politics and education
This book contains an introduction by the editors and eleven papers from the Consortium of Higher Education Researchers (CHER) conference in Lausanne in September, 2014. The first five papers address arguments over the rationales for public funding of higher education, especially in current political contexts: “How Do University, Higher Education and Research Contribute to Societal Well-being?” by Michèle Lamont, “A Persian Grandee in Lausanne” by Sheldon Rothblatt, “A New Social Contract for Higher Education?” by Peter Maassen, “Higher Education and Public Good: A Global Study” by Simon Marginson, and “Defending Knowledge as the Public Good of Higher Education” by Joanna Williams. The remaining six papers focus on regional or national developments: “Partisan Politics in Higher Education Policy: How Does the Left-Right Divide of Political Parties Matter in Higher Education Policy in Western Europe?” by Jens Jungblut, “Access Equity and Regional Development: a Norwegian Tale” by Rómulo Pinheiro, “Shrinking Higher Education Systems: Portugal, Figures, and Policies” by Madalena Fonseca, Sara Encarnação, and Elsa Justino, “Pathways to Higher Education in France and Switzerland: Do Vocational Tracks Faciliate Access to Higher Education for Immigrant Students?” by Jake Murdoch, Christine Guégnard, Maarten Koomen, Christian Imdorf, and Sandra Hupka-Brunner, “The Development of the Québec Higher Education System: Why At-risk College Students Remain a Political Priority” by France Picard, Pierre Canisius Kamanzi, and Julie Labrosse, and “Engineering Access to Higher Education through Higher Education Fairs” by Agnès Van Zanten and Amélia Legavre.
The editors ground the collection in social contract theory, specifically the claim that higher education should foster equality of opportunity (2). Many of the chapters discuss how that goal is being problematized and privatized by political pressure to emphasize education’s economic benefits to individuals and society in a knowledge-based economy in place of other kinds of personal and public goods, such as an informed citizenry. These political shifts have the effect of calling peer review into question as the standard for evaluating academic research because different generations of researchers may emphasize different standards and measures of performance, and because public managers impose their own criteria (13). These articles document some paradoxical developments, such as declining student demand for science and engineering courses in some countries (139). They also illustrate how the increasing internationalization of higher education standards, through processes internal to the European Union and also due to the rising prominence of international rankings, puts disproportionate pressure on humanistic disciplines that tend to emphasize national or regional topics (12).
Higher Education in Societies provides an important reminder of the crucial role of national politics in formulating the goals and ideals, as well as the funding, of higher education. For this reader, it highlights by omission the unusual situation of American academics like myself who work for private colleges and universities, which disproportionately dominate the teaching of theology and religion in the U.S. (A complementary discussion of theology and religious studies in European universities appears now in Christoph Uehlinger’s “Is the Critical, Academic Study of the Bible Inextricably Bound to the Destinies of Theology,” in Open-Mindedness in the Bible and Beyond [Korpel and Grabbe: Bloomsbury T & T Clark, 2015], 287-302).
Paulo Freire needs no introduction. His reflections on critical pedagogy and problem posing methodologies have dramatically shaped educational practice for decades. This recent volume, Pedagogy of Commitment, is a collection of interviews and short reflections that took place at the end of Freire’s career. They represent geographical diversity and local concern, occurring in Argentina, Chile, Nicaragua, Paraguay, and Uruguay. They demonstrate the breadth of Freire’s concrete engagement in Latin America, as well as the cohesive scope of his vision and its enduring relevance. There is a liveliness and energy conveyed in these informal or semi-formal occasions, and we get to see Freire’s lucid mind and compassionate concern at work in responding to concrete questions and practical problems raised by his audiences.
Readers familiar with Freire’s work, particularly as expressed in Pedagogy of the Oppressed and Pedagogy of Hope, may not find new ideas in this collection. Furthermore, it will not make the best introduction to Freire’s thought for the uninitiated. Understandably, given the piecemeal and unsystematic nature of interviews, Freire’s ideas and guiding convictions are conveyed sporadically and sometimes indirectly throughout, in a way that might be missed by those less familiar with his writings. For those already acquainted with and inspired by Freire’s project, however, this collection remains worthwhile for a number of reasons. This book provides a valuable glimpse into Freire’s thoughts and attitudes at the end of his life and career. We see that his vision and project have not changed in fundamentals, although he himself has evolved. He admits to his growth in understanding patriarchy, for instance, and the need to move beyond gender exclusive forms of expression (88-95). He is all the more convinced that education is art, is an aesthetic process that should not be reduced to formulae or fixed frameworks (16-25). The relational and dialogical aspects remain paramount.
We also see how Freire responds to later developments in world economics and geopolitics, such as the fall of Soviet socialism, supposed neoliberal triumph, and late capitalist order (33-40). Here his emphasis on hope becomes critical. Freire remains hopeful and all the more committed to resisting the effects of socio-economic and political processes that dehumanize society’s most vulnerable. The pragmatic nature of his engagement becomes clear. The increasing prevalence of technocratic and abstracting forces that excise the human element in education (and social life more broadly) mean a doubling-down of efforts to connect, relate, engage, and dialogue, as well as to foster a classroom context that equips students as agents of their own destinies. There is no postmodern turn to his practice, no sense of irony or contingency to the goals of liberation. For Freire, the onslaught of global capital means educators must fight harder. As the title of one of the more memorable and hard-hitting interviews conveys, “The Confrontation is not Pedagogical, but Political” (33). But the fight remains hopeful and a labor of love.
This volume provides a resource for encouragement and renewal of vision for educators influenced by Freirean pedagogy. It gives a glimpse into the life and heart of the man, near the twilight of his days but still full of passion, conviction, and hope. The book is full of choice pieces of wisdom and reminders of the significance of the cause and necessity of endurance.