We need to inject a little more humility into education.
In a culture of ‘stretch’ and ‘striving’ where everyone has to be all they can be, this may seem sacrilegious, even if grand utopic visions have a tendency to leave things in a mess for the ordinary folks caught up in their wake.
Samuel Beckett worked hard to rid us of the remnants of delusions, illusions, utopias, salvation narratives or ideals that give false comfort to a human life. His works articulate an ethical position that, rather than taking refuge in speculation about how the world ought to be, help human beings to respond courageously to how things are – ‘how it is’.
“If humanity learns to forgo personal ambition and think in terms of cooperation, compassion and companionship, it will be happier” – this is what publisher John Calder said is the message of Samuel Beckett’s work.
Whether or not Calder is correct in his analysis, it serves as an interesting provocation to those of us working and participating in systems of education. What effect does the principle of competition have on our experience of education? How do control mechanisms in society affect our relationships to failure?
"Few spheres of life are as bathed in aspiration and 'life as it ought to be' as education. Yet the experience of education is, for many, a failure."
Facing ‘how it is’, a mess of a world for Samuel Beckett, and acting from that point might even provide some relief, perspective, and even humour. This is not a pessimistic position, and it doesn’t mean that we can’t also be attentive to, and delight in, tiny moments of mastery, camaraderie, joy, kindness and insight that occur in our educational experiments and studies.
Few spheres of life are as bathed in aspiration and ‘life as it ought to be’ as education. Yet the experience of education is, for many, one of failure. This is not the ordinary failure of the human condition but the kind of sadistic failure exemplified in the relationship between Pozzo and Lucky in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. It is impossible for all to attain external standards, embody the ideals evolved by others, attain goals prescribed universally, or even be ‘average’.
Educational systems do not calculate the cost of the ethos of perfectionism, competition and comparison in the lives of those who fail to meet such standards, or who were never going to be in a position to do so in the first place. Whilst failure has been conceptualised more positively in recent times, this has tended to be in the context of building resilience with an eye to eventual success and flourishing. This focus on the language of success makes it difficult to challenge the investment in the prestige and power that are equated with a successful life, even if this involves trampling on others or being insensible to their suffering. And it is precisely this moral failure that ought to be of most concern to us, in particular where educational practices are complicit in fostering competition, comparison, complacency, and unquestioning self-confidence.
"Failure is incorporated into one's being as something one is, and this sense of being a failure can haunt the entirety of a life."
Wilful blindness to the fact that logically, by virtue of the nature of the system, not everyone can be ‘winners’, ‘heroes’, ‘achievers’ or even ‘all they can be’ persists in educational policy and practice. In his book Born Losers: A History of Failure in America, Scott Sandage maps the transformation of the language of failure in business from one of ‘doing’ to one of ‘being’, whereby failure became personalised and a marker of moral irresponsibility. So too in education, failure is seldom understood to be something one simply does but rather is incorporated into one’s being as something one is, and this sense of being a failure can haunt the entirety of a life.
For some it will seem heretical to rail against the idols of progress, perfection and production that have come to mark social relations in contemporary liberal democratic capitalist societies. A brief glance at course descriptions, curricular principles, mission statements, or philosophies of educational institutions, reveal that perfectionist, progressive and aspirational discourses continue to define the way in which education understands humanity. At the same time, the emphasis on competence and measurable outcomes underscores that what matters is success measured against standards. Children see through this quite quickly once they enter school.
What would happen if we conceived failure as an inevitable dimension of being human, to which our response might be to simply persist? Seeing things as they are rather than always hoping for a better world and imagining better human beings might help us to understand that rather than the construction of grand projets of social engineering, tempering ambition might mitigate the worst excesses of moral failure.
There is something difficult in all this refusal of utopianism and emphasis on ‘clear-sighted’ realism, in particular in relation to education. It is probably because we can feel ill at ease in addressing such issues as death, finitude, pain, catastrophe, meaninglessness, and suffering directly with young people and children. We may feel that they need not become prematurely aware of these experiences, especially if they have been fortunate enough to have led lives that have remained protected hitherto. Life also brings the small and temporary joys, laughter, pleasure, and epiphanies of mortal bodied existence, the logic goes, so why expose them needlessly?
"This rather anti-heroic and modest vision of education might better prepare children for the inevitable disappointment and a sense of the 'mess'. "
But to resist utopian logics can still involve creating educational atmospheres that invite minor insights, little moments of happiness, surprise, the joys of persisting with something, some sense of achievement and progression, however small, that stems from engaging in doing something, no matter how undervalued others might find it. This is different from evaluating success by whether prescribed goals have been achieved, or by justifying curricula and methodologies through their instrumental value to external objectives. This rather anti-heroic and modest vision of education might better prepare children for inevitable disappointment and a sense of ‘mess’.
It does not demand too much in terms of their development as ideal humans or even as citizens who will finally make the world a better place - an indecent request given the litany of failures humanity has so far committed. But it might support the development of a politics and ethics of decency, kindness, and camaraderie, and an ontological vision that begins with dependence, interdependence, dispossession, and vulnerability.
The contemporary Belgian-born, Mexico-based artist Francis Alÿs scrawls axioms such as ‘Maximum effort Minimum result’ in his notebooks. This seems to me an accurate description of the way many of us spend much of our lives, if we are to be honest.
So, why not acknowledge this, reject the meta-narratives of progress and success, and instead work with children and young people so that they open to encountering momentary joys, experience the camaraderie of their fellow beings that constitute the awkward human species, subvert those norms that are punishing, maintain a sense of the absurd, and seek out opportunities to be kind. In these ways we might help them to discover and invent those little passions and loves that will help them to live and to go on.
Listen to our new podcast Unitalks, which unlocks access to university for the next generation of big thinkers. In collaboration with King's College London.