From Growth to Degrowth in Education?
Welcome to the 4th Annual Nordic Educational Conversation!
The Conversation will be held virtually on Zoom.
Time: December 8th 2023, 1-3 p.m. CET.
You are hereby invited to participate in an exciting educational conversation (free of charge). Please, click here to register.
Our economic model, as it continues to sustain the interests of capital in more subtle yet brutal ways, has created a colder, less generous, and less fair society. Neoliberalism has become synonymous with a situation where the few have more opportunities and privileges than the rest. As citizens, from children in kindergarten to employees and employers, we are considered as mere human capital, which is to say that our skills and knowledge become the raw materials for creating economic growth (cf. 21st Century skills). Yet this very growth is never redistributed accordingly, and where those who fail in living up to the expectations of having the skills and knowledge required, are regarded as a burden and expense to society. Various groups such as the disabled, the poor, the elderly, and the sick are examples of this. Others, such as those who, in desperation, fall into addictions and crime, are ostracized and considered as a social malady, while the real cause of this malady is defended and sustained. The philosophy behind our economic model does something singularly terrifying to our view of human life: It leaves no room for difference or what is considered to fall outside “the norm”.
Given this background, we need a fundamental change of our economic model and our values. An economic reorganization is required, with a focus on fair distribution. At the same time, our formal institutions must be founded on a radically different economy to the one we have today. Are there alternatives to the current socio-economic model? Is incessant growth the answer to the specificities of different communities and socio-economic realities? Is neo-liberalism the “only alternative”, as we have been told since the 1980s and the years of TINA (there is no alternative) when neoliberal models began to ride roughshod over all political systems across the globe?
One of the most famous educationists in our western part of the world, John Dewey (1859-1952), defined education as growth, and even suggested that growth should be an end-in-itself. Growth is a commonly used word in education, and one also finds corresponding concepts such as learning, maturing and development as signifiers of growth as it has come to be understood in the wider scope of things—as that by which we can move from one stage to another, assuming that the goal is always one of improvement, betterment, and fulfilment.
Somehow, even after centuries since Aristotle’s philosophy of entelechy (fulfilment) became the mainstay of reason and progress, no one ever cared to challenge this in the fields of human practice, except perhaps for those who, in their conservative and reactionary claims, entertained a disdain for progress so they could retain their historical privileges over others. Perhaps it was because of this fear of being confused with reactionary and a conservative claim to privilege, that growth was never questioned. Yet in this false dualism between progress and reaction, like Dewey and many others in the field of education, sociology, and human development, we have mostly thrown our lot with growth without ever wondering if this was a consequence of the fallacy of such dualism.
In recent years, the concept of lifelong learning has been introduced, meaning that we should not stop learning and growing, even after finishing school or when we are considered adults. While this appears to be benign enough—just as education per se is regarded as a form of self-improvement—through the lenses of degrowth theory, such certainty might well find itself challenged. This is not because one wants to pose a conservative counterweight to growth. Rather we want to move beyond a dualism which pits growth (as progress) against stasis (as regression). Such a binary approach has shown itself to be misleading and by offering no other approaches beyond it, it ultimately erodes all that we hold dear in the field of education itself.
Rather than destroy the radical and inclusive ideals on which we often build our claims to education, to break with the customary growth principle that we have held central to education is to explore how the idea of degrowth can indeed transform education to what most, if not all, educators want to achieve: an inclusive and socially just environment where we can all claim to be equal participants.
To exemplify what we mean by this, let us consider education from the perspective and practices of degrowth theories. Today’s young people do not necessarily need more learning and knowledge in school (which is what we assume to be at the heart and prompted by the growth principle). Perhaps more than gaining knowledge, young people today need support to assess the quality of knowledge (which is what would come close to a degrowth principle in education)—the reason being that children and young people in the 21st century have more access to knowledge than anyone else in history, not least through their smartphones.
The child in the 21st century is overwhelmed by a continuous and incessant flow of information and knowledge, both inside and outside the school. Today’s young people are inundated with seductive images and false promises of progress and happiness from influencers, the entertainment industry, social media, the advertising industry and so on. The constant illusions of happiness and what constitutes a “good” life are unrestrained, so much so that such values have long become reified commodities that are sold and traded online. From the perspective of degrowth, one of many possible educational answers to this situation could be that of giving young people, the time and ‘tools’ to reflect on the quality and veracity of these images and all this information.
Looking closer at many educational theorists, which include major figures like bell hooks, Paulo Freire, Ivan Illich, Maxine Greene we know that the foundations for the understanding and furtherance of theories of degrowth are already there. Here we would like to consider more recent discussions of growth in other fields, and run them in parallel with what we already have been discussing in our field and in our professional practice – perhaps without realizing that in effect, for decades, in education we knew that models of growth have ultimately hindered what we sought to achieve through liberal and progressive, as well as social constructionist and developmental models of education. Indeed degrowth is a counterintuitive concept. And yet, it is by engaging with the world counterintuitively that we hope we can find ways of changing what has become not only a major hindrance to human wellbeing, but even a danger to the entire planet.
Professor Dr Herner Saeverot, Western Norway University
13.00 – 13.10
Welcome and some practical matters (Michael Dal & Herner Saeverot).
13.10 – 13.30
Education, Economy and Degrowth/ Herner Saeverot
13.30 – 14.00
Breakout session 1: Discussions
14.00 – 14.05
A little technical pause establishing breakout rooms
14.05 – 14.35
Breakout session 2: Further discussions
14.35 – 14.50
14.50 – 15.00
Thank you for today and closure.
We hope to see you and discuss with you in December!
Michael and Herner