The Practice of Freedom

March 24th, 2011 by Graham Attwell

What is the purpose of education? To express and exchange ideas about matters which concern us all. To exchange those ideas freely and openly without fear of ridicule, in spaces where we are respected equally. To be privileged to listen to the ideas of significantly knowledgeable others. To share and grow in our ideas. To participate in collective experiences, to grow in understanding and to make meanings. To learn about and respect other cultures. The purpose of education is to open the box and draw on the imagination of individuals and collectives in the passion for learning and to influence and shape our societies.

Sadly the reality of education is different. All too often education is based on divisions between those that have and those that don’t, differences of class and income, differences of gender and religion. Education is about conforming to the norm, heterogeneity, of fitting in to prevailing power structures and economic realities – realities dictated by the logic of capitalism. Education is institutionalization, testing and certification. And for those who do not conform, education is about rejection and failure.

Thus we see a very basic contradiction in the debate around the purpose of education. A contradiction between the provision of free or subsidized education to provide the factories and enterprises with sufficient skilled labour to produce profit and between educators and learners who value ideas and knowledge to shape and change society.

And technology is important. Educational technology has achieved little other than facilitating the management of learning. But the internet has allowed knowledge and learning to escape from the walled gardens of the institutions. Some forty years ago, Ivan Illich envisaged how we could use computers to deschool society and open learning to all. Freire developed the idea of a critical pedagogy where education meant the  ‘practice of freedom’, the means by which men and women deal critically with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world. Friere wanted to overcome the dichotomy between the teacher and the learner, thinking instead of the teacher-student and student-teacher.

The internet provides us with rich and free spaces for expansive learning. The institutions only have left their monopoly on funding and on certification. And so capitalism has begun a new project. The first aim is to strike out at democratization of learning by privatizing education, by deepening barriers to equality and access. And the second more audacious aim is to privatize knowledge itself, to turn knowledge and learning into a commodity to be bought and sold like any other consumer good.

Thus we find ourselves at a turning point for the future of education. The contradictions inherent in the different views of the purpose of education do not allow any simple compromise or reform minded tinkering with the system. For those that believe in education as the practice of freedom there are two challenges: to develop a societal discourse around the purpose of education and secondly to develop transformative practice, as teacher students and student teachers.

The Purpose and Funding of Research

March 13th, 2011 by Graham Attwell

Most of the debate over the future of Higher Education in the UK has focused on funding and within that of funding for teaching. And regarding research, the major concern has been obviously cutbacks in research funding. Of course that is a valid concern.

There has been less attention to the nature of research funding. The government’s main thrust would appear to be to encourage private sector funding of research. Of course there are trust funds concerned with the longer term benefits of research and of developing a public knowledge base. But much private sector funding is looking for short term return on funding. Nothing wrong with that. But in terms of developing knowledge it will inevitably skew the subjects of research. Secondly private sector companies will often be unwilling to share or make public the results fo such funded research. In the long term it all amounts to another step in the privatisation of education.

There are also concerns over the nature of public sector research funding. Talking in the Times Higher Education Supplement about the UK Research Assessment Exercise (RAE), Professor Delpy says:

… the RAE, which still determines the distribution of about £1.5 billion in annual quality-related research funding, had “driven a fantastically efficient and very competitive research base that has not helped people collaborate, because institutions have been measured against what they as individual institutions have done”.

He added: “You didn’t get extra brownie points because one-third of your research was collaborative.”

This in turn meant that universities’ promotion criteria typically did not reward collaborative efforts such as “enabling a whole area of research to gain large-scale funding from the European Union” by “corralling and marshalling” individual researchers to put together joint bids, Professor Delpy said.

In other words, the nature of funding and the policy drive for competition between universities and even between departments, is inhibiting the development of collaborative research. Yet it is just such collaboration which can lead to new knowledge development and to the development of careers for emerging researchers.

Once more this illustrates the importance of the emerging debate over the purpose of education and the role of research within society.

Purpos/ed and the social shaping of technology

February 21st, 2011 by Graham Attwell

I’ve been enjoying the Purpos/ed debate on the purpose of education. If you have not seen it Purpos/ed aims as a “non-partisan, location-independent organization … to kickstart a debate around the question: What’s the purpose of education?

Although they say they have a three year plan, the first action, e daily 500 word blog by invited participants, has proved lively. Even more encouraging seems to be that those not on the ‘official’ list, are blogging, linking and using the Purpos/ed logo. And a Spanish language site is likely to launch in the near future.

I am down to contribute my 500 words sometime in March. But I cannot resist commenting on the contributions so far. Most people have focused on education for creativity and liberation, for self fulfillment, for personal development, for expressing hopes and desires. Contributions have been open, personal and optimistic.

Most seem to be loosely based within an Enlightenment idea with education promoting critical thinking and reasoning and the development of knowledge through sensation and reflection.

These are all worthy ideas with which I cannot disagree. But if Purpos/ed is to open this debate, we need to go further. Within advanced industrialized countries education has become seen as largely a means of providing the skills and competencies needed by the economy. I suspect many of the contributions to Pupos/ed are a kneejerk reaction against such economic reductionism.

Yet education does have an important economic and social purpose in our societies, and potentially a purpose that goes beyond the mere drilling of employability skills. Education is intrinsically linked to knowledge development and to innovation. Many of the contributions to Pupos/ed seem to have been framed within a overtly academic approach to learning. Yet education could have a key purpose in helping people to shape and control the use of technology within society and through that the forms of production within our economies. Here vocational and technical education have a central role to play. Yet within the UK we have largely ignored vocational education. essentially education provides a credential prior to starting employment. And thus the link between learning and work becomes lost, in terms of our understandings of the role and organization of work. Indeed the provision of employment is subject to mysterious forces of the world economic system or the global needs of capital.

In exploring the purpose of education, we should not shy away from the links between education and the economy, but rather subject the nature and form of those links to a more radical critique. That inevitably involves exploring power relations, it also involves looking at the whole schooling system.

For me the purpose of educations should be to allow us to collectively control and shape our society. But that means education itself becomes embedded in that society, no longer the prerogative of the walled gardens of the educational institutions.

More (and hopefully more coherent thoughts) to follow.

The purpose of Education

February 5th, 2011 by Cristina Costa
What’s the purpose of education? What’s the purpose of education? The purpose? The purpose?  Ooohhh the purpose. I think somewhere down the line we forgot what the purpose of education is. I have been thinking on how to blogpost an … Continue reading
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