Kristiina Brunila: "Pride in Finnish education prevents us from recognising inequality"

The duty of the professor of social justice and equality in education is to ask tough questions.

What are your research topics?

I am a social scientist, and it’s my duty to ask tough questions. I study politics, cultures and practices, power relations and societal inequality related to the education system.

Education plays a key role in both perpetuating and eliminating inequality. Equality and non-discrimination are promoted in a rather technical manner, without discussing their meaning or taking into account research available on the problems. At the same time, pride in Finnish education prevents us from recognising problems of inequality, such as racism, sexism, homophobia and other forms of othering.

Through my research, I am trying to increase understanding of the fact that upbringing and education could be more than a benefit for the privileged or could be a guide for citizens willing to settle for a lower income for the common good.

Where and how does the topic of your research have an impact?

According to a notion prevalent in society, individuals have the opportunity to change and optimise their life through self-help. Inherent to this idea is a kind of manuscript on how life is to be lived in an appropriate way.

Poverty and other societal issues are easily perceived as personal problems related to behaviour. Even well-meaning support, guidance and coaching systems may unintentionally promote the perception that people’s problems do not stem from inequality, racism, poverty or the inaccessibility of services, but from personal attitudes, emotional states, non-commitment and choices.

It’s important to ask why social and public policy is transitioning into a psychological-neurological-emotional support industry that offers the opportunity to modify your relationship with yourself and strive towards an economic community spirit, while the perception of humanity, childhood, adolescence and adulthood is becoming increasingly narrow. You could also ask who are capable of such striving in the first place. 

If the societal literacy of people was better, politics might be different.

What is particularly inspiring in your field right now?

FuturEd, our new research project, which hopefully will gradually assemble the sharpest minds in the world to explore the framework of future education. We are faced with the most significant changes to education and the conditions of its provision in all of history. Education is rapidly becoming increasingly market-driven and privatised, and it is being defined by new interests that effectively focus on behavioural control, such as datafication. And questions of inequality are not going away either. On the contrary, there are more of them on the way. In other words, we have our work cut out for us.

Kristiina Brunila is the professor of social justice and equality in education at the Faculty of Educational Sciences. Brunila is also a member of the Teachers' Academy.