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A nomination for blog of the year: Martin Robinson on change, values and history

As it’s that time of year I thought I would nominate my BLOG of the year. And it’s this one, Martin Robinson’s piece on change. It’s beautifully well written and manages to combine an old fashioned love of prose with a reference to Iggy Pop.

I don’t necessarily agree with all of it but I think it poses the fundamental question that faces education today; that of values and the issue of how to cope with change.

At the core of Hegelian dialectics (arguably) is the notion that change is inevitable. History is really just an endless sea of change; imponderables resolved, theses written and subsequently challenged as each moment in history combines to create  some new and ever more impenetrable problem.

Martin’s point I think, or at least what I take from it, is that at some point education became disengaged from it’s past. The profession stopped learning from it’s own mistakes. Change became not a reaction to some new dilemma but ideological and without sound premise. Neo-traditionalists blame this disconnect on progressives and seem too long for the past. Progressives seem to flounder in ideological dogma, or so the argument goes, my own view, is that politicians are as much to blame as anyone else; Michael Gove proved that you can be both a neo-traditionalist and an ideologue arguably combining the worst of everything.

The key, it seems to Martin,  to meeting the challenge of change is to re-engage with our historical conversation. Progressives will always see the the resolution to problems lying at some point in the future whilst traditionalists often look to the past.

If we can learn anything from the last twenty years or so it is that one cannot ignore the other. Change is a conversation with history but with a view to the future. Values are the first victim of a conversation that precludes either one, or the other.

Anyway I’ve cut out some of my favourite passages below. The full text is here including my own ramble at the end about the “will to power”, and the fact that often change becomes an excuse for those in power to re-assert their authority. In other words the problem that is being addressed is the threat to power and not the overt problem cited as being the cause of change. Anyway enough of my rambling, enjoy!

The question posed: are a school’s values enfeebled by the never ending desire to change?

GK Chesterton wrote: “The whole modern world has divided itself into Conservatives and Progressives. The business of Progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of Conservatives is to prevent mistakes from being corrected. This is the balance, Education is a place where the generations, past and future meet, the teacher representing the past meets the pupil who will make the future and they meet, crucially, in the present.

Some people hate ‘education’ just because it looks old fashioned, they want to throw technology at it and argue for a future where all teachers have been successfully replaced by hole in the wall machines or computer games that entertain the child by developing her marketable skills. The future deems that we should all be autonomous individuals buffeted by the global utilitarian market and our schools should train people in these skills. Not values, skills. And in the next thirty years the schools that we currently see, imagine, will be disbanded. In the age of individualism we will have no need of these institutions, we will finally be free! Free from uniformity, no more school, no more teachers, school’s out for a permanent summer fed by wikipedia.

In the golden future our values will be bought and sold on the amazon market place and delivered by drones. Placeless, faceless, looking for the values that most suit us at a certain time, we don’t want to be marked by the past, we want to escape it. Blessed are the change makers for they will free the world. But what is lost? What is lost?

The progressive Brazilian philosopher Roberto UNGER thinks we, mummified by the past, die many deaths. He thinks we must dispel the illusions and change the way we live, he sees the actual and the possible, the machine and the imagination, as allies. I see the constraints offered by the past as enabling us to both to reimagine it and ourselves in the present by telling, retelling and reshaping our stories.

Unger points out that progressives used to believe in blueprints, now they don’t believe in anything, but in education this is, unfortunately, not true. The blueprints of the future drive the progressive change machine. We become mummified by the future! Unger says the goal should be to overthrow the rule of the dead over the living, I believe we should converse with the dead… The change makers want us to be ruled by the unborn, I believe we should write our stories for the unborn and pass them on. Unger talks about bringing in a ‘structure revising structure,’ he thinks all we have for sure is life in the present and in seeking to change the world, we can change ourselves, by moving away from the idols (of the past and of the future?) and by moving closer together in the present, and therefore we, in Unger’s mortal phrase, die only once…

Unger calls for decentralisation, he sees wage labour as a compromised transitory form, tainted by slavery, replaced gradually by free labour – self employment and co-operation. He wants a revolution in education that privileges co-operation in teaching and learning rather than individualism and authoritarianism. He thinks teaching should be dialectical from at least two points of view, where the mind is both a machine and an anti machine, it has negative capability, and so should our institutions.

This way, he believes, change can be substantial but it should be gradualist and experimental. Permanent vanguardist innovation, innovation led by and for the ubermensch excludes most people whereas Unger believes we need to disseminate the ability to change their circumstances to the very people involved. To Unger Progressives should not be about some supreme objective of equality, rather they should look at raising ordinary humanity to a higher plane of life, of capability, of experience, of scope in the here and now. And, in this he is right. We can keep our values by enacting our values, by allowing staff to be the drivers of their lives. The machine of the school needs to free the imaginations of its staff!

Do we want revolution or reform? Do we want change to be gradual and human scaled or instant and imposed? The pursuit of wisdom learning to be alive, learning to be human should occur in the space where we come together in common, where we make sense in common, where we converse… Some have tried to deliver a form of freedom to pupils, student voice, child centred learning but what of freeing the teacher? What if we talked about the importance of ‘teacher voice’? The teacher allowed to co-operate and be the purveyor of gradualist and experimental change?

Instead of being the problem, the teacher might, indeed be the solution.

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