Emotional and political possibilities of pedagogy in virtual worlds.

This is a working paper.


A lot of emphasis is currently being placed on the development of e-learning in Higher Education. Through innovations such as Second Life, Moodle, Blackboard, and other such developments, it would seem that e-learning offers the promise of interesting and innovative approaches to lifelong learning, Continuing Professional Development (CPD), and widening participation. E-learning, it seems, is a good thing.

In this paper I explore some of the pedagogic implications of the use of virtual learning environments. What might be the possibilities and limitations of such technological spaces and places with regard to qualities of relationship and learning? Could moves to emphasise the human face of online learning be a response to a degree of dehumanisation that may always-already take place when a move is made from face-to-face to online learning?

Further, what might be the implications of virtual learning environments for teachers, lecturers, and facilitators who privilege the affectual dimensions of pedagogic interactions? What might we mean by ‘learning’ when we speak of virtual learning environments? What might be the limitations and possibilities of virtual environments for thinking about helpfully transformative social, political, and personal education? What we understand as the conditions, limitations, parameters, and possibilities of learning as a process very much guide, and even at times determine, how we conceive of the structuring possibilities of virtual learning environments.  An exploration of the emotional and political dimensions of pedagogy in virtual worlds is important for understanding limitations and possibilities in our negotiations of those worlds.

Introduction: towards a pedagogy of gentleness?

I remain fascinated by the possibilities of affect, influence, and power in online environments and virtual worlds. In my research and teaching I am seeking to understand power and agency in ways that allow an attitude of gentleness, rather than an attitude of control, to be my default baseline. I do not make much of a distinction between online environments and so-called Real Life environments in trying to understand either the politics of attitude or the politics of gentleness.

What I understand “gentleness” as the dynamic that happens when the expectation that uncertainty can be or should be eliminated does not dominate in our relationships and in the situations we negotiate. One of the specific notions that I have been exploring is a “pedagogy of gentleness”. I believe it is both possible and desirable to reduce the extent to which people, whether as teachers or students, might seek to control, manage, or eliminate uncertainty within learning environments. From practice-based research I have drawn the following principles for my pedagogic practice, among others:

1. There is nothing more personal, political, or relevant for me than attending to the character of my own emotional attitude in my role as an educator. How I feel on the day will have a major influence on the character of my teaching. This is what Teresa Brennan (2004) referred to as the “transmission of affect”. As Teresa Brennan outlines: “By the transmission of affect, I mean simply that the emotions or affects of one person, and the enhancing or depressing energies these affects entail, can enter into another” (3). This is consistent with the later work of critical pedagogist Paolo Freire and his insistence on the importance of “being with” (Freire 1998). I also find it important to note Megan Boler’s insistence that: “A pedagogy that recognizes emotions as central to the domains of cognition and morality need not preclude intellectual rigor or critical inquiry” (Boler 1999:110).

2. It is important for me not to seek to prescribe the outcomes or direction of a classroom. The character and quality of the interaction in the room is of greater importance to me than a clear trajectory, and the quality I am seeking to foster is consistent with Mark Smith’s characterisation of “local education” practices: “Instead of aiming for particular changes in individuals, we look to the nature of the interactions we foster – we move from a focus on product to a concern with process and praxis” (Smith 1994:36). The emotional climate I seek to foster in my teaching and learning is very much a conversational one, with an openness to detours and divergences in direction. As Smith notes, “The specific goal may not be clear at any one time, either to educators or learners, yet the process is deliberate. Educators in these situations seek to foster an environment in which conversation can take place” (1994:63). Learning outcomes, then, are used for the module as a whole but are not used for each session. I am reminded of the words of Derrick Jensen:

“I cannot control what my students want or are able to learn, and I have no desire to. Nor can I control whether the students like the class, and I have no desire to do that either. Nor can I control whether they are at a place in their lives to learn from anything I have to offer. … What I perceive as the direction they need to head may bear no relationship to the direction they actually need to head, the direction they’re capable to heading, or the direction they indeed end up heading. And I need at all times to defer to that uncertainty, that mystery” (2004:109-110)

3. Confusion can be fruitful. In my pedagogy I offer students an invitation to “trust your confusion” in expectation of the conversational quality of the interactions. This can be unsettling for students at times, but it can also facilitate a space of creativity and opportunity; Megan Boler speaks of a “pedagogy of discomfort” in which students are invited “to leave the familiar shores of learned beliefs and habits, and swim further out into the “foreign” and risky depths of the sea of ethical and moral differences” (Boler 1999:181). This is very much in the spirit of what a colleague of mine, Paul Devlin, advises his students, that they find their place of uncertainty and build a house there. One of the challenges, of course, is to find a way to match the exploration and generation of confusion with the generation and provision of stabilities (but not certainties) that will balance that confusion for the students.

These principles become important markers for me in trying to make sense of teaching and learning, whether face-to-face in a classroom or in online environments and virtual worlds.

E-Learning: triumph and disaster.

Lewis and Whitlock have declared that; “It is no longer necessary to argue the case for e-learning” (2003:xv). Would that this were so, but my own experience tells me otherwise. At the end of one semester at my university I was ready to throw my computer in the bin and declare online teaching and learning a lost cause.

As a mature student doing online courses for professional development, I have grappled with buggy software, wrestled with unruly hardware, screamed in frustration as I discovered that my serendipitous and fluid personal study styles developed over too many years as a postgraduate left me ill-suited to the scheduled delivery modes of online teaching and learning.

In the same year I served as a Course Director for an online course. I learned to do the following, among other things: listen to students with similar frustrations as myself; calm students with angry complaints; work with people who had suffered family bereavements, without the benefit of face-to-face contact; chase a tutor constantly for what seemed at the time like absence and neglect, but turned out to be more complicated than that; work with librarians mid-semester to scramble together online-accessible resource lists; and work with the university tech people to manage software difficulties.

After these experiences as student and as teacher I was certainly not inclined to give online teaching and learning the benefit of the doubt. My experiences generally in face-to-face teaching and learning had been very positive. I had become increasingly able to let classes happen, to respond to the conditions of the classroom and the mood of the students, in and around the themes I had prepared in advance for discussion. Silences, pauses, and an ability to stand, listen, and let it go, were becoming powerful tools in my arsenal of techniques for teaching. I was concerned that the parts of teaching I enjoy most would not be available to me in an online teaching and learning environment. I was concerned that what I was developing as my own best practice was not going to be available to me as an online tutor. To become a good online tutor would require me, horror of horrors, to start from the beginning again, to rebuild through the frustrations and the difficulties, to come to a constructive position for the development of online modules.

In short, I had come to a place where the onus was on me to either argue the case for online teaching and learning or to avoid it altogether. I didn’t really have the option of avoiding it, though, as there was an e-pedagogy module to complete for the PG CHEP (Post Graduate Certificate in Higher Education Practice), and I had just been commissioned to provide 4 units for yet another online module. Not only that, but I was due to start as Module Coordinator for the provision of another online course in the year to come. Online teaching and learning, it seemed, had become my fate.

“Look at the screen … and smile!”

It is easy enough to feel awestruck in the face of the new technologies in universities. This would seem to be the case for students; Lewis and Whitlock have written that, “E-learning has proved a dispiriting experience for some learners: slogging their way through unattractively presented content on a screen, unsure of where they are going and how long it will take to get there (if they ever arrive), aware only that it all seems to be taking a lot more time than they ever thought” (2003:xv). I would suggest that the same could be said for the experience of a lot of teachers, although I imagine many of them can make more of a positive difference to their own experience than they maybe realise.

A lot of emphasis is currently being placed on the development of e-learning in Higher Education. It would seem that e-learning offers the promise of interesting and innovative approaches to lifelong learning, Continuing Professional Development (CPD), and widening participation. The student populations of university campuses are increasingly diverse, and there is increasing pressure on university resources. By offering e-learning platforms universities can also ostensibly offer more learning in part-time, distance, and other flexible models. E-learning, it seems, is a good thing. Lewis and Whitlock again;

“E-learning is no longer new. It occupies a growing role in most education and training organizations. It is making the lives of individuals easier: helping people learn whilst at work or in the home, flexibly and at times that suit them. … As technology and software improve, e-learning becomes faster, more reliable, more portable and easier to use. So, not surprisingly, e-learning is playing an increasing part in the lives of learners and of learning and training organizations” (2003:xv).

Jane Knight (2003) describes e-learning as, “The catalyst that is changing the whole model of learning in this century”. In an ideal world, e-learning is claimed to offer “a student centred learning environment which can be tailored to meet the learning needs of individual students”, with approaches to learning that are described as “active” (Kenya Education Network 2007). E-learning promises increased student-staff and student-student communication, frequent individual feedback, collaborative learning, and greater student motivation.

One of the biggest challenges for the continuing development of e-learning is, I believe, to temper this unbounded optimism with a large dose of reality. Could all of this optimism be little more than rhetoric, feeding into tired progress narratives about the benefits of technology and our unquestionable need to follow the latest developments?[i]

We can celebrate the emancipatory potential of learning technologies all we like, but as of yet there has been little solid research to substantiate the claims that are being made. In the context of people with learning difficulties, for example, Abbott notes that, “There is little published, peer-reviewed research related to the use of digital technologies to assist those with learning difficulties to learn more effectively and efficiently” (2007:7). There are not necessarily more educational possibilities available to us simply because technology is involved.[ii]

E-Learning and the challenges of pedagogy

The pedagogic challenges we face in e-learning are in large part the same pedagogic challenges we face in any context of teaching and learning – teaching one, by one, by one … ; inviting people to make sense of their lives; providing educational opportunities. The non-technical personal competencies among the competencies required for online tutoring (see Salmon 2000) are little different from those required for teaching generally. Calder and Milne (Date unknown) suggest that:

“The most compelling reason for using learning Technology is that high quality resources, implemented effectively in courses, have the potential to significantly improve the quality of teaching by enhancing student’s learning experiences and involvement in the learning process through: interactive learning environments; assessment and feedback ; facilitating student-staff and student-student communication.”

But surely any pedagogy, online or otherwise, would, I hope, seek to enhance students’ learning experiences and involvement in the learning process though greater interaction, more appropriate assessment and better feedback, and better student-staff and student-student communication.[iii]

There is a case to be made for the benefits of online education, and many voices in the literature make such a case, from Jane Knight’s techno-boosterism (2003) to some more measured approaches found on the JISC website (e.g. Abbott 2007). Hawkridge and Vincent (1992) put forward a cohesive and closely reasoned argument for the use of computers by people with learning difficulties, while also recognising the limits of technological determinism in this field: “Computers can ease learning difficulties,” they write, “They can help learners to overcome their difficulties. They cannot work magic. They are not necessarily the best solution. Because each learner’s needs are slightly different, there are few standard rules.” (Hawkridge and Vincent 1992:21)

People are working to humanise e-learning. Throughout online educational practice people are encouraging less interventionist and more communicative tutorial support; encouraging more dialogue between students and between students and tutors; fostering community in whatever what they can. But these attempts may sometimes amount to little more than a back-pedalling response to a degree of dehumanisation that always-already occurs in institutional education of any sort, if Freire (1970), Illich (1970), Jensen (2001, 2004), and many others are to be believed. Maybe more, maybe moves to emphasise the human face of online learning is a response to a degree of dehumanisation that may always-already take place when a move is made from face-to-face to online learning. This was the argument made in early research on so-called computer-mediated communication systems. It was assumed that Computer-Mediated Communication (CMC) restricted or limited the possibilities of human communication when compared to face-to-face communication (see Herring 2002:133). For example, Daft and Lengel (1986) proposed a theory of “information richness”. For them, “lean” text-based CMC media make use of a single channel of communication, thereby being best suited to linear, concrete tasks such as scheduling. In contrast, they proposed that multiple channel media such as face-to-face speech are richer, and are more likely to be appropriate to complex and ambiguous tasks. Short, Williams, and Christie (1979) and Spears and Lea (1992) make the case that the text-based nature of CMC results in low “social presence”, and is thereby less-well suited to relational communication.

Virtual Learning Environments give us little obvious opportunity as tutors to work with  silence and pauses, often powerful tools in the classroom. E-learning gives us little obvious opportunity to work with the affectual dimensions of individual interactions or of a group interaction. To work with online technologies is for me to first of all acknowledge the limitations of those technologies with regards to relationship. As Brook and Boal have written, “… virtual technologies are pernicious when their simulacra of relationships are deployed societywide as substitutes for face-to-face interactions, which are inherently richer than mediated interactions” (1995:vii).

In acknowledging those limitations we can temper the enthusiastic hyperbole of e-learning evangelism and work towards more realistic and appropriate online pedagogies that recognise that online education is not a new dawn or a dazzling virtual reality separate from the dull one we ordinarily inhabit. Technology in and of itself does not constitute a revolution. It is important to stay grounded. Shapiro writes, “… it would be a mistake, conceptually and practically, to erect a barrier between online and offline activity. Cyberspace is not somewhere “out there,” a world apart from flesh and blood, asphalt and trees. Our actions online have (need it even be said?) a real impact on the lives of other human beings” (Shapiro 1999:31).

My own experience is that engagement with online teaching presents us with few opportunities for pedagogic reflection unless we explicitly allow for such opportunities. A JISC report from 2004 states that “Making the move towards new technologies presents practitioners with a complex set of challenges – they may need to develop new skills, embrace changes in the nature of their role, and then reassess the pedagogies they employ” (JISC 2004:7). But to be honest, very few of us get time to reassess the pedagogies we employ because very few of us get opportunities to really reflect on the implications of our pedagogies at all, whether online or face-to-face. We don’t really get the time or the headspace to reconceive our teaching roles or our understandings of pedagogy while we clamber awkwardly to cope with the latest online delivery software package or struggle to make sense of students who communicate solely through digital text. Administrating and monitoring online courses is hard enough as it is.

Yet, one of the key challenges in online learning is to remember that we are teachers and to underline the importance of the role of teaching. Online learning, or e-learning, is still online teaching and learning, but the dropping of the second word is significant. Erica Williams, back in 1991, warned of the bifurcation of teaching and learning, as ‘delivery’ was beginning to be preferred to the term ‘teaching’ and ‘instructional designer’ was increasingly being substituted for the word ‘teacher’. Pedagogy, paradoxically, was increasingly being used to erase teaching from learning. Voithofer applies Williams’ critique to online pedagogy where frequently, as Voithofer says, “a “teacher-proof” course that ensures predictable and exportable learning modules is part of the design objective” (2002:491). Passive tenses abound as teachers become less present in online environments, even to the point of becoming interchangeable – in this university, once we design units for modules they apparently become the intellectual property of the university and can be reused by any other tutor without consultation.[iv] So, in a very practical sense, the teacher could be anybody.

Deeply personal pedagogic approaches could easily become problematic as this happens, and people are likely to default to pedagogic approaches in which they are not terribly invested. This embedded interchangeability likely also encourages approaches to pedagogy which are more about information delivery than invitations to personal exploration and support of a journey of critical inquiry. This could, over time, profoundly distort the ways in which the possibilities of teaching are conceived in technological domains by teachers and also by students. As McConnell writes, “If tutors are moving towards a relationship that is peripheral, purely diagnostic and outside the actual productive work of the community, then they are likely to be seen by members as outsiders who exert control and unilateral power” (2006:194).

The Internet was not initially designed with teaching and learning practices in mind. As Talbott reminds us, “Often hailed as an unparalleled weapon against the establishment, the Internet actually grew out of a scheme for making military communications more secure.” (1995:1). Originally, the Internet was designed for the exchange of technical data, designed to facilitate computation and calculation. To use Internet and computer technologies unquestioningly in teaching and learning may be to risk allowing the quiet imperatives of code (see Lessig’s Code 2.0) and the powerful rhetorics of technological progress to determine the possibilities of our pedagogy. We do well to consider the words of Steven Jones, that “the Internet is a “piggy-backed” medium, one that follows paths we already know” (Jones 1997:8).

Blamires has noted that “the successful educational use of technology also requires rigorous thought about learning” (1999, p113). ‘What learning involves’ is often something which is very much taken for granted in discussions about online teaching and learning, even though our underlying assumptions about learning remain very influential but, most frequently, those assumptions also remain as surreptitiously silent partners in the development of online learning provision. As McConnell suggests, “our view of learning often determines the way we design e-learning events and courses, and … this has serious consequences for the learning outcomes of those students taking the courses” (2006:10). To quote Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, “Tools, of course, can be the subtlest of traps” (1997:141). What we understand as the conditions, limitations, parameters, and possibilities of learning as a process (i.e. our pedagogic approach) very much guide, and even, at times, determine how we conceive of the structuring possibilities of a virtual learning environment.

Take the following quotation from the JISC report, Effective Practice with e-Learning (2004:12); “A learning activity can be defined as an interaction between a learner and an environment, leading to a planned outcome. It is the planned outcome which makes learning a purposeful activity”. This is a very limited understanding of ‘learning’ which allows no room for learning to take place in a non-goal-directed manner, no room for serendipity, no room for exploratory detours, no room for the more interesting aspects of what the experience of learning can be.

Two aspects of this statement jump out for me: first, who has the power of definition in this instance? Undoubtedly the teacher. Second, who plans the outcome? Again, undoubtedly the teacher. Conceiving of learning activities in this way maintains a clear hierarchy between teachers who teach, plan, deliver, and students who learn as they are directed, get managed, and receive. There is nothing in this conception of learning which challenges tendencies within institutional education or e-learning towards ‘banking’ or ‘deposit’ educational models, where students are conceived of as containers to be filled with information. Online teaching and learning is always-already heavily circumscribed in terms of content and delivery. It is important that our conceptions of learning do not merely reinforce that circumscription with limited and limiting understandings of what it can mean for us to learn. As Voithofer writes:

“Following traditional instructional design models will lead to courses and curricula that teach standardized content through unresponsive pedagogies because they rest on assumptions that construct learners according to skills, knowledge, and performance rather than cultural factors that elude simple descriptions (conductive reasoning and ontological knowing), yet are no less significant to learning” (2002:494).

Students, in effect, can easily become interchangeable information clients, in a manner consistent with the increasing influence of neo-liberalism within the university sector[v], and in ways that facilitate views of education as little more than individually-oriented information processing or information management (as in ADDIE Instructional Design or Resource-Based Learning (RBL) approaches – see Mobbs 2003 and Maier 2000). It is crucial, therefore, that pedagogy in e-learning be understood as more than just the study of teaching practice or the promotion of best practice in teaching. E-learning practices are primed to spiral off into unrealistic and misguided rhetoric of a technoromantic (Coyne 1996) or technologically deterministic (Mackay 2001) character. Because of this, it is important that the need for critical questioning is not just located in the learning experiences of students but in our own reflections about the basic assumptions about learning, behaviour, time, and social change, that are always-already structured into the technological systems that we employ for our online teaching. These basic assumptions about the meaning and role of technology, the role of information in personal development, the nature of progress, and the place of the individual in society, in turn tacitly shape the limits of our pedagogic imaginations.

I am encouraged by some of the literature on online interactivity and course design (e.g. Clarke 2001). However, I do not regard computer interactions to be any more interactive than standard classroom interactions, indeed I regard them as much less so. It is commonly assumed by many that online environments are qualitatively or even essentially different from other non-electronic teaching and learning environments. Consider the following statement by Lewis and Whitlock, for example. “E-learning programmes should be interactive. This distinguishes them from textbooks, videos and other one-way media for transmitting information. The designer of the package achieves interaction by asking questions and posing problems” (2003:61). Again, as they frame interactivity, the designer initiates interaction, and frames the problems. Interactivity is assumed to be something other than that which ordinarily happens. E-learning technology is assumed to facilitate interactivity whereas other kinds of technology (e.g. books, videos, television) are assumed not to – computers are presented as essentially different in kind and consequence from previous technologies. Interactive learning, it follows, can only occur within an IT problem-based framework. I just don’t find that a helpful starting point for pedagogy.

David McConnell (2006) optimistically proposes that a new paradigm of learning is emerging in the development of e-learning, which he terms “networked collaborative e-learning”[vi]. For McConnell, two core features of this new paradigm are the emphases on both communities and identity formation as key features of attempts to make e-learning effective and productive. McConnell is concerned that the now orthodox focus on stand-alone e-learning packages that focus on individual student learning is too reliant on instructional system design [ISD] principles “that do not foster participative learning or critical analytical thinking” (2006:8). To encourage a broader pedagogic approach than that offered by “instructional system design” he draws attention to the work of the educational psychologist Vygotsky (1962, 1978). Vygotsky was keen to emphasise the importance of social context and the experiential dimensions of education in the development of understanding.

I’m not so sure that ‘networked collaborative e-learning’ (NCEL) constitutes a paradigm shift as much as it serves as a constant challenge to e-learning pedagogists. In my own experience it is easy to state that ‘networked collaborative e-learning’ or NCEL is occurring, and an awful lot more difficult to put it into practice. Talking about fostering community is a lot easier than fostering community; ask any UK government. To foster online community, it is important that personal contact be maintained at every opportunity, and that the tutor avoid at all costs the temptation to reduce the provision of a course to information delivery and merely interventionist tweaking of the course materials. As with classroom practice, online teaching and learning constitutes and is constituted by a series of relationships, which can be more or less disrespectful depending on the efforts made to maintain strong, clear, and frequent communication among the participants. Online teaching and learning always-already involves communication between and among people. The main issue is the quality of that communication and the texture of the attitudes and relationships that are facilitated by both that communication and by the collective level of virtual ‘social presence’ that the participants allow themselves to contribute.

Closing thoughts

Through the process of developing my online lectures I have become convinced that it is possible to work towards more humanised pedagogies in online learning. I am not convinced that the pedagogies of Instructional Design or Resource-Based Learning will get me where I want to go, but I do believe that there is plenty of scope for the introduction of radical or critical pedagogic approaches to online teaching and learning. I would say, though, that more helpful approaches would be facilitated by a more extensive consultation process among the people involved in the lecture design process, more consistent and explicit discussions of pedagogy generally across the university, and more time to prepare the lectures.

In my online work I aspire to, as Voithofer says, “… learning that is deeply personal and situated, taking into consideration local learning perspectives, while remaining historical within the narratives of the learner’s experiences” (2002:481). This will be difficult, I am sure, and may require considerable personal investment, maybe even more than in face-to-face teaching. Nevertheless, I am keen to explore the possibilities, at least for a while.


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[i] David Noble (1997) warns of corporate promoters of online education who seek to create problem-solvers and technicians through distance education that will be well-suited to fit into the pervasive neo-liberal logics of everyday life. He argues that the drive for technological transformations in online teaching and learning is a camouflage for the increasing commercialisation of formal education, “a disarming disguise”: “…behind this effort are the ubiquitous technozealots who simply view computers as the panacea for everything, because they like to play with them. With the avid encouragement of their private sector and university patrons, they forge ahead, without support for their pedagogical claims about the alleged enhancement of education, without any real evidence of productivity improvement, and without any effective demand from either students or teachers” (Noble 1997).

[ii] Indeed, it can be argued that technology has always been involved: “… the classroom itself is a technology, or comprises a set of technologies which we mostly take for granted – physical materials such as desks and chairs, black, white and green boards, chalk, pens, projection devices, worksheets, textbooks, notebooks, lighting and sound regimes and so on. It also includes social practices we have developed to manage these tools and settings: lectures, group activities, labs and field trips, for example. Technologically enhanced teaching and learning, in this view, is not new” (Murphy et al. 2001:2).

[iii] While I may have been more consciously aware of the interactivity of the lecture designs in e-learning, I do not regard computer interactions to be any more interactive than standard classroom interactions. Indeed, I regard them as much less so. It is commonly assumed by many that online environments are qualitatively or even essentially different from other non-electronic teaching and learning environments. Consider the following statement by Lewis and Whitlock, for example. “E-learning programmes should be interactive. This distinguishes them from textbooks, videos and other one-way media for transmitting information. The designer of the package achieves interaction by asking questions and posing problems” (2003:61). As Lewis and Whitlock frame interactivity, the designer initiates interaction, and frames the problems. Interactivity is assumed to be something other than that which ordinarily happens. E-learning technology is assumed to facilitate interactivity whereas other kinds of technology (e.g. books, videos, television) are assumed not to – computers are presented as essentially different in kind and consequence from previous technologies. Interactive learning, it follows, can only occur within an IT problem-based framework.

[iv] As Course Director of an online course I discovered this to be problematic, as the person who designed the course was not available for consultation.

[v] Note the increasingly common economic language with which discussions of pedagogy are framed, for example, “Learning outcomes help the various stakeholders” (Lewis and Whitlock 2003:62).

[vi] McConnell believes that this shift in e-learning pedagogy correlates with what some (eg. Sklar and Pollack 2000) have identified as a shift in Internet usage. Where once the Internet was deemed a vast reference source or virtual encyclopaedia within the framework of knowledge-based economies, now it is being predominantly used as the home for a myriad of virtual communities; “communication between people has become the dominant mode of use” (McConnell 2006:9).

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: http://www.whinstone.net/books-on-music/


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.