Some preliminary notes on hope and radical pedagogy
Hello again! Although you might think we have disappeared, another victim of excessive utopianism, “le petit mort” of the student/protest/occupy movement which failed to impregnate a Tory state with its pants hanging round its ankles and deliver a revolution…it’s not true! We were always a non-heirarchical, nomadic, copyright-free “meme” that we felt could be shared by all, and we shared an idea(l) of education with countless other ‘”free schools/universities” across the country. Yes, the energy of the movement has gone from boil to simmer, but it’s not over yet. There is a strange tension in the air, we are waiting for our opportunity again – a revolution needs the right material conditions, and strategy is still absolutely crucial. While we wait we prepare, and disappear back into society, watching, learning, reading, talking, working, arguing, experimenting…this isn’t a weakness, it’s a strength. As a part of the intellectual strata of this capitalist society, we must prepare the right ideas so that when the time comes, we have something to contribute, these ideas then become reality and exert a material force. Two quotes from two extreme ends of the left-right spectrum:
‘Only a crisis – actual or perceived – produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are around…our basic function [is therefore] to develop alternatives to existing policies…until the politically impossible becomes the politically inevitable.’ (Milton Friedman; in Stuart Hall, 2011: 707)
‘The weapon of criticism cannot, of course, supplant the criticism of weapons, material force must be overthrown by material force. But theory, too, will become a material force as soon as it seizes the masses.’ (Marx, in Perry 2002: 41)
The two quotes together remind us that on the one hand, ideas are very important, but on the other, the hard work of political struggle must be done as well, in order to get to the point when ideas become crucial. The problem that we “radical” intellectuals have is that we are full of anxiety about our class position. Are we radical if we have the luxury of a good education and the time to read, write and think? Are we middle class if we have a phd? Are lecturers “real workers”? At what point do we become bourgeois, when we become professors? And so on. This anxiety usually leads to one of two solutions: preaching to a working-class that never actually comes to your lectures on radical theory, or giving up real politics altogether and disappearing into theory (and the nice office with a locked door through which even one’s own students aren’t welcome).
To combat this political dead-end, we must return to Gramsci. (Yes, it’s hegemony again, sorry Scott Lash). Gramsci relentlessly explored the problem of intellectuals in capitalist society. He distinguished between traditional and organic intellectuals. The former are the kind that has decided they exist somewhere outside of class society, and they pursue knowledge for knowledge’s sake, free from political bias. Of course, we all know that the apolitical is still political in a capitalist society – it’s function is an extremely insipid reproduction of the status quo. Organic intellectuals are spontaneously produced out of definite class positions. This means that the capitalist class produces them (entrepreneurs, consultants, think-tanks, etc) and so does the working-class. The latter kind is personified in the history of British cultural studies and radical history, starting with Raymond Williams, E.P. Thompson, Richard Hoggart. In a very interesting article, Cultural Studies and its Theoretical Legacies, Stuart Hall describes the deeper, political intention of the CCS at Birmingham as trying to produce an organic intellectual:
‘There is no doubt in my mind that we were trying to find an institutional practice in cultural studies that might produce an organic intellectual. We didn’t know previously what that would mean, in the context of Britain in the 1970s, and we weren’t sure we would recognize him or her if we managed to produce it. The problem about the concept of an organic intellectual is that it appears to align intellectuals with an emerging historic movement and we couldn’t tell then, and can hardly tell now, where that emerging historical movement was to be found. We were organic intellectuals without any organic point of reference; organic intellectuals with a nostalgia or will or hope (to use Gramsci’s phrase from another context) that at some point we would be prepared in intellectual work for that kind of relationship, if such a conjuncture ever appeared. More truthfully, we were prepared to imagine or model or simulate such a relationship in its absence: “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.’ (Hall, 1992)
The important thing to remember about the original “holy trinity” of British cultural studies (Williams, Hoggart, Thompson) is that they wrote their first books while teaching adult education in various parts of the country. They weren’t yet traditional intellectuals. And now I can come to the point of this post; as intellectuals, especially if we haven’t yet become absorbed, neutralised and ossified in the academy, we have an important political function above and in a sense below the production of theory. We can produce a network of real radical education, right now, which might have a chance of producing organic intellectuals and will certainly contribute to the creation and maintenance of a counter-hegemony.
And I’m not talking of some glamorous Occupy temporary tent in the middle of London or New York, which will only produce a temporary excitement and tourist feeling. I’m on about starting from scratch, in shitty areas, helping with literacy, numeracy, job applications, letters to the government, creative writing, etc. I know there is already an institutionalised version of this, with free classes supplied by local councils. But these have a function and a style tailored for the reproduction of existing social relations – more than anything, they style of teaching and bureaucratic apparatus behind this teaching disempowers people and (re-)trains them for obedience to the ruling-class hegemony and political apathy.
What I’m talking about is training. I have worked in a shit job for the year or so and hated it. But I have also been working my way into a teaching career. I love teaching. I still hate the fact that it is a job. I still hate the university as a racist and authoritarian elitist institution (that is leading the way in the exploitation of its mostly precarious work-force). I’m also terrified of becoming that which I hate. But I have also realised in the transition from one type of work to another that each type of work has its own radical possibilities. My office job just wasn’t my material reality, I am a member of the intellectual lower middle-class. I don’t need to be ashamed of this. What I shouldn’t do is either pretend I am working-class white collar, or now seize my opportunity for a safe and complacent academic career. I somehow feel that I have found my material conditions relative to my class, and have a renewed sense of political purpose. In the transition from being an unemployed graduate student in London to returning to the midlands and working, I didn’t know how to be radical anymore. Now I know.
My plan now is to begin an apprenticeship in radical pedagogy. As part of my institutional training, I need to gain teaching qualifications. But as well as this, I am learning to teach English as a foreign language, and will soon hopefully do a DTLLS so that I can teach literacy and numeracy. You might ask, ‘why bother learning the methods of the Ideological State Apparatus’ – the answer is I’m not sure. On the one hand, this is my career path, but on the other it seems important that I don’t short sell people who really want and need this knowledge. I mean, I cannot bring my radical ideas to a group of people who desperately need a job, can’t write a CV or speak English, and need to tick a box in an application process.
But this institutional path will hopefully be counter-balanced by a totally de-institutionalised exploration of radical pedagogy. The two should compliment each other, but in a certain direction. I should take from the institution, never exploit students for the advancement of ideological education. This will be a very hard line to negotiate. This deinstitutionalised education would offer the same things if needed, but in a way that empowers the student, beings them to critical consciousness, teaches them to teach themselves. This way also allows the teacher to learn from the student, which is important to keep the direction radical, not exploitative.
This deinstitutionalised education comes from the experience and writings of people like Paulo Freire, John Dewey, Ivan Illich. But also the work we did early on in the UfSO, based on intuition and direct experience of bad education and the struggle for equality within our own version. I’m hopefully going to write about these ideas in more concrete detail on this blog. You might complain that these thinkers aren’t left-wing, or Marxist, or whatever. I might be wrong about this, but I currently believe that education is in a sense prior to politics and ideology. The aim of education is to produce critical consciousness, and I don’t think it’s necessarily good to teach an ideology, even if it is anti-capitalist, or even to teach from an ideological position. I think the future of radical politics lies in the achievement of a critical popular consciousness that will crystallise a new and powerful hegemony. This could lead to a true democracy, a socialist utopia, or just a much-needed improvement in the existing social relations. I don’t know. That kind of explicit political struggle and battle of ideas should take place along side these kinds of bottom-up long-term projects.
Why am I telling you all this? Because I’m excited. But also to try to fight this feeling of apathy after a another supposed failed revolution. Don’t believe the hype. That’s what the ruling classes want us to feel. We are actually all still involved somehow, somewhere, in some important way. We should all communicate more, outside existing channels, create new and better networks. This would really fight the apathy. We are all in this together, no matter which side of the fence. It is the responsibility of all of us to do what we think is right in a way that feels right. The transformation of society will come from all angles, maybe slowly, maybe all of a sudden (or maybe a combination of the tow, a growing surge that suddenly breaks the flood-banks). We all have a role to play, we should try to make sure it is a progressive one, based on passion, experience and hope, not on cynicism and disillusionment.
References and preliminary reading list:
Hall, Stuart. The Neo-liberal Revolution. Cultural Studies, 25:6, 705-728 (2011)
— Cultural Studies and its Theoretical Legacies, 1992: http://cultstud.blogspot.co.uk/2007/09/stuart-hall-cultural-studies-and-its.html
Perry, Matt. Marxism and History. Palgrave Macmillan: 2002
Gramsci, Antonio. Selected Writings 1916 -1935. Ed. David Forgacs. London, Lawrence and Wishart: 1988
Monk, Ray. Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius. London, Vintage: 1990
Wheen, Francis. Karl Marx. London, Fourth Estate: 1999
Friere, Paulo. Education: The Practice of Freedom. London, Writers and Readers Publishing Cooperative: 1973
— The Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York, Continuum: 1993
Illich, Ivan. Deschooling Society. Harper Colophon Books: 1971
Dewey, John. Experience and Education. Pocket Books: 1977