Superstructures 2.0


by Graham Brown-Martin

October 16, 2011


If somebody from the 1800’s were transported to 2011 I suspect that they would be baffled by many of the things that we now take for granted – from the television to the internet to the mobile phone. As Arthur C Clarke opined in 1961 “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” yet I suspect that such a time traveller would be comfortable in many of our schools.

My recent experience of visiting secondary schools in SE London, that would determine my 10 year old daughters future, was characterised by what appeared to be time travel into the past where few of these schools reflected the dramatic social and economic changes occurring in our 21st century digital society.

Rapid advancement in technology, or exponential technological change as described by Ray Kurzweil, means that our education systems must adapt to inevitable disruptive changes occurring within this economic structure.

Education will not change until we recognise and challenge its central role as a superstructure supporting the economic foundation of society.

Furthermore, the education superstructure will not change until we come to the realisation that its output, the forces of production, are unable to meet the vital challenges of the 21st century and the basis of its economic foundation.

Those of you who have followed my meanderings on Twitter will know that I’ve been pre-occupied with the notion of superstructures. Indeed as curator and director of the LWF festival and conference I’ve made this a central theme.

My journey started earlier this year when we hosted LWF 11 and the core theme was “disruption”. “When”, we asked, “would a disruption arrive in the education system that, like disruptions in other sectors, would change it forever?”. It was a lofty question but never-the-less one that has been asked for many years, even decades and way before the kind of disruptive innovations that we have witnessed in the digital world that have changed so many aspects of our lives.

Well it’s that thing called “the economic foundation” and our fear of transformational change.

Here’s a pretty diagram* to help me out here.

One might suggest these are the rantings of a latent Marxist but if any recent evidence was required to demonstrate the above one need look no further than the challenges within the banking system since 2008.

In order to keep the economic foundation safe from disruption the political superstructures implemented new laws. The peoples money has been relentlessly pumped into the banking system with no guarantee that it will stop it from collapsing whilst cuts and austerity measures have been enforced on the people being asked to pay. Children are being educated in PortaKabins whilst bankers continue to reap the rewards of the economic structure protected by the political superstructure whose function it is to support this economic foundation.

One only has to look at recent changes in the judicial system following the recent London and UK riots for further evidence of how societies superstructures are mobilised to protect our economic foundation or the recent global “occupy” protests where citizens were arrested for closing their bank accounts.

Above the legal and political structure, otherwise known as “the state” lies what Gramsci calls “the civil society” that determines the consciousness of people. These include legal institutions outside of government such as NGO’s, international agencies, religion, schools, mass media and the family. These are institutions that surround us, propounding certain ideologies, influencing how we think and shaping our consciousness. Thinking itself, the content of thought and what we accept to be true can be taken on this level.

Is this what Prime Minister David Cameron meant in his recent statement that the purpose of education is to create good citizens?

The education superstructure is perceived as being autonomous of economic and technological determination yet nothing could be further from the truth.

This isn’t a particularly new social argument. Take this debate between Foucault and Chomsky from 1971 (5 mins).

There can be no question that we have entered a new period in human history, the digital society if you will.

Historically, disruptions in the foundation structure ensured that the immense supporting superstructure would be more or less rapidly transformed, e.g. the industrial revolution.

The windmill presents a society with the feudal lord. The steam mill presents a society with  the industrial capitalist.

So what is our technology determining now and who are our new masters?

In this digital society where power is held by global multi-nationals, companies such as Apple have more money than the US treasury, Google organise what we read, Pearson decide what is taught and assessed in our schools and Facebook decides what we share. Governments, NGO’s and international agencies gather around in an unconscious effort to legitimise these new superpowers supporting a new economic foundation.

What remains clear is that the economic, social and technological changes that are occurring in today’s society are not being reflected in today’s education superstructure making it the perfect home of choice for the time travelling Victorian.

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