Engaging the middle: One genealogy of engagement, young people, and schooling in Victoria (1990-2020)

Year: 2021

Author: Flenley, Rachel

Type of paper: Individual Paper

Engagement is a keyword in Australian education today. Conceptually ambiguous and contested in scholarly fields, the term is widely deployed in public, policy and practitioner spaces as a measure of educational success and as a rallying call for a variety of educational reforms. The term also embodies key dispositions of today’s successful students and tomorrow’s desired citizens; engaged students are active participants in learning and life, exhibiting the desire to learn and succeed and demonstrating the aptitude to do so. The term has a relatively recent history, first appearing in Australian educational literature in the mid-1990s in response to newly framed concerns about young peoples’ alienation from schooling and society more generally. The idea that Australian students, particularly those in the middle years, are failing to engage, remains a widely accepted and anxiety provoking ‘truth’.  Informed by a historical sociological approach to understanding contemporary phenomena, this paper draws on a PhD that traced ways in which dis/engagement has been a problem in policy (school engagement), parenting advice and public commentary (the engaged self) and practitioner material (engaging classrooms) produced between 1990 and 2020. Placing the focus here on school engagement, the paper sketches ways in which engagement has been crafted, mediated, and put to work by different educational stakeholders and reflects on both the conditions of possibility for, and effects, of this work.In education today, engagement usually has explanatory powers. This paper turns the spotlight on to engagement itself to illuminate ways in which engagement has helped to shape understandings of young people, their relationship with school, and educational practice, arguing that “things weren’t as necessary as all that” (Foucault, 1991, p. 76)[1] and following this, that things might be otherwise. Applying similar thinking, educators and other stakeholders might also see places where engagement’s epistemic authority might be usefully challenged in their own contexts.[1] Foucault, M. (1991). Questions of method. In G. Burchell, C. Gordon, & P. Miller (Eds.), The Foucault effect: Studies in governmentality. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.