Book Review: On the Politics of Educational Theory

Szkudlarek, T., (2017) On the Politics of Educational Theory: Rhetoric, theoretical ambiguity, and the constructions of society (London/New York: Routledge).

Reviewed by Piotr Zamojski, University of Gdańsk, Poland

What do we do when we theorise education? This seems to be the leading question of this remarkable book by Tomasz Szkudlarek. After all, the work of constructing an educational theory happens always in the context of some currently existing forms and practices of education, and the act of theorising stems from the Greek θεωρία – making something visible. Szkuldarek takes his readers on a fascinating journey, showing both how some existing educational practices are made invisible by theories, and what is made visible through that move. This journey begins with Rousseau, Herbart, and leads through Kulturpädagogik, and Polish socialist pedagogy, to the contemporary discourses of lifelong learning and the knowledge economy. In each case we are invited to investigate what is done to the social world by making educational practices invisible or visible in the act of theorising education. In other words, as Szkudlarek (2017, p. 17) puts it:

In what way can a theory which speaks of things known to the public, and which, moreover, postulates their existence while they already exist, and as claims Foucault, are widespread and effective, contribute to the social world?

In order to answer this question Szkudlarek turns to Ernesto Laclau’s political ontology (2005; 2007; 2014), with which he has worked for some time in diverse contexts (see Szkudlarek, 2003; 2007; 2011; 2013, 2014). According to Laclau, the construction of society – as something ontologically impossible but politically necessary – is performed through the use of rhetorical means. This is so because constructing society consists of forming a collective identity. This, furthermore, requires the establishment of an hegemonic connection between heterogenous social particularities and, therefore, always involves discursive work. In that sense, rhetorical elements of a discourse come to be regarded as elements of social objectivity.

Engaging Laclau’s theoretical framework allows Szkudlarek, therefore, to treat educational theories as “ontological devices implicated in the construction of social objectivities” (Szkudlarek, 2017, p. 2). There are two important consequences of that, and both of them distinguish Szkudlarek’s project from the way we usually approach the issue of theorising education.

First of all – as it says in the very first sentence of the book – what Szkudlarek is investigating is not the political content of educational theories; that is, the political claims that they explicitly make or assume. Rather, he is concerned with the political significance of theorising education. This means regarding educational theory in terms of a discursive practice that brings to life particular social objectivities. In that sense it becomes possible to ask: What do we actually do when we theorise education? What kind of political significance does this discursive practice have? What do we actually bring to society when constructing an educational theory? Or, to put it even more precisely, he is concerned with “how educational theories – with all their weakness, marginality, and conceptual ambiguity – can be constitutive elements of political ontologies” (Szkudlarek, 2017, p. 16).

Second, with reference to the framework developed by Laclau, what is put under scrutiny are not just the explicit conceptual claims of a theory, but also the way that particular educational theory is construed. To this end, for each educational theory, Szkudlarek’s book offers an analysis of its rhetorical content.

The way he undertakes this exercise gives birth to a myriad of fascinating results. Educational theories as discursive machines that make particular practices and phenomena visible or invisible are disclosed as taking part in the construction of the social totality, as well as the political singularity, out of heterogeneous elements, that are connected, equalled, and put into circular dependencies. The thread of individual subjectivity, well expected in every educational theory, is surprisingly rendered in terms of fractionality and divinity. The postulational rhetoric of educational theories leads to an epistemological evasion of existing practices and so introduces a particular edition of the time of education (eliminating the present). The disruptive force of school appears to lie in its immanent practice of emptying terms through the endless exercises in repetition, multiplication of possible meanings, decontextualization and the boredom that accompanies these.

Paradoxically, however, such a plethora of intellectually vibrant theoretical claims leaves the reader with an impression of a lack. After all, Szkudlarek points out that when an educationalist is theorising education she is a political actor per se! Therefore, the question arises: how can this analysis be assessed on its own terms? What does Szkudlarek do when he theorises educational theory in such a way? What is the political significance of this exercise? He offers a clue:

The focus of critical analysis should be, and often is, not on the final de-masking of capitalist plots behind every aspect of social life. Somewhat similar to the work of Freudian psychoanalysis (whatever the analysed says will be interpreted in terms of her or his sexuality), the issue is not so much to “discover” such a determination as it is to interpret it in its particular shape – to dismantle its detailed semantics and mechanics and to re-assemble it into meaningful narratives woven around contingent details so that the whole space is marked with trajectories of their interconnections (Szkudlarek, 2017: 4, emphasis in original).

Still, it seems that the intriguing exercises in the book miss a question: what does such a hermeneutics of the present as a discursive practice itself do to or for society? The book doesn’t offer closure, but this might be precisely the concluding gesture of the author who, after presenting his own inquiry, returns the effort of thinking about what one can make out of it to the reader. I have no doubt that such an effort is worthwhile.

References:

Laclau, E. (2005). On Populist Reason. London: Verso.

Laclau, E. (2007). Emancipation(s). London – New York: Verso.

Laclau, E. (2014). The Rhetorical Foundations of Society. London: Verso.

Szkudlarek, T. (2003). Educational Theory, Displacement, and Hegemony. International

Journal of Applied Semiotics, 4 (2), pp. 109–130.

Szkudlarek, T. (2007). Empty Signifiers, Politics and Education. Studies in Philosophy

and Education, 26 (3), pp. 237–252.

Szkudlarek, T. (2011). Semiotics of Identity. Education and Politics. Studies in Philosophy

and Education, 30 (2), pp. 113–125.

Szkudlarek, T. (2013). Identity and Normativity: Politics and Education. In Szkudlarek,

T. (ed.) Education and the Political. New Theoretical Articulations. Rotterdam, Boston

and Taipei: Sense Publishers.

Szkudlarek, T. (2014). The Excess of Theory. On the Functions of Educational Theory

in Apparent Reality. In BIESTA, G., ALLAN, J. and EDWARDS, R. (eds.) Making a Difference

in Theory. The Theory Question in Education and the Education Question in Theory. London:

Routledge.