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independent minds, critical thinking and discontented creativity

acknowledging, welcoming and learning from the discomfort of failure

Cloud created by:

Bill Law
29 September 2015

Bill Law
the career-learning café

The evidence is that more is learned from failure than from success.  That learning requires the acknowledgement of failure.  But a well-documented tendency is to off-load blame onto other people.  The consequence is embedded in regressive reforms.  But contemporary conditions call for progressive reforms.

Two questions for educators...

is there any reason to exempt careers work from regressive tendencies? 


how much of a shock is needed to galvanise a progressive wake-up?


  • uses of history

Timothy Snyder's compelling history of European societies and their cultures is shocking.  It uncovers parallels between twentieth- and twenty-first-century politics.  You'll recognise the villain.  The report carries an urgent warning for education - and especially for careers work.  It's important because it calls on previously disregarded evidence and neglected testimony.  Its analysis includes a probing account of the influence of policy on professions.  Although you'll recognise the villain - his followers and his victims - reading it as a generality, involving us all, invites you to see you and your students as agents of history.  Which you are.

The account is timely on politics because electoral opinion is shifting in ways that conventional politicians find it hard to understand.  And this researcher is especially useful in his call for constructive movements which are local, independent and creative.  This is not Westminster's strongest suite.


  • causes and effects

Timothy Snyder sets out a sequence of historical causes and effects.  They describe a nation-state claiming that its reforms are necessary, inevitable and rational.  The trigger is a changing world and its consequences for national survival.  But the movement has no evidence to supports its claim.  What it has instead is a preference which suits ready-made interests.  And that fit renders evidence redundant.  Sound familiar?

The resulting movement has existential consequences for the people who become its victims.  They are judged to be contaminating the nation, and are therefore deemed unworthy of survival.  At the same time the movement is positioning itself for more territory.  So there is, at the same time, more ground to be occupied and more conformity to be required.  That claim, on space and expectation, gathers its own dynamics.  So much so that it persuades malleable professionals to embrace theories and methods which, in their former work, they would have given no room at all.  So cultures are transformed - their memories, their beliefs and their expectations are overturned. 

The regime maintains control and silences opposition with its imposition of power - 'might is right'.  But, as it eventually turns out, the regime's warnings - of dire economic consequences for non-compliance with its plan - are never actually fulfilled.  Might turned out to be powerfully wrong.  

The research points to then-and-now similarities.  It raises questions - incuding some about whether there could be teachers maintaining a finger-hold on order by imposing similar 'pay-attention-and-do-as-you're-told' demands.  Any progressive movement understands that control and subordination are not education.  And, where the value of learning is shared with students, no such regime is needed.  So Timothy Snyder opens the door to the possibility that contemporary change does not need to require ready-made prescriptions, but to galvanise something more like the inventive anarchy of creativity.  In a tightly controlled regime it would need a not-so-malleable courage in educators.


  • risk and comfort

Timothy Snyder finds courage on the margins of all this.  There are groups running terrifying risks by setting up rescue organisations.  Those risk-takers are themselves victims who have escaped capture.  There are also non-compliant helpers setting up resistant outfits.  They prove to be most successful when they get a foot in the door of unvisited corners of local state apparatus.  It's a stupendously dramatic example of the effectiveness of local understanding for local action - using local resources to find local solutions for local people.

Alongside all that, poorly-informed citizens inhabit a comfortably familiar space with exclusively controlled boundaries.  The imperatives feed into popular politics.  Their curtailed ideas and theorising over-control the professions.  The culmination of that colonisation is the destruction of neighbouring states.  And that is how unhampered action crystallises justifications for the rejection of the unwanted.  Existential threats can then be immediately murderous.  These extremities have passed into history.  But the dynamics persist.  They can't fairly be condemned as attempts to eliminate the unwanted, though that is an effect - on a longer time-scale but with no less a finality.


  • turning points

So what has Timothy Snyder got?  He identifies features in a perennial struggle between constructive and destructive movements.  Significant in the latter is a confusion between what is desired and what is justified.  It allows people to claim what they want as an entitlement.  Meanwhile the more critical the threat of change the more intense the manoeuvring.  Where localities are robbed of responsibility the nation-state is dealing with unmanageable levels of complexity.  In global movements the complexity is exponentially greater.  The greater the resulting discomfort the greater the state is urged to find readily-recognisable simplicity.  But the more short cuts in that thinking the greater the regression and the more serious its collateral damage.  Then blame for the damage must be offloaded onto outsiders - people who are not one of us.  Insiders are then able to invite their supporters to celebrate the comfort of an uncomplicated way of living.  And that simple-mindedness does not ask for more government control, it demands less.  Sound familiar? 

Timothy Snyder's then-and-now comparison exposes what, in the contemporary world, has become the neo-liberal political economy.  And there are attempts at a neo-liberal capture of education - in particular of careers work.  The same evidence suggests that careers work leaders are ready to comply.  In the resulting debate speaking of predatory commerce is to be accused of being unfairly 'anti-business'.  But the evidence is of global business routinely positioning itself for unearned advantage - and that evidence is accumulating on a daily basis.  Its activity includes firms off-loading responsibility for investment, while manipulating markets, distorting evidence, avoiding tax and manoeuvring governments.  Global technologies locate all of this beyond the reach of democracy, of its representatives and of their constituents.  In view of the fact that the clients and students of careers work are on the receiving end of this treatment its professionalism is unaccountably quiet.  


  • finding hope

This is a story of historical and repeated failure.  Is anything changing?  Timothy Snyder finds little sign of any slowdown in regressive tendencies.  Prevailing ideas still favour small-government.  They advocate an economics simple enough to be contained by talk of targets, markets and bottom-lines.  The interests of insiders can then be thought to be blameless.  Wherever there is blame to be assign it's attributed to outsiders claimed to be blameworthy.  Whistle-blowing educators feature on the list of culprits.  Though some adjust stance to gain status.  There is a shocking irony in the way even educators will do this, despite how insider alliances dismiss authoritative cultural commentaries and deny reliable scientific findings.

This search digs deep, and what it finds ain't pretty.  It probes exposed societies and compliant cultures.  It finds politics unable to deal with a shift in electoral priorities.  It is not the first to expose helping professionals unable to sustain a reliable independence of power.  Neither is it the first to identify claims to righteousness in movements which damage the interests they say they are defending.

So what have we got to go on?  The evidence points to the power of the margins - local groups running the risks of opposition in small-scale outfits plugged into local apparatus.  This is not big-society do-gooding, neither is it local-authority politicking.  It's civil society and its stakeholders working independently of out-of-touch politics and its well-healed sponsors.

And it's where Timothy Snyder finds hope - in the establishment of institutions each capable of independent thought and each open to a plurality of view-points.  That movement engages creativity rather than control.  We should also consider putting his work on the curriculum.  It's sound history.  I think it would count as education for citizenship.  And, Adolf aside, was there ever a time when such independence of mind, critical thinking and discontented creativity were ever more needed?


Timothy Snyder (2015)
Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning
London: Bodley Head



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