But my own experience of theory – and Marxism is certainly the case in point – is of wrestling with the angels – a metaphor you can take as literally as you like.
This could be a very long response and could go on for ever. It seems I was juvenile in making two observations after reading some educational blog posts yesterday:
- I am noticing a growing trend where edu bloggers quote/use other bloggers as sources of authority.
- It has also become apparent that a limited number of writers are being read and quoted. What happened to intellectual curiosity?
As a result of these two statements, following Stuart Hall, it seems as if the ‘roof has been falling in all over the place, and I want to take the opportunity to pick up one or two of the bricks and heave them back.’ Two major charges have been lobbed through the open spaces. The first, supported by Tom Starkey is that I am against teacher blogging because the work is not academic. The second charge, stated by Jon Brunskill, is that I do not engage with people holding the views I disagree with.
Let me deal with the first brick and as a result, also with the second.
Writing about education has always been a serious matter to me. Serious because it deals with reality (classroom/school/policies) and is also a conscious attempt to change something (an approach/way of viewing an idea/whole school policy). As such, bloggers are intellectuals. Just like everyone is an intellectual. People theorise about life, clothes to wear, places to eat, how people should behave in public forums and what works best for students in their classrooms. So, in this sense, teachers are intellectuals too. If everyone is an intellectual, they should be able to write, comment and be challenged. Blogging, therefore, should not be limited to a ‘legitimate’ few. First brick heaved.
However, there is a difference in that not all of these intellectuals serve the social function of intellectuals in society. I use Gramsci’s example:
Everyone at some time fries a couple of eggs or sews up a tear in a jacket, we do not necessarily say that everyone is a cook or a tailor
The educators who serve the social function as intellectuals are teachers speaking to government departments, invited to speak through a variety of media channels and talk at conferences. Their presence is based on an assumption that they represent teachers as a group and they use their critical voices to ‘speak truth to power’ in an effort to transform the current system. However, what if the critical thought takes precedence over the self-critical reflection? What if instead of fulfilling the role of raising consciousness, the actions are limited to referencing each other? Where might this lead us?
I can ask this question because even though they may not admit it, they serve as my representative as I am part of the group ‘teachers’. I also ask this question because of the apparent danger in limited consensus.
So why the ire? Few questions are asked partly because of the issue of social pressure. What if you gain the disapproval of others by asking difficult questions? Could this lead to a risk of you being excluded from a conversation on Twitter or worse, being ignored at a conference or not invited to drinks/dinner? Should I therefore stick up for them if they are being questioned? Far from being separate, the social media world has everything to do with the real world. People are afraid of offering critiques of what people have written or said at conferences because they are worried about reprisal and being socially excluded. When Alex Quigley suggested that the outcome of the argument would exclude teachers from blogging and other ‘voices’, there was no recognition of the silence that already exists.
Without critical engagement, these intellectuals, and the teachers who follow them, according to Sunstein and Hastie, could run into three problems:
- They do not fail to correct errors but actually amplify them;
- Groups may fall victim to cascade effects as group members follow the statements of those who speak or act first (the discussion on Twitter is a great example of this);
- Groups focus on shared information (what everyone knows already) at the expense of unshared information and thus miss the benefit of critical and troubling information that other people may have.
Now I need to be clear on the purpose of making the original statements. It was not to exclude. It was to ask them to be better. It was to ask them to consider the wider social and intellectual space they work in and to be aware that the scientific truths they may claim today are part of a history of scientific revolutions where previous modes of thought have been refuted. It was asking them to think deeply, carefully, and with humility because social change (what they are interested in) is won with consent.
In relation to the second brick, engagement and challenging views of people I disagree with is more than a ‘conversation’ on Twitter (if people are willing to listen). It is also a desire to act. For my own part, becoming a school governor is one aspect. Organising a teaching and learning conference and bringing together diverse ‘voices’ and lesser-known practitioners is another. Studying for a further degree is also another. I frequently speak about the points of disagreement when asked to speak at conferences and work with individuals in schools. Some of this work is done without fanfare simply because it would demean the serious and personal nature of it to do so. Both within and outside my school environment, I challenge, in a very real and meaningful way, the people I disagree with. But it is not about them. It is because I take the work seriously and it demands the need for action rather than just words.
I have no books to sell. Nor am I asking people to book me for their inset sessions/conferences or vying to write for a particular media outlet. I am not looking for a job outside of teaching nor am I suggesting that I am the paragon of virtue – I know my faults in relation to the above points well enough. I am simply asking whether we can be in a better place than we currently are by actually engaging in a wider conversation. I suspect we can but I am not sure if people are willing to listen.
Selected further reading
Stuart Hall ‘The Big Swipe’ Universities and Left Review 7:1959
Thomas Kuhn The Structure of Scientific Revolutions
Cass Sunstein and Reid Hastie Wiser
Antonio Gramsci Prison Notebooks
Jurgen Habermas The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere
Rob Phillips Reflective Teaching of History
David Morley and Kuan-Hsing Chen (Eds.) Stuart Hall: Critical Dialogues in Cultural Studies