Bildung, powerful knowledge and downward mobility

I referred in an earlier post to Von Humboldt’s specification of Wissenschaft (the ‘broad science’ that goes on in universities) as a communal endeavour in the service of Bildung.

Bildung was the topic of this week’s PESGB seminar at the IoE, which was given by Asger Sørensen. Adorno described Bildung as the subjective aspect of culture; it refers not the Kantian idea of culture itself, but to its acquisition. I’m not sure why it’s considered notoriously difficult to translate into English. I think ‘cultivation’ – cultivation of the self – is fine. Isn’t it?

Sørensen’s abstract was as follows:

In German, the term Bildung has a special status in discourses on education, upbringing and formation, by some hailed as the ultimate ideal, by others dismissed as just another ideological construction. Trying to stay clear of these extremes, I will employ the idea of Bildung to develop the notion of Citizenship Education, discussing in particular how Habermas uses the concept in his theory of democracy in Between Facts and Norms. The hunch is that a “discursively formed public opinion can represent a process of Bildung or education in which citizens build better foundations to their opinions through discursive interaction.

Clearly these ideas have a great deal of relevance to my thesis on the purpose of universities. Also, I’ve just bought Habermas’ The Future of Human Nature to inform my work on cognitive and moral enhancement, so this was all very interesting. I was puzzled when Anders told us that, initially, Habermas described the connection between education and power/wealth as ‘illegitimate’ (that’s something I wonder about all the time – why should graduates get paid more than non-graduates? I just don’t get it), but later took on a view that resonates with Michael Young’s concept of powerful knowledge; a can’t-beat-them-join-them stance that entails comprehensive inculcation of high culture, so that all have the opportunity to be powerful.

My ‘fun’ reading this week is Owen Jones’ first book Chavs: the demonisation of the working class. Reading this, and hearing Anders talk about Habermas and his view on enculturation, reminded me how I felt when David gave us a book chapter on culture by E.D.Hirsch. Hirsch – and I feel uncomfortable writing this because I’m sure I often do as well – comes across as a snob. At the time I felt like he was trying to articulate why his tastes are ‘good’ and others are not, but his rationale didn’t quite hold water.

Since then, I’ve often thought how certain kinds of art, literature and music might be said to be ‘better’ than others. I came to a view that the good ones must make a greater, deeper contribution to our wellbeing than other kinds (because that, to me, is our ultimate aim – wellbeing). Some examples of obviously bad works in this sense include ‘lifestyle’ magazines that are explicitly designed to make us feel flawed and deficient, and romances that leave us feeling disappointed with the reality of love. Near the beginning of this talk, Alain de Botton accuses Walt Disney of peddling the kind of false hope that is a root cause of our anger, and explains how it is the job of philosophy to ‘let us down gently’.

Moving beyond the immediately obvious – and maybe this is what Hirsch was trying to say and I just didn’t see it at the time – but a lot of pop culture – films, novels, TV and music – tends to ignore complexity, cut out the harmonious (and mundane) elements of life, and present only a thin slice of conflict, drama, violence and/or eros. I don’t think this is good for our wellbeing. Zeldin writes about an aspect of this; he argues that in order to see alternatives to violent conflict we need more works that portray people getting along, embracing difference and learning about one another and themselves. Nehamas also alludes to similar matters when he speaks about the difficulty of portraying friendship – particularly visually – without drama. You can see that on the cover of his book (see left) he resorts to using fruit.

I enjoy films that people like E.D.Hirsch would consider ‘high culture’; films that portray situations and characters that are complex, nuanced and unpredictable. I like films that give you plenty of time to really notice and think about what you’re seeing. These are the kinds of films I watched at home with my dad when I was a child, and it’s highly likely they were instrumental in my becoming a deep and critical thinker. If I’d been raised on Disney and action movies, would I have seen the world more in black and white, good and evil? I don’t think a polarised way of looking at the world – or people – is healthy for us as individuals, or for society. So, maybe that’s a way in which ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture differs, that I can get behind.

The idea of ‘powerful knowledge’ just doesn’t wash with me. For a start, it appears unashamedly arbitrary in its content – this is what powerful people know, like and appreciate, so if you know and appreciate it too, you can join their gang. But my primary issue with it is that in the UK today we have an incredibly unequal society where wealth and power is concentrated in the hands of very few. An ‘enculturing’ education with the end of upward social mobility for the lower classes is not going to fix that. Unfortunately for those with the wealth and the power, we also need to apply pressures that create downward mobility if we are to achieve a more equal society. Sorry guys.

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