The Uncanny Progressive versus Traditional Debate

Meditation on the following blogs

Dr Beardface  On reading (part 1)  On defending shit work  On ideology

Linda J. Graham  On tax-payer funded research   Angry white men

Greg Ashman   Come, join the enlightenment    Loose ends    The disconnect

debsnet   Traditional Progressivity or Progressive Traditionalism: Ditch the dichotomy

Corinne Campbell  On TeachMeets, EduChats and Marketing

My recent twitter feed has had much discussion about traditional and enlightenment values. While some seem satisfied with their respective positions, to me it’s a manifestation of an underlying discontent that’s been brewing throughout my 30 career in education, and these blogs provide an opportunity to consider these issues propelled by real people with real emotions, not abstract ones.

While the debate had material for many tangential excursions, I will restrict this blog to a couple of key themes – post structuralism, sex and race, the Enlightenment, and the role of teachers in a post traditional landscape. Further, I haven’t addressed all the blogs related to this debate.

This blog is part of my public thinking for my PhD, and the references are as much for my research purposes as for any academic pretensions.  This topic is really too big for twitter and the blogosphere so this is more of an essay, in some ways proving the point that the topic is too dense and complex.

Post Structuralism

Issues with post-structuralism in education drove much of the twitter debate to which I’m responding, perhaps it’s best to quickly summarise my understanding of this endeavour. Structuralism was an attempt to identify underlying structures, codes and conventions that produce meaning and make meaning possible.  However early structuralists like Barthes, Lacan and Foucault recognized that meaning making is not independent of the person making the meaning; that is, a subject’s sex, social class and ethnic identity affect meaning making.  This led to post structuralism and in particular Deconstruction led by Derrida who critiqued hierarchical oppositions in Western thought. Derrida showed that notions such as inside/outside, mind/body, nature/culture were not natural but a construction.  While the work of Deconstruction sought to dismantle and reinscribe textual meaning, it did not seek to destroy meaning. However, in effect, Deconstruction did become a teasing out of warring forces of signification within a text and is therefore associated with broader movements such feminist theory, various psychoanalytic theories, Marxist thought, Post-Colonial Theory, and Minority discourses (Culler, 1997, pp. 125–131)

Posts-structuralism has generated much academic activity and material, and even if a small percentage of this material is dross, this seems to be sufficient to attract much ridicule from traditionalists. Nevertheless, post-structuralism remains a valid and useful endeavour, particularly for education which has a key interest in matters of content and representation. Drawing on the notion of education’s instructional core(Elmore, 1996), students, teachers and content are the three central concerns of education; from a post-structural perspective this translates into two meaning-making subjects and a collection of externally produced content signifiers.  It is the concern with signification and the subject that makes post-structuralism particularly relevant to education, more so than some of the other ‘posts’ related to economics, management, art and culture (e.g. Drucker, 1993; Jameson, 1991). Furthermore, all these ‘posts’ sits within broader changes within western societies sometimes described as a condition of postmodernity (e.g. Harvey, 1990; Lyotard, 1984).

Post-structuralism has failed in many respects to live up to its political promise, while it provides a range of social enquiries it seemed to have had little interest in concrete political issues such as justice, freedom, truth and autonomy (Eagleton, 2008, p. 199). One example is post-structuralism’s scepticism of Government  (see Governmentality e.g. Foucault, Burchell, Gordon, & Miller, 1991; Foucault, 2008). Without recourse to an effective government it becomes difficult to mount a case for emancipatory interests such as equality. A case for equality requires a government capable of both monitoring equality and implementing effective policy in response. Equality requires ‘governmentality’, and universal education is traditionally provided by government. So post-structuralism’s scepticism and critique of the role of government has, unwittingly or otherwise, weakened the position of the state to define, monitor and redress disadvantage in education. Furthermore, in diminishing the state’s role in defining and redressing disadvantage, post-structuralism has, again perhaps unwittingly, opened up the landscape for market forces to redefine and address perceived disadvantage.  Post-structuralism can redress this by either better scoping out its concerns to focus on signification, or by developing a stronger narrative in favour of systems and government.

Irrespective, post-structuralism will continue to have a strong role to play in education due to its concern for signification and representation, particularly when it’s able to take a ‘structuralist’ stance to inform how subject matter should be represented in the digital age. This will continue to be a highly contested area (Beavis, 2010; Kress, 2003). For this reason, post-structuralism is unlikely to be usurped by the more contemporary post-humanism  (Barad, 2003) within the field of education any time soon.

Sex, Race and Uncanny Australia

The trad-prog debate also involved sex and race through the invocation of Angry-White-Men, a reformulation of the post-modern Dead-White-Men. This invocation generated some offence as well as ironic amusement.  There is no doubting the phenomenon of the violent angry male, but there are also men who are angry about other things such as Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers and quality of universal education.  Conflating these forms of anger may not be useful.

Collins Street

Collins St, 5p.m.1955, John Brack © National Gallery of Victoria 

The distinct strata that once divided men and women has evaporated  

The distinct strata that once divided men and women in Australia have also evaporated.  Two of the protagonists propelling the twitter exchange, for example, included a senior female academic and a male student, a reversal of traditional power relations.  These inversions are no longer isolated, Australia’s richest person is now a woman, and we have had a woman prime minister. Further, for each Alan Jones and Andrew Bolt in the public sphere there are is now a corresponding – and arguably more articulate and successful – Clementine Ford and Jane Caro.  Nevertheless, while ‘social media’ power between men and women may have equalised in the public sphere, this has not necessarily translated into real economic or political equality.

Similar issues exist for race. White Australia once was able offer generosity to its Asian neighbours for failed colonisation practices in Vietnam for example. In education this led to a culture of inclusiveness. White Australia is no longer able to assert itself through either colonisation or generosity in the same way from a position of power. Chinese nationals now have the economic upper hand to purchase property within the catchment areas of some of Australia’s most sought after public schools (Chinese buyers flock to Glen Waverley). The Australian economy is no longer able to assert itself within an Occidental context of dominant white Anglo-Saxon men and women. Australia is becoming increasingly dependent on Oriental forces (see Said, 1994 for post-colonial framing of Oriental and Occidental).

So the traditional framings of feminism and post-colonialism are no longer able to provide a coherent narrative of power relations in Australia in a way that resonates with the lived experience of many Australians. Most Australians, particularly in education, now routinely report to by both men and women of both Occidental and Oriental backgrounds.  This is not to say that there are no systemic structural inequities based on sex or race, and that sex and race are no longer valid targets of public policy, but structural inequities can no longer be fully explained in terms of hegemonic white male power.   Nor can white male anger be dismissed as a contemporary manifestation of dead white men, it is likely to be more pernicious than that and involve female protagonists (e.g. Pauline Hanson)

There is therefore unfamiliarity and strangeness around the roles of sex and race in power relations, boundaries that once distinguished one from the other may no longer be tenable or recognisable.  Gelder and Jacobs, drawing on Freud and Kristeva, developed the notion of an uncanny Australia with respect to the sacredness in Aboriginal culture(Gelder & Jacobs, 1998, p. 26).  This notion of uncanniness could be extended to sex and race, an uncanniness that could itself be the root of anger.

A flight to Enlightenment

A flight to Enlightenment and towards the certainty of empiricism is one response to an uncanny Australia and a more complex environment.  While such a flight could be dismissed as a simple psychological defence, it also seems part of a broader trend and therefore worthy of exploration.  For example, Geoff Masters, CEO of Australia’s preeminent educational research organisation, considers the field of educational assessment as currently divided and in disarray due to fault lines occurring between competing philosophies, methods and approaches (Masters, 2013, p. 1). As I have argued elsewhere, Masters’ response to this disarray is a unifying principle that takes a Kantian metaphysical philosophical stance, or an early Enlightenment stance. A stance that presupposes a cognition (presumably white male) before another cognition that acts as a philosophical arbiter of practical reason, judgement, and theoretical reason (Habermas, 1996, p. 2).  Masters’ proposed principle also privileges the role of objective measurement and the Rasch Model (Masters, 1982) of which Masters is a world leading exponent. In doing so Masters also regresses to an early version of the Enlightenment that ignores Hegel’s work in showing that philosophy is not transcendental but historically located (Singer, 2001, p. 13)

Furthermore, education at heart is not a science but a social activity. Education does deal with facts, but mainly deals with norms that are socially constructed.  Facts and Norms should not be confused. Curriculum, for example, cannot be determined by empirical means. Instead, curriculum is developed by drawing on social norms and social reasoning and articulates the shared expectations of a broader community.  Even for those aspects of education that can be measured, the notion of causation is less well understood,  and the validity of meaning making is underdeveloped and under-theorized (Markus & Borsboom, 2013, p. 15). Blind experiments that are able to test some of the more contentious issues are also not possible in education due to ethical constraints, so for many of these issues effective social reasoning is required because empiricism is simply not an option.

While a retreat to the Enlightenment may be comforting and provide certainty in a time of uncanniness, even those dedicated to retrieving the Enlightenment, such as Habermas, emphasise the centrality of moral discourse and pragmatics (Habermas, 1985, 1987, 1996, 1998).

Teachers and Systems

From an effective teachers point of view the dichotomy between traditional and progressive, or any hierarchical oppositions, make little sense. Teachers are practical and pragmatic reasoners who, when given sufficient autonomy and support, use their educational expertise, their engagement with the broader educational community, and their knowledge of their students, to deliver lessons that effortlessly traverse oppositions. It is this skill and experience that makes teachers excellent social reasoners and moral agents. However articulating these skills with systems remains problematic.

Systems provide the resources and administrative authority for teachers to conduct their work, and the system-teacher relationship requires reciprocity.  Where this reciprocity is distorted it can lead to systems colonizing the world of teachers (see Habermas, 1987). One example of where the nature of reciprocity has changed relates to educational standards. Traditionally teachers, as moral agents, contributed significantly to standard setting exercises that reflected social expectations (Cizek, 2012). However, the social process of standard setting is increasingly being replaced by instrumentally defined cut-off points and levels (e.g. see OECD, 2012, pp. 258–263) which may be appropriate for system evaluation but perhaps less so for reporting to students and parents.  The diminishing role of subject associations is evidence of this transition which has led to a weakened relationship between teachers and systems.  System consultations with the teaching profession are being increasingly replaced by private discussions among board-level coteries. There is also the phenomenon of teachers in leadership positions being appropriated (bought, seduced, corrupted) by commercial interests.

So while there is reason to be sanguine about the capacity of teachers to navigate divides within their classrooms, systemic problems remain that require political action to generalise teacher experience across systems.

Looking Ahead

Julia Gillard prime ministership may provide a useful glimpse of what the future might look like. Germaine Greer describes it thus

it’s important to realise that Julia Gillard is part of a coalition. What that means is that she has to negotiate every single policy position. What that means is camel trading on the floor. It happens to be what she’s good at. You can say, ‘We want to know what she really, really believes.’ In fact, it’s irrelevant because whatever she really, really believes is not what’s going to happen.(“Q&A :Politics and porn in a post-feminist world,” 2012)

To me, this is the future. It doesn’t matter what any of us think, it is our capacity to engage and negotiate issues into action that makes us effective.  Who knows what the world would look like when men and women are equal, where the Occident and the Orient are equal, and where the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is resolved.  Nobody knows, and we will only find out if we take the necessary steps forward to engage and negotiate. There is a strong argument to be made that Gillard has been Australia’s most effective Prime Minister, not by way of being able to unify a majority around a single set of ideas in the manner of Bob Hawke, but by way of being able to effectively negotiate difference in a manner that delivered a more enlightened post-traditional society.  Further, Gillard’s post-traditional effectiveness was matched by a traditional hostility including that of Greer, who quickly followed up the above quote with comment that Gillard had a ‘big arse’; probably one of the most disappointing moments in Australia’s gender debate. Almost uncanny.

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