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The voice of "authority":beyond the power words

In the text "The voice of the 'citizen'...", I spoke of the difficulties involved in following a speech in which many words raise questions. The published version of the recent speech by the European Commissioner Martin Bangemann entitled "The information society: an opportunity for education and training and the promotion of Europe's culture" contains a considerable number of words and ideas that need questioning. One of the main aims in spending some time on that text, which in itself is not very different from many other such Commission speeches, is to underline the importance for the citizen not to take words at their face value and to stress the need to take time to examine carefully what people in power have to say to us. All the text in italics below is quoted from the above mentioned paper by Dr. Bangemann.
Europe's present educational system, which can be described as the "classroom" model [1], is inherited from the 19th century and is therefore[2] a product of the industrial age. Its aim is to transmit [to] all pupils a common set of values and a common language, i.e. a common culture.[3]
[1] Does such a thing as a classroom model exist? Thinking of education in terms of classrooms is symptomatic of thinking of education in terms of schools. The school system would have us believe that the most important part of education takes place in schools. Is this really the case? Think of the proficiency of a young child in talking, no school was necessary for that.

[2] Whenever the word therefore is used, we need to be careful that what goes before it really does lead to what goes after it. Such a word is frequently used to hide essential questions. The claim here about the relationship between the form of schools and the nature of the industrial age skips far too quickly over issues that require more thought.

[3] Is culture really a common set of values and a common language ? If we take this definition at its face value what could possibly be the "European culture"? The values embodied in the construction of Europe, firmly based on liberalism and the idea of a common market? The domination of one language over all others? Are there not other equally important aspects of culture in Europe? What about the accumulation of achievements and creations that are the pride and joy of the different peoples that go to make up Europe? What about the ways of living and being that characterise the multitude of groups living in Europe and give them their identity?
Successful [4] in the past, the classroom model has reached its limits [5] in a world where knowledge becomes rapidly obsolete [6]. It is also increasingly challenged by new ways of learning [7], in particular multimedia products and services ...
[4] What exactly is meant by the word successful ? Which criteria of success are being referred to here? Examination pass rates? Numbers of people attending schools? Success in finding a job? Ability to hold on to that job? Being able to get on well with other people? General well-being in later life? One of the most bothering things about education for economists is the difficulties they have in measuring its efficiency.

[5] Isn't the statement far too general? Which of the characteristics of teaching in a classroom have reached their limits ? Are there aspects of such teaching worth keeping? And if so in which circumstances?

[6] Does all knowledge rapidly become obsolete? Technical knowledge related to specific rapidly-changing tools may well become obsolete. For example, few people now know how to weave or to spin wool. But a vast amount of essential knowledge does not become obsolete so quickly, in particular many of the relational skills that are often neglected by those who put forward technological solutions to our problems. Being able to express yourself in writing is a good example of a skill that is unlikely to become obsolete despite all the wild promises about the future of multimedia.

These skills receive lip-service in the text: More elaborate skills that must be developed include intellectual and artistic creativity, polyvalence and multidisciplinarity, the capacity to communicate and collaborate, as well as the capacity to acquire new knowledge throughout life yet when it comes to talking of the lack of awareness on the part of teachers and trainers, the text speaks of the need to overhall the system and to grasp the opportunities offered by ICTs.

[7] Although multimedia products and services might be used as tools in the process of learning, they are not in themselves ways of learning. Neither is the content of these products and services learning as such.
New information and communication technologies can [8] be key contributors to the evolution of teaching and learning methods, and must therefore [9] be fully integrated[10] in the education system.
[8 & 9] It does not necessarily follow that because technologies maybe can change education methods that they therefore must be used. This apparently logical statement is deliberately misleading in its attempt to convince us that the use of technology in teaching and learning is inevitable. With such arguments it is advisable to come back to basics and ask some simple questions. What exactly do we want to change, if anything? Why do we want to change it? How can communication technologies help achieve these changes, if at all?

[10] What exactly is meant by fully integrated ? In the discourse about technologies there is often a tendency to be totalitarian - that is to say, technology is seen as englobing everything and everybody. Is this what the word fully connotes here?
This evolution [11] must [12] take place in the context of competition as only it[13] can foster the required initiatives and creativity.
[11] What exactly is the evolution being referred to here? Evolution has to do with change. It is generally seen as an on-going process that is in many ways inevitable and irreversible. Is it the advent of the Information Society that is put forward as inevitable here? Is the Information Society inevitable? And if so, is its form necessarily that which commercial interest and governments depict?

[12 & 13] The word must here introduces a belief rather than an apparently logical conclusion from what went before. The belief expressed is that competition is the essential driving force in society. This is confirmed as the text goes on to say that competition is the only solution. The title indicates where this force is supposed to be driving us: the promotion of Europe's culture. Is this the case? To what extent can competition promote European culture? There are no doubt close links between the ideas expressed in this speech and those of evolutionists who believe in the survival of the fittest as a competition in which the strongest and the fittest always wins. Nature belies this one-sided vision over and over again with its delicate balance between competition and collaboration. Cancer is a very striking example of how unbridled competition with no collaboration works.
While Europe produces 300 films a year (more than Hollywood!), each movie is seen in average by only [14] 2.1 million people. This compares with an average audience of 215 million for a US movie. [...] Yet pumping public money in movies that do not meet the audience's expectations [15] is no support for Europe's culture.
[14] The word only clearly implies a value judgement. Several million is apparently not enough. How many people would be enough? Clearly financial calculations would give one answer in terms of breaking even or making a profit. But is that quantity enough or could it be too many? If you had doubled the audience at the recent Festival de la Vallée des Terres Blanches it is unlikely it would have been twice as good. On the contrary. Edward de Bono put this phenomenon quite neatly by talking about the quantity of salt you put on your food.

[15] The assumption here is that audience expectations can be globally judged by referring to those films that the largest number of people look at. This is the logic adopted by mass media and television in particular. What happens to the richness and the diversity that is typical of Europe in this logic? Maybe it is appropriate and better in Europe to make many films for smaller audiences. If you want to win a battle, it is better not to fight it on the enemy's territory... and maybe you don't even need to fight a battle at all. Is there not a risk that in comparing yourself to the ostensibly displayed strengths of others that you feel weak and yet obliged to fight. Whereas, if you are aware of and develop your own strong points you are not only better off, but may well not feel enticed to fight a wasteful, if not catastrophic, battle at all. Share or comment
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Created: May 27th, 1997 - Last up-dated: July 7th, 1997