The Politics of Compulsive Education: Racism and Learner-Citizenship

Karl Kitching may not be a name you are familiar with. He is a lecturer in the school of education at University College, Cork, whose research interests include educational inequality and Foucauldian discourse. It is in the context of these interests that he presents The Politics of Compulsive Education: Racism and Learner-Citizenship.

Kitching’s argument over the course of nine chapters covers the ways in which a western European education system – and specifically in this case, an Irish education system – categorises migrant learners as “other” through the language used in schools. He raises important questions as to the benevolence of language that teachers use daily about groups of students. Do we understand the connotations of declaring that a particular minority ethnic group “value their education”?

He goes on to examine the relationship between the learner and race, citizenship and migration. One of his most astute observations is how the current edu-political climate, and its impact on how we categorise learners, directly mirrors an Irish past. Just as in Ireland, where migration and movement of learners was problematised by a highly-emotive religious undertone, today we see the same problematisation in migration and movement of learners, particularly from the Middle East. While Kitching does not broaden his argument to an international context, it is not hard to find the link between the moral supremacy of Catholic education and Ireland to the moral supremacy of a white, western education system. It seems that Fortress Europe has a lot to answer for.

If all this isn’t enough, Kitching explores how the media create the concept of a “governable immigrant”. In classic Foucauldian manner, he is relating this power dynamic, this act of “the gaze”, to the creation of categories of acceptable/unacceptable learner. Kitching intends for his book to be read with the aim that we take on what he calls “acts of learner-citizenship” to avoid racialising learners. He details, through interviews with students and teachers, how inclusion is viewed and finishes with the assertion that we cannot eliminate the categorisation of “othered” learners because that would risk a wiping away of identity.

The specificity of Kitching’s argument means that it is tempting to categorise the book as being niche and somewhat limited in relevance. But, in fact, the reading of it – the very long reading of it – reveals an unexpected pertinence. In battling through the at times impenetrable sentences and Kitching’s penchant for inverted commas, one might draw parallels between the history of Irish educational development in relation to the positioning of racial identities to our own context – a particularly British context in which we now face very real questions as to how we see those from minority backgrounds in schools.

For Kitching, the history of the Irish education system provides a metaphor for our own educational movements, especially towards a perceived “Anglicisation” of the English curriculum and an explicit expectation that British teachers have to be conduits for Fundamental British Values. Kitching’s point is that dominant cultures create marginal spaces in which the learner-citizen is hegemonised through education before they can be productive. The migrant learner needs to be made “good” in order not to “confound the sovereignty of the nation-state”.

Kitching draws our attention to the narrative of what we define as the “good student” from different backgrounds. Do we, inadvertently or otherwise, colonise what he calls “racially minoritised citizens”? In Canada, the newly-formed Teach for Canada teacher-training programme found themselves accused of doing just this by placing their graduate teachers in schools with a majority of First Nation learners. Kitching’s arguments certainly seem rooted in a current truth, if a little opaque at times.

Amidst a slew of readable, dip-in, dip-out education books, Kitching’s work deserves time and patience. If you can get past the inverted commas, it will leave you with uncomfortable questions about your own practice and the boundaries of western European education.