Thursday, 9 July 2009

The Learning Society

Slí Eile: In my previous post on “Capitalising on Culture, Competing on Difference: Innovation, Learning and Sense of Place in a Globalising Ireland” I described Finbarr Bradley and James Kennelly’s line on national culture and the public sphere. Now let's examine their discussion of education. With eye to higher education, the authors argue:

Developing such a climate is usually more important than learning rational or quantitative techniques.
The failure of higher education, in the view of the authors, to foster creativity, flexibility and connectedness is a significant impediment. This view echoes recent comments by Tom Boland CEO of the HEA. He was quoted, recently, in the Irish Times as saying:

…our second-level system is producing students who learn to the test; who in ever greater numbers are not learning to think for themselves; who receive spoon-feeding at second level and expect the same at third

A new way of education is proposed by Bradley and Kennelly – one that places much greater emphasis on the how and why and not just the what. Learning to do, to work with others and to develop one’s own thinking and capacity are central to a truly ‘utilitarian education’ Quoting Paddy Lynch who quoted Jacques Maritain (p 185) –

.,. the trouble with purely utilitarian education was that it was not utilitarian enough!
Bradley has written, elsewhere, of the importance of freeing undergraduate students in higher education to be more inquisitive and to develop skills and capacities that are frequently confined to types of postgraduate training and research.

The central role of education – which includes schooling but is not the only mileu in which education or learning happens – comes across strongly in chapters 4 and 5. The economists’ short-hand is ‘human capital. In the following chapter 6 ‘Realising the Potential of Cultural and Social Resources’ Bradley and Kennelly discuss what they term ‘cultural capital’ and ‘social capital’. These concepts have enjoyed iconic status in many quarters – political as well as academic. Clarity around their meaning and relevance to political economy is important. One implication is that local or national ‘peculiarity’ is a potentially strong business asset – argue the authors. This echoes Lars Mjoset's thesis in the 1993 NESC study which underlined the role of a national innovation culture. In the way, ‘social capital’ is discussed, it emerges as symbolic term for important realities at work in society, communities and economic organisations. It does not lend itself, easily, to quantitative measurement or monetisation (hence the difficulty many economists have in applying the term). Curiously, the first known use of the term ‘social capital’ was in Das Kapital even though Marx did not use the term in the sense it was used much later by Hanafin, Coleman, Bourdieu and Putnam.

A related concept to that of social capital is ‘citizenship’ (or more accurately active, democratic citizenship). The authors write:
Citizenship implies sharing resources, not maximising one’s own interest.
They round off the book with a chapter titled in a catchy way: ‘Centenary 2022 – from independence to interdependence’ A key idea is that we need to draw on unique cultural and community-based resources emphasising civic values and generosity. This would inform a better understanding and orientation in respect of economic development with a purpose rather than growth in GDP as an end in itself.
They posit two ways of organising business (and implicitly public service):
  • The dominant one informed by rationalism, analysis and scientific verification.
  • The alternative one informed by conversations, networks, emotions and ‘interpretation’(a term they take from Richard Lester and Michael Priore)
The authors refer, frequently throughout the book, to the role of various non-governmental bodies in the creation of ‘social capital’ – loosely defined as social networks based on reciprocity, mutual trust and cooperation. One suspects that the interest in, and support for, the book by figures such as the Taoiseach, Dermot Desmond, Seán Quinn and Peter Sutherland among others is motivated by a philosophy and view of society that prizes self-reliance, patriotism and initiative from the local and the voluntary. It can be a case of all things to all persons. The difficulty with any ‘catch-all’ concept or philosophy is that the specifics of social class, gender, ethnicity as well as the role of the State and other public institutions in fostering civic life can be obscured or even side-tracked. To be fair, Bradley and Kennelly cite the role of the State both historically (in the case of the Department of Agriculture and Technical Instruction founded in 1900) as well as recently (in the case of various semi-state bodies who have provided key economic and social services as well as training, support and encouragement to enterprise.

The authors rightly acknowledge that Ireland, unlike Denmark, left economy and society vulnerable because ‘Irish Government spending has not grown in tandem with the pace of globalisation’. This is a key point and one that deserved more focus throughout the book.

The authors challenge, directly, the IBEC line that Ireland’s competitive advantage lies mainly in its ‘skilled workforce, a favourable tax regime and an enterprise-focussed business environment’ (p106). They go on to point out that:

To all practical purposes, Estonia has no corporate income tax and its bureaucracy is benign: when a problem arises, ‘the government just steps in to let investors do their thing’

Sounds familiar…..and Estonia has its problems nowadays as we do. More in my next post ....

1 comment:

Aidan said...

A quick reflection;

I first came across the concept 'social capital' a few years ago when reading Bourdieu. In the intervening years it has become popular in business studies, political science and a whole host of other academic circles. However, I always found their use of the term (most likely building upon Putnam's work 'Bowling Alone') somewhat empty and simplistic. Here, it is used to highlight the importance of 'social networks' and 'trust'. This has been translated into studies on the 'productive employee' in organisational behaviour, and the 'active' citizen in politics.

Bourdieu's use of the concept, though, is fundamentally different. He used the concept to illustrate how power relations become institutionalised. Capital, is not just a economic relation, but a power relation that is symbolically mediated through language, custom and culture. Certain groups in society, according to Bourdieu, build up social capital which becomes a powerful tool in reproducing their dominant status in society. To a certain extent it is a critique of Marx economic determinism. Capital is economic, social and cultural for Bourdieu. Class relations will not be removed restructuring the means of ownership. They are reproduced in a much more complex way.

Social capital creates social stratification. It is not a mechanism to build up trust in one another. Class (and he has a much more nuanced and complex understanding of class relations to the popular left, making him somewhat unpopular in France amongst leftist groups) is mediated by social, cultural and economic capital. Some groups in society may have accumulated wealth, and increased disposable income but they have not built up the 'social capital' (accumulated through a certain type of schooling, culture etc) avialble to the other groups in society.

This is all closely related to Bourdieu's concept of 'habitus', the accumulation of specific dispositions, tastes and assumptions governing social relations. Social relations that are subjective but structurally reproduced, and hence 'objective'. Social capital is an attempt to highlight the unequal power relations across society (gender, ethnicity and economic-class). In this regard I am not too sure he would be supportive of the popular usage of the term today.