Man’s Search for Meaning

At the end of this month I am supposed to be going on a four-day course on The Mystique of Existentialism. I say ‘supposed’, because given the current fears around COVID-19, either the course will be cancelled, or I will opt out.

The course outline says that the intention is to discuss the human condition that thinkers the likes of Kierkegaard, Dostoevsky, Nietzsche and Jean-Paul Sartre dwelt upon.

Suggested reading for the course is At the Existentialist Café by Sarah Bakewell. I was pleased about this because I have already read and blogged about the book which I thoroughly enjoyed. See Human Existence is Difficult. Existentialism and Phenomenology.

Serendipitously I also recently came across an article about an interview between Nigel Warburton and  Sarah Bakewell, in which he asked her to recommend five books on existentialism.

Of the five books that she recommends, I have only previously read Nausea, by Jean-Paul Sartre, again for a course, about five years ago – an introduction to philosophical literature. Sarah Bakewell starts her discussion with David Cooper’s book, but I jumped straight to Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl.  Frankl wrote the book in 1945 in nine successive days.  I am late in discovering this book, but it still seems very pertinent for our times.

Viktor Frankl (1905-1997), an Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist, was a Holocaust survivor. In the book he describes his experience of the concentration camps, and questions whether a life of suffering can also have meaning. At one point he writes about how the memory of his wife, and conjuring up her image, sustained him and kept him going. He came to understand that ‘The salvation of man is through love and in love’. He also quotes Nietzsche’s words ‘He who has a why to live can bear with almost any how.

One of the strongest messages to come out of the book is that man has a choice of action, a choice of how to respond to the circumstances he finds himself in.

‘…. everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.’

‘…. Even the helpless victim of a hopeless situation, facing a fate he cannot change, may rise above himself, may grow beyond himself, and by so doing change himself.’

As Sarah Bakewell says; ‘…we always have the freedom to make of it [a given situation] what we will, according to our own choices, to impose our own meaning on it.’

This seems like a strong message for our times.

Travelling in Cambodia with a wheelchair user

This post is being written from my perspective as the wife of a wheelchair user, rather than the wheelchair user himself. I hope it will be helpful to other wheelchair users who are thinking of visiting Cambodia. Each disabled person is uniquely disabled and therefore has needs specific to their condition. In our case, the wheelchair user is an incomplete quadriplegic, who is permanently in a chair and cannot transfer unaided.

Angkor Wat

Cambodia is probably the most challenging place we have ever visited, from the perspective of access for wheelchair users. We didn’t see another wheelchair user in the two weeks we were there, during which we travelled between four places. We were told that Cambodian wheelchair users (because of course spinal and other catastrophic injuries occur in Cambodia just like anywhere else) stay at home and don’t go out, which is not surprising since there is virtually no provision for them. We were also told that Cambodians would not marry a disabled person, or stay married to a person who becomes disabled during the marriage; we were treated with curiosity, given that we have been married for more than 50 years!

Having said all this, in Siem Reap, Battambang and Phnom Penh we were able to make use of a mobilituk, a tuk-tuk adapted for wheelchair users. This made a huge difference to how easy it was for us to get around, and we certainly missed it when we visited Kep, where one wasn’t available.

It was so much easier and, more importantly, more comfortable, for our wheelchair user to be wheeled into the tuk-tuk, than be lifted (bundled!) into a car, boat or jeep. And, having left the winter in the UK, it was a treat to travel in the open air, despite the dust.

So travelling round Cambodia was hard, but also memorable, maybe because it was hard. This was our itinerary from January 12th to January 28th, 2020, organised by Cambodian Travel Partner.

Day Date Location Hotel Schedule
1 14-01-20 (we started a day late because of flight delays) Siem Reap Victoria Angkor Transfer from airport to hotel. Tuk-tuk tour of Siem Reap. Blessing from resident monk in the pagoda. Dinner and dance show in the evening.

Victoria Angkor Hotel

2 15-01-20 Siem Reap Visit Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom (Bayon) and Ta Phrom temples by tuk-tuk.
3 16-01-20 Siem Reap Travel by open jeep through rural areas. Visit Rolous market before driving to Tonle Sap. Visit Kampong Khleang and the floating village, by boat. Phare Circus in the evening.
4 17-01-20 Battambang Battambang Resort Travel by car to Battambang

Battambang Resort Hotel

5 18-01-20 Battambang Take a tuk-tuk to visit cottage industries around Battambang. Visit Wat Ek Phnom Temple, Well of Shadows Memorial, and the bamboo train.
6 19-01-20 Battambang Visit Wat Banan Temple, Phnom Sampeau and Vineyard by tuk-tuk.
7 20-01-20 Phnom Penh Pavilion Travel by car to Phnom Penh. Tuk-tuk ride to the river. Sunset cruise on the Mekong river cancelled because of access difficulties. Offered a full body massage instead!

Pavilion Hotel

8 21-01-20 Phnom Penh Visit Wat Phnom and Royal Palace by cyclo. Take tuk-tuk to Choeung Ek and Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.
9 22-01-20 Phnom Penh Free day. Visit Koh Dach Island by tuk-tuk.
10 23-01-20 Kep Villa Romonea Travel by car to Kep

Villa Romonea

11 24-01-20 Kep Villa Romonea Visit Kep Mangrove Forest by car and boat. Visit Kampot Pepper Farm by car.
12 25-01-20 Kep Villa Romonea Free Day
13 26-01-20 Kep Villa Romonea Free Day
14 27-01-20 Phnom Penn Travel from Kep to Phnom Penh Airport by car. Return to UK (Manchester) via Bangkok and Dubai.

Our itinerary didn’t work out exactly as originally planned because due to storms in Dubai all our outward  flights were delayed, and we arrived a day late. We flew with Emirates as far as Bangkok, and then Bangkok Airways to Siem Reap. Emirates were very helpful with the delays, putting us up, free of charge, in the Novotel Airport Hotel in Bangkok for a night. These delays meant that whilst Cambodia Travel Partner had scheduled a free day in each place (which is a really good idea), we missed the one in Siem Reap, because we were a day late, and we missed the one in Battambang because we decided to spread the itinerary over two days rather than cram it all in to one day. I think having some slower rest days for a wheelchair user is essential for an enjoyable, stress-free trip.

In terms of access – everywhere in Cambodia is difficult. This was our experience:

Despite a lot of communication with our travel agent when planning the trip, not one of the hotels had a room with an adapted bathroom. I loved all the hotels and was pleased that we stayed in such lovely places, but the rooms were not disabled friendly, which meant a lot of lifting.

Scarcely any of the sights we visited were adapted for wheelchair users, although the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum had ramps, one of which was so uneven and steep that we needed to ask for help. All the temples could only be accessed via flights of steps.

Wat Banan Temple, Battambang

Our wheelchair user saw a lot from the outside, but missed a lot of the inside, for example the exquisite bas reliefs in the Bayon Temple and Angkor Wat.

Bas Relief, Bayon Temple, Siem Reap

If we had travelled with a group of heavy lifters it would have been possible for him to see a lot more, but we travelled as a couple, so whilst lifting wheelchair plus occupant up a few steps was possible, with the help of the driver and guide, it was not possible for the flights of steps which often faced us. I am always conscious when asking people to help (and they almost always do – people all around the world are so amazingly kind and helpful), not only of the effort required, but also that it would be very easy for these untrained volunteer helpers to damage their backs or other muscles. But if you travel with a group of in-the-know friends or carers, then it would probably be possible to lift the wheelchair user up flights of stairs to see sights such as the bas reliefs.

But the Cambodian people are very kind and our travel agent couldn’t do enough for us, constantly checking that we were OK and making alternative arrangements if we needed them, such as arranging complementary full body massages for us when we found we couldn’t access the boat to go on the sunset cruise on the Mekong River in Phnom Penh.

Mekong River, Phnom Penh

So, on reflection, this was an ambitious trip to take on alone, as a couple – but we did it and had a memorable experience. From the perspective of our wheelchair user, he knew it would be a difficult trip so found it an adventure. The trip therefore met his criteria for an enjoyable holiday. I also knew it would be difficult, but it was harder than I expected.

Cambodia is unlike any other country I have ever visited and we have visited quite a few developing countries. The Angkor temples are truly wonderful to visit and rural Cambodia is fascinating. The Royal Palace in Phnom Penh is stunning and Tonle Sap with its floating villages is unlike anything I have ever seen before, even if it brought back memories of Lake Titicaca which we visited in 1977! But it is impossible to avoid being affected by Cambodia’s recent history. The Cambodians want visitors to know about this terrible period in their history, and the horrific atrocities that were committed by the Pol Pot regime, but it is hard to take, and very sad.

Finally, I think it’s worth mentioning that we are both in our 70s, so any younger wheelchair user reading this should bear this in mind. Whilst you might not mind being bundled about like a piece of baggage in your younger days, it becomes a bit more of a trial as you get older, although if gaining access means being treated like a piece of baggage, it is usually worth it, no matter what age.

Having now had a chance to see quite a bit of Cambodia, for which I feel very privileged, if I were to go back, with or without my companion wheelchair user, I would want to spend more time in Siem Reap at the wonderful Victoria Hotel, taking full advantage of the hotel’s beautiful environment and leisurely visiting all the Angkor temple sites, although this probably wouldn’t be so appropriate for a wheelchair user.

For a complete photographic record of our trip see my Cambodia Flickr Album

Some references we explored when planning our trip

Philosophical Musings on Time

This U3A (University of the Third Age) philosophy group meeting, which about 40 people attended, was presented by one of the members, Terry, who gave an interesting talk on the nature of time (as opposed to the measurement of time), in which he raised eight questions for us to discuss. On the table at which I was seated, we didn’t get very far with any of the questions and were all, I think it would be fair to say,  completely out of our depth when it came to knowledge of Stephen Hawking’s work and Einstein’s theory of relativity. We therefore tried to confine our discussion to those questions where we could draw on some personal experience to contribute to the discussion.

I share these questions and some of our discussion with the health warning that I cannot guarantee the accuracy of any of the facts, but hopefully the questions will stimulate further curiosity and thought, as they did for us.

Q1. To what extent does time rule our lives and were we happier before we had clocks?

This was discussed in terms of always having had clocks if we consider the sun to be a clock, day and night, the seasons and so on. The general opinion was that over time we have become more and more obsessed with time, such that we now seek antidotes to the pressure of time, such as mindfulness and meditation, and we have to ‘dare ourselves to be still’. It was suggested that small children are not aware of time (I’m not sure about that), and the relationship between time and longitude was briefly mentioned.

Q2. In your opinion – is time real?

Here reference was made to Kant’s questions about time and space, Julian Barbour’s controversial view that time is an illusion, and McTaggart’s work on the unreality of time. Some philosophers think that time is no more than change. Raymond Tallis discusses the relationship between Time and Change in Philosophy Now magazine. The group acknowledged that our limited lives make time seem real, and we think of it as a commodity which we save, spend, waste etc. On our table we got into deep water discussing what ‘real’ means and whether time exists independently of our perceptions of it. Needless to say, we didn’t come to any conclusions.

Q3. Have you experienced Time seeming to speed up or slow down? How do you account for this?

Given that the U3A is for people who have retired, most people shared the experience of time seeming to speed up with age. There is a psychological element. As Einstein said:

Time seems to move forward. Here reference was made to the physicist Arthur Eddington, with some pride, since he was born in Kendal, Cumbria, where our meeting was taking place. Eddington developed the concept of Time’s Arrow (The Arrow of Time) – the one-way direction of time, which gives us the impression of time passing. Stephen Hawking posited 3 arrows of time; psychological time (human perception of time, the past and the future); entropic time (the universe moves from a state of order to disorder but not the reverse); cosmological time (the arrow moves forward and backward when the universe is in an inflationary and deflationary state respectively). I have no idea what that means! These arrows prove (according to Hawking) the existence of a one-way flow of time in the universe.

 

There was also reference to Father Time and Shakespeare’s sonnets (see, for example, Sonnet 123 – No, Time, thou shalt not boast that I do change, and Sonnet 60), in which time is a major theme.

 

Q4. Do you think of time as linear or cyclical?

The cyclical nature of time is mentioned in Shakespeare’s work and the wheel of time is a concept found in some religions; Buddhism, Sikhism, Hinduism. Many patterns and rhythms in nature suggest that time is cyclical – the seasons, day and night, elliptical patterns.

But we tend to think of time as linear. Some philosophers believe that past and future don’t exist, only the present. Einstein believed that the distinction between past, present and future is only an illusion, and that the present is unique to the individual; it depends on the reference frame of the observer. Einstein worried that science can’t explain ‘the now’.

Q5. How much is memory and anticipation involved in the appreciation of music? Is there a way this is similar to our experience of Time?

It was suggested that Time must include a little memory. Think of this in terms of music. We hear a succession of sounds as a flowing melody, but to do this we must be hearing a little bit before and a little bit after the given sound/note. It was suggested that Time flows in a similar way. Edmund Husserl was mentioned in relation to how time can flow, but we didn’t discuss Husserl further. I have yet to find out what Husserl contributed to this topic. Newton also thought that time flows and wrote: “absolute, true and mathematical time, of itself, and from its own nature, flows equably without relation to anything external” (see Absolute Time). Einstein turned the idea of Absolute Time on its head. Time, he said is relative and flexible (see Relativistic Time).

Q6. The Block Universe Theory sounds bizarre, and also rather undermines the idea of Free Will. What’s your opinion?

At this point everyone I was speaking to was beginning to get a bit lost, even those who had read Stephen Hawking’s ‘A Brief History of Time’. Presentism, Eternalism and Block Theory of Time were all mentioned. Presentism is the view that neither the future nor the past exists, only the present exists, but Eternalists believe that past, present and future are all equally real. In this latter view, which is supported by relativity theory, there is no flow of time. According to Block Theory, the past and present exist, but the future does not. This undermines the theory of free will.

Q7. If Time travel was available to you where would you go and why?

We didn’t answer this question, discussing instead some of the implications of light speed for what we see and understand of the universe – time dilation and the idea that astronauts age more slowly than people on earth – and whether time travel will ever be a possibility. Stephen Hawking considered this .

Time travel used to be thought of as just science fiction, but Einstein’s general theory of relativity allows for the possibility that we could warp space-time so much that you could go off in a rocket and return before you set out. (Stephen Hawking)

If time travel is possible, where are the tourists from the future? (Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time)

Q8. How do you spend your leisure time?

This final question was raised because it was assumed that given that this discussion group consists of people who have retired, they have more leisure time. Evidently the Greeks craved leisure to live a life of the mind.

This U3A philosophy group consists of as many men as women, but this didn’t stop one woman quipping: ‘Leisure is a male concept’.

A comment of our time!

What is bias when the opposite may also be true?

Audrey Watters ended 2019, with a long article about The 100 Worst Ed-Tech Debacles of the Decade and introduced it with these words:

I’m sure you can come up with some rousing successes and some triumphant moments that made you thrilled about the 2010s and that give you hope for “the future of education.” Good for you. But that’s not my job. (And honestly, it’s probably not your job either.)

At the same time as Audrey’s article appeared, I have been discussing Iain McGilchrist’s book, The Master and his Emissary. The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, with two friends (separately), in terms of the following questions:

  1. Is McGilchrist biased towards the right hemisphere?
  2. Could the left hemisphere and the right hemisphere both serve as the Master and his Emissary at different times?
  3. Does McGilchrist work in an echo chamber?
  4. Is the importance of technological intelligence, and advances in artificial intelligence sufficiently accounted for in McGilchrist’s work?
  5. Does McGilchrist promote the superiority/primacy of the right hemisphere, to the detriment of the left hemisphere?
  6. Does the left hemisphere also have a role in recognising the new?

(If you are unfamiliar with McGilchrist’s work, then these questions won’t mean much. If you are interested in knowing more about his work, a good place to start is with this video on You Tube.

The fields of interest of these two authors are completely different, but they have both been accused of bias and both have robustly defended their positions.

Audrey Watters received many positive responses for her article, but some questioned whether she should also have mentioned Ed-Tech successes as well as the failures, a response that she clearly anticipated, given the quote above. Here are a couple of comments from Twitter.

 

But Audrey comes back fighting in her HEWN newsletter

I’m not sure why folks want me to tell them what’s praiseworthy. As I said on Twitter: get your own moral compass. Look at your own practices, at the practices of those around you. And do better.

But more importantly, let’s be clear: the technology industry — education technology or otherwise — does not need my validation. It needs criticism. It needs criticism that refuses to come with sugar-coating and a few plaudits. There are not “two sides” to this issue that deserve equal time. There are not “two sides” — some good and some bad ed-tech — that exist in any sort of equal measure.

Iain McGilchrist, who published his monumental book in 2009 (and which took him 20 years to research and write), has also received his fair share of criticism. Unlike Audrey Watters,  he does present ‘two sides’ – the side of the left hemisphere and the side of the right hemisphere – but, he says, the relationship between them is not equal:

If the two hemispheres produce two worlds, which should we trust if we are after the truth about the world? Do we simply accept that there are two versions of the world that are equally valid, and go away shrugging our shoulders? I believe that the relationship between the hemispheres is not equal, and that while both contribute to our knowledge of the world, which therefore needs to be synthesised, one hemisphere, the right hemisphere, has precedence, in that it underwrites the knowledge that the other comes to have, and is alone able to synthesise what both know into a usable whole. (p.177 The Master and his Emissary)

This hasn’t prevented the criticisms of bias, but, like Audrey Watters, he is equally able to stand his corner. See for example the exchange between him and Stephen Pinker, between him and Kosslyn and Miller, and between him and Kenan Malik. It is not hard to find more exchanges like these.

These interesting examples from two different authors, writing about different subjects, which have serendipitously come to my attention at the same time, raise the question of when does ‘taking a stand’ and fiercely stating a position, amount to bias.

The Cambridge Dictionary defines bias as follows:

… the action of supporting or opposing a particular person or thing in an unfair way, because of allowing personal opinions to influence your judgement.

On Wikipedia, bias is defined as:

…  disproportionate weight in favor of or against an idea or thing, usually in a way that is closed-minded, prejudicial, or unfair.

 So is bias a bad thing and what constitutes disproportionate weight? And have these two authors been close-minded, prejudicial, or unfair, allowing personal opinions to influence their judgement?

Or is ‘biased’ just a word that we level at people who don’t agree with us, or who we don’t agree with?

I’m not sure that thinking in terms of bias is helpful. For some questions, taking a strong position, hopefully an open-minded, fair and unprejudiced position, is needed to produce a better argument, but my experience is that it is hard to judge what counts as a well-argued, open-minded, fair and unprejudiced position. Personal perspectives and contexts are influential.

There is always the potential for an alternative perspective, or “two sides”, to quote Audrey Watters.

As Iain McGilchrist says:

The model we choose to use to understand something determines what we find. If it is the case that our understanding is an effect of the metaphors we choose, it is also true that it is a cause: our understanding itself guides the choice of metaphor by which we understand it. The chosen metaphor is both cause and effect of the relationship. Thus how we think about ourselves and our relationship to the world is already revealed in the metaphors we unconsciously choose to talk about it. That choice further entrenches our partial view of the subject. Paradoxically we seem to be obliged to understand something – including ourselves – well enough to choose the appropriate model before we can understand it. Our first leap determines where we land. ( The Master and his Emissary, p.97)

He also says (which is perhaps even more relevant to this discussion)

‘There is always a truth in the opposite of something’ (see a previous blog post. The Value and Limits of Reason )

So, whether or not as individuals we think that Audrey Watters and Iain McGilchrist have presented biased arguments, we can remember that, for some other people, the opposite could also be true.

(Source of image: http://nautil.us/blog/why-youre-biased-about-being-biased)

You are Jürgen Habermas!

Jürgen Habermas in 2014 at the age of 84

I have spent the start of the new year, trying to bring some order to the hundreds of documents on my laptop and was surprised to find a document in my 2014 folder with the title – ‘You are Jürgen Habermas’, which included the following text:

Author of The Logic of the Social Sciences, you recognize that the primary activity of human beings is to interpret the meaning of things in the world around them. As human beings themselves, researchers also interpret meanings and cannot therefore keep their own perspective separate from their research. Since there is no absolute truth, research must instead use reason and argument to arrive at the best interpretation. Go use your hermeneutics to conquer the world!

It turns out that this was the result of an online quiz – ‘What’s your epistemology?’

I don’t take these quizzes seriously. They are just a bit of light-hearted fun to occupy a spare moment, or when procrastinating, but I was interested that six years later I get the same result, and given that I haven’t written a blog post for a couple of months, sharing this seemed like a gentle restart.

I don’t know a huge amount about Habermas, but I do like his advocacy of communicative action and Ideal Speech Situation.

Keith Morrison (2008) makes these ideas accessible in his paper ‘Educational Philosophy and the Challenge of Complexity’ where he writes:

A complexity informed pedagogy requires communication that includes:

  • Freedom to enter a discourse, check questionable claims, evaluate explanations and justifications;
  • Freedom to modify a given conceptual framework and alter norms;
  • Mutual understanding between participants;
  • Equal opportunity for dialogue that abides by the validity claims of truth, legitimacy, sincerity and comprehensibility, and recognises the legitimacy of each subject to participate in the dialogue as an autonomous and equal partner;
  • Equal opportunity for discussion, and the achieved—negotiated—consensus resulting from discussion deriving from the force of the better argument alone, and not from the positional power of the participants;
  • Exclusion of all motives except for the cooperative search for truth.

All this feels very relevant at the beginning of 2020.

And, as an aside, the quiz included this lovely image:

A painting by a Swedish artist new to me – Bruno Liljefors (1860-1939)

Happy New Year to anyone reading this post.

Reference
Morrison, K. (2008). Educational Philosophy and the Challenge of Complexity Theory. Educational Philosophy and Theory, 40(1). https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1469-5812.2007.00394.x

Testing Times in the Classroom: Re-imagining education for the 21st Century

The final task at the end of the fourth and last week of Exeter University’s FutureLearn course – Testing Times in the Classroom. Challenges of 21st Century Education was to re-imagine compulsory schooling. This seems like an enormous task to tag on to the end of the final week of a four week course, which is probably why, as far as I can see, only one person has made any attempt to complete it. Exeter University have tried to minimise this task by giving some advice:

We would encourage you to undertake this re-imagining exercise in any way that might make sense for you. It is entirely up to you how you choose to respond. For example, you might just want to add some notes to the discussion below on your re-imagined school system, or you might want to compose a short poem which captures some of your main thoughts. It might also be helpful for you to do this by creating a visual image.

As an example they provide a link to this blog post – The problem with that equity vs. equality graphic you’re using. I doubt that the complexity of re-imagining compulsory schooling can be reduced to one image, although it might be possible to represent aspects of it in this way and it probably could be represented by a map, particularly if using Matthias’ Melcher’s Thought Condensr Tool. (See the examples on this page – http://condensr.de/samples/)

At this stage I am at a loss as to how to complete this task. The FutureLearn site has told me that I have 11 days of access left to the site. After that I have to pay if I want continued access, which I don’t intend to do. But it will take me more than 11 days to think about this task in any depth. A whole book could be written on the topic, or a PhD or at a minimum a Masters thesis. Nevertheless I have decided to collect resources which might inform how I could respond to the task.

My starting point has been UNESCO’s Future’s of Education initiative, which I became aware of via Stephen Downes’ OLDaily newsletter . This is Stephen’s commentary:

UNESCO has launched an initiative called ‘Futures of Education’, “a global initiative to reimagine how knowledge and learning can shape the future of humanity and the planet.” …. The initiative is framed around the idea of ‘learning to become’, that is, “a philosophy of education and an approach to pedagogy that views learning as a process of continual unfolding that is ongoing and life-long. To think in terms of “becoming” is to invoke a line of thought that emphasizes potentials, rejects determinism and expresses a flexible openness to the new.” 

This approach suggests a real possibility of re-imagining education as something other than the essentialist approach to education currently taken by the UK government.

But what does ‘learning to become’ mean? Many educationalists have written about this. Ronald Barnett, with reference to students in Higher Education, devotes a whole chapter to the idea of ‘Becoming’ in his book ‘A Will to Learn. Being a student in an age of uncertainty’, referencing Heidegger, Kierkegaard, Deleuze, Nietzsche, Sartre and others, showing us that this is an age-old discussion. In concluding this chapter, Barnett writes:

In a genuine higher education, the student not merely undergoes a developmental process, but undergoes a continuing process of becoming. This becoming is marked by the student’s becoming authentic and coming into herself, which are two depictions of the same phenomenon. In this coming into herself, the student finds for herself a clearing that is hers. The staking out of the clearing brings with it freedoms, but also responsibilities; for the student can now be called to account on her own account, not that of others……. She discovers her own voice, is able to articulate it and deploy it to effect. She brings to bear not just her own intentionalities, but her own will…… However, this is a becoming that is never finished. The challenges keep coming; the student is called by her programme of study to displace herself into yet another place. Here, we see an ontology in-the-making, but it is continually in-the-making.

Barnett writes in the context of higher education, but his understanding of the meaning of becoming could equally be applied at all educational stages. This would require, as a starting point, a philosophical approach to re-imagining education as opposed to a political, economic, determinist, social equality approach. Perhaps this is what the UNESCO initiative hopes to do. Time will tell.

Challenges of 21st century education: Past and present reforms

The last two weeks of Exeter University’s FutureLearn open course: Testing Times in the Classroom: Challenges of 21st Century Education were devoted to key changes that have taken place in the field of education over the last 20 or so years. These changes were discussed mostly in the context of the UK and Europe, but participants were encouraged to add their knowledge and perspectives from their own cultures and countries.

The 20th century in the UK saw the creation of universal education, through the growth of state funded education and the raising of the school leaving age from 12 to 16. Following the Education Act in 1944 state-funded secondary education was organised into three type of schools; grammar, technical and secondary modern. Allocation to these schools depended on children’s performance in the 11+ exam. Between 1944 and 1965 this tripartite system came to be increasingly criticised for being divisive and leading to educational inequalities. In response to these concerns in 1965 the Labour Government introduced comprehensive schools for secondary aged children, with the aim of providing an entitlement curriculum for all, without selection through financial considerations or attainment. I was at University at this time and remember having long discussions with people of my parents’ generation who were appalled that good grammar schools were being replaced by comprehensive schools. I myself, in my youth, was ‘fired up’ by the thought that comprehensive schools would ensure that any and every child would have an equal opportunity for a good education. Ultimately comprehensive schools were also discredited with comparisons being made between comprehensive and independent schools.

In the FutureLearn course this was illustrated through two YouTube videos – one of Radley College – an independent boys school, and the other of Faraday High School, a state comprehensive.

Radley College

Faraday High School

Personally, I did not think this was a fair comparison to make. My first teaching experience was in an inner city comprehensive and it was nothing like Faraday High School. Faraday High School would be a ‘bad’ school in any circumstances. Evidence from the video suggests that it had incompetent teachers and poor leadership. Nevertheless comprehensives like Faraday High School did exist such that the system failed and led to increasing concern with educational inequalities related to social class and ethnicity, which still exists today, together with additional equality and diversity concerns, such as gender and disability.

Over the past 20 to 30 years, much educational reform in the UK has focussed on a response to these equality and diversity concerns, raising research questions such as:

  • Do schools favour girls?
  • Do schools make the rich richer?
  • Does social class still matter?
  • Is the school system failing black children?

Whilst there are many research articles that deal with these questions separately, there is now increasing recognition of the importance of intersectionality, i.e. that the wide range of different inequalities intersect. For example, a student’s educational experience will not be affected by gender alone, but also by social class, ethnicity, sexuality, disability and so on.

Another question that was asked in these last two weeks of the course was:

    • Is the purpose of school reform to improve international economic competitiveness?

Surprisingly, to me, when course participants were asked this question 54% answered ‘Yes’. I myself had no hesitation in answering ‘No’. For me the first concern of education should always be the learners/students. We should ask ‘how can the system support each individual in realising his/her full potential?’ If this could be achieved then perhaps international economic competitiveness would follow or, better still, lead to educated thinking adults who would question whether international economic competitiveness should be the purpose of education. Some in the course considered my view unrealistic and utopian, since they argued that education is simply a means to an end.

So it seems that my view is not the majority view and certainly the UK’s approach to educational reform in recent years has been based on a belief in the importance of education for international economic competitiveness. Thus some recent key reforms, which are easy to recognise, have focussed on:

  • Accountability and performance management. This has led to increased testing and school inspections, performance based pay and funding, and increasing focus on management. This system rewards success and punishes failure.
  • Competition and markets – league tables, choice for parents, and the marginalisation of collaboration and collective effort. This approach to reform can already be seen to be leading to hierarchies and differences between socially advantaged and disadvantaged students. For example, some middle class parents are prepared to move house to ensure that they are in the catchment area for schools high in the league tables.
  • Increased control over schools and universities – inspections, audits, reviews and evaluations to measure educational performance, all supported by increased capacity to collect and store data. This necessarily neglects aspects of education that cannot be measured.

Most of these educational reforms are being adopted worldwide, and led to Pasi Salhlberg coining the term Global Education Reform Movement (GERM). Of this acronym-as-analogy, Fuller and Stevenson (2018) write that it:

worked perfectly to describe a phenomenon that Sahlberg identified as both spreading and destructive, behaving “like an epidemic that spreads and infects education systems through a virus” (Sahlberg, 2012, no page).

and that:

Sahlberg has identified the principal features of the GERM as increased standardisation, a narrowing of the curriculum to focus on core subjects/knowledge, the growth of high stakes accountability and the use of corporate management practices as the key features of the new orthodoxy.

In writing about how Finland views educational reform differently, Pasi Sahlberg questions whether this global education reform movement (GERM) is counter-productive.

In the UK, 30 years of these reforms has led to layer upon layer of change and a degree of complexity that could conceivably take at least another 30 years to unravel, even assuming that the ‘powers that be’ think this necessary. We now have a UK education system which has shifted to decentralisation with over 70 different types of schools, whilst at the same time increasing centralisation through the introduction of the national curriculum and increased testing. Derek Gillard (2018) in the conclusion to his report writes:

This history has focused on the long struggle to create for England’s children an education system which values them all. It has, in many ways, been a sad story.

But he ends on a more optimistic note, writing:

Meanwhile, across the country, tens of thousands of teachers still care deeply about the well-being and prospects of their pupils, and go to work every morning determined, despite the often unhelpful interventions of politicians, to provide them with the best and most humane education they can.

References

Cohen, M. (2004) Knowledge and the gendered curriculum: the problematisation of girls’ achievement – http://www.historyandpolicy.org/policy-papers/papers/knowledge-and-the-gendered-curriculum-the-problematisation-of-girls-achieve

Courtney S. (2015) Mapping school types in England. Oxford Review of Education. 41(6):799-818. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/03054985.2015.1121141?needAccess=true

Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF), corp creator. (2009) Gender and education : mythbusters : addressing gender and achievement : myths and realities https://dera.ioe.ac.uk/9095/

Equality and Human Rights Commission – https://www.equalityhumanrights.com/en Is Britain Fairer? (2018) https://www.equalityhumanrights.com/en/publication-download/britain-fairer-2018

Fuller, K. and Stevenson, H. (2019) Global education reform: understanding the movement, Educational Review, 71:1, 1-4, DOI: 10.1080/00131911.2019.1532718 https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/00131911.2019.1532718

Gillard, D. (2018) Education in England: the history of our schools http://www.educationengland.org.uk/history/

Gillborn, D. and Mirza, H. S. (2000) Educational inequality: mapping race, class and gender – A synthesis of research evidence. Office for Standards in Education. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/319490152_EDUCATIONAL_INEQUALITY_MAPPING_RACE_CLASS_AND_GENDER_-_A_synthesis_of_research_evidence

Hall D. Grimaldi E, Gunter, H, Moller, J, Serpieri, R and Skedsmo G. (2016) Educational Reform and Modernisation in Europe: The Role of National Contexts in Mediating the New Public Management. European Educational Research Journal. 14(16):487-507. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/1474904115615357

Hall D. and Gunter H. (2016) England. The Liberal State: Permanent Instability in the European Educational NPM Laboratory. In: Gunter H, Grimaldi, E, Hall D, and Serpieri, R, editors. (2016) New Public Management and the Reform of Education: European Lessons for Policy and Practice. London:Routledge. https://warwick.ac.uk/fac/soc/ces/postgrads/teachfirst/1/november21/hall_and_gunter_-_the_liberal_state.pdf

Sahlberg, P. (2012). How GERM is infecting schools around the world? Retrieved from https://pasisahlberg.com/text-test/

Schleicher, A. (2018) Equity in Education. Breaking down barriers to social mobility http://www.oecd.org/education/equity-in-education-9789264073234-en.htm Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) website

The Fawcett Society https://www.fawcettsociety.org.uk/centenary-resources

The Gender and Education Association – http://www.genderandeducation.com/resources-2/

Ward, H. (2018) More male role models are needed in early years, say heads. TES https://www.tes.com/news/more-male-role-models-are-needed-early-years-say-heads

Weale, S. (2017) Sexual harassment ‘rife’ in schools but largely unreported, study says. The Guardian – https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/dec/12/sexual-harassment-rife-in-schools-but-largely-unreported-study-says

Women in STEM: how gender inequality could damage Scotland’s economy – https://theconversation.com/women-in-stem-how-gender-inequality-could-damage-scotlands-economy-107627