Between Appearance and Reality: why cultural mediators shouldn’t fall on their own lines
Recently, the Vienna Museums Quartier organized a children’s culture parcours. The art and cultural institutions based here presented their diverse offerings for and with children and invited people to participate. All these initiatives made it clear that in recent years the significance of artistic activities for children has changed dramatically. Children have simply become an integral part of the cultural scene; many institutions can no longer be imagined without them.
And the children drew, tinkered, drilled, and hammered. It was obviously fun for them – and all the while the mediators felt confirmed in their commitment to giving the children free rein over their creativity.
Everything is good –but is everything really good?
The discussion of an Open Space which took place together with EDUCULT as part of an Assitej anniversary event, gave the impression of an unequivocal yes on the behalf of the community. After the series, the mediators presented their institutions’ success stories, referred to the Charter of the Child’s Rights to Culture and thus suggested the sustainable transformation of the cultural industry into one in which children and youth have become the primary audience. City Councillor for Culture Veronika Kaup-Hasler seamlessly joined these narratives when she reported on the successful efforts of steirischer herbst to involve this target group more actively in the programme and to be more present in Vienna.
I listened attentively to a mediator who quoted a father who wanted to prevent his child from taking part in a mediation programme: “That’s not for you”, he said. The reference was meant to point out an unbroken divide that prevents socially disadvantaged people in particular from taking advantage of the cultural sector.
In this context, the most recent commentary by Falter journalist and teacher Melisa Erkurt has emerged, which reflects on the ever-present “art gap”. She asked students what art means to them and harvested complete silence. “What is art at all?” she offered, trying to make the answer easier for the pupils. “Expensive pictures that cost millions,” one pupil replied. “They are then kept in the museum,” said one pupil. “Have you ever been to a museum? “ Erkurt wanted to know. “Yes, once with the school,” the pupils replied. None of them had been to the museum privately with their parents.
Erkurt comes to the conclusion that the concept of art could not be further away from the reality of these pupils’ lives: “Art, these are the subjects of work and visual education, in which all children get A’s anyway. For them, art is expensive pictures whose value they cannot comprehend, and, to quote another pupil, it is something only for Austrians.
As a solution, she proposes “to bring down the concept of art from above and to make it suitable for everyday use…. We have to adapt the concept of art to our students and not the other way round, because art is thus reserved for a small elitist bubble.”
Art for children – art with children
A number of Open Space discussion participants were all in line with Erkurt when they championed approaches that moved away from “art for children” and instead towards “art with children” in order to reduce the social gap. Of course, the obligatory school bashing should not be lacking as it is necessary to positively distinguish oneself from traditional school approaches, regarded as compulsive, and to take the side of the creative power of young people. The EDUCULT managing director Aron Weigl, who dealt with questions of cultural policy for children in his dissertation, reserved the right to plead for an institutional differentiation not only in terms of image but also to strive more decisively for new forms of cooperation between schools and cultural institutions. The relevant experience gained by EDUCULT within the framework of the project “Art and Games” provided a basis for this. The multi-year cooperative project between large German art and cultural institutions, kindergartens and primary schools show just how dependent both sides are on each other when it comes to creating unique opportunities as well as to stimulating a lasting and effective interest among young people.
From “what” to “how” – a two-sided development
In this milieu of celebration of a childlike will of expression, I felt reminded of the final discussion of the European Congress on “Specialists in Despecialization“. Marjo Kyllonen, head of the Helsinki School Administration, referred to the current school reform in her country, which has made the question of “what” in the classroom increasingly obsolete, while “how” as growing in importance. The rationale behind this is the universal availability of information, which makes it increasingly important to focus on the way in which information is handled – the “how”. At that time I wanted to argue that information would not automatically generate knowledge and that without elementary knowledge it would make little sense to agree on how to deal with it. Instead, I fear that this opens the door to a literally “senseless” action that declares sheer doing – regardless of its intention – to be the measure of all things.
I admit, as I often do after observing mediation programs, which have long since “emancipated” themselves from the respective content programming of institutions and instead cultivate an action that allows children to do what they have supposedly always wanted to do. If they are still having fun, then the mediators think they have fulfilled their task: The children are happy and so they too can be happy.
Here we go deeper into an old controversy, which the cultural journalist Holger Noltze already aggravated a few years ago with his reflections on the “lightness lie“. With his saga “Culture must also be allowed to hurt” he provoked a lot of resistance in the scene in 2010. He argued that the field of cultural education and mediation was increasingly in favour of the light and superficially beautiful rather than the heavy and strenuous. His accusation is still an important guideline in the assessment of “what we actually do there”.
The FAZ editor Jürgen Kaube, who recently published a book with the sensational title “Ist die Schule zu blöd für unsere Kinder” (Is the school too stupid for our children), makes a similar statement. In his admittedly pessimistic reflections “someone from the outside” examines some basic assumptions regarding modern school development. His aim is to peer behind the scenes of current education policy rhetoric. He is suspicious of an alliance tacitly negotiated between idealistic claims and a form of educational research that has largely lost any critical distance from its subject in its modernization frenzy: “Among the didactics, learning theorists, method inventors and their accompanying educational researchers. Supported by reform-minded educational bureaucracies and a continuing education and teaching materials industry that is doing business with reforms, they have turned the school into an experimental field of alleged modernization.“ This assessment includes the fact that such an educational complex is lying to its own slogans when – following the late capitalist zeitgeist – it puts individualization at the top of the agenda, but bases its decisions on seemingly objective, because anonymously created statistical average data.
Now we can argue aptly about what the modernization of schools in a capitalist society is supposed to achieve. This applies above all to the question of whether schools can be expected to make up for failures in politics, for example when it comes to the effort to create equal opportunities for children, which are not to be found anywhere else in society. If the national school systems are not able to compensate for the escalating social inequalities, Kaube at least admits the question of whether this is their central task – or whether (wrong) decisions in other policy fields (social affairs, housing, labour market, integration, …) are not much more powerful factors in promoting social integration (or disintegration). (Perhaps in this context a reminder of the much-vaunted educational policy of the Kreisky/Sinowatz era, which made social advancement possible for many at that time, helps. It only succeeded because courageous reforms to increase social mobility could also be implemented in other policy fields, many of which are now being reversed (keyword: erosion of the welfare state). According to Kaube, such a comprehensive feeling of over taxation has arisen in schools whose protagonists are faced with the inextricable decision of what they should actually want: to fight inequality or exist in ignorance?
A propos: In connection with efforts to reduce social inequality, Kaube mentions the Perry Preschool Project, which, in cooperation with parents, is able to sustainably improve entry conditions even before children start school.
The major failure of schools – around a third of all pupils now leave school without sufficient knowledge about elementary cultural techniques. And nobody talks about it.
Personally, I tend to support the thesis that this indissoluble dichotomy has increasingly pushed the actual scandal of school into the background, which is the fact that up to one third – the numbers vary – of school leavers do not master the basic cultural techniques sufficiently to develop a sufficient perspective on life. The fact that this creates a huge reservoir for a right-wing populist counter-revolution can only be hinted at here.
On the basis of this failure, Kaube expresses a fundamental criticism of the current pedagogical reform boom, which – see above – also dominates large parts of the art and cultural mediation-scene. Contrary to the currently hyped didactics, he adheres to a traditional image of the teacher. Their task as mediators of elementary levels of knowledge remains unassailable to him if pupils can only develop an awareness of problems after they have become familiar with certain facts. The tendency to make it easy for pupils to gain sovereignty in the pursuit of school learning goals even when they are entering new territory disregards the central task of teachers as guides in unknown worlds. If, however, the elementary methodological prerequisites for this are lacking – due to a lack of often arduous practice – then only one thing would be achieved – fun learning. This demonstrates the refusal to recognize that overcoming difficulties in acquiring knowledge is a prerequisite for developing sufficient perspectives for one’s own way of life. In this effort, the pupils should not be picked up “where they are” in the sense of the closest possible reference to their lives, but should be encouraged to engage with the unknown. Teachers must convey to them the sense that routines, repetition and occasional resistance are necessary prerequisites for security in an increasingly incomprehensible world.
Technology as a new (false) promise of salvation
One of Kaube’s particular concerns is the attenuation of the current hype surrounding the digitisation of schools (see, for example, the current master plan for the digitisation of the bmbwf). Like Konrad Paul Liessmann, he also warns against seeing the mass implementation of digital media as the saviour for a “sustainable” school. For him, school means a last sanctuary so as not to be permanently exposed to digital overload and to set out in search of the really important things in life. To him, the personal relationship between the students and teachers seems essential. In all his considerations, the teacher is a central role model for him, who decides whether and, if so, how young people shape their knowledge-based relationship to themselves and to the world. (In this context, Kaube gives an in-depth justification for the success story of the Finnish school, in which the teachers are endowed with a particularly high prestige; according to his interpretation, this results, among other things, from the historical tension between Finland and the former Soviet Union. As highly respected officials, it has fallen to teachers to pass on the claim to Finnish independence to the next generations. In recognition of this, high privileges were granted to teachers by the state).
You don’t have to agree with all of Kaube’s positions. And yet they are useful in questioning one’s own positions, which have already taken on a life of their own, and thus for getting at the heart of what schools are capable of achieving in the current phase of social transformation – and what they are not.
Creative Learning in times of no alternative – “Fusion Skills” as the answer of those who want things to continue as they always have?
A recent initiative by Anne Bamford, currently the City of London Corporation’s Strategic Director of Education, Skills, and Culture, has similar claims. She invited representatives from six European cities to London in order to exchange experiences at an event entitled “Cities of the Future: Thriving and surviving with Fusion Skills”. In the opinion of Bamford, then this event will be no more and no less than a starting signal for a different kind of school, in which so-called “fusion skills” (from the British Innovation Foundation NESTA) were defined as a total of 12 skills: oral communication/presentation skills, collaboration and teamwork, initiative, problem solving, organisational skills, adaptability / flexibility, written communication, independent working / autonomy, critical thinking, resilience, creativity, analysis and evaluation skills) should form the future basis of school learning. Obviously stubbornness or even resistance are not part of it.
For me, two things became clear at this event (as already at the intervention of Paul Collard of CCE, as well as at the event “Specialists of Despecialization”): On the one hand, there is the aforementioned prioritization of the “how” over the “what”, which makes available all the knowledge resources that were previously determined to be important. On the other hand, there is the widely accepted discourse on “Creative Learning”, which now has a significant impact on the debate on school development in the Anglo-Saxon region. As the composition of the event also illustrates, representatives of the technology sector, entrepreneurs, artists, politicians and administrators show little fear of contact when it comes to “rethinking” schools along the lines of the prevailing guidelines of late capitalist modes of production and reception.
Of course, the current social and political conditions have proved to be the big elephant in the room. They claim, for example, that around a third of young people in England are now at risk of poverty – school reform or no – or that the democratic political system is at risk of crisis. According to Bamford and her colleagues in the City of London (which, though it is only a single district in London, comprises about 20% of the GDP of the whole of Great Britain), a new school based on “fusion skills” means further radicalisation of global modernisation. They are hoping to equip more people with the appropriate tools to participate in the development of a technologically driven, increasingly universal and competitive society by teaching universally applicable competences. In a contribution to “Future of Cities”, a Korean colleague tried to prove that technological development and human behaviour would continue to diverge. Her solution was to accelerate learning processes based on fusion skills in order to better meet technological requirements.
The Political and Cultural Back-Lash and the Advocates of a More-of-the-Same
That’s when I got suspicious. And I found Cornelia Koppetsch. In her recently published study “Die Gesellschaft des Zorns. Right-wing populism in the global age” made it clear that, against this affirmation of the prevailing conditions, a comprehensive counterrevolution is being launched which, despite all the political dangers, will once again critically examine the preconditions of our own thinking and action – and by this I mean the liberal and democratic elites that right-wing populists have targeted. Reading Kaube, for example, can be helpful here.
We don’t all have to become democratically sceptical and illiberal right-wing populists in order to question the (cultural) transformations taking place in the capitalist mainstream. But a first step could be to develop a degree of scepticism against self-understandings that have become dear to one’s own community. This probably also includes the insight that nothing is given in life, not even the culture that today is about to mutate into a dangerous conflict zone again.
So back to the children’s culture course at the MQ: the children’s shining eyes at play are one thing, the effort of dealing with culture, which is currently being subjected to a comprehensive political reinterpretation and therefore does not open up per se, is another.
In between, more than ever, we are called upon to develop a stubborn position founded in knowledge and effort. With the children and with ourselves.
Picture: © eSel – https://esel.at
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