Friday, March 22, 2013

Pedagogical and Parental Responsibility in the Face of Precarity

You might have heard that the Alberta budget was released a couple of weeks ago. You might also be familiar with its consequences on education, the higher one in particular, although there are deep cuts at all levels, without enough noise being made about them. This austerity move from the province everyone in Canada views as the richest, most privileged one, led me to think more deeply about precarity. It seems to be the going theme here at Hook & Eye this week. What do we do about it? How do we combat this neoliberal wave of blowing up every remnant of job security, human solidarity, and certainty in the near future?

My interest started due to my own unexpected, deeply emotional reaction to the budget and its implications. I felt disbelief, betrayal, grief, etc. I was going through all the stages of mourning, and I wanted to understand why. What was it about my relationship to the province that made me react this way? An unwarranted, and definitely unreciprocated attachment? Once the initial hurt--also the reason why I couldn't formulate a blog post last week--passed, I was able to think about it in a more detached manner: my reaction is personal, because I don't think I'm prepared for this brave new neoliberal future.

The answer came, as it sometimes happens when we have the benefit of children to mirror our own idiosyncrasies, through my oldest, when she explained to me that she can now perform a certain physical feat, because "I practiced it a lot." She had internalized, you see, my parental injunction that "we only become good at something if we practice it a lot." I froze on the spot and the coin dropped: yes, that's how I was raised, that if you work hard enough at something, whatever it is, you will eventually become good at it. But what happens when the world around shifts so that being "good at it" doesn't guarantee any kind of gratification, no matter how much you defer it? Am I parenting on a Fordist model, when the world stopped being like that a very long time ago?

What about teaching? We and others keep making the point of the relevance of humanities for today's world, that universities should not cater to industry, etc., but what is it that I do in the classroom that prepares students for the world that I'm not doing at home? I suppose it's critical thinking, as in the ability and the flexibility that allows students to thrive in a variety of situations, to tackle problems from novel angles, and, ultimately, to create new, better worlds. One would hope. Do these skills work when students themselves face a precarity in their professional lives that does not allow them to "think big!" "be creative!" "change the world!" but insists their efforts go into the less glamorous "paying the bills" "buying food," and "getting rid of that student debt"?

This pragmatism does not in any way go to undercut the importance of arts education. If anything, it reinforces the potential of arts education to allow people to step back and gain perspective in the face of sustained and systematic blows from a global system bent on breeding and generalizing inequity. So, what is the solution? How do we--teachers, adults, educators, parents--empower the young ones to tackle this increasing precarity or deal with it better than I see my generation doing it? What right do we have to place such an immense burden on their shoulders, when we couldn't solve it? (and yet I realize that our inability to solve this issue necessarily places the burden on them).

In Taking Care of Youth and the Generations, Bernard Stiegler charges contemporary (French) society with having failed the youth altogether by withdrawing the responsibility of the older generations towards the younger ones, severing the ties, while at the same time demanding the youth display the behaviour that only the careful education of such responsibility would have provided. Instead, he says, we leave it to contemporary capitalism to exercise its psychopower on generations of youth devoid of the care that should have prepared them to engage with it. Stiegler promises to come up with solutions in the next volume, but the charge is clear now: there is an intergenerational failure, whether of pedagogy and/or of parenting, which leaves youth unprepared, while capitalism continues to do its thing.

So, my unfair question to you, just before the weekend is, what do we do? How do we live up to our responsibility in the classroom and elsewhere? Do you have little tips and tricks. I know the questions are big, but the solutions need not be. How do we teach four-year-olds critical thinking without swiping their big-eyed wonder at the world in one? Anything? Bueller?


  1. Give our children large RESPs and the ability to live at home until they are 30 (they just have to practice for a little longer...)?

    I kid, of course. Particularly since there is no guarantee we can provide our children with large RESPs and the ability to live at home until they are 30.

    In seriousness, I think perhaps that the best solution is to teach them frugality, tenacity, contentment with less, and the desire to strive for a future of equality. And perhaps, pride in the act of trying hard and practicing in and of itself rather than in the result. Though that's a difficult distinction to make clear.

  2. Such good ideals to keep in mind, Jana! I fear I might have breached a few in the last little while, so I'm grateful for the reminder. You're right: some nuances are hard, but still worth striving for in the long run.

  3. About the link to the story about David Naylor's speech ... maybe I'd describe his point as "we're catering to the needs *of the economy* rather than just the needs of *particular industries* by training Arts grads." He'd probably like that better, because as a Uni Pres he can't be cheesing off the captains of industry. But that version is also true ... people with an Arts education are well equipped to make a capitalist economy hum, because they're well equipped to do lots of things (by virtue of ability to communicate, think clearly, all that good stuff). And they come out with those skills, whether the avowed politics of their professors are radical or conservative. The same skills that make them likeliest to change something fundamental are also the ones most likely to reinforce the way things are.

    If we want to educate our children and our students to change the world, I don't think it's going to happen so much by virtue of the content of our courses. It's going to be because of our examples. That's not to say that the ostentatiously political prof dressed like Che is going to do it for most students, though. If we've got our noses in the fray, trying to make things better even when most of the time the result if frustration ... and especially if we can obviously take some satisfaction out of the effort ... that's going to be an example of idealism that will stick with some of them. Maybe that's just autobiography, but those are the people who impressed me most.

  4. You're right, ddvd, that modelling is more important than rhetoric. It's always about the walk, and rarely only about the talk. However, it's the "trying to make things better" that's gotten me stumped at the moment, when the blows are coming from all directions. But, as you point out, that might only be autobiography for me, too.


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