Critical pedagogy group meeting: the Space Project 23rd November

On the evening of  Wednesday 23rd November, the Critical Pedagogy discussion group had its second meeting at the Space Project in Leeds, described as a radical education project. Of the small group that attended half had not been at the initial meeting so this meeting started with a brief report on what had been discussed then but quickly moved on to a discussion of why each individual was interested in the topic. In some cases it was a concern to develop a more relevant and critically engaged approach to teaching within higher education. In others the interest is to see if critical pedagogy has anything to offer when thinking about engaging with groups and communities outside of formal education. One of the reasons that the Space Project was interested in starting the critical pedagogy group in the first place is to explore how it might be relevant and useful for engaging with groups beyond the university who could be brought into the project and use the space. There seemed to be a general consensus that a critical pedagogy should be ’emancipatory’, in itself or in its objectives. Emancipation from what was not explicitly discussed although it became clear that there was a shared dissatisfaction with many aspects of contemporary society and defective democratic political processes. Likewise, the meeting didn’t start with any attempt to define critical pedagogy in advance.

Apart from the inside and beyond the university distinction, there was also some discussion of the difference between critical pedagogy as a set of teaching methods and techniques and as a process. One concern was about how to change the relationship between teachers and students and get away from the so-called ‘transmission belt’ and ‘banking’ models of education where teachers are seen to have the knowledge, students suffer from a knowledge deficit and it is just a question of the former transferring their knowledge to the latter who ‘bank’ it for later use. In practice this leads to forms of hierarchy and dependency and ignores the knowledgeability of students and that knowledge construction is a continuous social process. It implies knowledge is a ‘thing’ of some sort and down plays the fact that knowledge is always incomplete, always developing, always partial and open to negotiation. Students are assessed in terms of how much knowledge they have absorbed and can reproduce competently. The participation in and awareness of knowledge as a process is confined to the academic. Critical pedagogy opens the possibility that the relationship between teacher and student could be one of collaboration in a knowledge construction process where the historical, social and contingent nature of knowledge is recognised and exploited in a joint project that respects and utilises the knowledge and reasoning capacity of students. Critical pedagogy introduces and embeds criticality into the content and process of teaching and learning, a process where the distinction between teacher and learner breaks down so that everyone is a collaborative learner. However, it is still the case that not everyone will be equivalent in terms of their expertise and experience or their facility to articulate these in discussion. There will be different sorts of ‘cultural capital’ attached to individuals. Clearly the collaborative knowledge construction process would need to be able to exploit individuals’ expert knowledge and broader experience without lapsing back into the disabling hierarchical ‘transmission belt’ model. This requires the critical problematisation of the notion of legislative expert knowledge and the development of non-hierarchical forms of consensual decision making. Expert knowledge, like any other, is contextual and historically contingent and subject to change in the face of challenges and changing circumstances. This is usually a process that is confined to other ‘qualifying’ experts. But when the expert knowledge is deployed in a collaborative process with ‘lay persons’ in real life situations about which they are already knowledgeable, intellectually and in their lived experience, then the expert knowledge can be modified through exposure to concrete situations that require consensus based pragmatic decisions and actions that cannot be simply ‘read off’ from expert knowledges.

That this is in fact very hard to achieve in the current educational context of assessment, metrics and measurements was also a point of discussion. Several of us have experienced the resistance to these ideas, or, more accurately since the ideas are rarely discussed, to the practice of these ideas, by students. It can lead to anxiety and discomfort as putting this into practice subverts expected and familiar roles and procedures. It may well be that the intention is to empower students and broaden the context within which they think and understand, but this is experienced as a threat very often, of lecturers not doing their job properly and jeopardising the students’ ability to perform according to assessment criteria. Basically they want to know what knowledge they need to reproduce, what are the best books and articles to read that will give them the answers and how many references are deemed to be sufficient, and so on. Critical pedagogy as a set of techniques and practices may prove very difficult to apply in practice unless the organisational context simultaneously embraces critical pedagogy as a process that modifies the administration and assessment of learning outcomes. This may not be quite such a problem outside of and beyond the organisation of formal education.

There was some discussion of ‘levels’ or modalities of criticality and a distinction was made between ‘surface’ or shallow versions, as in the examples of quality circles, suggestion boxes and so on, and the deep criticality of questioning the surface reality, getting behind it, seeing how contingency is packaged and presented as taken-for-granted ways of thinking and doing,  custom and practice, exposing and examining the underlying social process of construction, of framing, the networks and mechanisms of power and control, interest and repression, inclusion and exclusion. This is clearly fundamentally connected to the analysis of ideologies and ideological processes. The first ‘surface’ criticality reproduces the status quo, the second questions and problematises it. The first ‘perfects’ and focuses on the resilience of the existing reality. The second, by demonstrating the contingency of reality, as represented and as materially existing, as the result of specific contingent historical events and processes, demonstrates the world was different before it got this way and could be different from what it is now, and so opening up the discussion of possibilities.

There was some discussion of the knowledge and knowledgability of individuals, groups and communities beyond the university and the Space Project. One suggestion was that critical pedagogy as a process might suggest a way of aligning with radical groups and issues and bringing to struggles and movements a broader explanatory framework that recognises and exploits the existing knowledge and experience of the group  and that has strategic and practical significance.  As an aside, this is where I mentioned Harry Collins’ research on ‘interactive expertise’ where, for example, a group interested in critiquing and campaigning against certain forms of biotechnology recruited and worked with experts in biotechnology and where the experts and the lay members of the group learnt from each other, developing the more technical aspects within a practical social and political context. An example of this perhaps closer to home is the process whereby various specifically focussed anti-cuts movements, for instance against the cuts in HE and another against the attack on pensions, come to identifying the common connection their issues have and recognising the broader underlying system that each are a symptom of – the ideologically and powerful interest driven process of privatisation and hyper-marketisation. This coming together of groups and issues has developed ‘on the ground’ as the groups have formed links and communicated largely via the Internet and social media. But a wide variety of students and academics from different disciplines and with different expert knowledges have contributed to this development right from the start and increasingly academics and research students are in discussion and participating in ‘teach-ins’ and other events in newly emerging public  events and spaces including occupations, sit-ins and squats.

Finally there was some discussion of the way forward. Two strands to follow were identified. One was to do some reading and research on the ideas around critical pedagogy and alternative forms of education. This might take the form of a traditional study group. The other strand was to look for and think about concrete examples of what could be seen as a critical pedagogy in practice. This could include some aspects of the current occupations, for instance, but could also look at some examples from Italy, South America, and so on. What we didn’t leave the meeting with was a reading list. The final decision was to find a way of including anyone who is interested who cannot make all, or indeed any, of the meetings. Some sort of on-line presence and reporting would seem to be the obvious solution. Again, no concrete proposal was made other than to have a dedicated Facebook group. This will probably happen but, as was noted at the time, not everyone is in or wants to be in Facebook. Another suggestion was a blog, or a section in the Really Open University web site. Look out for announcements any day now. In the meantime theses notes are my recollection of what was discussed at the last meeting with a few additional observations. No doubt others will add to these and, where I have misremembered, put me right!

Occupations as human mic

Process is politics at Occupy Wall Street – Salon

I have recently become aware of the so-called ‘human microphone’, a tactic adopted by the Wall Street occupiers when their use of megaphones was banned. A great description of how this works can be found on the excellent Literary Kicks blog Occupy Wall Street: How the People’s Mic Works. I think the human mic is a powerful metaphor for the growing number of occupations spreading around the world, about 2000 I think at the last count. One of the complaints about the occupations that is becoming increasingly common is that there are no clear objectives or set of alternative policies. This is entirely unreasonable. Who these days can claim (truthfully  and realistically) to have clear objectives or a well thought out and realistic strategy for getting there?  Our government, the US government, the EC Commissioners? The only clear and thought-out strategy there is any evidence for at the moment seems to be Goldman Sachs’ strategy, by a combination of recruiting influential politicians as advisers and consultants and taking over governments’ economic policies via their (unelected)  place men and alumni ‘technocrats’. (See What price the new democracy? Goldman Sachs conquers Europe for an account of the Goldman Sachs Project).

For a number of years now there has been much hand wringing and regret about the atrophy of civil society and the demise of public spaces for open and democratic discussion. The pervading acceptance that the current system is the least bad and that there is no alternative (TINA) – the basis of the argument that we are now in a ‘post political’ era – leads to and legitimates the conclusion that all that remains to be done is the find the most efficient and managerialist methods of administrating capitalism and consumer society. Life’s shit and the best we can do is to make it a bit less smelly for the docile and deserving. The importance of the occupations, at this stage of the game at least, is to open up and re-politicise spaces in civil society, to develop both a negative critique and exposure of the lies, corruption, injustice,  hypocrisy and inhumanity, to make visible the human face and experience of those that suffer as the ‘collateral damage’ of the system, and (although I am rather ambivalent about some aspects of this) to smoke out and make visible to all the links between corporate power, political complicity and the state ideological and material apparatuses of repression.  At the same time, and more positively, the occupations are fantastic experiments and demonstrations of citizens ‘doing it for themselves’ – providing tentative intimations of different sorts of non-hierarchical and consensual organisation, of alternative values and forms of sociality and conviviality. It is through networks of city occupations, alternative educational spaces like the Social Science Centre in Lincoln and the Space Project in Leeds, through initiatives like the Really Open University, and more recently Tent City University and the Bank of Ideas (to name but a few) that the critiques, ideas and values are transmitted and amplified  into and throughout the public domain through mainstream, citizen and social media, coalescing into an ever widening and deepening public awareness and debate about the state we are in, and the systems of interest, power and irresponsibility that  got us here. Where we are denied the ‘megaphone’ of meaningful and effective representation in our defective, subservient and co-opted political system the human microphone of the new and growing radical and critical spaces is becoming a formidable weapon.

What do we want? What is possible?

The right leaning media have been criticising the occupation at St Paul’s  in London for not being able to specify an alternative to the system they are against and, specifically, that their demands are poorly and inconsistently articulated. One possible response to this is that their objective is to keep the focus on the issues around the bankers’ responsibility for the economic collapse and the apparent immunity of the top 1% and their hangers-on and immediate collaborators to the consequences of their actions while the remaining 99% are bearing the financial and ideological brunt.  The occupiers’ actions provide a rallying point for discussion and further action and is drawing in ever larger numbers and organisations. The TUs are getting involved and there is even the possibility that Christians will form a defensive ring of prayer around the occupation to shield it from violent eviction!  The movement may not yet have a coherent set of ideas about an alternative society and how to get there but it is at the very least enabling and encouraging a space of dissent and resistance that leaves open a range of possibilities.

None-the-less, that discussion will sooner or later have to coalesce into a reasonably concrete vision of objectives and how to achieve them, in practice. It is difficult to over emphasise the considerable obstacles to doing this. I am currently working on some ideas about how to think about this and what the practical and political possibilities are. For the moment I will just list the conceptual resources I am starting to work with, in no particular order.

John Holloway’s ideas on Crack Capitalism and the possibilities for developing alternative modes of behaviour and ways of doing that resist reproducing the social relations of capital. Part of what I am doing is building on a critique of these ideas.

Zygmunt Bauman’s take on ‘liquid modernity’, the fact of irreducable uncertainty and what the role of sociology and socilogists should be.  This relates directly to his ideas on freedom ‘from’ and freedom ‘to’ and the possibilities of going beyond the naturalisation of the current system and promoting a dialogue, even a poly-logue, that makes thinking about and enabling alternatives that are emancipatory.

Slavoj Zizek’s view of what is possible as laid out in the Afterword –  Welcome to Interesting Times – of the paperback edition of Living in the End Times.

Norbert Elias’s ontology of ‘levels of integration’ and how, in a social developmental context, this creates increasingly far flung and dense networks of dependency and interdependency that help explain the relative lack of opportunity and power chances at the lower levels of integration (limited in autonomy, opportunity and mobility) and the relative autonomy and immunity of the higher levels of integration including, in Baumans’ terms, the free floating, trans-state and seemingly immune highly mobile global elites. It is difficult to see how much progress can be made towards a radical restructuring of society without taking these far flung networks of dependency into account.

I think to way forward for me will to be to produce a summary and critique of these thinkers ideas and then see to what extent some sort of synthesis may be of possible that is conceptually, empirically and politically useful. Maybe this is a project that could be conducted collaboratively in some way – perhaps via presentations, discussion and workshops in the sorts of spaces for resistance that are opening up?


The Resilient University

Had a great day in Lincoln yesterday, Friday 29th October, to discuss the Resilient University project with Mike Neary, Joss Winn and a great team putting together a cunning plan, more of which in due course. A lot of discussion revolved around notions of what ‘resilience’ means in the context of the existing crisis ridden university system and in the context of a re-visioning of what a ‘university’ could and should be. There is clearly a mainstream language of resilience that is all about shoring up the structures and institutions of the status quo. But if the status quo is seen as the cause of the various crises and conditions it needs to become resilient with respect to, then striving for the status quo’s resilience creates a negative trajectory double bind – strategies for resilience that are doomed to make the system ever less resilient.  If this is correct the system is unsustainable and cannot be made resilient in its own terms and will eventually fail and, by necessity, become something else, for good or ill, for progress or extinction.

My view is that the sort of education system we have now, including HE, is a significant part of the problem. It is itself in crisis and is a major component of the broader crises that it is a part of, political and cultural crises (legitimacy crisis), health and well-being crises, economic and financial crises, and military crises. If this is so, how can education be conceived of and organised differently? And what does resilience mean for this re-visioned form of education? What is needed is a new, or at least different, language and conceptualisation of resilience. Perhaps the focus of resilience should not be on the current system but what it is degrading and destroying. A good starting point would be a look at how the concept is currently used and defined in practice.

“Resilience is the property of a material to absorb energy when it is deformed elastically and then, upon unloading to have this energy recovered.” So, absorbing, recycling and exploiting the changes that impact.

“Resilience in psychology is the positive capacity of people to cope with stress and adversity. This coping may result in the individual “bouncing back” to a previous state of normal functioning, or using the experience of exposure to adversity to produce a “steeling effect” and function better than expected” Or, what hurts us only makes us stronger.

“The Government’s aim is to reduce the risk from emergencies so that people can go about their business freely and with confidence”. With the object of being prepared for emergencies and to ensure “continuity of business”.

“Resilience is the ability to absorb disturbances, to be changed and then to re-organise and still have the same identity (retain the same basic structure and ways of functioning).”

The ‘new’ sociology of Zygmunt Bauman

I am writing ans article on Zygmunt Bauman’s view of what sociology could and should be, its value and function, in conditions of liquid modernity.  Zygmunt sees sociology’s role today, in conditions of liquid modernity,  as supporting civic society and servicing a continuous dialogue, a dialogue with no predetermined outcome, that clarifies issues and accommodates multiple voices. Our job is to “defamiliarise the familiar and make the familiar unfamilar”, to make visible the invisible links and connections that lie behind the life world and to keep the conversation going. However  “we cannot stay neutral or indifferent when the future of humanity is at stake”. See post at

Where does this leave socialism as a valid project? Is it just one set of ideas and a vision that some voices can bring to the discussion but without any claim to legislative privilege? Socialisms project to legislate and administer a particular sort of society (no doubt a good and egalitarian society)? I think the answer is to see socialism as a establishing a set of conditions for the conversation rather than an end point itself in a particular society. Socialism is a process rather than a fixed goal or outcome – the project of socialism should be development and the nurturing of the conversation, perhaps the creation of the sociality of the  social state (not necessarily in conflict with elements of the bureaucratic and market state).

Great description of what the conversation should be like in the last paragraph of page xxi in the introduction to Intimations of Postmodernity.

Corporations have the same rights as individuals

There is an interesting article published by Yes! magazine Real People v. Corporate “People”: The Fight Is On reproduced on the web site. It refers to the dispute over major corporations in the US having the same constitutional rights as individuals to freedom of speech. Under a recent Supreme Court ruling this means that they can spend unlimited money promoting an economic interest or political position. According to the Court, if human beings are allowed an unrestricted right to free speech, then corporations must have the same right. According to David Harvey in his book A brief History of Neoliberalism this obviously undemocratic principle was consolidated during the period of the consolidation of neoliberal hegemony and the triumph of the related ‘business ontology’ back in the 1970s.

A crucial set of Supreme Court decisions began in 1976 when it was first established that the right of a corporation to make unlimited money contributions to political parties and political action committees was protected under the First Amendment guaranteeing the rights of individuals (in this instance corporations) to freedom of speech. Political action committees (PACs) could thereafter ensure the financial domination of both political parties by corporate, moneyed, and professional association interests (page 49).