Can digital orphans educate their political parents?

In June 2010, I participated in a conference on the future of universities in cyberspace. One session was devoted to “digital natives”. This concept had long infuriated me, but it’s only while listening to the talks that I understood why. It was not just because of it being yet another fashionable buzzword. There was something deeply wrong in the idea, because the specificity of the generation described as “digital natives” is not that they grew up in a digital world.1 In this respect, they are similar to the generations that will follow. The uniqueness of their experience is that they had to develop as individuals in this digital universe while their parents and teachers were for most absent from it, and thus incapable of installing a favorable environment for this development. One must thus call them digital orphans. When this type of idea pops up in one’s mind, one believes to be original for about 10 seconds, until a query to a search engine brings you back to reason. However, the usefulness of the notion is not lessened by precedents. Digital orphans did not have an easy ride. They fared very much OK, specially considering that they had difficult parents. Among them, political parents stood as particularly recalcitrant.

Digital orphans (who sometimes kindly welcome me among their ranks) should not give up educating these difficult political parents. This should even be earmarked as a priority Education Action Zone.2 Meanwhile, we should adopt modest and realistic objectives. We are not going to induce a massive change in the present generation of politicians. Their slow rate of renewal, the fierce competition they organize for the small number of available posts, the way in which they impose their way of thinking on their successors, leave little hope for a massive change. What we can hope is that a few of them will become enough involved so that, in the likely crisis situations that will pop up, they can become what Sophie Wahnich calls defectors.3 In a extreme crisis, the bottom-up political construction can not proceed if it does not find in existing political institutions a few persons who recognize it as legitimate, and help it to build the alliances that are necessary to put in place new institutions.

Even to attain this modest objective, we will need all the resources of the school of thought that sees education as aiming at the intellectual emancipation of individuals. Of course, we will not be able to refrain from “explaining” digital culture to these difficult parents. They will even demand it. They already hire herds of advisers who yesterday taught them blogs and today teach them social networks. Let’s just remember that this “explanation” does not matter much. The only thing that truly matters is their own practice, their own itinerary to become individuals in digital culture. We must thus identify territories that are familiar to them, and whose practice and values will push them towards digital culture. Here is a list of three such territories, that are but three facets of the same object.

Cultural, artistic and deliberative education

Martha Nussbaum’s book Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities is the best introduction to the schools of thoght that have regenerated education in the past 150 years. Traditional teaching has become stuck in the vertical transmission of knowledge and the acquisition of know-how pre-determined to be useful to the economy. Many innovators in education made possible for other approaches to develop (in experimental schools) and diseminate in education. This emancipatory education is centred in capability-building in individuals, which does not mean that it ignores knowledge and know-how acquisition but that it pursues it within a different framework. It is sad that Martha Nussbaum does not see digital culture as deserving to stand prominently in her case, while it has led to the creation of the widest sphere of not-for-profit knowledge and culture ever. She refers to digital technology – which she analyzes from the Indian example – only to depict it as the kingdom of knowledge fragmentation, of an instrumental approach to competences. We must nonetheless endorse her view on the role of cultural, artistic and deliberative (Nussbaum calls it “socratic”) education.4

Open (people’s) education

Education populaire is a French term for a wide range of educational practice that develops outside of the formal school system. The Internet age is a second golden age of open people’s education, whether for sciences, philosophy or creative arts. The memory of historical precedents has not disappeared. Between 1870 and the first world war, powerful movements of people’s education developed within worker unions and mutual aid organizations, then strongly influenced by anarcho-syndicalist thinking. The cultural democratization movements of the 1930s and 1950s in Europe are often caricatured as a purely top-down process of making existing recognized works accessible to a wider public, but they also included practice, workshop and cultural empowerment dimensions.5. Politicians can be made to recognize in digital culture and the Internet values that are still alive in the memory of their schools of thought.

The democratic trust in everyone’s capability

The societal movements of the 1960s and 1970s deeply influenced the development of digital culture, while they were largely ignored or even countered in the development of political party lines in the last 30 years. Particularly in Europe, a key component of digital culture, that is the recognition of each and everyone’s equal legitimacy to produce knowledge and contribute to policy,6 left political organizations largely unchanged. However, such an important societal transformation is echoed in many indirect ways. It survives in the ways of thinking of later generations and in the critical but affectionate reading of the children of participants, and is one possible ground for the human development of our future political renegades.

This post is also available in: French

  1. Meaning with computers, networks, digital information and media. []
  2. This is the UK expression. I don’t know the US equivalent. []
  3. Sophie Wahnich is a historian of the French revolution, and active in open education. She advised me to use the word “transfuge”, which in French has a slightly different connotation than “defector” in English. []
  4. One will find similar lines of thinking coming from very different intellectual backgrounds. The French Marxian philosopher Jacques Rancière is one example. In the first pages of The Ignorant Schoolmaster: Five Lessons in Intellectual Emancipation, he stresses the importante of installing “a common ground” – to the master, here the digital orphan and to the learner, here the politicain – in order to enable the human development in the latter. Similarly, for those who are not reluctant to his political stands, Noam Chomsky writings on education will provide another access to the values of digital culture. []
  5. In the US, liberal arts education, including in formal education, has been much more open to enabling creativity in everyone. []
  6. Which of course does not eliminate the need for collective filters by which interesting, relevant, true or beautiful statements are identified. []

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