The fantasy of categories in education

Everything seems to be broken. The Winter of liberal, egalitarian, democratic, prosperity is coming. The beginning of 2016 saw the magical people like Bowie and Prince become stardust and we joked that they were leaving before things got really bad. Things look Grimm. Red Riding Hood and her Grandma are no longer being rescued by the woodsman after hiding in a cupboard; they are being torn apart and the most powerful land could elect the Wolf President. We can’t censor it anymore. It’s like a horror movie. There are even evil clowns.

I’m pretty sure most people in my Twitter circle see that things are broken. Education seems to be either making Lex Luthor rich, possessed by He Who Walks Behind the Rows, infected by zombies, or turning students into members of Anonymous (or all of them depending on who you ask).

Many are trying to fix things. But you know what? It’s a #firstworldproblem.

When I say this, I don’t mean it as a reappropriation of white middle class guilt. It literally is a problem birthed from the way so-called Western society has developed. Western society and the logic that comes with it, what I will call from this point forward western logos (decapitalised to reduce it’s importance) comes from somewhere; a hierarchive (as Derrida would call it) of philosophies and events which have been embraced in part or in whole, built upon and extrapolated for millenia. Things which Aristotle, Descartes, Newton, Bacon, even Derrida thought up and spoke out as a musing have become common practice, part of the DNA of western logos. They are not questioned because they seem like such a natural thing to do and think.

western logos has been built as assuredly as a city. Take London, for instance, an ancient city that is built around the  ancient Roman core, expanded, added on, burnt down and rebuilt over thousands of years. It’s still London. It looks different but it’s soul remains the same. London. The great example of the success and malleability of western logos! But is it successful? Will it always be successful?

In thought, what if the soul, the thing that was originally built on was flawed? western logos is more like Venice. A romanticised ancient way of life that is slowly sinking. The foundations are flawed.

For example, Aristotle (the philosopher upon much of western logos is built) famously mused that women are the original and most common deformity. His world view was that a man was the ideal and wondered how girls were born. He wondered what was wrong with conception and birth that a man could not always reproduce himself. Aristotle’s philosophy was lost for thousands of years until it was uncovered by medieval scholars. The problem with uncovering classical philosophy is that not all of it was found. Girls being a deformity was, though.

As western history progressed, people challenged Aristotle’s world view but one assumption that seems to have been left largely alone is the “idealised” man…the man bit has been challenged. The ideal, in western logos, is to be rational and think things through logically and scientifically so they can be understood and thus controlled. Descartes, famously split the mind from the body and argued that true rational thought can only be achieved through the denial of the body. Many critical philosophers and scientists have taken this assumption on in recent decades but there is one assumption which seems to continue to be overlooked.

Francis Bacon developed complicated taxonomies which still dictate how western society is categorised. It is from Bacon we get the disciplines we split school into. Science, Maths, English, History, Geography. And even more categories within these discipline categories. You only need to go and look at a Botany blog to see the arguments over where a plant fits in which taxonomy. The world was given boxes to fit into and those boxes were given a hierarchy, with a rational man at the top who has split his mind from his body, as the ideal.

Categories are ingrained in western logos and the pressure to fit into one also has a history. Around Bacon’s time women’s category was below the man (naturally) but only so long as they were demurely maternal. If a woman so much as enjoyed or rejected sex, bore girls, bore illegitimate children, they were categorised lower, often as low and as external to the rational categories as monsters. These categories also birthed social darwinism, a philosophy that combined the logic of natural selection with Bacon’s taxonomies. No matter how rational and logical these categories are, the fact remains they were formed with the unquestioned assumption that being born a woman or non-white meant deformity. We now know these are not deformities but it doesn’t stop the foundation of taxonomies supporting the idea. Thus anything that is not top of the hierarchival of Bacon’s time still struggles for equality.

Sociologists have a lot to do with the perpetuation of these categories. Isolating people into classes and sub-cultures became a science. Made up through constructed aesthetic categories of economics and of appearance. These constructions have made it into popular culture, particularly within school socialisation practices. The Breakfast Club did a good job at resisting the categories in its soul but online quizzes still ask you to align yourself with a criminal, princess, jock, nerd or basket case.


Categories are comfortable. They create a sense of belonging and just plain sense (but only because western logos has taught for millennia they make sense). Our school system is built on categories because one of the easiest ways to control a large group of people is to help them find where they belong (or force them into compliance), either through choice in discipline interest or socialized through fashion and attitude. However, the categories don’t work. STEM, HASS, prog, trad, digital leader, luddite, whatever. They are a fantasy. The bigger our world is getting the more this is becoming obvious. It is becoming increasingly difficult to align political beliefs with the spokesperson of the political party, sub-cultural status to the discipline of interest (what becomes of nerds when everyone uses the Internet competently?), science to objectivity. Schooling is no different. It is not an island where people are prepared for society. Schooling is the tool which perpetuates the societal cycle no matter how progressive or alternative.

It’s a really hard challenge to question the categories but the world will do it anyway. The horror movie we seem to be in suggests it. Categories aren’t working. So it’s time to pay more critical attention to the ideas which control rather than trying to design better controls.




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