Education and the Future

This week (02.09.20) I attended my first online academic conference. It was a Philosophy of Education postgraduate conference, supported by PESGB and organised by postgraduate researchers Sharon Smith (University of Birmingham) and Laura Watson (University of Winchester). I must admit I was a little doubtful at first about how effective an online conference could be – but within a few minutes all my doubts were gone as it was clear that a huge amount of effort and organisation had gone into the event. As I commented on Twitter:

The event had an impressive range of keynotes and paper presentations that I couldn’t possibly summarise here with any adequacy. Instead, here are a few selected highlights from the sessions I attended along with some of my own thoughts.

Who is Philosophy for? Public Philosophy of Representation

Rebecca Buxton (DPhil candidate, Refugee Studies Centre, Oxford) and Lisa Whiting (MSc student in Politics, Birkbeck) are the co-editors of a new book: The Philosopher Queens: The lives and legacies of philosophy’s unsung women. This is a book about women in philosophy written by women in philosophy. It is a vital contribution given that philosophy is a discipline traditionally dominated by white males – a huge injustice in itself given the importance of work by Hannah Arendt, Simone de Beauvoir, Iris Murdoch and Iris Marion Young (all of whom feature in the book) among many other women. I particularly appreciated the intersectional approach taken in the book, as it draws attention to black women in philosophy such as Anita Allen (the first African-American woman to hold both a Ph.D in philosophy and a law degree) and the political activist and philosopher, Angela Davis. This project, crowdfunded and published by Unbound, is a real inspiration and perhaps a sign of things to come if a refreshed view of public philosophy can begin to take shape. You can order the book using this link (ordering books through hive.co.uk supports your local independent bookshop).

Tragic Education: Violence and Failure

Iain Tidbury (PhD researcher, University of Winchester) provided a thought-provoking exploration of the relationship between education, violence and failure. He drew on Slavoj Žižek, who asks: “Couldn’t the entire history of humanity be seen as a growing normalisation of injustice, entailing the nameless and faceless suffering of millions?” (Žižek 2008: 179). I had a lot of sympathy with this approach, as I consider many injustices to be forms of social violence, the politics of austerity being a good example. Indeed, it has been argued by Allen (2014) that education itself is an act of benign violence, and that this is concealed by good intentions. In his paper, Iain invited us to consider whether justice will come by way of violence or education. It is a question that resonates powerfully in these troubling and uncertain times. I would hope that the answer to this can be found in what Albert Einstein referred to as ‘militant pacifism’ – a theme taken up and reshaped by Judith Butler as ‘aggressive nonviolence’ in her latest book, The Force of Nonviolence, published by the radical publishing house, Verso.

Creating Space for dissenting voices and Social Justice at Universities

Monika Maini (Doctoral Research Scholar, National Institute of Educational Planning and Administration, New Delhi, India) spoke about incidences of social injustice based on class, caste, gender and region in Indian public universities, arguing convincingly for the adoption of a ‘pedagogy of consciousness’ (drawing on Paulo Freire’s emancipatory concept of critical consciousness or conscientização) to achieve social justice and development of dissenting spaces at universities. Monika illustrated her ideas by speaking about students in India who have been protesting against increasing fees and the rising privatisation of Indian universities.

Building an academic profile

The keynote session in the afternoon was delivered by Professor Pat Thomson (University of Nottingham) and Dr Frances Howard (Nottingham Trent University). It helpfully focussed on the practicalities of building an academic profile and ‘finding your professional community’, while also recognising the difficulties and uncertainties currently faced by postgraduate researchers, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and economic recession. This brings me to a final point of reflection on the theme of the event: Education and the Future.

Education and the Future

Arguably, the future has rarely been more uncertain, owing to the combination of global shocks such as the climate crisis, the pandemic, economic recession and unprecedented global migration. Millions of displaced people are seeking refuge and sanctuary, many of whom are simply being ignored, in what is surely one of the greatest humanitarian challenges of our time, soon to be made infinitely worse by climate change and the possibilities of further political unrest. We live in an age unlike any other, characterised by multiple crises.

Education has to step up to play a vital part in this situation. During the conference I was struck by two implicit themes. Firstly, there is an important role for the philosophy of education. To put it simply – we need ideas and we need them now. The philosophy of education can and should be providing an outlet for the kind of radical, interventionist thinking that we need to traverse this period of crisis. Secondly, and somewhat frustratingly, postgraduate researchers in the field of philosophy of education are at the vanguard of such ideas, while simultaneously facing our own challenges of precarity in an increasingly volatile jobs market. Perhaps events such as the excellent ‘Education and the Future’ conference provide the opportunity to find our professional community, yes, but with the longer-term aim of changing education in ways that allow it to become the radical force for social justice and transformation that it needs to be.

As highlighted by one of the other presenters at the conference, Grace Lockrobin, the challenge is nothing less than to collectively work out how education and philosophy can enable us to survive and thrive in the face of existential threat.

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