From Barnett to the Dalai Lama – Mindfulness, rule-breaking, intention.

It’s been a very interesting week, reading-wise. In addition to the prescribed papers on assessment, I’ve been following my own path with Hannah Arendt (via the Times Higher) and Ron Barnett’s 2004 paper Learning for an Unknown Future. I’m also now halfway through Hogan’s New Significance of Learning.

There is much that resonates between these three, and all point towards a claim for the intrinsic value of education. The short piece on Arendt posits the importance of ‘thinking together’ in the fight of ‘good versus evil’, and hence the University as a place where this collective thinking takes place. It was useful to be reminded of this, and the piece made me reflect on my own position as a student and a lecturer in HE, and the extent to which I engage in and promote collective thinking. I am constantly reflecting how to improve on both counts, and it feels like there are more opportunities to practice the art of collective thinking just now. Perhaps it’s just that I am feeling more open/able to work with others? Barnett does a good job of describing my initial feelings about these kinds of discussions; being confronted with the myriad ways of seeing and describing the world can still unsettle or even upset me, and I realise anew the extent of what I ask my own students to do in making sense of the world.

Barnett is essentially arguing that we need a new way of teaching in the modern world which is not only complex – in that so many actions and interactions are influencing each other it is impossible to generalise and predict – but supercomplex, in that the range of different perspectives and understandings of the world are infinite and often incompatible. The question of the University itself and its purpose springs from different value positions that may be diametrically opposed; Barnett speaks of seeing universities as consumers (and producers) or resources – what Hogan terms the ‘natural view’ – and an incompatible view of them as sites of open and transformatory engagement (Hogan’s ‘independent view’). To add to this supercomplexity, we no longer recognise ourselves. The societal developments of the last few decades have led to destabilisation of family and some class structures, the dissolution of the manufacturing industry, its related communities and ‘jobs for life’, and retarded development of our own identities – what Bauman termed the ‘liquid modernity’, the subject of the Knud Illeris book I reviewed last year.

Barnett talks of the Western University as having an ‘understood character’ of producing new ideas that will ‘startle’ and break with convention. I’m not sure this understanding is universal. Why did Tony Blair set his 50% in HE by 2010 target? Because he wanted to improve access to HE; to increase ‘social mobility’ (presumably only upwards). This is not the same aim as the ‘critical enlightenment’ that Barnett speaks of, which is a collective enlightenment rather than an individual one. However, Barnett later speaks of students ‘prospering’, which whether you interpret that materially or holistically still implies a benefit to the individual. Are individual and collective benefit the same phenomenon viewed from a different standpoint? I think we need to interpret ‘prosperity’ as something that can be achieved by all, rather than at the expense of others, and I suspect Barnett would agree.

A sceptical view of the current government’s reasons for wanting to increase participation in HE (especially if they can get students to pay the upfront cost), is that graduates produce a lot more tax revenue over the course of their lives, and STEM graduates in particular allow us to ‘compete on the global stage’ (i.e. make money out of other countries). It would also be in the interests of the present government to shrink the working class further so that there is absolutely no chance of them presenting an organised challenge as they did in the 80s (that particular threat is now coming from the liberal left middle-class). I certainly don’t get the sense that the current government wants us all to get better at thinking, generally. I think they want people to invent things to export, and things that make it easier to buy and sell more stuff.

*ranting again*…

Barnett has proposed a model; a matrix of transformation and risk where the intended outcome is ‘Box 4’ – transformation for an unknown world. I remain sceptical of matrices. Having argued for the ridiculous complexity of the world, it then seems disingenuous to stake a claim for the explanatory power of a grid. However, having stepped away from the paper itself for a few days, the matrix does work as an aide-memoire of the main point.

Barnett’s 2004 paper carries new significance today in the midst of a backlash against the ‘employability’ agenda (see Iannucci in the Guardian and Rickett in Vice) which sits firmly in his maligned Third Box. Robin Barrow and Michael Young would also have (different?) strong words to say about this box, I think. But the skills agenda is alive and well in industry, as I found attending the Draper’s Lecture at QMUL in January. Employers may claim they are looking for human qualities rather than skills, but even if the definition between the two is clear (not always the case) – they are very specific qualities that fit what the industry is now, and therefore not what Barnett is promoting. Many of my own student teachers are interested in making their courses ‘fit the needs of industry’. Without an industrial driving force, many of the courses we offer would cease to exist. How do we reconcile this?

While Barnett describes education as primarily an ontological task. I would prefer to use the word ‘ultimately’. Let’s use Barnett’s skating/ice metaphor and make it real; to teach someone to be a brilliant, innovative skater, yes of course it is important to get them thinking about what a skater is; what it means to skate – this should form the basis of everything they learn and how they learn it. But without an embodied understanding of the mechanics of the blade/ice interface and the interaction between the muscles of the leg and foot and the placement of the blade on the ice (that comes from coaching and practice), such considerations are meaningless. Considering the purpose of skating is a philosophical activity that is core to the overall endeavour, and of particular importance in the face of an unknown future, but knowledge and skills are surely vital to this process of becoming. As spoke the Dalai Lama: ‘Know the rules well, so you can break them effectively’. This is how I think we can reconcile the present with the future; by making this intention explicit.

How to prepare my own students for an unknown future? New applicants often speak of wanting to become a more confident teacher through learning ‘tips and tricks’ (i.e. knowledge and skills). However, I believe confidence comes through mindful practice; that is how you accumulate the knowledge and skills required for your specific teaching context. Knowledge and skills are not specified in our PG Cert curriculum. Instead, participants are led to practice mindfully, and learn the value of theory in this process.

One final point – I am sceptical of Barnett’s assertion that the history students’ confident presentation is a sign of their sense of themselves and ability to go forth in a challenging world. First, if students are already so prepared, why would Barnett bother to write this paper? Second, the lecturer’s students had lots of practice at giving presentations, so it makes sense that they would become confident presenters. At university we had to write endless handwritten essays in exam conditions, hence we became confident essay writers. Similarly with my own students and their blogs. Is this confidence evidence of our ability to prosper in a supercomplex world? Or is it just ‘assessment backwash’?

Overall I felt this read like a paper of two halves; the holding aloft of a novel, explanatory matrix, and the softer and more human final pages reminiscent of hooks and resonating clearly with Hogan. Here, Barnett presents us with a set of dispositions – carefulness, thoughtfulness, humility, criticality, receptiveness, resilience, courage and stillness – a mantra that belongs on a t-shirt. Or a mug. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

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