By Michael James Miller
April 3rd, 2018
Pedagogy, Culture & Society
Introducing the book, Robert Haworth writes his thoughts on what ‘radical informal learning’ isand might be, offering various insights that are echoed and elaborated on throughout the book, among them being developing spaces that are ‘critically reflective’ and ‘horizontal’, and within these spaces questioning our desires and the risks involved, hinted at by Haworth with concepts like ‘radical love’ (Freire) and ‘radical openness’ (hooks). Out of the Ruins is a book situated in the rich archives of radical (and particularly anarchist) writings on learning and learning spaces, and for a reader unfamiliar with radical and/or anarchist pedagogies, here might be a comfortable compilation to get uncomfortable with – Haworth writes of his experiences when introducing notions of ‘free schools’ to pre-service teachers and the discomfort they often expressed when confronted with and challenged on their ‘fixed beliefs of what teaching and learning should be’ (8).
Haworth sets out with a sort-of warning and guide for readers, offering what will be an underlying (and often a primary) theme in the chapters that follow: ‘Because informal learning, in many cases, has become co-opted and embedded within the logic of a capitalistic economic system, it should be viewed with a critical lens’ (7). Perhaps this is an obvious statement by Haworth, but writing of past and ongoing successes, failures, and struggles (and the not-so-clear distinction between them) as the book does, elucidates the need for continued criticality while magining/organizing/navigating more radical spaces and, as I would have liked to read more of, a suspicion of what emerges out of the ruins (even and especially when that includes ourselves). Many of the chapters in Out of the Ruins describe in varying detail personal accounts and collaborative efforts to create and sustain Radical Informal Learning Spaces, and importantly, after their emergences, issues that brought about the end (Chapter 13 emphasizes how crucial having a physical space can be); experiments in structuring organizing (Chapter 10 writes of working with tensions and disorientations); and pedagogical approaches in collectively addressing issues that arose (Chapter 11 outlines horizontal pedagogy) while working to create something outside of (Chapter 5 with techno-education), alternative to (Chapter 7 with the Really Open University), or even within main-stream educational institutions (Chapter 9 teaching the Sociology of Anarchism at university).
As a generalization, I’ve found edited books such as this tend to offer more glimpses and peeks into the author’s thinking than allowing for more developed and in-depth analyses and elaborations, leaving the reader to assume a lot, or assuming a lot of the reader. This is not always a detriment to the content, with some terms or concepts opening-up considerations to pursue beyond the book (for example, radical learning spaces facilitating the questioning of desires – particularly in the Introduction and Chapters 3, 6, 7, 10, 13 – brings me back to important work from Fraser and Lamble 2015; and Daring et al. 2012 particularly the Volcano and Heckert chapters, directly connecting and contributing to, though not offered in, these texts). However, I found some content lacking important analyses which had me searching or returning to readings beyond this book, for example Tuck and Yang’s (2012) Decolonization is not a metaphor with Chapter 5 ‘explor[ing] radical educational alternatives using the metaphor of decolonization’ (87). Tuck and Yang write that decolonization is ‘a distinct project from other
civil and human rights-based social justice projects’ (2); that the ‘easy absorption, adoption, and transposing of decolonization’, an example being calls to ‘decolonize our schools’ or ‘decolonize student thinking’, are incommensurable and is ‘yet another form of settler appropriation’ (3) which inhibits ‘more meaningful potential alliances’ (3). Other times I found passages to take too much for granted. For example, after reflecting on the experience and standard reactions to the introduction of more radical concepts of learning spaces from students based in (US) mainstream, No Child Left Behind-era education, Haworth states
Radical informal learning takes a significantly different approach to learning than what was stated above.
For one, radical informal learning would be an ongoing process and geared toward freedom, autonomy, critical reflection, and liberation rather than supporting hierarchical, authoritarian, and economically corrupt institutions and relationships. (7)
With what, I wonder, is the reader to do with these terms? While ‘freedom’, ‘autonomy’, ‘critical reflection’, ‘liberation’ and ‘ongoing process’ are mentioned and alluded to throughout the book, I do not consider these terms to be as self-evident as I often read them being used. Without
further engagement and analysis with these terms, I hesitate with what is being questioned and challenged by the authors (e.g. education, learning spaces, desire).
Perhaps what I am looking for is too tedious a task for this format (a single chapter in an edited book has limited space to say much, especially when there is so much to say and so much being said), perhaps these are even meant to be terms open to interpretation with informal understandings. But I offer this critique because perhaps the authors are taking for granted, even taking liberties with some common conceptualizations (e.g. ‘freedom’) while directly taking on others (‘learning’).
A stand-out example for me comes from the book’s co-editor John M. Elmore in Chapter 1, which presents the reader with various provocations on authoritarianism, education, and restraint from ‘organic development’. I found some arguments in the chapter to themselves be restrained; while I support taking the strong position that ‘to oppose one system of domination while supporting…another, is to engage in intellectual hypocrisy of the highest level’ (27), there was no further analysis of opposition itself (for which I again go to Daring et al. 2012, specifically chapters by Conrad, and Heckert). Other passages I found to be restraining in themselves with an accepting and upholding of the authoritarianism the chapter and wider collection seeks to address and offer alternatives to. For example, when considering consequences of ‘Preventing learners from thinking and acting freely’ (again, more assumptions on terminology), Elmore brings in an Arnstine quote to support the point being made of the process in which ‘…entire societies can acquire the mentality of slaves.’ What Arnstine means by ‘the mentality of slaves’, and why Elmore offers this quote to try and substantiate the argument for ‘Finding alternatives to traditional schooling’ not only remains unclear in this chapter – as no elaboration or explanation is given – but is (at best) missing the mark. One might ‘get’ the sentiment of what is meant here, but given the complex, nuanced, opaque, beautiful, horrible work around slavery (for one example, the work of Saidiya Hartman), this assumption is one of the more glaring examples of the over generalizations and selective criticality scattered throughout this book.
I offer this review not necessarily as a dismissal of what all is contained within Out of the Ruins to any would-be readers, nor of the authors whose work is used here as examples. Instead, I write this as an attempted contribution of necessary suspicion; I want to stay with and expose more tensions than are confronted in these texts, and if we are committed to emerging out of the ruins without bringing along the same patterns, systems, and naturalized ways of thinking and being, then our efforts must extend to our too-often assumed understandings and imaginings (thinking again with Haworth’s ‘critical lens’).
I found Chapter 6 offered a lot of important insights and questions regarding beginning, beginnings, and the difficulties thereof, particularly with ‘the policing of “possibilities”’ (107). Author
Sarah Amsler’s ‘critical lens’ was intently and intensely focused on the Social Science Centre of which she is a part of, and their being compelled ‘to articulate new answers to fundamental questions about the purpose of education, defining or redefining democracy, and what it means
to be-in-common and to learn’ (108). A few questions posed include:So what is it that we need to learn, and how can we approach these ideas if we do not already know about them? If we could practice any kind of education we want, of what activities would it consist and why? What can these educational spaces do? Who is it for? How was it developed? How is it gendered, classed, raced, colonial, or epistemologically exclusive? Whose expression does it wear, in whose voice does it speak? What is its relationship to traditional, or even neoliberal, education? Are there spaces and cracks to work within and are they enough? How are the roles of student and teacher defined, if at all? What is to be done with intractable reproductions of power? How shall we subsist? Who is affected by our commitments? What are we willing to give, and to lose? (108).
These (potentially) unanswerable questions (not that they would have any one answer anyways) are importantly directed to people and groups who might be or work to be ‘at once united, diverse, divided, and aspiring to be in common’ (121). I read the contributors to this book being among those, and something discussed throughout these texts that I am thinking a lot about is ‘community’. I was interested to read different approaches and thinking’s about ‘community’ (and similar sentiments), and if/how this might be re/de/conceptualized in a general sense, and in relation to the idea of a ‘learning community’ more specifically. What might we mean and understand when thinking of ‘community’, what do we take for granted, and what violences does ‘community’ not just potentially counter or diminish, but also strengthen and reinscribe – including (and particularly) radical informal one’s? Included here (briefly) as further provocations and potential contributions when thinking ‘community’, works by Fred Moten and Stefano Harney variously discuss maroon communities (Harney and Moten 2013), sociality (Moten 2018), and of the need to abolish the community so that we might commune (Harney 2017). These notions and my study with them were further pressed with co-writing a conference paper bringing up these points (Miller and Miller 2017) and from the push back, questions, and conversations in response, particularly around what abolishing the community could mean, and how to not only recognize the communing that is already happening, but what to do at that point. This is an ongoing conversation…
Sprinkled throughout Out of the Ruins I found other seeds of intrigue and interest that I would have liked to read more about. Discussing AnarchistU, for instance, Chapter 12 wrote of distinctions between the classroom and the community, and further had varying statements about
hierarchies that recognized pitfalls (‘hierarchies of expertise’) while also perceiving the created space as distinct (‘different hierarchies than academic spaces uphold’ 235) and (boldly, intriguingly, somehow) free from others (‘while hierarchies of state and capital were eradicated, hierarchies associated with epistemologies of space were only somewhat mitigated’ 231). Another seed only mentioned briefly but I found of interest was ‘boredom’, particularly the expressed desire of ‘militating against boredom’ (Chapter 11, 219, 220). Here I wonder what might ‘boredom’ have to offer (for example, see Horning 2017), including and further than rumination, particularly if we are challenging that which we take as obvious. Similarly, I want to imagine further about engaging in a ‘tolerance of ambiguity’ with others as proposed in Chapter 4, which gives a few, perhaps inadvertent but nonetheless appreciated examples of ambiguity, by later writing of the ‘problem of abstractness and a lack of engagement with the specificities of teaching and learning’ (80).
Chapter 2 had a lot of imaginings, yet I read David Gabbard’s provocations as both pushing for more creativity from teachers and students, while also implying/imposing limits on what might be considered ‘useful’ creativity. Why must we shirk from an ‘impossible agenda’ – especially as the chapter draws on Zizek’s advice to ‘start thinking’ and not ‘get caught in this pseudo-activist pressure’ to ‘do something’? (50, 51) – what might it mean to imagine the unimaginable rather than ‘stir up public debate’ which seems to me is the ‘doing something’ which is to be avoided?
I want to think more about the ‘useless’ in the ‘useful’ (h/t Tiqqun); the ‘impossible’ while we continue pushing what is ‘possible’.
Out of the Ruins offers an Introduction and 13 chapters with various anecdotes and attempted antidotes, provocations and practical, experiential writing on experimental efforts to create and maintain counter-hegemonic learning spaces and communities. Through different approaches, reflections and emergences this book extends many important considerations. Whether we are starting on our thinking of radical informal learning spaces, looking for examples from other’s experiences, or how we might bring in more criticality, radical intentions and informal pedagogies to our own practices and experiences, Out of the Ruins is intended to be that place.
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Harney, S. 2017. “Stefano Harney Interview (part 2) by Michael Schapira & Jesse Montgomery.” Full Stop. http://
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Miller, Lindsay L., and Michael J. Miller. 2017. “Carceral Educations: Schools, Prisons, Police and the Obligations of an Abolitionist.” Paper presented at the 2nd International Conference for Carceral Geography, December 11–12, in Birmingham, England.
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