.

To have read Mallarmé presupposes the acquisition of certain abilities which could lead to certain faculties, and thus to the approach to certain rights. They may also lead to the ability not to respond to the system in the reductive terms that are all it offers and that squash contradiction. And to the ability to denounce the demented version of a world in which we are caught and paralysed, while the authorities who deliberately set it up complain of having to run it.

But whatever the side the powers may be on, so as to better indoctrinate, manipulate, and subjugate populations, the human organism must be diverted from the arduous, visceral dangerous practice of thinking, and the search for exactitude, that rarity, must be shunned. Once reserved for only a few, the practice of thought will preserve their power.

Mallarmé, I heard myself concluding ...

That’s when a man in the audience exclaimed, ‘Mallarmé is a machine gun!’

He was right, too. I let him have the last word.

A love of literature, art, science, history, music or social science cannot be forced on people. I remember only too well teaching liberal studies to Carpenters and Joiners 3 on the last Friday of their block release. The difference between that class and a riot was wafer thin. There is nothing wrong with people wanting to learn a trade or a craft. It is just that this decision should not close the door to liberal learning. It needs to be left tantalisingly ajar, waiting for that moment of choice, at whatever time of life.

Liberal learning should be one of the great left causes, it is extraordinarily powerful in transforming peoples lives. Instead we have a Labour government intent on force feeding 'the workforce' NVQ level 2, drawing on the patronising model of which Freens so despairs, or supporting rigid models of certified progression. Not for the first time I am left wondering about their analysis as they use funding to firmly close and lock that door once an initial choice has been made. It certainly doesn't seem to come from an imaginative celebration of human potential, something that is surely central to any liberal, democratic or socialist society.


Freens In Springburn said...

Thanks for that; lots of things noted for future reading. I think we're in agreement on this one, just that I was using some possibly iffy sources to support liberal learning. The lifelong part of liberal learning is,as you say, vital and there has to be the chance to grab it at any time along the line. That's why I'm enjoying what I'm doing now with adults as opposed to the vile hoop-jumping that I was being forced into with the GCSE/A level groups.

Dr Hiding Pup said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Dr Hiding Pup said...

When I applied to university in 1996, eight of them rejected me out of hand. Why? Because, I found out later on, all of them had policies in place that barred anyone under the age of 18 from joining in. Unhelpfully, UCAS didn't even collect age statistics when it came to the Under-18s, making them the second largest age group to the 40+.

Over the years, I've heard many arguments against allowing U18 onto university courses: "they" would be too young to appreciate it (look around! since when was this a requirement?); staff would need police checks; universities would have to take legal guardianship over a minor; university is an "adult" atmosphere unsuitable for children...

Well, it wasn't too long ago that working class, coloured, female or disabled students were barred from access to entry either.

Anyway, I've taken the whole 'those who can benefit' rhetoric with a pinch of salt ever since then.

Is there such a thing as elitist liberals?

mikovswinton said...

Dr Hiding Pup may like to know that things are in the process of change on the issue of under-18s and university entrance. The bureaucratic issues that this raises are, shall we say, interesting, and some are raised by the good doctor.

Freens In Springburn said...

It was quite usual, even in the 60s, for Scottish students, who had taken Highers at 17 with no 'Sixth Form' as such and certainly no further qualification on paper to be had, to go to uni under 18.

Ian said...

I would never have thought of Geddes as an anarchist, given his role as a core thinker on Town Planning. It is interesting however that another important person in the history of the Town and Country Planning Association has been Colin Ward.