Detail: Bucher Boys (1985/86) by Jane Alexander
Abandon all hope, ye who enter here (Inferno, Dante)
Amidst the absolute horror, fear and nausea triggered by events such as the recent attacks in #Beirut, #Paris and #Mali, and the continued sponsored and condoned violence in #Palestine and #Yemen, there is, I suspect, a deep-seated questioning of “how is all of this still possible in the 21st century?”
What happened to ‘progress’ and the belief that a better world is possible and achievable? Where does the current (and possible permanent?) disillusionment leave the belief that education is the key driver to ‘progress’ and will, per se, result in a more just and equal society? Last week a meme circulated on social media with a picture of Malala Yousafzai with the words “With guns you can kill terrorists. With education you can kill terrorism.”
I wish I could believe. But I cannot. Not that I don’t want to believe, but somehow I suspect that we overestimate the potential of education, on its own, to address generations of injustice, poverty and inequality. Call me a heretic if you want, allow me to explore the possibility that unbridled economic growth and progress is a heresy. And education, as this heresy’s servant.
Allow me then, for a brief moment of your time, to reconsider our continued and uncritical belief that humanity, progressively gets better… As conversation partner to this blog I take the work by John Gray (2002, 2004) and Zygmunt Bauman (2004, 2011, 2012). Considering the work of Gray, John Banville said that “John Gray has always been the odd-sheep-out” and John Preston called Gray a “prophet of doom.” Bauman’s work has also been up for criticism and his work characterised as full of “sombre warnings and dark judgments.” Despite these criticisms, I agree with the assessment that “”Bauman on a bad day is still far more stimulating than most contemporary social thinkers.”
In contemplating education in this interregnum (Best, 2015), allow me then to reflect on some of the points made by John Gray and Zygmunt Bauman.
Gray (2002) suggests that “The uses of knowledge will always be shifting and crooked as humans are themselves. Humans use what they know to meet their most urgent needs – even if the result is ruin” (p. 28). Regarding humanity’s belief in progress as inevitable Gay (2004) suggests that “the core of the belief in progress is that human values and goals converge in parallel with our increasing knowledge. The twentieth century shows the contrary. Human beings use the power of scientific knowledge to assert and defend the values and goals they already have. New technologies can be used to alleviate suffering and enhance freedom. They can, and will, also be used to wage war and strengthen tyranny” (p. 106; emphasis added).
Considering the advances since the Enlightenment against the backdrop of the absolute horrors of the two World Wars and the banality of evil as represented by the mushroom clouds over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Holocaust and the Vietnam war, one would have expected that humanity would permanently shied away from the abyss. And yet we didn’t and we still don’t.
Instead of doing everything we possibly can to steer clear of the abyss, we are “messing with forces on a grand scale” (Martin, 2006, p. 15) – on a number of levels. Amidst the many challenges facing humanity are, according to Martin (2006) environmental collapse, extreme poverty, unstoppable global migrations, non-state actors with extreme weapons, and violent religious extremism resulting in a new Dark Age.
Depending on your worldview, many suggest that higher education have unreservedly bought into the neoliberal project of globalisation as championed by the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the World Trade Organisation and the corporate-industrial-military complex. Economic growth is a leitmotif in curricula and is sold (often literally) as prerequisite for human progress despite evidence suggesting that “economic growth does not translate into the growth of equality” (Bauman, 2011, p. 50). Amidst the unbridled consumerism and decadent and rampant (if not rapacious) capitalism, inequalities have increased and the number of displaced people is the biggest in human history. The millions of displaced and permanently unemployed are classified as disposable, as the collateral waste of progress, those who have become permanently redundant suggest a new normal, the new, permanent “Other” (Bauman, 2004).
We live in times where “the incomprehensible has become routine” (Bauman, 2006, p. 14). As we built higher walls around our gated communities, closed our borders, and increased our entry requirements, our fears just got worst.
Fear is at its most fearsome when it is diffuse, scattered, unclear, unattached, unanchored, free floating, with no clear address or cause; when it haunts us with no visible rhyme or reason, when the menace we should be afraid of can be glimpsed everywhere but is nowhere to be seen (Bauman, 2006, p. 2)
Welcome to the 21st century.
As humanity spirals from one genocide to the next, we have increasing reason to question the gospel of Progress. John Gray (2004) state that the “belief in progress is the Prozac of the thinking classes” (p. 3). I would like to add to this, that the unquestioned belief that education, on its own, can make a difference is most probably co-prescribed with Prozac.
Gray (2004) makes the claim that “History is not an ascending spiral of human advance, or even an inch-by inch crawl to a better world. It is an unending cycle in which changing knowledge interacts with unchanging human needs. Freedom is recurrently won and lost in an alternation that includes long periods of anarchy and tyranny, and there is no reason to suppose that this cycle will ever end” (p. 3). Gray therefore contests the view that the Enlightenment set humanity on an irreversible path of progress where advances in science and technology will, per se, result in a better world. For many Gray’s statements amount to heresies, such as his claim that “The lesson of the century that has just ended is that humans use the power of science not to make a new world but to reproduce the old one – sometimes in newly hideous ways… Knowledge does not make us free” (2004, p. 6).
After the recent events in #Beirut #Paris #Yemen and #Palestine the statement by Gray that “The most striking development in politics in the past two decades is that this apocalyptic mentality has gone mainstream” (p. 10). In the light of the increasing influence of religious fundamentalism (whether in America or Iraq), terror has become “privatised” – that cannot be tolerated, but also not eliminated (2004, p. 11).
Gray (2004) furthermore states that no one cold have foreseen that “irrationality would continue to flourish alongside rapid advances in science and technology” (p. 18). Even the hope sold by Silicon valley that technology will solve all of humanity’s problems is without foundation as “[t]here is no power in the world that can ensure that technology is used only for benign purposes” (2004, p. 20). He continues:
“We are not masters of the tools we have invented. They affect our lives in ways we cannot control – and often cannot understand. The world today is a vast, unsupervised laboratory, in which a multitude of experiments are simultaneously underway” (p. 21).
“We can’t control our new technologies because we don’t really grasp the totality of their effects. And there is a deeper reason why we are not masters of our technologies: they embody dreams of which we are not conscious and hopes that we cannot bear to give up” (p. 22).
Sobering is the proposal by Gray that homo sapiens is actually homo rapiens with ambitions that are limitless, but living on an earth with resources that are irrevocably finite.
Our present way of life is more prone to disruption than most people think, and its fragility is increasing. We tend to think that as global networks widen and deepen, the world will become a safer place, but in many contexts the opposite is true. As human beings become closely interlinked, breakdowns in one part of the world spread more readily to the rest (p. 61)
In the light of the fact that democracy is seen and sold (literally) as one of the biggest (and deadliest) exports of the United States and its partners/alliances, and the claim that education should help spread the belief in one-size-fits-all type of democracy (Giroux, 2015), Gray (2004) states that “After all the babble about the irresistible spread of democracy and free markets, the reality is war, protectionism and the shifty politics of secrecy and corruption in other words, history as usual” (p. 66).
Despite the advances in science improving the lives of many, Gray (2004) states “Science cannot end the conflicts of history. It is an instrument that humans use to achieve their goals, whether winning wars or curing the sick, alleviating poverty or committing genocide” (p. 70).
So where does this leave us? How do we then teach without necessarily believing? How is hope possible in this interregnum?
A good place to start will be to acknowledge that “Knowledge is not an unmixed good; it can be as much a curse as a blessing. If the superseded science in the first half of the twentieth century could be used to wage two hideously destructive world wars, how will the vastly superior science of today be used?” (Gray, 2004, pp. 70-71). I really think that all curricula should have a warning attached to them – advising curriculum developers, instructional designers, students, and quality assurers (to mention but a few) that “knowledge is not an unmixed good”…
Is education willing to acknowledge that “the knowledge maps of the past have, to a large extent, been proven to be fragile and (possibly) the illegitimate offspring of unsavory liaisons between ideology, context and humanity’s gullibility in believing in promises of unconstrained scientific progress” (Prinsloo, 2016 – in press).
Will we teach different curricula if we believed that “history might be cyclical, not progressive, with the struggles of the earlier eras returning and being played out against a background of increased scientific knowledge and technological power” (Gray, 2004, p. 101)?
How do we help students to “read the world” (Freire, 1972, p. 120) – to recognise the metanarratives, the curricula sold-as-truth, engage with claims and counter-claims, realise (in more than one sense) their agency as constrained, entangled, fractured and possible?
Realising, at least for me, that history may be cyclical, that knowledge and advances in technology may serve evil or justice, give me a sense of purpose, if not hope. In this permanent interregnum where “the old is dying and the new cannot be born” (Gramsci, 1971, p. 110), a certain amount of morbidity and skepticism may be in order.
Bauman, Z. (2004). Wasted lives. Modernity and its outcasts. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.
Bauman, Z. (2011). Collateral damage. Social inequalities in a global age. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.
Bauman, Z. (2012). On education. Conversations with Riccardo Mazzeo. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.
Best, S. (2015). Education in the interregnum: an evaluation of Zygmunt Bauman’s liquid-turn writing on education. British Journal of Sociology of Education, 1-18.
Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the oppressed. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin.
Giroux, H. A. (2015). Democracy in Crisis, the Specter of Authoritarianism, and the Future of Higher Education. Journal of Critical Scholarship on Higher Education and Student Affairs, 1(1), 7.
Gramsci, A. (1971). Selections from the Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci. Edited by Q. Hoare and G. N. Smith. New York, NY: International Publishers.
Gray, J. (2002). Straw dogs. Thoughts on humans and other animals. London, UK: Granta Books.
Gray, J. (2004). Heresies. Against progress and other illusions. London, UK: Granta Books.
Prinsloo, P. (2016 – in press). Metaliteracy, networks, agency and praxis: an exploration. Chapter accepted in T. Mackey and T. Jacobson (eds.), Metaliteracy in Practice