A little over two weeks before the final draft of my Ph.D. was due to be submitted to the University of Chicago library, I found myself in a windowless room above a big-box shopping center in southern Estonia holding hands with a circle of strangers. The dissertation, which concerned the harmony of wholes and parts, was a mess. Reading from start to finish a few days earlier had been a shock. It was all over the place stylistically; the topic kept changing; whole swathes needed to be cut. But I had contracted to go to Estonia—and, I said to myself, it might be good for me.
The call had come out of nowhere. A long-lost friend—we had been out of contact for eleven and a half years, having spent six months of a “gap year” teaching together in the countryside of Lesotho—messaged me on Facebook apologizing in advance for the ludicrous proposal he was about to make. He was working for the University of Liverpool, he explained, on a project to involve children in decisions about science education. The project was based in Liverpool but sponsored by the European Commission and it had several European partners. The next conference was to be in an Estonian town called Tartu and my friend’s boss had had the idea of sponsoring innovative reflections on its proceedings: she was looking for a video artist, a poet and an essayist. Might I be interested in speaking to her?
It didn’t seem all that promising. The academic conferences I had experienced were mostly fraudulent to their core, CV-building and networking exercises masquerading as intellectual symposia. And even if this were to be an earnest attempt to listen and learn, would it really provide me enough material for an essay? There was a huge difference between the reportage I guessed they were looking for and the sort of philosophical and cultural criticism I was used to producing. Assuming I stuck to the latter, the situation was potentially awkward. Was it unethical to accept a commission from the object of one’s critique? Or just embarrassing? In any case, I was busy. Still, it seemed impolite not to at least hear the proposal, and so like a good Englishman I buttoned up my doubts and shuffled sheepishly into a Skype conversation.
Tricia Jenkins, “principal investigator” of the project in question, turned out to be, as my mother would say, “quite a character.” A somewhat hippie-ish lady with a shock of frizzy blond hair, verging on retirement age, she talked rapidly and insistently; behind her hung a brown drape featuring silhouettes of what looked to be a series of exotic dancers, possibly African. When I asked her to explain what she was doing and what she was looking for, she began, surprisingly, by telling me about the process of getting funding from the European Commission. What followed was somewhat mysterious to me—something about needing at least ten different entities with ten different legal statuses from ten different countries before being able to go through the relevant supranational “frameworks,” “silos” and “directorates,” and something about the whole thing depending on whether one was aiming at “delivery” or at “mobilizing mutual learning”—but in any case it soon became clear that “process” may be the wrong word, as opposed to, say, “art” or “alchemy” or, to put it more bluntly, “profession.” For so complex is the whole process, Tricia explained, that funding tends to be secured only by experts in securing funding, with the result that most new projects are run by the same people who ran the old projects. Thankfully, twenty-eight years working on a variety of European projects at the University of Liverpool had brought Tricia herself some of this expertise—and the lavishly funded project for whose sake the Tartu conference was to be organized, “SiS Catalyst,” was to be her last hurrah before riding off into a South American retirement.
The basic idea of SiS Catalyst, Tricia explained, was to get children from disadvantaged backgrounds into science. If there are disproportionately few black doctors in the U.K., for example, this is because there are disproportionately few black applicants to medicine courses, and this in turn has to do with culture rather than ability. What is needed is a shift in expectations, and SiS Catalyst was trying to effect this by piggybacking on some Austrian initiatives to interest children in science via so-called “children’s universities”—open days or outreach sessions in which universities put on classes for children. This aspiration is obviously highly commendable, but what was more appealing from the perspective of having to write an essay, truth be told, was the jargon in which it was clad.
“Change occurs through individuals,” Tricia told me, and these individuals are “change agents.” In this case, change agents meant children and current students but also “key players,” a category comprising policy-makers, journalists, “locally defined enablers” (e.g. teachers) and “operational key players,” of whom Tricia herself was a prime example. Tartu was to be a conference for those operational key players—themselves split into “delivery partners” and “associates”—to reflect on what it was that they were doing, with the aim being (a) to “capture” the “mutual learning” that had occurred and (b) to work out what it meant to “capture mutual learning” at all. To that end Tricia thought it might be helpful to bring in some outsiders who could “witness and feed back” to the main group. And that was where I would fit in—I was to be part of a group of “critical friends” along with a poet and a videographer. My mission would be to deliver a “global, fresh, insightful, political perspective.” When I raised the possibility that I might end up being rather critical of the whole affair, Tricia didn’t flinch. “I’m a risk-taker,” she said, looking into what from her end of Skype must have looked like my eyes, “and I’m comfortable being a risk-taker. We’re in uncharted territory here. The European Union don’t know what mobilizing mutual learning is, but they’ve charged us to do it anyway.”
Speaking from the global/political perspective, if not necessarily the fresh/insightful one, the last decade or so has seen growing anger at the corruption, incompetence and unaccountability of federal-level bureaucracy: America has the Tea Party, Brazil has its Free Fare Movement, and Europe has groups like the U.K. Independence Party, the French National Front and Alternative for Germany. People are pissed off. This thought was heavy on my mind as I took my fully funded flights from Chicago to Stockholm and then onwards to Tallinn, Estonia’s capital, where I strolled around the sun-sharpened Old Town with Tricia and an iPad before a sleepy bus ride brought us to Tartu, a university town known, apparently, as “the Heidelberg of the north,” perhaps because of the winding river it bestrides and over which my hotel room was conveniently perched. But by the time I was standing in a circle holding hands with strangers my concern for the taxpayer had begun to fade. I just wanted to know what was happening.
“Welcome to the SiS Family Reunion,” Tricia had said as we took our seats in the circle. There were between twenty and thirty members of this family, of varying ages and origins, and I did not feel at home. As we went round the room explaining who we were and what we were doing, it became clear that among our number were not only Europeans—French, German, Austrian, Spanish, English, Polish, Croatian, Estonian—but also three Americans, two Colombians and a Brazilian, all flown in for the occasion. What were they doing here? This was the “Icebreaking Session” for the “Mentoring Associates Networking Day,” that much was clear from the program. The difficulty lay in figuring out what a Mentoring Associate was. I couldn’t exactly ask at this stage, so I sat back and took notes on my laptop. Some of the group called themselves “hubs.” AB, for example, the friend who had contacted me in the first place, a softly spoken, lightly bearded semi-hippie in his early thirties, explained his role as follows: “I am a hub for four partnerships. My role is to help overcome any obstacles and deal with any blockages. The whole scheme is there to get different projects and cultures to collide because that’s when things are created, when two things come together.” Chris, meanwhile, a ponytailed forty-something from Vienna, clarified that there were four hubs, and that he was one of them: “Even we hubs don’t know what the function of hubs is so we’ll have to spend some time to clarify that here.”
I should say that by this stage we had achieved a certain level of familiarity and comfort with one another. We began by holding hands and saying our names. Next we played a game where each of us had to walk around the room exchanging names with whoever we bumped into, so that they became us and we became them, until finally we arrived back at our own name. After that came a game where we had to pair off and mime one thing we really liked in primary school and one thing we really disliked. And finally we threw a ball round the room: whoever caught it had to be silent while everyone else said what they knew about that person. This threw up the fact that one of the French contingent, a girl named Vanessa, was the great-granddaughter of a West African royal, or something like that. It also emerged that I was in Tartu as a critical friend with no knowledge of the project, which made it a little less awkward for me to respond to the remarks about hubs by asking what the hell was going on.
The “Mentoring Associates” program turned out to be a fairly intuitive instance of the “mutual learning” concept: each provider of children’s university-type activities is paired with a similar organization in a different country; the pair are given €10,000 to visit each other and compare notes; and then at conferences they report back to the rest of the group. There were still some aspects that I didn’t understand—each pair apparently participates in a “hub,” of which there are four, as well as a “team,” of which there are three, and I couldn’t get my head around how these overlapping units would actually function—but the basic concept made sense. I did still want to ask why there were non-European partners. The obvious answer was that certain situations in Europe are best understood by comparison with situations outside Europe, but then one of the partnerships appeared to be between Brazil and Kenya. It might have been rude to make such inquiries in the presence of those heavily jetlagged non-Europeans, however, and in any case I felt conscious of dragging everybody down with my non-comprehension, so I let it pass. “It’s about me sitting down last night and having the most amazing dinner and talking about what happens when we put Poland and Hawaii together,” Tricia concluded.
Much of the conference was in fact inspirational and/or moving, it has to be said, and by the same token it also has to be said that the parts that were inspirational and/or moving derived disproportionately from SiS Catalyst’s man in Hawaii, David Sing, founding executive director of the N ̄a Pua No‘eau Center for Gifted and Talented Native Hawaiian Children. A middle-aged native Hawaiian with black hair, silver goatee and rimless spectacles, Sing is the kind of man who makes you reach for your higher self for fear of letting him down. As a young man he was told he couldn’t go to college: “You’re not bright, you’re lazy and you’re poor.” He did much more than make it to college: he earned a Ph.D. in education from Claremont Graduate University in California, came back to Hawaii and in 1990 founded the aforementioned N ̄a Pua No‘eau Center, which has become a model for the advancement of indigenous groups worldwide. The stats alone tell quite a story: in 1971 only 4 percent of students enrolled in the National University of Hawaii were native Hawaiians, compared to 22 percent of the population in general; by 2013 that portion had increased sixfold to 24 percent. It’s hard to know exactly how much of that is due to Sing and his team, but it’s clear they played a large part.
Sing’s basic insight, on my understanding, is that for a student to succeed he must want to educate himself, and that in some cases this requires bridging the gap between the educational system and the rest of his life. For many Westerners, there is nothing surprising about studying the canon, sitting in large lecture halls and receiving relatively anonymous feedback. We expect to settle away from our parents; we are used to going unrecognized in daily life; and the canon, whether scientific or humanistic, is in some sense “ours,” part of our common inheritance. For a native Hawaiian, however, raised to value his gods and his elders above all, this conception of what it is to be a student may be hard to accept. The canon might appear alien, the campus alienating, a career away from home impious. Sing’s idea was to bring the system closer to the student and the student closer to the system. He ran cultural classes for university professors from mainland America to teach them about students’ values; he developed a support network for native Hawaiians on campus; he lobbied successfully for general education to include Hawaiian Studies components; he even managed to make native participation part of the mission statement of the University of Hawaii. So much for the supply side. On the demand side, he began a program which encourages teachers to bring out abstract scientific principles through small-group activities that engage students’ sense of pride in their heritage and hence elicit their desire to learn: volcanoes are considered local deities in Hawaii, for instance, and a trip to one can occasion geological lessons that in turn fan out into wider scientific questions; something similar goes for examining, building and using canoes like those that brought the first settlers from Polynesia over 1,500 years ago. Small steps these may be, but over 23 years they have led to spectacular results for native Hawaiians, especially as compared to other indigenous groups, and Sing now finds himself in demand from Greenland to Estonia.
In Tartu, Sing seemed like a missionary from another world—a missionary, it might be added, in considerable danger of upsetting the natives. Along with his wife, Nalani, herself a distinguished educator, he frequently took the opportunity to pass on linguistic and cultural tidbits to the group: phrases, practices, pieces of advice. This was all undertaken with the kind of humility and grace that produces intuitive respect on the part of others, but at times it seemed to me that certain members of the SiS Catalyst Family were growing restless. What, after all, did any of this have to do with their own work?
Jerzy Jarosz, Sing’s “Mentoring Partner” from the University of Silesia in Poland, was in no doubt. At the “Mentoring Associates Showcase session,” he described his initial skepticism when Tricia suggested he go to Hawaii and his surprise at how well it had all worked out. Dressed in black, with an open-necked shirt, designer glasses and suede shoes, his stylishness sitting strangely with the drab college classroom in which we were now crowded, Jarosz gave a clear explanation of what he had learned. Instead of treating subcultures as problematic, he said, Sing had taught him to recognize the specificity of the group and turn it into an advantage, creating a sense of pride and belonging that enables local role models to exert their pull. More generally, Jarosz let it be known, he had fallen in love with Hawaiian culture and values; his bromance with Sing had become a running joke in both their families, and he had several snaps to prove it. The day before, at the “icebreaking” event, Sing had given his version: “Do you know the concept ‘blind date’?” he asked, unwittingly calling to mind an illuminating comparison between Tricia and Cilla Black, “Well, we’re married now!”
As I mentioned, though, I couldn’t help feeling that some among us remained skeptical of the love-in. And at the risk of sounding predictable or prejudiced, I have to report that those who appeared mildly disapproving of such frivolity—on this and other occasions during the conference—were mostly German speakers. I mention this not because I enjoy national stereotypes, although like any Englishman I do, but because it allows us to see something about SiS Catalyst as a whole, and thereby, perhaps, about the European Union itself.
I had come to Estonia hoping to find a certain strangeness, perhaps in the form of an administrative subculture where everyone spoke bureaucratese in their sleep—“Deliver the key player to the change agent! Mobilize the mutual learning action plan while there’s still time!”—or, more likely, given Tricia’s description of SiS Catalyst as a journey through the “uncharted territory” of mutual learning, a conference whose subject was in fact itself: “We have come together on this august occasion to work out what it is that we have come together for.” What I found was in some ways stranger. On the surface everything seemed in order: these were serious, intelligent people who had come together with the best of intentions; most of them saw the funny side of the terminology; and the conference sessions were in no way self-swallowing. What was peculiar was just this: every time I asked for a description of SiS Catalyst I seemed to hear something different. Some seemed to think the project was about recruiting the next generation of scientists; others emphasized rectifying social inequalities; but the organizers themselves, the University of Liverpool contingent, kept on talking about training adults to listen to children.
The SiS Catalyst publicity leaflet, for example, is entitled “Children As Change Agents for Science in Society.” The front page explains that “SiS Catalyst is based on a very simple idea: that as children are the future, we must involve them in the decisions of today.” The inference strikes me as less than obvious—if children are the future, why shouldn’t they wait until their time has come?—but in any case, supposing you did want to involve children in the decisions of today, would you really begin with science, as opposed to, say, local politics? And what would it even mean to involve children in decisions concerning science? The second page of the leaflet only adds to the confusion, since it makes it seem as if science really isn’t the main point:
SiS Catalyst is an initiative to foster and support ethical, effective and sustainable engagement between children and the social, cultural, political, scientific and educational institutions which make the decisions that will shape their futures. We believe that enhanced interaction will benefit both children and institutions through exchange of views and improved mutual understanding.
But if science isn’t the main point, then why say this project is part of Science in Society? The suggestion is that there is some general project, “Children As Change Agents,” of which SiS Catalyst is the science chapter. But there is no such general project. I harp on this because it helps explain a fundamental disconnect at the heart of the conference, one that took me a while to piece together. For of all the people who presented at the conference, and there were many, the only ones to focus on involving children in decision-making were the three keynote speakers.
The speeches took place in the Assembly Hall of the University of Tartu’s “Main Building.” Tartu is one of the oldest universities in Eastern Europe, dating back to 1632, and like the rest of Estonia its history is one of domination by Swedes, Germans and Russians. Traveling after the conference, via not only Tallinn but also Toila, Narva and Jõhvi, the last two towns being in fact ethnically Russian, one quickly got the sense of Estonia’s flatness and inherent invadability. A single vista frequently combines (i) a couple of austerely elegant buildings of the kind one might expect to find in a Swedish provincial town with (ii) row after row of Soviet-era tower blocks and then (iii) the type of gaudy red-clad prefab shopping center, or rather box—complete with supermarket, clothes stores, restaurants and, oddly enough, casino—that seems to have been dropped into Eastern Europe by parachute sometime in the mid-Nineties.Like Tallinn, though, Tartu has a large and well-enough preserved historic center that the visitor can temporarily forget the horrors of the twentieth century. With its six white columns, or “Tuscan pillars,” according to the official brochure, the University’s Main Building, a neoclassical construction dating back to the Napoleonic Wars, sets the tone. And the Assembly Hall is its crowning jewel, a large ballroom-style affair with 28 white columns supporting a viewing gallery that extends round all four sides. It’s the kind of room in which one has visions of Anna Karenina dancing the mazurka; in her stead we had Tricia.
Tricia introduced the session by telling the story of Sebastián, a boy from Medellín, Colombia, who had asked her how he could stop his sister from becoming a prostitute. “I didn’t know the answer,” Tricia said, audibly welling up, “but I do know that Sebastián believes that he can change the world and I do know that we here in SiS Catalyst can also change the world. So no pressure there then!” At that point the room was rapt, myself included, and that energy carried us through the three talks. Laura Lundy, a professor at Queen’s University, Belfast, claimed that children have a human right to participate in decisions that affect them. Zack Kopplin, a fresh-faced freshman at Rice University, explained how as a high-school student he had created a campaign against the teaching of creationism. Margit Sutrop, head of the University of Tartu’s Center for Ethics, argued that teachers ought to be shaping students into citizens who are willing and able to reflect on their own values. The talks were provocative and engaging, and much could be said about each of them. But they were all of a piece with Tricia’s opening in one important sense: they had very little to do with the European Union’s Science in Society agenda. Sutrop was advocating the creation of philosophically minded citizens and Kopplin was complaining about American backwardness. Lundy did touch on research into ways of discovering children’s preferences concerning science classes, but she spent most of her time arguing that such preference-pumping was a human right. Those looking for help on their “children’s university” projects could have been forgiven for thinking they were at the wrong conference. On the plus side, they were in the majority.
But even among those whose interests lay less in “listening to children” than in educating them—and yes, I recognize that the two ought to be related—there seemed to exist a significant division over priorities. My default move during the conference’s quiet moments was to go around telling people I didn’t understand what exactly the conference was about and asking if they could give me a unifying principle. Aside from the learning-from-children angle, which was stressed mostly by the leadership and even then not consistently, most participants emphasized both science education and social mobility. But while some seemed to think science education important insofar as it might hold the key to increased social mobility, others seemed to find social mobility important insofar as it might hold the key to scientific progress. It’s not hard to see how both groups could profit from working together. But if resources are tight, as they usually are, and decisions need to be made, as they always do, at some point you would imagine that one of these priorities will have to win out. If the goal is to recruit new scientists, the emphasis should be on scouring every nook and cranny to find talent; if the goal is to promote equality, it should be on encouraging kids of all ability levels.
And this brings us back to the German speakers. Tricia had told me in our original Skype call that SiS Catalyst was a sort of hybrid between the Vienna-led European Children’s University Network (EUCU.NET) and the European Access Network (EAN), based at the University of Roehampton in the U.K. Following in the footsteps of the University of Tübingen in Germany, which created the first “children’s university”—i.e. open-day/festival program—in 2002, the Viennese had successfully developed a network of such schemes funded by the European Union. Tricia’s objection was that these schemes, however innovative, were mostly for children with ambitious and motivated parents rather than the poor or excluded. She had therefore had the idea of applying for European funding to harness the same models for the benefit of what she called “locally defined minorities.” In other words, her plan was to make science education serve social mobility. Now on the face of it this agenda has little to do with “The Potential and Ethics of Learning from Children,” to use the official title of the Tartu conference. But to see the connection, as I did only months later, is to appreciate Tricia’s entrepreneurial genius.
My dissertation was in large part about the ideal of “functional” institutions: in an ideal society, I claim, the various parts of each institution would fit together harmoniously, such that each part plays a particular role in bringing about the good at which the institution as a whole aims, with that institution in turn being one part of a larger harmonious whole. This is a simple enough idea, and in some sense it is really quite trivial, even if I do draw it out of Plato. What makes it less trivial, in my view, is simply that so few institutions actually are coherent in this way, whether on the micro or the macro level. The way I express that is to say that most are to some degree either “non-functional” or “dysfunctional”—they are either incoherent, lacking a common thread that would unify them, or organized but with respect to the wrong goal. You might think of the former by analogy to a playground soccer team where everyone chases the ball rather than staying in defined positions, such that the players are not playing as a team, and the latter along the lines of the common protest that capitalist news organizations ultimately privilege shareholder value over informing the public. This is why I pricked up my ears when Tricia first told me that one of the goals of the mobilizing mutual learning action plan was to work out what mutual learning actually was. It was amusing, but it also seemed to challenge the idea that institutions should be functional. It therefore inflamed in me an insecurity that may be common to all academic pontificators—an anxiety that the “real world,” a world from which we feel necessarily and irreparably cut off, might turn out to contain more things than are dreamt of in our philosophy.
The SiS Catalyst grant application does at first seem to reject the functional ideal. A section entitled “Progress Beyond The State of the Art” gives the following account of the “SiS Catalyst Learning Process”:
SiS Catalyst not only promotes so called “Single Loop Learning” (present when goals, values, frameworks and strategies are taken for granted and directed toward making the strategy more effective), but also “Double-loop learning” (involves questioning the role of the framing and learning systems which underlie actual goals and strategies) and “Meta-Learning,” which means inquiring the process of learning and thinking about ways to improve discussion about values underlying strategies. … All Work Packages … are embedded within the SiS-Catalyst learning cycle and deliver instruments and mechanisms to promote the different levels of learning.
This is all rather philosophical, even Socratic. Rather than merely asking the practical question of how we can go about φ-ing, it suggests, we should raise the question of why we want to φ in the first place, and then the question of what it would be to answer that question well, and so on, presumably, ad infinitum. In some sense, then, it really is true that the learning SiS Catalyst hopes to achieve is learning about itself. But this is not necessarily opposed to the functional ideal—it may in fact presume it, since it would make no sense to engage in second- and third-order reflection unless one were ultimately trying to get clear on one’s first-order goals. And in any case the process must start with a provisional definition of goals in order for the “loops” to get started. So even for an organization as committed to the reflexive learning process as SiS Catalyst, we are still entitled to expect a certain amount of functional thinking from the start.
Section B1.2.1 of the grant application, “The Overall Objectives of the Project,” claims there are three goals: (1) to capture mutual learning concerning “how to include children in the dialogue between society and the scientific and technological community”; (2) to build models of how to do this that can then be “rolled out in order to build the capacity of new-comers”; and (3) “to build tools which enable Higher Education Institutions to self-evaluate and test their progress of enriching their aspirations of Lifelong Learning and social inclusion with SiS activities … and to contextual these in regional, national, European and global contexts.” Aside from the bizarre prose—one’s horror is doubled when one “contextuals” all this in the education context—this list is a conceptual mystery. First of all, (2) looks like a means of achieving (1) rather than an objective per se, unless the emphasis is firmly placed on the goal of “rolling out,” which it is not. And where did (3) come from? No mention was made in (1) and (2) of lifelong learning and social inclusion as being goals, so why are we now working out how to measure them? And this, it should be stressed, is the inconsistency just within Section B1.2.1. Elsewhere in the prospectus we hear that the project will focus on children aged 8-14 because “inequalities in the achievement of children from low and high income backgrounds emerge extremely early, well before schooling begins.” Given that logic, shouldn’t we be focusing on pre-school children? And if rectifying inequality is the guiding ambition, why isn’t it mentioned in B1.2.1?
There is no need to go deeper into this document. Suffice it to say that to the degree that conference participants seemed unsure of what was tying the whole thing together, they were onto something. And I suspect this is what the German speakers were objecting to, however implicitly. Whether because of ingrained cultural factors of the sort that an Englishman like myself would never dream of bringing up, or because of the Viennese experience in running a closely related European project in somewhat different fashion, they seemed skeptical of an institution without a well-defined function. I was on their side back in Tartu. Now I’m not so sure.
“Argumentative incomplete confusing unclear complex challenging difficult isolating technical exhausting categorized repetitive fractured unwieldy.” We were in the conference’s final session, the meeting of the Scientific Advisory Board, and the learning process was coming to a boil under the benign eye of one Bastian Baumann, higher-education consultant and “external evaluator” for SiS Catalyst. A tall and calming man whose website advertises him as “very active in the area of Quality Assurance”—so active, in fact, that he has even served to assure the quality of several quality assurance agencies, not to mention the European Association of Quality Assurance Agencies (ENQA)—Bastian had divided us into three groups, Tricia not included, and instructed us to reflect on the strengths and weaknesses of the SiS Catalyst project. How would we explain them to our next-door neighbor, assuming we were on speaking terms? Which adjectives would we use? We had split off and written down ideas and now we were back together to hear the results. It was a little awkward to have all those negative adjectives stacked up there in front of everyone, not least because Tricia’s right eye was shot with blood that day like the weeping Madonna of Civitavecchia. But it also felt healthy to have the complaints out in the open. And anyway the positives had come first: “Engaging diverse visionary flexible speedy exciting expert strong thought-provoking sharing reflective inspiring comforting unique sympathetic fun reflexive dynamic ambitious changing grateful mission-led international interesting innovative creative powerful shiny.”
We then went into the second phase, described by Bastian as a modified version of the “World Café,” a Californian management technique in which group discussions take place at different tables, with a “host” at each taking notes; the “guests” then switch tables and their new host brings them up to speed on his table’s previous discussion before soliciting new thoughts; and finally each host presents his table’s findings to the whole group. The World Café is “a powerful social technology,” its promotional materials claim, but also “a way of thinking and being together sourced in a philosophy of conversational leadership.” To translate back into terms that will no doubt be more familiar and more natural to the reader by now: what the World Café offers is, in short, in brief, in sum, a mobilizing mutual learning action plan.
And it worked. We had three tables organized around three different themes: Impact; Sustainability; and Group Dynamics. In a bizarre twist, the host of the Group Dynamics table turned out to be me. This meant that it was I that produced the penultimate action of the conference, presenting a report concerning what we could do to improve our organization, all the while (a) knowing very little about the organization or the situation—I would only read the founding documents on my return, and at this stage I still hadn’t put my finger on the three different goals—and (b) nursing a hangover from a student bar up a narrow staircase where the floors were crooked and the walls were orange and an army recruit was on his last night out and the shots came in units of ten.
My table had come up with two big suggestions. One was to create a visualization of the structure of SiS Catalyst as a whole. It would be a simple map that would allow members to see whose work they were drawing on and whose work they were feeding into, creating a sense of membership and purpose. “If the division of labor is too complex,” I said, casting matters into my own mold like a good academic, “it can cause problems. You think, ‘I have my project and that’s what I care about.’ There might be a territorialism caused by not being able to see how one’s work fits into a larger whole.”
Our other suggestion concerned jargon. “I’m just a bit confused about the terminology,” someone had said earlier in the day. “Is what is now called ‘the policy seminar’ equivalent to what was previously called ‘national capacity-building intervention’?” Our idea was to create a wiki-glossary where terms and policies and units would be defined by the group as a collective. “Why is it that we can’t talk about things with normal terms that actually have a referent?” I asked, a little over-aggressively. “A term like ‘Work Package 6,’ in principle that could mean anything, whereas ‘listening to children’ is a bit more informative. I suspect that if we did a test right now and we got each of us to write down the meaning of each work package we wouldn’t get 100 percent correct answers— there would be some red ink.”
Bastian and I had spoken during the coffee break that followed the previous day’s session on “Orientation and Requirements of the SiS Catalyst Badges Ecosystem.” I asked him what his role as external evaluator entailed. He said he was partly there to help shape the project by giving feedback on methodology, but that his main task was to give a final report on the project’s performance to Tricia: this would then be one of the “deliverables” that SiS Catalyst would send to Brussels at the end of the project. “And who is it in Brussels that it gets sent to when it gets sent to Brussels?” I asked, my mind turning to the pipes and pulleys of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. “Within the Directorate-General for Education, Audiovisual Services and Culture,” Bastian replied, “they have a specific agency to deal with Framework Seven projects. It’s a horrible building. I’ve been there a couple of times and you’re usually locked away in a cellar without any windows and you have to evaluate certain things.”
He was happier in Tartu. After my presentation he tended to us as a preacher to his flock. “I have one question: How many of you have participated in Framework-funded projects before?” A couple of hands. “That becomes quite evident for two reasons. One is that people tend to get a bit unhappy with how things are going in a project. But there is no perfect project. It just doesn’t exist. There are always shortcomings, always flaws. What I think when I compare this project with others is that yes, it is very ambitious, but it is also dynamic and there is so much commitment and enthusiasm from the vast majority of people that there is a lot of work that gets done between meetings. Therefore the word I would like to use to describe the project is ‘hungry.’ People are hungry to achieve results, to make an impact, and that is a very positive feature. When a university has been running the same project for the last 25 years with the same people, people are not hungry any more, they just see it as a means of funding a position.” And with that we were sent on our way. The fourth conference of the SiS Catalyst odyssey had come to an end.
Back in Chicago I began trying to piece things together. I went over my notes and recordings. I subjected the official leaflets and 130-page funding bid to a close reading. But at a certain point I concluded that I would never be able to make sense of SiS Catalyst without understanding the whole of which it is a part.
The SiS of SiS Catalyst stands for “Science in Society,” one of many funding priorities incorporated in the European Union’s seven-year, €50 billion science budget, the “Seventh Framework Programme for Research and Technological Development,” known to its friends as “FP7.” FP7, which runs from 2007 to 2014, has two overarching goals, according to the “pocket guide for newcomers”: to strengthen the scientific and technological base of European industry; and to increase its international competitiveness while promoting research that supports other E.U. policies. These goals will be achieved via five “building blocks”, each with its own budget allocation: “Cooperation,” “Ideas,” “People,” “Capacities” and, in the kind of spectacular but completely unheralded category shift that provides a perpetual source of pleasure to readers of E.U. documents, “Nuclear Research.” “Science in Society” fits in as part of the Capacities block, whose guiding ambition is “[to strengthen] the research capacities that Europe needs if it is to become a thriving knowledge-based economy.”
What exactly “Science in Society” means turns out to be somewhat hard to say. “The defining characteristic of Euro English is that nobody knows what it means,” a friend who deals with the E.U. in her capacity as a policy analyst wrote to me when I pled for help. “You may be interested to know that this has itself been the topic of E.U. deliberation,” she went on, pointing me to an official document entitled “A Brief List of Misused English Terms in E.U. publications”—which brief list runs, I should say, to 58 pages. But jargon is a symptom, not a cause. Anthropologists have noted that jargon functions like a shibboleth, a way of excluding outsiders. George Orwell stressed that it can be used to cover up unpleasant facts. It also just permits one to avoid the time-consuming and often unpleasant business of nailing down concepts. And this conceptual permissiveness transcends jargon per se.
The “Science in Society” website begins with some ruminations on the value of science (“Although we rarely think about it, science makes extraordinary things possible. At the flick of a switch, we have light and electricity. When we are ill, science helps us get better”) before declaring that “scientific endeavor is as much about us as it is for us. Its place in society, therefore, is not to unfold quietly at the sidelines but to become a fundamental part of the game. Now more than ever, science must engage with us, and we must engage with science.” This sounds vague, wrong and quite possibly nonsensical, but what follows is comparatively concrete.
The first goal of Science in Society is to “build gateways with the public,” creating opportunities “for scientists and the general public to exchange views in a two-way dialogue of mutual respect and trust.” The second goal is to “inspire the next era of scientists,” encouraging young people, especially women, to consider careers in science. And the plan is then to “integrate science into the mix” by commissioning scientific research into how best to achieve these goals. To summarize, then, according to the homepage the basic idea of Science in Society is to make the institutions of European science more accessible to European citizens. So far, so good.
But then the schizophrenia/mendacity sets in. For on a subsequent page (“Science in Society in FP7”) we read that “the overarching objective of the Programme is to make the SiS perspective a core element of E.U. research policy, helping shape its future priorities and ways of operating.” And what that means, when you think about it, is that the guiding ambition of the project is in fact its own perpetuation.
Just a mistake? Maybe. But this kind of ambiguity turns up at the micro level as well. Science in Society is itself divided into five subsections, including “Mobilising Mutual Learning Action Plans” (MMLs), under which SiS Catalyst falls. The other subsections are “Policy Initiatives”; “Ethics Review”; “Scientific Information and Expertise for Policy Support in Europe” (SINAPSE); and “Monitoring Activities of Science in Society in Europe” (MASIS). This last is initially described as an attempt to work out (“monitor”) what the role of science in European society currently is, or, to allow the author’s voice free rein, “what are cutting edge issues and what are challenging futures.” So far, so good—again. On another page, however, we hear that MASIS “aims to increase the visibility of SiS activities, and therefore their impact on European policymaking and society at large.” So monitoring has become acting, acting has become advertising, and such advertising has found its primary target in Brussels.
Here is my hypothesis. Each European unit has two goals, one external and one internal. The external goal is specific: it is that for the sake of which the unit was initially funded. The internal goal is generic: it consists in the unit’s self-perpetuation via the next round of funding, which will be the Eighth Framework of 2014—or at least it would be, had the E.U. not renamed it “Horizon 2020,” the replacement of “Framework” by “Horizon” seemingly designed with the express intention of making things just that little bit less clear for ordinary people.
If this hypothesis is correct then the internal goal of Science in Society is not in itself remarkable. The external one, on the other hand, is worth pondering. Science in Society aims (1) to encourage dialogue between scientists and the general public and (2) to shepherd young people into scientific careers. Given that Science in Society forms part of the Capacities section of FP7, we can infer that the reason why (1) and (2) are considered valuable is that they will help to build up “the research capacities that Europe needs if it is to become a thriving knowledge-based economy.” And the reason why that would be valuable, as with FP7 as a whole, is that it will increase European competitiveness relative to other economies.
Tricia did tell me that she had never directed a project of this size before, despite her many years of receiving European funding, and that it had been a struggle. You’re responding to an opaque set of criteria, including in this case the nebulous idea of mobilizing mutual learning, and you’re just trying to make things sound right. “I was the primary writer of the work description [i.e. the plan] and I don’t think I recognized what it was for about eighteen months. I remember going to this invited workshop from the European Commission on Mobilizing Mutual Learning Action Plans and I remember thinking, ‘Oh yes, that’s what we are!’” So the non-functionality of SiS Catalyst as an organization may have been partly caused by simple inexperience on her part.
But a more important factor may have been her idealism. Idealism is a laudable quality, but it brings with it one big danger: wishful thinking. And wishful thinking stalks SiS Catalyst. My presence at the Tartu conference was itself evidence of that. Tricia’s last-minute attempt to recruit a video artist and a performance artist from Sweden having failed, my only colleague in the “critical friends” brigade was Joonas, an Estonian caricaturist who actually looked like a caricature, oddly enough, being wiry and angular, blond to the point of extinction and equipped with an Adam’s apple so pronounced he resembled a stork. (Joonas refused my repeated invitations to see the funny side of the conference, but I didn’t take it personally: he seemed to have taken a vow of silence.) Our mission was partly to contribute some reflections from the outside, but mostly to help spread the word about SiS Catalyst. And what was the target, exactly? Well, Tricia explained as we meandered through the windy cobbled streets and steep steps of old Tallinn, “Unless the learning is shared with ten million hits, it’s not global.” Ten million hits? The conversation then continued:
The thing is, the good stuff is there. You look at United Nations stuff, it’s good, you look at the Council of Europe, it’s good stuff, you look at the American Declaration of Independence, it’s good stuff—but how is that good stuff actually implemented? We don’t need to reinvent the good stuff, we just need to recognize the good stuff and then move on. That’s where I think we are at the University of Tartu, to get to the next stage, which is from collective understanding to how an individual can make a difference. And I’m going to start the conference with a young man, Sebastián, that I met in Colombia, who is 17, his father was murdered when he was a child, he’s had a really tough life, and he says, “I know I can change the world. I know that the things I do can change the world.” And that’s not religious fanaticism, that’s just ownership of the change, because of course we all change the world with everything we do. We’re just very easily distracted!
Now Tricia is clearly an outlier in the SiS Catalyst family, but this last move was made by many others at the conference: you begin with a description that marks someone out as particularly valuable, like “key player” or “change agent,” and then you extend it to every child, or everybody in the room, or just every human being in general. This empties the term of all meaning, of course, but as a psychological process it’s amazing to observe—it’s wishful thinking in action, as it were. And this helps explain what’s going on with SiS Catalyst’s institutional structure.
There are, as I have been stressing, three very different goals at the heart of SiS Catalyst: learning from children; fighting inequality; and promoting scientific careers. But whereas I see non-function, parts pulling away from each other, I suspect that Tricia and her University of Liverpool team would see an ideal blend. After all, if the best way to combat inequality happens to be to get youngsters from poor backgrounds into science, and the best way to get them into science happens to be to allow them to shape their own learning processes, what’s not to like? This is why the Hawaiian experience looms so large for SiS Catalyst: it’s the perfect example of how the three priorities can be reconciled to immense practical effect. But the idea that things will always work so neatly is simply wishful thinking. The notion that children between the ages of 8 and 14 have any kind of wisdom about what it would be good for them to learn strikes me as deeply questionable; indeed, it strikes me as questionable whether even college-age kids have this kind of wisdom. (The Hawaiian example of “listening to children,” which is supposed to provide universal lessons, is in fact rather particular in the sense that it revolves around the fact of overcoming cultural differences between children and their educators, rather than generational ones.) In any case, a more mobile society is not necessarily a more equal one: there will be winners and losers in this educational race, just like in any other, and the question will be how we as a society distribute rewards between winners and losers. If we really want a more equal society, what we need is not science but philosophy and economics.
When you start looking at it like that, though, you begin to appreciate what a wonder Tricia had performed. There was a reason why she had responded to my initial question as to the purpose of SiS Catalyst by referring to the difficulty of securing funding. For the stark fact is that Science in Society, the E.U. project under which SiS Catalyst falls, has nothing at all to do with equality. Its goal is to foster a set of capacities in the European population such that Europe becomes more competitive on the international marketplace. Gender equality does come up in the context of ways of recruiting more scientists, but not because of any considerations having to do with justice per se. Social equality might in principle do likewise, but (a) it doesn’t and (b) even if did, it would still be equality for the sake of recruitment for the sake of technological development for the sake of economic competitiveness, which amounts to the kind of “meritocratic” vision of equality that even Margaret Thatcher would have endorsed. It’s a pretty small-minded vision of science and it’s a pretty small-minded vision of society. I would even call it cynical, were it not for my suspicion that it’s no one’s idea of the good, but rather traces back to the fact that the European Union is itself a non-functional institution that has never resolved the basic question of what it exists for. In such a context, the lowest common denominator tends to win out—and the lowest common denominator tends to be money.
In short, then, what the European Union wants from Science in Society is dysfunctional: functional institutions organized around an end that is itself distorted, whether due to a mistaken understanding of the good in question (maybe someone somewhere really does believe that education is only valuable for economic reasons) or because the nexus in which it sits (the European Union) is itself incoherent or non-functional. And what Tricia managed to do, by means of a certain amount of vagueness and obfuscation in the grant application, was to escape this vision—to use confusion over what exactly mutual learning means, and how that relates to children and to competitiveness, to smuggle in equality as a self-standing goal for SiS Catalyst. However much the project is willing to pay lip service to the idea of raising European competitiveness—“SiS Catalyst makes a contribution towards raising the culture of innovation throughout the society as a whole”—nothing could be further from the spirit of the conference that I witnessed, which, I should probably mention, had a whole talk devoted to Peruvian ballet dancers. Which isn’t to say that I fully understand that spirit, of course, or that it was completely coherent. But it does seem to me that Tricia had pulled something off. She had managed to use non-function to combat dysfunction. I don’t know how conscious this was, or how complete, but it strikes me as worthy of note; it’s a possibility I had theretofore ignored in my own conceptualization of institutions. More importantly, it also strikes me as noble in a way that only idealism can be. Yes, idealism can lead to wishful thinking—but it is precisely their refusal to accept reality that permits idealists to reshape the world. In her final project before retirement, Tricia, a woman who had spent her whole career working to help disadvantaged kids up the ladder, refused to give in to the logic of the Seventh Framework Programme for Research and Technological Development. When she called herself a risk-taker in our original Skype conversation I thought of David Brent. But it was true. She was a risk-taker. And it may well be that some kids, somewhere, are the better for it.
On the eve of the next SiS Catalyst conference, which took place in Lodz, Poland, and having missed by a few days the deadline agreed upon in advance with AB, I delivered this essay, or a version thereof, to Tricia. I waited. And then came the response. “Delicious rumblings and repercussions around your essay,” Tricia wrote. It had been received well for the most part, she said, even if it contained a few factual errors:
Chris from KUW—40 something with a pony tail—quoted the essay in our final plenary as he described—coming at it with real clarity—the three conflicting aspects of SiS Catalyst—or the three sides of a pyramid shaped mountain—as I had translated them. It was wonderful—because we could all see—probably for the first time—that we are operating on a three sided mountain, we could see which mountain face was our personal priority/passion—but also see that some people prioritized different sides but collectively we were trying to climb all three sides at once. Great stuff!
So taken was Tricia with the essay, in fact, that she wanted to count it as an “external evaluation” such that it would “form part of our final report to the European Commission at the end of 2014 within Work Package 3.” What I had managed to produce, in other words, was a deliverable. Unlike Joonas, then, who apparently disappeared without producing a single cartoon—perhaps he was actually the performance artist from Sweden— at least I hadn’t let Tricia down. That motivation loomed largely as I wrote the essay, I confess. I was invited to the conference as an outside evaluator, or “rapporteur,” and given that I knew nothing whatsoever of the subject matter, the temptation was to treat it as something of a lark, to look for the comedy and only the comedy. There was comedy, for sure. But however much of a mess the European Union and its projects are, however much one wants to sneer, to spend a week with men and women dedicated to improving the lot of the poorest is to feel oneself called to earnestness and to admiration. The experience of sitting at dinner with David Sing in a concrete hexagon above the Emajõgi river and feeling myself morally small, humbled, as I looked into the kindness of his eyes, was in fact one that I had repeatedly throughout the week—as I listened, to give just one example, to the story of Karim, an 18-year-old French boy with a host of brothers and sisters to look after, who somehow found the motivation and the energy to organize a three-day conference on physics thanks to the encouragement of an SiS Catalyst partner organization named Paris-Montagne. Employed as a critic, my job was of course to criticize. But idealists are captivating—you don’t want to let them down. Did that corrupt my judgment? Did I find a silver lining because I went looking for one? I don’t know. I don’t think so. But at any rate it was an odd position to be in and I’m not sure I would want to repeat it. As I say that, though, I glance back at the close of Tricia’s email:
Anyway currently planning to get a group of German speaking children onto a reservation in Montana for week next July to work with a group of Native Americans to make a video of their Recommendations for the future, alongside a couple of student interns, including one from a Roma community who will be looking at the Medicine Wheel based curriculum and it’s applicability within Europe—so if you want to write another essay—just let me know!
And I feel a little twitch.