CAIRN-INT.INFO : International Edition

1 The school model is in crisis across practically the whole of the Western world. The prestige, or indeed the legitimacy, of its role is disputed. In former times, school was the temple of knowledge, understanding, promotion, and openness to the world. Today, the world is open, school has lost its prestige, and—thanks to television, games, the Internet, and travel—children “know it all.” Everything is fun compared to a school system that is rigid, archaic, out of sync, and excessively closed off to the world. Mystery and the monopoly on knowledge are no more. And teachers are delegitimized, or indeed disqualified. Students are disengaged, disillusioned, or at any rate less appreciative. Severity of any kind is suspect, parents are omnipresent, and there is assessment at every turn. And, what’s more, teachers resist! But what do you expect, “they’re corporatist, conservative, leftist public servants” . . . In short, school, the most fundamental activity in any culture—since in the space of thirty years, each generation always passes on humanity’s heritage to the next generation—finds itself impoverished, less prestigious, and constantly suspected of not being “fit for purpose” in the modern world.


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5 This weakening of school’s status explains the fracture that has opened up over the space of a generation. School has long had two purposes: to teach students to think and to prepare them to be part of society. With globalization, the triumph of economics, and the decline in school’s prestige, the second dimension is gaining the upper hand. School is becoming first and foremost a place of vocational training; work placements of all descriptions are increasingly numerous and, in universities, time spent “outside,” i.e., in businesses, outstrips teaching time! All in the name of “efficiency” and “tackling unemployment.” What’s the point of thinking if you don’t have a job? And, over the course of a generation, nobody—neither students, nor teachers, nor politicians—has opposed the stranglehold of either economics or technology, or both, on education. Teachers will be alone, very much alone, in resisting—to no avail. As such, vocational streams outnumber the rest. Only children from privileged backgrounds continue to enjoy a “generalist” education. The others, au contraire, have to “get themselves prepared.” They need something practical in order to adapt to an uncertain world. The ideal of equality collapses in the face of the world’s inequalities. Only primary school, where the focus is on learning fundamental skills, escapes this economism, but there is nothing to say that this “educational autonomy” will not one day be called into question.

6 The delegitimization of school and anxiety about the “outside world” to a large extent explain “entryism” and the success over the last generation of new information and communication techniques in schools. Digital technology is considered a chance to “modernize” school and to at last make it adapt to modernity. Something that hadn’t been possible for radio and television is becoming so with IT. For thirty years now, the digitization of school has been associated with educational reform. There have been countless plans to extend the use of information technology, combined with an obsession with “reducing the [digital] fracture,” without these ever being followed up with evaluation. Why has there never been an evaluation of and comparison with neighboring European countries? Why is there this obsession with the United States’ almost “eternal” so-called head start, which we “need to catch up”? Why is there never any commonsensical research to find out what it brings for better and for worse? There is never any relativism. Yes, computers—ever smaller, universal, and interconnected, symbols of freedom and connection—are also becoming the symbol of emancipation. Without anyone ever mentioning the exorbitant power of the GAFA firms (Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple).


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10 Modernity is the hiatus between the sense of freedom and emancipation procured by social media and absolute indifference to the power of the GAFA and what it entails. Knowledge that is not interconnected or accessible on the networks where the megadata are located appears distinctly old-fashioned, because it is out of step. At any rate, there is far less need for teachers. They “supervise” the students. The teacher lies somewhere between a youth leader and social worker. Either way, he is no longer the king of knowledge and understanding. And this dehumanization of education is naturally presented as an example of progress and democratization. It’s common knowledge: all students are equals before their messages. The world is transparent, and so is school. Furthermore, it is becoming the mirror and the condition of an interactive, direct society without intermediaries. . .


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14 The world itself has changed. Especially in the last forty years. Everything happens too fast, without any real points of reference. All the borders are disappearing; economism, modernity, and speed prevail. Education must also “adapt” to today’s society. There is no ideology other than triumphant economics, to which one is required to adapt. School must not be a place where this modernity is resisted, but on the contrary must enable you to adapt even faster.

15 Adaptation: the operative word. Critical reflection: a pointless operation. Utilitarianism dominates, not only in education but in all human and social activities. One day there will be a groundswell of opposition, which will question the modernist technicistic economism that has become the only contemporary ideology, but, for the time being, adaptation is the dominant value. And the whole educational apparatus, from school to university, has adapted. Without any struggle to speak of. . .


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19 The consequence of this ideological transformation? A devaluing of the world of knowledge, of slowness, of erudition. Everything happens fast, everything must go fast. With databases and megadata, information prevails over culture. Everything is segmented and accessible. Everything can be accessed with a smartphone, and the individual reposts as they see fit. Books are passé and cumbersome compared to all that is fast, mobile, and universal.

20 Quantity, speed, and accessibility are the values that prevail. Modernity is everything, immediately. The quantitative gradually becomes the qualitative. Teachers, who are nonetheless essential passers-on of knowledge, are now becoming almost obstacles, since everyone can do everything.

21 The objective is now increasingly to develop the student’s autonomy and capacity as early as possible. The teacher may become a hindrance. They become a mere guide, a “facilitator.” Thanks to this “technological autonomy,” they have much more time to keep track of their students! The new services make it possible to bypass the monopoly of teachers, since clearly it is a pointless “monopoly” that we have here.

22 It would be worth compiling a satirical collection, a Flaubert-like “Bouvard and Pécuchet” of all the promises permitted by the digitization of school. Everything which ought to change, which has not changed because “the technology wasn’t yet suitable,” and which will be achieved in the future thanks to technological progress. . .

23 When you listen to the promises, the services, the apps, everything is possible. The only problem: reducing the status of conservatives of all stripes, first and foremost teachers. Never has a professional and cultural milieu so multifaceted and diverse, so culturally competent, been devalued to such an extent and so systematically, without anyone in society really objecting to it!


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27 Nonetheless, it is worth recalling a few truths. The world’s biggest market for the Internet and industry? Education, obviously. And still we see no clear realization of this fact in the education world? Especially given that there is always a budget for technology—far less so for human beings—and that technologies cost less than teachers. As well as being more flexible and less critical.

28 Why do we never make the link between the promises of the “digital revolution” in education and the economic stakes? Why this silence over the power of the GAFA? Why is there no critique of this technological ideology that is so close to economic interests? Freedom and individual autonomy are a convenient excuse. . . They provide perfect cover for the dismantling of the fragile, centuries-old achievement that is education. For the GAFA, winning the education market represents an El Dorado. This is above all true of primary schools, the largest market, since higher education has already been won over, and secondary schools are well on the way. . . If a technology costs less than a human agent, and seems faster, more versatile, and more efficient, why do without it? Since the eighteenth century, the machine—always more efficient than man—has prevailed, sometimes at the price of tragic victories. This does not prevent people tirelessly repeating that technologies “will adapt to us,” when for 150 years it has been human beings who have adapted, losing autonomy to machines. But to open this debate is to reveal one’s conservative, reactionary spirit, and to run the risk of hearing that elegant and refined response: “So you’d prefer to go back to the candle, the horse, and prehistory?”


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32 What can be done? Shift from technology to anthropology. Realize that education is undoubtedly the activity that unites and unifies all dimensions of humankind. And, on the other hand, be pragmatic, extricate oneself from technological ideology and modernity. With these two compasses, all changes are possible, bearing in mind that there is nothing more complicated than the question of education. Education will never attain excellent levels of productivity and efficiency, precisely because it involves communication from person to person!

33 Two consequences follow on from the uniqueness of this—nevertheless highly distinctive—activity, which consists in each generation passing on humanity’s heritage to the next!

34 First, preserve the independence of schools. To achieve this immense task, school must remain “beside society.” The more school is socialized and adapted to modernism, the more it slips away from this unique mission. The maladaptation of school is the condition that enables students to “adapt.” Learning to be is not about first of all adapting. It is about the formation of the self in order to adapt at a later stage, possessed of the necessary critical dimension. At what distance should school stand from society, from modernity, from the spirit of the age? That is the central question. Distance is the condition for learning to think. To do so, it is necessary to regularly update the education system, sometimes adapting it to society, sometimes resisting the values of the moment. School alone has always had responsibility for this mission. There can be no adaptation without initial education, and education is the key to adaptation. Moreover, within the elite, there is talk only of education, knowing that adaptation will always follow on from a good education. Conversely, when it comes to the poor, there is an obsession with adapting to society. . .

35 The second consequence is to remember that school is not information, but knowledge and culture. Society may prioritize information, but not school. Knowledge is much more than the sum of information, and even if information is abundant, fast, and effective, knowledge, like culture moreover, is a slower, more uncertain process, sometimes random in its output but at any rate indispensable in completing the reign of information. The relationship between information and knowledge is as complicated as that between information and communication. A lot of information is not enough to make a lot of communication. And it is communication that is the most important thing, even if it is more complicated than information. It is the same for knowledge, which is more complex than information.

36 In any case, yes to all initiatives, technological or other, provided that we debate the pros and cons and always maintain our critical thinking, the condition of education!


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40 Six avenues for reflection, on the condition that we stop believing that the technical performance of digital is the condition for a new “revolution” in education. When it comes to information, culture, communication, and knowledge, people often dream that technological progress will resolve the most complex questions of anthropology. . .

41 1. Detechnicize thinking on education. Return to the fundamental objectives of an educational program, from nursery to higher education. A test: in any overall plan to “reform school,” look to see at what point digital is mentioned. If it’s at the start, it’s a bad sign! If it’s much later on, it’s better!

42 2. Such a plan may cause clashes. There is nothing worse than consensus. For a century, it was a liberation. And today? Technological autonomy is not a plan, but a means. It is the absence of a political plan that makes technology a political ideology.

43 3. Engage in critical thinking, take stock of the countless projects to reform/overhaul school that have flourished over the last fifty years. What succeeded, what failed. Take stock and let people know. There has been no evaluation of these countless plans to redesign school, nor of the work of the many pioneers in this area. There is no showcasing of what has succeeded, with or without new technology. No critical thinking. No comparison with our European neighbors, whose concerns are often identical. How many schools and teachers have invented or innovated? Who knew? All this is engulfed in the huge bureaucracy of education. What is the relationship between information, culture, knowledge, and communication in these countless projects?

44 4. Undertake an examination of the economic, financial, technical, and political power of the GAFA. It is impossible to extend this schizophrenia any further: the Internet and social networks, tools of freedom and emancipation, are simultaneously the most powerful industries in the world, managing the most essential things: information, knowledge, culture, relationships with others. . .

45 5. The more the world is open, transparent, and interactive, the more school must be at a remove to build that indispensable distance without which there is no critical thought. An example: the ideology of modernity is the removal of borders and free movement, but never have there been so many walls and obstacles, so much hatred of the other. There is no relation between an open world and greater collaboration! Reflecting on the relations between identity and communication, between cultural diversity and globalization, is essential. School is the condition of identity, of being at a remove, in order to think about the contradictions of modernity. There has always been a modernity. It takes this distance at school to think about the relation of man to nature, to society, to history, to the other, as well as the relationships between man and time, the individual and the collective, the social and the political. If school signifies the education of the citizen, then it is necessary to approach the fundamental problems and to resist all ideologies. Of course, these are part of life, but we must also take advantage of twenty years of schooling to develop a critical mind. . . And that is the role, the greatness, of teachers, who are irreplaceable. Their influence is not to be feared, because students know how to “take it or leave it.”

46 6. Instead of always fearing the influence of ideas on young people, we would be better off understanding why digital ideology is questioned so little today. Instead of accusing all those who resist the myth of a “digital society” as conservative and archaic, we would be better off asking ourselves why for a generation now—and thirty years is a long time—digital technology in school has constantly been presented as the plan for the future. Why this support with so little hindsight? Why this obsession with adaptation and modernity? Why this fear of being “behind”?


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50 In conclusion, let’s never forget that school is the place where critical thinking is developed and that there is then a constant negotiation with the ideologies of the moment. . . But to negotiate you need an identity. Why does Unesco—whose role it is—not initiate a process of critical reflection on the foundations of education and the critique of technological ideologies? Perhaps because Unesco itself has fallen into this unanimity, this immense Bouvard and Pécuchet that sees no other solution to the human than to digitize. . .

51 An obvious fact: when there is no longer any political utopia, technological ideology is all that is left. Technological ideology is a substitute for political ideology. An example: when speaking of “digital society,” that is to say attaching a technical word to a political one, it is naturally the technical word that receives all the attention. . .

52 In short, when it comes to school especially, but also almost all major social topics, to learn is to learn to think, and to criticize. Not for the sake of criticizing, but to preserve the mental freedom that is the primary condition of knowledge. . .

53 To relativize digital technology is not to run away from the times; on the contrary, it is to equip oneself with the means to maintain a critical and human freedom and thus to acquire the means to relativize technologies, whatever they are. And to pass on knowledge—the primary role of school—it is also necessary to develop critical and free minds. They will have plenty of time, later on, to constantly “adapt” to the world. . .

54 The problem remains that of redefining the role of school, not the status of digital. If it were enough to digitize all schools to obtain a new education plan, we would know about it. But it is true that it is easier to digitize school, to say that this is a new education plan, than to really rethink the role of school and education. . .

Dominique Wolton
Dominique Wolton has been the lead editor of the journal Hermès since 1988 (76 issues) and has edited the book series “Les Essentiels d’Hermès” since 2008 (40 volumes). He has published thirty or so works, which have been translated into over twenty languages. His recent works include Communiquer c’est vivre (Paris: Cherche-midi, 2016) and, under his editorship, Avis à la pub (Paris: Cherche-midi, 2015).
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