Academic journal article Australian Journal of Education

The Status of Education and Its Consequences for Educational Research: An Anthropological Exploration

Academic journal article Australian Journal of Education

The Status of Education and Its Consequences for Educational Research: An Anthropological Exploration

Article excerpt

In their classic book on change in human affairs, Watzlawick, Weakland and Fisch (1974) observed that one cannot 'change the game from within the game'. The capacity to effect real change depends on willingness to suspend participation in 'the game' and to stand outside it, the better to discern the rules by which it is currently played. Education as an enterprise is no different from any other in this regard.

Critics find plenty to complain about when it comes to education, including the 'low quality' of its practitioners, 'output' (student outcomes) and the research generated by education school faculty. For many educational insiders, the low status of the profession and its subsequent openness to attack by 'malevolent' outsiders are the key issues. Whatever the stance of the commentator most of the debate is of the play-by-the-rules sort: that is, critics and defenders alike propose change in their role as players, which includes the position of interested outsider with an agenda to push. The current state of play and existing rules of engagement constrain analyses by both friends and foes of the education enterprise.

Labaree (1997, 2004) stepped outside the debates about the problems that beset education, the better to understand their sources and the terms in which they are discussed. He explored both the origins of the low status of the educational professions and education faculties' 'romance with progressivism', one source of the criticism directed its way by commentators and policy-makers from the Right. This article attempts to further Labaree's analysis by using insights from anthropology to illuminate the issue of the low status of schools of education and the faculty who work in them, and the consequences of this low status for the thought styles (Douglas, 1996) that currently characterise education as an institution.

The status of teaching

That teaching as an occupation suffers from low status relative to other professions is a truism that scarcely requires any supporting argument. According to Labaree (1997, 2004), in the USA the origins of this low status are several, including its feminisation, dating from the nineteenth century, and the lower class origins of many of its practitioners. Over the last few decades many have noted that its status has declined further (Scott, Stone & Dinham, 2001), a trend that has been particularly obvious in countries like Australia, where teaching traditionally enjoyed a higher status than currently. Bourdieu (1998) has proposed that this further decline was the result of the deliberate attack of the standing of the professions that compose the Left Hand ('people work' professions) of the state by those that compose its Right Hand (ministries of finance, central banks and treasuries).

Whatever the cause of the low status of teaching, it is shared by those who teach teachers: schools of education and their faculty. For some commentators, the low status of education schools is the origin of the poor regard in which teachers are held (although it may be more accurate to describe it as a mutually reinforcing circle of influence).According to many of those who have written on the topic, the low quality of education faculty and the schools in which they work leads in turn to a low performance by their graduates and thus to the low status of the teaching profession (Bestor, 1953; Koerner, 1963; Kramer, 1991). In other words, the 'scorn'to use Labaree's word (1997, 2004)with which teachers and teacher educators are viewed is deserved. Some observers, like Lanier and Little (1986), who share concerns about the low quality of teacher education, see the status issues as arising from those factors mentioned already, such as the gender and class origins of teachers and their educators, which are beyond the control of the individuals concerned.

Maintaining that teaching and teacher education deserve their lowly reputations smacks more than a little of blaming the victims, even if one is simultaneously commiserating with them for their lowly origins. …

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