Education as a battlefield

Dan Beizsley
15 min readMay 14, 2020

By Jordi Solé Blanch (@jordisblanch) — pedagogue and educator.

Professor at Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (Open University of Catalonia).

Translation by Daniel Beizsley (@DanielBeizsley)

In recent decades the education system has come under enormous pressure to adapt to the needs of the economy. If we say that education has become a battlefield, it is because the dominant educational policy has been reduced to the search for ‘effectiveness.’ As Christian Laval argued a few years ago in his well-known essay Schools aren’t businesses, education has been reconfigured for the production of ‘human capital’ with the aim of increasing economic competitiveness in the framework of a globalized world.[1]

The jargon deployed when advocating for the transformation of school systems according to the new spirit of capitalism is well known. A huge administrative literature defends the need to offer comprehensive training while directing new generations to “face the challenges of our time by enhancing their talents, abilities and skills.” In this context, educational innovation (a concept accompanied with great media effervescence), appears as the lever of change that will overcome the limitations of today’s education found in schools, institutions and universities.

In our view, educational innovation is a paradoxical concept, and one which is weighed down by pro-business undercurrents. Innovation is modern, sophisticated and promotes the development of new technologies. However, innovation does not necessarily lead to improvement and this is particularly true in the context of education. In this text, we will explore the direction innovation is taking in three different areas: its connection to technological application, its pedagogical focus on skills and lastly on its connections to emotional education. We will observe how these strands interact and conclude by reflecting on how they may be reconfigured to help renew pedagogical commitment for the benefit of future generations.

Technology and innovation

Much of the discourse surrounding innovation in education today has been reduced to methodological considerations. Its main focus is usually on instrumental didactics that are free of critical reflection and disconnected from the socio-cultural environments of schools, as well as from any political aspirations. Among the many proposals emerging from the cult of innovation is the ever expanding role of technology and its emergence as an ideology in itself. As in many other areas,[2]technology is presented as the go-to solution to the educational challenges of our time.

For some years now, multinationals in the tech and communication worlds have been investing substantial sums to design the pedagogical models of the future. Google apps and educational platforms such as Moodle,[3] for example, are tools that are now used on a daily basis on different tiers of the education system, where the so-called ‘digital education ecosystems’ and ‘hybrid learning ecologies’ are emerging. We are now at the beginning of significant changes and if we look at the evolution of the entertainment and media industry, we can catch a glimpse of the transformation awaiting us.

At present companies are increasingly attracted to entering the data market in order to offer their customers personalized and individual services. Pedagogical innovation is also heading in this direction inspired by the philosophy of Netflix, Uber and Pokémon Go — that is, a la carte training, the platform economy and gamification as three tenets that provide a technocratic education capable of keeping pace with internet platforms and their communication and distribution channels. According to the techno-utopia imagined in Silicon Valley, the formula is very simple. In a hyperconnected context, where the student is the active agent and responsible for his or her own learning process, the creation of educational playlists emerge as a result of the algorithmic analysis of user produced data.

The architecture underpinning this pedagogical model can already be found in virtual teaching environments. As a result, the role of teachers, for example, has been transformed inside out. Their functions are now divided into content production, designing learning proposals and become curators of knowledge that is to be transmitted. It’s not just that their presence isn’t required — the person writing this works in a ‘virtual’ university — but in many cases, the teachers themselves won’t even be needed. In fact, in the different phases of this educational model, support given during the learning cycle will be increasingly offered by robots. At present, there is basic software and all sorts of technological prototypes based on artificial intelligence (AI) and the Internet of Things that assist the learning processes of users of multiple educational platforms and this will only grow more as can already be seen in language learning online. Finally, the connectivity between different nodes of knowledge, as seen in the popular MOOCs (Massive Online Open Courses, or massive and open online courses), will only multiply and become ever more profitable sources of income.

Thus, the development of educational technologies and digital infrastructures is not only renewing schools’ training strategies complemented by all kinds of initiatives (disruptive education, inverted classroom, hyper classroom, connectivism, etc.), but it is also managing to set up a personalized educational services industry which is increasingly threatening the current structure of the education system which has long been considered as bureaucratic, costly and inefficient. What interest can there be in continuing to fund a public education system if technology multinationals can provide an on-demand education service?[4] To the extent that education is no longer conceived as a right of citizenship and is beginning to be transformed into a service and an investment,[5] this logic not only governs the interests of companies and a myriad of institutions willing to offer all kinds of training services backed by the alleged prestige of their “brands”, but the needs of the users themselves who are forced to consume these services in order to obtain the skills that promote their employability and fulfil labor demands.

The pedagogy of skills

We are now turning to the other pillar of educational transformation materialised through the figure of the entrepreneur. The permanent investment in human capital the new educational platforms offer also requires the development of other types of innovation capable of operating on a psychological and instrumental level. This is where the pedagogical discourse around skills should be placed.

The pedagogy of skills is presented today as an innovation that must generate more integrated, more practical and more transferable learning through finding its raison d’être in the economic purpose of education. If this discourse receives strong support among teachers (just look at the extent to which it is defended by pedagogical renewal movements), it is to do with the fact that, initially, it is a change in school and university culture because it goes from the ‘culture of teaching,’ focused on transmission, to the ‘culture of learning,’ in which the student is the protagonist.

However, as Jorge Larrosa argues, in a process of the learningification of education, school and university:

“…it is not even a matter of learning something, but of “learning to learn” in order to produce a professional (a subject) that is flexible, multipurpose, multifunctional, adaptable, interchangeable and, therefore, completely decharacterized, emptied, desubjectivized, superfluous, doomed to obsolescence and doomed to endless learning, to permanent recycling.[6]

As can be deduced, the development proposed by this change of model is oriented towards the cultivation of useful skills that are presumed necessary within the performance of a professional task. Thus, moving from the education system — which accredits a charter of skills — to the labor market, these skills end up becoming an instrument for measuring individual performance in terms of creativity, innovation, adaptability, flexibility, initiative and entrepreneurship.

Perhaps the explanation for why the discourse on skills finds such little resistance in the world of education is because of the psycho-pedagogical roots deployed for its justification. Taking as a reference the theory of multiple intelligences formulated by Howard Gardner,[7] new perspectives have been introduced into the curriculum in order to encourage the development of teaching adapted to the strengths and weaknesses of the students according to their multiple capabilities, not just verbal and logical-mathematical. This means, among other things, the need to address the “emotional intelligence” of students and, therefore, their emotional competence. According to Goleman,[8] the father of this theory, emotional intelligence is presented as the skill that allows you to manage emotions, guide and develop your own life and establish constructive relationships with others. In this sense, becoming aware of one’s own emotional reality allows one to apply the most appropriate strategies for personal and professional development. Thus, “while emotional intelligence determines our ability to learn the rudiments of self-control and the like, emotional competence refers to our degree of mastery of these skills”[9] in a way that will eventually be reflected in the social and labor sphere, which is why there is so much talk today about the need to promote emotional education in schools, institutions and universities. However, it is necessary to explore the drift that emotional education is experiencing in the current education system and nail down the subjective effects it is producing.

The Psi colonization of educational discourse

We thus come to the third pillar through which individualistic-inspired pedagogies are succeeding in imposing a new symbolic normality. For many years pedagogical discourse has been imbued with psychological language. Concepts such as happiness, emotional needs, social skills, motivation, self-esteem are, along with the diagnosis of multiple learning disorders and a wide market of classifications in children’s mental health, some of the most representative examples of the “psi colonization of educational discourse.”[10]

Undoubtedly, these concepts are related to the transformation of the scientific and medical fields and their shift towards positivist and empiricist paradigms (technologies of reification, classification, measurement, empirical observation, evaluation, etc.), reinforced by the impulses of cognitive neuroscience, which have penetrated strongly into the world of education. In a short time, ‘neuroeducation,’ for example, has become a dominant psycho-pedagogical paradigm, to the point that there are those who claim the need to reject any educational proposal that does not have an empirical basis verified by neuroscience.[11]

Gradually, emotional education programmes inspired by science literatures are beginning to form part of the practices and rituals of many classrooms, often supported by the noble goal of stimulating and enhancing students’ motivation and learning. The development of this type of programme has also been supported by the advancement -in cultural and commercial terms- of the science of happiness (or positive psychology), an academic movement born at the beginning of the century which supposedly helps people to lead happier lives. We do not have enough space to trace a genealogy of positive psychology here, rather we shall keep in mind that psychological traits such as self-esteem, emotional intelligence, autonomy, optimism, resilience, proactivity etc, have become the essential pedagogical underpinnings of these programmes which have the aim of achieving self-realisation, personal growth and happiness.

A wide range of ‘positive education’ and ‘emotional self-management’ programmes are at present being established in many schools as part of an effort to achieve an ‘educational culture’ that is increasingly interested in emotional skills, personal management skills, and the promotion of the entrepreneurial spirit.”[12] This is the first stage of the investment in ‘psychological and emotional capital’ that not only claims to contribute to increasing the well-being and happiness of students, but also helps them to express their talent to achieve their potential with the aim of increasing their chances of success in all areas of life.

From school to university we are witnessing the prioritization of emotions in learning, a fact directly linked to the growing cultural value in the constitution of one’s own identity, social relations and one’s own well-being. A therapeutic ethos therefore extends to the school, often in the name of creative and artistic proposals that seek to transform ways of teaching in the classroom. Without detracting from the value of some of these proposals, although many of them cannot avoid falling into emptiness and superficiality, one should ask to what extent they connect with the logic and emotional performativity of the market where the value of each individual and their constant personal optimization results in the acquisition and development of emotional and cognitive management skills.[13]

In this context of emotional utilitarianism, positive psychology, coaching, and the self-help literature, a core of widespread new-age emotional education is rapidly approaching whose foundations merely serve to promote a comprehensive type of education devoted to the cult of narcissism. Thus, emotional education programmes are responsible for offering all sorts of strategies (or “technologies of the self,” to use Foucault’s term), as well as an emotional mode of reflexivity for each person to learn to manage their inner world, strengthen self-esteem and resilience, confront ‘negative emotions’ and explore paths that lead to happiness.

In a recent essay Cabanas and Illouz[14] warn us of the extent to which happiness has become “a lifestyle, a mentality, and ultimately a type of personality to define in psychological terms as the ideal neoliberal contemporary citizen.” Happiness not only orients itself towards the norm of what is good, healthy and desirable, both for the individual and for societies,[15] but ends up playing a key role in gaining control of our subjectivities and shaping the ideal archetype of the neoliberal citizen. From this perspective, we can say that emotional education has become a cornerstone of the new forms of individualism promoted by neoliberalism and thereby stripped of any innocence. Imbued with a highly entrepreneurial discourse, the techniques, methods and activities developed by positive psychology programmes in schools, institutes and universities thus offer a “toolbox” to carry out a very effective “affective work” which seeks to internalise the persistent neoliberal invocation towards a life governed by the satisfaction of one’s own interests, personal growth, emotional gratification and competitiveness — all priority objectives for a type of training which prepares new generations for the relentless competition encountered during life.[16]

(re)Articulating a commitment to pedagogy

For some years now the weight current of opinion has, in the world of education, settled on the need to develop a pedagogy built on emotions. It is not a pedagogy that cares only for the emotional development of children, but above all, focuses on their happiness, and therefore is increasingly clear on which paths must be followed in order to achieve it.

During a time when the promise of education is being chipped away at, the emerging paradigms that promote happiness through education serve to project moral values ​​and key psychological factors that underline the pursuit of happiness. However, the subordination of educational work to the development and expansion of emotions cannot hide the void into which the individualistic promise of happiness expands.

Behind this void, as we have seen, lies a project of subjective modelling which reveals emotional education as capturing the ultimate meaning of the cultural policy of neoliberalism. In its obstinacy to stimulate a positive and successful self, the most complete form of radical and enterprising individualism departs from true pedagogical commitment, institutionalizing the language and practice of psychotherapy in the name of personal growth and happiness to students, ignoring the fact that these social values or goals merely serve to neutralise and legitimise the neoliberal ideology of individualism.[17]

Undoubtedly, and here we agree with Darder[18] who argues that “to dispense with emotions is a simplification that mutilates the complexity of reality and education. The subject’s emotional and affective experiences intervene and conditions his or her personal and social development and, therefore, his or her’s learning.” Going beyond Darder’s observation — from our perspective the educational function capable of sustaining the pedagogical commitment is that which, according to Hannah Arendt,[19] is responsible for opening the world to new generations; to make the world (what is beyond oneself and the productive empowerment of one’s talent) speak to them and challenge them. What must challenge them has to do with learning, with the introduction to knowledge and skills, with the socialization into the culture of a society understood in a broad sense,[20] and not with emotional exaltation of the self and its autonomy, a priority goal of neoliberalism’s narcissistic agenda and therapeutic culture.

If we move away from the psychological approach to education and begin working on culture, “the only subject of school education,” as Meirieu says, we will endow younger generations with a language that will allow them to communicate and deal with daily events while giving them the means to understand what surrounds them and everything that happens to them.[21] Defending the pedagogical commitment means understanding that education is the permanent effort to put the subject in contact with culture, starting from its particularity, but not closing in on it.

Emotional education is the false reward for a lack of promise that education can bring. When training no longer guarantees anything, when students are very aware of the future that awaits them (personal merits do not translate into results), then emotional education is a false start. Separated from culture, emotional education focuses on promoting an empty self of knowledge and prevents students from experiencing the pleasure of learning and the “satisfaction of thought.”[22] For us to rehabilitate the promise of education based on the pleasure of learning “it is necessary for the educator” as Meirieu argues, “to take on the institutional promise of education, and to transmit the pleasure of investigation and the joy that comes from learning.” Herein lies the educator’s role as a “mediator of the other’s desire to know.”[23] Subordinating learning to emotions disarms students and reinforces inequalities, preventing access to the only educational promise that can be held today — the promise that intellectual effort allows access to the joy of thinking.[24]

We cannot replace our pedagogical responsibility to arouse young people’s interest in socially important knowledge and skills deployed through school subjects by a series of practices applied to the psycho-emotional management of individual talents. These practices are further reinforced by the business strategies attached to digital education which, as we have seen previously, are only interested in the development of professional skills.

Education is an opportunity for young people to stop being seduced by things and the exaltation of the individual and instead celebrate the encounter with another embodied by the master, whose role as a ‘mediator of culture’, through a ‘guardianship interaction’ in the words of Jerome Bruner,[25] prepares the opening to new worlds through materials placed in the centre of the relationship.[26]“ These worlds that make up our ‘common world ‘[27] allow us to instil something collective, and for this reason, schools are needed and not just a simple menu of a la carteeducational platforms.

This is without doubt the substance of education as argued for by Hannah Arendt when, in her well-known analysis of the ‘education crisis,’ she urged us to “assume responsibility for the world” for the new generations: “education is where we decide whether we love our children enough not to expel them from our world and leave them to their own devices, (…) and prepare them in advance for the task of renewing a common world.” Do not, therefore, abandon students to a pedagogy of skills and emotions of the type pushed by many educators in a way as naïve as it is dangerous. By doing so we disconnect from our shared cultural ties which allows access to thought and which then turns into growth and learning. Herein lies true emancipatory education.

Solé, J. (2020). L’educació com a camp de batalla. A Pablo Martínez (Dir.); Marina Garcés, Janna Graham, val flores, Concha Fernández Martorel i Jordi Solé Blanch. Pedagogies i emancipació (p. 125–143). Arcàdia y MACBA. Col·lecció et. al.

Collection available to purchase from:

https://www.arcadia-editorial.com/llibres/pedagogies-i-emancipacio/

https://www.macba.cat/ca/aprendre-investigar/publicacions/pedagogies-i-emancipacio

[1] Laval, Ch. (2004). La escuela no es una empresa. El ataque neoliberal a la enseñanza pública. Barcelona: Paidós Ibérica.

[2] Morozov, E. (2015). La locura del solucionismo tecnológico. Madrid: Clave Intelectual.

[3] Created in 2002 by the pedagogue and IT expert Martin Dougiamas, ‘Moodle’ is a virtual learning platform. Its original name comes from the acronym Module Object-Oriented Dynamic Learning Environment.

[4] As I write this text, the Telefónica Foundation has just announced the opening of the registration period for the so-called ‘School 42’, an initiative that aims to “reinvent education” and provide an alternative “to an incapable regulated education system to adapt to the demands of the digital market.” While they are not inventing anything that is not already offered by many virtual universities and other educational platforms, their promoters are quick to point out that “the educational proposal is not certified and does not require the presence of the traditional teacher,” as students learn through projects which are corrected by their own colleagues with the support of a teaching team “. The article is available here: here.

[5] Fernández Liria, C., García Fernández, O. y Galindo Ferrández, E. (2017). Escuela o barbarie. Entre el neoliberalismo salvaje y el delirio de la izquierda. Madrid: Akal, p. 37.

[6] Larrosa, J. (2018). P de profesor (con Karen Rechia). Buenos Aires: Noveduc, p. 47.

[7] Gardner, H. (1994). Frames Of Mind . Madrid: Fons de Cultura Econòmica.

[8] Goleman, D. (1996). Emotional Intelligence. Barcelona: Kairós.

[9] Fernández Liria, C., García Fernández, O. y Galindo Ferrández, E. (2017). Escuela o barbarie. Entre el neoliberalismo salvaje y el delirio de la izquierda. Madrid: Akal, p. 37.

[10] Solé Blanch, J., & Moyano Mànigues, S. (2017). La colonización Psi del discurso educativo. Foro de Educación, 15(23), 101–120, doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.14516/fde.551

[11] Guillén, J. C., Pardo, F., Forés, A., Hernández, T., & Trinidad, C. (2015). Principis neurodidàctics per a l’aprenentatge. Temps d’Educació, 49, 49–67, p. 51.

[12] Cabanas, I. e Illouz, I. (2019). Happycracia. Cómo la ciencia y la industria de la felicidad controlan nuestras vidas. Barcelona: Paidós, p. 84.

[13] Illouz, E. (comp.) (2019). Capitalismo, consumo y autenticidad. Las emociones como mercancía. Buenos Aires: Katz Editores.

[14] Cabanas, I. e Illouz, I. (2019). Happycracia. Cómo la ciencia y la industria de la felicidad controlan nuestras vidas. Barcelona: Paidós, p. 84.

[15] Ehrenreich, B (2012). Sonríe o Muere. La Trampa del Pensamiento Positivo. Madrid: Editorial Turner.

[16] Recalcati, M. (2016). La hora de clase. Por una erótica de la enseñanza. Barcelona: Editorial Anagrama, p. 35.

[17] Cabanas, I. e Illouz, I. (2019). Happycracia. Cómo la ciencia y la industria de la felicidad controlan nuestras vidas. Barcelona: Paidós, p. 84.

[18] Darder, P. (2017). Emotions and education — a necessary integeration. Emocions i educació, una integració necessària. A P. Darder (Coord.) (2017). La formació emocional del professorat (p. 15–28). Barcelona: Octaedro Editorial, p. 21.

[19] Arendt, H. (1996). La crisis en la educación. En H. Arendt. Entre el pasado y el futuro (p. 185–208). Barcelona: Ed. Península.

[20] Arendt, H. (1996). La crisis en la educación. En H. Arendt. Entre el pasado y el futuro (p. 185–208). Barcelona: Ed. Península.

[21] Meirieu, Ph. (2016). Recuperar la pedagogía. De lugares comunes a conceptos claves. Buenos Aires: Paidós Argentina, p. 72.

[22] Ídem, p. 83.

[23] Bárcenas, F. (2018). Maestros y discípulos. Anatomía de una relación. Teoría de la Educación. Revista Interuniversitaria, 30–2, 73–108. Cit. p. 79, doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.14201/teoredu30273108

[24] Meirieu, Ph. (2016). Recuperar la pedagogía. De lugares comunes a conceptos claves. Buenos Aires: Paidós Argentina, p. 85.

[25] Bruner, J. (2013). La educación, puerta de la cultura. Madrid: Antonio Machado.

[26] Bárcenas, F. (2018). Maestros y discípulos. Anatomía de una relación. Teoría de la Educación. Revista Interuniversitaria, 30–2, 73–108, p. 90, doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.14201/teoredu30273108

[27] Garcés, M. (2013). Un mundo común. Barcelona: Ediciones Bellaterra, S.L.

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Dan Beizsley

Researcher, Barcelona. The idea here is to translate Catalan ideas and thoughts into English.