The Meanings We Make With 'Education'



William Armour




Late last year, I was fortunate enough to address a group of scholars at the University of Wollongong about my ideas concerning a semiotic view of 'education'. Semiotics is a theory of signs which Jay Lemke, in his book Textual Politics Discourse and Social Dynamics, characterises as 'the general study of meaning-making, including not just meanings we make with language, but meanings we make with every sort of object, event or action in so far as it is endowed with a significance, a symbolic value, in our community'. Since 'education' represents object, event and/or action and is endowed with an amount of significance in the community, I thought it could be useful to reflect upon six examples of text, taken from a variety of publications, that have dealt in some way with 'education'. I have called them 'exhibits' as they represent something on display. Due to lack of space it is not possible to directly show the texts, however, I have attempted to describe them to their fullest extent.

The first exhibit is a Column 8 article that appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald (23/8/95) and deals with school uniforms. Uniforms, in general, may be used to protect, hide, or identify individuals who wear them by revealing the wearer's particular learned identity within the constructed community, for example, nurse, doctor, manager, blue-collar worker, pilot, and so on. The uniform simultaneously creates and promotes 'position power' or power that coincides with that role in an organisation. In the police force, different shirts and hats indicate rank. At a university graduation ceremony, the Chancellor, Vice Chancellor and so on sport scholastic plumage that separate colleagues based on position power. Academic dress, the colours and styles that determine Bachelor, Masters and Doctorate levels also indicate that knowledge is (position) power.

The school uniform has been a controversial symbol throughout the history of modern schooling. It is worn not only to identify its wearer as the 'school student', but it also identifies the type of school he or she attends. There may be uniforms that distinguish juniors from seniors and prefects from others. The school uniform reproduces a form of stability that theoretically impacts on the wearer's belief that 'education' equals school. Like the priest who dons his vestments, the school student who dons his or her school uniform becomes the personification of the school itself ascribing an identification, 'I am the school', onto the wearer that both socialises and acculturates him or her for later life identities. For example, in 1994 TAFE NSW attempted to introduce a uniform under the guise of 'corporate wear'. Though not implemented, the move reflected TAFE NSW's mission for edifying an economic rationalist vision: 'Corporate Wear is an important step forward for us in promoting a strong corporate identity for the Commission. With increasing competition from other education providers,' the Corporate Wear Catalogue suggested, 'it is more important than ever that we present ourselves as a professional team'.

There have been reports that in the U.S. many schools have recently reintroduced school uniforms as a way of curbing students from stealing their peers' Nikes and other power symbols of youth culture. In this case, the school uniform is being used to hide inequality and to protect students from unwanted violent behaviour, however, this could also be seen as merely an example of replacing 'resource' power with position power.

The second exhibit, an advertisement for a private school in downtown Sydney, was taken from the Sydney Morning Herald (August 1995) and contains written and visual text which is of interest. The headline 'Education must be relevant' becomes an admirable catch-cry, however, it is revealed that 'education' should be vocationally relevant for a 'constantly changing workforce', thus fulfilling the economic rationalist reproductive function which produces citizens who are ready to serve the 'common good' or the company that pays one's salary. There is a certain irony embedded in the picture inset that shows a boy involved in some hands-on work activity. The juxtaposition of vocational preparedness, machines and hint of a protective apron, and the school tie symbolise the props associated with particular, yet vastly different identities.

The next exhibit, also taken from the Sydney Morning Herald (October 1995), is another advertisement for the same school. Its headline, 'Teamwork: boys working together for now and the future', takes the metaphor of 'teamwork', a word appropriated by managerialism, and uses it to identify the 'team player' as a learned identity who accepts his, in this case, lot in life. This is articulated in 'students experience a corporate atmosphere unique to such a location' serving as locative and circumstantial foci that point to a predetermined meaning of life for the boys who attend this school.

Compared with the cathedral school advertisements, there is a different emphasis in the next two exhibits taken from a brochure promoting the Hetrick-Martin Institute and The Harvey Milk School in New York City. One text outlines in three paragraphs that gay, lesbian and bisexual youth are valid identities in a heterogeneous community, something that the New London Group, for example, has attempted to incorporate into their new social contract and thoughts about 'education'.

For those who cannot be openly gay, lesbian or bisexual in a regular school, there is a place for them that offers support to grow and become aware. The recognition that young people have sex with others of the same sex is a potentially radical sign for some readers. There is also an embedded separatism within this text that some may object to, however, given that there are those in regular school who perform violent acts against gay, lesbian and bisexual students, a space is created where a sense of safety prevails satisfying one of our most basic needs. It is curious that 'carrying on the mission' implies the reproduction of a managerialist system, though this challenges our thinking as to what could constitute a school and the roles it plays in the broader community.

The other exhibit concerns the Harvey Milk School which was set up to provide somewhat different meanings of life to the youth who attend. The school, named after Harvey Milk who served as an openly gay supervisor in local government in San Francisco and subsequently was assassinated by a homophobic colleague, provides access to the resources designed to develop and enlighten, albeit in a schooling framework, essentially for those who have problems in regular school due to, though not exclusively, their homosexuality, lesbianism, or bisexuality.

The fourth exhibit was taken from The Australian (19-20/8/95). In this example of written and visual text, there are a number of messages embedded that are common features of 'education' as school. The advertisement's headline 'My whole reason for studying is to have a really good career...' appears to be directly quoting the woman in the picture, however, it lacks quotation marks implying that it may not have been said by her, thus creating textual instability. The message is essentially a 'job-slots view' of education. The 'quote' has not been completed, finishing with '...' . I suggest three wordings: 'which will become my meaning of life', or 'and not to join in futile demonstrations against the system', or 'and not waste my time with soft subjects like humanities because they'll get me nowhere'. While adding wording to the ellipsed text may be unethical, I'm sure the reader can make up her/his mind what has been unsaid, the point is that these dots have significant meaning potential.

Underneath this 'quote' appears, in a smaller italicised font, 'our sentiments exactly'. Who's sentiments ? The overt signifier in the attributed quotation is one which deals with instrumental motivation to learn, that is, the reason to learn is to get a job, and 'good' is the value judgment motivated by status. It is plausible that the entire written text has been composed by the government department which placed the advertisement, thus, the sentiments expressed are those of that personified department as anonymous 'authors' of the text.

The catch to getting a 'good' career is that the reader, as possible learner, must take courses which have been predetermined by someone else as well as having his or her family home in Victoria. The advertisement, however, was published in the national daily newspaper, and is presumably read by potential applicants from all over Australia. Apart from the ethical problems of exclusiveness, there is the problem with the aims of the applicants' schooling being solely involved in the reproduction of 'economic' growth.

The next exhibit is an article taken from the computer magazine MacUser in September 1995. We were reminded by the deschoolers over 20 years ago that learning need not take place in the confines of a classroom, so what better way to start off a child's independent learning than by creating a virtual world surrounded by the four sides of a computer screen. The article is a review of some 'educational' software called Me and My World. The product is a word game which 'teaches' the preschooler about his or her real world. The reviewer reveals that the software is from the U.S.A. 'so a few words are different to our own'. In the review, we see a colour picture of a classroom scene where the child becomes the observer rather than a true participant who could be enlightened by using and living. The classroom in this product is made out to be fun, colourful, uncrowded and racism-free which hardly reflects the child's real future.

It is unclear who the two adults in the scene are, though it appears that the woman character holding the book, a sure prop of authority, is a teacher. The message that the classroom/school is an element of the child's real world is a combination equating 'education' with school and with consumerism. Unfortunately, the virtual classroom, too, does not appear to be free of a hidden curriculum.

The final exhibit has been taken from the comics section of a Sunday tabloid in 1994. Ginger Meggs is an example of a quintessential Australian comic of a previous generation which has achieved icon status. The text depicts a realism that again equates 'education' with school.

In the opening frame of the comic strip, Ginger Meggs appears confused by the world of numbers. Readers are led to believe that this world is beyond the likes of a Meggs-like person which positions the character Meggs, a boy, who lacks something, that is, he's portrayed as dim-witted. In frame 2, someone is spelling the word E-D-U-C-A-T-I-O-N while wagging a finger which signifies received power, phallocentrism, and its inherent male discipline. The third graphic is frameless giving it a timeless quality and reveals the male teacher, balding, wearing glasses, dressed in suit and tie, speaking (the teacher controls the talk of 6 out of 8 frames), telling, that is, teaching, his listeners the benefits of a 'good' education.

The students in frames 4 and 5 are being socialised and acculturated into the learned identity 'student' while the adult is reproducing his own identity of 'teacher'. The use of the word 'good' in frames 3 and 4 sets up a peculiar tension: 'you're here' represents the locative 'school' and separates it from the students' lives; 'for the long haul' indicates a circumstance, a negative one, that introduces a self-fulfilling prophecy that school is tedious; 'for your own good' where 'good' is nominalised like the 'good' in the 'common good' and denotes the only outcome of going to school.

In the next frame, the teacher tells the students about how much time they will spend in the classroom. Theo van Leeuwen, in a paper presented at the International Systemic Functional Congress in 1996, suggests that 'it is one of the social functions of language to regulate and legitimate the social activity of timing'. Here the teacher's talk represents time as mechanical synchronisation which van Leeuwen defines as 'the result of practices of calculating time, and devising instruments which provide artificial events with which actions can then be synchronized'. The 'time in discourse' embedded in this comic can be compared to similar figures in Ivan Illich's writings.

The final frame, in which the student addresses the teacher as 'sir', itself a sign of the inherent power structure in male teacher - student conversation (compare the sign 'miss' in female teacher-student conversation), depicts a collapsed-through-fear Meggs as the unseen subject, totally overwhelmed by the information and the hidden curriculum in the teacher's talk.

My conclusion is that the depictions of 'education' as object, event and/or action are influenced by a number of factors which represent the prevailing wisdom of the time. Present-day wisdom, however, is disturbing as it attempts to position 'education' as an object, event and/or action that relies heavily on the school and the props found there. The wisdom itself is a conservative one that uses fear and control to educate. An article appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald 5/4/1995 from a concerned parent who asked what happens between kindergarten and the HSC that turns carefree, contented kids into the rest of us. The answer is that our society has learned to cling to schools thus creating a co-dependent relationship between the broader and more convivial notion of education and the manipulative reality of school. Despite past attempts to challenge the trustees of established power, the school and its related props still command their place in manufacturing education as a form of orthodoxy which prompted the term 'miseducation'. The exhibits on display here attempt to capture the essence of how our society is involved in miseducating and unless we stop denying that we do miseducate, then we are doomed. Ivan Illich's metaphor of Pandora's box is still pertinent in that we need to release hope, however, we need to shut the lid on those manipulative school-centred images if hope is to be set free.

William Armour is a lecturer in Japanese Studies in the School of Asian Business and Language Studies at the University of New South Wales.



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