Tuesday, 14 April 2009

Austerity and prosperity

Innovation and stagnation in pedagogics (and other social provision)

Emma McDowell has writen a long interesting letter to me in response to a an exhange between us in the Comments to a recent item in Conductive World. Inter alia I had writen as follows.

Yes, I have always regarded austerity as being one of CE’s parents.

I used to teach that great transformative pedagogies have flowered in exiguous times and situations. Think of Pestalozzi, the early Montessori, the Soviet psychologists and pedagogues of the heroic, innovative period, Feuerstein, Friere...

No doubt their have been great pedgogic theories and practices springing from more 'comfortable' circumstances. Piaget in Switzerland maybe (though I am reminded inevitably of Harry Lyme's cuckoo-clock!)... Tell me another.

Pedagogic advance born out of harsh conditions is neither a specifically conductive nor specifically Hungarian phenomenon. It will be interesting to see how things pan out now for CE as times get harder.

Emma's recent email touches on something of great general importance so, with her permission, I reproduce part of it here and respond publicly.

I know only a little about pedagogics (although I got as far as Makarenko in Hungary, and later, with my sons' French studies, Rousseau) but I must object to your supposition that ‘austerity’ might be a ‘parent’ of conductive pedagogics.

I don't think that there is anything austere about Conductive Education and the lifestyle it requires for its success. Quite the opposite. It is fun, it is fulfilling, although it requires steadfastness and discipline by the parent/educator, whatever the social/historical circumstances. For a family where such a medical condition suddenly appears, with all the accompanying troubles, reality is austere, the future is austere! CE is the light, the hope, the action.

Perhaps, if one doesn't fall from such a great height in comfort measures, if one is already used to tackling difficult circumstances, relying on one's coping skills…

I clearly had not expressed myself well. I am aware that I often don’t! I had not meant to suggest that CE is per se 'austere' (though there's nothing intrinsically wrong with any pedagogy’s being so, as long as the pedagogic content and process are rich in humanity, and provided with spirit and soul).

Austere times can be rich in humanity

Rather I had meant to suggest that austere times bring forth need for just such qualities in pedagogues struggling without material resources for the future of a young generation caught up in terrible material, social and personal conditions. Budapest after the Siege and the Felszabadulás (the Soviet Liberation), and on into the Rakosi years, and the Uprising, was about as austere as contemporary Europe could show. Look at the few available accounts of those who witnessed and participated in the first years of Peto's practices. None of that would have been possible in the Europe of today. Health and safety, working conditions, directives and a host of other regulations designed to protect us from ourselves would have seen to it that Peto's work could never have happened!

Don't take this to mean that I want children and parents, and those who work for them, to live in harsh times. I don't begrudge schools' being comfy, cosy, friendly places, I am happy that the workers in them are well paid (even if they themselves think otherwise!), though I do very much regret that, as is often he case, it is parents who may be left with the bleak end of the stick amidst all this apparent plenty.

Innovation amidst plenty: cui bono?

As a wealthy society we have never managed social equality, as I am told that they have done much better in the Scandinavian countries, and within this context scant attention has been paid to disparities in wealth and wellbeing between those 'in need' and those employed to help do something about such needs.

Further, as a society we have never worked out how our general comfort and ease could enhance innovation and excellence in pedagogy rather than, as it has seemed in the UK at least, replace and stand instead of or even against them. Existing institutions and professional practices are hidebound by all sorts of regulations, 'standards', inspection, and God knows what other procedures of the sort of which one so often asks cui bono? For whose benefit is this really for? Not the punters’, surely?

The voluntary sector ('charity') was once the traditional place for social innovators but, in the UK at least, the last ten or so years have seen this hijacked by the ever more centralised state, so regulation now effectively strangles this sector too. At one time (when we first brought CE to the UK, only some twenty years ago) there was a well tried and venerable social process whereby innovators could go off and do their own thing, to a considerable degree how they wanted to, under the ‘voluntary’ umbrella. Once their innovation was demonstrated, there would follow the long historical process whereby the new thing was increasingly taken on board the national Zeitgeist, and then step by step it would become eventually ‘official’. Most of the services and professions that we currently take for granted within our established system of social welfare can trace at least some of their ancestry back to such roots. Only twenty years ago we still believed that the future would be like the past and that Conductive Education would follow down the same path. I used to be proud of this heritage but the body politic was obiously not and it has been pushed to one side. Cui bono?

As for academe, universities and researchers are also now totally in hock to central-government agendas. Out of my own experience, the Universities of Birmingham and Wolverhampton did take decisive action for CE in their time, but universities are now far less free to do such things, even if they could afford them. And research? Now there’s an interesting study in its own right! Why with respect to CE has ’research’ found itself for the most part so cravenly unable to explore new paradigms. What a shame (both meanings of the word intended). Cui bono?

Would a little austerity help? Certainly not in the short term as established interests jostle to save their own positions. I would very much hate, for all our sakes, to see our social situation so deteriorate as to become anything like those that have been parent to great pedagogies in the past.

So how does a relatively comfortable society run its affairs so that new pedagogies, and other understandings and mechanisms, can emerge from under the slough of existing dysfunctional practices?

You tell me!


This part of Emma's letter refers to COMMENTS at the foot of an earlier article in Conductive World:
Sutton, A. (2009) Meanwhile in Hungary: that 'faraway country', Conductive World, 8 April

2. In Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder, bloodshed — they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.

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