500 words for Purpos/ed
Purpose/ed aims to kickstart a debate about education, in 500 words. Although the scheduled posts ended last month, here’s a contribution from me.
As distinct from learning, education is more institutionally inclined, and so these 500 words are about learning institutions, and specifically higher education ones. The first #500words pieces I read were concerned with bringing about change or confronting the inevitability of change. As well as the transformation learners undergo, #500words contributors are also thinking about changing teaching and changing institutions. Undeniably, change is upon us. If you work in higher education, funding cuts and a consumer revolution confront you with two choices: change or watch things change around you. But that said, I’d like to give some attention here to durability.
As well as being places of innovation, universities are places of continuity. Ideas which shape societies are passed from one person to others, over generations. To maintain a principled, rather than expedient, sense of what it is in these changing times that’s important enough to be preserved, requires a vantage point, and the ideas which are dwelt upon in universities are such a vantage point. When academics in the arts, humanities and social sciences design a curriculum, that curriculum is designed around persistent stories, theories, practices and processes, not ephemeral ones. VLEs are famously inert and full of stuff – scanning the particular Moodle installation I administrate at Goldsmiths, it’s brimming with links to landmark writings, performances and artworks – by Freire, Benjamin, Kant, Weber, Kuhn, Behn, Kristeva, Piaget, Foucault, Arendt, Fanon, Walcott, Hobbes, Freud, Riefenstahl, Zizek, Abramovic, Popper, Pankhurst, the list goes on. And that’s to say nothing of the oral, or even unspoken, traditions passed down on some courses (pun intended, I’m not privy to those) nor the ongoing work in marginalised fields animated by small, committed groups of academics and their students, fueled by passion and an unshakable conviction of its human worth.
Academics are custodians of these ideas, texts, practices; by giving them consideration and bringing about their connection and reconnection to the contemporary world, education helps to constitute ethical humans with the integrity to imagine their way beyond change. One metaphor is a pivot, the permanent thing in relation to which you move if pushed; another is an orbit, the gravitational force exerted by something with enough mass to keep you in its field and prevent you from ricocheting into a collision path. Through studying humans and their ideas, society renews its knowledge of how to be humane. Education where I work is often like this, and implicitly or explicitly for this.
Held between this impulse towards conservation on the one hand, and the revolutionary goad of the Comprehensive Spending Review and coming White Paper on the other, I’m drawn to examine where and how these persistent practices and ideas in higher learning might be threatened, and also where and how they might shade into small-‘c’-conservativism – the kinds of cynicism-inducing institutionalisation of power and attendant seizing-up and narrowing of aspiration, that others have mentioned. Somewhere in between is an educational/institutional sweet spot.
Other 500words I enjoyed (and I haven’t read them all yet): Jenny Luca on encouragement and opporuntity; Christina Costa on character; Fred Garnett on education as soma, countered by the participatory affordances of technology; Leon Cych on a self-building, self-sustaining communities; Rab on dangerous liberation; Mark Berthelemy beyond the competitive sausage machine; Frances Bell‘s four pillars of learning; and particularly thought provoking, Graham Attwell on the contradictions in the debate about the purpose of education that rule out “simple compromise or reform minded tinkering”.
Later, as the mind-chains began to rattle, I got the urge to search the Purpos/ed site for the term ‘economy’. Only this was returned, with the bracing message:
“Whingers are happy with the status quo. Fact.”