What is Aspiration?

Gemma Fagbadegun

Another successful IntoUniversity Breakfast Seminar. This time, the topic was ‘Understanding Aspiration’.

Our three speakers? Dr Louise Gazeley from the University of Sussex, Dr Simon Griffiths from Goldsmiths College, University of London and Prof Eeva Leinonen, Vice-Principal at King's College London.

I was interested to see how the three speakers might approach the topic – I mean, how can you answer a question like ‘what is aspiration?’. And furthermore, how can the answer help charities with mission statements like our own – to raise the aspirations of disadvantaged young people?

Despite not having got together to discuss their talks beforehand, all three speakers approached the subject from very different angles. Louise Gazeley considered how aspirations are formed – she voiced her belief that in some circumstances aspirations did not just need to be raised but actually produced. She was keen to point out that the emphasis must not be placed just on individuals and family life, but also on schools, and teachers, who must be taught themselves to raise the aspirations of their students.

Simon Griffiths, as a historian and a physical theorist, approached the question from a more theoretical point of view. He pointed out the relative newness of the term ‘aspiration’ and the problems that came with it. He was keen to point out the issues that surround ‘unrealistic aspiration’ in today’s celebrity culture; to him, a 10 year old who insists he wants to be David Beckham when they grow up has an aspiration that shouldn’t necessarily encouraged (unless he’s a whizz on the football field, of course).

On the flip side, Eeva Leinonen was eager to argue that unrealistic aspiration was at least a starting block – a desire to be rich and famous can lead to a desire to want a good education that might help you on your way. Eeva spoke to the group about her childhood in Finland, a country whose education system is highly lauded, partly, in her opinion, because it does not ‘stream’ its students. In her words, “I never felt like I was bad at anything”.

Plus, she remarked, she had a strong mother.

Lots to mull over. Our next seminar will take place in January 2011, and we’ll be discussing the arguments for and against introducing widening participation programmes to primary school students

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