Reading & Writing
Close Up / Essay
Essay written for the 'Close Up' exhibition catalogue (July 2011)

1
When I was fourteen, I went to school one day with my parents for what was called a 'careers development' meeting. Something all of us in the year were subjected to. The meeting, with what they called a 'careers officer', would define the subjects I would study over the coming years and supposedly determine my future path and the sort of job I would have. As I and my parents were about to be called I was suddenly overcome with a sort of terror.

It is said that in the knowledge of your imminent death your past flashes before you. Well this was the reverse. My future flashed before me, and within the parameters of what appeared to be commonplace and acceptable, it looked terrifying. I envisaged the horrors of a ‘normal’ office job as if the next ten minutes would somehow determine my whole life. I decided I wasn't ready.

I remember the look on my parents faces. Surprised and concerned about my sudden alarm but not really understanding what to do or what was going on. “I don't want to work in an office, I don't want a normal job” I bleated in panic. “Well what do you want to do then?” they asked in an attempt to calm and reassure me. “Something different”, I said desperately, “I just want to do something different”. I don't even remember how the meeting went or what was decided. I only remember the terror of imagining a prescribed and predictable future.

Two years later when I was sixteen I was called into the headmasters office. “We’ve decided that it’s time for you to leave” he told me. I was in my penultimate year. And the reason for my expulsion? I showed no interest in my lessons and wasn’t studying he told me. He was right. I was obviously a lazy ‘waster’. Having given me the news, he asked in a challenging sort of way what I now intended to do with myself. I didn’t hesitate. I told him that my only interest was to go to art school. “Well Andrew”, he said with a knowing look, “you may be the best in this school at drawing but if you go to art school everyone will be good”. He said this in a scornful way, not as an encouragement, but almost as a form of intimidation.

But I had passed my national drawing examination with a Grade A at the age of 13, 2 years before any of my peers would sit the exam and the thought of such a thing – to be in the company of people with a high level of ability – was a delight. So after a year of odd jobs I applied to Art School and was accepted at the first opportunity. After a bright start the delight eventually turned to disillusionment. Four years later I was in another head teachers office, this time the head of department at Trent School of Art & Design in Nottingham.

And once again I was being asked to leave, again in my penultimate year, after four years at Art School. I had produced a publication the previous summer entitled ‘An unpopular Guide to Art Education’. It wasn’t popular. This time I was told that I was a trouble-maker, and that if I didn’t like art education, then I should go and do something else. And so I did.

2

In 1971 the Austrian philosopher, former Catholic priest, and social critic Ivan Illich published a critical discourse on education entitled ‘Deschooling Society’. In it he argues that the industrial mode of production dominant in our society necessarily leads to its institutionalisation, and no more so than with regard to the activity of learning which is transformed into a commodity called ‘education’. Within this ideological and political framework learning is approached as a form of acquisition and, as Mark K. Smith has written*, in line with the tendency in modern industrial societies to orient toward a 'having mode' where people focus upon, and organise around the possession of material objects, knowledge becomes a possession to be exploited rather than an aspect of being in the world. Illich put it in the following way:

“Schooling – the production of knowledge, the marketing of knowledge, which is what the school amounts to, draws society into the trap of thinking that knowledge is hygienic, pure, respectable, deodorised, produced by human heads and amassed in stock..... [B]y making school compulsory, [people] are schooled to believe that the self-taught individual is to be discriminated against; that learning and the growth of cognitive capacity, require a process of consumption of services presented in an industrial, a planned, a professional form;... that learning is a thing rather than an activity. A thing that can be amassed and measured, the possession of which is a measure of the productivity of the individual within the society. That is, of his[her] social value.”

The institution ‘School’ and the commodity ‘Education’ make each other necessary. Furthermore, institutionalisation demands professionalisation. “Experts and an expert culture always call for more experts”, and professionalisation extends to every aspect of our lives – medicine (healthcare), architecture (home-building), law (justice), agriculture (subsistence) as well as learning. The control and creation of knowledge connected to them is substituted and/or appropriated by that of elite professional groups. “Experts control knowledge production”, wrote Illich, “as they decide what valid and legitimate knowledge is, and how its acquisition is sanctioned.” There is a consequent disempowerment and dependency creation (which is a form of control) for the majority of people as a result of this process. Personal experience is devalued as are the skills and know-how that stem from every community. The de-institutionalising of education he advocates, is the necessary starting point for the de-institutionalising of society.

These arguments are further expanded in a subsequent book he published in 1973 entitled ‘Tools for Conviviality’, which is devoted in large part to an analysis and critique of the tools through which we engage with and manage our existence in the world, and in which he introduces the concepts of ‘counterproductivity’ and ‘radical monopoly’. His definition of the term ‘tool’, is deliberately broad, and includes “not only simple hardware such as drills, pots, building elements, or motors, and not just large machines like cars or power engines stations, [but] also productive institutions such as factories that produce tangible commodities like corn flakes or electric current, and productive systems for intangible commodities such as those which produce ‘education’, ‘health’, ‘knowledge’, or ‘decisions’.”

Tools are designed in order to facilitate activities, tasks, or even forms of behaviour. Illich argues that a (second) threshold is reached in the use and functionality of some tools where ills quickly outpace benefits – when the command is inverted and the tool determines the activity, task or behaviour and thus escapes the political control of humanity. This is what he calls counterproductivity. Radical monopoly occurs when a single product (as opposed to a single brand or corporation) dominates all other forms, as does the car with regard to other modes of urban transport such as walking, bicycling, and public transport.

Illich builds a strong and compelling critique of the process of institutionalisation, of professionalisation, and of commodification. In addition to issues of control and reciprocity, the nature of the tools at our disposal, he argues, determines the way in which we value ourselves, and the way we are valued:

“Tools are intrinsic to social relationships. An individual relates himself in action to his society through the use of tools that he actively masters, or by which he is passively acted upon. To the degree that he masters his tools, he can invest the world with his meaning; to the degree that he is mastered by his tools, the shape of the tool determines his own self-image.”

Education is such a tool.

3

Years ago I was led to believe that my own lack of engagement could only be the result of a deficit in my ability to appreciate the value of what was on offer. The official verdict was that by not engaging I was only damaging myself. My ‘failure’ was therefore self-inflicted. Later at Art School, my engagement was simply the wrong sort. Questioning could only occur within the parameters of an unquestionable structure.

I learned that in terms of credit and credibility, educational institutions are often quick to claim for themselves pupils that successfully navigate the system, whilst distancing themselves from those who loose their way, can’t keep up or wilfully resist compliance – I was a mixture of all three.

When I was invited to write a text for this publication I was told that it ought to address the context of the exhibition – the college experience, graduation, the future and so forth. At the time of writing I have not seen the work to be exhibited. What I know is that the students showing their work, having completed a continuous cycle of educational consumption since the age of 4 or 5 years old – with perhaps more to come for some – may well be asking what they get at this journey’s end.

It used to be the case, in times of so-called economic growth at least, that the ‘reward’ (as advertised) was the opportunity to start higher up on the income food-chain, to be given an entrance pass to the professional class, leapfrogging the monotony of industrialised labour. Most know that graduate qualifications today give no such assurances. Many may well be alarmed by the apparent lack of prospects that await them. And although it may appear by now that I am intent on leading readers down a dark path, there is room for optimism if a bigger picture is kept in sight.

There are qualities and values that don’t depend on schooling or academic training, that are not connected to the state of the economy or the vagaries of the market. Like being intellectually curious and wanting to know why things are the way they are; like caring about people and the lives they live; like wanting to share ideas and experience. There are passions and fascinations – about the power of the visual to provoke our imagination; about the capacity of language to express our deepest fears and most cherished hopes; about the beauty of things well made. And there are ambitions that are not solely dependent on the building of careers – like wanting to encounter practical solutions to everyday problems; like wanting to imbue the things we make with our humanity; like wanting to achieve excellence. These things are unlikely to be found written into any course curriculum. They are essential nevertheless. Few of them are achievable without knowledge and skills. Intent is not enough. But still, rather intent which creates the hunger for learning than schooling without intent.

I realised some years later that my moment of terror at the age of 14 had nothing to do with wanting to ‘be’ anything in particular, it was about wanting to ‘do’ – to feel useful and fulfilled, to make a contribution to our collective experience and understanding.

Not knowing exactly what the young designers in this exhibition have to say, I hope that they are able to say, “Here I am, this is what I can do, let me show you my skills, let me share with you my knowledge and understanding, and above all, let me explain why these things are important and useful to us all.” An important first step in the socialisation of design.
 

References
Deschooling Society, Ivan Illich (1971)
Tools for Conviviality, Ivan Illich (1973)
* Mark K. Smith – Ivan Illich: Deschooling, Conviviality and the possibilities for informal education and lifelong learning, www.infed.org/thinkers/et-illic.htm 

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© Andrew Howard. Available from: www.studioandrewhoward.com