Education and Crisis

Christoph Spehr: Education and Crisis

As part of
Transcript from WebCamTalk 1.0

[Christoph Spehr is a German political and cultural theorist, author and
video-maker. In 2001 he got the Rosa-Luxemburg-prize for his essay on Free
Cooperation; an English translation will be available in 2005. His ideas
about collaboration were formative for the "Free Cooperation: Networks, Art
& Collaboration" conference in April 2004 (]

Trebor Scholz: What are your thoughts on new-media art education,
specifically taking into account your concept of "free cooperation"?

Cristoph Spehr: We experience a general crisis of education today. Teachers
are dissatisfied, students are dissatisfied, the educational system is
dissatisfied, and society as a whole is dissatisfied with education. In
Europe we witness the horrible results of the PISA tests for some of the
world’s richest countries, especially for Germany. Everybody is calling for
education but nobody seems to be very interested in thinking about it. We
have a huge pressure from capital on education while we seem to have lost
all standards of previous discussions about learning, teaching, education
and society. Education is all messed up. While there is so much hatred
everywhere around education we see at the same time, a deep desire for it–
mostly unfulfilled and unconscious.

I watched >Animatrix< again recently. There is a scene in >Kid’s Story<,
situated in a classroom, a completely alienated situation, the teacher is
one of the >agents< as it turns out, and then the kid’s cell phone rings. He
switches it off but it rings again. It’s Morpheus telling him that he has to
get out of there because they are coming for him, which confirms his
half-conscious suspicions about the false reality he lives in. This says
everything about education. It shows the teacher as the agent of the system,
education as oppression, not so much as indoctrination than as a prevention
of thinking, of waking up - we will come back to this later. But at the same
time, there is that phone call, and this is the other side of education.
The call that gets through— somehow at any time. The call is a fantasy about
education, about teaching - to do something that cuts through, that has an
effect on somebody, that reaches someone, that creates change. It’s an
illegitimate, an obscene fantasy, a fantasy of violence. Because it implies
that the teacher (in this case, Morpheus) does something that the student
clearly didn’t ask for. He couldn’t, and maybe wouldn’t have if he would
have had the choice. But this is what education is all about. This is what
we are in for, what really matters. And this is the deep contradiction in
all of education. We want to be free, we don’t want to be forced, but at the
same time we wish something to be done with us, something to happen that we
couldn’t ask for. This goes way beyond the classroom. This is not only true
for education but for the realm of the social in general– of relationships,
and of love. Because we are humans, and this is how humans “get formed”, as
Bertolt Brecht tells us: “by joining here and there, by beating and getting
beaten”. We don’t learn by consuming injections and infusions of

TS: Is education a chaotic process?

CS: Definitely, hopefully– otherwise we would all be dead. But let’s think
a little more systematically about education. A lot of us don’t like the
word, because of its association with oppression and manipulation, and many
use different words for what they think is bad (education) and what they
think is good (other word). But that’s a way to sneak away from the problem,
so let’s stick to the term. As we know (from postmodernism, from cognitive
science, from the critique of science) education is basically something the
subject does, the student, not the teacher. It is learning, and learning is
an active process, involving the creation of maps of the world, of becoming
able to do something, and of imagining alternatives. In a strict sense,
teaching is impossible because the student has to do the learning, the
creation, and it is not possible to tell what exactly makes him or her
modify this or that map, attitude, imagination in this or that way. It’s
like that because this is how our mind works - we could go into Thomas Kuhn,
explaining that progress in science is not done by logical deduction but by
leaps, breaks, due to practical problems and relations of social powers;
next we could go and look at Lakoff and Johnson telling us that >The mind
is inherently embodied; thought is mostly unconscious; abstract concepts are
largely metaphorically<; or we could just remember the experience of
teaching: you never know what makes the mind >snap<, you have to try various
ways, and you cannot dictate the outcome.

So teaching is never forming or informing, it is only facilitating the
process of self-education, by giving resources and by manipulation. You
can’t get the manipulation out of the teaching. Apart from giving resources
(books, stories, telling, pictures, whatever), teaching is manipulation of
the learning process. That’s why we would pay someone for it: to help us
speak Spanish faster, to manipulate our learning process in a way that
speeds it up, is more secure, saves us at least some of the hardest lessons
in reality (like getting it all wrong with a Spanish girl because of some
mispronounced leading to serious misunderstandings).

Education happens everywhere in the realm of the social, it’s inseparable
from our social practice - social practice is education, education is social
interaction. Education as a institutionalized setting, as a school or an
educational system (or only a specially designed situation, like a talk in a
cafe), is to education what the teacher is to the learning: a means of
facilitating, by giving resources and by manipulation - to and of both the
teachers and the students (which in real life are mutually changing roles).
And society is to institutionalized education what the educational system is
to the learning/teaching subjects, a means of facilitating, by giving
resources and by manipulation. Again, you don’t get the manipulation out of
the education.

But manipulation does not mean to shape something after a picture. You
cannot do education like you build a chair. We can conceive education only
as cooperation. (And a good carpenter would say, you can’t really build a
chair, it’s a form of cooperation with the wood - but with embodied minds,
it’s even fuzzier.) This is the >tragedy< with every authoritarian
education: it is not really good in achieving, in making something happen,
in enabling somebody - but it’s quite good in preventing, in destroying, in
eradicating. If you put a system under stress, you can not guarantee which
new interior regulation it will put in place, what it will do. But you can
predict a lot of what the system will prevent. So, authoritarian education
is about stress AND selection: put up pressure, effect stress, let something
snap, and pick out what is to your liking, the rest you throw away. In my
view, this is what happens in our schools, our universities, our society,
and our social relations. Why is our society is so dumb? The reason is that
oppression functions so much better for unlearning, than for learning. It’s
exorcism rather than education; and this is what the teachers do to the
students. The educational systems and society, the educational spaces and
settings produce zombies. And the lamenting about the lack of creativity, of
inventiveness, of knowledge— are no more than crocodile’s tears.

TS: What has changed in education and how do explain the crisis in education
that you acknowledged in the beginning?

CS: The crisis exists because the world is deeply changing, but education is
not. In spite of what I just mentioned, education happens, because every
educational system relies not only on forced cooperation but also, partly,
on free cooperation. No educational system could work if it would not
include spaces of free cooperation, of non-authoritarian learning/teaching
and education, as well. The system knows, at least practically, that it
cannot really force education, that you can’t force creativity, learning,
imagination. That it has to let go in part. It’s all about making a deal.

Spaces get shut down today, and deals break down. This is caused by the
shifts that are signaled by globalization, the emergence of a global
information resource (the Internet), immaterial labor, and the lack of

The contradiction in education deepens. It is quite clear that education has
to change today: Informational resources are available widely; a lot of
skills are computerized; it makes no more sense to memorize information, to
automatize skills, but having an orientation gets increasingly important,
that you know how to move, how to get things, how to cooperate; how to
translate between systems, etc. Work is becoming more immaterial, and
education has to reflect this. For a lot of stuff you have machines; what
counts in education is more and more purely the social, virtuality and IT
urge for an education that is about interaction between people, social
abilities- because there’s no point in repeating what the machine already
offers. The more >immaterial< education becomes the more difficult. New
negotiations are needed for educational systems, deals that include much
more free cooperation. Free cooperation also in spaces where the >violent<
functions of education may happen, the >call<, the operations that have not
been solicited - because in free cooperation, people can accept this,
because they are not helpless, because they can control the situation they
are in.

But, as we all know, this is not the way things go. Educational systems
around the world have become everything but free. Society itself has become
very free, putting high economic pressure on the individual and all
cooperations. This is why learning is in crisis. You can’t learn with a gun
pointed at you. You may get imprinted /conditioned- the way we do it with
animals in experiments. But conditioning breaks down as soon as the
surrounding situation shifts, so conditioning is of little help in times of
globalization, rapid informational change, and immaterialization of labor.

Around this aisle, the central focus on crisis, you have grouped a whole
bunch of sub-crises, dependent on different perspectives and situations, a
whole bunch of deals breaking down and spaces getting shut down. One deal
that breaks down today is the “student’s deal.” Globalization and the
Internet shatter the resource monopoly of the educational system. You don’t
need teachers, and no schools to get information. For reflection and
mind-mapping, you are better served at the movies than at school. At the
same time, globalization (if done on the basis of free capital movement)
undermines the economy and social stratification even of the richest
countries; so the teacher’s weapon that you need the grade to get your job
later becomes empty, because there is no job anyway for the most, you know
that. Therefore, the student’s denial to any education becomes almost
impenetrable in many cases, and then his or her reaction to the educational
situation often becomes utterly violent.

The next deal that breaks down is the teacher’s deal. Based on his
information monopoly, he used to mix >inferior tasks< (basic training) with
>superior tasks< (like ideological influence, production of opinions and
attitudes, influencing society - there’s no good teacher that did not get
lured into his/her business by this idea). But nobody wants his/her
>superior tasks<. The students want him or her to >deliver< what they think
they need to become rich, they give a shit about his/her ideas or ideals or
opinion; the system sues him/her for the crisis in learning but gives him or
her no resources and no spaces; and society has little interest in education
and little respect for the teacher because society has no vision.

And another deal that breaks down is that between the dominant elites and
the critical opposition about changing the educational system. Hardt and
Negri write in >Multitude<: >The Matrix survives not only by sucking the
energy from millions of incubated humans but also by responding to the
creative attacks of Neo, Morpheus, and the partisans of Zion. The Matrix
needs us to survive.< The system cannot change itself, it has to be changed,
even for his own sake. So there is usually a deal between the system and its
enemies; they are the best teachers, and they alone can trigger systemic
change. But today there is no one who wants to change the system. The system
kills every attempt very early, very successfully. Therefore, the crisis
grows. The lack of socialism, the lack of alternative visions, of a
fundamental critique of today’s capitalist global system, is part of the
crisis. Education cannot develop if it’s not criticized, and there is no
practical critique without a deal. There is no deal because the system
abstractly needs change but is not actually forced to change. So things do
just rot.

TS: How do you envision partial free cooperation in education?

CS: Remember: education is inherently violent; something confrontational,
obscene; it does not go without manipulation. This is only bearable in a
free cooperation, in a form of enabling that can be controlled and taken
back, and where the roles are not fixed one-sided, where learning/teaching
is done by every member, where the teachers have to learn and the students
have to teach the teachers. In a forced cooperation, the weaker side follows
the rules as far as they can be coerced, but instinctively rejects
manipulation. So in an authoritarian setting, the student will refuse, he or
she will build up walls of protection - without trust, there is no openness,
and without equal bargaining power, there can be no trust, it would be
suicide. But education needs its walls smashed, otherwise you are stuck.
This is a problem for the overall system, no triumph for the student,
because he or she doesn’t learn anything this way. It’s cool if you reject
the school’s manipulation while enjoying a society where learning is
possible, outside. But this is not our situation. Learning is stuck
everywhere - in school, in society, in the media, at work. And this is bad
for the people, for us.

TS: You suggest that our current social system has no visions– that the
educational system is emptied out of ideologies today. This is not what we
experience in the U.S. at the moment – there surely is a lot of vision, but
one may not want a piece of it.

CS: There is this new fundamentalism, the call for conservative values and
virtues, but you can’t take that serious. It’s not ideology because it does
not work as a way to embrace today’s change in a way that gives visions. The
world is admiring capitalism and America not because it does or does not
have articulate leaders but because it is such a strong system that it can
afford the biggest dumb heads as leaders without collapsing. Oppositional
forces are so weak because the movements’ visions are also weak still–
there is no real threat of an alternative. In the 70s, capitalist and
bourgeois ideology became really smart because it had to fight the Left.
Cooperation ideologists read Marx and Foucault, they studied feminism and
the ecological movement, they discovered the frictions between emancipation
and socialism as well as those between the people and the authoritarian,
patriarchal state; this is how neo-liberalism was born. It was a time when
the dominant educational system really tried to create affirmative
ideologies, when it wanted something to happen in education, wanted people
to learn >resistance to left ideologies< and to learn the >right thing<.

This is over. Today, institutionalized education is nothing more than an
occupational army standing in a country formerly called education, and its
main order is to prevent that something happens. It does not create
something, it does not even try to teach anything. It only >shows the
instruments< of today’s society, the crude and cruel rules of sheer
competition, and exterminates any spaces and processes that could get out of
control, that could create something dangerous. The Bush fundamentalism gets
down to the simple formula that the U.S. is always right because they have
the fattest ass in the world. You can’t really call that an ideology. It’s
an act of humiliating its enemies by displaying unchallenged dumbness. And
as such, it works.

TS: Could we get back a little to our starting point, the situation and
perspectives of new- media art education? Is there anything specific to
teaching new media in your opinion?

CS: In general, I see little new media education in our societies. I still
remember a teacher of our son rejecting his homework in geography because he
had printed out some stuff from the Internet. When I talked to the teacher,
she told me she couldn’t accept this because it was too easy, not laborious
enough. Would he have copied the stuff, writing it by hand, she would have
accepted it. This is the state of affairs in new media education at school,
as far as I can see.

So we’re coming back to Ancient Egypt at the moment, a situation where a
handful of people are skilled and employed as >writers< while the majority
of the people are kept analphabets. Again, this is what an occupational army
does. It tears down the schools, the universities. It destroys education
while supporting a handful of specialists. This doesn’t work too well, but
it causes a hell of a lot of problems. It destroys hopes, and visions. It
brings domination down to administration of the catastrophe, stripping off
its creative aspects, rejecting any deal.

I think you can imagine new-media art education only as the education of
society, of the people, according to the changing world, the changing
society, and changing technology. Imagining yourself as being a part of this
task, and not just of becoming a specialist on your own. To me, this is very
important for democratic education, to imagine it as a practice for society
as a whole, and coming out of society and its problems, being addressed to
the people in the end. This is also what every good artist does: building an
audience that did not exist before. It’s not about the >work<, it’s about a
new practice that implies work, audience, interaction, creation, influencing
both ways. I loved that about Miles Davis, he started his most creative
phase with the determination not to address an audience, but to build one.
Well, now >that< is art. And this is something that education should be
about: using skills to imagine and envision what could be done with new all
these possibilities, by the people. Without that, we’re just training
cooperation assholes.

TS: What exactly do you mean by >cooperation asshole<?

CS: Someone who relies on society, on others, as we all do, but pretends
that he does not. The >cooperation asshole< pretends to be all self-made,
self-educated, exempt from cooperation. He or she is buying that archaic
genius stuff. They are, therefore, not willing to pay anything back, to make
him- or herself useful again for the others. Late neo-liberalism, stripped
from its early anti-institutionalism, is mainly an ideology for cooperation

I don’t really have an original idea about new media education in
particular. Just be honest, try not to be afraid; accept that you are part
of the problem. Try to be part of the solution. Have visions, cooperate,
support free cooperation while rejecting forced cooperation. Go around, do
not live inside institution, do other things, ask people. Find the rebels.
Be patient, be revolutionary. The usual stuff. Try to find a better answer
than this.

Liza Sabater Jan. 28 2005 00:27Reply

On Wednesday, Jan 26, 2005, at 16:55 America/New_York, Trebor wrote:

> Christoph Spehr: Education and Crisis

Better historical context : Deschooling

Ivan Illich, Deschooling Society
(Published about 20 years ago)

Sandra Dodd
(The best contemporary writer about the subject)

Three fundamental writers before the coining of DESCHOOLING :

Paulo Freire : Pedagogy of the Opressed

John Holt : Teach Your Own, How Children Learn
"Growing Without Schooling" (interview)

John Taylor Gatto, "Against School"

/ liza sabater