Personalising education in Greece – reply to George Drivas

Crisis in GreeceA few people in Greece are beginning to call for the personalisation of education and, online at least, the talk is gaining some momentum. Now, the mere idea of personalising education has an obvious initial appeal in Greece, since what often passes for education here places an inordinate weight on the impersonal values of certification, ticking the right boxes, getting the right mark and being able to stand up in class and repeat what was said the previous day. No one in their right mind would argue that such a system does not need to be opened up to allow individual students greater room to discover and develop their individual talents and to deepen their personal engagement with whatever they might be doing in school.

However, one can accept this and still be reluctant to jump on the bandwagon currently being driven around Greece by Mr George Drivas. We want to highlight three reasons for being reluctant, linking them to a perception of the crisis in Greece and what is happening in its wake.

Here is the key quotation that Mr George Drivas rests his case on:

“Personalisation and its synonym customisation are well developed in the business world: the change from mass production to mass customisation transformed that world as firms engaged in the innovation needed to meet the needs and aspirations of customers and clients more fully than was possible through mass production.”

The quote is from a book by David H Hargreaves. It is taken for granted that a trend like this in business sets a new standard that education must also rise to. For Mr Drivas the question is not why education should be grasping at the coat tails of business, but how best to keep up with those heroic manufacturers, marketing men and business gurus who apparently provide the most persuasive notions of what it means to be progressive.

1. The tyranny of business

Why chase the coat tails of business? Given that the issue is being raised at a time when the Greek social fabric is being rent asunder by the economic crisis – a time when business interests are presenting their ugliest face – it is surprising that someone in education can so calmly and fearlessly suggest that education should be judged by standards taken from business.

Is it not the case that the crisis has been used as a golden opportunity to empower naked business interests at the expense of less economically privileged citizens – citizens who, if they are lucky to still have work, know that the reality of personalisation is a social atomism that denies any meaningful opportunity to participate in the reform process, holding people in power to account and demanding an explanation of the meaningfulness of what is being done? Personalisation is not simply about getting a cover for your smartphone that has just the right amount of bling. That is personalisation for the consumer. As things stand, the consumer is also obliged to be a worker, and personalisation in the sphere of work has a rather different feel to it, the feel of powerlessness, of not having a voice, of simply having to keep your head down, shut up and work and hope that you are not fired by people who have flatly refused to have any dialogue with you and your colleagues – people who think that it is enough to organise the public sphere using the instruments of financial carrots and legal sticks (backed up by the armed police when needed).

In this context it is rather surprising that some teachers have chosen to speak out in favour of the idea of reforming education using an idea of personalisation taken from the bright, colour-coordinated world of their favourite brands.

Even if the economy were not in such a mess, it is far from obvious that educationalists should be looking to manufacturers and business gurus for their inspiration. If business is to be the inspiration, does this not mean treating education as a product to be sold on the market, seeing students as consumers – purchasers of a product that they must be able to monetise in the future? Is the problem with education that the “product” needs to be customised to appeal to the higher expectations of its market-savvy consumers?

Of course, education can be treated in this way. Schools and teachers in the private sector can sell their services preparing students for exams. They can each create a brand and a product that will appeal to a certain kind of student-consumer. The exam-training can be sufficiently flexible to allow for different learning styles and aptitudes. Cutting-edge technology can be put to use, homework tasks can be tweeted, MCQ exercises can be apped and classrooms can be flipped. At the end of the day, it will be teaching to the test, but the teaching will have been personalised. If the pass rate is high enough, the consumers will be happy and the business will be able to increase its market share.

Clearly, a bad education can be personalised and all the business criteria met while remaining a bad education. To see how to improve education in Greece from its present pitiful state, we have to look more carefully at education, not business. Isn’t that obvious?

A school might also be a business, but if it thinks it can grasp the essence of its schooling in terms supplied by business, it has lost the μπούσουλα, as they say.

2. Which person?

The discourse of personalisation assumes that there is some single and simple notion of the person that we all accept. Is there? Is there only one kind of person – one way of being a person?

Since we want to recall the wider context of Mr Drivas’s arguments, let’s look again at what has been happening here in Greece. What kind of person has been prominent in recent developments in Greece? Has there not been too much of a certain kind of person – one that wants to use the system to feather its own nest – one that wants to make an exception of itself? Don’t we see here a kind of person whose relation to the public world is primarily instrumental? Doesn’t this kind of person belong to a culture which is partly responsible for the crisis in Greece (although we would be the last to put the blame on individuals)?

One can imagine that naked business interests will not look upon this kind of personality too favourably. Perhaps business, in its current form, would prefer a different kind of personality, more conscientious, more dutiful than the first – one more willing to bow to the impersonal imperatives of the corporation and dutifully fulfil its contractual obligations – one that accepts that its private interests are only to be pursued in its free time – one that accepts a radical split between an impersonal, machine-like public realm of work that must be managed according to scientific principles – an activity that presents a mute reply to questions about its meaning – and a private realm where some sort of residual meaning might be found (either as enjoyment or as religious consolation).

Then there is the person as shopper (also required by business in its current form) – a personality that can never find any deep satisfaction, being always susceptible to the pricks of marketing suggestions whispering messages about how unenviable and undesirable it still is and how that lack might be made good by buying more – a personality that tends to identify itself with what it has (counting its own corporeality among its possessions). Perhaps this is the flip side of the previous personality, since, if the world of work has become ultimately meaningless, and there is no other meaningful form of public life, what else is there to identify with but what one buys with the fruits of one’s work?

If education is to be personalised, which kind of personality will it encourage? Given that it takes its inspiration from business and frames education as a commodity, won’t it tend to promote one of the business-friendly personality types? If so, are we to rest content with this, or are we to look further for a more inspiring notion of the person to place at the centre of a reformed education system?

A description of a much more inspiring notion of the person is to be found in the work of Aristotle1, who describes a self that is at its best when speaking and acting as a political being (and, of course, “political” here is not to be identified with a narrow notion of party politics, but with a shared concern for competing notions of the public good). For Aristotle the personal is political, which is not to collapse the political into the personal, but to identify the highest inclinations of the person with distinctively public forms of activity. Such a personality can only thrive where there is a public space in which people can stop being mere human resources and become political agents participating in a debate about how the world is to be understood and how they are to make sense of what they are doing – a debate which, providing the political community has not allowed itself to be colonised by anti-political forces, will change the course of history.

The modern student of Aristotle would never think of turning to the modern discourse of business to understand what personalisation might mean, since, for business, the personal is always the antithesis of the public, and the public is identified above all with the utterly impersonal economic order, which is framed not as a field of political interpretation, deliberation and action, but as an object to be studied by the “science” of economics. To be true to the business discourse, the personalisation of education would inevitably end up affirming some form of this antithesis. For the neo-Aristotelian, though, the best education would help children appreciate that the personality at its best realises itself within the public life of the community. It would be meaningless to call this “personalisation” since, in practice, it would be the same as “politicisation”.

In light of the crisis, is Greece not in need of a new generation of publicly spirited individuals eager to reclaim a vibrant public sphere and together find a way of reforming society that can make sense to people concerned about the humanity of what they are doing, or is the need only for an army of conscientious persons who dutifully fulfil their contractual obligations at work and wait for the weekend to enjoy themselves? Should people in education not be giving less emphasis to the needs of business, and more emphasis to a revitalised public culture freed from the clientellistic ossification of the past? If the economic crisis (as currently understood) merely masks a deeper political crisis, shouldn’t educationalists be paying more attention to how that public spirit can be cultivated in school, or should they concentrate on developing their brand profile and personalising their products?

3. Why school?

Another problem with the discourse of personalisation is that it tends to make the point of school seem an utter mystery.

If the ideal is to personalise education, mass customisation (as described by Mr Drivas) can seem a compromise at best – little more than a half-way house. Why make do with mass customisation? Why stop there? If the ideal is to tailor the service to the idiosyncratic needs of the student-consumer, why not avoid school altogether and employ private tutors (real and virtual) as and when needed? The fact that most people will not be able to afford it does not stop this appearing to be the ideal. Thus, school as a public institution would seem to be pointless.

However, if we have a deeper understanding of how the self at its best realises itself through publicly-spirited action, and if we look at the current crisis-ridden situation and see the need to create a better world, where the path followed by society is continually adjusted in the light of an on-going debate about the meaning of what is being done, can’t we see the need for a better kind of schooling that encourages that deepening of the self, that cultivates a public spirit, and that holds open a version of the public arena in which children can begin to understand the importance of deliberating together about the meaning of what we are doing? Seen in this light, school is indispensable.

School at its best is a place in which children can start to see, both in theory and practice, how the public world – the world beyond the home – could be a place of meaning (if political activity is something that is both intrinsically meaningful while also involving the discussion of the meaning of what we are doing). Practice is as important as theory, and the readings, the aesthetic interpretations, the deliberations and the debates that go on at school will provide proof in practice that meaning doesn’t have to remain a private issue, but is something that could be pursued and enjoyed in public.

Do we not need something along these lines? Do we not need to rethink education in a way that connects it to a more inspiring vision of a better public world – a rethinking that, at the very least, refrains from giving tacit support to the colonisation of our public life by the economy? Do we not need a deeper understanding of the sort of subjectivities that we should be cultivating through the education that we offer – subjectivities that are deeper and richer than those demanded by business? Do we not need to recall the importance of school, and find new ways of defending it against those who see no point to its continued existence?




1. This reading of Aristotle is indebted to Hannah Arendt

written by Torn Halves on February 12, 2013 in digital revolution and Edtech and education with no comments