I am (still) talkin’ about a revolution

I was there in spirit

Biesta, G. (1998) Talking about a revolution … suggestions for the impossibility of critical pedagogy. Educational Theory, 48 (4) pgs 499 – 510

I seem to be on something of a Gert Biesta kick at the moment. I have just checked all the texts I have recently added to PaperShip and most of them are by Biesta or by Biesta and someone else or a review of something Biesta has written. He’s not yet my specialist subject for the Mr’s Mind TV quiz show, but who knows where this might lead? So many of his references ignite my imagination, setting new unexpected directions for the work I want to do.

Most recently  his paper, ‘Say you want a revolution … suggestions for the impossibility of critical pedagogy’ (Biesta 1998) has left me with that warm lovely tingly feeling. Reading, understanding, changing your mind or making it up finally about something that has been hovering on the surface of your cognition for some time is a pleasurable sensation. It’s an embodied experience of – not quite Eureka –  but at least that moment of arrival. The paper offers a detailed reading of Peter McLaren and Ilan Gur-Ze’ev.  This might also be a point of departure. It’s that moment where something vague at the back of your mind, unexpectedly articulates itself.

I have been waging a silent, sulking argument with someone whose professorial line of thought was authoritative and convincing but wholly uninspiring.  Someone whose thinking aligns closely with Hammersley who I have also been reading recently.  Hammersley introduces himself as a trouble maker – and while he is a magnificent writer: clear (mostly), impassioned and curious, he is also provocative and destabilising. That is, after reading him there are fewer and narrower possibilities for the critical pedagogue.  He rages against the contradictions of certain strands of qualitative inquiry. (He is an ethnographer, so not all qualitative inquiry) and his further rejection of partisan scholarship would seem to make research a fairly dull pointless activity. For me. Hammersley’s  definition of the academic endeavour as a relentless pursuit of truth without a consideration of the ethical considerations that surrounds that pursuance  – its purpose, its conduct and its outcome – strikes an uncomfortable chord.

Until of course I remember that there are moments when simply telling the ‘truth’ is a revolutionary act and then, along comes Biesta, Tracey Chapman and that tingly feeling.

Biesta argues that the impossibility of critical pedagogy is the impossibility of education itself. The impossibility of education defines the enterprise. This may sound like an irresponsible play on words. But there is a truth in this line of thinking that every teacher (and every student) recognises. We can not always foresee (and therefore cannot control) the outcome of our endeavours. Teaching  – like psychoanalysis – is an ‘impossible profession’.

The new professional standards, the mountains of templates defining good practice, the promise of ‘input equals predictable outcome’ implied by successive revisions of OfSTED’s inspection framework, the drafting and redrafting of teacher proof pedagogues – are all testament to a simple irritating truth about the social world: education can not be conceived as technique and its outcomes can not be predicted (with any degree of accuracy). Indeed, this is an essential character of all human interaction – including education. Human interaction is ‘boundless’ and ‘inherently unpredictable’.

The teacher then does not simply usher the student to predefined learning outcomes. Though we can play that ‘simulacrum of assessment’ game. Despite the constricted system we work within, students ‘use’ what is taught in different and distinct ways. Education requires this un-codeable difference; an un-codeability and difference that causes the system to fail. It is this same un-codeable difference and the systemic failure it implies that is the mark that something successful has happened. Input did not lead to equal output.  Something  happened in-between: something un-codeable, unpredictable and transformative. Students ‘used’ what we offered them in ways we had simply not planned or even imagined.

Biesta’s paper is beautifully structured and revolves around three broad concepts each of which derive their meaning from inversion. The commitment to education, requires an understanding of the impossibility of education. The desire to demystify (to raise consciousness about the ways in which ‘the system’ conspires against the interest of ordinary people,  is the very present (im)possibility of moving beyond and standing inside / outside a system that has generated the necessity for critique. The impassioned commitment to social justice – race, gender, class, ableism – is a commitment to that which can not be foreseen and calculated as possible. It is a desire for the otherness of the Other. And an acceptance that (in)justice will forever be present.

Justice is therefore not a principle or a criterion (as this would mean that we would know right now what justice is), nor an ideal (as this would mean that we would now be able to describe the future situation of justice), not even a regulative ideal (or what McLaren calls a provisional utopia, as this would still require a decision on what justice is, although with the implication that the ideal is not expected to be present in some future). It belongs to the very “structure” of justice that it never can be present and therefore never will be present. It is by necessity, as Derrida would say, a justice to come, which means that it is always to come. p509

I find Biesta a tricky read. I have to return to and re-read certain passages. Whole paragraphs float by without me grasping fully what he is saying. It doesn’t help that I have a stream of twitter tit-bits to delve into. But I will read this paper again (and again). I am not suggesting that he is a deliberately obscure or clumsy writer. But I confess that after all these years,  reading academia is hard work.

I might be wrong, but in a conversation with someone whose professorial line of thought is authoritative and convincing but wholly uninspiring, is it entirely impossible that a non-partisan Biesta will be on the side of critical pedagogy?


… to come

re-writing the Professional Standards for FE – in a different key

It’s hard not to like the two A4 pages that outline and define the professional standards for Further Education. FE professionalism (according to the ETF) is a triumvirate of skills, values and attributes, and knowledge and understanding.

The words ‘honesty’ and ‘integrity’ demand your immediate attention (on the first of the two pages, they are positioned immediately above the multi coloured professional pie). Other words written in large red letters across the page; words familiar to the FE teacher educator; words like reflective, enquiring, critically, evidence-based practice.

What then follows on the second of the standards’ two pages are twenty statements that define professionalism. The colourful, categorical coding of the introductory page is somewhat muted. Broad headings and subheadings are written in dark pink and dusky blue.

What the standards demand is less colourful.

• Reflect on what works
• Apply theoretical understanding
• Manage and promote positive behaviour
• Promote the benefits of technology

With this set of standards, common sense and the comfort of familiarity have won. I – the reader am disarmed by their coloursome brevity and all other considerations are lost. The professional standards allow me to be the sort of professional who reflects, applies, manages and promotes.

This apparent welcoming of mundanity is surely what Usher (1997) means when he refers to seductive texts. Seductive texts define what ought to be, not what it is. But the ought they define is not a utopian, aspirational ought. The ought they define almost already tangibly there. It is at the tips of your fingers. What would happen if we defined post-16 professionalism in alternative ways. In ways that admit and invite contestation. In ways that are ideal, impractical, and unrealisable? Or at least, what might happen if our conversations about professionalism teetered on the edges of the preposterous, the disruptive?

Isn’t this where professionalism and the standards that inscribe it ought to be. Teaching is an optimistic undertaking. The impossibility of certain bodies and particular selves create a Utopian performative. To teach is to insist on a world replete with hope. It is an indulgence in a pedagogy of abundance. It is a rejection of resignation. A refusal to accept the status quo as common sense (Simecka 1984).

I can’t help wondering, in one of my far too many analytical daydreams, what would happen if the professional standards for FE had been written in the key of critical utopian imagination?

According to Goodwin, the primary function of Utopia is to distance us from immediate circumstances so as to develop an alternative schema that points towards change and the promotion of human happiness (Goodwin and Taylor 1982: ch. 1 and p. 207).

Mannheim (1979) sees it as one means of helping `to shatter, either partially or wholly, the order of things prevailing at the time’ (p. 173).

For Halpin (1999) utopias encourage us to ask and answer the question, `for what may I hope?’

In her review of feminist utopias, Sargisson argues that utopian texts `break and transform societal and cultural rules. In so doing they create new conceptual spaces in which radically different ways of being can be imagined’ (1996: 2) . They are future-oriented. They are about offering radical challenges to the status quo, not reinforcing or reconstructing it. But they also encourage reflection on the standing of actual and esteemed structures of feeling as Williams’ (1980, 1983) discussion of ‘heuristic utopias’ emphasizes. Heuristic utopias, he says, are ones that encourage the facility `to strengthen and confirm existing feelings and relationships which are not at home in the existing order and cannot be lived through in it’ (1983: 13).

What would happen if reflect, apply, manage and promote became critique, imagine, explore and question. Or just question?

Goodwin, B. and Taylor, (1982) The Politics of Utopia, London: Hutchinson
Halpin, D. (1999) Utopian realism and a new politics of education: developing a critical theory without guarantees, Journal of Education Policy, 14:4, 345-361
Mannheim, K. (1979) Ideology and Utopia: An Introduction to the Sociology of Knowledge, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul
Sargisson, L. (1996) Contemporary Feminist Utopianism, London: Routledge
Simecka, M. (1984) A world with utopias or without them?, in Alexander and Gill (eds) Utopias, London: Duckworth
Usher, R (1997) Seductive texts: competence, power and knowledge in Postmodernoty, Ch 8 in Barnett and Griffin (eds), The end of knowledge in higher education. London: Cassell
Williams, R. (1980) Utopia and science fiction, in R. Williams (ed) Problems in Materialism and Culture (London: Verso)
Williams, R. (1983) Towards 2000, London: Chatto & Windus