Education: the Weak and Broken Way (1)

[Some random thoughts. This is the first part of a reflective review of The Beautiful Risk of Education, by Professor Gert J. J. Biesta at Brunel University, London: Routledge, 2013.]


Whilst still an undergraduate student, I had a rather simplistic view about education: that all pedagogical methods are magic formulae (be it communicative language teaching, task-based learning, problem-based learning, enquiry learning, etc.), that teachers can make a difference to students’ lives. Does this view still ring true after several years of teaching, reading, and encountering different people in my career? My answer is ambivalent. It is still an affirmative ‘yes’, but also a cautionary ‘yes’.

I am more conscious of the daily reality that teachers are facing. The following scenario is not fictitious, but is the brutal reality that you may see in a poverty-stricken school in Hong Kong: most students are new immigrants coming from Mainland China and barely understand the English alphabet; parents can’t show up on parents day because some are in jail or some are sex workers touting for business in Portland Street; after school, some girls engage in ‘compensated dating’ instead of learning; students with emotional and behavioural difficulties openly defy school authority and fall prey to the triads such as 14K or Sun Yee On; succumbing to despair, teachers would rather spend their energy on investment, property, pensions, perks, planning their bourgeois holidays overseas, not because they lose heart but we tend to choose the easy path. After all, human beings give us frustrations.

Meanwhile, those in power who live in the cloud-cuckoo world probably believe that our education system, after the brutal assault of neoliberal reform since 2000, is a miracle of East Asia admired by political leaders in the West (- Remember the educational performance in Hong Kong, South Korea and Singapore were always on the lips of Michael Gove, the former education secretary in the UK?). Like most middle-class parents, if I had kids, I’d rather send them to fee-paying schools, make sure they aren’t ‘contaminated’ by the problematic kids who upset the whole apple cart, and meticulously groom them for studying in Cambridge one day and a bright future thereafter. Isn’t it a new apartheid of ‘divide and rule’? Now with STEM or STEAM education on the rise, people like Anthony Leung, the ibanker-turned-politician who pioneered the neoliberal education reform years ago, still attempt to impose their ideals upon every school come what may as if the education system needs a ‘permanent revolution’. Meanwhile, to them and even the teachers unions, the social ills in schools I just describe were non-existent. How pathological!

Can we turn everyone into bright, successful entrepreneurs as promised by politicians in their lip service to reform? I can’t say the system is a failure or any reform policy is futile, but we need to remind ourselves that the path to social change through education reform is surely a difficult way. As Gert Biesta wrote in his latest book The Beautiful Risk of Education, the educational way is ‘the slow way, the difficult way, the frustrating way…the weak way’ (2013, p.3). We always want to wipe out the risks hidden in our society: the students from hell, the monster parents, culture of rote-learning, etc. We want to carve ‘a safe and risk-free space’ and reach our ideals of ‘knowledge economy’, ‘creativity’, ‘innovation’, ‘entrepreneurship’, etc. but unfortunately, like the reverse of the Murphy’s law, the more we desire to make education strong, predictable, and risk-free, it is more likely that our plan is doomed to failure. We have to admit this: somehow ‘weakness’ or ‘sickness’ defines our educational system and our society. Problems won’t go away after a flurry of reform actions since 2000. Just like the scenario I describe earlier, the social ills still exist in a poverty-stricken school in 2017, not the schools in the 1960s. That is the brokenness of our system despite education reform. It is the reality but few of us pluck up the courage to admit this. Perhaps that’s the first step towards change before we talk about any grand ideas.

But do I buy the argument that education inevitably perpetuates and reproduces social inequality? Here, I think the point made by the late British sociologist of education Basil Bernstein is instructive: that education cannot compensate for our social ills, and yet it carries the potential to disrupt the existing order of things, and it takes time. As Biesta comments in his book, ‘the educational way is the slow way, the difficult way, the frustrating way…the weak way, as the outcome of this process can neither be guaranteed nor secured.’ (Biesta, 2013, p. 3). The change is not guaranteed, but this doesn’t mean we do nothing. We need to prepare for it. I’m not saying that the pedagogical methods I’m now teaching at university don’t work and therefore it’s a waste of time to pick them up, but my argument is that before we lay out a grand plan characterised by idealism, perhaps we need to keep our feet on the ground first.

‘In realism you are down to facts on which the world is based: that sudden reality which smashes romanticism into a pulp. What makes most people’s lives unhappy is some disappointed romanticism, some unrealizable or misconceived ideal. In fact you may say that idealism is the ruin of man, and if we lived down to fact, as primitive man had to do, we would be better off.’ (James Joyce, on his letter to Arthur Power about his magnum opus Ulysses).

The next post will be about Jacques Rancière’s idea of ’emancipation’ as discussed in Biesta’s book.

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