Zygmunt Bauman: Liquid modern challenges to education. Lecture given at the coimbra group annual conference – Padova, 26 may 2011
This lecture mostly focusses on outlining the ways in which young people today experience life in a profoundly different way to previous generations, and how this experience is inseperable from consumer culture and hyperculture. The specific implications for educators are left almost wholly untouched, so I’ve drawn my own conclusions along the way (getting individuals to do just this – for themselves – is, I imagine, one of the intentions behind Bauman’s ambivalence). On final analysis, I think the point Bauman is trying to make is that an educational paradigm rooted in a ‘linear notion of preparing students for the future’ is completely out of sync with the way in which young people experience the world via a consumer oriented hyperculture. Towards the end of the lecture, Bauman also questionswhether the decision to go to university is a rational one, given the insecurities in the labour market which may well limit students actual life-chances in the future.
As I said above, and I say it again for emphasis in case anyone wants to read it, despite the title this is really a lecture on ‘what the experience of living in a hyperreal consumer culture is like’ (worth a read for its own sake), and it doesn’t start to focus in on (the seeming pointlessness) of education until the final section.
What’s offered below is my summary and interpretation of Bauman’s ideas about the basic characteristics of the experience of life in a liquid modern (consumer oriented, hyperreal culture). My own contributions are mainly twofold – Firstly, I’ve added in a few illustrations to make this material less abstract, and secondly I’ve added in some thoughts on how this experience might be at odds with the way students experience education today (which is what I thought the lecture would’ve been about in the first place!). I will add in critique later, for now I’m exploring the utility of Bauman’s analytical framework by ‘rollling with him’. (And wierdly I’m actually quite enjoying the experience.). This is very much explorative, and drawn from my own experience of teaching for 16-19s for 12 years. (Only 27 years to go…. roll on that lottery win).
This post is just my initial summary of the lecture, more detail to follow in future posts…
Young people today grow up in a liquid-modern, consumer-oriented, hyperculture which encourages the following –
1. An experience of time as ‘pointillist’ – in which every moment is pregnant with infinite possibilities, although most of these possibilities remain unrealised. Pointillist time is the experience of many things going on at the same time, and one in which ‘now’ matters more than the future, because ‘if you miss it it’s gone’.
2. The anomic feeling of drowning in an information deluge, in which individuals are bombarded with too much information and have to deselect the majority of information, but lack the capacity to make decisions about which information is most worthy of attention (not least of all because of the pressure to make decisions quickly, meaning there is little time for reflection).
3. A ‘disposable attitude‘ to the products and experiences consumed: life appears as something which is about consuming and disposing, experiencing and forgetting, and all at a forever quickening pace.
At the emotional-intentional level, consumer culture accelerated via hyperculture, tends to lead to a blase and/ or melancholic experience of life. Blase in the sense that commitment to anything seems irrational when continued happiness rests on the ability to forget and move on to the next experience, and melancholic because although hyperculture is pregnant with possibilities, most of these possiblities are never realised. As far as I can see this experienc is also anomic, characterised by both an anxious uncertainty and a gnawing disaffection. (There may be a reason why Bauman doesn’t actually use the word anomie, but unless I’m mistaken, this is basically what he’s driving at.)
Bauman does not say it explicitly, but it is relatively easy to see that the experience of young people, socialised into an anxious, nowist orientation to time, a blase, disposable attitude towards consumption, all underscored by a melancholic/ anomic uncertainty about what it is that they should actually be doing is completely out of sync with many aspects of today’s standard, educational paradigm which asks students to defer gratification and make a long-term commitment to the progressive accumulation of knowledge and skills that will be useful to a future life, which this paradigm further seems to mistakenly assume will also involve some level of life-world security (an experience which is alien to today’s youth).
Bauman finishes off his lecture by delivering a final kick in the teeth to education’s relevance to today’s students: given the relentless downgrading of grades it is far from certain that a university degree you will lead to a well-paying job at the end*, it could actually be the case that today, that if your goal is a good salary and a (relatively) stable career, non-graduates have as much chance of achieving these things as graduates.
(*although this does not apply to the wealthy who can afford to attend the very best universities and have a greater capacity to network their way into the best jobs.)
NB – There are plenty of other threads in this lecture, and the related lectures, to pick up on… this is just one, elaborated on by me!
More detailed summary to follow. Just one question in the meantime… If all of this is actually true – what an earth are we doing as educators? My own prefered strategey right now, is to go buy cake and just try not to think about it, it’s just a question of figuring out what cake?
The Bauman Institute - Liquid Modern Challenges to Education (another version of the talk)