Today we take a critical look at numbers. Think about it: numbers are everywhere in education, from grades to impact scores to rankings.
Today we talk about digital education and the future of learning. My guest is Ben Williamson, a Chancellor’s Fellow in the Centre for Research in Digital Education at the University of Edinburgh. He wrote the book Big Data in Education: The digital future of learning, policy and practice (Sage, 2017), and is an editor of the journal Learning, Media and Technology.
In our conversation, Ben talks about the many ways data is being extracted inside schools and education systems and reflects on what that might mean for policy and practice. He warns that there are biases built into data.
Today we talk about powerful knowledge, a concept that has sparked a major debate about what should be taught in schools. My guest is Michael Young, a professor of Sociology of Curriculum at UCL’s Institute of Education.
Michael’s work in the sociology of education has been criticized by both the Right and the Left. That’s why I wanted to sit down with him to unpack what he even means by powerful knowledge and how it applies to schools. Where did the idea come from? How has his own thinking evolved over his career?
Michael Young has worked at the Institute of Education for over 50 years. A student of Basil Bernstein, he has had a major impact on the field of sociology of education since the publication of his first book, Knowledge and Control, in 1971. Much of our conversation today focuses on his 2008 book, Bringing Knowledge Back in.
Citation: Young, Michael, interview with Will Brehm, FreshEd, 188, podcast audio, February 24, 2020. https://www.freshedpodcast.com/michaelyoung/
Will Brehm 2:14
Michael Young, welcome to FreshEd.
Michael Young 2:16
Thank you. I am very delighted to be involved.
Will Brehm 2:19
So, you have this idea of powerful knowledge and it, sort of, has taken on a life of its own, in many ways. Could you just define the concept of ‘powerful knowledge’? How would you tell a student, for instance, what this idea is?
Michael Young 2:34
I think that there would be many definitions, and what I can do is say something about the starting ideas that, in fact, led to it. And then, I suppose what I wanted to do when I came up with the idea, and I do not know if it is uniquely me … but there was … I was focusing more on educational research in sociology, and I thought that it was important that, in fact, we refocused how we approach questions about the curriculum in sociology. And so … I came up … I gave a talk at the Institute in about 2007, 2008, about the future direction of research. And … it … and I made this distinction, which I think is a very important one, between knowledge of the powerful, and powerful knowledge. And, on the whole, the sociological tradition has been to focus on knowledge … the curriculum, as knowledge of the powerful, and that comes from, basically, a left Marxist tradition, which basically sees the knowledge that people get access to as ideology, masking the nature of the societies that, in fact, they’re in.
Will Brehm 3:48
So, for instance, it would be the people in power who are writing the curriculum, writing the syllabi, writing the textbooks, their knowledge, their interests are being reproduced inside the curriculum. And that is the knowledge of the powerful.
Michael Young 4:02
And, in a sense, what the sociologists did was to expose this. And I felt that there was time … we had to stop. Because, actually, it was an oversimplification this… was… Although that knowledge of powerful ideas got some truth in it, it is also true that, in fact, people can get quite other kinds of things from being educated in a school system … university system … in a Western capitalist society. And, what they can get is access to if I call ‘powerful knowledge’. So, in a sense, there is a tension within education systems in capitalist society, on the one hand, wanting to perpetuate a particular social order, but also having an alternative … but … to give access to criticism of that social order. And this is an argument that, in fact, Basil Bernstein makes quite powerfully in his work.
Will Brehm 4:57
Right. So, what would be an example, in today’s world, of powerful knowledge, as you see it?
Michael Young 5:03
Johan Muller, who’s a colleague I work with from Cape Town, he and I decided … we had to try and write a paper, actually trying to answer that question. And, I think the important thing to say is that, in fact, and this is where Bernstein comes in, is that, in fact, the meaning of powerful knowledge depends on the … area … the field of knowledge you’re talking about. And, in a sense, there is a tendency for the model from the natural sciences, to be seen as a definitive one, across the whole of the field of knowledge. Because, unequivocally, if we think back to industrialization, the knowledge that is transformed the society is the scientific knowledge, and the increasing emphasis of the sciences, in industry, manufacturing, and so forth. But I am not wanting to negate that, but what is extremely important is to recognize that, in a sense, the knowledge fields are differentiated. And that, in fact, you have the social sciences, you have the humanities, you have the unity. And, I think the key thing … this is the point that Bernstein makes, which I think is quite useful, that, in fact, depending on which which field you’re in, knowledge progresses in different ways, new knowledge is developed in different ways … according to where …now in the natural sciences it’s developed through the process of greater generalization and abstraction. So that, in fact, Einstein incorporates Newton and all the nineteenth century, in his field … it does not mean that they were wrong, but they were partial. And Einstein provided a broader theory, quantum theory and so forth, is an attempt to combine those, and there is the endless attempt in physics, which is to bring, in a sense, relativity and quantum theory together.
Will Brehm 6:59
Right. So … so basically powerful knowledge, in a way, you’re saying, is that once you differentiate between fields or disciplines, there are different sort of traditions with in those disciplines that, sort of, legitimate …
Michael Young 7:12
Will Brehm 7:12
… powerful knowledge. And, I think one of the words you use is ‘specialized …
Michael Young 7:16
Will Brehm 7:17
… knowledge’. So, what is the difference between ‘specialized knowledge’ and say ‘non-specialized knowledge’?
Michael Young 7:22
Well, non-specialized knowledge is the knowledge that is developed without reflection in communities, and is valuable to make sense of the world that people grow up in. So there’s, in a sense, non-specialized knowledge, it’s about the streets you live in, whether there’s a shop here or there, what bus is going where they go, that’s everyday knowledge, as discussed, for instance, particularly by the psychologist Vygotsky, and indeed … it’s … Durkheim uses the term ‘profane knowledge’ for that … that … it’s … it’s knowledge of experience. I think the big difference between specialized … starting something … between specialized and non-specialized, is that it is knowledge from experience, or it is knowledge that goes beyond experience. And that, in fact, I quite often give the example that, in fact … a city … a young person in the city … knows quite a lot … has a lot of knowledge of the city that he or she has grown up in. And, at the age … depending … seven or eight or nine, he certainly meets a geography teacher. And, the geography teacher has specialized knowledge of cities, what happens to them, how they have changed, different parts of the city affect, in different kinds of ways. And, in a sense, you get what … the … some of the researchers say is a disruption, disruption between the specialized knowledge of a field like geography, which relies upon research, inquiry, debates, within its community, and the everyday knowledge, which is also about the city, urban geography or urban sociology, is about the city. So is the young boy growing up in the city …
Will Brehm 9:09
Or the black taxi driver’s knowledge …
Michael Young 9:11
That is right … taxi drivers … is knowledge indeed, yeah…yup, yup.
Will Brehm 9:15
But that would be everyday knowledge.
Michael Young 9:16
That would be everyday knowledge, yes indeed.
Will Brehm 9:17
That would be the profane to use Durkheim’s word.
Michael Young 9:20
Yeah, yeah …that … But, in a sense, the interesting thing is that there is also a difference between codified and uncodified knowledge…
Will Brehm 9:30
Michael Young 9:31
… and, in a sense, specialized knowledge means that, in fact, it is more than just organizing knowledge … I mean … the taxi driver’s knowledge is codified, so you can test them, do they know it? – and so forth. But it is not specialized. In the sense that it never progresses, you just have to keep up with what’s going on when the new roads are built, and so forth. And, in a sense, it is different from … the … the person who lives in an area who has uncodified knowledge about the names of the streets, and the pubs, and the shops, and things like that …
Will Brehm 10:07
Right, exactly, exactly. Okay. Now … I mean … you know, the specialized/non-specialized knowledge, it seems like it is a dichotomy that might be too absolute, in a way. Would you … you know … is there some gray area where there could be types of powerful knowledge that is both specialized and non-specialized?
Michael Young 10:25
I think that in a modern industrial society, these categories … I mean … to use the term that the great German sociologist Max Weber uses, ‘ideal types’, they are not descriptions, and therefore, somebody’s knowledge will always have bits of specialized and bits of unspecialized, but when you move, say, from everyday knowledge of a city to a geography teacher, then you get a focus and a specialization that is focused. It does not mean that you throw out the unspecialized knowledge, but it is a different way of thinking. And, in that sense …it is a … students find it difficult to make that step.
Will Brehm 11:07
So … so … okay. So, we have knowledge that is specialized, we have knowledge that is unspecialized as ideal types, and then we still have this knowledge of the powerful. And would that … be … that sort of fits into specialized and non-specialized as well.
Michael Young 11:22
The knowledge of the powerful is a way of thinking about specialized knowledge. Whereas powerful knowledge is another way of thinking about specialized knowledge. Because, in a sense, if you’re approaching it from the point of view of knowledge of the powerful, you focus on ideological assumptions, you focus on who has the knowledge, what interests does it protect? – and so for those kind of things, so it’s not so much … so it’s a question of how you think about it, rather than that.
Will Brehm 11:53
Right, right. Okay. And so, I mean, we have spent a lot of time talking about knowledge. What about the word ‘powerful’, like, how are you conceptualizing the very idea of power?
Michael Young 12:02
I think it is … quite … it is an important point. Johan Muller and I, we wrote a paper in ‘The Curriculum Journal’ last year, which, in fact, revisits the question of power. Because we realized that, in a sense, and particularly important for education, that, in fact, for instance, you come across new literature or new sciences then, in a sense, on the one hand, that is powerful knowledge, but it also has powers through knowing it, and therefore, what we realized was that, in a sense, power can either mean … can mean power over, it also means power to do certain things, to think certain things. So, in a sense, power has always got those dimensions. And the problem was, to some extent … is what sociology’s emphasized, it is always the power of domination. Because it is a very powerful, it’s a very significant factor, in societies, the domination of knowledge. But it tends to neglect the fact that, in fact, students, from whatever social class, can actually acquire knowledge that empowers them. So that, in a sense, somebody like Paulo Freire is talking about the emancipatory potential of knowledge. Whereas, in fact, somebody like Althusser and Bourdieu is talking about dominating power of knowledge.
Will Brehm 13:29
Michael Young 13:29
So, there are two very, very different notions of knowledge.
Will Brehm 13:32
Yeah, very different notions …
Michael Young 13:34
That makes it a complex issue for students actually studying and thinking about it. They want to see it as simple, that either it is power over or it is power to …
Will Brehm 13:44
Michael Young 13:45
Will Brehm 13:46
And it is both …
Michael Young 13:47
And it is both…
Will Brehm 13:47
… at the same time.
Michael Young 13:48
Yeah, at the same time, yes …
Will Brehm 13:49
…and that is difficult to then unpack …
Michael Young 13:51
… and this is somethings that is always true …
Will Brehm 13:53
Michael Young 13:53
… about social …
Will Brehm 13:54
Michael Young 13:54
Will Brehm 13:56
And so, would all specialized knowledge be powerful?
Michael Young 14:00
Would all specialized knowledge be powerful? Again, it depends. The reason why people specialize is to further knowledge and, in a sense, to make it, generate new ideas, extend their imagination about the world, or make predictions more powerful. So that the purpose of specialization is always to increase the power. I think that … but on the other hand, for instance, if you take the Gnostic knowledge of physicists, about the nature of the atom, then that, actually, can lead to Hiroshima. As much as it can lead to a way of producing energy.
Will Brehm 14:44
Right, right … so …
Michael Young 14:45
And so, it is not so much whether it is always powerful, but it’s powerful with different consequences.
Will Brehm 14:52
And in different times. So …
Michael Young 14:53
Yah, yah …
Will Brehm 14:53
… so, at one time, it …
Michael Young 14:54
Yah, yah …
Will Brehm 14:54
…it can be a domination over …
Michael Young 14:56
…that’s right …
Will Brehm 14:56
… certain people, and other times it can be …
Michael Young 14:58
… and you cannot really, you cannot really escape that … we have the dramatic case of it now about artificial intelligence, it’s actually incredibly productive, the things it can enable us to do, but also it has very, very negative consequences as well, as we know from, you know, the Cambridge Analytica project, and all those kind of things.
Will Brehm 15:19
Exactly. And I guess this is where some issues of politics come in, because then there has to be choices that are made … by how these, sort of, new knowledge in different fields gets applied to society or applied in society, right? So …
Michael Young 15:33
But it is a most tricky issue for politics …
Will Brehm 15:36
Oh, of course …
Michael Young 15:36
… because, in a sense, it is not unambiguous right …ly … right … or left.
Will Brehm 15:42
Exactly. Right. And there is, yeah, exactly …
Michael Young 15:44
People want to find things …of, you know, that the Labour Party can go in for or the Conservative Party, but it is not like that …
Will Brehm 15:50
Michael Young 15:51
…knowledge is not like that.
Will Brehm 15:52
Right. So, I mean, this, sort of, brings up this idea of, you know, what is truth? And we, sort of, live in this moment of ‘fake news’. And where journalism is, sort of, you know, they feel the need to present both side ism. So, in every article there is, you know, here is what one person says, but we also have the opposite take by this other group with that has other interests. Do you think that powerful knowledge, this idea that we’ve been talking about, can actually help, you know, societies today, sort of, get over or get through this idea of ‘fake news’ and where truth is relative and anyone can have as many different truths as we can count?
Michael Young 16:32
I think the notion of … there are two things need to be clarified there, I think. One is that, in fact, there is a difference between, if you are like, I cannot think of quite the right term, the difference between absolute truth, and with something more like procedural truth. I mean, there is … and, in a sense, I would use the term for procedural truth, better knowledge rather than, in fact, another version of truth. There’s always better knowledge knowledge. And that takes you back to the fact that there’s better knowledge in different disciplines, there is better plays, better films. And then the reason … what ‘better’ means is that you can get the background, the argument, the evidence, and, so forth, for why you claim to be better. And it is very, very important that, in fact, school education, in particular, actually focuses on better knowledge.
Will Brehm 17:25
So, isn’t one person’s idea of ‘better’ different from another’s?
Michael Young 17:29
Well, it’s potentially better, but, in a sense …one of the things that schools try to do is to give students access to the specialized communities who spend their life on trying to clarify the better knowledge, and that gives the historians … they don’t have an answer, you know, anybody can have a view about the origins of the American War of Independence or whatever, but what historians do can document you, what happened and why, and the arguments that they can make. And, in a sense … and therefore we turn to them, but we do not turn to them for an absolute truth, we turned to them because, in fact, what … the way that the …the issue … I would say the way … it is important for everybody to be thinking about knowledge, not necessarily about powerful knowledge, that is not always that helpful.
Will Brehm 18:25
Michael Young 18:26
But, in a sense, if they think about powerful knowledge, they will realize that they are involved in some judgment, but there are limits to their judgment, because of specialization. I cannot make a judgement about some technical thing involved in artificial intelligence. But I can make some broader judgments about what assumptions about intelligence the AI people are making, because I am, you know, that is what philosophers and sociologists do. So, there is a question of where your own specialization applies.
Will Brehm 19:00
So, you know, it is interesting this idea of trying to, you know, view specialized knowledge, or view powerful knowledge within specialized fields, within specialized disciplines. Because, at the same time, in higher education, we hear a lot about trying to be cross-disciplinary, transdisciplinary, trying to not simply work within single disciplines, but work across disciplines, to get at certain issues that don’t fall neatly in one area, right? So, for instance, one example that I can think of is climate change, right? Because that obviously has issues that not only impact, you know, environmental studies and physics and, you know, but also sociology, also technology. So how, you know, how do you understand or how can cross-disciplinary thinking fit within ideas of powerful knowledge?
Michael Young 19:50
Climate change, I mean, I’m not a geographer, but climate change is a very interesting example, because there was a debate about whether, in fact, climate change should be introduced or not … and it’s … in the primary school. And some people thought it should because it is relevant, and practical, and happening every day. I would make the argument that, in fact, that is fine but, if you do not really know what climate is, then to think about the consequences of climate change is absurd. So, I would take the view that, in a sense, the starting assumption of schooling is to focus on, if you like, disciplines, which provide you with the intellectual basis for being transdisciplinary. And, I would not introduce, I mean, certainly I used to teach chemistry, as a schoolteacher, and I used to feel much happier … I often had to teach physics and biology, but I did not know much, but I did not feel that I was such a good teacher then. Whereas, I knew my subject, and that’s why people could basically get excited about it, if I taught them, and also, they could learn. So, I think that, in fact, it is very important to see the interrelationships between the discipline, or the subject, and the interdisciplinary inquiry. Because, of course, you look at the, for instance, UCL’s range of research, a lot of it is interdisciplinary. But the people who work in interdisciplinary fields have a strong background in some discipline or other.
Will Brehm 21:28
Right, so they are, you know, you need to specialize in a particular knowledge tradition. But then you also have to have the skills to be able to talk to people and work with people in other disciplines.
Michael Young 21:38
But I think that what’s really important there is, particularly at the school level, it’s slightly different, but has similarities to the university level, is that, in fact, what a subject… cause we … in England anyhow we tend to talk about subjects in schools, disciplines in universities, very crude distinction, but nevertheless. And that … what’s … what’s very important, I think, is that, in fact, if you come to school, from your everyday knowledge, a subject gives you a sense of your identity as a learner, of whether you’re progressing, what’s better knowledge and what less good, and in a sense, it provides an important resource for you. Because, and also, at some point or rather, you may come across the boundaries of the subjects, and then you know … what … what you can speak about, and what, in fact, you need to inquire or talk to colleagues in other subjects, and so forth. So … I think … I think the boundaries between subjects have a very important role for the progress of learners.
Will Brehm 22:39
Michael Young 22:40
And we have gone against that. I mean, I now find… I don’t teach Masters courses, as I used to, but what I used to find was that, in fact, the disciplines had got broken up, and there were these interdisciplinary modules, and I would have 20 or 30 students, and some of them have never done any sociology before, some of them had done lots. And that is not the best context …
Will Brehm 23:05
Michael Young 23:05
…for taking them on …
Will Brehm 23:06
… because how do you teach …
Michael Young 23:08
Will Brehm 23:08
… such a diverse group of students?
Michael Young 23:09
And I am not sure you do. You see, I think that … they … they would be better to have done some courses in sociology or economics and psychology …
Will Brehm 23:17
… before moving up to
Michael Young 23:19
… then move up …
Will Brehm 23:19
Right, right. I mean … so … and going back to this issue of climate change, so before you can learn about … the … what’s happening in climate change in a cross-disciplinary way, you need to have the … real … good foundation of what climate is.
Michael Young 23:32
And it is quite an abstract concept ‘climate’…
Will Brehm 23:33
It sure is, yeah, yeah…
Michael Young 23:34
Yeah, I mean, like weather, and all these things, yeah…and… yeah …
Will Brehm 23:39
… and climate is not weather, it is … not …
Michael Young 23:40
… no, no, it is not … exactly. And, that is important, you know…
Will Brehm 23:43
So, what then do you think of someone like Greta Thunberg? You know … this … she’s the 16-17 year old that is making all of these speeches and, sort of, leading a massive social movement across the world to get politicians to address the issue of climate change or what … what … she calls the climate crisis. Like, is she working in powerful knowledge? Or, is this more of the everyday knowledge? Like … how would you … How would you understand the phenomenon of Greta Thunberg?
Michael Young 24:12
Well, it is good question, actually. I mean, she is obviously a very bright and thoughtful girl, no question about it. And, she is thought a lot about the issues, and so forth. But … I think … I do not think she is so much a leader; I think she is being used. And, I do not use that negatively. But then people think if we can show that there’s somebody of her age, we’ve got these things, she represents something, they may convince some people that, in fact, another academic, who really knows about it, who has the specialized knowledge, which she doesn’t have, she’s got a concern, and, I think, we can respect that. But I think she is being used as a …sort of … rather like that extraordinary Pakistani girl, Malala.
Will Brehm 24:59
Yeah, yeah …
Michael Young 25:00
I mean, she got used, you know, got the Nobel Prize, not because, in one sense, she deserved it, but to symbolize something that she stood for, was the, kind of, courage and bravery … and it … kind of … concerned about … and I think they’re very much the same. And I am sure that Greta will get some kind of Nobel prize, at some point, just because, in fact, for a 16-year-old to do that everybody thinks it’s wonderful. They cannot really criticize because she’s only 16…
Will Brehm 25:26
Michael Young 25:27
But I do not think … it is not the knowledge …that’s the important thing, it’s a symbol of the young girl.
Will Brehm 25:33
I think one of the things that’s so powerful about Greta is her ability to take specialized knowledge in the research literature, in diverse fields that focus on climate and climate change, and say them in ways that are so easily understood by people, from politicians to, you know, other schoolchildren, but also to adults, right? Who aren’t in that specialized knowledge? So, she is almost … I see her almost as translating this specialized knowledge into, sort of, everyday knowledge, and it’s become popularized, in a way, where now there’s, sort of, this common language, you know, even the idea of calling it the climate crisis, rather than climate change, you know, in many ways that discursive change … is … or linguistic change … is to her credit.
Michael Young 26:18
Yeah, no … but it might have been an adult, it could have been somebody else…
Will Brehm 26:22
Michael Young 26:22
But, in fact, it is symbolic that it is not an adult …
Will Brehm 26:25
Michael Young 26:25
…and therefore, people, in a way, have to listen to it … I do not think she is done a massive amount of reading …
Will Brehm 26:32
… I, see, I actually think she has …
Michael Young 26:33
…well, she is obviously done… more than most 16-year olds, but I, in a sense, I think it is less… I mean, I agree with you that her ability to articulate, and to express, in accessible lang … is admirable. It is almost as if she is a specialist in communication, rather than in climate knowledge …
Will Brehm 26:53
…Yeah …Yeah, right … I mean, that’s … yeah … that is a good point, because she really is capable of talking about some of these complex issues …
Michael Young 27:00
But I think it is her as the symbol, rather than just what she says.
Will Brehm 27:06
Yeah, it is complex, you are, sort of, becoming multiple things, right? As she is gaining more and more famous … and … you know, her face is known all over the world. So, you know … in … I read a little bit about your history before coming into this interview. And it is quite striking that … I learned that … in … when you were a young lecturer, I think about probably the same age I am now, in the same Institute, you wrote a book called ‘Knowledge and Control’ …
Michael Young 27:33
That is right …
Will Brehm 27:34
… which was very much about how knowledge or school knowledge is socially constructed to … basic … to privilege the ruling classes, those with power, and disadvantage the workers. Fast forward 50 years, we are beginning to, sort of … a … you know … in this conversation today, we’re not really talking about the social construction of knowledge anymore. You are talking about powerful knowledge. These disciplinary knowledges …
Michael Young 27:59
I mean … I realized that, in a sense, the development of … First of all, I think that, in a sense, unless you … … unless you’re a very religious person, social construction is a rather banal notion that is true. That all knowledge is humanly constructed by groups of people in particular contexts. And what is important to say about that is that, I think, is that one of the things that is continued to … is that therefore, it is also always potentially accessible to anyone. Because it’s a human thing, it’s not, you know, it’s not God, you know, it’s not the universe or something like that, and, or some divine being or creator, or anything like that. And I think that was … but if you follow through the social construction, you end up by saying … focusing only on the social … and … and therefore, on the whole, on par, and true knowledge is a knowledge that the powerful have, you get to knowledge of the powerful. And, you do not actually get to any understanding of knowledge, the knowledge itself disappears. Because it is all social. It is kind of a … it is a, kind of, sociological imperialism…
Will Brehm 29:10
Michael Young 29:11
… because … and it’s interesting that, in fact, you know, Marx, who was the first social constructivist, if you like, I mean, he had this notion of post the revolution, something more like primitive communism, where everybody was able to do everything. Now, I think that is a mistake … he was an anti-specialization person. And so, I think, I realized, and I suppose I got a lot of flak, for the first time, not the only time in my life, a lot of flak from the academics, and people, about social constructivism … and rightly, but I want to hold on to the fact that it’s still got an element of truth, just, we tend to convert it into the whole truth. And, that was … I think … that … that was what was misleading. So, and I think I particularly … what was important for me was … in … in the early 90s, I went … I spent a lot of time in South Africa, as a kind of consultant with the Democratic Movement on developing a new education system, because obviously, they were just about to abolish apartheid, which was, in a sense, determined their education … so now what were they were going to do? And, the only theory I had at the time was a socially constructed theory, which basically said, basically, you should let everyone be free to construct their own knowledge. And, in fact, because that is what people used to …flag … wave a flag saying, knowledge is a social construct. But, of course, the poor teachers have not a clue. They were there in the schools and what on earth did they do? And, in a sense, there was chaos in the schools. And, in a sense … and what I have been doing ever since is trying to recover from that idea, to realize that there is actually something real about the world. This is why social realism comes, there’s something real about the world. We do not just social construct, as we will, we social construct an external world, whether it is social or material, or whatever … and we try and improve our understanding of that … material … of that world. And I … then … and then I went back, and I came across Durkheim, and I reread Durkheim, who I read and misunderstood when I was an undergraduate. And, and he was the starting point for me, and the influence of Bernstein as well. And indeed, Vygotsky. So, I looked for an alternative. And, in a sense, ‘Bringing Knowledge Back In’ … the book is a, kind of, conclusion. But it is not a conclusion, it does not solve the problem, it just says ‘here is a way of thinking that is much better than the way we’ve had before’. And then … that social realism, but, in fact, that requires you to accept the importance of specialization, to accept the importance of an external world, to accept the importance … you never have the absolute truth. You are always trying to improve it. I mean, the people in quantum physics are trying to improve quantum physics…. to make it a more adequate account of, you know, of the atom …
Will Brehm 32:06
So, from social constructivism to social realism, and now you are bringing knowledge back in in your working … where to next?
Michael Young 32:16
Well, I mean, I think that the … when we came to powerful knowledge, and the idea that there is better knowledge, and that that should be the basis for the curriculum, for all pupils, because in England, as you probably know, and probably is the same in the States, we had a kind of diversified model of knowledge that, in fact, for the kids who appeared to be in quotes, not ‘academic’, you would give them something more like everyday knowledge. And, of course, that actually kept perpetuating the inequalities for them. So, in a sense, so the … the … thing that I am focusing on now, primarily, is that, in fact, the curriculum is about stipulating the best knowledge, right? And that is fine. I think you can do that, but if you are thinking about education … that, in fact, the educational problem is the stipulation and the de-transmission problem. And that, in a sense, because you cannot transmit the knowledge that is produced by researchers, there has to be … Bernstein called ‘recontextualization’ of that, and which involves the relationship between the teacher and the pupil. And that, in fact, if you don’t do that, and you think it’s only the curriculum and stipulation, then … you … you get a curriculum, which involves expecting people to mug up to memorize, to reproduce, you don’t actually give them an access to knowledge, which is about changing their thinking. You do not.
Will Brehm 33:47
Well, Michael Young, thank you so much for joining FreshEd, really a pleasure to talk today. Thank you very much.
Michael Young 33:53
Not at all. I have enjoyed the discussion.
With me is Irv Epstein, the Ben and Susan Rhodes Professor of Peace and Social Justice at Illinois Wesleyan University, where he chairs the Department of Educational Studies and directs the Center for Human Rights and Social Justice. Irv’s new book is called Affect Theory and Comparative Education Discourse which was published in Bloomsbury’s New Directions in Comparative Education book series, which he co-edits.
Citation: Epstein, Irving, interview with Will Brehm, FreshEd, 187, podcast audio, February 17, 2020. https://www.freshedpodcast.com/irvingepstein/
Transcript, Translation, and Resources:
Today we look at US imperialism in Venezuela. For the past 20 years, since Hugo Chavez was elected in 1998 in what is known as the Bolivarian revolution, the US has attempted to overthrow a democratically elected government. The US wanted to install a leader who supported its political and business interests. In January, the US put its full support behind Juan Guaido, a little known politician who became the self-described interim-president. But who is Juan Guaido and why was his rise nearly as fast as his fall?
My guest today is Jorge Martin, the secretary of the Hands off Venezuela campaign and a leading member of the International Marxist Tendency. He has followed the Bolivarian revolution for nearly twenty years, visiting the country often where he has been involved in the revolutionary movement, particularly the workers’ control and occupied factories experiences. In our conversation today, Jorge focuses on the many connections Juan Guaido has to various US institutions, from think tanks to philanthropic organizations, and to universities. Jorge makes clear that Juan Guaido was groomed through his education to take a leading role in the right-wing fight against the Bolivarian revolution. Guaido, in other words, is the latest figurehead in a class struggle supported by elite education in Venezuela and the USA.
Citation: Martin, Jorge, interview with Will Brehm, FreshEd, 148, podcast audio, April 1, 2019.https://www.freshedpodcast.com/martin/
Transcript, Translation, and Resources: Read more
Today we look at the role of education in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. My guest is Parfait Eloundou, professor and department chair of development sociology at Cornell University and member of the independent group of scientists writing the Global Sustainable Development report. I spoke with Parfait during a break at the UNESCO Global Education Meeting held in Brussels in early December.
In our conversation, Parfait calls wealth inequality, demographic changes, and parental choices the perfect storm of inequality. Education plays an important role in overcoming this social trifecta of disparity.
We also discuss the assumption of meritocracy in education and the lack of a class analysis in the SDGs.
Citation: Eloundou-Enyeque, Parfait, interview with Will Brehm, FreshEd, 143, podcast audio, January 7, 2019. https://www.freshedpodcast.com/parfait-eloundou-enyegue/
Will Brehm 1:28
Parfait Elondou, welcome to Fresh Ed.
Parfait Eloundou 1:46
Will Brehm 1:48
So, here we are sitting in Brussels at the global education meeting and I just want to start by a very general question: How would you define sustainability? What does sustainability mean to you?
Parfait Eloundou 2:00
Oh, that’s a very interesting question. I mean, sustainability, I’d say is taking the long-term view on development and paying attention to a different kind of standard, not just immediate goals, but the extent to which different nations and the world as a whole can sustain whatever we are trying to accomplish. And you can think of sustainability along two dimensions. One is the environmental side, which is preserving the natural life systems. And the other is the social sustainability that you can keep keep societies in sync, in harmony, you can maintain the social contract, keep everyone engaged, keep institutions viable, and so forth.
Will Brehm 2:51
So what role does education play in the understanding of sustainability in terms of the environment, but also the social side, where does education fit into that picture?
Parfait Eloundou 3:02
Broadly speaking, you can think of education as an institution that is designed to transmit knowledge, values, and therefore to reproduce and to innovate. And so, education is therefore a mechanism for societies to project themselves into the future. By passing on the skills to the current generation, you give yourself as a society the means to survive, and to thrive as you move on. And so, there are different things that you want to pass on, and allow for change in innovation at the same time, and so these things include, again, as I said, the skills, the technology, the values, the knowledge, values of citizenship, values of stewardship, etc. And so, education is really vital as a mechanism for reproduction and for projecting yourself into the future.
Will Brehm 4:01
Is, in your opinion, education a panacea to some of these problems that face the world of climate change, or, you know, the decline of the social contract or of the rise of nationalism, or all the different social ills that we see, environmental ills that we see in the world is, in your opinion, is education, sort of this panacea?
Parfait Eloundou 4:19
Well, panacea is a strong word, but education is very much a powerful instrument. It cannot be a panacea, because the relative importance of it is going to vary from one place to the other, or the different forms of education, they’re going to vary, and so there will be times when education is the most potent forces for transmitting skills. But you can also have societies that are organized in ways that would pass on skills and technology and know-how, outside of a formal education system. But if you consider the today’s world, out of all of the possible institutions that you can rely on to advance the SDGs as we think of them now, I think education is really a very strong candidate and that’s why I was excited to be here and to see how not only we can revamp, revive rural education, but also to see how it links with other institutions and societies.
Will Brehm 5:25
You know, one of the things that I sometimes get confused about with the Sustainable Development Goals is, on the one hand, there is this effort to achieve economic growth as a way of taking more people out of poverty, increasing material benefits to people around the world. But a lot of that growth requires the burning of fossil fuels, and all sorts of extraction of materials from the natural Earth, which seems to counter the push towards environmental sustainability, which is another goal the SDGs, so to me, it’s very hard to keep those two ideas simultaneously in my mind.
Parfait Eloundou 6:09
And that’s to some extent, the creative tension that the world as a whole must negotiate. And scientists in particular play a role in helping everyone think about how these two competing or these seemingly competing objectives can come together and there is not actually two there are three. On the one hand, you want to foster growth, but you want to foster growth that is inclusive, and growth that is, let’s say, “green” in the sense that it preserves the environment and that’s not an easy thing to do. And so, I think the challenge is to find solutions that sort of thread the needle between these three competing objectives.
Will Brehm 6:50
Yeah, and I look at like, the protests in France right now, the yellow jacket protests and I just wonder, you know, growth doesn’t seem to be inclusive, there seems to be a lot of people, a huge amount of people around the world that are being sort of excluded from the growth in the economy that we do see. We are seeing economic growth around the world but only for a few people, it seems like that inequality is just really preventing the ability to have inclusive growth.
Parfait Eloundou 7:21
Yes, I think you’re right on two fronts. The first front is just what you said about the rise in inequality, which is a trend that is almost worldwide, especially when we talk about equality within countries. I think, historically, at least over the last 30 years, what has seemed to happen is that at the same time, as the inequality between countries has kind of shrunk a little, there are massive rise in inequality within the countries. And so that is really a challenge. The second point that you actually rightly point to is the fact that growth, or at least inequality can become an impediment to growth. You know, let’s say 50 years ago, the tendency was to assume that if we just grow the pie, if we just grow the economy, if we take care of GDP growth, everything else is going to fall in place. Then you moved into a regime in which well, people kind of acknowledge grudgingly that at the same time as you take care of growth, you also have to worry about inequality, but now we are reaching a stage where the relationship is actually sort of maybe running in the reverse direction. That is actually inequality may be a first-order question that needs to be addressed before you can even think about growth. Otherwise, you may not have the circumstances and conditions, the safety the social contract, the trust, the peace that you need to make any plans for sustainable growth.
Will Brehm 8:58
In your talk today, you mentioned issues of demography. How does demography fit into this issue of inequality?
Parfait Eloundou 9:06
Well, I think if you take demography in a very simple understanding of let’s say, the number of people and if you take the Bentham notion of the ultimate goal being achieving the greatest good for the many, it follows that demography is a great piece of the SDGs equation. Most of the indicators that you see are rates or ratios in which you have population as a denominator, so we want to increase literacy rate, you know, the fraction of people who can read and write vis-a-vis, the number of the total population, the malnutrition rates, mortality rates, all these are basically questions of access relative to the number of people. And so, you have to watch the two pieces of the equation that is the services that you provide, the goods that you produce, versus the people who are entering this system.
Will Brehm 10:09
So we just we’ve I mean, on the one hand, yes, we want to provide the services and better services like education and health and everything else the SDGs proposed, but at the same time, we need to think about that denominator about the total number of people in this world, and that this world, it would be unsustainable to have, say, 50 billion people living on this planet, for instance…
Parfait Eloundou 10:28
For instance, yes, and so but it’s not always, that is starting point. That is to maintain some kind of balance between the resources and people. But the denominator itself is also a little bit complicated, I think, out of the total population, you still need to consider questions about the composition and starting very simply with age composition. So, in a population where you have a majority of people who are extremely young, so as not to be able to work, it’s a different proposition, than if you have a larger share of the population in your adult working ages. And so, you have to consider composition, not just in terms of age, but also in terms of education. So, raising the levels of education and so forth. So, population is both the numbers but also the competition.
Will Brehm 11:23
Yeah, and different countries and regions would have different sort of composition. So, in Japan, for instance, where I live, the composition is heavily skewed towards older people, and they’re having problems of paying for social security systems, and the like. But of course, other regions sort of have a youth bulge and the question is, well, what do these children when they become adults do in this world? So, can you talk a little bit about maybe that sort of phenomenon and the youth bulge in some some regions of the world?
Parfait Eloundou 11:55
Yeah, you’re right, the notion of a youth bulge is basically the situation where you have a large proportion population that is in the young adult ages. And so just to, to stress that population in itself doesn’t give you the full picture. So, these young people have a potential strength in terms of the economy, if they are put to work. On the other hand, if they are not put to work, if they have very limited prospects or employment, they become a source of instability and insecurity. And so, population is always in that sort of contingent situation where its impact in a given society is going to depend on what you make of it.
Will Brehm 12:40
And so, what is the role of education in helping these countries with the youth bulge, allow the children move from school to work?
Parfait Eloundou 12:52
Very, very, very good question. I think the first role is to train them and train them well. And by this, you mean quality of education in the classic skills, but also increasingly embracing soft skills and new skills that are in demand in the labor market. Then education systems maybe called to actually take one step further and get involved in facilitating the transition from school to work. And this is a topic on which I’ve worked a little bit. And it’s, it’s quite a concern in many countries, in Latin American as well, in Sub Saharan Africa, because you have large cohorts of young people who have really completed the course of education but having a very difficult time finding employment. And so, there are many things that happened during that phase, to begin, you have a loss of skills, if you stay out of the labor force for a long time, you may not have the opportunity to acquire new skills, it’s a period of stress, if you’re looking for employment, and not really knowing when the next job is going to be available. It’s also a loss of identity in many ways because having lost identity or the label of a student, now you don’t really have any fallback identity to carry and so that can be a problem, not to mention all the risks that are involved associated with being idle. So, if you leave, you take young adults who leave school at 20-21, this is an age of risk and decision-making choices regarding your health, regarding your consumption, diet, and so forth. And so, making the right choices at this juncture of the life cycle is pretty important. And unless they’re well accompanied, I think it’s a very delicate period.
Will Brehm 14:53
Yeah, and it makes me think about sort of what we call today, the gig economy and how, you know, service sector is so massive in many parts of the world. And part of those services are basically taking “one-off” jobs to deliver food or to do an Uber or what do you know, whatever it is. And so, I just wonder how is the gig economy sort of impacting that work or that school to work transition?
Parfait Eloundou 15:23
Well, I think the flow of information, I mean, to be able to take advantage of that sort of fluid work environment, you have to have a very strong flow of information so that at least the young would-be workers know where the opportunities are and can actually try to compete. And that’s not always the case in the countries that are having the largest youth bulge. And so that’s one first issue. The other issue that I’d like to mention briefly, is, I think when you think about life trajectories and career trajectories, they’ve really been a great elevation of aspirations. I think today’s young adults are very creative, the world is their oyster. And so, they no longer peg their dreams to the local environment, I think they dream big and they dream wide and they dream far and so the restrictions to their local environment become even more restrictive, and or at least felt as being extremely restrictive,
Will Brehm 16:34
That must partly be a result of the very education system.
Parfait Eloundou 16:38
Will Brehm 16:39
I mean, it must, it creates sort of this aspirational, this sort of competitive sort of environment among youth thinking, how do I get ahead? And so, sometimes that might mean crossing borders or getting into that sort of global upper-class.
Parfait Eloundou 16:56
Yeah, in that global upper class. Which, again, is partly a fiction, and so the education system plays a part in terms of dealing these aspirations, but you also have the mass media, the Internet, and so you get exposed to sort of a virtual dimension of that global middle class, which, again, is partly fiction.
Will Brehm 17:21
Yeah, it seems like the issue of class is so important in thinking about sustainability. And I wonder, do you know, is UNESCO and the UN and all of the work that’s being done on SDGs, in your opinion, are they bringing in the issue of class well enough, like or is that something that needs a little bit more thought?
Parfait Eloundou 17:44
Yeah, definitely needs a lot more thought. To begin, class has both purely economic and then a cultural dimension. And so, if we just consider the economic dimension, that is just consider the different economic clusters or the difference in salary ranges, I think the discussions of class or the discussions of inequality have for long time shied away from relative disparities and relative deprivation, and just focus on absolute deprivation. In other words, don’t worry about the top 1%, don’t worry about the top 5%, just worry about the bottom 10%, and make sure that you have as few people as you can, that live under $1 a day or $2 a day, right. And so that has been part of the, I wouldn’t say obfuscation but at least part of the orientation. But for whatever it’s worth, there’s just a tremendous yearning for a better future for everybody. In all my years working in development, I have yet to see somebody who would be happy to live with $2 a day, you know, you get them to $2 or $5 a day, and they and they say, you know, that’s, it’s, I’m fine, I’m good, you can rest easy I’ll stay here for the rest of my life that I’ve never personally seen that. And so that, to me, brings the need to sort of confront head on the relative deprivation and the extent to which people can achieve mobility and the terms under which that mobility is achieved. The extent to which this so-called American dream, which is basically a universal dream, which is if you work hard enough, if you apply your talent, if you play by the rules, if you’re dedicated enough, you can aspire to a better future or your children can aspire to a better future. And so that dream is not deferred -I mean, different people have used different terms, you know- as the poet has said is a dream deferred some have seen it as hijacked, but it’s becoming less and less to attain. But what remains, however, and what is sometimes problematic, I don’t know, I mean, it can be seen as problematic is the illusion of a dream. I think, once you, if there was just a clear acknowledgement and a clear understanding, a shared understanding then I think the realistic expectation that you ought to have if you, you know, meet circumstances, A, B and C and D will be to reach let’s say, you know, this income level, and that’s the bar and we set a realistic bar, I think it might be a slightly better situation than to dangle this exceptional success stories that are interesting, or can be inspiring, but a very, very, very, very, very rare.
Will Brehm 21:04
Yeah, I mean, it sounds like what you’re saying, and correct me if I’m wrong, is that there is a sort of myth of meritocracy,
Parfait Eloundou 21:13
A myth of meritocracy and a myth of extreme mobility. It’s both, you know. There’s this misconception or over-estimation of how far you can go. And at the same time, as there’s a need to debate the terms and the ways in which people may experience that mobility.
Will Brehm 21:33
And I guess what sometimes frustrating about discourses on education is that there’s an assumed belief in meritocracy in the idea of education, that, you know, if you just try hard and you do well, and you increase your test scores, you will get better jobs, you will have better lives, you will, you will be rewarded with what you can receive or what you deserve, because of the hard work you that you put in. And sometimes I feel that that sort of assumption goes uncritiqued.
Parfait Eloundou 22:05
Yeah, you’re absolutely right. I mean, education tries, the education system by large tries its best, otherwise it wouldn’t really retain any credibility whatsoever. But it’s true, we have to recognize that this system is not sort of a perfect meritocracy. I mean, I remember even before I could consciously formulate these ideas as a seven-year-old growing up in Cameroon having very good grades, I had excellent grades throughout my entire curriculum but at the same time, knowing full well that I had many friends that I knew were smarter than me, but for some reason, didn’t get good grades. And so, to me, it was always a problem I said, I just could not understand reconcile the two: the belief in meritocracy, but also the awareness of my close friend’s intelligence. And so, I think the way you make sense of it is that the school system recognizes some forms of intelligence at the expense of others, sometimes those forms of intelligence that are recognized, maybe functional, i. e, for society, that is the skills or the talents that are most useful in society at a given point but sometimes it may not really be the case. I think, and so the real debate is, number one, to what extent what we learn in school is really what you need to learn to be a good worker, to be a good citizen, to be a good parent, to be a good neighbor, and B: to what extent the school system sort of set a level playing field in which everybody gets treated the same. I said before, that teachers and school systems really try hard I can say, because I’ve been a teacher for a long time, but at the same time, you have all these unconscious biases that creep in. I mean, if you see a student, you know, always toy these ideas, and you have to fight against that constantly. If you see a student wearing glasses and looking sort of poised and attentive during your classes, there’s a tendency to assume that they are a good student or smart student. On the other hand, if you see a student slumped in their chair, you may make different kind of inference. And it may well be that this is a super smart student who happened to just be bored by your class. And this is just one example. And you have all the other circumstances and baggage and disadvantages that students bring into the class. You know, the family environment where they come from, the backgrounds the neighborhoods they come from, the resources or lack of that they bring to the classroom make it difficult for schools to be a perfect meritocracy. And so how to fix that is quite a challenge.
Will Brehm 25:05
Well, Parfait Eloundou, we’ll have to answer that question another time. So, thank you very much for joining FreshEd. It really was a pleasure to talk.
Parfait Eloundou 25:12
Oh, it was a pleasure, the pleasure was all mine.
Will Brehm 1:28
Parfait Elondou, bienvenue à Fresh Ed.
Parfait Eloundou 1:46
Will Brehm 1:48
Donc, nous sommes ici à Bruxelles, à la réunion sur l’éducation mondiale et je voudrais juste démarrer par une question très générale : Comment définiriez-vous la durabilité ? Que signifie la durabilité pour vous ?
Parfait Eloundou 2:00
Oh, c’est une question très pertinente. Je veux dire, la durabilité, je dirais que c’est le fait de prendre le développement dans une perspective à long terme et de prêter attention à un type différent de norme, pas seulement aux objectifs immédiats, mais à la mesure dans laquelle les différentes nations et le monde dans son ensemble peuvent soutenir ce que nous essayons d’accomplir. Et vous pouvez envisager la durabilité selon deux dimensions. La première est l’aspect environnemental, qui consiste à conserver les systèmes de vie naturels. Et l’autre est la durabilité sociale, qui permet de maintenir les sociétés en phase et en harmonie, de maintenir le contrat social, de maintenir l’engagement de chacun, de maintenir la viabilité des institutions, etc.
Will Brehm 2:51
Quel rôle joue donc l’éducation dans la compréhension de la durabilité en termes d’environnement, mais aussi de l’aspect social, où l’éducation s’inscrit-elle dans ce tableau ?
Parfait Eloundou 3:02
De manière générale, on peut concevoir l’éducation comme une institution destinée à véhiculer des connaissances, des valeurs, et donc à se reproduire et à innover. Et donc, l’éducation est un mécanisme permettant aux sociétés de se projeter dans l’avenir. En transmettant les compétences à la génération actuelle, vous vous donnez, en tant que société, les moyens de survivre et de vous épanouir tout en avançant. Il y a donc différentes choses que vous voulez transmettre et qui permettent en même temps de modifier l’innovation, et ces choses comprennent donc, encore une fois, comme je l’ai dit, les compétences, la technologie, les valeurs, les connaissances, les valeurs de la citoyenneté, les valeurs de l’intendance, etc. Ainsi, l’éducation est vraiment vitale en tant que mécanisme de reproduction et de projection dans l’avenir.
Will Brehm 4:01
L’éducation est-elle, à votre avis, la solution à certains des problèmes auxquels est confronté le monde du changement climatique, ou, vous savez, le déclin du contrat social ou la montée du nationalisme, ou tous les différents maux sociaux que nous voyons, les maux environnementaux que nous voyons dans le monde, est, à votre avis, l’éducation, une sorte de panacée?
Parfait Eloundou 4:19
Eh bien, la solution est un mot fort, mais l’éducation est un instrument très efficace. Elle ne peut pas être une solution miracle, car son efficacité relative varie d’un endroit à l’autre, et les différentes formes d’éducation varient, et il y aura donc des moments où l’éducation sera la force la plus efficace pour transmettre des compétences. Mais vous pouvez aussi avoir des sociétés qui sont structurées de manière à transmettre des compétences, de la technologie et du savoir-faire, en dehors d’un système d’éducation formel. Mais si vous considérez le monde d’aujourd’hui, parmi toutes les institutions possibles sur lesquelles vous pouvez compter pour faire progresser les SDG comme nous le pensons maintenant, je pense que l’éducation est vraiment un candidat très fort et c’est pourquoi j’étais enthousiaste d’être ici et de voir comment non seulement nous pouvons rénover, relancer l’éducation rurale, mais aussi de voir comment elle s’articule avec d’autres institutions et sociétés.
Will Brehm 5:25
Vous savez, l’une des choses que je confonds parfois avec les buts du développement durable, c’est que, d’une part, il y a cet effort pour atteindre la croissance économique comme moyen de sortir plus de gens de la pauvreté, d’augmenter les avantages matériels pour les gens du monde entier. Mais une grande partie de cette croissance nécessite la combustion de combustibles fossiles et toutes sortes d’extraction de matériaux de la terre naturelle, ce qui semble aller à l’encontre de la poussée vers la durabilité environnementale, qui est un autre but des SDG, donc pour moi, il est très difficile de conserver ces deux idées simultanément dans mon esprit.
Parfait Eloundou 6:09
Et c’est dans une certaine mesure, la tension créative que le monde dans son ensemble doit gérer. Et les scientifiques en particulier jouent un rôle en aidant tout le monde à penser à la façon dont ces deux objectifs concurrentiels ou apparemment concurrents peuvent se rejoindre et qu’il n’y en a pas deux en fait, mais trois. D’une part, vous voulez encourager la croissance, mais vous voulez encourager une croissance qui est inclusive, et une croissance qui est, disons, “verte” dans le sens où elle préserve l’environnement et ce n’est pas une chose facile à faire. Je crois donc que le défi consiste à trouver des solutions qui permettent de faire le lien entre ces trois objectifs concurrents.
Will Brehm 6:50
Oui, et je regarde les manifestations en France en ce moment, les manifestations de la veste jaune et je me demande, vous savez, la croissance ne paraît pas être inclusive, il semble y avoir beaucoup de gens, un grand nombre de gens dans le monde qui sont en quelque sorte exclus de la croissance de l’économie que nous voyons. Nous constatons une croissance économique dans le monde entier, mais pour quelques personnes seulement, il semblerait que l’inégalité empêche vraiment la capacité d’avoir une croissance inclusive.
Parfait Eloundou 7:21
Oui, je crois que vous avez raison sur deux fronts. Le premier front, c’est justement ce que vous avez dit sur l’augmentation des inégalités, qui est une tendance presque mondiale, surtout quand on parle d’égalité à l’intérieur des pays. Je pense qu’historiquement, du moins au cours des 30 dernières années, ce qui paraît se produire, c’est que dans le même temps, alors que l’inégalité entre les pays a en quelque sorte diminué, il y a une augmentation massive de l’inégalité à l’intérieur des pays. C’est donc un véritable défi. Le deuxième point que vous mentionnez à juste titre est le fait que la croissance, ou du moins l’inégalité, peut devenir un obstacle à la croissance. Vous savez, disons qu’il y a 50 ans, la tendance était de penser que si nous nous contentons de faire croître la tarte, si nous nous contentons de faire croître l’économie, si nous nous occupons de la croissance du PIB, tout le reste va se mettre en place. Puis on est passé à un régime dans lequel les gens reconnaissent à contrecœur qu’en même temps qu’on s’occupe de la croissance, il faut aussi s’inquiéter des inégalités, mais nous arrivons maintenant à un stade où la relation va peut-être dans le sens inverse. En fait, l’inégalité est peut-être une question de premier ordre qu’il faut régler avant même de penser à la croissance. Sinon, vous risquez de ne pas avoir les circonstances et les conditions, la sécurité, le contrat social, la confiance, la paix dont vous avez besoin pour planifier une croissance durable.
Will Brehm 8:58
Dans votre discours d’aujourd’hui, vous avez évoqué les questions de démographie. Comment la démographie s’inscrit-elle dans cette question de l’inégalité?
Parfait Eloundou 9:06
Eh bien, je crois que si vous prenez la démographie dans une compréhension très simple de disons, le nombre de personnes et si vous prenez la notion Bentham du but ultime étant d’atteindre le plus grand bien pour le plus grand nombre, il s’ensuit que la démographie est un grand morceau de l’équation des SDG. La plupart des indicateurs que vous voyez sont des taux ou des ratios dont le dénominateur est la population, donc nous voulons accroître le taux d’alphabétisation, vous savez, la fraction de personnes qui savent lire et écrire par rapport au nombre de la population totale, les taux de malnutrition, les taux de mortalité, tous ces éléments sont essentiellement des questions d’accès par rapport au nombre de personnes. Et donc, vous devez surveiller les deux éléments de l’équation qui sont les services que vous proposez, les biens que vous produisez, par rapport aux personnes qui entrent dans ce système.
Will Brehm 10:09
Donc nous avons juste, je veux dire, d’une part, oui, nous voulons offrir les services et de meilleurs services comme l’éducation et la santé et tout le reste que les SDG ont suggéré, mais en même temps, nous devons repenser à ce dénominateur concernant le nombre total de personnes dans ce monde, et que ce monde, il serait insupportable d’avoir, disons, 50 milliards de personnes vivant sur cette planète, par exemple…
Parfait Eloundou 10:28
Par exemple, oui, et donc mais ce n’est pas toujours, c’est le point de départ. C’est pour conserver une sorte d’équilibre entre les ressources et les personnes. Mais le dénominateur lui-même est aussi un peu difficile, je pense, sur la population totale, il faut encore envisager des questions de composition et débuter très simplement avec la composition par âge. Ainsi, dans une population où la majorité des personnes sont extrêmement jeunes, afin de ne pas pouvoir travailler, c’est une proposition différente que si vous avez une plus grande part de la population en âge de travailler. Et donc, vous devez considérer la composition, non seulement en termes d’âge, mais aussi en termes d’éducation. Il faut donc élever les niveaux d’éducation, etc. Ainsi, la population est à la fois un chiffre et une concurrence.
Will Brehm 11:23
Oui, et différents pays et régions auraient une composition différente. Au Japon, par exemple, où je vis, la composition de la population est largement orientée vers les personnes âgées, et elles ont des problèmes pour payer les systèmes de sécurité sociale, etc. Mais bien sûr, d’autres régions ont une sorte d’explosion de la jeunesse et la question est de savoir ce que font ces enfants quand ils deviennent adultes dans ce monde. Pouvez-vous nous parler un peu de ce genre de phénomène et de l’explosion de la jeunesse dans certaines régions du monde?
Parfait Eloundou 11:55
Oui, vous avez raison, la notion d’explosion de la jeunesse est essentiellement la situation dans laquelle vous avez une grande proportion de la population qui est en âge de devenir un jeune adulte. Et donc, juste pour souligner que la population en elle-même ne vous donne pas une image complète. Ces jeunes ont donc une force potentielle en termes d’économie, s’ils sont mis au travail. D’un autre côté, s’ils ne sont pas mis au travail, s’ils ont des perspectives ou un emploi très limités, ils deviennent une source d’instabilité et d’insécurité. Ainsi, la population est toujours dans ce genre de situation incertaine où son impact dans une société donnée va dépendre de ce que vous en faites.
Will Brehm 12:40
Et donc, quel est le rôle de l’éducation pour aider ces pays à faire face à l’explosion de la jeunesse, à permettre aux enfants de passer de l’école au travail ?
Parfait Eloundou 12:52
Très, très, très bonne question. Je pense que le premier rôle est de les former et de bien les former. Et par là, vous voulez dire la qualité de l’éducation dans les compétences classiques, mais aussi de plus en plus dans les compétences non techniques et les nouvelles compétences qui sont demandées sur le marché du travail. Les systèmes d’éducation sont alors peut-être appelés à faire un pas de plus et à s’impliquer pour favoriser la transition entre l’école et le travail. Et c’est un sujet sur lequel j’ai un peu travaillé. Et c’est une préoccupation dans de nombreux pays, en Amérique latine aussi, en Afrique subsaharienne, parce qu’il y a de grandes cohortes de jeunes qui ont vraiment terminé leurs études mais qui ont beaucoup de mal à trouver un emploi. Et donc, il y a beaucoup de choses qui se passent pendant cette phase, pour débuter, vous avez une perte de compétences, si vous restez hors de la population active pendant une longue période, vous n’avez peut-être pas la possibilité d’acquérir de nouvelles compétences, c’est une période de stress, si vous cherchez un emploi, et vous ne savez pas vraiment quand le prochain emploi sera disponible. C’est aussi une perte d’identité à bien des égards, car après avoir perdu votre identité ou l’étiquette d’étudiant, vous n’avez plus vraiment d’identité de repli à porter et cela peut donc être un problème, sans parler de tous les risques liés à l’oisiveté. Donc, si vous partez, vous prenez les jeunes adultes qui quittent l’école à 20-21 ans, c’est un âge de risque et de choix de décision concernant votre santé, concernant votre consommation, votre alimentation, etc. Il est donc très important de faire les bons choix à ce stade du cycle de vie. Et s’ils ne sont pas bien accompagnés, je pense que c’est une période très délicate.
Will Brehm 14:53
Oui, et cela me fait penser à ce que nous appelons aujourd’hui l’économie du spectacle et à la façon dont, vous savez, le secteur des services est si important dans de nombreuses régions du monde. Et une partie de ces services consiste essentiellement à prendre des emplois “ponctuels” pour distribuer de la nourriture ou pour faire un Uber ou quoi que ce soit d’autre. Et donc, je me demande comment l’économie du spectacle a un impact sur ce travail ou sur la transition de l’école au travail ?
Parfait Eloundou 15:23
Eh bien, je crois que le flux d’informations, je veux dire, pour pouvoir profiter de ce genre d’environnement de travail fluide, il faut avoir un flux d’informations très fort afin qu’au moins les jeunes travailleurs potentiels sachent où sont les opportunités et puissent réellement tenter d’être compétitifs. Et ce n’est pas toujours le cas dans les pays qui connaissent la plus forte explosion de la jeunesse. C’est donc une première question. L’autre question que j’aimerais aborder brièvement, c’est que je pense que lorsque vous pensez aux trajectoires de vie et de carrière, elles ont vraiment été une grande élévation des aspirations. Je pense que les jeunes adultes d’aujourd’hui sont très créatifs, le monde est leur huître. Et donc, ils ne rattachent plus leurs rêves à l’environnement local, je pense qu’ils rêvent grand et ils rêvent large et ils rêvent loin et donc les restrictions à leur environnement local deviennent encore plus restrictives, et ou du moins ressenties comme étant extrêmement restrictives,
Will Brehm 16:34
Cela doit être en partie le résultat du système éducatif lui-même.
Parfait Eloundou 16:38
Will Brehm 16:39
Je veux dire, ça doit, ça crée une sorte d’aspiration, une sorte d’environnement compétitif chez les jeunes qui pensent, comment puis-je progresser ? Et donc, parfois, cela peut impliquer de traverser des frontières ou d’entrer dans cette sorte de classe supérieure mondiale.
Parfait Eloundou 16:56
Oui, dans cette classe supérieure mondiale. Le système éducatif joue un rôle dans la concrétisation de ces aspirations, mais il y a aussi les médias, l’Internet, et on est exposé à une dimension virtuelle de cette classe moyenne mondiale, qui est en partie une fiction.
Will Brehm 17:21
Oui, il paraît que la question de la classe est très significative dans la réflexion sur la durabilité. Et je me demande, savez-vous si l’UNESCO et l’ONU et tout le travail qui est fait sur les SDG, à votre avis, fournissent suffisamment la question de la classe, comme ou est-ce quelque chose qui a besoin d’être un peu plus réfléchi ?
Parfait Eloundou 17:44
Oui, il faut vraiment penser un peu plus. Pour commencer, la classe a une dimension à la fois purement économique et ensuite culturelle. Et donc, si l’on considère seulement la dimension économique, c’est-à-dire si l’on considère seulement les différents pôles économiques ou la différence des échelles de salaires, je crois que les discussions de classe ou les discussions sur l’inégalité ont longtemps évité les disparités relatives et les privations relatives, et se sont juste concentrées sur les privations absolues. En d’autres termes, ne vous préoccupez pas du 1% supérieur, ne vous préoccupez pas des 5% supérieurs, préoccupez-vous seulement des 10% inférieurs, et assurez-vous que vous avez le moins de personnes possible, qui vivent avec moins d’un dollar par jour ou deux dollars par jour, c’est vrai. Cela a donc fait partie, je ne dirais pas de l’obscurcissement, mais au moins d’une partie de l’orientation. Mais quoi qu’il en soit, il y a un énorme désir d’un meilleur avenir pour tout le monde. Pendant toutes mes années de travail dans le développement, je n’ai jamais vu quelqu’un qui serait heureux de vivre avec 2 $ par jour, vous savez, vous leur donnez 2 ou 5 $ par jour, et ils disent, vous savez, c’est, c’est, je vais bien, je vais bien, vous pouvez vous reposer, je vais rester ici pour le reste de ma vie que je n’ai jamais vu personnellement. Et donc, pour moi, cela amène le besoin de faire face à la privation relative et à la mesure dans laquelle les gens peuvent atteindre la mobilité et les conditions dans lesquelles cette mobilité est atteinte. La mesure dans laquelle ce soi-disant rêve américain, qui est fondamentalement un rêve universel, c’est-à-dire si vous travaillez suffisamment, si vous appliquez votre talent, si vous respectez les règles, si vous êtes suffisamment dévoué, vous pouvez aspirer à un avenir meilleur ou vos enfants peuvent aspirer à un avenir meilleur. Et donc ce rêve n’est pas différé- je veux dire, différentes personnes ont utilisé différents termes, vous savez – comme l’a dit le poète est un rêve différé ; certains l’ont vu comme détourné, mais il devient de moins en moins à atteindre. Mais ce qui reste, cependant, et ce qui est parfois problématique, je ne sais pas, je veux dire, on peut le considérer comme problématique, c’est l’illusion d’un rêve. Je pense qu’une fois que vous, s’il y avait juste une reconnaissance claire et une compréhension claire, une compréhension partagée, alors je pense que l’attente réaliste que vous devriez avoir si vous, vous savez, rencontrez les circonstances, A, B et C et D sera d’atteindre disons, vous savez, ce niveau de revenu, et c’est la barre et nous fixons une barre réaliste, je crois que ce serait peut-être une situation légèrement meilleure que de brandir ces réussites exceptionnelles qui sont intéressantes, ou peuvent être inspirantes, mais une très, très, très, très, très, très rare.
Will Brehm 21:04
Oui, je veux dire, on dirait que ce que vous dites, et rectifiez-moi si je me trompe, c’est qu’il existe une sorte de mythe de la méritocratie,
Parfait Eloundou 21:13
Un mythe de la méritocratie et un mythe de l’extrême mobilité. C’est les deux. Il y a cette idée fausse ou cette surestimation de la distance que l’on peut parcourir. Et en même temps, il est indispensable de débattre des conditions et des modalités de cette mobilité.
Will Brehm 21:33
Et je présume que ce qui est parfois frustrant dans les discours sur l’éducation, c’est qu’il y a une croyance supposée en la méritocratie dans l’idée de l’éducation, que, vous savez, si vous faites des efforts et que vous réussissez, et que vous améliorez vos résultats aux tests, vous aurez de meilleurs emplois, vous aurez de meilleures vies, vous serez, vous serez récompensé avec ce que vous pouvez recevoir ou ce que vous méritez, grâce au dur labeur que vous avez fourni. Et parfois, j’ai l’impression que ce genre d’hypothèse n’est pas critiqué.
Parfait Eloundou 22:05
Oui, vous avez tout à fait raison. Je veux dire que l’éducation essaie, le système éducatif fait de son mieux, sinon il ne serait pas vraiment crédible. Mais c’est vrai, il faut reconnaître que ce système n’est pas une sorte de méritocratie parfaite. Je veux dire, je me rappelle qu’avant même que je puisse consciemment exprimer ces idées, alors que j’avais sept ans et que je grandissais au Cameroun avec de très bonnes notes, j’avais d’excellentes notes tout au long de mon cursus, mais en même temps, sachant très bien que j’avais beaucoup d’amis que je savais plus malins que moi, mais qui, pour une raison quelconque, n’avaient pas de bonnes notes. Et donc, pour moi, c’était toujours un problème que je disais, je ne pouvais pas comprendre de concilier les deux : la croyance en la méritocratie, mais aussi la conscience de l’intelligence de mon ami proche. Et donc, je pense que la façon dont vous donnez un sens à tout cela, c’est que le système scolaire reconnaît certaines formes d’intelligence au dépens d’autres, parfois ces formes d’intelligence qui sont reconnues, peut-être fonctionnelles, c’est-à-dire, pour la société, ce sont les compétences ou les talents qui sont les plus utiles dans la société à un moment donné mais parfois ce n’est pas vraiment le cas. Je pense, et donc le vrai débat est, premièrement, dans quelle mesure ce que nous apprenons à l’école est vraiment ce que vous devez apprendre pour être un bon travailleur, un bon citoyen, un bon parent, un bon voisin, et B : dans quelle mesure le système scolaire établit en quelque sorte un terrain d’égalité dans lequel tout le monde est traité de la même manière. J’ai déjà dit que les enseignants et les systèmes scolaires font de gros efforts, je peux le dire, parce que je suis enseignant depuis longtemps, mais en même temps, vous avez tous ces préjugés inconscients qui s’insinuent. Je veux dire que si vous voyez un élève, vous savez, vous jouez toujours avec ces idées, et vous devez constamment vous battre contre cela. Si vous voyez un élève qui porte des lunettes et qui a l’air plutôt posé et attentif pendant vos cours, vous avez tendance à croire qu’il est un bon élève ou un élève intelligent. D’un autre côté, si vous voyez un élève affalé sur sa chaise, vous pouvez en tirer des conclusions différentes. Et il se peut très bien que ce soit un élève super intelligent qui se contente de s’ennuyer dans votre classe. Et ce n’est qu’un exemple parmi d’autres. Et vous avez toutes les autres circonstances et tous les autres bagages et désavantages que les élèves apportent dans la classe. Vous savez, l’environnement familial d’où ils viennent, les origines des quartiers dont ils sont issus, les ressources ou le manque de ressources qu’ils apportent dans la classe font qu’il est difficile pour les écoles d’être une méritocratie parfaite. Et donc, comment remédier à cela est tout un défi.
Will Brehm 25:05
Eh bien, Parfait Eloundou, nous devrons répondre à cette question une autre fois. Donc, merci beaucoup d’avoir rejoint FreshEd. C’était vraiment un plaisir de parler.
Parfait Eloundou 25:12
Oh, c’était un plaisir, le plaisir était tout à moi.
Translation sponsored by NORRAG.
Want to help translate this show? Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org
Today we look at the power of Participatory Action Research in public science. My guest is Michelle Fine. In the 1990s, she worked on a study called Changing Minds, which looked at the impact of college in a maximum-security prison. The research team comprised of women in and outside of prison.
For Michelle, participatory action research plays an important role in the struggle for social justice. It not only can change legislation, impact critical social theory, and mobilize popular opinion for educational justice; but seemingly small issues can also have deep and lasting implications.
Michelle Fine is a Distinguished Professor at the Graduate Center at the City University of New York where she is a founding member of the Public Science Project.
Citation: Fine, Michelle, interview with Will Brehm, FreshEd, 137, podcast audio, November 26, 2018. https://www.freshedpodcast.com/michellefine/
Transcript, Translation, Resources:
Today marks the 3rd anniversary of FreshEd. To celebrate, we are going to air our first ever FreshEd Live event where Saskia Sassen joined me for a conversation about her life and work.
Saskia Sassen is a professor at Columbia University. In 1991, she published the now classic book called The Global City where she chronicled how New York, London, and Tokyo became the centers in the new digital economy. What she focused on was the rise of intermediary services that allowed corporations to operate globally. Instead of seeing place as no longer necessary in the digital economy, she saw certain cities as physical sites that became more important than ever in the global economy.
For Sassen, intermediaries concentrated in certain parts of the city and relied on high-level knowledge, like algorithmic mathematics. In New York City, financial services took over lower Manhattan. This left a peculiar reality for the physical buildings in the city.
As a result, many people who didn’t work in intermediary services were expelled from those parts of the city. And yet, despite this expulsion by intermediaries, new forms of inclusion were created.
Today’s show was recorded at Musashi University during the Third Japanese Political Economy Workshop organized by Nobuharu Yokokawa.
Today we interrogate the idea of creativity.
My guest, Oli Mould, says 21st Century capitalism has redefined creativity from being a power to create something from nothing to the ability to create new products for markets. Creativity, in other words, feeds capitalism’s own growth.
Students and workers alike are told they must be entrepreneurial and flexible to survive the global economy. We are told businesses and governments seek out these character traits. In effect, the power to create has become an individual characteristic that can be traded and exploited.
Oli Mould is a human geographer based at Royal Holloway, University of London. He argues for a creativity that forges entirely new ways of societal organization. His new book, Against Creativity, published by Verso, goes on sale tomorrow.
Oli Mould works at Royal Holloway, University of London. His new book is Against Creativity.
Citation: Mould, Oli, interview with Will Brehm, FreshEd, 127, podcast audio, September 24, 2018. https://freshedpodcast.com/olimould/
Will Brehm 1:18
Oli Mould, welcome to FreshEd.
Oli Mould 1:22
Thank you for having me.
Will Brehm 1:24
So, you start your new book by detailing a Pepsi commercial from 2017. Can you describe to listeners what that commercial showed?
Oli Mould 1:33
Yes. So, this Pepsi ad came out in 2018. And it shows Kendall Jenner, who is, I guess, the new kind of model of the day, and she is having a photoshoot done. And she spies this protest movement that is walking outside her door. And it’s really riffs off what’s been going on in the UK and the US of late days – protests, marches that have been going against police brutality, and Brexit, and you know all the kind of ills of this contemporary world. And it is a very generic protest. There’s sort of signs saying things like, “Join the conversation”, and “Love”, and all these really words that you never ever see at protests. And she spies this other sort of model looking guy, she, you know, throws off her wig and smudges her lipstick and just joins this march. And it is really quite incredible. She goes over, she grabs a Pepsi can, gives it to a policeman who’s clearly there to supposedly keep the peace, and he nods approvingly, and everyone sort of laughs and everyone is really really happy that this guy is drinking this Pepsi. And all the while, there is a what is clearly supposed to be a Muslim girl who is a photographer who comes in and out of the commercial at various times. And at the beginning, she is frustrated because the photos she has are not very good, and she’s clearly frustrated. You can see her doing that. And then she spies the protest as well, and she sees Kendall Jenner giving this Pepsi can to the policeman, and she takes a photo, she is really happy. And everyone is really really happy about what’s going on. But you watch it, and you know, the timing of it was important, given all that stuff going on in the states in the US, and in the UK. And it was clearly riffing off this. It was clearly sort of taking this aesthetic of protest to, you know, sell Pepsi cans. And it was very very blatant, very very crass. And it was just, you know, very very obviously done in that way. And clearly, when it came out, there was a lot of stuff online that was very critical of it, and it was taken down. Actually, they apologized for it. So that is what the advert does. And, you know, it was very very blatant. And actually, there was a very famous photo from Baton Rouge, where there was a woman who was being kind of approached by police and being handcuffed, and it was clearly, you know, riffed off that, and it was just very very low. And so that is what the commercial does – it really appropriated the protest aesthetic in order to essentially hawk a sugary drink.
Will Brehm 4:16
And what does that tell you about the contemporary form of creativity?
Oli Mould 4:22
Well, it says that, essentially, creative practices – in this case, advertising – but it bleeds into a lot of the corporate practices more generally, that essentially, you know they’re called creative, but what they’re doing is, they’re scouring the world. They are scouring all sorts of different images and experiences and feelings and emotions in order to plant them in ways that make profit for their products. So, you know what people say are creative in terms of advertising, what they’re doing is, they’re not being creative, they’re being appropriative, they’re been co-optive, in that they’re taking things that already exist, things that are sort of actually kind of anti-capitalist or resistive, and using it for corporate processes. So they’re emptying it of any kind of ethic, any kind of anti-capitalist meaning, and just kind of using it to just plaster over ways of flogging their products you know in new and kind of I guess, “innovative, creative ways”, as they say. So, for me, that is not creative at all, because they are actually destroying what that image means. And as they get more and more into the corporate aesthetic, they begin to lose their meaning, and they actually lose their resistive and anti-capitalist ethic. You have seen it with punk and skateboarding, and I guess even things like hip-hop to a certain extent. You know these are things that were once quite subcultural and quite resistive. But now they are very much part of the mainstream, and you watch it now, and you do not get a sense of that countercultural movement. You do to a certain extent, and they still exist in the cracks and everything else. But in the whole, you just don’t get that when you see it. So that is why that Pepsi ad, in particular, I think, was a particularly damaging form of creativity.
Will Brehm 6:21
And is this a new phenomenon? Or has, in a sense, capitalism been appropriating various creative ideas and industries, and riffing off of maybe anti-capitalistic imagery and protest to further capitalism itself? Is this new, or has this been happening for quite some time?
Oli Mould 6:44
I think it is relatively new. There is a lot of work, scholarly work, which has been done around the May 68 Parisian riots. These were almost considered a bit of a watershed moment because post that time, and I guess you can couch that in the wider countercultural revolution of the 60s more broadly, that you know it signaled a kind of shift in how corporations work, from being quite structured and hierarchical and quite kind of pragmatic to being little much more flexible in how they go about using images to further their profit margins and their spread, I guess. And people like Boltanski and Chiapello in their book, ‘The Spirit of New Capitalism’, they argue quite strongly in what is essentially 550 pages of this argument, that post-1968, capitalism has got much better at doing this. So, it is not necessarily new, but the ways in which capitalism has changed its processes have, since around the kind of late 60s, early 70s, and from then you see a lot of this appropriation happening. And it actually happens much quicker now, and I think with the advent of social media, it’s sped up even more. So, I would not say it is necessarily new, but I think that it is quicker, it is a lot quicker now. I always use the example of subcultures. I mean, I did some work around parkour and graffiti and skateboarding, all those I guess urban subcultures. And you look at skateboarding, it took maybe a decade, 15 years, for it to become appropriated if that is how you can measure these things. And then graffiti took a similar kind of time. Parkour took about two or three years. So, you can kind of trace these things. You spot something that is new and innovative and very very creative, because it is subcultural, anti-capitalist, and then within a few years, it is become part of the mainstream; has been Red Bull or Nike splashed all over it. So, I would not say it is new, I would say it is different and quicker.
Will Brehm 8:49
So, in a sense, is the idea of creativity, therefore, changing in itself?
Oli Mould 8:54
Yes, it depends on, I guess, which version of creativity you mean. Yes, I think what it means to be creative, I guess from top-down, to use a blunt phrase, I guess what corporations and businesses and politicians and teachers and everything else tell us to be, yes, it’s about being flexible and innovative in how you work. It is kind of exploring the world, always bringing that back into say, “Look, how can that how can that help us to grow.” It is about growth. Now that is often couched in economic growth, economic development, and sometimes that can be personal growth as well. But it is always about, “What can you find out there that helps you to grow – as a person, as a nation, in terms of monetary wealth, or whatever it might be?” So that is why I argue in the book – that the notion of creativity has now been privatized. It is about, “How can you be creative in order to help yourself?” How to expand yourself in monetary terms, in enlightenment terms, and everything else. So, that is what creativity means in terms of top-down, I guess, and that is how it is changed, yes.
Will Brehm 10:15
And so, what does that actually look like? This privatized notion of creativity, what does that look like today you know for someone in entering the labor force, for instance?
Oli Mould 10:27
Well, it looks very precarious. It looks very problematic for me anyway. You look at all the different job ads out there at the moment, from fast-food workers to corporate CEOs, “creative” is in there. You have to be creative. And it is become so ubiquitous that it is almost meaningless. But what it always means, for me anyways, is that you have to be flexible. You have to sort of embody that mode of competition, I guess. And this is a broader argument that I made in the book; that this version of creativity is very much couched in with what people call the “neoliberal turn”, and this idea that the markets must be as efficient as possible, and they must extend into every realm of life. And so within work, if you go into the job market, that’s what creativity, I think, when you see it, that’s what you should always be very very careful because it is asking you to be flexible. So, it is asking you to maybe work on a zero-hour contract, or it is asking you to work as a sort of outsourced worker where you get very few workers’ rights. You look at all the various gig economy companies that are around. There has been a huge backlash against their working practices. They are great if you have got the flexibility. The students that I teach actually really like these kinds of things because it allows them to earn a little bit of money whenever they want during their studies. But if you are relying on that kind of work to live, it becomes a whole different ballgame. And you know being creative in that way should really not just mean, “Oh, you can be flexible and just work whenever we want you to work, and you bow to the whims of us as employers, and to how the market dictates you should work.” So that is what that version of creativity means in the labor force.
Will Brehm 12:16
What does it look like in education? I mean, I know you have students who may work as Uber drivers as well, for instance, but what about in education itself, either in higher education or even in secondary and primary education? Do we see this sort of definition of creativity, this neoliberal definition of creativity creeping into these spaces as well?
Oli Mould 12:41
It is an interesting question, and funnily enough, I toyed very much with the idea of having a chapter about education in the book. I did not, primarily because I did not think I could make an argument with the examples, but I think that it is, to a certain extent, this neoliberal version. It is interesting, because obviously, I have got two young children now at school. And it is really really fascinating to see how the educational structure is encouraging or not encouraging creativity. There’s a big thing in the UK, at any rate, at the moment about how it’s really important for children to know and university students as well to have STEM subjects like science, technology, engineering, and maths, because those are the things that drive the economy, drive productivity. But actually, a lot of people are saying that “Well, actually, you do need that, but you also need the STEAM, such as an art in there as well. And you actually need to meld the two, you know, having music classes, art classes with engineering to make sure that they have a very well-rounded education. And that is being driven by a lot of people who work in, for example, the computer games industry, or you know, the tech sector. They are saying, “Actually, we need people who understand creative methods and artistic practices as well as the nuts and bolts of maths and engineering.” So, I think that that is important to a certain extent. So that division is happening quite early on in education. For example, my kids don’t do a huge amount of music, and that’s partly because of budget cuts and everything else. When budgets get cuts, the first things to go are the arts. They’re like, “Oh, they’re not important. Let’s just concentrate on English and maths and stuff.” And I think, “Well, maybe not.” The other thing as well is, and in the UK, we have a guy, Sir Ken Robinson, who you may know. He’s been very vocal about this, and one of the things he’s concerned about is that we group students into year groups very very early on. You know, like five-year-olds, six-year-olds, seven-year-olds, and they flourish at very very different times. And you have a particular kind of year group, but you’ll have very very different educational levels within that. And Ken says that maybe we should change the way that we group students together, for example. So, yes – I think that this version of creativity is creeping in, and it’s around the numbers, the targets and the exams, and everything else that has to be done is so huge now that students are just told how to pass exams, they’re not told how to think. And so yes, there is a number of different problems within education in terms of how creativity in that neoliberal form is being applied.
Will Brehm 15:25
And what about higher education? When you were saying about the idea of being flexible and having work that is very precarious. Higher education becomes a great example of the rise of contract teachers. So, in what ways have you seen this idea of creativity, or neoliberal creativity, entering higher education?
Oli Mould 15:50
Do you mean the teachers themselves?
Will Brehm 15:54
The teachers, or even more broadly, where do we see some of these neoliberal forms of creativity in universities?
Oli Mould 16:03
So, I think that within higher education it is really interesting. The workforce themselves, the academics and the teachers within higher education, you’re almost getting a sort of dichotomy or dualism created, where you’ve got a sort of higher, let’s say, “research class” or “professorial class” that are very secure. They have huge amounts of free time to do their research, and it is kind of self-serving in that respect. And you couple that with the massive increase in students that we have seen, which you know has become part of the problem, because that is where that’s where universities get their money from now, our students. So, we need large numbers of students; they need to be taught. And so, we have this sort of underclass of very, very precarious teachers, and universities in the UK, and I think the US as well have nine-month contracts, part-time contracts – very short term things. And being in the sector myself, I hear so many stories about early career staff, and peoples fresh out of PhDs who have had to travel to different countries, live in different parts of the world, move away from their families, their wives, and children, in order to secure a nine-month teaching post or a 12-month part-time lectureship, and it’s just not healthy, and it doesn’t foster that longevity and that kind of connection that students require – higher education. I am in the higher education system because I believe it is a fundamentally crucial part of people’s lives, and having that critical thinking is really really important. Because without it, we are just producing more of these, to use the phrase, these “worker drones” that have no kind of ability to act creatively in the way that I want people to in the book. And that comes from the amount of critical thinking and the input that people get in higher education, in further education, the sort of “latter years”, if you like, of their educational career. And having that binary class, again, kind of just erodes that, because you’re just creating this sort of cadre of precarious workers who just are like, “I’d like to be able to do that, but I can’t because I need to make sure that the students do this, and they pass the exams, and they do this, and I make sure I have my numbers up so I can get employed elsewhere.” So, there is a sort of soft hegemony I guess just moving people towards a sort of far more auditing, and just by-the-numbers kind of educational system, which is very very neoliberal at its heart.
Will Brehm 18:45
And so how has creativity been defined sort of outside of this idea of being appropriated by capitalism? Historically, how else has creativity been thought of?
Oli Mould 18:59
Well I guess it depends how far back you go, I mean. There’s very interesting lineage; I mean, you could go all the way back to kind of ancient societies where creativity was considered something which the gods had. They were the ones that had ability to create something out of nothing. And you know you trace that through history and the way that it’s kind of been developed over time, creativity has been increasingly privatized, and increasingly something which, you know, value has been extracted from it. But I think there is something to be said about having a creative mindset or having a kind of idea of creativity, which is about societal progress. Now, the arguments are that creativity now is just sort of something that we need to grow, we need to make more money. And that is one version of progress, but it is one which doesn’t necessarily inculcate anything new. It just creates more of the same sort of stuff. In a world that is rapidly deteriorating ecologically, growth is just a concept that we are going to need to rapidly get away from very very quickly. And so the idea of being creative that doesn’t just produce more of the same stuff, in this case, well in capitalism’s case, like money and profit, then that’s the kind of creativity which we need to work towards. And there is lots of examples throughout history of societies that work that way. So, you know, I often talk about the Diggers and the Levelers in the UK, sort of in the 15, 16th century. They were very much ones who kind of came up the idea of “the common”, the “common wealth”, this idea that there is no such thing as private property, and people kind of work together on the land and they work together to create an economy, a social economy, which provided all the need, provided everything that people needed to get by and to live, including culture and artistic enjoyment, but it was done collectively. It was done with a sense that you know, we can negate any potential damages or potential shortfall in provision by acting collaboratively and collectively, and as a common. Capitalism erodes that. Capitalism source says, “Well, look, I’m working this way, it’s really great for me. I want to do it more.” So, it then begins to encroach on other people’s enjoyment, which is why we get huge inequality and everything else. So, a creativity which source says, “No, let’s not to work towards, you know, making more of the same for a very small amount of people, let’s make sure that we create a world which actually, we can all enjoy. Because, you know, if the climate change people are correct, this world is not going to be the same very very soon. So, it is something which we need to reconceptualize creativity very very quickly. Because at the moment, the way it’s currently defined in the mainstream is just not creative at all. It just produces more of the same problems, and that is going to become very very difficult to sustain very very quickly.
Will Brehm 22:07
So how would that happen? How can we reconceptualize creativity away from the idea of “more growth is always good”?
Oli Mould 22:16
That is a very good question. One which if I had the answer, then I would probably be a very rich man – rather ironically, I guess. But to push against that idea of creativity as something which just sort of makes more of the same capitalist growth, there are examples of it out there. And in the book, I try to sort of pinpoint some of the more progressive ones: worker cooperatives, different political systems, disability. There is a huge array of ways that we can conceptualize creativity there at the margins of society. Now, it is not a case of bringing them into the mainstream and just saying, “Okay, let’s make disability the way we define creativity, and let’s just use them as means of growth.” It does not work that way. You have to kind of shift your societal structures to look towards the margins and say, “Well look, what is it that these people are doing? What is it that these communities are actually achieving?” And that is, in the most case, kind of a quite radical sense of equality, and making sure that there is enough of the resources, or at least the resources of which they have goes to the people that need them. And in doing so, you create a far more just, far more progressive, and actually far more sustainable community. So, you know, there is plenty of examples out there. After the book, I came across an example in Mexico: Cherán, which is a city which has completely refused to engage in local elections. Have you seen that example? It is fascinating. It is annoying that I saw it after I finished it, but there was some stuff written about it recently. And I think, yes, around kind of 2011 I think it was – they got rid of all their local politicians because they were not doing enough to stop the crime in the city, which was about logging. There was illegal logging, and it was creating a horrible kind of crime syndicate. And you know they were losing all their trees and everything else. So basically, the people got together, and they kind of complete defenestrated their local politicians and the police. And they said, “We’re going to sort out ourselves”. And reading the stuff, it is actually a lot of the women that organized this. And since 2011, 2012, they’ve not engaged in local elections, they’ve not engaged in any national elections (i.e. the recent presidential elections in Mexico), and crime has dropped significantly, people are healthier, they’re regrowing their trees, it’s a far more environmentally friendly place. And this is all because they had sort of said, “No, we are not going to engage in your version of society”, which is a kind of parliamentary, democratic, kind of this voting system which we have. So, that, to me … I mean, it’s got its problems, obviously … it’s not perfect by any means, but it’s a city-wide example of people that have refused to engage with what people have said. “You should engage in this kind of version of state capitalism”, but they refused to do that, and it is produced very very beneficial results.
Will Brehm 25:39
So how would that community in your mind define the notion of creativity?
Oli Mould 25:46
Because they are refusing to go along with the way in which the powers that be suggest that you need to do in order to progress. They are saying, “No, we are going to create a different version of life, one where we are not ruled by local politicians or indeed national politicians. One where we are not subject to police brutality. One in which we can actually stop crime before it happens in terms of, we don’t have to go to the police process, we can actually cut it down to this source.” So, they are being creative because they are refusing to engage with the version of progress which the world imposes upon them. And that is the kind of version of creativity which I try to explain in the book. I mean, there is nothing wrong with creating a brand-new technology, or a brand-new product to market, or a new computer game, or a new app, or whatever it might be. There is nothing wrong with that; they are creative in and of themselves. It is how they are then plugged into the wider systems, which then just sort of eradicate any kind of chance they have of revolutionary change. That’s the problem for me: that creativity has to be broadened out, you have to think about it globally on a societal kind of level because if we don’t create a new mode of living, then there’s all sorts of problems are going to happen. So, in Mexico, in Cherán, it is a really good example of a city trying to do that. Now, you could try and scale that up. Brilliant. The scale problem is a crucial one – can you scale up these things? Sometimes they do not work. Sometimes power comes crashing down, and you end up having to replicate the same problems. So, scaling them up is a very very important process. And that’s a very different question because you have to sort of start changing political systems, and heaven knows in the US and in the UK, we’re seeing a massive polarization of the political spectrum with socialism coming to the fore and everything else, but also the far right. So that is a different kind of question, but there are examples of this kind of creativity, and they are everywhere. Because they are not feeding capitalism, they are often marginalized. And people see them and go, “Well, that is clearly wrong because you are not making more money, you’re not doing this. Let’s try and stop it. Let’s try and appropriate it somehow. Let’s just try and violently enclose it.” So, for me, those are the kinds of things which make it creative.
Will Brehm 28:29
And it goes back to that Pepsi commercial that we talked about at the beginning, where these protest movements were certainly … in many respects, they had power to sort of create something new, something more just, something for the social good, or the commons. But businesses like Pepsi were appropriating these sort of creative spaces to perpetuate the status quo of capitalism.
Oli Mould 28:56
Absolutely. And you know, these protests and all these marches that we see in the world at the moment, it’s not just because it’s the new thing to do. It is that people are angry. People are really really scared and angry about the things that are happening in the world at the moment. And you know, corporations that use that to sell drinks, I mean look at what Nike recently with the NFL player. They have come under similar kinds of critiques. It’s fine on the one hand to have this and to bring these things into the public consciousness, but at the same time, their bottom line will be about, “How can we do that to make more money?” And if that’s the underlying process that’s going on, there will always be at the end game kind of “the growth of Nike”, or “the growth of Pepsi” and the problems that entails in terms of like working structures and continuing to sort of have child labor in Indonesia, or whatever it is that Nike do, how they make their shoes, and everything else. And that won’t change just because they’ve put Colin Kaepernick all over their adverts; it’s not going to change. So yes, these protests and everything else that Pepsi have appropriated, they mean something, and they are of a time, and they’re actually trying to change the system. They are trying to change how we operate in this world. And if the ethics of that are emptied, as they are being with things like Pepsi, then that is for me incredibly problematic.
Will Brehm 30:31
Well, Oli Mould, thank you so much for joining FreshEd.
Oli Mould 30:34
Thank you very much.