Nice Prospects, but is it Education?
by Charles Kinbote
Let us suppose, just for a minute, that we are without the benefit of the past hundred or so years of hindsight; assuming that we could actually exist within such perversely hypothetical circumstances it would then, in all plausibility, be open to us to conceive of education as something like a general field of activity, whose overall impetus can be seen to derive from two main, or at least readily distinguishable imperatives, an academic concern and a practical concern.
Taken as a whole then, what this general field of education does is to recognise that individual human beings retain certain kinds of potential. Consequently, what the two imperatives represent are the two fundamental categories into which the kinds of potential in question are thought to fall. Hence the academic imperative stems from a belief that the individual intellect can be schooled in such a manner so as to attain a very heightened state of critical awareness and cognitive ability, and it is generally considered, for a whole raft of complex sociological reasons, that the individual who has been rendered thus will be able to interact with their world in an altogether more effective and sounder fashion than someone who has not. The practical imperative, on the other hand, takes its stimulus from the apparently simple assertion that individuals will posses innate talents and capabilities, with the consequent determination that the prime role of education should be to facilitate the proper and fruitful development of those innate talents; as with the previous instance the rationale behind the operation of this imperative is grounded in a sociological ethic, insomuch as it seems fair to assume that, all things being equal, an individual who finds occupation in accordance with these innate capabilities will reside in a much happier state of existence than someone who does not.
One thing worth noting at this juncture, are the apparently interventionist characteristics of the concept of education which we are outlining, and in particular the fact that attainment of heightened cognisance and development of innate capabilities have thus far been envisaged as states of existence which in most instances will not come into being in the absence of quite deliberate educational agency. From what has been said of them thus far, there is no inherent reason for thinking that these two imperatives should be incapable of operating simultaneously alongside and in harmony with each other. Indeed, under the condition of historical naivety previously stipulated, one might even imagine that the different emphasis given to the project of education by one imperative might serve, in a quite constructive fashion, to keep the other imperative in check and vice versa, in other words, that a healthy balance could be struck between the two. However, whilst such leaps of intuition may come easily enough to those residing beneath the cover of our hypothetical veil of ignorance, to the person surveying the field of education as it actually exists today, it must be all too obvious that, in the event, things simply did not pan out in accordance with what this, admittedly idealistic, formulation projects as obvious and indeed proper in the evolution of this sphere of activity, and furthermore that these two imperatives are in fact very far from resting in any state of mutual equilibrium.
Now regardless of whether or not we consider divergence from such projections to be a matter of occupational hazard when one is attempting to persuade something as ethereal as an educational ideal to take hold in reality, we might nevertheless wish to know as much as possible about those factors which came to bear in making that divergence an inevitability, in order to discover if there are any lessons to be learnt for the future. I would suggest that the impetus for this divergence can be attributed to certain complications inherent in the make-up of the practical imperative, which, from its very inception would seem to have been carrying within it the genus of two further, and ultimately contrary, imperatives.
The ideological cleavage represented by these two sub-imperatives derives primarily from a difference in opinion as to what constitutes the most appropriate basis for actual implementation of the practical imperative in education. The first of these sub-imperatives seems, initially at least, to operate very much in line with what we have already learnt about the practical imperative itself, insomuch as it's sights are trained firmly on talent and capabilities as they occur within the individual, the difference being that where this sub-imperative is concerned a much more profound emphasis is placed on the innate or intrinsic character of this human potential. The effect of this ontological commitment is such as to render the sub-imperative constantly alive to the possibility that human talent and capability is infinitely diverse, and that any attempt to classify emergent talent in direct relation to a given vocation, is to risk suffocating it before it has had a chance to show its true character. Thus this sub-imperative could be described as adopting a centre-outwards approach to the question in hand, in that it clearly stipulates that an individual's talents and capabilities should be identified in as neutral a fashion as possible, in order that the exact parameters of the educational process, and indeed the occupational application, can then take shape around the talent, as opposed to having the talent take shape around some narrow and dogmatic preconception of what either of these facilitatory processes might otherwise entail.
By contrast, the second sub-imperative is inclined to relegate somewhat the importance of the individual perspective in relation to the execution of the practical imperative, tending rather to take its direction from the assertion that the world as it is constituted at any given point in time, will take the form of an already-functioning system with its own set of needs and requirements, and that consequently the greatest service which education can render to people is to reconcile the innate talents and capabilities which they posses to those very needs and requirements. Thus this imperative could be said to adopt a top-down approach, with education engaged in a somewhat fraught juggling act, whereby it hopes somehow to match individual talents with already existing vocational channels and then develop them accordingly. Already I think we can begin to discern some of the problems that might accompany the functioning of this top-down approach, in that it seems to operate by virtue of an ethical lacuna, as though it were somehow simply beyond the purview of its scope to question the absolute legitimacy of whatever societal arrangements just happen to be in place at the time. Of course if you just happen to be someone who enjoys a significant degree of material and political privilege as a direct result of the position you occupy within those societal arrangements, then this top-down approach plays very nicely on your behalf. In other words, there is a very real danger of this top-down approach being read as an endorsement of a particular kind of class-based society, and as we are about to discover, this is an observation which has not altogether escaped the notice of those who stand to benefit from such an endorsement. The instant you announce that the concerns of education have anything to do with the needs of society, there will inevitably be a massive over-identification with this cause on the part of the spokesmen and women of industry, as if to say 'oh yes, that's our concern too'. I use the term 'over-identification' here, because in spite of the fact that the needs of industry and the needs of society are commonly projected as being co-terminous and even one-and-the-same thing, there is in fact very little evidence to support such a claim, and plenty to dismiss it as patent nonsense. In spite of their professions of social altruism, where you have a group of people who derive their social standing through possession of administrative authority or even property rights in the instruments of production, they will scarcely undertake any course of action that is not driven by a profoundly deep-seated and often heavily repressed need to ensure the longevity of the very institutions which grant them what status and authority they already posses. What I am suggesting then, is that it is the action of this need which causes the group to identify the sub-imperative in question as something which can be made to serve as a means of attaining this goal, with the consequence that they then exert as much influence as they can muster in order to secure this outcome, and it remains to be said that those within the education system have not been slow to capitulate in this move. What follows then, is akin to an enormous slight of hand, in that the total range of vocational opportunities actually offered within a society, are then paraded as constitutive of an exhaustive description of all the shapes and forms which human talent could possibly take. To a captain of industry, it must serve as a constant source of comfort to be situated in the midst of a system of higher education which seems increasingly hell-bent on making as much of the human talent in its charge as apposite to your requirements as possible.
As far as the top-down sub-imperative is concerned, having been thus usurped, its entire dynamic is completely altered, whereas previously it would have featured as one of several regulatory components whose collective function was to inform but never overwhelm a much larger ideal, it is now vying for complete dominance over its associate sub-imperative, and seeking ultimately to supplant the parent category, thus positing itself as the definitive sense in which the practical imperative in education is apprehended. This however is not the end of it, as once infected with this partisan consciousness, our sub-imperative will begin to operate in an increasingly predatory fashion, insomuch as it will now be on the lookout for anything that might constitute a significant threat to the attainment of its objective. Of course it stands to reason that if the realisation of this objective relies upon your ability to convince people, en masse, that the options you are presenting them with are in fact somehow the only options imaginable, then the last thing you would tolerate, would be someone else schooling those self same people in such a fashion that they were then, of their own initiative, able to come to a conclusion which ran absolutely contrary to the import of your propaganda. Thus, it is precisely because the aforementioned academic imperative seeks to engender this faculty of heightened critical awareness and autonomous reasoning within individuals, that it now finds itself drawn into direct conflict with our rogue sub-imperative. To come into conflict with the academic imperative in this manner is no small matter either; whereas the practical imperative, as we previously noted, inherits much from other spheres of interest, by contrast, the academic imperative derives all of its effective import from the very bedrock of educational idealism, and indeed is arguably the most direct expression of that idealism available to us.
Now although the logic of this argument may at times have appeared somewhat over-determined, I would nonetheless suggest that it is important to retain a keen sense of exactly what is at stake in the kind of manoeuvring we have been discussing, namely, the bid by one social grouping for dominance over another, and if ever there were a force that came to bear in no uncertain terms, this would be it. Consequently, perhaps the most disturbing aspect of this discussion is the actual realisation that, in all probability, there exists an ideological entity embedded within the mechanisms of education which, on some level or other, actually seeks to retard the development of individual intellect. In other words, one has to deal with the absurdity of an imperative which, in spite of the fact that it seems currently to preside as the overriding concern within the field of education, is nevertheless inherently anti-educational.
One final point which really needs to be drawn out here, is that which deals with the permanency of the damage that is done to the practical imperative in all of this. It's a ridiculous enough scenario, but assuming there were sufficient will within the field of education to redress some of the ideological imbalances which we have been discussing, how would you ever begin to try and rehabilitate or reclaim the practical imperative, such that it was then capable of assuming a balanced and progressive role within that field? It's not clear that such a thing would ever be possible, and I would be inclined to suggest that the sheer scale of the corruption in which this imperative has been implicated - which must, over time, represent a phenomenal accumulative deficit in the betterment of humanity - is more then sufficient to render it permanently distinct from the project of education. If this is indeed the case, it would have quite weighty implications for many of the disciplines which are currently operating within the higher education system, and of course in particular we would want to know the exact consequences it would have for the discipline of photography.
Where you have a discipline which is heavily vocational in its outlook, or indeed founded directly out of vocational demand, the 'educational' status of such a discipline must now, perforce, be significantly problematized. Nor is it simply the case that I am here singling out the Business and Management Courses, as borne out of intrigue and political machination, in order to contrast them with Classics and Philosophy - borne of what else but sweetness and light? In the actual event, it's a pretty safe bet that education has more often than not been pressed into service, at least initially, at the behest of some human wickedness. To say as much is, however, simply to point to that feature of education which renders it such a powerful phenomenon, in that from its inception it seems always to have retained an innate capacity to exceed any of the parameters set out in the interests of usurping its inertia.
We need, however, to be wary of placing too much confidence in this capacity for excess, as of itself, it has clearly been insufficient to ward off the kind of ideological incursions cited in the above. Furthermore, just because education has thus far managed to remain - to some degree or other - inassimilable, this should not be taken as any guarantee that it will remain so in the future. One thing which has become increasingly apparent throughout the course of this discussion, is the enormous adaptive capability of that ideological mass which has so troubled the progress of education, consequently one must expect that this rather rapacious entity will evolve ever more effective strategies for curtailing this faculty of excess. Indeed, arguably what you find in many instances of heavily vocational degree courses, is a specially modified kind of 'education' with the capacity for excess effectively removed, in other words not really 'education' in the sense which we have come to witness it, at all. For those disciplines which retain this faculty, it then becomes all the more incumbent upon them not to shirk the necessarily difficult task of wielding that radical potential in an effective fashion. As regards the question of what role photography has to play in all this, there is no question that the general field of photography gathers enough of art and of philosophy into its orbit to render it potent in this regard. Whether or not there is sufficient will to act upon the impetus of this excessive potential, to forge a discipline that operates to the greatest extent possible on the basis of that which we previously termed the 'academic imperative', and which we might now term 'radical education', is another question entirely.