Struggling for knowledge in times of cognitive capitalism: youth and school in contexts of urban poverty.
As Bayat (2000) pointed out, one major consequence of the new global restructuring in the developing countries has been a double process of, on the one hand, integration and, on the other, social exclusion and informalization. Education has played a key role in both. In this article, we attempt to describe the dynamics of schooling within that tension where educational institutions become political spaces for the daily struggle for knowledge. Thus, on the basis of research carried out in contexts of extreme urban poverty in the Buenos Aires metropolitan area, we will provide elements useful to understanding some of the dynamics that characterize current school life where the very possibility of learning becomes both a question of strategic and of rebellion.
From the time of the formation of modern capitalist societies, education, knowledge, and progress have been articulated in a variety of ways (Peters, 2010). Those three terms are key components in the modern promise of education. Indeed, education played a crucial role in both the narrative of the Enlightenment and in other, purely economic, narratives. Thus, both sociological examination of urban marginality and the educational quest of the poor date back to 19th century. In the case of Latin America in general and of Argentina in particular, it is since the middle of the 19th century that the terms education, knowledge and progress have constituted something like a trilogy that has been used to explain social successes and failures by means of varying hypotheses. Indeed, education would become key to accessing knowledge and progress as a nation and as individuals, as well as crucial to explaining failure. These hypotheses have taken shape around tensions such as the opposition between civilization and barbarianism (in the 19th century), between development and underdevelopment (in the 20th), and currently between the employable and the unemployable. It is in this framework that knowledge in general and education in particular have played, and continue to play, a crucial role in the lines of force that have articulated social and educational policies, as well as school life.
It is possible to identify an array of modulations in the education, knowledge, progress trilogy since it was first articulated, and many of them merit studies of their own. Here, we are concerned with this trilogy in both the definition and the struggles of the marginalized population in the cities of the global south. It is our hypothesis that in the 21st century, in times of cognitive capitalism where knowledge seems more and more central, there are two distinct yet intersecting visions of distribution of and access to knowledge. The first revolves around the lacks and deficiencies that have traditionally been and continue to be attributed to the working class. That vision forms the basis for assertions about the very educability and, hence, employability of the supernumeraries (Castel, 2003), or, in Foucault (2007) terms the liminal population. The second involves the fact that for the young people who live in the shantytowns of the global south--who are often third and fourth generation of chronically unemployed--the school is a place of daily struggle for access to knowledge. As such, this second vision interrupts assertions about deficiency as well as newer verdicts on (un)employability.
Returning to Marx's hypothesis about general intellect, (1) we understand that some of the struggles observed in the daily life of schools in contexts of extreme urban poverty in the global south form part of these tensions. Thus, through the present, the history of capitalism can be written as the varying modes, and the varying degrees of intensities, by which that intellect is produced, appropriated and made to operate at the service of production. We suggest that schools are a key setting for the struggles for knowledge that constitute social struggles for culture.
Thus, even though the centrality of knowledge is by no means new in the late 20th century, in times of cognitive capitalism the particularities of the longstanding promises merit an interrogation that heeds not only the novel, but also the ways that that "renewed promise" is articulated, effected, and also combated by students in secondary schools located in contexts of extreme urban poverty.
It is within this framework that, in this paper, we will focus on two visions of this issue. First, the way the aforementioned trilogy of notions is articulated in the so-called policies of social inclusion geared to young people. These policies are based on the hypothesis of employability by means of training individuals deemed lacking in capacities and, hence, unemployable. These programs return to and renew the premises of the theory of human capital where low levels of education are the cause for unemployment and poverty. According to these logics, school takes shape around a skill-based pedagogy grounded on, among other things, the motto that maintains, paradoxically, that in information societies it is no longer necessary to teach or to learn knowledge but rather the means to access knowledge (Peters, 1996, 2010; Simons, M., & Masschelein, 2008; Popkewitz, Olsson, Peterson 2006; Grinberg, 2008). Based on the teaching of procedures, these formulations uphold the need to form subjects capable of managing their selves, to create entrepreneurs. In keeping with the logic of the Internet, education is redefined as a landscape where the constant is searching and googling (Buchanan, 2007). Teaching and learning must take shape as surfing the ocean of information. In this context, educators are redefined as facilitators who design learning environments, coaches of the learning process (Simons & Masschelein, 2008; Grinberg, 2013). In this sea of entrepreneurialism, the possibility of thinking and problematizing the world in school is limited to the development of search mechanisms.
In this context, this article will attempt to reconstruct other ways of articulating this trilogy, ways that, though found in schools, differ dramatically from the vision of education described above. As we will show, for young people in the slums, school is, or has to be, a place to think and to engage knowledge rather than a place to receive training. It is not a question of denying that modern image of the school as almost directly linked to the possibility of finding employment. It is, rather, a question of an excess, of something more than just the hope of finding a job thanks to studying. And that is what these young people value and fight for. In other words, and quite simply, they struggle to make school a place of learning. Students who live in contexts of urban poverty do not go to school just to get a diploma. There is something else at stake in the struggle for knowledge that takes place in schools: far from the proceduralism that often leaves teachers and students confused about what exactly to do at any given time--one upset teacher told us that she could not teach because her students did not participate--young people fight to have classes where knowledge is central. On the basis of research from an ethnographic perspective performed in secondary schools located in contexts of extreme urban poverty in Greater Buenos Aires (Argentina), we propose some elements that can contribute to constructing a place for schools and knowledge, a place at a remove from the ratio that lies at the heart of information societies (Peters, 1996; Lyotard, 1993).
This paper will discuss observations of classes at secondary schools attended by a population defined as "unemployable." These observations were made from a post-structuralist perspective (Jung-ah Choi, 2006; Youdell, 2006; Ringrose and Coleman, 2013). Following Deleuze, this means making history in the present, which is not the same thing as lived experience with its singularities that drowns those observations in a universal and/or makes them into mere moments (Deleuze, 2007; author 2013). The ethnography proposed here consists of the study of the form events assume in the school configuration, and hence the study of splittings and detours; it is, then, a broken historicity; a cartography of processes of de-territorialization and re-territorialization (Ringrose, 2011; Cole, 2013 & 2012).
Affirmations regarding a lack of knowledge lie at the core of logics that sanction inequality, whether on individual or national/regional levels. In the 21st century, the question of the selection, distribution, and access to culture is not only key to explaining inequality but also, and increasingly, the object of struggle and strife. At the same time, we live in a society where school is, to a greater and greater extent, the repository of the hope of someday becoming someone. While that may hold true in general, it is particularly true and centrally important for those who live in the poorest urban spaces of the global south.
This paper is organized along two lines. First, we interrogate the ways the concepts of education, knowledge, and progress are assembled in current calls for social inclusion that run through public policies in Latin America and specifically in Argentina, where schools are charged with the task of furthering the development of a set of skills and attitudes in order to enhance the capacities of subjects diagnosed as inadequate (that is, in order to empower them). As proposed in the following section, the notions of employability and educability are seen as keys to measuring the supposed ability of individuals and, thus, to explain the social positions that they occupy. Similarly, schools are charged with the task of enhancing the resilience of those who inhabit slums so that they can turn their lives around, as if that were not something that already takes place in these neighbourhoods and schools (Bayat, 2000; Grinberg, Gutierrez y Mantinan, 2012).
In sum, on one hand we describe how discourses define modes of being or not being, and how they take shape as means of explaining current inequality. Second, to use Deleuze's terms (2008), we try to dissolve antinomies that articulate the education-knowledge-progress trilogy. To do so, we turn to fieldwork performed in schools. By means of daily situations faced by those who live in the poorest urban spaces--particularly young people we discuss the modalities and tensions generated around knowledge in schools. We believe that in that space we find elements that can contribute to identifying other modalities of knowledge, modalities that, on the basis of affirmation--that is, of saying "yes" (Nietzsche, 2000; Deleuze, 1998) take a stance on common concerns. Such modalities can, in our view, contribute to building a vision of knowledge at a remove from instrumental notions to bring us closer, instead, to the problematization and conception of the world. Hence, we understand that it is possible to open new roads that allow us to escape the logic of instrumental learning so cherished by many through the educational reforms implemented during the last decades of the twentieth century. In that respect, it is important to clarify that, although the debate we propose is characteristic of cognitive capitalist societies, we carry out our thinking in and from the specificity of Latin American and, especially, the southern cone and Argentina.
In a methodological strategy that revolves around audio, video and other registers of observation of daily life at school, in section 3, we delve into how students who live in contexts of urban poverty construct another vision of knowledge. We focus on the struggle to actually have a class, to allow teaching to ensue at school (a state of affairs that, remarkably, is often by no means obvious), to find ways of inhabiting the classroom in order to learn, to render curriculum contents meaningful to their lives, and to make knowledge their own by endowing it with specific cultural traits. Thus, beyond the being or not being that empowerment policies entail, we envision struggles for knowledge as a means of problematizing, conceptualizing, and grasping the world insofar as being the basis for a common course of action, in this case in schools.
2. Education, Knowledge, and Progress: A History to Dis-Assemble
As explained above, the articulation of knowledge, education, and progress is not new to the 21st century. To dissect the ways that those terms have been articulated historically is a crucial task not only in relation to how we came to be who we are but also in relation to who we are being and, of course, who we want to be. While we are not setting out to write a genealogy, we believe that this perspective is central to understanding not only the current configuration of that trilogy but also the struggles for knowledge that characterize school life in contexts of extreme urban poverty in the global south.
In Latin America as well in Argentina, the creation of the educational system in the 19th century entailed a set of formulations (2) that assembled education, knowledge, and progress. Those terms were fused to activate an array of means of recognizing subjects and their social positions as well as their assignment in urban spaces. It is important to truly grasp those formulations as they evidence a zone where the absence of instruction, laziness, and vice constitute a map of the marginalized groups in, of course, the poorest urban spaces.
In this framework, civilization and barbarianism are the parameters for a situation in which the (civilizing) educational system must perform the task of remedying the laziness of the (barbarian) underclass. The primordial and urgent civilizing mission of the 19th century intelligentzia was education; that civilizing/educating mission had to be effected mostly, though not exclusively, on the indigenous and/or mestizo population. Civilization and barbarianism come onto the scene to address a population that will be defined as the object, cause, and consequence of an array of discourses in which the lack of knowledge and instruction accounts for the social situation of individuals and of groups, as well as the geopolitical situation of a region (Castro Gomez, 2010).
In the middle of the 20th century, education and knowledge would once again become central to the scene, this time to diagnose underdevelopment and backwardness. In the mid-20th century, by means of the Alliance for Progress, (3) the hypotheses of development-underdevelopment were constructed on the basis of the influence of notions of human capital and, once again, educational deficiency was used to explain failure and dependence (see Mignolo, 2002 & 2005). Regions like Latin America, then, were built on claims of backwardness and underdevelopment; education or lack of education were key to explanations that live on into the 21st century. It is possible to find traces of those notions in how this trilogy is deployed to define the social position of subjects.
Since the end of the 20th century, we have witnessed reforms to the structure of the educational system and in curricula that are based on, among other things, the need to render schooling more in keeping with the demands of the current information society (Lyotard, 1984; Peters, 1996). In the Argentine case, in recent decades we have seen crisis, social rearrangement, and many educational reforms. During the last educational reforms, curricula were updated to tackle new requirements for citizenship and to create individuals attractive to the labour market. In this framework, students are called on to develop a set of attitudes and to build certain skills and qualities that the school must foster and develop.
In this context, in Argentina, schools are often asked "to teach how to look for those forms of knowledge and those procedures involved in the production of knowledge" (Grinberg, 2008, p. 217). If, as Deleuze asserts (1992), surfing will become the sport of our time, there is something of surfing in our way of inhabiting the world, in our being and being present. Surfing from place to place until, as Buchanan says (2007), finding oneself appears to be the principle task of our times. But, most likely--we must add--the principal task is not really finding oneself, but searching or perhaps--googling.
The logics that give rise to "pedagogies of skill/competences" revolve around two axes. First, the employment-unemployment binary, that is, the higher level of education obtained, the better the job or the greater likelihood of finding a job. In other words, unemployment affects the better educated to a lesser extent. Second, the debate on what contents or set of new knowledges should be taught in schools and/or courses of lateral entry/vocational training such that subjects obtain skills in keeping with the new demands and vicissitudes of technological advancement. That is, teaching that which will allow subjects to develop fully their potentials, skills, and "the qualities of the person [whereby] 'what can he do?' replaces 'what does he do?'" (Boltanski & Chiapello, 2007, p. 465).
It is in this context that the notion of employability has become central. It refers to "the formation of employability skills, which are those aptitudes required to function effectively in economies that change rapidly and are subject to intense competitive pressure" (Brunner, undated). According to this view, then, the possibility of finding employment is linked to individuals' having (or not) skills. This trilogy, then, is particularly important insofar as it serves to explain a present riddled by growing poverty and ever more enclaves in the urban south inhabited by third and fourth generations of the chronically unemployed (Grinberg, 2010 & 2011).
The notion of employability, then, is used to explain why a significant percentage of the population is no longer desirable as labor force. As simplistic as they may seem, these explanations are nothing but a 21st century rendition of the knowledge, education, progress trilogy that blames social failures (the mass growth of urban slums) on individual inadequacy (unemployability). In sum, a new explanation and division between winners and losers appears (Sloterdijk, 2002), one that gives shape to a framework for education in the age of management. This is where the notion of skills plays a central role: first, it is no longer enough to have knowledge or information since we live in a world where both change constantly. Second, and as a result of the first point, rather than teach knowledge as stable truths, it is necessary to teach how to search for that knowledge, the procedures involved in the production of knowledge. Third, and perhaps most important, for subjects to be able to undertake the former they must assume the attitudes and outlooks of searchers, persons in constant movement and with the will to change required by these new times. Rather than the subject being dependent on the State, we have now an active subject who makes him- or herself and, as such, is responsible for his or her successes and failures, for undergoing a constant process of training and learning how to learn (Peters, 1996; Simons & Masschelein, 2008). These are the key actions in the management of the self. The subject no longer has to struggle with social ties, functions and/or classifications; the demands of the world of work, it would seem, coincide with the demands of educators, and the battle to be waged is with one's self. At the same time, school must encourage the development of a set of attitudes geared to advancing the task of educating.
In keeping with the idea of employability, the notion of educability has been used to explain those aspects of the personality that require the efforts of subjects deemed unemployable, first in order to learn and then, of course, to procure employment:
The modern concept of educability refers to the degree or level of each individual's development of biological and personal characteristics that influence their ability to benefit to a greater or lesser extent from the learning opportunities offered at school. These are factors of the population that can be modified by means of social policies and can be overcome by each person by means of compensatory and rehabilitation strategies (Manuel Bello in Feijoo, 2002, p. 29).
Far removed from the analysis of cultural capital and of symbolic violence, schools today must reformulate their focus in order to accommodate and grasp the conditions that make the education of individuals possible. Defi ciency, whether expressed in terms of material or symbolic goods, is the backdrop for the construction of explanations of school failure. A by no means sui generis biologicism here emphasizes the possibility that subjects be rehabilitated by means of social policy and, mostly, by the actions that individuals perform on themselves in order to obtain skills. This is where the notion of resilience becomes central to these discourses:
The first step is to begin to construct resilience whose primary traits include the ability to generate projects, narratives, and self-confidence in the face of adverse situations while also, and necessarily, constructing subjectivity. There is an implicit and explicit demand that politics of subjectivity hurry to attend to the construction of a shared worldview on the basis of the skills that each actor holds and can contribute to a collective construction (Feijoo & Corbetta, 2004, p. 381).
Resilience thus becomes a technology of the self (O'Malley, 2010) which, in Latin America, is thought to contribute to the "empowerment" of subjects with low levels of educability/employability. It is a question of elevating the self-esteem of young people that is assumed to be low because they live in poverty. School, then, is asked to generate situations where young people learn to value themselves in order to become protagonists in their own development. Phrases like "these kids don't have a thing," "they don't have any initiative because there are no values taught at home," "what I see is total laziness and apathy," are some of the many diagnoses made of the families and students at these schools. Resilience is articulated in these new forms of expert knowledge that involve a sort of non-guiding shepherd.
This process ensues, however, in a context where, at least for vast sectors of the population, training in so-called employable skills is not necessarily related to the possibility of reproduction in terms of the labor market. Beyond the new requirements of the job market, skills cannot guarantee entry into the circuits of the formal economy (Castel, 2003; Nun, 2001). Monetization, as a condition of access to basic goods to satisfy immediate and reproductive needs, is no longer bound to any image of employment.
The power of narratives of training, like narratives of self-help, lies in actions and strategies that permit or, rather, mandate that the individual find the way, the means, to make him- or herself. In a context that "crystallizes" immobility, the specific actions of this overarching project tend towards a search for the self, to personal valorisation where the individual, once his or her personal capacities have been bolstered, is called on to reverse the conditions in which his or her life ensues and to confront adversity. In the logic of "make your own adventure", living conditions are not what are called into question; what is called into question are the actions performed or not performed, the skills possessed or not possessed, by individuals who must act with and on themselves. Educability, employability, and skills take shape in a horizon of training, where identity and a life project are the outcomes that each person must obtain in order to deal with obstacles that come before the self.
Herein lies a not minor question of these times: the performative nature of knowledge and its correlate in usefulness are called into question for much of the population. We live in times when no less than 20% of the population constitutes an army of bodies that no longer matter (Butler, 2002), what Foucault calls the liminal population (2007). In the context of current capitalism, a growing percentage of the population that lives in the slums of the global south will have very little chance of forming part of the formal labour market, that is, of participating in spaces that require the knowledges taught at schools and in training programs. (4) Indeed, in a second or third generation of unemployed people, the idea of taking an interest in learning because of the benefit a diploma may provide when it comes to finding a place in the labour market is ironic to say the least. That usefulness is called into question in the daily life of schools.
It is not that young people no longer care about anything or are nihilistic. The issue, rather, is that no one has grasped as clearly as these young people that education and employability are no longer bound in a causal relation. Knowledge and training, in this sense, are no longer useful. For the supernumary (Castel, 2003), knowledge is not an exchange value. This may be the generation that has understood better than any other that there is no possible relationship between education and economic use. And that is where new visions and ways of thinking that concern us here emerge.
3. Student Struggles for Knowledge
The daily dynamics of school life and of classrooms in contexts of extreme urban poverty are more complex than the representations and diagnoses issued by government channels or found in the mass media would suggest. In this section we use these dynamics in terms of the research being conducted between 2011 and 2013 in a secondary school located in contexts of extreme urban poverty in the Buenos Aires Metropolitan Area. This secondary school is surrounded by a vast area of shantytowns which, since the late seventies, have grown exponentially. The basis for our research methodology was multiple, and we made broad use of observing/registering classes and interviewing student and teachers.
As opposed to images of schools in a state of crisis and collapse, where students, especially those who live in slums, seem not to find meaning in school (Kessler, 2002; Tenti Fanfani, 2003), a first--and very basic sensation seizes one upon entering these schools. Despite everything, there is still a school; students and teachers are still there wanting and/or trying to teach and to learn. In times when knowledge seems to dissolve into skills and attitudes, we find students who manage to bring about something of that image of teaching and learning in their classrooms. And that, in and of itself, constitutes an act of resistance.
A first question stands out among these young people's concerns: learning. Learning associated with teachers standing in front of the class and their word having credibility. As one student puts it:
I would like the teachers to be stricter. To make the kids behave because ... Simon is really nice but the problem is that ... well ... I mean, he says "give me your notebook" and that he is going to give you a bad grade, and then the kids say "no" and that's it, the kids win. He should say "give me your notebook" and they have to give it to him, end of story. But that's not how it goes. They don't pay attention to the teacher. (Interview with student)
In times of management, and coach-teachers, weak authority is a serious problem; students cannot question an authority that does not even make itself felt. Not paying attention in a context where doing nothing is the rule does not make sense. Defending themselves and not keeping quiet are two key aspects of student struggles in the classroom, struggles for the teachers to act like teachers and, mostly, for knowledge to once again circulate in the classroom. In keeping with what Bayat (2000) calls "the quiet encroachment of the ordinary," we find young people who inhabit and find meaning in their school life. As the following anecdote evidences, students are concerned with what they learn and that is the focus of many of their struggles:
Camilo: On Friday, when we had class, we went on strike because we didn't have class. Interviewer: What does that mean? Camilo: It's cool. We like it when there are strikes but, at the same time, we don't learn anything when that happens and we get dumber and dumber. [...] I mean, when there are classes and the semester is coming to an end, they say "OK, kids, since I don't have anything to base my grades on we are going to do an open-book test," and then they give everyone an A and that's it. And that way you don't learn a thing, just how to take out your notebook. (Interview with student).
Significantly, days without classes are commonplace in the schools where this research took place. There are multiple causes: teacher strikes and absences, as well as frequent problems with water supply and electricity. Thus, students strike to demand actually having classes. It is not, as Camilo points out, a question of just passing, but of learning. In times of cognitive capitalism, knowledge is, on the one hand, a central part of the scene and, on the other, missing at school. This imbues school life with a nonsensical quality that students protest against on a daily basis.
In the information age, the teacher's function is a sort of coaching. It is the students who fight to earn their grades, to keep passing from being a kind of empty performance. This is where, as we witnessed, struggles for knowledge are waged at present. At first glance, many of these struggles seem like scenes from a bizarre fiction: students on strike so that there will be classes in schools, asking that they not pass categorically, or that teachers actually follow through with a threatened punishment. Regardless, these are in fact the key to social struggles in times of cognitive capitalism.
"In addition, these struggles are seen not necessarily as defensive merely in the realm of resistance, but cumulatively encroaching, meaning that actors tend to expand their space by winning new positions to move on" (Bayat, 2000, p. 546). Students defend themselves and voice challenges, as is evident in the following comment by a student after a prolonged conflict between a teacher and her students:
The teacher asked me "So what are you now, the champion of the poor?" And, actually, that's right. That is, it's not that we don't have a voice and the teachers have to yell at us. They have to challenge us and then explain to us so that we understand (Interview with student).
Being the "champions of the poor" more than a euphemism here. This student defends subjects who, like herself, live in poverty. Thus, the insistence that knowledge circulate in schools in these contexts, that teaching and learning take place there, means, in the 21st century, to champion the poor. That is why the teacher's question "What are you now the champion of the poor?" takes on special meaning in relation to Foucault's (1994) question "Who are we?" as does the student's response: the truth is, we are, in fact, the champions of the poor. The student tries to explain to the teacher what that stance consists of. Even when the reprimand is accepted, what matters is that the teachers explain and that the students understand. Along similar lines:
Nahuel: Do you think I'm a dope? I come here every day, all day long. Teacher: You're rude.
Nahuel: You have to correct what I wrote, not my behaviour. Why do I have to turn in work when no one else turned it in? Show me someone who turned it in. You discriminate: you've got a thing against men. You only like the girls. You're a fascist, always discriminating. (Register of classroom observation).
By means of their struggles, students are able to change what they experience in the classroom. In this case, that means fighting over a grade. Nahuel insists that the teacher evaluate him on the basis of what he knows.
He even points out "I come here every day, all day long." And that is not a minor issue in a context where one of the central problems is the fluctuating absence and presence of teachers, students, and administrators. Disputes of this sort take on special meaning in schools and classrooms where disorganization, arriving late, and the building's infrastructure seem to undermine the possibility of teaching. (5) Significantly, it is common for the teachers in the high school where this research was performed to work in four or five schools, sometimes at a great distance from one another.
Raul: Here comes the teacher, here she comes. How pathetic ... just pathetic. [The teacher walks up to the entrance].
Camilo: You're late, teach. [The teacher knocks on the door to be let into the school].
Teacher: No! That's not it. I had to go to another school earlier, kids.
Raul: (Addressing the interviewer) Do you want me to tell you what time it is? It's five after one. And the teacher has just gotten here. [The teacher was due at school at 12:30]. [Then the students and teacher walk into the school talking about what they are going to study today]. (Observation at the school entrance).
Scenes like this one are commonplace, a constituent part of a setting where teachers are called "taxi teachers" because to make ends meet they have to teach at several schools and hence travel from one to the next. That's why it is so common for teachers to arrive late or, as occurs in the scene that follows, they have misplaced their papers. Once again, it is the intervention of the students that imposes some sort of order on that which seems to be out of control; they are the ones doing something about a state of affairs that they know harms them.
[Three students tell a teacher that they have already handed in the work the teacher is requesting and that she is confused. The teacher starts looking through her things to see if she can find the work. She then checks if she has written down their grades in a notebook].
Maria: Hold on. One sec. Let's straighten this out. Can we organize this? Do you have a list of things that have to be handed in?
Teacher: That's what I'm trying to do, Maria.
[The teacher's tone was sharp]
Karina: She is just making excuses. (Classroom observation).
In everyday situations in class, students ask their teachers to speed up a dictation, to give them the instructions because the class time is coming to an end, to remember to have the grades for the next class. Students remind their teachers not to talk on their cell phones. They ask the teachers to arrive on time or, even, for authorities to come to the classroom to work out the problems that arise. Like an episode of The Three Stooges, at times the students take charge of organizing the class or even the teacher's work.
Thus, the struggles at school often revolve around how knowledge is conveyed and developed:
I don't think it's possible, at least not here, to teach everyone everything in the same way. That's what I think. Some teachers are not very connected with the students [...] Teachers complain that the students are unbearable and all that, but they have to understand that sometimes we don't like how they teach a class (Interview with student).
In one sentence, this student questions Comenius' celebrated phrase "teach everything to everyone." At stake here is not just a questioning of how teaching is performed, but also students who manage to make the classroom a place of interest, regardless of the negative characterizations so often thrust upon them. Often students' positive assessment of the importance and usefulness of studying and school stands in contrast with their negative assessment of how teaching is performed.
In schools in contexts of urban poverty, students' struggles do not consist merely of opposition or, rather, their opposition has an extra quality, an excess. The students want to have class, they ask the teacher to be in the classroom, they demand that the authorities reduce recess and free hours due to absent teachers, and they want to be taught subjects not offered on the school curriculum. Whether implicit or explicit, these requests are some of the many struggles that, in our view, constitute practices of resistance in contexts of urban poverty. These formulations are particularly weighty if understood as forming part of power relations and social configurations (Foucault, 2006, 2007). According to this reading, these actions are part and parcel of the struggles and lines of force characteristic of late capitalism in the global south insofar as they entail diverse and heterogeneous confrontations that ensue in a society that assumes knowledge to be a good and, hence, scarce.
4. Closing Reflections
Struggles for knowledge in schools become practices of resistance based on "the potential energy of children and youth expressing their need to understand, to learn, to associate" (Rockwell, 2006, p. 6). Above, Camilo criticized a way of teaching that didn't allow students to learn anything. This student, like many of his classmates, defends school. He wants to learn because if he doesn't he will get "dumber and dumber." It is not, then, a question of simply opposing teachers. Students often seem to understand, better than adults, the difficult work and/or personal situations faced by teachers. Like a host seeing a guest into his or her house, as they walk into the school they discuss what they are going to do once they get inside. The students take charge of the pre-organization.
At these schools, we find students who fight to know, for a place, who struggle to survive in a world where there often seems to be no place for them. These struggles take shape between a sense of solidarity and alliance, regardless of the individualism and nihilism attributed to young people living in poverty (Mafessoli, 2004). Schools are brimming with micro-practices and student demands. Students call this form of organization "a strike." Like teachers, they go on strike. That does not mean that they don't care about school, what happens in it, or what is taught. On the contrary, as Camilo points out, they strike for that very reason, in order to have class. Students want to learn and, in contexts of urban poverty, that often seems like an impossible mission.
This is the framework, then, in which this article interrogates the rationalities that currently articulate the knowledge-progress-education trilogy. This means formulating a question not only about who we are and/or are in the process of being, but also about who we want to be in the future. We understand that it is impossible to consider the world and, hence, to question it, without recourse to concepts. That is what is demanded by young people at schools.
Along these lines, and in keeping with Deleuze and Guattari (1988), we understand that the centrality of concepts and their invention means daring to problematize, to think, and to conceptualize present reality and, hence, constitutes a way to relate those of us already in the world and those of us who are on their way into it. On this basis, then, students' more or less explicit demands to have more class time, and for the teachers to show up, etc. are, in contexts of urban poverty, practices of resistance.
As Agamben (2001) points out, a society that is vexed by its inability to convey something to someone is the society that repudiates its young people for that which it cannot give. We envision these young people as not having the slightest interest in learning or not being able to take interest-and hence want to know--anything in the world; we demand that they show some willpower, some curiosity when the world has, in fact, denied them--and perhaps us all--any possibility of experience and its narration. This expropriation of experience is nothing new. It is calculated and rationalized in the project of modern science. As said above, the present promise of training is to render the self the object of calculation. We also criticize young people for their low self-esteem, indifference, and lack of commitment. That is how the hypothesis of employability/educability locates young people as the reason for growing inequality. But those young people find other explanations, a different way of intervening in that trilogy.
While the possibility of finding a job is, for students, one component of schooling, they get something more out of school, mainly understanding, learning, knowing. We believe that the fact that usefulness is not the sole purposes of education should not be seen as perilous, as evidence of apathy or laziness. In fact, just the opposite: it attests to how young people who were born and live in contexts of extreme urban poverty, attempt to restore classrooms as site of political debate, questioning, and the struggle for meaning. In other words, perhaps we are before an opportunity to revitalize school experience by once again instituting the question of meaning. Significantly, the struggles described here ensue in a context where knowing how to add and subtract might seem downright absurd. And, hence, it is essential to return to Willis's formulation (2008) regarding "learning to work": "What is the purpose of school if there is no job to get?" (p. 54). Yet students are the ones who demonstrate and express the purposes and meaning it has for them.
Analysis of mechanisms of power serves to show the effects of knowledge in society (Foucault, 2006). Hence, the description of struggles also entails the possibility of reflecting on those knowledges that subjects produce in an array of confrontations. This makes it possible to understand these struggles as forming part of a scheme of forces that incite us to think in a certain way, to think of the search for an emergency exit (Deleuze, 2002).
Here, we have focused on the potential of students' practices for the construction of the dynamics of daily life at school. These struggles, fights and defenses are political experiences that these subjects produce in the neighborhoods and institutions they inhabit. In this framework, subjects fight to be present, to have a place. These students, like quiet rebels (Bayat, 2000), attend and fight for the school because it is at school that they come upon the beliefs, anecdotes, love, friendship, and people with whom they identity. As many students we met at these schools put it, the knowledge and doctrine they find at schools are "an important part of [their] life." Students struggle on a daily basis to be at school which, despite everything, means so much to them. Thus, if the opposition to school that Willis described (1978) entailed struggling to gain space in the context of institutional norms to then defeat school, the mechanism at play in the present is just the opposite. Now, the fight is to defend the school, to occupy the space. Insisting, being at school, going inside is not always enough. There is something else operating in that insistence, and that something else is the search for knowledge.
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Centre for Studies in Inequalities, subjectivity and institutions, School of Humanities, National University of San Martin
Centre for Studies in Inequalities, subjectivity and institutions, School of Humanities, National University of San Martin
Dr Silvia M. Grinberg is Professor of Sociology of Education (National University of San Martin, UNSAM), researcher at the National Committee of Science and Technology in Argentina (CONICET) and Director, Centre for Studies in Inequalities, Subjectivity and Institutions (CEDESI, UNSAM). Silvia's research interests include educational inequality, processes of subjectivation related to the ways of operating, procedures and mechanisms by which certain local, regional and global south dynamics take shape in neighbours and in school life applying post-strucutral ethnographic research and audiovisual methods. Her current research is being conducted in contexts of extreme urban poverty and decay territories (shantytowns) in the metropolitan region of the city of Buenos Aires. Her work concerns governmentality, biopolitics and lines of flight in urban territories and everyday school life.
Dr Eduardo Langer is Associate Professor of Sociology of Education (National University of San Martin, UNSAM; National University of the Patagonia, UNPA), Researcher at the CEDESI, UNSAM. His research interests include questions of governmentality and education in the framework of the critical sociology of education. His work is focused around the study of pedagogical apparatuses, linked to the process of regulation of conduct and the practices of resistance of students in everyday life in secondary schools in contexts of urban poverty.
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|Author:||Grinberg, Silvia; Langer, Eduardo|
|Date:||Jul 1, 2014|
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