Discourse, Power and Resistance: Discourses of Inclusion and Exclusion

I Lie, I Speak (M. Foucault, Maurice Blanchot: The Thought From Outside)

For a conference called Discourse, Power and Resistance: Discourses of Inclusion and Exclusion, the location and timing were almost perfect. The Baroque splendour of columns, chapels enclosing lawns, the ebb and flood of the Thames, and here we are in the old Naval college, now University of Greenwich, where officers trained for warfare could slip onto their cutters and head for the coasts. Two days earlier, on Monday, Baroness Margaret Thatcher died in the Ritz. And the British media, with predictable acumen, leapt into a ghoulish reverie, rabid in their reconstruction of the grand dame of British politics. On reflection, the irony of these events coming together, Thatcher, so marked by her fight for the Falklands, and the conference location and theme, seemed to drift past most of the delegates, at least in the presentations I sat through.

This was my first time at DPR. I was drawn to its theme: inclusion and exclusion. And left with a sense that perhaps these words, their antagonistic positioning, have been so nearly drained of meaning by parents spitting them out at school authorities, as their child is left isolated in school, and researchers grasping and re-grasping a conceptual fabric through which they are woven.

Re-arranging the leftovers of my notes, I start with Roger Slee’s keynote, which unravelled a number of concerns. Following Barnes, he flagged up the alienating discursive practices of the academy in relation to disability (is this when we serve up what Bellow’s character Herzog calls ‘the canned goods of intellectuals?), going hand in glove with a considerable narrowing of the range of tolerance among educators in their debates about inclusive education. Examples could include the ways in which ‘special educational needs’ (SEN) is confounded with ‘inclusive education;' and the energy expended on getting the language right at the expense of understanding inclusion. The latter, to paraphrase Edward Said, domesticates its insurrectionary zeal.

What are the values and ethics of education today, he asked? Competitive individualism, a reductive culture of accountability in which only what is measured counts, and in which students are seen primarily as the bearers of results. An entertaining example was the ‘galvanic skin response bracelet’ being developed by the Gates Foundation, which students wear on their wrist. The bracelet measures the amount of stimulation they are experiencing and can thus be used to determine and possibly police the effectiveness of teachers. This links to the final points I noted from Roger Slee, who concluded that we are more concerned with the containment and management of young people as the main forms of inclusion; and that so much of the education of the disabled is hit and miss. So what happens now, though?

I tasted the philosophy strand of the conference but soon left (overrunning papers, no questions, apart from young antagonists with a five minute preamble of philosophical flexing followed by a ‘don’t you think…?’ Too many years studying philosophy ‘poisoned my writing, producing a flickering and disorienting play in conceptual oppositions’? As Derrida writes, (Girard, 1977) ‘the pharmakon of writing itself cannot be reduced to the series of oppositional concepts that it precedes and produces (see Dissemination 103).’ The remedy was to go to the Teaching and Learning strand where I remained all day.

To do justice to Gert Biesta’s presentation on emancipation in education is not possible, so I apologise in advance for flattening his well contoured argument. A subtle, rigorous, thoughtful navigation, took us from Kant (Man can only become man by education), to Friere via Marx and Habermas (emancipation requires (adequate) insight into the power relations that constitute people’s situation. To liberate ourselves from the influence of power we need to expose how power works) to his re-readings of Rancierre’s ‘The Ignorant Schoolmaster’ and beyond.

Exploring Friere’s Critical Pedagogy, and his arguments against the objectification of students by a teacher as subject, he questioned whether Friere does really get rid of the teacher, and what his or her position would be. Rancierre does do away with the teacher, or through his critique of Jacatot, the eponymous ignorant schoolmaster who taught his students a language he didn’t himself know, the explicative order that is implicit in teaching. What Jacatot illustrates is that ‘knowledge of what students need to learn is not a requirement of teaching.’ Misreadings of Rancierre, however, can urge us to view the teacher as someone who has nothing to teach and is therefore no more than a facilitator. Something Eloise Sentito picked up in her talk: the dangers of a facilitator making everything facile.

Gert Biesta’s reading of Rancierre is that this is ‘not an argument about education-as-instruction, but about education-as-emancipation.’ For Biesta, education should not be ‘dissolved into learning,’ because all we have are schoolmasters with no knowledge to give, therefore students are free to learn what they want, interpreting it how they want in blissful isolation. Rather, if we think there is a possibility of an emancipatory education this needs to be ‘thought through the figure of the teacher.’