Keywords: Agency

In our October monthly session, we began a series of conversations about ‘keywords’ related to education. 

Raymond’s Williams’ text Keywords: A Vocabulary of Society and Culture provided a jumping off point, and in the session we discussed ‘adult education’, ‘pedagogy’, ‘agency’, and ‘entrepreneurialism’.

What follows is a somewhat ideosyncratic summary of the ‘agency’ discussion.

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Photo by Ivan Bandura on Unsplash

Agency can be defined as a body’s ability to act on another body. But what is a body? And what is action? The concept itself remains undefined.

Perhaps agency means having power, the power to influence a structure or context, or the ability to make choices and follow through?

Or is agency about morality? The ascription of responsibility to an individual or group on the basis of the consequences of social actions?

What is an agent? Is an agent like an estate agent, or perhaps a secret agent, acting on behalf of someone else, or an institution, which is where the real power lies?

Is agency an illusion then? Are we just vehicles for ideology, as Louis Althusser imagined, empty vessels to be interpellated into reproducing the system?

Do you like your job? Your boss? Your life? If not, why do you keep acting to sustain these structures, rather than join with others in changing them, or abolishing them completely?

Why do people act against their material interests? This is the key question of political education, which we still haven’t got a convincing answer for.

What role does education have in creating, sustaining and expanding agency?

Do students have agency? Do teachers? Does the secondary school teacher or the prison educator have more freedom to shape the curriculum?

Is education always the deferral of action, as Jacques Rancière argued, showing us again and again that we are not yet ready to change the world, because we don’t know enough? Is education emancipating or stultifying?

We say, “it’s fine to hate school, but you have to love learning.” “But when do I get to destroy the school and the authoritarian system that it represents?” the bad student answers.

Isn’t higher education the freest? If so, why do academics play the game of marketisation? Why do students want to know the secret of ‘employability’?

What about creative arts? Isn’t there a reason why the government wants to shut them down? Isn’t it because they reveal what is possible, beyond education?

Or are we just showing students what is impossible, so that when they leave, they crumble under the weight of social contradiction?

Is it better to prepare our learners for reality, or for a future that may not be realised?

“As an adult I love learning, because I can pick what I learn.” But can you choose the environment within which you learn?

What would you change about society if you could? Would you sack your boss? Or make them go back to school to learn about radical democracy?