- On Education: Conversations with Riccardo Mazzeo by Zygmunt Bauman
Cambridge, MA: Polity Press, 2012, 100 pages
Beginning in Tunisia in 2010 and spreading throughout the North African and Middle Eastern Arab World, the “Arab Spring” was, among other things, a surge for democracy and political change. On August 5, 2011, a fatal police shooting led to subsequent protests and eventually extensive rioting in what is now called the UK’s Summer of Disorder (Lewis & Newburn, 2011). September 17, 2011, New York’s Zuccotti Park became the center of the Occupy Wall Street movement, directed at the issues of social and economic inequality, corporate greed and influence, and political corruption (Gautney, 2011). These and other populace uprisings set the stage for Bauman’s work On Education, in which he and Riccardo Mazzeo discuss the challenges young people face today living in a liquid modern world, “a civilization of excess, redundancy, waste and waste disposal” (p. 21) where we are under a “constant threat of being left behind” (p. 21).
Zygmunt Bauman is a Polish professor of sociology retired from the University of Leeds. Bauman has been influenced by Marx, Simmel, and Gramsci and has written extensively on the topics of globalization, the postmodern concept of liquid modernity, and the change from a society of production to one of consumption. In On Education, Bauman lays out 20 topical conversations he has [End Page 160] had with Riccardo Mazzeo, a friend and intellectual who has translated many philosophical works into a variety of European languages. On Education also provides brief reviews of many other authors’ works on the topics of immigration, consumerism, and knowledge societies.
It is difficult to provide an overarching summary of this book without detailing concepts from some of the key chapters. The book opens with a discussion entitled “Between mixophilia and mixophobia” in which Bauman and Mazzeo discuss the polar responses to the modern state of immigration without assimilation: mixophobia, “the typical fear of being involved with foreigners” (p. 2), versus mixophilia, “the joy of being in a different and stimulating environment” (p. 2). Bauman argues that immigrants are necessary to the European economy and that ensuring their full participation in the rights of the society is necessary to the fulfillment of the “social contract” in which their labor contributes to the economic growth of their new homelands.
In the succeeding four chapters, Bauman and Mazzeo discuss the liquid modern changes in education and learning. They posit that unlike previous eras when education focused on memorization or mastering the cognitive skills of assimilating information (p. 13), the learning of the modern era is focused on the ability to learn quickly and, more importantly, to forget what was learned prior in order to replace it with the most current information. In this way, “our knowledge is in a state of permanent revolution” (p. 23) as it is “eminently disposable” (p.18).
Several chapters of the book focus on a variety of critiques of the modern consumer society. Chapter 8, “Minutes to destroy, years to build,” outlines the plight of modern graduates living in nations of economic collapse, who, for the first time, may face the possibility of an entire generational “downward mobility” (p.46). In “The unemployed can always play lotto, can’t they?” Bauman and Mazzeo articulate how the assumption that academic success is correlated with economic upward mobility, a foundational tenet of the “American Dream,” is no longer, if it ever truly was, the norm. Throngs of students are finding themselves “unexpectedly unemployed” (p. 68) and laden with exorbitant debt: “The vision of education-driven upward mobility, neutralizing the toxins of inequality, making them liveable with (sic) and rendering them harmless, and yet more disastrously the vision of education being able to keep upward social mobility in operation—these two visions are beginning simultaneously to evaporate” (p. 72).
Other chapters focus on the progression from capitalist societies to consumer societies and how those who have failed to climb the economic ladder—both immigrants and underemployed natives alike—have been placed in the role of “defective consumers.” Bauman attributes much of the secondary...