In this Wednesday’s ESRI research seminar, Professor Helen Gunter of Manchester University gave an eloquent and impassioned critique of education management and policy, based on her recent study of the work of Hannah Arendt. Arguing that our schools are being taken away from us by privatisation, with the residualisation of basic skills for those who cannot afford to pay, Professor Gunter posed the question of why we seem to feel unable to resist. Do we belong amongst those who ‘say nothing or leave’ when faced with systemic social injustice, and thereby perpetrate what Arendt called ‘passive evil’?
Talking about her previous and current research into the practices and discourses of educational leadership, Professor Gunter identified a ‘banality of leadership’ that transforms disciplinary and practical knowledge into empty activity. The result is, she suggested, a condition akin to Arendt’s definition of totalitarianism, with characteristics such as the construction of fictitious worlds (ie schools), the practice of ‘total terror’ that blames the innocent and silences dissent, the destruction of social bonds, and a powerful bureaucracy that hides behind ‘front organisations’ such as, here, the National College of School Leadership.
Professor Gunter’s presentation sparked a lively discussion about the severity of the current condition, and the challenges facing those who want to resist. We may not have measured up to Arendt’s demand to ‘think without a banister’, but we were definitely provoked and stimulated to think differently about current dilemmas. Fortunately, we will be able to learn more about Professor Gunter’s adventures with Hannah Arendt in her forthcoming book, to be published in 2013.