Email from a school leader about the New Right 2.0 article

Hi Steven,

Please can I congratulate you on your article. I am sure you are going to be deluged by negativity from the “trads” you mention.

As a partisan senior leader just trying to do the best for my pupils, I have to tell you how reassuring your article has been for me.

I have only recently re-joined twitter out of a misguided paranoia that I was “missing out” and hence becoming left behind on the best methodologies/ ideas of how to meet my goal of doing the best I can for my students.

After only a few weeks I have quickly noticed a decline in my own self worth and overall mental health. A constant feeling of thinking I have no idea what I am doing unless I read, X,Y Z quickly became embedded.
The people who I was following were some of the best known “trads”. I was astounded by the authority and absolute certainty from which they spoke. Oh to only have half the number of answers and confidence of them!

I feel that within teaching there is a neurosis that pervades every teacher, which is paradoxically what actually makes a good teacher. I refer to it as the “not good enough gene”. We are constantly striving to improve and ensure we meet the needs of all students no matter how inconceivable that may be.

I have come to the conclusion over the last few weeks that these people prey on this quality for self promotion and profiteering. How many books have these people sold? How much money have they made?
I wish I had the time to write as prolifically as they do, and keep up with my workload to a standard with which I am happy.

Anyway, one thing I am grateful for, is that these people have signposted me to your article in their outrage and this is the one thing I have read that I can say I whole heartedly agree with.

All #edutwitter has done is make me once again reaffirm my commitment to remove myself from these platforms as even in these so called professional communities the damage to mental health far outweighs the positives. This is my conclusion in regards to all social media, and so once again  today I will delete my account. An account I actually only set up to just read information and not Interact, which even this has done more harm to me than good.

Thank you for your work and wisdom.Feel free to show this to whomever you wish  if it aids you in any way.

Kindest regards
Dawn Johnson
Vice Principal Sandymoor Ormiston Academy

In support of ‘trad’ educational micropopulism (mostly)

Yes, there has been some utter guff drivelling out of university schools of education in recent decades. Weakly conceptualised research, ideas and approaches that have little empirical justification and spurious ideology. I completely agree with the traditionalist using a grassroots social media-based activist base to challenge this.

I was, as a teacher, subject to the National Strategies (from the early noughties). New Labour’s centrally bureaucratised approach to teaching and learning. It included models of practice, the infernal three-part lesson and endless assessment. It was de-professionalising and invasive.

I am not inherently opposed to populism. I see it as a part of liberal democracy, it is the means by which institutions are forced to adapt and respond to the needs of people.

One caveat though. If you adopt a populist strategy it is important to be clear who the unjust elite are. Trad micropopulism largely identifies progressive academic elites as the authority in suppressing the teacher and foisting unscientific approaches on them. The real power though is not the academic elite, although they (I mean me and we) should not be let off scot-free. The elite that we should all turn our focus on is those that have control over capital, resources, infrastructure and media. It is the flow of capital and the distribution of resources that much more strongly define teachers’ experiences of their work than does the odd teacher educator promoting ‘learning styles’ or group work.

There is a danger in characterising the progressive academic as the ‘unjust elite’ in a populist rupture since it aligns with some pretty extreme far-right tropes about cultural marxism and the promulgation of culture wars. Here is where we can get buried in unproductive identity politics. I use the term identity politics here advisedly. I recognise fully that identity as political motivation is an important aspect of challenging existing representations. However, changes in representation without systemic changes to society do not in themselves lead to social justice.

For more on this issue see my article in the British Educational Research Journal

It all kicked off on Twitter after I posted a journal article

Did I see that coming? Well, possibly, but I didn’t consciously set out to provoke such a Twitter response when I posted a link to my most recent academic publication on social media. Within a few hours of my article, New Right 2.0: Teacher populism on social media in England, being published by the British Educational Research Journal (BERJ) on Friday 24th July, the article was receiving unprecedented attention on Twitter. Unprecedented, not only for me, but for BERJ and for an academic publication on education research more generally.

Colleagues and friends contacted me over the weekend to ask me if I was OK. It seems that for many of my associates, the response to my BERJ article was predominantly hostile. A ‘pile on’ as it is frequently referred to.

A screenshot of a cell phone

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A screenshot of a cell phone

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It wasn’t so one-sided, however, I was receiving at least as much support through other communication channels as I was facing robust criticism on social media.

The article itself considers how Twitter – and specifically ‘#EduTwitter’ as is my research focus – can be productive and collaborative, but it can frequently become divisive and angry. The educational schism that my paper considers is between the Trads and the Progs. The Trads or traditionalists are a consequence, I argue in the paper, of three factors: the New Right, the coalition of social conservatives and economic liberals that emerged in the 1950s in the UK and US as a reaction to post-war social democracy, Keynesianism and the welfare state; the erosion of state-sector teachers’ working conditions over the last twenty years; and as a result of effects of social media. Trads advocate for robust discipline in the classroom, educational practices that are orientated toward memorisation and for research evidence based on ‘scientific’ research methods. The political positioning of the Trads is characteristically populist, the unheeded teacher against a progressive elite. I coin the term ‘micropopulism’ to distinguish this niche populist tendency. The Progs emerged as a less coherent and less organised reaction to the Trads’ social media presence.

It was pointed out that while much of the reaction to my article denied the existence of Trad micropopulism, the actual Twitter reaction to the article provided demonstrable real-time evidence of the phenomenon and the main argument of the paper: that social media is divisive and can amplify populism in unproductive ways.

The reaction to my article did feature a populist attack on institutions – the academy (i.e. higher education institutions), the British Education Research Association (the professional association for which BERJ is the flagship academic journal) and for peer review.

A screenshot of a cell phone

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A screenshot of a cell phone

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In the reaction, I am characterised as a ‘gatekeeper’ for the progressive elite that exists in the academy and that has been central to the power that has foisted unscientific progressive education approaches on teachers. There were further important observations in the reaction to my article. I was robustly challenged as characterising Trads as right wing. In fact, at no point during the paper do I make such a suggestion. I do argue that there is a relationship between new right think tanks and Trad micropopulism on social media, but I have never believed that Trads’ primary political associations or voting have been for the Conservative party. What I do find interesting is those self-identifying leftist teachers should be so enthusiastic about the reforms of a new right politician such as Michael Gove. The apparent benefit of Gove’s curriculum reforms seemingly outweighs the transfer of millions of pounds worth of public assets to private interests as part of the ramping up of school academisation since 2010 by the Coalition and subsequent Conservative governments.


A global empirical research project from my front room

I am a prisoner in the new zombie apocalypse. Yes, I am being alarmist once again. I am isolating myself because of COVID-19 or coronavirus. The clocks have gone forward. My computers and devices all managed to update themselves to one hour hence and adjust to British Summer TIme. My central heating system and cooker needed updating manually. When I got up one hour before I ought to have done – because my iPhone had automatically and precisely adjusted from Greenwich Mean Time – I set to with my vegetarian full English breakfast: mushrooms, tomatoes, vegetarian sausages and a couple of eggs. I hung the washing out. The bedding is now doing battle with the wind, no, it is coping with a brisk spring breeze. I am faced with life-changing decisions about whether to bring the washing in and hang it out inside or whether to leave it outside. Such are the dilemmas of late, liquid, or even post- modernity. It is possible to project the dilemmas of the every day to such an extent that I can claim that my thought and behaviour is symptomatic of an epochal transition. No, it isn’t. Humanity has always been trying to keep itself clean and dry. Plus ça change.

The wind is getting up, it is growling down my dead-end street of Victorian terraced houses. Cute little two-bedroom places built in the latter half of the nineteenth century, perhaps to house a growing urban working class. Before the pandemic, this house was probably worth about £420,000, maybe more. It probably needs another £20,000 to £30,000 to bring it up to a reasonable spec. What is it worth now? The housing market has been suspended. You can’t buy and sell. Notionally, it’s worth the same. It has a value but based on a past market that no longer exists. It has an abstract value in that sense, but it is really only worth: a) what someone is prepared to pay for it (and they can’t so it is worth £0) and/ or b) what it is as a home and a shelter. That’s it, a house is simply a place to shelter and to protect us from the complexity, harshness and unpredictability of the environment. It is somewhere to wash and dry my clothes and bedding. That’s what it is worth, protection, comfort and utility.

Where did the contradictions of late modernity go? I was well attuned to them only two days ago. The world was in crisis, its population in panic. For us (I mean me) a crisis of representation as I project my reading of theory and of literature on to people’s experiences. I have a salary, I have work to do. I am just detached from people. But I like that too. I like being gregarious from a distance and on my own terms. And as I go to Asda every couple of days, people are going about their daily lives as far as I can see. Asda has now enforced social distancing, with a security guard and a queue to get in, to limit the number of people in the shop itself. A cyclist nearly collided with me while I was trying to find the end of the long queue that snaked around the trolley store. It was a slow-motion stuttering action as the cyclist steadily fell off their bike in a non-injurious way. I didn’t really look at them but I said, “it is the pavement you know.” I thought that a bit harsh and added, “but do take care.” I later felt guilty about not showing greater gushing humanity in these extraordinary times, times that at the moment I am not finding really that extraordinary except that I am not allowed to go to coffee shops and pubs (the utter hardship). Although last time I was hit by a cyclist I cut my head open and ended up in an ambulance covered, dramatically, in blood. Forgive me for the lack of performative sympathy for the cyclist who fell off their bike to avoid cycling into me on the pavement. I just needed to get that off my chest, it’s not epochal, it was not a postmodern event, it was just one of those everyday things.

It was going to happen. It was going to rain. I had to get my washing in and just adding to my morning’s rather limited drama. But I can imagine myself, a lone yachtsman circumnavigating the globe, having to go up on deck to change sail configurations in response to changing weather conditions. As I pulled my Marks and Spencer’s white king size fitted sheet from the washing line, I could imagine myself trying to stay upright and secure on the bucking deck of my (fictitious) 40-foot ketch wrestling with hundreds of square yards (imperial measures) of heavy gauge polyester sail (or are they all kevlar carbon fibre these days?) There could be a point to these rich imaginings and I feel compelled to make it. The point is this, about complexity and unknowability. Human beings seem remarkably well equipped – with a little immersive practice – to sense changes in the weather much more so than the computational predictions of the weather. That is of course in their immediate environs. I have really no sense of weather and climate in different parts of Africa, India, China or South America. For that, I do need information. Likewise, I have really no sense of how others are experiencing the current global pandemic, yet as I have been writing about this week, I have been aware that I am abstracting from my own experience.

For this, I have little or no sense of how many people across the world might be suffering as a consequence of COVID-19. The entirety of my empirical work is from the inside of my house. Or apart from while out exercising or going to the shops. And there is online contact with friends and work colleagues. But I have little contact with people who are facing real hardship through poverty, lost jobs, insecure accommodation, ill health, statelessness, even violence and intimidation. No doubt there is anxiety abroad amongst my small circle. But am I or is my group facing a crisis? Well, not yet.

The pubs have shut

With a friend we broke the social distancing protocol to go to the pub before they closed as ordered by government. In the pub there were a small band of people, some of them committed drinkers, an understandably miserable landlord and staff. Who knows how long it will be shut? The temporary end of the pub as public sphere. Now the pub must go online.

Earlier last evening we had a new thing. We held a virtual social after work on Microsoft Teams. We held a virtual happy hour in a virtual pub. The physical pub closed and the virtual pub opened. The university has rolled this software out ahead of time and at express pace. All credit to the IT people centrally and in my Faculty. It is rather an ad hoc implementation, and people are anxious about using it and getting to grips with it for the purpose of teaching and research. But for me, I like the contingent and improvised nature of this. It is rather subversive to be there in the moment trying to negotiate technology and make it work for the needs of groups and individuals. I like the possibility of uncertainty, but within reason. Although I wouldn’t like to see the entire collapse of society, just for the purpose of creativity but it does place us in the moment to contend with a changing context and with technology. I also know how much anxiety these conjunctures create, for students and for many colleagues.

As I was suggesting yesterday, the context we are in is a crisis of order, a crisis of the assumed hierarchies, practices and codes that have apparently defined our daily lives. All of these, as perceived to be the things that make us feel secure are all thrown into disarray.

I refer again to Musil’s The Man Without Qualities, and now as we are no longer able to make sense of what is happening. Or, the Adam Curtis documentary Hypernormalisation, Curtis presents the argument, in his indefatigable montaged style of archived images and footage, electronic music and unique voice over, that we are reduced to a permanent state of doubt and uncertainty and not knowing what is true or false. We are reduced to a state of ongoing anxiety. That anxiety is a result of, and it is often contended to be so, increased risk. But it is not the risk per se, it is not being prepared for uncertainty that creates this anxiety.

The global pandemic, and especially the poor and tardy response and lack of preparedness of, for example, the UK state which has been stripped of any spare capacity by a decade or more of privatisation and latterly by austerity, which has resulted in a wave of complexity striking the individual. More than the unknown and more than risk it is lack of capacity to deal with increased complexity that creates the underlying anxiety.

While the state and liberal institutions are unable to mitigate for unexpected events, spare capacity and redundancy in any system allow for adaptation. We have believed that we have been able to mitigate risk by calculation – the severity of the event multiplied by its likelihood. None of this can deal with uncertainty and the unexpected. Especially when we have pared down the capacity of communities, societies and states to respond and adapt to the complexity that confronts. It is not a matter of simply calculating risk but understanding events as a rapid escalation in complexity.

No event, like the coronavirus outbreak, can be seen as simply the product of severity and likelihood, it can only be considered in terms of increased complexity and uncertainty. Not that human beings are incapable of dealing with complexity, but the organisation of government and society as a liberal democracy defined by capitalism has a lean and narrow logic for managing uncertainty as suggested by Ulrich Beck.

This is what we are left with is widespread anxiety which is being precipitated in the panic buying of toilet roll. Psychoanalyze that!

When there is no sense to be made

Of late I have been reading Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities. A considerable novel of some 1200 pages, set in Vienna in 1913. The Man Without Qualities’ central theme marks the end of the Austrian empire in crisis. Not necessarily the wholesale slaughter and violence that was to follow in the First World War, but a crisis of thought that was antecedent to war. Musil presents Austria as the pinnacle of the modern state in the latter part of the nineteenth century. The historical and philosophical underpinnings of the state are the Enlightenment. It is the triumph of reason, the capacity to rationalise and calculate in order to provision and order that society. We could probably not go as far as saying ‘democracy’ though there is a semblance of such. We could claim that Austria was perhaps a precursor to contemporary liberal democracy where there is an aspiration to a logic within civil society, based on conscious reason and materiality. There is ownership and a system of algorithms that dictate the nature of that ownerships and how value might be extracted. For this reason, it is liberal and for the reason that there is a vibrant libertarianism amongst the middle class it is also liberal. There is a democracy of sorts. There are elections and a parliament. There are many who are marginalised. Musil presents Austria in a crisis of collective loss. The nature of the crisis is symbolic, the liberal proliferation and the ideas burgeoning from bureaucracy and science are not resolving or reconciling the day-to-day experiences of individuals, they are leading to contradictions. Not just contradictions between competing ideas, explanations and representations but also contradictions between day-to-day affective experience of the world and the abstract conscious reason that is supposed to create order. It is a crisis of representation and of order.

I am only 190 pages into the book, but this is the impression I am getting. And for me this book resonates with now. Not the coronavirus pandemic as cause but just as much an effect of a crisis of liberal democracy and consequently a crisis of liberal democracy. The undoing of reason, where reason almost begins to consume its own indulgences, as reason confronts its foundational paradoxical character. We can’t now – as Musil describes how they couldn’t then – really make any enduring sense of what is happening to us, of what we experience. Meaning that is derived from cold logical reason is insufficient to account for our affective experience of the world. The espoused crisis, or looming disaster, the forthcoming zombie apocalypse, the global pandemic. We are forced to simply experience, and we cannot – or increasingly we cannot – make sense of what is happening. We are removed to perpetual state of uncertainty and doubt.

Academic home alone

I have been light-heartedly referring to the dawn of the new zombie apocalypse. Really you mustn’t take this as too dark or too serious. Even though it is rather dark and serious. I am, after a few days, settling into something of a pattern of work and leisure at home. The University will expect most if not all staff to be working from home by the end of Friday. This is not to stop the spread of infection but to slow it down so that our systems and infrastructure can keep up. Cambridge has gone home. There are a lot of anxious people around. They have had the patterns and routines of their everyday lives changed. I figure that we are all trying to make sense of what is happening. I think when arrives at a certain age and clothed with a number of life experiences one becomes more accustomed to the fact that life is mysterious and contradictory, that dilemmas cannot be fixed. But mostly – forgive me for plunging in deep here – the fundamental paradoxes of our existence cannot be ignored. With this realisation it is easy to see why many of us who have relied on a belief in logical order and causation get so lost. This leads to anxiety and stress. Times like these force us to get back in the moment, we necessarily have to abandon those grand narratives and schemes. Does this mean that we abandon reason or any hope of finding moment? No, it doesn’t. But meaning and reason become contingent and in the moment. We are compelled to feel meaning as much as we were required to construct meaning mentally.

Stay safe.

the paradox of objects

One of the most profound and ironically the most trivial philosophical experiences happened to me in about 1994. At Wolfson College, it was at a particularly difficult time for me in my own mental health. But a period that was particularly enriching personally, creatively and intellectually.

I was sat on the steps outside Wolfson College porters’ lodge. It was a fine day in the late spring or early summer. I was trying not to believe anything at the time, because everything I seemed to believe about myself and the world just made me depressed. It was an existential experiment and I think because of my neurodiversity (the extent to which I can become overstimulated in social settings which can overload my system unless I manage it) it left me a state of mania and with increased mental activity, which I intellectualised.

I was looking at the tree to the right of the main door, as you look out toward Barton Road and toward Granchester. Paradox had been on my mind and that encouraged me to try not to believe in anything (which is impossible to do, – don’t ignore historicity – said my criminologist friend Kevin Haines, he was right of course).

Paradox means the death of binary logic, the death of the true and false binary.

What occurred to me while looking at the tree. And it continues to haunt me. That all that is the tree is only that because of what is not the tree. The tree can only be because of that that is not the tree. It follows that for anything to exist, it only exists as a result of its negation. Fundamentally all objects emerge from paradox through distinction or difference. They both are and aren’t at the same time.

How can this fundamental paradox result in objects in the world that have such material properties, if at the heart of the matter there can be nothing there. Well nothing but distinction.

Distinction or difference is the foundation of consciousness, reasoning and in information. Thurston wrote in the 1920s about comparative judgement and that the basis of this judgement was though being able to distinguish one thing from another. This is the underlying feature of consciousness being able to perceive one thing as different to another. From simple distinction we are able to perceive patterns spatially and temporarily, we identify oscillations and repetitions in the cycle of systems of distinction and order. Effectively a fractal emerging from a simple system of recursion.

When I perceive a tree, when I observe a tree, I make the distinction between what is that tree and what isn’t that tree. How is the paradox of this object resolved? What gives it any permanence? It exists but also it doesn’t.

The mathematics of George Spencer Brown, his Laws of Form, uses a primary algebra that can show how order can emerge from paradox. That the thing equating to the not thing, can be dealt with iteratively, through recursion, through reentry into itself. At its simplest we get the emergence of an ordinal system extending indefinitely: first; second; third, fourth … More sophisticated reentry leads to other patterns with specific rhythms and aesthetics, like the Fibonacci sequence (1,1,2,3,5,8,13…) an expression of the golden ratio and evident in many organsisms in the world.

There is no permanence only a changing order. The existence of objects reflects the endurance of order and recursion. It is not that objects exist, it is that order exists; order that emerges from paradox.

Cybernetic realism

Before I became interested in cybernetics, my research had been – through accident rather than intention – broadly moving toward Critical Realism. This is and was primarily through reflexivity. Reflexivity, as a word, has its first usage in late medieval/ Early Modern English history. Early usage is material and refers to physical phenomena. That something bends back on itself, interacts with itself and references itself. The word then is used to indicate a self-referential encounter by a being with itself. Reflexivity as an ongoing negotiation of the world.

Cybernetics offers its own take on reflexivity. The idea of autopoiesis is analogous to reflexivity. It was originally posited by Maturana and Varela to explain how biological systems respond to and interact with complex environments. An organism (or biology system) momentarily interacts with its complex environment. This interaction provides feedback to the organism which responds by adapting its internal systems and processes to respond to that feedback. It is a recursively contingent behaviour, where the organism is able to remake itself in response to a changing environment. Luhmann extended this to psychic and social systems.

Margaret Archer’s realist social theory extends and elaborates on reflexivity, providing an account of how the individual negotiates and then changes structures and cultures (potentially) through reflexivity. The cybernetic account considers how a system which includes organisms and structures, also works reflexively through autopoiesis. The adjustments to the system’s internal processes are remade though recursive and contingent behaviours.

I think one of the major differences, is that reflexivity in realist social theory suggests something akin to linear causalities. Autopoiesis is cyclical, an iterative action, of re-entry into itself.

I have presented the idea of Cybernetic  Realism to incorporate the autopoietic and the reflexive.

Philosophical clownery of late modernity (pt2?)

It is still up for grabs. Whether we are at an ephocal change or not. Whether we can consider ourselves to be in late modernity or not.

The clown, though, is the chief agitator of modernity. The idea of the fool is evident in classical culture, and according to common knowledge and backed up by a glance at Wikipedia, the clown in modern times can be traced to comedie dell’arte. The clown as the rustic fool, with a childlike outlook or as clumsy.

The clown is a consequence of modernity, or even part of modernity. The clown performs the absurd, the contradictory, the paradoxical as a performance of instability or clumsiness, as slapstick.

Cultural contradictions emerge with the enlightenment, contradictions within everyday life, monotony, necessarily dulled affect and emotions, rational dominance and bureaucracy. The instruments of the enlightenment when enacted in society necessarily lead to ambiguity and contradiction. Because there is always a lag between experience of the Real, Enlightenment symbollism and the rationality of modern bureaucracy and culture. This state of alienation is a psychosocial experience, one that leads to contradictions between thought and feeling. And one that is based on a logical system that when concluded is paradoxical.

Modernity is a crisis of representation.

What is happening when we are entertained? Our attention is absorbed and our emotions and affects are stimulated, laughter, fear and sadness etc are stimulated by a performance. We process that relationship between the performances and caricature of our lives that are fed back to us and engage with our emotions. Clowning exploits the contradictions, the more extreme contradictory with and through innocence and naivety. The performance of the contradictions, in ways that bear resemblence to and are stylised from daily live create resonances with the audience.

While the clown (he says stepping back from the earlier) comment may not be the agitator of modernity. Clowning is an expression of and response to modernity.