Pedagogy After Bowie
The Bowie phenomenon is not without its implications for pedagogy – especially for a pedagogy that frames the teacher as the great threat to the spontaneous self-reliance of the child, whose instinct, were it not thwarted by those sages on stages, is to become a self-directed learner – a pedagogy according to which all children are born free only to be shackled by teachers who presume to know what those children ought to be learning. What Bowie does here is establish a standard with which to judge just how damaging those teachers are.
The immediate effect of the Bowie phenomenon is to remind us of the student bedroom – a room which needs to be recalled when trying to judge the impact of what goes on in the classroom. What the narrowly pedagogic discourse too often forgets is that few teenage students line their bedroom walls with posters of their teachers. The fact is not insignificant. It provides a hint that few teachers touch their students very deeply.
Of course the self-esteem of the student can take a beating at school, but – we suggest – where it is damaged by schooling, the teacher is usually not the real culprit. If a student is in the C class, no amount of pedagogic care will make her feel like an A class student. And if the final certification produces a piece of paper with an F on it, the self-esteem of the student will take a hit incomparably worse than that effected by the accumulated snide remarks of the most frustrated teacher, who, in any case, was doubtless the laughing stock of the pupils from day one.
The impact that a teacherly teacher can have has been overstated. It is overstated not only in relation to the effect of the impersonal structures of the school system, but also in relation to the deleterious effects of forces cynically organised and deployed outside school. Bowie is exemplary.
He described himself as a “rock god”. Pop is not just entertainment; nor is it simply naked commercial exploitation; it is theology. Pop erects divinities. The most teacherly of teachers never managed to have his students erect an altar in his name.
In one of the documentaries on Bowie the film-maker goes looking for clues to account for the phenomenon. He finds a young woman in a long queue waiting to go into the concert. “Why Bowie?” he asks. “I’m a space cadet, and he’s my space commander,” she answers without irony. The rock god is a divinity that commands.
Teachers are demonised as the commanders of children. “Sit down! Stand up! Speak! Be silent!” But by the time the children begin thinking about who the real commanders are and who deserves authority and who doesn’t, the teacher has already been dismissed. Just as teachers win no space on the bedroom wall, they command no belief whatsoever; they are merely tolerated. An education in the tolerance of an unquestionable power is a terrible thing, but it’s effect on the spontaneous self-reliance of the student is as nothing in comparison to the unquestioned power of the pop space commanders persuading young people that their proper role in life is that of a cadet in a pop army – an army fighting, not the evil in the world, but merely the perceived dreariness of everyday life.
Provisional conclusion: A blinkered pedagogy that sees only the questionable dynamics of the school misses the far more questionable dynamics of the culture at large. The real education in heteronomy is provided outside school.
Hypothesis: It may be that a resurgence of autonomy requires stronger, not weaker schools, with teachers confident enough to challenge the spontaneous enlistment of the youth in pop armies.
Tweetable summary: If the sages have to get down from their stages, why not the gods of rock?