Is it still worth asking what meaningful design education could be today? Does it make any sense in the current European climate of neo-liberalized education, where governments are taking up austerity measures and cut back heavily on social expenses? In some cases, the answer could be ‘yes’ but a reversal of the above might provide a more interesting question: is the contemporary design (or form) of education still meaningful?
The answer of field experts is affirmative. Indeed, PISA data and OECD statistics assure that the system works. Education, a technological process supervised by the school management, proves its usefulness as a tool for achieving preconceived goals. This process thus instills in students knowledge, values and attitudes essential to the entry into the contemporary order of things. Ultimately, the goal of education becomes the consolidation of Europe’s competitiveness in a global economy. In this context, the continual capitalist necessity of refutation, advancement and accumulation (in this case, of knowledge) defines the needs of the subject. Students thus turn into clients, attempting to solve jigsaws with puzzle pieces of information. In the meantime they construct, while walking, their individual, separate learning paths.
Is it possible today to provide education in another form? Is there an alternative to education as a process of addition or adaptation of exchangeable subjects in an existing knowledge society?
Maybe we could revive an old and worn principle. What if education would lead up to the constitution of a cultivated human being? Consequently, the goal wouldn’t be the adaptation to the existing order, but instead the formation of one’s inner self. Old Greek philosophers like Plato and Socrates already knew: acting and thinking can only be true when one shows that one’s actions are in accordance with what one thinks or says. This state of mind is also the goal of their educational ideal. Consequently, mastery here isn’t obtained by successful processing and correct utilization of informational knowledge-bits.
For Hannah Arendt human actions are initiatives, i.e. beginnings. Action and speech are based on plurality, which stands for both ‘equality’ (understanding each other) and ‘differentiation’ (becoming another ‘who’). The presence of others who can perceive what we perceive is therefore necessary. Put differently, we have to be able to hear and see what others say and do.
“With word and deed we insert ourselves into the human world, and this insertion is like a second birth, in which we confirm and take upon ourselves the naked fact of our original physical appearance. This insertion [...] springs from the beginning which came into the world when we were born and to which we respond by beginning something new on our own initiative.” (Arendt 1958: 176-177)
Thus our beginning in the world is dependent on the reactions of others, and vice versa. Arendt considers this complex reciprocity as characteristic of human action.
The conclusion of the above is that a possibly different form of education could result into a confrontation between, and a coming into the world of unique, singular individuals instead of the production of adaptable and flexible experts. This way of working needs to create spaces where the encounter with, and exposure to the other, is a possibility, because the unique and the new can only emerge under these conditions.
Speelplaats, which means playground in English, was an attempt to offer such a space, partly inspired by Jacques Rancière’s ‘The Ignorant Schoolmaster’. The prevailing notion that the transfer of knowledge (I.e. explaining) produces equality is radically contradicted in this famous book. For teachers aren’t really teaching, they’re constructing ‘the other’ as someone in need of (their) explanation. Alternatively, Rancière proposes that equality should be a practical assumption from which one speaks and acts. This is what he terms emancipation.
“Neither the teleological end of a political project nor a state of social liberation, the process of emancipation consists in the polemical verification of equality. Since this verification is necessarily intermittent and precarious, the logic of emancipation is in fact heterology, i.e. the introduction of a ‘proper-improper’ […]” (Rancière 2000 / 2007: 86)
So, in speelplaats, this ‘axiom of equality’ was applied within a particular research domain of a student and examined together with the group of participants. Thus collective efforts could bring insights for personal thesisses. Speelplaats was therefore an attempt to proof that disruptions of positions associated with situated statements of equality (individual acts of emancipation), could make it conceivable that new dimensions can originate where a kind of ‘we’ arises, that will teach ‘us’, and whereby the contours of that ‘we’ are always singular and provisional. New ways of perceiving or doing things (new beginnings of beginners) which were triggered by ‘assuming that a certain x = a certain y, and its consequential verification sought to encourage thought, experimentation and inventiveness.
This inherent unprovable principle provoked more than once local, temporary, singular and non-conformist acts which created a new, shadowy dimension inside the apparent natural order of things. The use of these foregoing tactics and the process of emancipation were applied to substitute a hierarchical, unequal and schoolish order for an educational form based on free will, initiative and singularity. This design tried to open up a space, a playground, where playing wasn’t understood as ‘gaming’, but as an act of practicing. The latter, termed ‘aksesis’ or ‘meditation’ by respectively the ancient Greeks and Foucault, isn’t an attempt to recognize one’s innermost feelings but should be understood as a thinking process whereby one verifies if what one does is in line with what one presupposes as the truth and with the ideas one has. The athlete who’s working on his condition is an analogy often used by the Greeks in this context. Isn’t this also what is considered, with a Greek term, a thesis? Developing, strengthening and tuning ones body of work?
Maybe Max Stirners conclusion in ‘The False Principle of Our Education’ can serve here as well. He states that ‘we’ can only educate ‘us’ when everybody becomes free men. Then the goal of education is no longer knowledge but the will born out of this knowledge. In other words, “knowledge itself must die in order to blossom forth again in death as will” (Stirner 1842 / 1984: 19). This is exactly what speelplaats sought to achieve; indeed one cannot learn to have a will, but one is likely to become inspired by human beings who are doing what they are willing to do, human beings who are prepared to take responsibility for that what makes the core of their personal concerns.
- Arendt, H. (1958) The Human Condition. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
- McGushin, E. F., (2007) Foucault’s askēsis: an introduction to the philosophical life. Evanston: Northwestern University Press.
- Olssen M. (1999) Michel Foucault: materialism and education. Westport: Greenwood Publishing Group.
- Rancière, J. (2000 / 2007) The Politics of Aesthetics. London: Continuum International Publishing Group.
- Rancière, J. (1987 / 1991) The ignorant schoolmaster: five lessons in intellectual emancipation. Palo Alto: Stanford University Press.
- Stirner, M. (1842 / 1984) The False Principle of Our Education. Oakland: A K Pr Distribution.
The next posts present the various speelplaats-contributions of 2011.