Martin Robinson writes in favour of ‘gatekeepers’. I’ve written elsewhere of the need to recognise when communities of enquiry are operating as gated communities of enquiry and to be able to identify who is gatekeeping.
How are these ideas related? Are we using the same term to mean different things?
Martin’s example of the art gallery ‘gatekeeper’ sounds more like a curator to me. Certainly the people responsible for selecting which works of art are displayed in a gallery often go by this title. Perhaps this person, who appears to act as a tour guide is also a curator? By coincidence I’ve recently been reading a book, the title of which goes some way to describing its content – Curationism– How Curating Is Taking Over The Art World And Everything Else by DavidBalzer. The book takes particular aim at the rise of the celebrity curator and I mention it only because it may be of interest.
Denis Lawton’s description of the curriculum as ‘selections of a culture’ seems relevant to Martin’s post. I agree with Martin’s point that selections are not neutral. Selections imply omissions so perhaps ‘gatekeeper’ is apt. However I think not. And here are two reasons - aim and focus.
The gatekeeper’s role as I understand it is to maintain order by allowing entry only to that which is in keeping with what is already present. At the risk of being glib, the best-known gatekeeper in the Western world may be St Peter. His job is to ensure that only those who meet pre-ordained criteria are granted access – heaven is eternal, and I suggest, unchanging.
The curator’s aim is to provide rich content. That content will reflect or perhaps establish a tradition but gallery curators will also attempt to disrupt traditions and put works into conversation with each other. Taken as analogy for the curriculum, this comes close to a quote Martin and I both seem to like – Michael Oakshott’s ‘conversation of mankind’. But how do we establish a rich conversation and not simply what my good friend Jason Buckley (aka The Philosophy Man) terms ‘a distributed monologue’ where the same sentiments are expressed but from different mouths?
The gatekeeper is focused on the space he (for it usually is he) guards. He need not, in fact must not, venture too far but rather waits till approached and then makes his decision –to what extent does the would-be entrant resemble that which is already present. Kafka’s gate may well be open but curricula, conference spaces rarely are. (I was once told I was ‘pushing at an open door’ by a colleague. A year later, they conceded the door wasn’t quite as open as they had first perceived.) I associate gatekeeper with gated communities, which are established usually to keep the Barbarian’s at the gate. Actual gated communities have been described as ‘cognitive shelters’ which limit access to the unusual, the unfamiliar and the markedly different. My sense is that gated communities are actual and metaphorical ‘safe spaces’ – but that as they are established and maintained by the relatively powerful in society, they needn’t declare themselves as such.
The curator also has an eye on the space – assuming there is a space. (We can curate mixtapes and spotify lists, but I don’t think we can gatekeep them.) However the curator is required to be outward focusing and inquisitive for her role is actively seek inclusions not merely wait for them to present themselves for consideration.
I think Martin misunderstands ‘colonial epistemic injustices’ when he asks ‘should the colonial past be ignored?’ – I think what is at stake is not include or ignore but how the selections add to the conversation. To take a well used example from my own university education, when we study Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’ but are not made aware of Achebe’s ‘An Image of Africa’ we are initiated into an impoverished conversation.
I’m not sure the ‘don’t complain about hearing jazz at a jazz club analogy’ holds up. My university, UCL describes itself as ‘London’s Global University’ not a ‘European Education University’. The analogy then would be of claiming to be a Music Venue and then only playing jazz, acting as if it was the only genre of music. But even then I’m not sure. A music venue is where I go to experience or perhaps consume music. But isn’t education about something far broader than that? A liberal education is about encountering a rich variety of ways of being and of developing autonomy to make educated choices isn’t it? Martin’s notion of Eurocentric education seems rather parochial by comparison and seems to be justified by a cultural relativism that I’m pretty sure he does not usually favour.
Martin ends by suggesting “set up alternative curricula, telling alternative stories and become a gatekeeper yourself.” I’m pretty sure he’s aware of the rich tradition of these very things in this country. But again, I would argue that whilst we can become curators ourselves, in order to become gatekeepers we must have authority over ‘a space’ of some kind. Which returns us to questions of who is gatekeeping which space and how does this relate to history and power.
'Gatekeeper' by Eska.