Educational Challenges (excerpt)
There are two clusters of meanings surrounding the concept of challenge, which are in apparent contradiction with one another, according to whether one views a conflictual situation from the perspective of mainstream politicians and educators, or from that of persons and groups who are not in positions of power, such as women, foreigners, and classroom learners.
Challenge as action
In the first case, a challenge is a test of strength, a potential measure of oneself against a more powerful obstacle. It is predicated on an adversarial view of humans versus nature or things perceived as natural, and the conviction that humans will eventually overcome the obstacles set by nature. North American settlers met the challenge of the New World by taming (i.e. industrializing) the garden of Eden; Amy lived up to the challenge of the sex barrier by becoming a woman engineer in a male-dominated field.
A challenge is also an opportunity to show what one can really do. It is assumed that the task is feasible, the solution within reach, otherwise it would be called an “obstacle” or a “problem”. Calling it a challenge emphasizes the fact that solutions can be found, even though it might require hard work and perseverance. This meaning of the term includes therefore an “appeal to action”, mostly of the
individual kind, an incentive for personal ingenuity and resourcefulness to remove or overcome the obstacle. This is also how politicians use the term. By naming budget cuts, poverty, crime, bad schools, or the lack of foreign language competency “challenges” rather than “problems” or “conditions”, people in power remove the
discussion from the larger context of causes and origins, conflicts and responsibilities, and focus instead on the engineering of solutions. People are supposed to “rise to”,
“respond to”, “pick up” challenges. These metaphors by which we live reinforce the social order and show our capacity to live up to its demands.
Challenge is predicated upon “competition”. In political and educational parlance,
competing and responding to challenges are frequent collocations. The greatest challenge of all is often not a thing or an event, but one’s fellow competitor.
American economists prefer to speak of the Japanese challenge rather than of the Japanese threat; the economic superiority of the Japanese sets a challenge for American school children to learn Japanese and other foreign languages; each learner is seen as a challenge to his or her peers on the various achievement tests.
Competition is often legitimized by what has been termed the “pursuit of
excellence”. Within a challenge-oriented ideology, this originally uncontroversial phrase (who could be against excellence?) has come to mean the pursuit of comparative “superiority”, not just the laudable attempts to do one’s best and to
reach relative mastery in one’s area of expertise.
Over the last few years, the meaning of the term “challenge” has incurred an
ideological inflation. It is directly linked to an entrepreneurial view of education that
views knowledge as an economic commodity and knowledge of foreign languages as a means of individual advancement on the world market place.
Challenge as paradox
These uses and abuses of the term “challenge” are distinct from but related to
its second meaning in education, namely “paradox”. In this meaning, the focus is on
the challenge itself rather than on the person challenged. The emphasis is not on the appeal for action, competition, or superiority like in a sports arena, but, rather, on the implicit “appeal for reflection” and enlightened understanding. A challenge in
this second meaning is a paradox for one’s intellect, an invitation to question existing
logic and existing world views. Phrases like “the feminist challenge” call for reflection
on the patriarchal conditions under which knowledge is acquired and transmitted. They lead people in subordinate positions to question and problematize existing power structures. The paradoxes that ensue--such as, for example, the conflicting demands of individual freedom and social order--have to be first thought through before any course of action can be taken.