Disaster and Public Pedagogy – John Preston

It’s rare for an ESRI seminar for the audience to be reduced to nostalgic chuckles so it is odd that it was a talk on disaster, education, race and social justice that did it.  Prof. John Preston’s (University of East London) presentation ‘Disaster education: race and social justice’ provided a whistle-stop tour of disaster preparedness campaigns, which he defined as examples of public pedagogy.  Whether it is ‘duck and cover’, ‘Go in, Stay in, Tune in’, or ‘Catch it, Kill it, Bin it’ these historical and contemporary messages are prominent cultural artifacts – see some examples below.  Preston drew on Bernstein’s totally pedagogised societies to explain how these have powerful affective and performative pedagogic dimensions.


The rest of the talk focused on race and social justice in how disasters are conceptualised and how notions of preparedness and response are constructed and communicated.  An interesting idea is the tacit intentionality in policy that equates to an accidental but on purpose perpetuation of racial and class domination.  Thus preparedness materials and policy assume patriarchal, heteronormative, and middle-class families who live in the country and have the resources and wherewithal to survive.  From reading material in the archives John has learned that civil servants were attuned to the issues of poor and disabled people.  It may be that in the past the campaigns have sought to inform those who needed the least help and so financial resources. Other interesting factors were notions of eugenics whereby the best would survive, and that the most important people where the only real concern clarified in the idea of ‘continuity of government’ whereby the prime minister and his/her family would survive in a bunker.

I found it interesting in the discussion of capitalism and disaster how the definitions of some incidents as ‘DISASTERS’ and the response that we can expect from governments cross-hatches with what is and is not thought of as a disaster and one that can be responded to or not.  So so-called ‘acts of god’ – earth quakes, tsunamis and floods – that are sudden and violent are clear disasters that require a governmental response. Yet processes of de-industrialisation or corporate offshoring or retrenchment that devastate communities but are not disasters, at least not ones that according to the political orthodoxy anything can be done about.  There are similar pedagogic projects in this context, such as the publication, purchase and distribution of books such as ‘Who Moved My Cheese?’ that has been sent to employees during layoffs and reorganisation (read more here or there’s some Dilbert cartoon strips here).

A fable containing two mice called ‘Scurry’ and ‘Sniff’ and two miniature humans ‘Hem’ and ‘Haw’.  The idea is if someone takes your cheese, don’t give up but keep going, a message the author believes that needs to clearly stated at the end of the book:

Change Happens

They Keep Moving The Cheese

Anticipate Change

Get Ready For The Cheese To Move

Monitor Change

Smell The Cheese Often So You Know When It Is Getting Old

Adapt To Change Quickly

The Quicker You Let Go Of Old Cheese, The Sooner You Can Enjoy New Cheese


Move With The Cheese

Enjoy Change!

Savor The Adventure And Enjoy The Taste Of New Cheese!

Be Ready To Change Quickly And Enjoy It Again

They Keep Moving The Cheese. (from Wikipedia)

Profound. Profound sentiments indeed.

James Duggan


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