Questioning Educational Strategies: The Challenges of Radical Pedagogy in Discussions about Irish Traditional Culture.

2013. “Questioning Educational Strategies:  The Challenges of Radical Pedagogy in Discussions about Irish Traditional Culture.” In Crosbhealach an Cheoil – the Crossroads Conference 2003: Education and Traditional Music. F. Vallely et al., eds. 288-298. Dublin: Whinstone. URL:


Scholars in the field of radical pedagogy have critically analyzed the role and effect of institutional education in our lives. Thinkers such as Paolo Freire, Ivan Illich and others have highlighted the negative contribution of many formal educational strategies to relations of domination, oppression, and dehumanization. The intense commodification of knowledge experienced in many educational contexts, they argue, can be profoundly disempowering. Illich calls for the disestablishment of the schooling system itself. More recently, Prakash and Esteva make the case that formal education constitutes an assault on the values of traditional communities. They interrogate the relationship between the socializing power of education and a globalizing capitalist ethos, arguing that “education” often constitutes an insidious continuation of colonial ideologies.

In postcolonial Ireland such concerns must be taken seriously. This paper is an opportunity to further interrogate the relationship between formal education and the value systems of vernacular or traditional culture in Irish contexts. By critically addressing the issues raised by the increasing presence of formal educational authorities in the discourses and practices of “Irish traditional music”, we can perhaps assess the effects of formal education on the ways we understand “tradition” and “wisdom” in our lives.


Until now I have been most interested in the way that ‘intellectual property’ is increasingly accepted as an authorised way to make sense of our experience of ‘Irish Traditional Music’. I have analysed this acceptance as an example of the process and practices of enclosure (McCann 2001, 2003), looking at the difference such acceptance makes in our everyday lives. In this paper I turn to the ‘enclosure’ implicated in the increasing acceptance of formal education. I will draw on writings within the field of radical pedagogy to suggest that formal education is furthering the diminishment of present, powerful, humanising, and transformational social dynamics in Ireland (and elsewhere). I will suggest that formal education is, more likely that not, undermining particular values that prioritize relationships in favour of others that don’t, often in the name of “Irish Traditional Music”. I will also suggest that we ourselves participate in these processes of diminishment when we promote, accept, or ignore the effects of formal education upon the ways we understand our lives and experience.

In a very straightforward fashion, the critique that I present in this paper is also a critique of my own experience. I am a profoundly institutionalised human being. This is perhaps more so in relation to what I have considered “education” than in relation to anything else. I have, in fact, spent twenty five years in formal, institutional education: six of these in primary schools, seven in secondary school, and twelve in third-level education. I have also spent three years as a traditional music journalist, and I was definitely one of the Great Obsessed. I have been for many years an unquestioning convert to the concept of “Tradition” and the discourses and practices of “Irish Traditional Music”, so anything I say here in critique is very much a critique of my own experience.

Radical Pedagogy

A dictionary will probably tell you that pedagogy is ‘the science of teaching’. Radical pedagogy, explored elsewhere in this volume by Stan Reeves, has grown out of the critical theory of the early Frankfurt School of philosophy. Members of the Frankfurt School were profoundly suspicious of any activities legitimised as “science”. Such activities, they argued, were likely to support and facilitate processes of commodification and reification (where commodities seem to take on a life of their own independent of human life) within capitalist consciousness and related political systems of domination and oppression. Within this tradition of social critique, proponents of radical pedagogy seek to identify, understand, and critically evaluate the effects, consequences, and power relations implicated by particular methods, modes, and environments of teaching and learning in formal, institutional contexts. That means assessing the effects that issue from  particular kinds of teaching and learning environments, gauging the consequences of particular ways of thinking and doing in which we participate as educators and as students.


It is probably fair to say that a common claim among radical pedagogists is that environments of formal education (classrooms, lecture theatres, examination halls, schools, universities etc. etc.) are sites where we learn to accept and reproduce the increasing commodification of our experience. What can commodification mean? Commodification (also commoditization) is a popular word among mainly left-wing thinkers, due to Karl Marx’s enthusiasm for the term “commodity” as part of his anti-capitalist arsenal in Das Capital. It is interesting that people who write about the process of commodification concern themselves almost exclusively with attempts to quantify or define the qualities of ‘commodities’ (e.g. Appadurai, ed. 1986). This seems to me a somewhat counterproductive strategy. To focus on commodities-as-things, to focus on the exchange, movement, access, control, and ownership of commodities in these discussions is ironically to adopt a peculiarly commodifying approach, as I understand it. I would further suggest that to consider commodification as primarily or solely an economic issue is further to diminish its usefulness as a concept in the analysis of areas such as education by making commodification in educational contexts invisible. I don’t accept that commodification is a primarily or peculiarly economic process, or that it overly concerns the abstract exchange and movement of commodities.

The Effects of Commodification

So, in using the work of radical pedagogists to speak of the commodifying effects of formal education, what do I mean by commodification? In my own terms, commodification is when we engage in strategies of ‘closure’ and ‘separation’ in the way that we make sense of our experience. We close ‘things’ off, ring ‘things’ round, identify, isolate, eliminate variables, and thereby separate, distance, things from other things, people-as-things from other people-as-things, separate ourselves from acknowledgement of many of the realities of our own experience. Think, for example, of the way that thinking, speaking, and acting in military terms (e.g “collateral damage”) can keep actual effects on people in social situations out of the picture. Commodification allows us to not look too closely at ‘what is actually going on’. By focusing on ‘things’ we can distance ourselves from ethical concerns, distance ourselves from the subtle and complex (power) effects involved in what happens, and keep ourselves from thinking about the character of our own attitude towards others and towards our experience. As long as commodification dominates our experience, we are unlikely to personally, ethically challenge ourselves, nor personally, ethically challenge the negative effects of the dominant authoritative voices wherever we are.

“Commodifying Environments”

It seems there are degrees of commodification, depending on the circumstances. For example, the more formal, rigid, or rule-bound the situation in which you find yourself, the more commodifying the environment. Or, the more unquestioned and unchallengeable authorities, roles, positions, icons, or symbols in your experience, the more commodifying will be your environment. I say ‘commodifying’ instead of ‘commodified’ to underline that commodification as I understand it is a process in which we engage and participate. To speak of a commodifying environment, then, is to speak of particular situations in which the predominant ways we make sense of things are in terms of closures and separations; often voiced in terms of atomised things, abstract entities, isolated individuals, or bounded communities. To reference Karl Marx, in commodification social relations between people come to assume, it would seem, “the fantastic form of a relation between things” (in Kamenka, ed. 1983:446-447). That is, the relatedness that we experience as humans-among-humans comes to be understood as separateness.

Alienation is a key point here. When the closure and separation strategies of commodification become the dominant ways for us to make sense of a situation, then that situation will be one in which we are often alienated, and often unknowingly alienated, distanced from ourselves, from our experience of relatedness. With increasing commodification in the situations of our lives comes increasing deferral to other people’s authority for making sense of things, increasingly unquestioned acceptance of the call to “Believe and Obey”. The commodifying environments of formal education are among those that can contribute forcefully to the alienating and disempowering commodification of our experience.

Paolo Freire and Ivan Illich

There are two key figures in the field of radical pedagogy: Brazilian Paolo Freire (1921-1997), and the peripatetic Austrian Ivan Illich (1926-2002). Freire, was concerned to reform the education system from within. Illich, on the other hand, is seen by many as a trenchant critic of ‘the system’ who sought to disestablish formal schooling.

Paolo Freire engaged in a lifelong political project of humanizing educational reform, which he lived in and through his own activities as an adult educator in Latin America. Perhaps his most influential publication was The Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1970).  Working from a postcolonial, Marxian perspective of oppression, struggle, revolution, liberation, and freedom, Freire highlighted, for example, the negative, dehumanizing effects of what he termed “deposit” or “banking” education, where people are regularly viewed by educators as containers that just need to be filled up with information. In contrast to this, he drew attention to the importance of dialogue in educational contexts, which holds out the possibility to transform a classroom environment from an authoritarian hierarchy to a transformational learning laboratory. Freire also advocated situating educational activity in the lived experience of participants. In this way, each person can win back the right to ‘say his or her own word’, to ‘name the world’. This would happen, he claimed, in and through acknowledgement of the social and political oppression in which they find themselves, and this acknowledgement in turn arises from a process of ‘conscientization’ or the awakening of ‘critical consciousness’. People, Freire taught, could then become aware of possibilities for positive transformation in their lives.

Ivan Illich shared Freire’s concern with the dehumanizing effects of education, but Illich diverged from the Freirian perspective, having less or, rather, no faith in the formal educational systems he encountered. Illich’s most notorious publication on educational issues was Deschooling Society (1970). Illich was, in fact, committed to a lifelong and sweeping critique of institutionalization and professionalization in a variety of fields, and to the disestablishment of formal educational systems. Finger and Asún (2001:10) identify four aspects to Ivan Illich’s anti-institutional position (See Smith 2001).

  • Illich identifies that institutions are more and more part of the intimate experience of our everyday lives.
  • Expert systems and professionalization, he claims, produce negative effects which far outweigh potential benefits, obscure the political conditions that render society unhealthy, and expropriate the power of individuals to heal themselves and shape their environment.
  • Illich drew attention to the problem of commodification. Professionals and the institutions in which they work tend to define processes we experience in social interaction, for example, learning, as commodities, for example, “education”.
  • Illich identified the tendency for institutions to suffer the problem of ‘counterproductivity’. Through institutionalization, he argued, fundamentally beneficial processes or arrangements are often turned into negative ones.

Sometimes it has been assumed that Illich was a totalizing rejectionist, condemning schools in an absolutist fashion. Finger and Asún clarify his position: “Illich is not against schools or hospitals as such, but once a certain threshold of institutionalization is reached, schools make people more stupid …. And more generally, beyond a certain threshold of institutionalized expertise, more experts are counterproductive – they produce the counter effect of what they set out to achieve” (2001:11). Prakash and Esteva state it more forcefully:

“Neither interested in improving the educational system nor in shutting down schools, Illich offered evidence that saying “NO” to education was a matter of decency and courage. Educational alternatives or alternative schools simply cover up the fact that the project of education is fundamentally flawed and indecent … (Illich 1996, 258-259)” (1998:97).

Prakash and Esteva

I recently read Escaping Education: Living as Learning within Grassroots Cultures (1998) and was impressed by the convictions of the authors, educationalists Madhu Suri Prakash and Gustavo Esteva. As radical pedagogists, Prakash and Esteva follow on in the tradition of Illich rather than Freire. To summarise, in their book they make four key points:

  • Formal education constitutes an insidious continuation of colonial ideologies
  • Formal education inculcates inappropriate Western values of the First World
  • Formal education supports a globalizing capitalist ethos
  • Formal education furthers the destruction of traditional communities by undermining traditional values

I am interested in asking to what extent their critique of formal education might be drawn into discussions about formal education and “Irish Traditional Music”. It is tempting to follow Prakash and Esteva in identifying formal education as the continuation of colonial ideologies within an Irish postcolonial context, as perhaps the work of Declan Kiberd in Inventing Ireland (1995) might also invite us to do. It seems to me, however, that such an approach has more in common with the simplistic oppressor/oppressed dichotomies that underlie Freire’s work than with the work of Illich. Similarly, the use of categories such as “Western” and “First World” invite the criticism, especially in the Irish context, that “It’s more complicated than that”. As for formal education supporting a globalizing capitalist ethos, I might well agree, but that is very much a discussion for another day. The direction I want to take here relates to their fourth point: does formal education further the destruction of traditional communities by undermining traditional values? Is the increasingly enthusiastic application of formal education to “traditional culture” concerns crowding out an ethical system of powerful, humanising social dynamics in Ireland (and elsewhere) by undermining relationship-centred values in favour of others? I suggest a cautious “Yes”. I also suggest that often happens in the name of “Irish Traditional Music”, and we participate in this process when we promote, accept or ignore this. To come to a clearer understanding of these dynamics I want to now briefly consider the issue of “tradition”.

The Naturalistic Metaphors of “Tradition”

“Tradition”, like “culture”, is a concept that often facilitates debate, argument, and worse (see, for example, Eisenstadt, ed. 1972; Shils 1981; Hobsbawm and Ranger, eds. 1983; Handler and Linnekin 1984; Hellas, Lash, and Morris, eds. 1996; McCann 2010). Most discourses of “tradition” rely heavily on what can be termed “naturalistic metaphors”. Any metaphor that is “naturalistic” is used in such a way that there is an assumed equivalence between what actually happens and what the metaphor says is the case. To use an extreme example, if I say someone is a banana, and continue to talk and act as if the person is actually a banana, then I am using that metaphor naturalistically. The two most common metaphors used when people talk about “tradition” are ‘tradition is an entity’ and ‘tradition is the passing of things from one person to another’. A third metaphorical structure is a combination of the two. The thinking runs as follows:

1) There is a thing called “tradition”. It can be understood as a bounded, discrete entity, and often refers to a stable, sometimes fixed, store of core aspects of a group’s identity. Recourse is also taken to the Roman etymology of the term “tradition”, which suggests that “tradition” refers to a traditum, any thing handed down from the past to the present, or a traditio, which suggests the transferral of ownership over a thing. If we do enough scholarly work, the case goes, we can identify any particular “tradition” and characterize it in terms of its contents and essential characteristics.

2) “Tradition” exists, but it’s not a bounded, discrete entity. Rather, “tradition” is a discrete process of “handing down” or “transmission”, in which discrete, bounded entities of various sorts (e.g. folklore, folkways, symbols, songs, tunes, stories etc. etc.) are passed down from one person to another, usually “from generation to generation”.

3) “Tradition” exists, but it’s a discrete process as well as being some sort of entity. “Tradition” works as an agent in our lives, in the manner of an “invisible hand,” similar to the invisible hand of the market. “Tradition,” understood in this manner, can often be assumed to have a life of its own (“Living Tradition”), can often be assumed to evolve (“The Evolution of Tradition”), and can also often be assumed to exercise aesthetic judgment (“Tradition-as-aesthetic-filtration-process”).

It has become commonplace in anthropology, sociology, cultural studies, and folklore to draw attention to the inadequacies of thinking about experience in terms of bounded entities. Life, thankfully, is more complicated than that. To insist upon understanding “tradition” as an entity or as a process of entity transaction, or even as a processual entity, is to participate in the construction of reified commodities, whereby we are encouraged to think of “tradition” or the “units of transmission” as somehow having a transcendent, stable existence independent of the uncertain lives we lead and experience. It may be comfortable to think this way, but they aren’t actually bananas. Nevertheless, academics and other analysts often use the term “tradition” in either or both of these ways, dazzling us with terminological halls of mirrors, blinding us with shifting meanings and marshy conceptualization. We are often convinced that such naturalistic metaphorical excursions are valid, accurate ways of speaking in analytical ways about reality by virtue of their supposedly legitimate academic history.

These naturalistic metaphorical constructions of “tradition” are profoundly commodifying in terms of the abstract understandings they afford us of our experience. Both versions rely heavily on the existence of discrete, bounded entities, entities which we construct in and through the intersection of strategies of closure and separation. As a consequence, discussion about “tradition” in these terms tends to revolve around issues of access to, and control and ownership of the entities that constitute “tradition”. In other words, discussions generally concern ‘resource management’, or rather, “tradition management”. As with any commodifying way of speaking about experience, such approaches frequently leave actual experiences unarticulated, as we keep actual effects on people in social situations out of the picture. We avoid looking too closely at ‘what is actually going on’. To repeat, By focusing on ‘things’ we can keep ourselves from thinking too critically about the character of our own attitude towards others and towards our experience. We can, often naïvely, persist in thinking that there is necessarily an equivalence between what actually happens and the ways we talk about what actually happens.

Re-evaluating “Tradition”

I’m very fond of something that Sunday Business Post journalist Tom McGurk once wrote in the context of a discussion of the term “traditional”: “While it doesn’t matter what you call it, it does matter what it is supposed to mean” (1995:25). So, let me turn it around. I want to start not with things, but with the way that I (we?) make sense of life. On the basis of previous research, presented in detail in Beyond the Commons (2003), I would suggest that we each negotiate our experience with the aid of working assemblies of ways of thinking and ways of doing (I refer to these in previous work as “structures of expectation”). We use many different terms to refer to these: for example, habits, routines, norms, guidelines, principles, procedures, protocols, belief systems, philosophies, ways of life, rules, training, rituals, standards, laws, and the list goes on. I would further suggest that these working assemblies of ways of thinking and ways of doing are often considered specifically within a context of community (where, with my theoretical hat on, I understand community as expectational resonance in social interaction). When this happens, we refer to these ‘working assemblies’ with terms such as “convention”, “custom”, “education”, “culture”, or “tradition”. Experience of these working assemblies varies from person to person. They run the gamut from being gently guiding and loosely provisional, to being highly-directive and deeply engrained (very much in the domain of duty, obligation, and absolutes). How a person experiences these working assemblies depends on the circumstances they find themselves in, and their attitude to those circumstances. To discern the more hardened ‘working assemblies’ in your own experience, what Prakash and Esteva refer to as “arrogant particularisms” (1998:2), ask yourself: “What am I willing to argue about?” or “How often do I use the word ‘should’?”

If “tradition” might be one way to speak of ways of thinking and doing in our experience, then, it seems to me, not so helpful to abstractly define “tradition” as a universal analytic category that somehow refers to timeless entities that are separate from experience. It might not be so important, then, to argue what is or isn’t “tradition” or “traditional”, but rather to ask what ways of thinking and doing are influential in my, your, people’s experience. It would be a terrible shame if by focusing on the words “tradition” and “traditional” we managed to evade such a question in favour of the commodifying allure of verbal games. What I believe to be helpful, particularly in the light of persuasive rhetoricians who deploy the terms “tradition” and “traditional” to serve very particular agendas, is to ask for a little specificity: ‘Whose ways of thinking and doing?’, ‘In what circumstances?’, ‘In the promotion of which values?’, ‘With what effects?’.

A Powerful Politics for Being Human

Prakash and Esteva make the case that formal education furthers the destruction of “traditional communities” by undermining “traditional values”. In light of the above discussion, to use the terms “traditional” or “education” as analytic categories is, for me, almost entirely unhelpful without looking specifically at the particular social circumstances we are referring to, which people are thinking the thinking and doing the doing, what exactly they are thinking and doing, and with what effects. This approach to analysis is personally demanding, requiring constant vigilance against overstatement and overgeneralization. That said, I wish to leave four questions hanging:

  • What is valued, where, and how, and by whom?
  • What values are fostered by formal education?
  • What values are not fostered by formal education?
  • What do we want our kids to learn about life?

Prakash and Esteva speak of “traditional values” in terms of a “commons”: “… the children of a community, pursuing the promises of education, systematically learn to forget the languages of their commons and their communities” (1998:8), and again: “However passionately committed to cultural diversity, the classroom must necessarily be the cemetery of sensibilities cultivated in commons and communities …” (1998:26). A little care is called for here, however. The term “commons” is most often a defensive concept, called upon in the context of a perceived threat of encroaching and commodifying enclosure. This is clearly how the term is used by Prakash and Esteva. There are, however, generally two different understandings of the term ‘commons’.

The first and dominant understanding is that the “commons” is a store of resources that people hold in common. To speak of the “commons” in this way is to present an always-already commodifying and commodified space. Typically, then, debate about a resource-commons is largely limited to discussions over access, control, and ownership. Further, action arising from defense of an always-already commodified space is always unlikely to curb the commodifying influences of enclosure.

A second take on the concept of “commons” is more concerned with people and how people relate to each other, In this case, the concept of the “commons” is again used as a defense against commodifying enclosure, but refers to a particular character of relationships rather than to resources. The uncommodifying attitudes of the people who participate in the “commons” are felt to be incompatible with the commodifying attitudes ushered in with the effects of enclosure.

On the basis of research done and research still to do, I now suggest that what many of us have long referred to as “traditional culture” in Ireland (and elsewhere) is the second of these, a particular character of social life which arises in particular circumstances from a general and personal orientation in which relatedness and relationship are not only acknowledged but fostered and facilitated. I think of certain house ceilidhs I’ve been to in the company of extended family, for example, or some of my best evenings in the company of friends. It is sometimes hard for people unfamilar with such social dynamics to accept that there are ways of thinking and ways of doing that are not commmodifying, that do not foster and facilitate commodifying attitudes, but for those who have experienced the transformational potential of such circumstances the dynamic couldn’t be more real. It’s not that you won’t find people with commodifying attitudes in such circumstances. These days you probably will. But what is important is that such strategies are just inappropriate to the uncommodifying circumstance. Crucially, if commodifying strategies begin to dominate the situations we find ourselves in then the possibilities for an uncommodifying character of social interaction are diminished; closures and separations become par for the course, with the negative effects of commodification going along for the ride.[1]

I think it’s good to take this away from being an abstract discussion about social dynamics, to ground what I’m saying in some way. To do this I am simply going to give a randomly-selected list of provisional principles which I have come across as “wisdoms”, that is,  emotionally-healthy, humanizing ways of thinking and doing. In my experience, these are not inconsistent with the uncommodifying attitudes of which I speak. Where did I learn them? From other people, to state the oft-forgotten obvious. From my parents and their parents before them. From people I have met and admire. One of the joys of my work as someone who studies ethnomusicology, folklore, and anthropology is that I get to talk to people, read what people have written, learn from people, and it’s my job. No-thing was “passed down” or “transmitted”. They simply speak of ways in which I can orient myself in my experience in relationship to my experience. These are some of the “traditions” that I would like to dominate my life:

  • Respect, humility, gentleness, generosity, and compassion are important
  • Wisdom is more important than knowledge or information
  • Silence is okay
  • You don’t have to be conspicuous
  • People are more than the sum of their resources or talents
  • There’s more to life than collecting tunes or songs
  • Absolute authorities or certitudes have no place among friends
  • You don’t need Press Releases, certificates, diplomas, or degrees to be a decent human being, and having them may not get you any closer to being one
  • Your personal experience is valued and respected, and you value and respect the personal experience of others
  • If you’ve got nothing good to say, say nothing
  • I am/you are not a lesser being because I/you do not:
    – play such and such an instrument
    – play, sing, or dance professionally
    – read musical notation
    – have a certificate/diploma/grade/degree/Ph.D.

They aren’t easy “traditions”, in fact they are sometimes difficult to live by, but that’s the challenge. There is a wealth of wisdom there for us among people we can know and love, if we’d just listen occasionally. These and other similar “traditions” constitute a powerful politics for being human, a powerful politics with which to counter the increasing commodification of experience.

What I want to suggest in this paper is that, despite much wishful thinking, such values are highly unlikely to be fostered by the environments of formal education (nor, indeed, by traditionalist institutions, festivals, tourism, representational government, archives, competitions, or the legal system). Uncommodifying values are inappropriate to the commodifying values of formally-conceived situations, and vice versa. In discussions about “traditional culture” and formal education in Ireland it is often assumed that the inclusion of “Irish traditional music”, “Irish traditional dance”, or “Irish traditional song” in formal education curricula unproblematically promotes the transmission of “traditional culture”. As I hope will now be clear, such thinking is not at all unproblematic. Indeed, I sometimes wonder if we are systematically forgetting, ignoring, or wilfully turning away from powerful, uncommodifying, and humanizing politics, and replacing them with the commodifying strategies and commodified resources of formal education. And that we may be doing this because we are often led to believe, by way of the miracles of naturalistic metaphors and mystifying terminology, that they’re the same; that calling something “traditional” guarantees that we’re on the side of the angels.

So what am I advocating? I am suggesting that we try to spend more time fostering and enjoying the uninstitutionalized, unscripted, uncommodifying situations that come about when people simply hang out together. I am suggesting that we stop assuming that formal education is necessarily the right tool for what we are trying to do. I am suggesting we learn to identify the various ways in which we close and separate, learn to identify the different masks that we wear as we commodify our experience. I am suggesting we notice how important ‘things’ have become and maybe consider life a little more in terms of our relationships and relatedness to others. I am suggesting that we encourage less misrepresentative and less mystifying analyses of ‘what is actually going on’. I am suggesting that we take time to identify our absolutes and certitudes, and challenge them. I am suggesting that we be less enthusiastic about all-out lobbying for the increasing inclusion of “tradition” in formal education (Again, which “traditions”?, whose values?). I am suggesting that we be less enthusiastic about all-out lobbying for unity where “tradition” is concerned, or where anything is concerned, for that matter. I am suggesting that each of us takes a moment to bring the chickens home to roost, asking ourselves: “What are my “traditions”? What are my values? Have I ever questioned the legitimacy of educational authorities? Have I ever questioned the validity or necessity of formal education? What has been my experience of formal education?” The commodification of our experience doesn’t take place without our participation. We aren’t victims. As long as there are people there are humanizing possibilities.



Floor (Stan Reeves): Thanks for the paper I enjoyed it very much, and I share your interest in radical pedagogies. I have been working in adult education for twenty-three years doing this sort of thing. I concur with what you were saying in the very early part. When I first started practising teaching traditional music in a participative manner, we had to find places to go to, so we went to the secondary school. We had ten classes in the secondary school, and the first thing you have to do when you interact with participative educational methodology in an established institution is you have to deconstruct the room, you literally have to take it apart. On about the fourth night the janitor came up to me, and he just leaned fairly aggressively towards me, and he just said ‘Furniture’, which meant that our student and teachers were not replacing the furniture in the correct fashion. Three months later, I’m in my office, about a half a mile from the school, and a small dark man bursts into the office and says, ‘I want to see the man in charge of the music programme’, and he ran right up to the end of the office and he said, ‘I want to talk to you about the arrangements of the desks in my maths class’. The man had veins standing out in his neck because we had put the desks back in an inappropriate manner. Really, this is to reinforce some of what you are saying about the formal education. I think I want to challenge as well, Paulo Freire, he talks about the inherent contradiction in education, in that yes, it does suffer from narration sickness, and yes, it is inherently de-humanising and domesticating, but there are also books in there that you can read on your own, and make your own interpretations of it and the people you will meet in formal institutions, and experiences that you will have, which are inherently liberating because of who the people are, and the way that they interpret the bodies of knowledge that they get. So the question really is about how within a domesticating formal education sector human beings can find the space to humanise that space, and bring some of  those values into the classroom, and create the humanised classroom. Ira Shor worked all his days in community colleges, the most de-humanising of education establishments, and he was able to find a way, and helped us think through that one. Is there any hope for us?

Reply: There are two things there. One is I am very interested in the tensions between Paulo Freire  and Ivan Illich because Paulo Freire believed that you could reform the educational system, you could actually find those humanising politics in the education system, and Ivan Illich seems to have basically said, I’m sorry, we have got to start somewhere else. He was a lot more subtle than that, but that was basically the main point. My own personal response to that is that first of all, hope for me lies in inviting every person, I am avoiding using the word student here, to acknowledge how they participate in meaning and power in their own life. Now, that can happen anywhere. The issue with this, as far as my own research is guiding me to think, is where that is more likely to happen and where that is less likely to happen. What I am finding is that the more formal education environments become, the less likely it is going to happen. The more formal educational environments become, the more it becomes about persuasion and coercion, the more it becomes about these binaries of students and teachers, the more it becomes appropriate to the oppressor-oppressed dichotomy that Paulo Freire would use quite often. So for me, wherever you have got human beings in a room, wonderful things can happen. As long as you can identify and acknowledge the effects of the environment that you find yourself in. Now, the main problem with the educational environments is that most courses aren’t geared towards saying, ‘Well, let’s start by looking at how what we are doing here is limiting the way we are thinking’, and if you are going to stay in the educational environment and work to reform it in that sense, you need that intensive structural awareness from the start, to say, ‘Well, we are guided in highly directive ways to think in commodifying ways about our experience, by simply being where we are.’ In that sort of expectational environment, in which we find ourselves, how can we challenge that? What things are we not challenging in this environment right now for example? The ideas of a university, all these sort of layers upon layers of things happening here right now. What things do we accept without question? What things are we willing to argue about, which is a very important question? What are we willing to argue about? I find it very important to focus on the issue of attitude. The attitude and the disposition of a person is where the hope comes from. The more they tend towards fundamentalism, the more they tend towards certitude, the more limiting will be their own experience of experience. So for me the issue becomes, in the teaching experience, to challenge people to identify their own certitudes, to challenge people to identify what they are willing to argue about, so that they can then challenge themselves, and bring the chicken’s home to roost.

Floor (Anon): All my formal educational background has been in fairly technical areas, medicine and then in business, and much of the business of the higher institutes in that area has been to attempt to humanise them, so it is exactly the opposite dialogue, beginning with something where the public expectation would be a very rigorous environment. The internal structure of those formal environments is recognising a need to try and humanise it. In turn, here we are taking a human experience and by applying rigour, inadvertently or overtly objectifying it, and then going in the opposite direction, my point would be, I think that there are some techniques and skills from the technical higher learning centres, because they have had to deal with some of these humanising techniques that might be useful in answering some of the questions. But how does one avoid the objectification and commodification of an essentially human study of a traditional culture.

Reply: One of the things I am very interested in is the issue I refer to as the ‘masks of enclosure’. One of the ways in which people often respond to these commodifying forms is with other commodifying strategies, but ones that that don’t necessarily look like commodyfing strategies. That is one thing I am always concerned about, especially in relation to the business and scientific environments. What I am interested in looking at are particular circumstances, what is actually happening, in a particular situation. What are the main dynamics in this particular situation, I’m not interested in ‘Irish Traditional Music’ in general, I’m not. I don’t think there is such a thing. I am interested in looking at where I am in my life, who is around me, what is happening, to what extent are these certitudes and absolutes creeping in, and are there any ways, in any way, that we can find them? Are there any strategies where we can begin to humanise environments? Sometimes that actually means identifying those things which grossly misrepresent the relationship or interrelationship of everyone at all times, that basically lead us to believe, for example, that we are all self-interested, or lead us to believe that we are all atomised individuals, or lead us to believe that everything is closed off and separated.

Floor (Stan Reeves): I’ll tell you how we solved the problem of the janitors. It’s very important because the janitors represent the negative power of the powerless, they have nothing in their lives over which they have any power accept the bloody furniture, and we resolved that problem by humanising the classroom situation. How we did that was we gave them bottles of whiskey, and we began to treat them with respect. We began to say, yes, your job is very difficult and you have been here since six o’clock this morning, and we want to be here till nine o’clock at night, and if we want to get through this relationship together, we are going to have to oil the wheels of love in this situation. So we introduced respect to a relationship with the janitors, and we introduced whiskey, and gave them free tickets to all the concerts, and invited them to bring their families to them all. They had never been treated like that before by academics, and I think it was a lesson not just to the janitors, but also to the other academics,  that it is always, always, always, possible to humanise any situation and it doesn’t always acquire a great theoretical perspective, it just acquires a bottle of whiskey! Every teacher should carry a bottle of whiskey.



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[1] This is often the case in defensive “commons” analysis; the shifts in understanding what might be happening from “what we do”, to “commons” under threat of enclosure, to “resource-commons” are often subtle but profoundly damaging in terms of long-term strategies against commodification.