Saturday, 22 April 2017

Porous Boundaries and the Constraints that separate the Education System and Society

I'm taking part in a conference on the "Porous University" early next month (, and all participants have to prepare a position statement about the conference theme. In my statement, I'm going to focus on the issue of the "boundary" and what the nature of "porosity" means in terms of a boundary between education and society.

We often think of formal education as a sieve: it filters out the wheat from the chaff in recognising the attainment and achievement of students. Sieves are porous boundaries - but they are the antithesis of the kind of porosity which is envisaged by the conference, which - to my understanding - is to make education more accessible, socially progressive, engaged in the community, focused on making practical interventions in the problems of daily life. The "education sieve" is a porous boundary which upholds and reinforces the boundary between education and society; many progressive thinkers in education want to dissolve those boundaries in some way - but how? More porosity in the sieve? Bigger holes? Is a sieve with enormous holes which lets anything through still a sieve? Is education still education without its boundary?

Part of the problem with these questions is that we focus on one boundary when there are many. The education system emerges through the interaction of multiple constraints within society - it's not just the need for disseminating knowledge and skill, but the need for keeping people off the streets (or the unemployment register, or out of their parents' houses!), or the need to maintain viable institutions of education and their local economies, or the need to be occupied in the early years of adult life, or the desire to pursue intellectual interests, or the need to gain status. These multiple constraints are constantly manipulated by government. The need to pay fees, the social exclusion which results from not having a degree (which is partly the consequence of everyone having them!), or the need for professionals like nurses to maintain accreditation are only recent examples of continual tweaking and political manipulation. Now we even have the prospect of official "chartered scientists" (! Much of this is highly destructive.

Widening participation, outreach, open learning, open access resources are as much symptoms of the current pathology as they appear to be efforts to address it: it's something of an auto-immune response by a system in crisis. Widening participation? Find us more paying customers! Open Access Resources? Amplify our approved forms of communication so everyone can learn "how to fit the system" (whilst enabling academics to boost their citation statistics) - and then we can enrol them!

A deep problem lies within universities; a deeper problem lies within science. Universities are powerful and deeply confused institutions. They establish and maintain themselves on the reputations of scholars and scientists from the past - many of whom would no longer be employable in the modern institution (and many who had difficult careers in their own time!) - and make promises to students which, in many cases, they don't (and cannot possibly) keep. The University now sees itself as a business, run by business people, often behaving in irrational ways making decisions about future strategy on a whim, or behaving cruelly towards the people they employ. There is nobody who isn't confused by education. Yet the freedom one has to express this confusion disappears in the corridors of power.

Boundaries are made to maintain viability of an organism in its environment: the cell wall or the skin is created to maintain the cell or the animal. These boundaries can be seen as transducers: they convert one set of signals from one context into another for a different context. Education, like an organism, has to maintain its transducers.

Transduction can be seen as a process of attenuating and amplifying descriptions across a boundary. The environment presents many, many descriptions to us. Our skin only concerns itself with those descriptions are deemed to be of importance to our survival: these are presented as "information" to our biological systems. Equally a university department acquires its own building, a sign, courses (all transductions) when a particular kind of attenuation of signals from the environment can be distilled into a set of information which the department can deal with. Importantly, both the skin and the departmental identity is established from two sides: there is the distilling of information from the environment, and there are the sets of descriptions which arise from the boundary having been formed. The liver and kidneys require the skin as much as the skin attenuates the environment.

Pathology in organisations results where organisations reconfigure their transducers so that too much complexity is attenuated. Healthy organisations maintain a rich ecology of varied distinctions. Pathological organisations destroy this variety in the name of some simple metric (like money - this is what happens in financialisation). This is dangerous because if too much complexity is attenuated, the institution becomes too rigid to adapt to a changing environment: it loses overall complexity. Equally if no attenuation occurs, the institution loses the capability of making any distinctions - in biology, this is what happens in cancer.

If we want to address the pathology of the distinction between education and society, we must address the problem of boundaries in institutions and in society. Removing boundaries is not the answer. Becoming professionally and scientifically committed to monitoring the ecology of the educational and social system is the way forwards. Since this is a scientific job, Universities should lead the way.

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