Trying to make it a good day when things fall apart

I hope that everyone left the conference last Saturday as invigorated as I was.  It was worth all the efforts that went into from so many.

Two moments were particularly salient for me.

Early on, Michael Scroggins read a passage from Cremin that I have read many time but which struck me as if I heard if for the first time.  The passage closes the section of the “definition of education” in his Public education but it goes much further.  Cremin wrote:

”Everyday in every part of the world people set out to teach something to others or to study something themselves. . . They deserve a theory specifically addressed to their problems and purposes, one that will assist them to act intelligently, ever hopeful of the possibilities but fully aware of the limitations and risks that attend their efforts.”(1976:30)

I take this as further evidence that Cremin was indeed part of the movement that keeps renewing what anthropologists of education are doing.  He wrote this at about the time when Ray McDermott was watching Adam and heard him say “Anybody who wants to try to make it a good day today, say ‘Aye’” (Varenne & McDermott 1998: 39).  Adam did not have a good day that day, but he was “ever hopeful,” and McDermott has been looking for the theory of education that people like Adam deserve.

The other salient moment for me came during the last session when Jill Koyama talked about her research into things that fall apart—particularly policies by institutional actors (in Latour’s sense) that stresses other actors to the point that everyone involved will have very bad days.  For Adam, it had been enlightened researchers attempting to undermine the grounding of intelligence testing and, in the process, making a space for the enactment of “education as race” with winners and crying legitimate losers.

Cremin was an optimist.  Koyama presents herself, I’d say, as a pessimist.  McDermott insists that kids (teachers, assistant principals, etc.) “make sense.”

But both Cremin and Koyama, like McDermott and all those I recruit into the “movement,”  insist that we build theories that will “assist” (note the verb) people “act intelligently.”  McDermott may have written “act ‘sensibly’” reminding us of course that people always make sense even when (particularly when?) their conditions are made difficult.

So, things fall apart (why-ever).  As Garfinkel once put it “when you screw around, then you get instructed” (2002: 250). That is, if a cafeteria line falls apart then everyone starts working on telling everyone what they should do next so that they can make it a good day (and not have to repair what ought not to be broken so that, perhaps, more complicated matters can get repaired).  The cost of that repair work is what Garfinkel was not concerned with.  Nor was he quite concerned with the work of those who dis-order (why-ever again; intentions is not the issue).  Not with the possibility that re-orderings (through instruction, etc.) might also producing dis-orderings (resistance, etc.).

A theory of education that may help us assist people as they educate themselves, will have to take into account these matters too and many of the papers presented at the conference are a step in that direction (as well as a demonstration indeed that data-driven research cannot possibly shed lights on these matters!),

One thought on “Trying to make it a good day when things fall apart”

  1. Again, I thank Professors Varenne and Bartlett, as well as the committee, for inviting me to participate in the conference.

    The short title of my talk, When Things Come Undone, was my take on a book by the Buddhist Pema Chodron in which she discusses how things falling apart are a necessary part of life from which we can break our habitual ways of seeing and doing things (Disclaimer: this is a truly over simplification of her teaching). When applied to educational policy in practice, the framing allows for an analysis in which the dissembling, or as Levinson and Sutton might say, the messy non-linear appropriation, of policy is seen as part of the policy in action, rather than as a failure of policy. In the case of bilingual education policy (e.g. Proposition 227 in California, Proposition 203 in Arizona, and much of NCLB across the country), for instance, it can be quite productive when the official policy comes undone and prescribed practices fall apart through the pedagogy and curriculum employed by teachers and leaders, who act as bricoleurs in their policy roles. As policy falls apart daily, studying this phenomena not as some mishap or mistake, but rather as an essential and often productive process aids in our understanding of the everyday policy work of actors, both in and outside of schools. So, while Garfinkel may correctly say that when you screw around or screw up (or even screw with someone’s head), there will be consequences–people will notice, point perhaps to the problem, and offer remedies or repairs–I am suggesting that this might be, in the study of education policy, at times and certain circumstances, a most productive part of the enactment and construction of policy. (Am I making sense, McDermott?)

    I am not sure if I am some sort of pessimist or not. The optimist-pessimist binary is one of those couplings much like success and failure that seem complexly united even though each half of the supposed dichotomy is often indistinguishable from the other depending on the interpreter. (Yes, I learned that from Varenne and McDermott’s book on Successful Failure).

    Again, thank you for including me in the conference.

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