notes for ‘alternative education’

On Wednesday I wrote that a while back I’d been asked to contribute to some work-in-progress on the idea of dangerous words. The three terms I selected were ‘immiseration’, ‘managerialism’, and ‘alternative education’. The work-in-progress hasn’t progressed so I’ve decided to publish what I wrote a year ago, starting with ‘immiseration’ and ‘managerialism’, and finally with ‘alternative education’ today.

The brief given was to:

  • explore the connections between a particular set of selected terms and their role in contemporary social relations, where these words function as one aspect of social relations and not as ‘empty signifiers’;
  • question the increasing use of some words in the public and private domains and to explore the effects of these words and the logic that underpins them, on meaning-making and on creating possibilities for improving life;
  • critique these terms as one aspect of social relations in education;
  • discuss acts of separation that are made possible through simultaneous processes of distinction, differentiation and stratification, whilst bearing the possibility for their representation.

The idea is to uncover tools to refuse the neoliberal/capitalist idea of education as a neutral and technical process, which in-turn imposes its ideology on us. This ideology uses a language that teachers, educators, researchers, students and parents are encouraged to co-opt. Occupying and refusing certain words, and finding alternative ways of doing, making, creating, sharing, pooling, gifting (against producing, services, productivity, entrepreneurialism and so on), are critical moments in resistance and refusal. Ultimately they are critical moments in a process of liberation.

Alternative Education

Alternative education raises questions about whether another world is possible. Alternatives ask educators and students to question the governance, regulation and resourcing of hegemonic, institutionalised forms of education, alongside their curricula, through both negative critique and prefigurative practices. The idea of an alternative questions the legitimacy of formalised spaces, often standing against both their forms and content, and as a result defining an educational undercommons (Harney and Moten 2013). Such an undercommons is a space for solidarity and resistance, from where resources and relations can be drawn. It might exist inside formal education, as a sector of the economy or in its institutional forms. An undercommons forms an underground that enables subversion and new forms of organisation, and which problematises dominant narratives about education (for entrepreneurship, growth, sustainable development and so on).

In this being inside-and-against the school or the university, alternative education takes the perspective of voices that are marginalised because they are racialised, gendered or rendered economically-valueless or indebted, in order to re-imagine and re-produce new forms of educational life or sociability. The idea of an alternative also emerges beyond formalised spaces, in autonomous communities that exist beyond the school or university as it is re-purposed as a factory (Cleaver 2002; The University of Utopia n.d.).

This idea of alternatives being in, against and beyond recognises that hegemonic educational institutions have been subsumed within the circuits of capital. This means that the governance and forms of such institutions, and the work of academics, professional service staff and students, have been re-engineered by capital on a global terrain. Moreover, the labour that takes place inside these institutions is repurposed and re-produced in its relation to money capital, productive capital and commodity capital, in order to generate surplus value, surpluses, profits and so on. The domination of capitalist social relations over academic labour is driven by the abstracted power of money and the generation of surplus value. This opens up the possibility for alternative forms of education, both inside formal spaces and beyond the boundary of the formal, to become new sites of struggle in response to the on-going crisis of sociability. This crisis is signalled by the co-option of socially-useful knowledge, or the general intellect, so that it can be valorised (Hall 2014; Virno 2004). Educational relationships have been productively intensified in order to facilitate the expansion of capital, rather than for the solution of global, socio-economic and socio-environmental crises. Inside the school or the university, educational innovations are fetishised as emancipatory, whereas in working against and beyond these spaces, scholars in alternative educational spaces are working to abolish the relations of production that drive societies to ignore concrete emergencies (Hall and Smyth 2016).

From inside-and-against the hegemonic institution, alternatives articulate the limits of formal education, including its problematic nature as a public or private good (Marginson 2012). Here, the idea of the school or university as a form of enclosure of knowledge and practice is refused through public intellectualism or educational activity that is conducted in public. Such activities widen debates over ideas and fields of study beyond the academy to the public, in that they refuse both the colonisation of disciplinary spaces by academics and the delegitimation of certain voices. This public activity contains the germ of militancy (Neary 2012; Thorburn 2011) because it aims to do and then to be counter-hegemomic. As a form of workers’ enquiry, militancy in research or pedagogic practice points towards projects that produce knowledge useful for activist ends. This may take the form of open education or scholarship that refuses neoliberal recuperation (Eve 2015) for the production of marketised outcomes like performance data, or new spaces for the generation of surpluses or profits. Such refusals question the societal value of business-as-usual models for public, higher education (Open Library of Humanities 2016).

However, experiments that are against hegemonic practices also offer the potential for radical experiment, alongside the re-imagining of education as a distributed, co-operative, democratic activity. Such experiments question education’s relationship to society. Prefigurative responses then emerge in the pedagogic practices of social movements rooted in pedagogy (Caldart and the Movement of Landless Workers 2011), and through forms of resistance inside the university grounded in community and environmental justice (Pearce 2013), resistance to gender-based violence, and trades union educational activity (Scandrett 2014). This work situates the experience of the educator and student against that which emerges from within social movements, in order to address the possibilities for alternative forms of knowing and being. Here traditions of critical pedagogy are central to the ways in which critical knowing and being emerge to challenge the dominant framing of learning, teaching and scholarship as separate from society and everyday life (Amsler 2015; Motta 2016).

Work that emerges beyond formal educational contexts is situated in practical, alternative initiatives that point towards alternative, societal re-imaginings of education. Such re-imaginings are forms of autoethnogaphy, framed by the idea of the student or educator as co-operative activist, and as such operating collectively through organic intellectualism (the Social Science Centre 2016; People’s Political Economy 2013). Such alternatives offer a means of using critical sociology and critical pedagogy to analyse concrete moments of crisis of specific communities, such as the politics of austerity and climate justice (Buxton and Hayes 2015; Lockyer and Veteto 2013).

In particular, these alternatives are infused by comparative analyses with the pedagogic practices of indigenous communities and people of colour (Motta 2016; Zibechi 2012), for whom the crisis of sociability imposed by capitalism is on-going, historical and material. These analyses specifically relate co-operative, inclusive educational practices of creating and legitimising communities, and challenge the on-going colonisation of knowing and being. They offer ways to refuse the dominant power relations of knowledge production inside contemporary capitalism, and instead speak of decolonisation by feminised and racialised subjects on the margins. This enables those projects to establish unique analyses of educational possibility from within new, emancipatory horizons. These analyses recognise the desire for progressive and democratic forms of education: first, in terms of its governance and politics, and the social relations that circulate inside educational spaces; and second, in terms of enacting radical pedagogies grounded in the abolition of power relations in the classroom.

From this complex educational ecosystem, alternatives sit against the neoliberal enclosure of existing structures and forms, like the school and university. They stress: first, democratic activity, based upon a radical politics; second, militant research strategies, which see research as a tool for political action and for widening the field of struggle against the re-production of alienating forms of education; third, the re-definition of scholarship undertaken in public, as a revolutionary activity. In a politics of community engagement and cross-disciplinary activity, and in radical education collectives, these strategies form cycles of struggle that point towards possibilities for: detonating the school or university (Amsler and Neary 2012); using prefigurative pedagogical practices that enable labour to become the crisis of capital, so that it might become for itself rather than being for capitalisation or valorisation (Occupied California 2010; Holloway 2002); and describing what society might become (The School or Designing a Society 2016).

Alternative education is a reminder of how the sociability that was once understood as emerging from the fluidity of the classroom is increasingly lost to educators and students, as value (the determining purpose) now drives sociability. This is the world of financialisation and marketisation, which strip academics, professional services staff and students of their autonomy. Thus, educational lives are restructured as accumulated value, impact, excellence, student satisfaction and employability. It is here that alternative education offers a way of disengaging from these normalised behaviours, in order to re-engage with problems of the global commons. The alternative is a form of collective, educational repair, rather than our response to crisis focusing upon becoming more efficiently unsustainable.

By engaging with marginalised voices inside, against and beyond educational contexts, alternatives attempt to define safe spaces through which the collective work of dismantling can begin. This work of dismantling is rooted in revealing power structures and ways of building the world that are alienating, because they they strip our work, our cultures, our relationships and ourselves from us, in order to valorise them or to silence them. This work of dismantling operates at the level of the institution and the classroom, but it also operates at the level of society (Hall and Smyth 2016; Motta 2016; Rhodes Must Fall 2016). Thus alternative education establishes sociability as the critical, pedagogical project, grounded in actually-existing examples of academics, activists and communities engaging with the work of dismantling our abstract experiences, and addressing their concrete impacts. As a result, it is possible to associate educational repair with wider societal repair, where it is framed by a re-focusing of life upon self-actualisation as dynamic and fluid, and rooted in a different conception of what is to be done (bell hooks 1994).


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