What would a contemporary Bildungsroman be like?

One begins to think about the subtleties of education from a philosophical perspective not when one is in the role of the educated, but rather when one becomes (usually quite unexpectedly) a teacher. I’m not sure if there are many people who know in advance that they will someday end up in the latter position, or even consciously and actively seek it (except those who choose to study pedagogy). It seems that in most cases this status transition from doing one’s own thing to sharing knowledge with the other is accompanied by a certain doubt: do I really have something to tell that other already, and what makes my knowledge essentially different from his or her? In other words, where does that maturity, (probably) necessary for educating others, begin?

My personal experience suggests that this demarcation line is not universal and shifts to one side or another – usually towards younger age, of course, – with each demographic/cultural generation. The classical 18th-19th century Bildungsroman (novel of formation or education) presupposes a certain transformation of the protagonist from a young person into a mature individual through certain turning-point experiences of coming of age and inevitable value conflicts with the older generation. This becoming consists not only of formal education, but to a great extent also of what today could be called informal learning – encounters with different people, their occupations, and the world at large. Although Bildungsroman hardly looks like the most contemporary literary genre, it is precisely the latter circumstance – the interweaving of everyday experience and formal academic education on equal terms or even the former’s dominance in the process of personal becoming – that brings it close to present-day reality and the emerging perception of maturity.

It is impossible not to notice that the contemporary twentysomethings, especially those in creative professions (which is the focus of this text), almost do not associate the legitimacy of their activity with any formal credentials. Much more important to them is more or less intuitive and even spontaneous trial-and-error engagement. To be sure, such informal experience is also seen as a value by many thirtysomethings, yet to the latter generation – and this is a crucial difference – the acquisition of this experience is a much longer process. In other words, most of my peers who are now in their thirties have acquired their own authoritative “voice” only fairly recently.

I mention the thirtysomethings here for a reason. Today the “educational frontier” is also shifting in the sense that it is precisely this cohort who increasingly often become the twentysomethings’ “teachers” (the parentheses point to the fact that I still don’t feel too comfortable with this title) and simultaneously the milieu with which the twentysomethings’ emerging values come into conflict according to the best traditions of Bildungsroman. Surely, the fact that the “teachers’ caste” is becoming increasingly younger also leads to mutual understanding between the educators and the educated being much greater than before, when the two groups were separated by several decades of age and more (albeit this also means that the educators’ authority and status are not taken for granted anymore). Yet there are also substantial differences, determined primarily by different cultural, socio-economical and technological environments.

In any case, the mentioned minimised chronological divide between the “teachers” and the “students” makes a pure, classical Bildungsroman impossible today. The canon dictates that the milieu which the protagonist enters in the course of his or her “education” is monolithic, fully formed, resistant to change. Perhaps that was precisely how it went when young people enrolled in, say, Vilnius Academy of Arts, and encountered the world of middle aged and older professors. When thirtysomethings, who have made a name for themselves quite swiftly yet are still in the process of formation, become teachers, everything is quite different. The figures of the “teacher” and the “student” become increasingly contingent in this situation; it is often unclear who should learn what in the process of exchange (all the more so because for reasons discussed later in the text the educated can far surpass the educator with experience in certain spheres).

Ideally, both parties should undergo a transformation. Yet there is no guarantee that this encounter will be productive. Often the mutual expectations are simply irreconcilable in principle. After some consideration I have decided that the best way to describe and reflect on the educational situation I have been a part of for 4 recent years while teaching various theoretical visual culture and media-related courses to young practitioners of applied creative professions is to delineate several principal “lines of conflict” along which the contemporary twentysomethings’ and thirtysomethings’ perceptions of the education process often diverge. These insights are inevitably subjective and based on personal experience, yet while sharing them with my colleagues in the same age group I have discovered that our experiences coincide significantly. If we can imagine an overview of these experiences as a kind of fragmentary contemporary Bildungsroman, there is a chance that it will be a fairly accurate reflection of the specific historical moment we live in.

Theoretical reflection vs. practical inertia

Speaking of an encounter between a thirtysomething theory teacher and twentysomething students of professions that fall into the broad category of “creative industries” (which is so far the scenario I am most familiar with), this contradiction is most obvious. For a thirtysomething teacher who was maturing when information overload was just gaining momentum, theoretical and value-based orientation in all observable forms of cultural and social life is crucial. Theoretical approach becomes a mania of sorts – all phenomena must be appropriately classified, substantiated and linked with preexisting knowledge. I must admit that it is both a reliable navigation system and a limiting mechanism of self-discipline. Reviewing the renowned art “educator” Artūras Raila’s handbook titled Anti-Sport, Linara Dovydaitytė shares her concern over the precedence of theory (philosophy, discourse, conceptual thinking) over creative practice that the latter book (and perhaps Raila’s entire worldview) obviously postulates – in her opinion, such a view potentially traps artistic work and its dissemination in “parasitic”, useless texts, which subdue art’s capacity to speak for itself with their pseudo-theoretical reflectivity. However, in her text she still quotes Raila’s own words which seem to run counter to such absolute aggrandizement of theory: “In order to sustain creative intuition and passion for productivity, some things should rather remain unknown.”

In any case, if we speak about twentysomething artists and representatives of applied creative professions, it is difficult to talk even about not knowing some things, because knowledge as such is viewed with great suspicion. It looks like this cohort gives priority to various experiences without any evaluative aspect. If something can be done now, without lengthy conceptualisation and critical assessment (e. g. with regard to novelty or originality of the work), it will be done. A thirtysomething bent on theory who always stresses critical reflection and is used to suppressing his or her own spontaneous impulses and evaluating every idea in a wide (and even somewhat oppressive) knowledge context will never understand it.

It is hard to say whether the reflection imperative, which compels me and my peers to constantly ask ourselves “why?” and “for whom?”, is in any way superior to intuitive “making” by inertia, without an attempt to organise everything into a clear, rational and well-grounded system. It is obvious that the quality of unreflective creative work can be questionable. Yet it is just as obvious that obsession with reflection often becomes a serious hindrance of creative processes, and then no creative output is produced at all. Still, it must be said that the knowledge which thirtysomething theorists “preach” to twentysomething practitioners is rarely of a normative and conservative kind – rather, it is an urge to cultivate critical awareness as such, without any particular “obligatory” form and content, which would presuppose a single exclusively “right” version of this awareness. Yet critical reflection devoid of any evaluative aspect whatsoever is impossible, and this surely may appear moralistic to the twentysomethings.

Investigative historicism vs. the eternal present

Thirtysomething teachers often like demonstrating the origins of contemporary phenomena and outlining the processes which have made the world the way it is today. This inclination is strongly tied to the fact that present-day thirtysomethings have witnessed a fairly dramatic change of cultural technologies (at least the transition from television to the Internet as the dominant medium) in the course of their lives. The twentysomethings have hardly experienced such radical turning points as they matured. One might say they were born into the Internet, and can vividly imagine only this digital era. This does not mean that they are completely ignorant of the history of culture and technology or do not register the ongoing technological change, yet it seems that subconsciously they perceive the online world as having always existed, because they had almost no chance to experience the world without World Wide Web. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine that something which essentially structures your whole reality today could have been non-existent at some point in the past. And if it is almost unimaginable, there is no need to go back to that past in one’s mind and attempt to trace the beginning and evolution of certain historical processes.

To a thirtysomething teacher of media theory it is hard to understand how it is possible to not know which technological “epochs” (those of radio, cinema and television) comprised the 20th century. Yet it is only logical, especially if one considers the oft-emphasised fact that digital technologies and especially the Internet produce a certain eternal present, in which earlier linear chronological coordinates are disturbed. The ability to construct historicist genealogies of phenomena is replaced by the ability to navigate the present of excess information (not necessarily with a clear purpose). Therefore, a thirtysomething’s attempt to tell the story of network technologies’ emergence in the mid-20th century and their historical evolution into what the twentysomethings today know as the universally accessible Internet network (as well as the cultural significance of this development) may resemble talking about something that is taking place beyond the frame of a picture visible to the viewers – i. e. something that is not a part of their direct experience.

This “presentism” entails one more phenomenon. The thirtysomethings still tend to view themselves, their ideas and activity in the local historical context (at least that of the recent decade). In other words, they store in their mind certain processes that took place before them, and with which they have to create a certain relationship. Most twentysomethings do not seem to share this need. The context in which they acquire experience and knowledge is located now and everywhere – i. e. in the global art and culture centres, influential weblogs, correspondence with foreign artists and curators. Hence their knowledge of what was taking place here and yesterday (but likely has an influence on what, and how, exists here and today) might be very limited, especially if they have spent a few years studying abroad. A thirtysomething’s attempt to determine the importance of phenomena and processes of even such recent past can be sincerely incomprehensible to them, because causal relationships, continuity and retrospective optics in the ahistorical infinite present are weak in general. On the other hand, the twentysomethings can be well aware of all the current art trends in New York, London or Berlin, which their thirtysomething teacher might not have heard of at all (whether such awareness necessarily means deeper understanding is an open question.

Slow maturation vs. pop-up eruption

Greater access to knowledge has enabled today’s thirtysomethings to reach prominent positions in the academia much more quickly than most of their senior colleagues did (although, according to an acquaintance of mine, this might only mean that education institutions invite younger faculty members to revamp their own image). Yet even these success stories are obscured by the speed of legitimation that the twentywomethings have grown used to. They launch their own institutions while still in their study years or become head managers of major institutions and their departments shortly after graduating, speak to sizeable audiences as experts in particular fields without any degree on their hands. This has become a norm that is impossible to ignore or resist.

The present situation, where students can sometimes boast more achievements than their teachers, is also partly a product of systemic socio-technological change. First, the universal understanding that a student becomes a full-fledged member of a professional community only after getting a degree is long gone. Furthermore, in many fields practical experience while studying is encouraged, and economic reality makes combining work and studies practically inevitable. Thus, for instance, sophomore and senior arts college students can at the same time be well-known and acknowledged press photographers. On the one hand, this is good, because young people’s integration into the professional field is more smooth, and practical experience may be productive and beneficial for the study process as well. On the other hand, such a system can (and often does) contribute to the instrumentalisation of the latter process itself – in other words, education becomes necessary only as a source of formal degrees, because all the knowledge is obtained by doing one’s job (and not necessarily impeccably). Simultaneously, the function of the teacher becomes obscure as well – if the “student” seemingly knows everything already and has achieved quite a bit in his or her field of work, does the “teacher” have the right to tell him or her anything at all? If yes, on what ground?

Another important circumstance is the wide availability of various educational and quasi-educational platforms where the twentysomethings themselves can successfully participate as educators or at least successful practitioners who can share their experience. It is not hard to notice the current trend of most “popular” creative education taking the mutated form of a conference or a seminar. A large part of such events, where usually relatively established young creative professionals (designers, photographers, startup creative entrepreneurs) share their success stories (like the Lithuanian events 5 / 5 / Junior, Snap photography festival, Login conference, TEDxVilnius series etc.), can be called edutainment (a portmanteau of education and entertainment), because this is precisely their function. Of course, the selection criteria for presenters in such platforms are incomparable with the requirements of academic conferences and specialised forums (as the needed “legitimacy” is often provided merely by activity and number of followers in social networks), while the broader public visibility they ensure far surpasses that which academic events could ever hope to offer.

Break Dance workshop with residents Styrmir Örn Guðmundsson, Aneta Rostkowska and Marnie Slater at arts and education centre Rupert in Vilnius, 2014

Break Dance workshop with residents Styrmir Örn Guðmundsson, Aneta Rostkowska and Marnie Slater at arts and education centre Rupert in Vilnius, 2014

Again, the existence of diverse channels of self-expression is potentially a good things. Yet it is still unclear what one should make of the rapid public rise of very young creatives who simply physically cannot have any solid experience yet. Does this mean that they will prospectively be acknowledged as lead professionals in their fields in the future, and meanwhile one should at least keep an eye on their emerging career, or that they are already acknowledged? It often seems that they themselves do not know the answer to this, yet unexpected and swift attention has a predictable effect. Then, the very idea of any kind of slower, longer and more profound education or self-education gets discredited. Yet in the context of today’s attention economy and ideology of “making it big fast” this is hardly surprising.

Who will educate whom tomorrow?

Speaking of my own Bildungsroman as a representive of the generation of “teachers” in their thirties, I can state two things: I am somewhat fascinated by the twentysomethings’ ability to avoid creating any barriers (even those that are sometimes necessary) for themselves, and at the same fail to understand their peculiar cynical impertinence and almost universal lack of self-criticism, which together with rashness sometimes turns into attempts to jump above one’s head and absolute incomprehension of the sphere in which one endeavours to do something “new”. I fully realize that it might be time for me to learn something from them as well, if I am not to become a textbook conservative moralist a few decades later. Yet what is most interesting now is what the next generation of the educated – those who will turn twenty in 6–8 years – will be like, and what today’s twentysomethings will teach them.

The text originally published at Lithuanian art magazine Dailė, 2015/1

Jurij Dobriakov
June 18, 2015
Published in Tribune
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