Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Help yourself…

I've just been to three papers by colleagues in advance of their appearance at a massive international Cultural Studies conference in Paris this July. The linking theme was that of self-help or self-actualization, and the way these ideas have over the past century started to underpin surprising areas of cultural activity.

A key theme of Pelmanism

The first presentation dealt with the institutional framework of 'personal development' and the covert introduction of therapeutic 'learning about learning'. The argument goes that since the Dearing Report, an ideological narrative has developed (not matched by empirical research) which envisages a future in which none of us get 'careers'. Instead, we subsist on a series of short-term jobs in multiple fields. The neo-liberal attractions of this are, of course, low pay and the impossibility of ever developing class consciousness: a mobile, transient workforce can't unionise, for instance.

The concomitant educational requirement for this ultra-atomised workforce is flexibility and transferable skills. Nothing subject-specific will be relevant to your working life for more than a few years straight out of college. So instead, teachers and students will focus on 'learning about learning': oodles of self-reflection and interrogation. What follows from this is a sense that it's not what you know or think, but how you feel about it that matters: the installation of narcissism at the heart of the system. I don't, frankly, care how you feel about semiotics/terza rima/revisionist historiography (though I'd like you value them): I want to know whether or not you understand it. Students will be ordered to work on their feelings until they fit the dominant narratives - despite the supposed liberation of self-actualization, it's a deeply authoritarian narrative.

This stuff is already here: most primary schools and an increasing number of secondary schools are using a model called SEAL, 'Social and emotional aspects of learning', which is based on a bog-standard self-help book called Emotional Intelligence. Now, I'm not saying that feelings aren't important: your emotional state is directly linked to your capability to learn. That's not what this stuff is about. All these pedagogical self-help mantras are deeply reactionary. They emerge in the post-Romantic, anti-Rationalist era: Rousseau, Herder, Heidegger, Nietzsche, Foucault and co. all contribute to a discourse not of a stable objective self (and I'm with them on this), and instead posit a self which is self-created and in permanent flux: Rousseau claimed that one could recover the self by listening to the internal 'voice of nature'. I wouldn't accept that there's a natural self, nor an independent one: we're formed by social structures. What the self-help people do is claim - like Rousseau - that there's an essential and powerful, better 'you' in there, and s/he can be liberated not through social activity, work or intellectual labour, but through emotional narcissism (preferably via lucrative courses). Whether it's Scientology or pedagogy, there's an expensive course with your name on it. You can see the effects by walking into any airport bookshop or trawling the web for very sinister NLP-based Dating Secrets, all of which promise that by constantly working on your Self, you can mould the world to your desires. They promise agency in a socio-economic situation which appears to deny the possibility of any such thing.

Closer to home, this narrative is appearing at the university in the guise of 'educational coaching', such as I'm undergoing at the moment. The 'consultant' I'm meeting every two weeks turns out to be an 'occupational psychologist' who specialises in 'positive psychology', hence the 'are you happy?' questionnaire I did online. She happens to be an interesting and likeable person, but I have serious reservations about the ethics of management not mentioning in advance that she's a psychologist, and about the grounds of the activity. Yes, I can improve my academic life by being less lazy and defeatist, but there's more to it than that: my institution and the wider system has structural and systemic problems which won't be solved by me being a bit cheerier about them. My students will still be denied decent time and resources, despite paying more and more for their education. Cash, equipment, research time and prestige will still be reserved for the elite universities. Modules will still be too general. But the premise of 'positive psychology' is that sorting out the state of my soul will help me overcome these obstacles.

This stuff is being introduced to students in the form of the Personal Development Portfolio, something they'll be expected to maintain from next year. It's a form of self-reflection designed to encourage them to recognise how they learn (or not) and what they've achieved other than subject-specific knowledge (which is so passé). The problem, of course is that once it's a public, assessed record, it becomes a performance. I remember going to Confession as a 12-year-old Catholic. I knew that I was expected to have committed 'sins'. I didn't really think I'd committed any, but I knew the sort of thing they wanted to hear, so I made them up. To be really meta, I should have confessed to falsifying my confession. It's the same for PDP's: they'll all look the same. Just look at the online forums we ask the students to do: when they're finding it difficult, every post starts with 'I really like what you said about X'. PDP won't be a searching examination of an individual's intellectual condition: it'll be another box-ticking exercise as the students adapt to another form of discourse.

It's reactionary because it individualises the self, even if it claims the end result is a subject ready to contribute to the greater good. The individual's successes and failures are ascribed to your internal emotional condition. Structures: capitalism, race, sex and so on are no longer held to have any sway over your trajectory. So if your kid comes home crying because she's never going to be an astronaut, tell him to stop whinging and work on her emotional intelligence: that's all that's stopping him. When you lose your job, don't blame the banks! It's your fault for not being emotionally intelligent and nimble enough.

The other two papers were equally fascinating. One explored the post-religious movement/business of the Art of Living ('personal peace, world peace'), which takes Hindu-originated ideas such as yoga, removes the stuff about Enlightenment and getting off the wheel of reincarnation, and sells courses designed to change the way you respond to the world. Once you're calmer and more accepting - through yoga - you exert a positive effect on those around you, ushering in a new society. Rather than going out to change the world in the way a political activist would, you first have to seek inner meaning… whether there's any time left to change the world would seem unlikely, though the emphasis on 'service' implies that there is a degree of concern for others at the movement's core.

The final paper gave a potted history of the 'unused brain' theory. Apparently it's popularly - and erroneously - believed that we only employ 10% of our brains, and belief originating in 19th-century neuroscience and psychology. All sorts of techniques and movements sprang up claiming to have the secrets to tapping into this latent power: business theory thanks to Dale Carnegie's How To Win Friends and Influence People and the thousands of subsequent variations, the Theosophists, the Pelmanists, the General Semantics crowd (who seem to have been early deconstructionists, claiming that language interferes with your access to reality, but their exercises help you break this barrier), the Ayn Rand lot (recognise the Objective reality of the world, accept Selfishness as the only possible response and FEEL THE POWER) and the Scientologists, who use a pseudo-science called Dianetics to 'actualise' your inner powers (and disperse the spirits of the galactic prisoners dumped on earth by Xenu).

Common themes over the three papers were the ways in which these ideas have been peddled in serious spheres, such as education. They are all post- or anti-Enlightenment, yet all of them employ pseudo-scientific discourse to justify themselves, and all deny the effect of social structures. This is what bothers me most. I'd like you all to be happy all the time. But I don't think it's possible, given the state of the world. If you use psychological techniques to make yourself happy, you're deluding yourself and others. Dissatisfaction is a powerful driver. I want my students to be 'Socrates, dissatisfied rather than a pig, satisfied': they should be searching for new ideas and new solutions. They should question their abilities, knowledges and attitudes - as should I - rather than seeking acceptance of external and internal statae quo.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Thank you for sharing such interesting and informative article.

Pelmanism Success