What is education for?

On the occasion of the COMPASS Education conference, London, 08 12 2012.

Responding to the question: What is education for?

 key words: education, creativity, the arts, experiential learning & intellectual development, social justice, environmental sustainability, diversity, gender, (mental) health and well being, multicultural society.

 The politics of creativity.

“Michael Gove’s desire for a greater military ethos in schools has taken another step forward”[1] (with funding for (ex) soldiers to work with excluded or disadvantaged pupils. The heart sinks. But it surely concentrates the mind in terms of thinking about this question. Gove has the mistaken idea that the only site of “self discipline and teamwork” is our armed forces, a statement indicative of extreme ignorance about pedagogic process, educational relations and learning, including the actual subject disciplines that make up a good school curriculum, such as the visual and performing arts and media (including dance, drama and music), which the Tories are seeking to exclude all together.[2] This is a mark of how ‘dangerous’ these subjects are, how potentially anti-fascist they are. It is no accident that dictators and tyrants target society’s creatives and improvisers (artists / intellectuals / teachers, etc.) as enemies of their fascist agenda.

These creative disciplines are core activities, not peripheral, in the development of the whole child / person, in terms of personal development, social awareness and the interpersonal skills involved by working collaboratively (in pairs, teams and groups): the discipline of working on your own; the discipline of working collaboratively; the challenge; the excitement generated; and the joy in relationship and creative achievement. Co-creativity. Not forgetting the honing of language and communication skills, including NVC, and the intellectual and emotional challenges offered by these practices.

In our class-riven society, ‘creativity’ has been historically, on the one hand, an éite concept, associated with ‘high art’, or high performance in, for example, science, and as such, the preserve of a white ruling class; and on the other hand, it has had the status and function of dancing bears, for the distraction and entertainment of this small but dominant, affluent section of society.

‘Art’ v entertainment, ‘art’ v therapy (occupational, talking or psychological) , ‘art’ v craft, ‘art’ v decoration, ‘art’ v design, mind v body; intellectual v manual, academic v practical, are a few of the binaries that have flowed from these dominant class, gender and cultural distinctions, which have continued to haunt policy and practice in education, business and industry. The expression ‘good with their hands’ evokes the nineteenth century feel of these distinctions, alive and well apparently, on the left as well as the right. And the language used to debate the issues and envisage alternatives is itself part of the problem: descriptors such as ‘theoretical’ and ‘practical’ conceptualise and reproduce the very binary discourse being challenged.

This experiential learning and intellectual development are preparation for living and life, whether or not the child / young person goes on to pursue these interests professionally. For each child and young adult has the right to retain, develop and understand their own creative process: that capacity and impetus rooted in our earliest weeks and months of navigating the world by means of exploratory behavior and experimentation (often described as ‘play’), fuelled by the developing inquisitive mind, and driven in the first instance by the need to survive the unfamiliar, unknown and potentially threatening. This mutates over time into our active pleasure in new experiences, repeat experiences and innovation, as social life and cultural action expand and deepen.

We do not need (generally) to be creative to move a chair from one position to another; on a flat and clear floor; we need creative process when confronted with complexity, whether emotional, intellectual, social, cultural, political or practical, for example; where there are obstacles to simple action or decision. And we should note that thwarted creativity (akin to poverty: psychic and spiritual impoverishment) is a shortcut to mental health issues: to disenchantment, disconnection, despair and breakdown. Creativity is not just about problem solving, but about nourishing, healing and sustaining health and wellbeing, personally and socially. It is about being and feeling alive!

Creative process as both methodology and outcome.

Good education is inherently about fostering the imagination and ambition intrinsic to creative process and co-creativity. This kind of education is for the person, society and the planet, and bears on the relation between these three. It is not instruction, though there may be some of that. It is not a telling: more a series of invitations and provocations (to be, do, make, think, question and feel, for example). Invitations to experience, to reflect on experience, and to learn from experience (to store, retrieve and deploy); to be adventurous!

Good education is about emergence within a facilitative, supportive and challenging environment, imbued with loving and empathic values, including attentiveness and active listening; caring rather than competitiveness. You open up and learn, you develop courage, in a learning environment that diminishes fear as an instrument of control, and where you encounter adults who believe in you and expect something of you; who see your beauty before it shows itself in your actions and achievements. We know this to be true: we have variously experienced it as children and/or adults and as students; and we have experienced it and witnessed it in our roles as educators, carers, parents, mentors and friends, for example.

Understanding creative process and its role in healthy human development, social relations and educational achievement, makes clear that the register and mode of good education cannot be authoritarian, judgemental or threatening, for these are the ways of military combat and control; of the tyrant and bully; and the dominant, failing parent. These ways of ruling subdue, crush and undermine a person’s delicate spirit and heart, disciplining for the purposes of the controller, the powerful, the authority figure and/or institution. Obedience and compliance dominate. The feeling heart, the inquiring mind, a sense of adventure and the ability to take responsibility for one’s actions are all casualties of this fundamentalism.

Obstacles to being and learning are wide-ranging and numerous; and include fear, indifference, prejudice, shame, bullying, violence; as well as social circumstances, such as poverty, hunger, poor housing; lack of appropriate facilities, equipment and opportunities, and incompetent teaching. Just as the NHS, while contributing significantly to healthcare, does not in itself deliver public health, formal education must be clear what it can deliver: what are the conditions of its own making that the school or college can reasonably take responsibility for and determine, as its contribution to a good education for every child and student?[3]

Early education (pre-school, primary and early secondary) is about how to (be, do, make, speak, write, read, explain, question, etc.), and ways of doing and representing. Exploration, experiment and practice shape activities. Increasingly, there will be opportunities to understand the role of contexts (history, geographies, languages [linguistic, mathematical, scientific] and culture, for example), as learning becomes more differentiated at secondary school and in FHE. Those contexts, histories and power struggles provide evidence and understanding of legacy, in and for society today, expanding knowledge of the what and raising questions about the why, e.g. regarding social class stratification and élitism; disablism; racism and colonialism; heterosexism, misogyny and homophobia. These encounters invite us to position ourselves within these stories and grapple with our own multiple identities, and our tentative and/or dogmatic views and values. The research skills developed from primary school on are not just technical, but subject to this diversity and even urgency. As  the American philosopher, John Dewey, said of aesthetic experience: there is always something at stake.

Creativity, diversity, responsibility.

Education in C21 in the UK must provide experiences and skills in support of a fair and just, democratic and multicultural society: part dream, part reality. It has to acknowledge this complex challenge and equip children and students with the means to survive and thrive in a less than fair and just society; to live alongside one another without prejudice or violence; and to better cope with consumerist pressure.

These struggles are visible and real, and need to be addressed within the learning environment: both the culture of the school, for example, as well as via the curriculum. Michael Sandel, the American Philosopher, and Michael Rosen, the children’s writer, are good examples of adults and teachers capable of engaging the interest of children and young people (and adults) regarding the application of values, and the relevance of serious ethical questions for lives and societies, as well as modelling what it means to be what Dewey called ‘a live creature’ – as opposed to a compliant and unplayful bit of wood.

The organisation and culture of an educational institution must visibly embody principles of social justice and diversity, towards which its wider society strives. The tacit learning this affords is as important as explicit curriculum content. Showing, doing and making are powerful aesthetic and ethical components within the pedagogic environment, as opposed to telling. Militaristic values and practices, as promoted by Michael Gove, would make all this impossible.

Similarly, learning environments and our education system must also be off limits to profit makers. As Michael Sandel has demonstrated in his writing and public lectures on the limits of markets (e.g. LP Conference, 2011, Manchester), there are areas of human endeavour and society that are irretrievably damaged and altered by commodification and the operation of market values. Education is one such.

Almost certainly the most serious omission over the last 50 years within our educational system has been the refusal to address the problem of gender and heterosexism; the pervasiveness and impact of gender power relations and the dominance of élite white men; the exponential increase in the sexualisation of capital’s businesses, industries, cultural and media practices, and the commodification of the body, notably the female body (woman and child); the problem of misogyny and rising sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) and violence against women and girls (VAWG).

Masculinity and femininity (and their playground, heterosexism) have been ignored as default positions: natural and inevitable. This has left children and young people unequiped / ill-equiped to understand their own gender and sexual identities, and the social forces that shape these. The personal and social costs of the resulting combination of vulnerability and violence are incalculable, destructive and heartrending. Given that the primary address by business, media, light entertainment and cultural industries foregrounds sex and (hetero)sexual identity as the overriding ‘business’ of life, as well as the source of self doubt / aspiration / crisis, this charged situation must be faced and something better offered than ‘sex education’.

Furthermore, in our multicultural and multi-faith society, these issues take on greater significance, given the epistemological and political centrality of heterosexism and traditional gender power relations within these ideological communities of practice, which in turn underpin, fuel and justify, at the least the control and subordination of women and girls, and at worst, institutionalised SGBV, too often resulting in the maiming and murder of women and girls, frequently by  family and/or intimates. (I recognise that these attitudes and behaviours are not the sole province of those of faith, and are also part of particular political configurations on the far right, but they are distinctive and problematic in that they are virulently promoted as cultural practice and ideology, in direct opposition to UK law and equality practices.)

If girls and women are to count as citizens in our society, free to be and to fulfill our potential, our physical and social safety must be secured within society’s institutions, public spaces and behind closed doors, by a shift in the culture of those social spaces. Likewise, if boys are to grow into men capable of friendship with and respect for girls and women, accepting equal status, it is clear that society and its education system have a contributing responsibility. I suggest a unified national education system has a key part to play in this process, and I welcome the ‘expansive and unified model’ for education in the 14-19 phase,[4] discussed at conference.

An education that empowers children and young people is one rooted in feminist-inspired experiential learning and critique for boys and girls, young women and young men, enabling them to better develop self protection and self respect; as well as the capacity for mutuality and reciprocity, within and beyond sexual relationships.

This is not peripheral to the question: ‘What is education for?’ On the contrary, it is central to the health and mental well being and social efficacy of individuals (female, male, transgender), as well as to our capacity as a society to incorporate and harness the values of social justice and environmental sustainability for the future.[5]

val walsh / 09 12 2012


[1] Peter Walker (07 12 2012) Ex-service people’s help for pupils gets £1.9m boost. The Guardian.

[2] How we miss Ted Wragg, who would have deconstructed Gove in a fabulous, life-affirming flash of intellect, irreverence and humour. Ah, the significance of irreverence as substance . . . . the creative (and hopeful) mind at work.

[3] See Val Walsh (1996) Terms of engagement: Pedagogy as a healing politic. In Louise Morley & Val Walsh (eds.) Breaking Boundaries: Women in Higher Education. London: Taylor & Francis, 187-207.

[4] Ann Hodgson & Ken Spours (16 11 2012) Rethinking the 14-19 phase in England in the context of economic and political change. Centre for Post-14 Research & Innovation.

[5] See Val Walsh (14 10 2012) Thinking through and beyond ‘sexism’: reflections on the challenge for the ‘Left’ (and willing others). Discussion paper.

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