Andy Rees: The New Education
In 1969 the esteemed art historian, James S Ackerman, contributed an article for a special edition of the Harvard Educational Review which focused on education and architecture in response to the student protests in Europe and the USA the year before. His theory was that educational buildings look as they do because in some way they reflect the economic and political nature of whichever establishment they are designed to serve. As he pointed out, “In the Middle Ages, colleges like those at Oxford looked like monasteries because the Establishment was theocratic; today , our high schools look like factories and regiment students like the labor force because the Establishment is commercial and industrial.” ( architectureandeducation.org )
It may be a fanciful notion, far too much of a generalisation and simply 50 years out of date, however there is a sense, when confronted by Andy Rees’ ten year project recording a variety of educational spaces, entitled, ‘The New Education’, that Ackerman’s ideas feel quite pertinent. Each of the physical environments devoid of the students and teachers that once inhabited them, feel as if they are a lament for a past experience which they themselves had started to replace. Spaces where dialogue between human beings had been respected; classrooms where human consciousness was recognised as being more than a machine; a time when human beings were valued as being so much more than ‘chemical scum’ as Professor Stephen Hawking once famously labeled the human race in a 1995 TV interview.
Of course, without the knowledge of exactly which institution is which, although the viewer is given vague physical locations and backstories, there is a sense that we can only speculate on how each might reveal its context, its own ‘establishment’. However, this lack of direction adds to the beauty of the experience of each photograph as each promotes a dialogue between the viewer and image. Whether this dialogue is informed by a historical, contextual or perhaps iconographical reading of the images; or whether they are enjoyed for their formal, aesthetic qualities; the reality is that, as schoolrooms, they affect us all; their denotative stance quickly underpinned by the connotations that the ideas of school, schooling, education and learning are undeniably carried by us all.
As a series, as the introduction tells us, the photographs are of classrooms that are associated with adult education, and in being described as ‘new education’ there is a disquieting sense that the ‘new’ could be said to be rather ironic. For these photographs 1 suggest a time and place in educational progress where the classroom or teaching space may have fallen prey to the onslaught of technology and the drive to deliver a more cost effective virtual learning experience. The new political and economic ‘establishments’ they refer to may well have been commercial, industrial but now, in their emptiness, they suggest such an abiding change in teaching practice that the communal nature of previous classrooms whether medieval or industrial, has been dismantled as the drive for more economic ways of delivering education has overridden everything else. These spaces no longer seem to resonate with the physical student, yet something remains tantalisingly present in their absence. It may be in the chairs (or benches in one case) that are left behind, whether just for a night or until the building is demolished. The viewer is left wondering about either the human spirit or the physical bodies of the students that once inhabited these places of learning. For the traces of the learning that once took place between tutor and students reverberates within each of the images - the capital E traced in the dust of a glass cabinet; a switch on a plug socket left on; a piece of paper, a mathematical equation on a whiteboard; the chair, not fully straightened; the chalkdust smearings on a black wall. The presence/absence of the human has the effect of recalling the educational past while pointing towards the ways in which the human is likely to be more absent as the prevalence of e-learning, as the norm, has grown, and indeed it likely to continue to take over where education is promoted as a business. And of course, if seen as a business, there is perceived a greater need to provide a ‘product’ that is efficient and calculable. By removing the student and the tutor from the classroom, it is possible to reduce overheads; as Dr Noel Carroll points out in his 2013 article, ‘E-learning-the McDonaldization of education’, “By providing the students with satellite campuses and even more so distant learning classes, the universities increase efficiency. The same way that it is more efficient and profitable for the fast food restaurants to give their services through drive-through windows; it is much more profitable for the universities to have the students take the lessons in their own spaces.” (356) This then can be read as the McDonaldisation of education. With these thoughts in mind this series of photographs of classrooms sound a warning bell for the future of education, especially higher education where the implementation of the principles of McDonaldisation has already begun to redefine students as ‘customers’ and reduce the number of highly educated lecturers by the use of regulated criteria and ways of delivering to a set standard. Then there is the drive to create standardised online educational resources so that every student receives the same learning experience but in a space that no longer contains the human exchange of ideas and discussions that has often, in the past, provoked the sort of inspiration that changes lives. These photographs kindle a yearning for the forms of education where the student and the lecturer is fully present in the moment. And each image says something about what went before, the chair that has been left aslant, perhaps as a student has had a Eureka moment; the trees outside the space that call to mind the Rousseau theory of education that wholeness and harmony and a concern for the person of the learner motivates natural learning; the carelessly rubbed out writings on the board have a physical and energetic quality; even the spaces left with regimented stacking of tables and carefully positioned chairs also reference the humanity who once cluttered in and out of these rooms, ready or maybe not, to be taught something that might lead to lives that would be lived well, fulfilled, and content long beyond the times spent in these teaching spaces.
DR Cherry Sandover Dec 2018
Carroll, N. (2013) 'E-learning – the McDonaldization of education' In: European Journal of Higher Education 3 (4) pp.342–356.