Three suggestions for a radical education network
The following piece was writing while thinking about this conference:
Check it out, the UK Free University Network are organising a meeting for all those involved in radical educative ventures to come up with some concrete plans. I initially thought it would be another of those pointless exercises in talking about what needs to be done without actually doing anything, but these guys are planning to use a very interesting methodology for the meeting taken from the Urban Land Committees in Venezuela. Read about it, we are planning to be involved in some way. Maybe see you there. Anyway, here is what I wrote…
We shouldn’t look backwards to smaller classrooms. We should look forward, beyond the neo-liberal classroom, like Marx did through the economic system of capitalism to see the potentials held within it for a truly emancipatory organisation of resources. It’s like mass production – and this is the difference between utopian and critical socialism – Fordist production offered for the first time the means to support the entire world population in its material needs; the problem we have is that the means of mass production are owned by a powerful minority and run for their own profit. The same goes for education. Mass education is a good thing, but it is elitist still. Furthermore, the education system as it is within the capitalist mode of production is designed to reproduce this mode of production, and make it run as efficiently as possible.
The first step to imagining a post-capitalist classroom is to dissolve the student-teacher relationship. I say ‘imagine’ because this is almost impossible to achieve due to the restrictions of the aims of education within the current system. Not only that, it is extremely hard even to imagine a classroom without the teacher-student relationship. The classroom is a very real and structured nexus of social relations, and this nexus reflects the relations of society as a whole. The classroom is a microcosm of society.
The teacher’s only job, until the relations of production are transformed (so that we will find it hard to even imagine the teacher-student relationship as it is today – think of how the smoking ban has transformed the very idea of smoking inside a pub, for example), is to facilitate peer teaching/learning. The classroom should be full of teachers, or rather students teaching each other and learning from each other. This is also the most efficient way to teach. This would also mean there wouldn’t be any need to limit to class sizes. The only remaining practical consideration would then be the physical structure of the room. It would have to be big enough to have space for everyone to move around, and be openly arranged to take the focus away from any individual (as teacher).
The main or most difficult problem we face today is the political-institutional relations of power and exploitation on both sides of the teacher-student divide. Any utopian idea(l)s of radical pedagogy are dashed against the daily grind of institutional goals, monitoring, inappropriate rooms, textbooks, course design, management, etc. The University, for example, has a very real function in the successful operation of a capitalist, global society. The reliance on international students for income is a topical example of this; the classroom is skewed impossibly across language ability, and it is incredibly difficult for even the most politically/ethically conscious lecturer to negotiate these problems. International students, especially at postgraduate level, just haven’t got the language ability that their native/European peers have, and they are doomed to failure a lot of the time. The provisions aren’t provided for these international students to reach the level they need to be at, nor are there the emotional/social support good enough for cultural integration – the University simply takes the money and washes its hands of the consequences of this way of operating.
Also, people never come to you as a “tabula rasa”. Students have been indoctrinated into bad habits of learning, such as short attention span, worrying about exams, not wanting to communicate, etc. A typical undergraduate student at a “new” University has been on the one hand conditioned for a certain way of learning, but also hasn’t had the complimentary training in academic work/skills that students at a Russell group university would have had. If you try to radicalise the classroom, you will meet resistance from students, even though it is supposedly ‘for their own good’. A student faced with radical learning situations will become stressed and demand that you give them what they need to pass their exams. And fair enough.
It’s very hard to overcome these factors as a teacher; the difference is that a teacher can be radical, but a classroom full of students with bad habits multiplies the effects of these negative influences greatly.
2. Positive unemployment
The second step is to imagine mass education without accreditation.
We should take “unemployment” more seriously. Let’s look at it as a positive phenomenon – not just defined as a lack of work, but a potential openness to non-capitalist labour/learning. Like a break down in the smooth running of capitalist reproduction. Yes, unemployment is part of capitalist labour – there needs to be competition amongst the workforce to keep wages low and people desperate to earn a wage. But unemployment is also the bomb waiting to go off in any depressive phase of capitalism – too much unemployment produces unrest, riots, political radicalism, protest. The unemployed individual oscillates across the borders of the system. He/she can go either way.
In terms of education, the first point to take seriously, or at least ironically, is the reality that there is no guarantee of a job after University, no matter how much the employability scores say otherwise. In fact, students can look forward to unemployment in most cases, especially if we critically examine the notion of unemployment and include within it precarious work, working for free, depression, working in shit jobs which have nothing to do with your qualifications.
A radical education can just be honest. We could structure our idea and process of learning in an entirely different way. The dynamic of society and capitalist production drives education in a certain direction, in an almost irreversible logic of progression. No matter what you do as a teacher, the material function of institutional education dictates that students must be accredited so that they can move on to work. But there is no work.
A student worried about exams is not learning, he/she is just absorbing. The empty cup (student) and jug of knowledge (teacher) model of education, although entirely discredited in even the most mainstream of educational theories, and in teacher training courses, is impossible to move beyond while accreditation still operates as defining condition of knowledge acquisition. To link this to the earlier point about the classroom is to remember that 16 years (from primary to undergraduate level) of education is meant to train and pacify people for capitalist labour. This consequently produces an adult who cannot respond positively to free/radical education. The adult student, after this conditioning, demands this “banking model of education”; to radicalise the existing classroom is to make the student very stressed out.
Furthermore, we have a lot of unemployed people in the world today, especially in this time of recession/depression. So why don’t we focus our radical education network towards these people first? They will hopefully have material support from the benefit system (and we can help them use this system better, and perhaps more safely), lots of time, and they are inevitably bored and lonely. With us, they can learn for the sake of learning, and we can start from the basics if needed – survival knowledge (this is to make the point of including the international proletariat in our network, the globalised flow of labour, and also students, that need basic literacy and English in many cases). We can provide a place to meet other people, get out of the house, where one can gain skills that will be useful to get back into work again.
What I am proposing here is that we base our ideas of a network of radical/free education provisions on the anarchist social centres that we saw proliferate during the height of the recent protest movement, and that have been around for decades. These social centres functioned as radical community centres, operating outside the existing welfare system, occupying abandoned buildings right in the heart of a community and opening up social and material resources for that community. Food, books, clothes, bike repair, friendship, etc – all provided for free. These social centres were/are recognised as positive by the local community; although never fully accepted, people who haven’t got what they need appreciate this gesture of radical caring.
This is the way to build a positive movement. Never telling people they are stupid, instead doing things that make a difference and carry an integrity that can be recognised across ingrained political/conservative perspectives.
Our network could be like this; and complimentary to these social centres. Radical education has existed like this before. Wherever it can, for whoever needs it. Find a place somewhere busy, somewhere at the bottom end of the socio-economic scale, open the doors to those who need it and hope that they come.
The university shouldn’t be a model for a radical education. Universities have always been, in their ideological-historical foundations, elitist (racist, sexist, etc) institutions, hobby-horses for the rich and powerful, there to make sure their offspring rule the world in the way that they ruled it. We must find a way to re-imagine adult education outside the existing model of mass education, as training ground for work, and the model of the University, as the training ground for the ruling classes.
3. Practical considerations
We shouldn’t sit around talking at each other about education. We don’t need conferences about education. We shouldn’t waste time talking about theory. All theory does is intimidate people and dodge potential criticism. When we introduce theory into our conversation, we only alienate the “uneducated” (or uninitiated), and make it hard for anyone else to say ‘That is bullshit’. When you include a theoretical layer to a conversation, you then have to move any counter-argument up to that theoretical level and be able to criticise the theory, not the original point. And we all know what an industry we have made out of arguing about theory. There are no results, only papers, conferences and political apathy.
We need to talk. For hours, days, weeks, months, years. Until this thing is done. Until we have worked out where to begin, and begin in the right way. We need to have steps. Small steps that will be easy to follow with new steps. Creating a network of radical education will be very hard; everything is against us. Which is why we must be practical and honest; realistic, not idealistic.
I think that a network is paramount, based on the idea of solidarity, and not just the ‘solidarity’ one says at every other march or meeting. A network based on a solidarity which means commitment to supporting one another. A network is flexible and is not necessarily undermines by the failure of one part. A network can also be national/global, and not just based in cultural hubs like London.
In the workplace nothing can get done on the side of labour without solidarity; an individual will find it incredibly difficult to win anything (in terms of rights) from the company. A united workplace has so much more power than the individual, and each person is protected (as much as you can be) by that solidarity.
The same goes for a network of radical education. Isolated ventures will not survive. They will also not get anything done. They will always be utopian experiments, whose only value will be as historical cases of failed but interesting experiments.
However, it is important to remember is that we are all different. We mustn’t pretend that we aren’t utterly individualised in this capitalist world. There is perhaps a new stage after the extreme individualism of today, that will be an Aufhebung (synthesis) of individuality and solidarity. We don’t want to go back to the naive and dangerous practice of “communism” we read about in history books and novels such as that of Milan Kundera. This is the forced community that lead to the totalitarianism of Russia and other false socialisms.
Everyone has their strengths, and most importantly we have our commitments. We must be able to be in love, stay in bed, be swamped by our jobs, get drunk, lose our faith and drift away for a bit, fall out with each other, be arrogant, and so on. I learned this from my time in the University for Strategic Optimism. Organising without hierarchy was the hardest thing in the world, but we managed it, for a year or so. Sometimes there were loads of us, sometimes only a couple. This is why we need a network of committed individuals, and also of groups of individuals. We must organise like family resemblances, open connections. When one person drifts, someone takes up the slack for a bit. With enough people, free people who have their passion engaged in this project, it might just work and grow.
 Like the idea of “middle-classness” that was sold to the working class in the 50s, and again in the 90s, the average person is sold an idea of university education, that only the rich actually enjoy ( at Russell Group universities, and their students are trained for this. They don’t really learn anything; they just have a good time, absorb some bullshit and move on the next stage of mummy and daddy’s master plan).