Thinking about education in a sociocultural context, where the hell do we start?
tuesday may 29, 2007
bratislava, may 29, 2007.
Over the last years there is a growing involvement of the social and cultural sector in education. But this puts us in front of a large number of questions, which are not always obvious and maybe cannot be answered easily, since the situation in which this alternative, or out-of-school learning is organized is a complex one. Nevertheless it may be fruitful to map the different processes that are at stake these days. Realizing we cannot go further than asking a set of questions, and formulating mere hypotheses, this is the first attempt to sketch a vague framework. Even if we fail in formulating the right issues, still we hope to initiate an open debate, where up to today mostly the critique is absent. Since we see in the artistic, cultural and social field a constant rise in initiatives that were not traditionally organized by these types of organizations, one may worry about the awareness and responsibilities from the point of view of education itself in general.
One may wonder: why are we interested in education at all, and where do we personally enter the picture? This is already a very complex issue, where very different points of view converge. Obviously we all feel very drawn upon the issue of development itself, be it the transition from child to adult, the constant acquisition and development of necessary skills in life, or just doing it for the fun of it. Already here, we are used to the concept of the organisation of learning. In order to realize the minimum amount of learning for everyone, we hand over most of the citizens in our society at a certain age to a professional category of people, in a reserved safe location. This is done voluntarily as well as compulsary, since we established a rather extensive set of laws and rules. And we see it as a shared responsibility of parents and educators, politicians and administrators, for a good education by exposing the child between the age of 6 and 14 (approximately) to the right schools and teachers. And 'right' is here: the right content that brings out the best in everyone. So, we see it as a given feature that a specialized group of people are responsible for the development of the basic skills so that everyone can participate in society. From historical point of view we are facing 200 years debates about the right of emancipation. Every human being should have access to expressing oneself. And this was always connected to alphabetization - to learn how to read and write, and talk properly in a given social/cultural environment. Extending this notion, we all cannot be against the right for organizing and participating in schooling, regardless of age, nationality, time and space, intellectual and financial capacities, etc... This idea of emancipation was and will always be at the basis of any schooling initiative. It saved children from working in factories, and it provided adults with the right to vote. And whatever we decide on, about the content of education, it will always be related to learning as development of participatory skills in a given environment. This was never happening without problems. For instance it took rather long to simply allow women to go to university, or to legally participate in decision making by granting them officially the right to vote. Same as it is still taking very long to provide migrant people and minorities, with the same rights as the majority of sedimentary citizens. Think of the right to schooling, and voting and many other things, regardless of the social status or nationality, and almost in contrast with the completely different promotion of mobility for the purpose of work and even tourism. And that seemed to coincide with more than 200 years of institutional critique on every aspect of the educational system: its organisation, its content, its goals, its openness, etc... Apart form the purpose to remediate the deficiencies of education in general, most of the experimental and innovative approaches were targetted towards bringing education closer to the goals of a changing society. Obviously the proliferation of for instance mass media had to be countered with other approaches within curriculum and the organigram of schools themselves. But always the question remains: how can people develop best themselves. And that cannot be answered since we are dealing with a delicate complex of ways to achieve this.
This leads to the question of decision making at the core of the concept of the state, which affects the way in which education is provided, if organized at all. Over the last century, opposing political and economical systems had remarkably similar views. In both capitalism and socialism, the realization of general welfare included the responsibility over the general access to culture and education. Perhaps together with work, food, health, mobility, and some other things, these were for a long time regarded as 'thermometers' of prosperity in society. It tuned into a responsibility in which the state was responsible for educating its citizens. The state was generally seen as the representing its citizens, educating them to be able to decide on and manage the shared resources. But somehow in both the denial of the alternative (capitalist vs. socialist/communist economies) and the slow dissolving of the idea of the welfare state itself, gradually we see other processes occurring. Where most other sectors were caught up in privatisation, no one would have suspected this could happen to culture and education. These were environments where quantification, and there for profit making, seemed impossible. But since the 90ies it becomes obvious that the transition from welfare state to neoliberal and global capitalism particularly affects culture and education tremendously. The techniques are given: fragmentation, reduction of state resources, outsourcing, competitiveness, private involvement,...
The first tendency that is apparent within education is probably the ongoing fragmentation of the field. By making smaller groups (schools, institutes or groups of institutes) responsible for their own management, the goal is shifting further into competition. Not only there is the initial fear of losing focus by accepting industrial funding, and in one movement realizing the development of singular skills for industry instead of the formation of critical and multi-skilled groups. Also the quantification of knowledge into (sub)products that are "for sale" dismantle culture and education fundamentally. What we see in general, is the creation of a long-term and never-ending series of post-studies, and additional courses which create a competitive market and drive on the private money of students. The idea of free education is not debatable anymore in that context. Parallell, for instance the Bologna model the EU is currently implementing seems to lead to a new stabilisation without the necessary diversity in content and method, realizing the industrial urge for training instead of education. Finally we see the transition of the 'costly' special education, bringing possibilities of development and emancipation for social groups, to the DIY context of educational initiatives in the social and cultural sector. Education seems to go back to its pre-welfare-state context with a dichotomy between a small group that can pay for its schools, courses, post-graduates and phd's, and the larger group only having access to basic education, with some additional, but limited and reduced possibilities. And everything becomes competition. Nowadays you can study 13 years to become an artist with phd. At the same time you can jump from workshop to workshop probably providing similar skills. It would be interesting to compare for both trajectories the involved resources, costs, didactic methods, evaluation, official recognition, etc...
Here the social/cultural sector steps in handy. Where ever the official educational organisations are faced with an uncertain return, they can outsource it now. Where the socio-cultural organisation used to organize courses and workshops to correct the official content, now they seem to be urged to apply their DIY technique to provide cheap solutions for what is lacking due to the withdrawal of enough funding for providing general education. They can provide solutions for the investment in personel, buildings, technology and equipement, evaluation systems, etc... For the socio-cultural organisation it is easier to hire an expert and provide a workshop about a subject or technology, while no additional quality control is required, since it is done outside the responsibility of the educational sector. So there is no vision about the right teaching method or even teaching skills - most of the workshop teachers don't have any education background anyway. The same problems occur with issues about content, and follow-up or evaluation. The result is a rather traditional approach: frontal teaching without necessary interaction with the material or the field 'outside'. Less and less the provided courses and workshops are being corrective or alternative for what is structurally provided in official (expensive) education. And this is in total opposition to any historically critical, bottom-up and experimental approaches, belonging to DIY education. Probably we are creating a competing class of teachers in official institutions, and precary ones who work mobile and non-institutional. This is not a critique to what is being organized by social and cultural groups, only a questioning of the real value and outcome of the practices. Are we doing it right? Are we really providing an alternative? Yes, the question remains: how can we do it better? Maybe we should reformulate this into a set of questions. How to disengage from the oppositions formal and non-formal, in-school and out-of-school, public and private to oppose the new forms of exploitation. How can we develop new strategies for developing techniques for DIY and open-access learning, for individuals and groups. How to organize ourselves to foster critical and interdisciplinary practices from within the social and cultural sector that function as real alternatives for the growing neoliberal approach of fragmenting knowledge as quantitative packages for sale? How can we use free (technological and social) networks to become truly independent from the requirements of the market, and create alternative but qualitative paths for emancipatory and for that reason also disruptive practices? We have to ask ourselves these questions, we who are organizing alternative workshops, but not in an individual and local way, but together with similar initiatives. Only then can we get to another level, something that breaks away from the spiral of conformisation we are being drawn into.