Just as I try (and sometimes fail) to de-center myself when addressing student misbehavior, I try to de-center myself when I write. The vast majority of the students that I teach won’t be racially profiled in a behavior policy or by the police and that’s why I think it is especially important for me to seek out literature that reflects on those systemic injustices.
Any intervention in schools, and any implementation of research, involves questions of power. How do we make sure that the most vulnerable have a voice and are not shut down in the name of listening to ‘the research’?
If we’re serious about making schools better, then we can’t concede the topics of equity and social justice to the neoconservatives while re-shaping schooling to make it even more congenial to the structures that make people increasingly precarious. Makers and entrepreneurs aren’t the answer to the questions we have about equity. We’re not all pawns in some power struggle between the neoconservative and neoliberal movements, between the Champions and Pirates, as if there has only been one game in town, a match to which we must all buy tickets and watch.
The concept of empowerment has more radical roots. In The Will to Empower (1999), Barbara Cruikshank argues that we can distinguish two different uses of ‘empowerment’: “the left uses empowerment to generate political resistance; the right, to produce rational economic and entrepreneurial actors.” I think the educators that I just surveyed complicate this left/right division since Robinson, Ferriter, and Richardson definitely occupy an identifiable strand of progressivism. Nonetheless, it’s a progressivism divorced from a call for political resistance
Ian O’Byrne also provides a useful breakdown of ’empowerment’ theory.
Paul Virilio argues that “every time a technology is invented, take shipping for instance, an accident is invented together with it, in this case, the shipwreck, which is exactly contemporaneous with the invention of the ship.” But his larger point was that we have now (mid 20th Century) entered the age of the generalized accident – think a global stock market crash – where “the possibility arises that it might destroy everything.”2 Obviously, with Facebook we can’t really call what happened with Cambridge Analytica an accident – an unintended consequence – since extracting and selling our data is Facebook’s business model.
The point isn’t to have an Indigenous woman’s voice on the panel so we can get ‘the Indigenous women’s perspective’ and hit a check box as if an obligation has been fulfilled. This approach essentializes the diverse experiences of Indigenous women. Instead, the reality is that the selection of which voices are permitted to participate has long been a rigged game to systematically – and often violently – exclude groups of people who the right-wing (and sometimes the socialist left) now accuse of playing “identity politics.”
On one level, the human capital narrative creates a restrictive idea of what is a valuable aim for education, most often preparing students for jobs in STEM. While national prosperity is supposed to hang on this monoculture experiment, there’s also a calculation that some – many – will fail unless they have the entrepreneurial skills and grit to make something of themselves. On another level, this free-market ideology is indeed an artificial ecology, propped up by massive (and often unacknowledged) state investment in information technology and biotech sectors and a stripping back of social services. We have gotten to a point where, as Shiva argues, alternatives are closed and killed off.
My broad argument is that no, students are not disengaged because schools are stuck in the past, but because schools are caught in the present strong current of policies that constantly re-shape and re-design schools – and life more broadly – to civically and politically disengage youth. To wage a war on them.
Peterson is an example of what I have in mind when I talk about the ‘war on youth’, a phrase which comes from Henry Giroux. In the neoconservative attack, youth are triply marginalised because it is claimed:
- they don’t know anything
they are ‘fragile snowflakes’ and ‘play victim’
they are dangerous to free speech (read: dangerous to the identity politics of wealthy white men)
These attacks are always racist and sexist, directed against people who are poor and the most marginalised and vulnerable.
Doxtdator also wonders where the hope is:
It’s difficult to see radical possibilities of hope for youth in either of the main reform movements: the neoconservatives see youth as dangerous, but the neoliberal ‘future proof’ movement also tells a story about the value of youth that too often “forecloses hope” (Henry Giroux).
This is the story that is not told when we talk about students being ‘entrepreneurs’ and creating the future.
Current understandings of human nature and human learning suggest that human beings are differently talented (Gardner, 1983, 2006) and have different desires and interests (Reiss, 2000, 2004). Thanks to the diversity in the environment in which they are born, humans also have different experiences that interact with their natural talents and interests to give each person a unique, jagged profile of abilities and desires, stronger in some areas and weaker in others (Ridley, 2003; Rose, 2016). In other words, everyone has a handsome leg and, at the same time, a deformed leg.
One quote that caught my attention was the association between experiences and greatness:
experiences have costs and risks. Every experience requires time, and some require money and extra effort. Thus, adults want every activity their children experience to be positive, to lead to some desirable outcome. They don’t want their children to waste their time, energy, or money, or worse, to have experiences that may have a negative impact. Responsible adults naturally have a tendency to prescribe experiences for children. The result is that many children are allowed to have only experiences deemed to be beneficial and safe by adults.
I think that this is where the difference between individual and society stands out, in that you cannot have people achieving their own sense of greatness if the access to experiences is not equitable. This was not something discussed in a recent debate on the ABC around private vs. public education.
Perhaps nothing is more important than how we frame our questions, what’s up for debate and what isn’t