Dr Rhyall Gordon, Praxis Officer at CEEHE


At CEEHE, we place a lot of emphasis on the idea of praxis as an important means to self and societal transformation. Although the basic idea of praxis is to put ideas into practice, thinkers over many epochs have developed different understandings of the purpose and potential of praxis. Hannah Arendt’s work on a particular understanding of praxis offers a compelling argument as to why we should think about what we do!!


It may seem a little redundant to point out the need to think about what we do, however, it is an interesting exercise to explore the moments where we deny ourselves and/or are denied opportunities to do this thinking – something we all experience. Arendt’s work, in the context of being a Jewish German that fled Nazi Germany, was motivated by an attempt to understand totalitarianism, authority, democracy and power. Her context gives a gravity and urgency to the need to understand moments of oppression. However, she also coined the term the “banality of evil” where she exposed the mundane, everyday practices that can add up to horrendous human harm. It is this latter focus that I feel has the potential to create a productive discomfort and disruption in the work of evaluation.


Arendt’s notion of praxis (or as she describes it – “to think what we are doing”) was particularly focused on its relationship to values and ethics. Thinking and reflecting on action taken, or to be taken, is really the main part of constructing a theory. Arendt questioned the belief that to come up with a theory you must lock yourself away – whether it is in the ivory tower, university or in a hut by a pond in a forest – because of a concern that talking to people (the public as she describes it or everyday thinking/thinkers), might somehow be a contaminating influence. She described this approach as the contemplative life; a belief in how to produce knowledge that is certainly as prevalent today as it was when Arendt was writing.


Such an approach to knowledge production is why theory is often “parked outside” the focus of all sorts of work whether it be policymakers, practitioners, evaluation experts and even researchers(!!). It is seen to be something arcane with little real-life application. Also, it implies a prescribed valuing of knowledge in certain domains and de-valuing in others. In contrast, Arendt described another approach to thinking (or theory making) where you directly engage with others (everyday thinkers) to explore your thinking. She described this as the active life. Through highlighting these different approaches to thinking, she developed her concept of praxis and argued for the importance of the interplay or conversation between theory and practice, between reflection and action – each without the other is much reduced.


A significant part of Arendt’s work was dedicated to overcoming this western split of thinking and practice being separate stand-alone endeavours. It is this split that creates the conditions for a theoryphobia to proliferate. When we take up practices (for example widening participation practitioners) we can often carry an identity of it not being our role to think, theorise and reflect on our work. It will be someone else’s job to come in and do that. In the same way Arendt highlighted the danger of thinking without others or the public, she also highlighted the danger of practice that happens without thinking or action that happens without reflection. As a consequence, Arendt rejected the title of philosopher to emphasize how her work was embedded in practice.


Instead, she sought to bring together thinking and practice in this simple description of “to think what we are doing”. It is a deceptively simply statement, however, often, and probably increasingly so, widening participation projects are undertaken without the opportunity to think about what we do. At times, this lack of opportunity comes from ourselves and how we place limits. At other times, this lack of opportunity comes from elsewhere as limitations are placed on us. The corporatized, marketized and neoliberalised university structure typically does not encourage a profound reflection on projects of social justice. And this lack of opportunity is particularly true in the world of evaluation and no less so in the world of evaluating widening participation initiatives.


Arendt described this idea of action without reflection or practice without theory as a type of thoughtlessness and she devoted much of her work to discussing the many dangers that come from such thoughtlessness. She argued that there is a particular kind of evil rooted in thoughtlessness. In her work on the banality of evil, the banal referred to how non-thinking had become ordinary and common place. Arendt believed this non-thinking was pivotal to the horrendous acts of Germany’s national socialism.


A question Arendt wanted us to consider is how spaces are created by ourselves and by others through power and authority that remove the opportunity for thinking and reflection. Her work, by way of response, was to foreground the importance and defend the opportunity to think reflectively about our actions.


In terms of thinking about evaluation, how does Arendt’s work assist us and what does it enable? It allows widening participation practitioners to understand evaluation as a space of praxis where discussion, reflection, contestation needs to happen. This space has the potential to do many things, but one very important aspect is that it allows for a testing, a trying out, an exploration and development of values, ethics and commitments that inform an evaluation. How often do such spaces get created in widening participation work? And what is involved in creating such spaces?


Also, it brings in a sociality to our work. Arendt’s praxis, this “think what we are doing”, is not an individual pursuit. Arendt emphasizes that rather than a solitary project this has to be a shared, relational experience that reflects our interdependency. We support each other with the different skills, knowledge and experiences we have to engage in this reflective thinking. In the context of equity interventions where there are many people involved, the praxis process needs to be a cooperative endeavour where people participate in different ways with the different skills and knowledges they have in an evaluation process. This is one way of fully engaging the politics of knowledge and challenging knowledge hierarchies that serve to reproduce exclusions and undermine widening participation work.


Furthermore, praxis disrupts deficit narratives and locked in visions of the future, something that haunts so much of widening participation work. An unchallenged consideration of the past and future (how we remember things and anticipate things) creates a linearity that limits opportunity for other futures. Arendt described praxis as a temporal interval. Reflective thinking allows this gap to emerge, opening up an undetermined future with new possibilities. This is both important for how we approach evaluation but equally it is also important for how we undertake widening participation practice more broadly.


Finally, Arendt’s work might help us to see how widening participation work and evaluation practice need to co-exist in the same space. Evaluation is a key component of any widening participation project that needs to be embedded in the project and driven by similar equity goals. This is the shift from evaluation on equity to evaluation for equity.


Reference:

Arendt, Hannah (1958) The Human Condition. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1958.

We acknowledge and respect the Pambalong Clan of the Awabakal People, traditional custodians of the land on which we work.

Dr Anne Croker, Research Fellow at the University of Newcastle Department of Rural Health and Project Officer in CEEHE.


Rural and higher education,

two conceptually complex terms:


But why does this matter and what do they mean?


Rural in relation to higher education is an important aspect of widening participation, from the stance that all Australians deserve 'fair and equal access to high quality tertiary education, regardless of location or personal circumstances' (Commonwealth of Australia, 2019).


However, both higher education and rural are complex concepts.


The complexity of higher education is evident from different levels of understanding for different purposes. On a surface level this understanding can, for example, clarify side-points during informal conversations, such as:


“Higher education? Are we talking about just universities?”

“Not only universities, other institutions as well. Somewhere you get qualifications such as diplomas and degrees.”

“So where does tertiary education fit?”

I do find this confusing, but it says in this document that tertiary education is defined as both higher education and vocational education and training.


Important for social justice, however, are deeper understandings of higher education as a place of exclusion through ‘interconnecting structures, systems, practices, discourses and cultures of higher education that are complicit in the social, economic and cultural reproduction and exclusions in and through higher education' (Burke, Crozier & Misiaszek, 2017). Such deep understandings are an important starting point for widening participation strategies aimed at students from rural areas. Such strategies respond to the following issues highlighted in a recent Government report: ‘individuals who grow up in regional, rural and remote (RRR) areas are around 40 per cent less likely to gain a higher-level tertiary education qualification and less than half as likely to gain a bachelor and above qualification by the time they are 35 years old, compared to individuals from metropolitan areas' (Commonwealth of Australia, 2019).


However, the notion of rural areas also raises questions:


Rural? What is meant by rural?

What does that mean for people in those areas?


The complexity of the term rural arises from its socially constructed nature: '… rural has never been, nor will ever be a fixed concept' (Hallnäs, 2017). Rural, with its Latin origin ru meaning open country, has been used differently over time and is used differently by different people in current times. For example, alongside current negative media headlines highlighting geographic disadvantage there are idyllic portrayals reflecting increased interest in moving to country and coastal regional areas following COVID19 lockdown. As well, the term rural in policy documents can disappear into the acronym of RRR. To recognise the complexity of the term rural, I am purposively putting single quote marks around it so it becomes ‘rural’. These quote marks highlight that I am using the word in a special way. I want to encourage people to hesitate when they encounter this term and consider:


What does ‘rural’ as a term mean to me? When do I use this term?

When do I see the term ‘rural’ being used? Who is using this term and why?


For me, the term ‘rural’ is laden with values, interests and at times confusion. Importantly the term does not reflect my embodied sense of self or place. My answer to the question “Where are you from?” is the name of the town I grew up in and currently live (or in relation to the nearest city the questioner would recognise). Furthermore, some of us grew up in a time before we were given our ‘rural’ label. If we lived inland we might have said that we were from the country or the bush, or that we were ‘townies’ or lived ‘out of ‘town’ on ‘on a property’. Those living 'on the coast' may have equally nuanced terms. This confusion of ‘rural’ identity is compounded by classifications being externally imposed rather than representing the local language.


Empirico-analytical conceptualisations of ‘rural’ are evident within policy classifications denoting socio-spatial characteristics based on census variables such as employment, population, housing conditions and remoteness. These classifications are often the basis of funding to address equity issues. However, they are not necessarily meaningful to people within the areas they classify and risk reinforcing deficit stereotypes.


Importantly widening participation conceptualisations provide scope to interrogate deficit framings of ‘rural’ and implications of misrecognising and misrepresenting ‘rural’. Paradoxically misrecognition of ‘rural’ in higher education may increase rural disadvantage by increasing the divide between ‘rural’ and ‘metropolitan’ and the ‘othering’ of students and educators from and within higher education.


Thus, I introduce the notion of ‘rural’ as a place-marker. ‘Rural’ can act as a place-marker for particular places or for different values, interests and understandings. This raises issues for further exploration in relation to ‘rural’ and ‘higher education’:


What would it look like if we minimised our use of the word 'rural'?

What about if instead we had to articulate what we meant by this place-marker?

Would this make it easier to bring taken-for-granted assumptions into focus?

Would it make it easier to explore the implications of widening participation in higher education?

References:


Burke, P. J., Crozier, G., & Misiaszek, L. I. (2017). Changing pedagogical spaces in higher education: Diversity, inequalities and misrecognition. London: Routledge.


Commonwealth of Australia. (2019). National Regional, Rural and Remote Tertiary Education Strategy.


Hallnäs D. (2017). The rural - knowing where we are by retracing our steps. Faculty of Natural Resources and Agricultural Sciences, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Uppsala.


Further Reading:


Ronan, C. (2021). Shifting rural identities: The long-term impact of widening participation on rural student identity. In Burke, PJ., Bunn, M., Lumb. M. (Eds). An invitation to reconceptualise Widening Participation through praxis.

We acknowledge and respect the Gomeroi and Awabakal Peoples, traditional custodians of the lands on which we work.

  • CEEHE

Updated: Mar 25

Dr Matt Lumb, CEEHE Associate Director


I recently received an email promoting jobs with a government department and was intrigued by the corporate language in use and so clicked through to check it out. The roles in question will, among other things: facilitate activities where employers can communicate what they need in terms of skills and experience from young people entering their industry. Nowhere was it mentioned that these roles will facilitate activities whereby young people can communicate what they need from employers/industry. For example, I don’t want to assume or to speak for other folks, but I can imagine that stable, safe, meaningful employment might come up in that communication?


This advert also got me thinking about a recent case in NSW where an education-industry partnership was established; with only a vague intention, to build better links between local education providers and local industries. An aspect of this initiative became a relationship between a public high school and a nearby company of national scale which had a maintenance facility nearby; a facet of the partnership promoted as being great for young people in terms of access to work experience, internships, apprenticeships, even jobs. Folks were excited. Site visits ensued. New qualifications were pursued. Learning for a group of students at the school was guided into themes that met the needs of this industrial complex. Media reports were printed. Education-industry partnerships worked! Everyone wins! Young people it seems could be coerced via their school curriculum into accepting pathways to low skill ‘new-collar’ precarious employment!


Then COVID-19 arrived. The industry within which this company operated collapsed overnight, and a decision was made in distant head offices to close the maintenance centre immediately and indefinitely. Hundreds of jobs went. So did the opportunities for work experience, internships, apprenticeships, and employment. I am guessing that the education-industry ‘partnership’ was not a primary boardroom consideration when these decisions were made. We see here some of the emptiness in the call to better alignment between industry needs and formal education systems in our current climate. Aligning, for example, a school, TAFE or university curriculum around a local industry needs does not always take into account the risks that a business operation will make brutal and swift shifts to protect the interests of their stakeholders. Whilst the long terms interests of community members might be a consideration, it is unlikely to be the primary concern.


This case points to a broader set of shifts in the way formal education is understood and positioned. Increasingly, the notion of employability has patterned the purpose of participation in education, including higher education. The instrumental pursuit of a career seems to have become a taken-for-granted reason for university study, particularly as the share of the cost borne by students grows. Employability has become an urgent way in which higher education institutions are expected to provide a particular form of value to the imagined student. Note that we are not talking here about being employed. Just employable. Standing ready? This focus on employability works to hold in place a ‘naturalness’ of the purpose of higher education, one that allows for ‘employable’ ways of being as the benchmark of success. This creates fertile conditions for stigmatising those who are ‘unsuccessful’ in leveraging ‘their’ participation in higher education towards industry interests, with worrying implications for projects of equity.


Students in education are commonly imagined as something like containers, filled to different levels with acceptable forms of ‘aspiration’, ‘resilience’, even ‘education’. This framing of the student embeds certain ways of being a student as the most legitimate ways, limiting or even shutting out completely ways of being that sit outside this frame. This perspective also assumes and embeds rectifying deficit as the primary concern, as it does not readily acknowledge or value what students are bringing with them for example into higher education. Many educators resist this framing yet it is challenging work when the surrounding social structures and logics constantly recoup this narrow, deficit-fuelled framing, guiding expectations and practices.


In an upcoming book chapter, Dr Matt Bunn and I question the contemporary consequences of this notion in Australia. We do so by paying attention to how students are coerced into adopting the conditions described above as a limit on their current and future ways of being. Notions of job or career ‘readiness’ are increasingly the focus of recruitment to universities, arguably in response to industries having cut their investment in training and support of workers and with the responsibility for employment shifting from society to individuals. It is a concern to us that unemployment or the rapidly growing under-employment is seen as the individual’s problem, with no recognition of broader socio-economic conditions. In this way, worklessness is presented as a sort of shortcoming at the level of the individual, despite vast evidence that there is not enough paid work around, and that education systems are complicit in the production of these social inequalities.


Our chapter also explores how there is limited opportunity to debate why this framing of education and the labour market holds such influence. In the absence of this debate there exists the influential output of relatively new organisations seemingly motivated to continually re-embed notions of employability that are primarily of value to sections of industry rather than students.


This post draws on the forthcoming chapter 'Dominant higher education imaginaries' in Reimagining the higher education student: constructing and contesting identities (2021, Brooks, R. & O'Shea, S. (eds.), 2021).


More suggested reading: Moreau, M-P., & Leathwood, C. (2006). Graduates’ employment and the discourse of employability: A critical analysis. Journal of Education and Work 19: 4, 305–324.


We acknowledge and respect the Pambalong Clan of the Awabakal People, traditional custodians of the land on which we work.