Here’s a recent talk I gave for the Oxford Brookes ‘Brave New World’ seminar series. In the talk I explore what new possibilities there may be to re-imagine schooling after the coronavirus pandemic. In particular, I argue that it’s time to move away from age- and phase-based schooling limited to assessed curricula and the physical space of the school. This model of schooling is out of step with the reality that young people experience in their everyday lives. I also suggest that we can get rid of the traditional boundaries between phases of education and think instead about learning for life. Finally, I argue that we can radically rethink the transmission model of learning (and of culture) that pervades mass education. In short, to quote Alice Cooper: School’s Out Forever. Have a look!
I had a great time recently chatting with Mark Taylor of Education on Fire about Schooling and Social Identity. It’s an important time to be asking critical questions about schooling and socialisation.
Is the current age-based system of organising learning in schools in need of radical change?
Dr. Patrick Alexander from Oxford Brookes University shares his thoughts based on his new book – Schooling and Social Identity: Learning to Act Your Age in Contemporary Britain.
Patrick Alexander is a social anthropologist specialising in education, childhood and youth studies. Patrick’s research and teaching interests include the sociology of schooling, youth and youth subcultures, gender, ethnography, and social theory.
My new book with the above title is now out (Feb 2020) with Palgrave Macmillan. You can access the book here: https://www.palgrave.com/gp/book/9781137388308 – get your librarian to buy a copy!
Here’s an outline of what the book is about:
School’s Out, Forever
My new book Schooling and Social Identitysuggests that the current age-based system of organising learning in schools is in need of radical change. If the so-called ‘Youthquake’ led by Greta Thunberg and others is challenging adult authority, then schools are next.
Why are schools organised according to age?
This question raises important issues about generational relations in contemporary society and about the nature of schooling. While society continues to change dramatically, schools are still organised much as in the 19th century. Drawing on a year of in-depth research in an English secondary school, I argue that age remains the last ‘grand narrative’ of modern society: we still hold on to outdated ideas about how the life course works, imagining it as a straight line from development in childhood and youth to stability in adulthood. While most people’s experiences of growing up and growing old are more complicated than this, schools socialise us into steady progression, year-by-year, into the future. Young people reconcile this message about future certainty with their experiences of life in the era of post-truth, fake news, and ecological crisis, where the future appears more complicated, unpredictable and uncertain now than ever. From lesson to lesson and day to day, as well as in their imagining of what the future holds, young people have to navigate a minefield of different expectations of how they should act their age. I use the entirely new concept of ‘age imaginaries’ in order to make sense of the complicated experiences of young people becoming adults in today’s world.
The tension between a linear picture of growing up and the complex, blurred lines between age categories in the present raises significant questions about mental health and wellbeing, and suggests that more can be done to effectively prepare young people for the future. There is a ‘cruel optimism’ to a school system that promises future stability (in work, family, ecology, politics, etc), while the world becomes less and less likely to deliver on these certain prospects. Instead, schools could be radically reorganised to become more dynamic and inclusive and to better reflect the complex world in which young people live. An important part of this reorganisation would be to move away from grouping according to age. While some schools in the ‘democratic education’ tradition have been experimenting with this idea for decades, it remains to be seen how a move away from age in schooling might be achieved through steady change to the mainstream system of state schooling. Individuals like Greta and youth movements like that in Hong Kong suggest that if schools don’t change, young people will lead the change themselves.
(originally posted here)
In the moment when current school-leavers open their A-Level results letters today, new imagined futures will be conjured into existence, illuminating in new and sometimes unexpected ways the path that leads beyond the present. In this moment, young people may confirm imaginings of the future already well-forged through years of careful preparation for trajectories through university and beyond into careers. Others may experience the jarring uncertainty of plans unmade and undone, if their results do not offer safe passage into the future that they had anticipated inhabiting in September. For many, the new regime of so-called ‘linear A-Levels’, with their ‘harder’ content and traditional format, offer yet further uncertainty because on one hand they may generate lower levels of attainment while also pushing universities to be more flexible in their negotiation of conditional offers for places. Data out today suggests that male students have out-performed female students for the highest grades – another shift and change that will, in some cases, have led to new reckonings of what the future may hold for young men and women.
All of this change is exacerbated by the brave new world of Clearing for universities, where evermore immediate imaginings of the future can be forged in the space of a single phone call to a university administrator. While in the past clearing was about jostling to find a place at university if your results weren’t quite what you were hoping for, removing the limit on student recruitment numbers for UK universities means that that clearing now represents an opportunity for students to make a deal that will work for them. Universities are chasing student numbers and fees, and in their role as potential future customers for Higher Education, students are flexing financial as well as academic muscle to cast for brighter university futures than they might have previously imagined.
This takes us back to our ethnographic fieldwork on A-Level results Day a year ago, when we observed the reactions, decisions, and occasional desperation of a results day at a local Oxfordshire school. On that day, imagined futures were changed literally minute to minute, as students called through to prospective universities and secured verbal agreements about changing a course or gaining a place. In these moments, futures are profoundly altered, and individuals must navigate the difficult process of re-orienting themselves to new visions of what their lives will be like post-school.
These issues speak to the broader themes that have emerged in this research project, notable among which is the increasingly rapacious uncertainty that characterises imagined futures of school-leavers, both in urban and rural settings across the UK. Whether positive or negative, or somewhere in between, the results delivered to hopeful young people today will be even less certain in their meaning and implications than was the case in previous years. The future-orientation of everyday life at school and the promise of certain rational-choice outcomes from employment and Higher Education suggest a range of futures that are relatively easy to anticipate (in the latter, the clue is in the term ‘prospectus’). In the present, however, the future is irregular. The freshest crop of A-level holders will today need to find productive ways to reckon with this irregularity as they make their way towards the heat-haze horizon of a future as yet unset.
This post reaches you from a suitably changeable July afternoon in Oxford, with dark clouds hurrying across the sky, promising rain but giving over to occasional patches of good old-fashioned, elusive English Summer sunshine. I‘m reminded today of a similar summer afternoon last year, when I sat down with David Mills, the out-going editor of Teaching Anthropology, to discuss future issues of the journal. My immediate inclination was to look to the future of teaching anthropology itself as a subject for discussion in the first 2017 special issue. In the immediate aftermath of the UK referendum on membership of the EU (it’s important to remind ourselves it wasn’t always called ‘Brexit’), and with the impending election of Donald Trump as president of the United States (it will be important to remind ourselves down the line that this was not always a truth stranger than fiction), it seemed logical that we as a community of educators and anthropologists should be thinking about what new pedagogic strategies might be needed to account for the rapacious and occasionally ominous nature of contemporary social and political change. As our discussion of the topic developed, the focus shifted away from a prophetic look at ‘what’s next’ for teaching anthropology to one that encouraged discussion of the discipline’s long-standing engagement with uncertainty and the future, both as substantive themes and as concepts that inform the nature of anthropologically-informed pedagogy. Engaging thoughtfully with questions of uncertainty, we argue, is crucial not just for engaged practice in teaching anthropology, but also for challenging the particular future-orientations of educative practices at large. Kyle Harp-Rushing and our colleagues at Cultural Anthropology have described this kind of engagement with uncertainty as reclamation – as a way of embracing uncertainty not as something to be anticipated as part of an inescapable, impending future, but rather as a concept that can enrich and deepen the learning process in a way that in turn helps to positively shape the future we will eventually inhabit.
In strange but familiarly uncertain times, the editorial collective at Teaching Anthropology hoped that this would spark discussion about how we teach and prepare students for futures defined by uncertainty, dislocation and rupture. Keri Facer, among others, has pointed to the increasing use of the military term VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous) to describe the current state of social, political and economic systems. Baumann, Beck, and Giddens in particular have helped to shape a more complex sociological understanding of how risk and uncertainty frame our experiences of social life such that future risks and opportunities are presented in an increasingly individualized form, and yet also become increasingly difficult for individuals to know, control, or pre-empt. And yet amidst this increasingly volatile uncertainty, education continues to be represented as a locus for certain future outcomes, whether economic, intellectual, cultural, or in terms of social mobility. In the everyday life of teaching anthropology, this raises tensions because it demands a reassertion of the critical tenets of anthropology as a discipline primed to make strange the familiar certainties of education, but at a time when the teaching of anthropology is embattled and beleaguered because it does not explicitly promise (even if it regularly delivers) a clear return on investment or pathway to employment.
The well-worn tension between creativity and constraint in teaching anthropology was the main focus of discussion at a recent Teaching Anthropology workshop with secondary school teachers and academics, focusing on the theme of teaching about culture and difference in uncertain times. The workshop, held at Oxford Brookes University and funded in collaboration with Oxford University and the ESRC, revealed a range of personal anecdotes, pedagogic strategies, and individual initiatives all of which articulated different elements of how uncertainty emerges in the mundane every-day of the classroom. Some shared affirming stories about successfully encouraging young people to engage with uncertainty in order to unsettle preconceptions and challenge the taken-for-granted. Others described circumstances where critical approaches to teaching anthropologically led to intense anxiety on the part of both students and senior management because the learning was not designed explicitly to aid in examination preparation. In the latter case, this led to a disciplinary hearing and job instability, highlighting another facet of uncertainty for teachers of a subject already at the curricular margins both in secondary education and in universities.
This tension leads also to the question of stewardship, focusing on the disciplinary legacies that teachers nurture and protect, and why they think it’s important to do so. In exploring the kinds of futures we are teaching anthropology for, we are prompted to consider the pedagogic moments of rupture when teachers decide to challenge disciplinary pedagogies and carve out new directions in response to new challenges. Advocating radically new ways of teaching and learning may offer ways of reimagining what the discipline has to offer students in helping them to find a way in uncertain times. The articles and reflections featured in the forthcoming special issue of Teaching Anthropology reveal how a combination of innovative practice and time-honoured, ethnographically-informed pedagogy can help to frame the teaching of anthropology in a way that makes uncertainty a powerful analytic tool for learning and living in uncertain times.
What do you want to be when you finally grow up? In 2014, on a humid September morning, I boarded a crowded subway train to arrive at the New York City public high school where I would spend a whole year exploring this question. I wanted to find out how high school kids make sense of their futures, and to better understand how schooling socialises us to imagine the future in particular ways. I also wanted to know more about the barriers that get in the way of achieving these futures, and how young people manage to overcome these challenges (if they do). I didn’t know then that masculinity would also become one of the more important and evocative themes in the ethnography. Understanding experiences and articulations of masculinity became a way for me to consider how neoliberal framings of aspiration are used to make sense of the future for young people in school. This is what I write about in my recent chapter in the edited volume Masculinity and Aspiration in the Era of Neoliberal Education: International Perspectives.
Picture a 17 year-old girl who was shot in the head at a Freshman party, now wheelchair-bound, struggling to graduate. A young Latino man with ‘Game Over’ tattooed on his eyelids, leaving his gang affiliations behind to focus on schooling. A hard working, smiling, first generation migrant teen from Ghana, on his way with a full scholarship to a prestigious private American university. Middle class kids from relatively stable families, pursuing a well-known but increasingly fragile version of the American Dream that leads from college to job satisfaction and security in the future. Picture an incredibly dedicated principal who begins his work day, everyday, at 4.30am, and for whom no issue in his high school of 2000 students is too small to deal with personally. Tireless, caring teachers who may teach English, but who also council the homeless, or disaffected, or desperate youth that they encounter in their classrooms, before hemming and washing the clothes of their students so that they’re presentable for work experience. Picture tired, over-worked teachers who struggle to marry their vision of doing well by their students against the increasing demands for accountability from their institution, the City, the state, and the government. Picture police officers walking the halls of a school, protecting students from within and without, idly high-fiving the occasional straggler on the way to class. Picture an immense, castle-like structure in The Bronx, where these people exist together, carving out aspirations and imaginings of their distinct but interconnected futures amidst the pulsing, chaotic, inspiring, roaring mechanism of New York City.
This is a list of just a few of the incredible individuals who I was fortunate enough to meet as part of my experience as a Fulbright Peabody Scholar conducting anthropological research into aspirations and schooling in New York City during the academic year 2014-2015. As an anthropologist of education, I am fascinated and driven by three connected fields of inquiry: a) the social and cultural processes through which humans learn; b) the ways in which we give structure to our social lives; and c) the means that we use to shape and reproduce culture. In this research and in my previous academic work to date, I have been preoccupied in particular by the ways in which schooling serves to socialise young people (and eventually, older people) into particular practices and ways of thinking. As a profoundly important context in which lasting social norms and values are forged, mass formal education serves a very compelling space for exploring the ideological drivers of contemporary society.
With this in mind, in this research I was especially interested to explore comparatively the ways in which schooling shapes the aspirations and imaginings of the future held by those at the very end of formal secondary education. I wanted to ask high school seniors what they wanted to be when they grew up, and then to unravel the complex set of sociological factors that led them to aspire to particular imaginings of the future. I also wanted to know about the barriers to achieving their aspirations for the future, and the strategies and supports that they used in order to overcome (or not overcome) these barriers. In short, I wanted to better understand in comparative relief what young people in contemporary British and American society consider to be the building blocks of a meaningful life; and I wanted to understand why they think this way. These are issues at the heart of much political and popular discourse in the UK and the US. Indeed, the effective shaping of the aspirations of young people, through schooling, is at the very core of the economic and political ideologies of our respective nation-states. If the children are our future, as Witney Houston would have it, then schools are the contexts in which particular imaginings of the future are given shape, value, and potentiality. I wanted to better understand why certain futures are privileged and articulated through experiences of schooling, and how these may be similar and different in the post-recession realities of everyday school life in the US and the UK.
In order to do so, during 2014-2015 I spent several days each week spending time with seniors and their teachers at a school I call Bronx High School. By adopting this classic ethnographic methodology of socio-cultural anthropology, I hoped to immerse myself in the everyday life of the school, documenting mundane, cumulative, momentary articulations of ideas about aspiration and the future, mainly through observation, conversation and interview. Fortunately for me, schools are inherently future-gazing spaces: most activities and conversations are directed towards a future task, an impending examination or assessment, a future status as college student, college dropout, worker, or even grown-up. This meant that everyday at Bronx High was a good day for exploring youth imaginings of the future.
This is not to say, however, that these imaginings were articulated in a simple or straightforward way. In fact, one of the more compelling emerging findings of the research is the complex, multiple imaginings of the future that individual students are able to maintain concurrently, even when these imaginings may at first seem mutually exclusive. Students must also navigate the contested nature of the futures imagined for them by (and in relation to the relative futures of) the school, the City, or broader US society. As suggested above, Bronx High was home to a range of students, many of whom were much more familiar with generational patterns of entrenched disadvantage in The Bronx than they were with the sparkling affluence of near-distant Manhattan. In reconciling their experiences of disadvantage with the powerful message of potential future success and happiness underpinning the school’s articulation of the American Dream, many students would at once imagine a future as pro basketball players, rappers, lawyers, philanthropic businesspeople, or simply as college graduates, while also articulating their fear and frustration at the likelihood of much less opulent futures ahead. Some articulated their aspirations for the future in keeping with a traditional pathway from hard work at school, to college, and on to employment, wealth, and the happiness that comes with social and economic security. Others were more cynical about the relationship between schooling and learning, and between schooling and the ultimate conditions for a meaningful life (even if they were on their way to college anyway – just in case). Others still had no clear vision of what the future would be like, but were on the way to college because that was their normative framework for navigating early adulthood. Drawing metaphorically from the realm of quantum physics, over the course of the project I developed the concept of quantum personhood as a means of understanding these complex, multiple imaginings of future selves – the uncertain, entangled, seemingly incongruent but ultimately coherent articulations of individual and collective social identity, expressed in the present but always in relation to past and potential future versions of who we are and may be.
In June 2014, as I attended the high school graduation ceremony for seniors at Bronx High (including some of those mentioned above), I had cause to reflect on the truly profound impact that my Fulbright experience had on me, both personally and professionally. I learned a lot from the gracious, welcoming high school seniors and teachers who allowed me into their lives during the school year. This was not only in terms of their particular articulations of aspiration and the future, but also in terms of developing a critical perspective on the broader concept of aspiration as it is understood and articulated in late modern capitalist societies like the UK and the US. Adopting this kind of critical approach is crucial not only in helping young people to overcome risks and develop resilience in achieving their aspirations, but also in helping them to challenge on a more profound level the terms in which these aspirations are framed. As my year as a Fulbright scholar came to an end, I left New York City with a renewed fascination for understanding in comparative relief the relationships between US and UK culture and society. This is inspired as much by my research as in the rich experience of cultural exchange that Fulbright provides. I now look forward to continuing with this research project as I begin a second year of ethnographic school, this time in a London secondary school, where I anticipate I will find distinct but similarly complex youth imaginings of the future.
Others including Hillary Clinton have also weighed in on the need for change. On a small-scale, in relation to the police this might involve officers wearing body-cameras; but on the large scale this means addressing issues of entrenched racism and poverty – something that is already driving the rhetoric of announced candidates in the run-up to the presidential elections in 2016.
Across the pond, of course, the failings of the UK’s outdated electoral system have ensured another five years of austerity-driven Conservative government. For us back in the UK, it seems, questions about the profound inequity of our society have been quickly muffled post-election by calls for a positive psychological approach to our socio-economic woes. Aspiration remains centre-stage for the new Conservative government; but those who experience the sharp end of the austerity spear (namely, disadvantaged, marginalised young people) are increasingly being blamed, and even pathologised, for the hopelessness that their ‘entrenched worklessness’ engenders. In the coming year it will be interesting to find out how these seemingly contrasting sentiments are reconciled and articulated by students making their way towards the end of secondary education and into the brave new world beyond.
When the first snows started to melt a few weekends ago, New York City looked like it was waking up from a very heavy Friday night: all those snowdrifts were playing temporary host to a million cigarette butts, discarded coffee cups and doggie bags (and not the kind you take away from a restaurant), all of which spread out in cold puddles across the city streets. But in typical NYC fashion this has all been efficiently cleared away, ready for the Spring and Summer to come.
Relationships aside, it’s an increasingly exciting time at Bronx High. We’re edging ever-closer to the end of the academic year, and for seniors this means that the once very distant, imagined world of college will very soon become a stark reality. Most are looking forward to the independence that broader college horizons will bring – most, but not all. The statistics for New York City suggest that many of these seniors will struggle to keep up with their peers in local city universities, possibly having to take remedial English or Maths classes to make up for slower progress at school. Many will take up to four years to complete a two year Associates Degree, meaning increasing debts and a decreasing likelihood of further study down the line. More still, of course, will not make it to college because the challenges of life in the Bronx make getting through high school a real struggle. As part of their effort to alleviate some of the barriers that students face, Bronx High has become a Community School – one aspect of Mayor de Blasio’s programme to integrate social services for young people. The city has seen some impressive success stories in Community Schools where incredibly dedicated principals have been able to harness some of the vast financial and infrastructural resources of NYC to improve life for those young people who need help the most. Some of these stories came out during the Risk to Resilience conference hosted at NYU and organised by Pedro Noguera. The conference was aimed at identifying best practice in community-focused approaches to education, and in frank terms illuminated the confluence of race and inequity in American society. It was incredibly inspiring to see so many individuals dedicated to helping others in their communities. Of course, these charismatic, dedicated individuals also highlight that so much of the success of these programs rests on the personal investment of the few, rather than in structural change that may have a lasting, profound impact on poverty in urban America, particularly for young people, and particularly for young people of colour. Here’s to hoping those structural, scalable changes lie ahead in the not too distant future.