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Dystopian Reality, Utopian Thought and Educational Practice

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The significance of utopian thought for education can be made evident through reconceptualizing utopia and approaching it alongside the notion of dystopia. Awareness of dystopian elements of reality radicalizes the kind of critique that assists utopian thought and makes engagement with it more pressing. Awareness of the lurking danger of future dystopia goes hand in hand with a utopia that is cautious and vigilant of its own possible turn into catastrophe. If education is not just an institution of the unreflective socialization and social integration of the young immersed in technicist and prudentialist goals, if it is about futurity and vision of a better world, it has to rely on, and renegotiate, utopian thought. Yet, all this presupposes a new descriptive account of the self and the world that breaks with the kind of anthropology and ethics that generated a particular conception of utopia as impossible and purely oneiric.

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  1. 1.

    ‘Utopia is treated with suspicion as impossible in principle and thus potentially dangerous and totalitarian in practice’ (Levitas 2004a, p. 605). Isaiah Berlin (his book The Crooked Timber of Humanity is very telling) stresses the totalizing character of utopia in a world of conflicting worldviews, a character doomed to bring disaster, chaos and suffering (Turner 2003, p. 27). Ricoeur, Hayek and Popper (Olssen 2003), as well as Nagel (Lassman 2003, p. 49) argue for the impossibility of utopia for most of humanity.

  2. 2.

    Their starting point about the impossibility of utopia derives from an anthropological rather than political pessimism with which I take issue elsewhere.

  3. 3.

    This Derridean idea suffers from genetic fallacy but this argument cannot be developed here for reasons of space.

  4. 4.

    Adorno criticizes this as follows. ‘Not only does society, as it is presently structured, keep people immature but every serious attempt to shift it–I’m avoiding the word ‘educate’ deliberately–to shift it towards maturity is immediately met with indescribable resistances, and all the evil in the world at once finds its most eloquent advocates, who will prove to you that the very thing you are attempting to achieve has either long been overtaken or is utopian or is no longer relevant’ (Adorno and Becker 1999, p. 32).

  5. 5.

    See for instance the CRISPP special issue on utopia in 2000, the proceedings of the 2005 conference on the role of utopia in 21st century ideology etc.

  6. 6.

    Why such works on utopia and education, despite their merits and their being valuable in bringing the topic back to the educational agenda, do not go far enough, is explained via their implicit anthropological philosophical assumptions. Thus, elsewhere my concern is to examine the faulty descriptive frame that blocks stronger revisions of the terms.

  7. 7.

    The idea is that when utopian efforts aspire to something beyond the axes set by neo-pragmatism and some version of realism, by some kind of anthropological necessity, dystopia will be the inescapable conclusion. The term ‘realistic utopia’ encountered in Rawls, McIntyre etc and the term ‘pragmatist utopia’ in Rorty exemplify the presence of utopian energies in political philosophy and their attenuation through a less imaginative invocation of the potential for changing historical reality. These approaches seem to have determined the course of the revival of utopian thought in general philosophy and philosophy of education, and the treatment of the anthropological grounds of utopia that I propose elsewhere aims to contribute to an enrichment and redirection of this course.

  8. 8.

    For instance, the idea that socialism would come when time was ripe was politically detrimental for the chances of the Austrian left to oppose Nazism. See Popper’s The Open Society and its Enemies or, for a brief account of this point see Magee (1985, pp. 11–12).

  9. 9.

    As Cooke explains, ‘formality is not a necessary component of utopian thinking that seeks to avoid ‘bad utopianism’, ‘finalism’ and ‘totalitarianism’. Rather, formality is a pragmatic requirement of such thinking. A projected utopian image must be indeterminate enough to appeal to a wide range of social agents with varying evaluative commitments and convictions, yet determinate enough to motivate them to engage in transformative social action’ (2004, p. 427, fn 16).

  10. 10.

    On utopia as a possibility, see, for instance, Lukács’ early writings. Unlike his later ones, characterized by the determinacy with which they predict utopia as a future possibility, his early writings do not claim that utopia should be theorized as the outcome of an identifiable process of social change. ‘Utopia is instead used only as a hermeneutic device, a ground upon which to criticize the dystopian present and a means by which to stretch the critical imagination’ (Price 1999, p. 68). Like the early Lukacs, I believe that we should deliberately avoid any systematic theory of society and the temptation to elaborate a course of social action that is likely to realize utopia. Like his, my goal is also to simply allow ‘utopia to appear as a possibility–albeit one among many–in spite of the alienated, dystopian quality of life in the present-day world’ (Price 1999, 80).

  11. 11.

    A very early example of joining utopia and its dystopian degeneration is Aristophanes’ Pluto.

  12. 12.

    ‘The nightmarish quality of everyday life runs up against the epic quality of the absolute, not as elements that are extraneous to each other but as mutually reinforcing tendencies’ (Osborne 2003, p. 131).

  13. 13.

    For an account of educational pathologies that utopian thought might help us confront, see Halpin (2001b, p. 105).

  14. 14.

    Dystopian depictions of educational reality are significant for diagnostic and remedial intervention in educational matters and for radicalizing educational demands for systemic change.

  15. 15.

    Towards the end, John tells his wife on the phone ‘I can’t talk now, Baby’ and Carol, on the way out, tells him: ‘don’t call your wife “baby”’ (p. 79). Infuriated, John begins to beat her shouting: ‘You think you can come in here with your political correctness and destroy my life?’ (p. 79).

  16. 16.

    In a Pinteresque manner, Mamet finishes the play with that enigmatic phrase that can be interpreted in many ways. We could interpret this ending as an assertion that in this system of acting and communicating the only effective means is domination in various forms and the only model of the teacher and student relation that survives is the one of asymmetrical power and control.

  17. 17.

    A reason for this neglect of the dystopian depiction of educational reality in the play is, I believe, the failure to perceive the irony of the title of the play. The title Oleanna has been treated as enigmatic and obscure and many critics of the play emphasize its supposed irrelevance to the play.

  18. 18.

    In his commentary, Daniel Rosenthal notes: ‘Oleanna was a failed nineteenth-century Utopian commune in Wisconsin, so there is an immense, ironic gap between the title’s allusion to an idyllic community in which men and women live in harmony and the dramatisation of an academic community riven by sexual and linguistic and argument’ (in Mamet 2004, p. xxvii).

  19. 19.

    Like the Land of Cockaygne whose inhabitants, as Halpin explains (2001a, p. 302), ‘want for nothing materially and where there is super-abundance of food and drink’ and nobody works to obtain all this, the song Ole Anna describes a materialist utopia.

  20. 20.

    Elsewhere, I attempt a more detailed discussion of the pedagogical issues involved in the play by employing Bourdieu and also Adorno’s Theory of Halb-Bildung.

  21. 21.

    Yet, it is important not to take Oleanna as an anti-utopia instead of a dystopia. Just as in the case of Kierkegaard’s thought, mobilizing a fierce anti-system rhetoric ends up in systematically precluding certain possibilities, especially the possibility of utopian social change (Price 1999, p. 73).

  22. 22.

    For this reason, I approach Oleanna as a satire of educational progressivism and its facile assumptions that good educational ideas are all we need to create a felicitous world of education.

  23. 23.

    Knowledge, understanding and skills will equip students ‘for their future lives as workers and citizens’ (ibid, p. 3).

  24. 24.

    For a very apposite summary of Žižek’s critique of the politically inoperative coupling of the battle against discrimination and political correctness see Brockelman (2003, p. 194).

  25. 25.

    Such as Lyotard’s ‘megalopolis’ in Postmodern Fables.


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Correspondence to Marianna Papastephanou.

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Papastephanou, M. Dystopian Reality, Utopian Thought and Educational Practice. Stud Philos Educ 27, 89–102 (2008). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11217-007-9092-9

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  • Hope
  • Happiness
  • Ethics
  • Anti-utopia
  • 2000 curriculum
  • Calvino
  • Mamet
  • Hesse