Thursday, August 5, 2010

Nina Power, "Axiomatic Equality: Rancière and the Politics of Contemporary Education:

The following is a reaction, however brief and naive, to a very interesting article found here. This article is thought-provoking, not only for those (like myself) who work in education and, further, plan a career there. The article is fundamentally an analysis of Rancière's claim, contrary to one of what seems to be one of the basic tenets of the contemporary education system, that all human beings are equally intelligent and it is primarily that education system which determines the resulting hierarchical ordering of intellectual prowess. For Rancière, this system repeats and reinforces class distinctions, forcing capable students who otherwise would have no problems succeeding in their studies not only to abandon traditional schooling and its increasingly exorbitant costs, but also to begin to believe themselves incapable of doing the work by nature. Even for those who end up going further in school, the educational system shapes what they believe to be the goals of education and how those goals are reflected in their character, again in accordance with class divisions. This idea seems right to me.

I have often thought about what I can now construe as the repercussions of this idea in my own life, usually inspired by something like the following: someone tells me, 'wow, you're doing a doctorate? You must be extremely intelligent,' to which I usually reply, 'no, just diligent.' [1] I believe that the only reason that I have come this far in the traditional education system is perseverance to see the damn thing through (some may say stupidity, but that's another subject). There is nothing especially remarkable about the work that I have done other than it is a representation of my particular perspective and aptitude, itself shaped by my history, educational or otherwise. I see in my ESL students many different aptitudes and perspectives that I have never considered, each of which being potentially as rigourous as my own. The problem, of course, is that most people do not have the leisure to pursue philosophical speculation, and by this I certainly do not mean academic philosophy. I have been extremely lucky to have been given a space, meant in both the temporal and the financial sense, to practice the activity which interests me the most. This space is entirely the result of economic and cultural forces over which I have had very little control, and luckily for me, I had the means and disposition to take advantage of it.

I suppose the idea of 'equality of intelligence' has no meaning until the term 'equality' is fleshed out: for me, everyone is equally capable of developing their abilities to their fullest and living well in accordance with the fruits of the practice of those abilities, and consequently the education system should be that which permits this development to occur. I certainly believe in the idea of intellectual standards, otherwise it would be impossible to determine which ideas are worthwhile to engage and, possibly, adopt. However, the problems with the current scheme of rewarding the parroting of facts and techniques in order to reproduce citizens of a particular regime, rather than developing critical thinking skills from the earliest possible age in order to produce individuals who, in being critical of that regime, make it better, limit the effectiveness of basing an idea of standards on that scheme.

My claim here, illustrated by the example of my ESL students above, is that everyone possesses answers, however nascently developed, to the question of how one should live or conduct themselves in the world. It is only because of the lack of creation of educational spaces for everyone that these nascent answers cannot be developed further, through realization that many of the answers are merely inserted into us by our determined place in the world. It is the task of education to attempt to liberate us from these places, and the dependence on answers to philosophical questions which determine their character and which point to the most important things, the questions themselves. This is, I think, the natural and equal intellectual context in which the equal capabilities identified above are able to work themselves out, and in which all human beings share: to recognize the critical importance of asking these questions in order to achieve the goal of carrying out a truly human life.

It should be noted here that I do not engage Rancière's notion of the actual practical method by which to carry out such an educational revolution. To begin, I completely disagree with the total abolition of the teacher-student relation, as there is much good that can come of it, good from which I have certainly benefited and by which I have been formed. However, this may also be a result of my lack of an idea as to what my education would have been like had it been in accordance with Rancière's model. Regardless, I do not know enough about the notion to say much else.

[1] Please note that I never say 'diligent' in regular conversation.

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