Category Archives: Education

On the ‘ridiculous’

There are moments in teaching when students elucidate a point more clearly and precisely than the teacher can. There are moments of self-discovery when everyone in the room is not merely learning, but reorienting their very perspective on the world, asking new questions in new ways. One such moment happened yesterday in my lecture on ‘Capitalism and Climate Change’. The class were discussing Timothy Mitchell’s outstanding political critique of our fossil fuel-based social order, Carbon Democracy. We were working in groups and interrogating our understanding of what Mitchell is trying to say about what is at stake politically in oil-fuelled societies. In effect Mitchell is arguing (I believe) that oil dependent societies came about as a means of undercutting the power of organised labour and of exercising monopoly power in the global market, and that the particular materiality of oil was critical to this project. It is an important argument, if one that I am not wholly convinced by, tainted, as I feel it is, by a certain vulgar materialism.

Nonetheless, there was clearly great interest amongst the group in Mitchell’s perspective. During the discussion three different groups, without prompting, used the same word to describe their understanding of what Mitchell was getting at: ‘ridiculous.’ It is an intriguing word, and the fact that they all used the same term was equally compelling. Something had struck a chord. Something was being seen here for the first time, simultaneously, by a number of people in the group. It was such a curious ‘teachable moment’ that I immediately chose to pursue the theme. Why had they used that word? What did they mean ridiculous? For one group, the notion Mitchell explores that oil companies might undermine their own production in order to push up market prices for their product just made no sense. It was clearly irrational economically and socially; for another, looking at Jevons’ Paradox, the fact that supply and demand might act to turn energy efficiency into the perfect system for the exhaustion of fossil fuels, yet without some kind of conservationist response, was just as perplexing. For others the political effects of using oil to undermine democratic power was disturbing and even counter-intuitive.

It was one of those moments when the assumptions that we have about how the world should be come into open conflict with how it actually is. It was a point where competing rationalities, common sense versus good sense, became apparent. It appeared in a feeling shared by the group in a common point of confusion. I offered some comments on what it might mean to even state that such phenomena were ridiculous when, from the capitalist perspective, they might be perfectly rational, and even beneficial. One student commented that they felt they were being ‘pushed to the left’ by it all, but, as I pointed out, no-one had actually done any pushing at all. The experience was valuable precisely because it was so spontaneous. There was no question of it coming from some pre-existing political agenda of my own; it came from the sense or feeling of my students, who no doubt have a diverse range of political perspectives of their own. Yet this situation had created some kind of a feeling in common. Something can’t be right with a society organised on such irrational lines, can it?

We left the matter there, unreconciled. I felt that we had made such a common leap of self-understanding it was important to leave any question of the conclusions to be drawn for another moment. We had all shared an insight into ourselves, and for the moment that was enough.

On Public Libraries

By Andrea Bonfanti

In our society, the term public has lost a lot of its potential positive meaning. Public should be of everyone as needed, without the burden of single custody. However, the current system of value is one of obsessive possession rather than actual usefulness. If we were to quote Marx, the slogan “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need” does not apply anymore because, it seems, people do not need, people want. For this reason, public libraries are often depicted as obsolete buildings with inefficient staff and dusty books. This short essay aims to show that public libraries are in fact beneficial spaces to our contemporary society for two reasons. First, these public institutions represent a counter-space to capitalist production due to the opportunity they offer: sharing goods. Second, public libraries are places for research of personal interests, therefore individual achievement, and for the production of new and common knowledge. In that, they oppose the capitalist ideology, which based on an illusionary principle of individualism (alienation).

Libraries have played a major role in humans’ societies since ancient times. The destruction of the Ancient Library of Alexandria was felt by its contemporaries as a major loss for the whole of humanity. Later, what is now called “The Renaissance” sparkled when a building-less library, made out of thousands of books and manuscripts, was fled from the Byzantine Empire into Western Europe after the “fall of Constantinople”, in 1453. More recently, Lenin, in a short work titled ‘What can be done for public education’, compared sarcastically the state of American libraries, with millions of books and open access to virtually anyone, to that of Russian libraries or, rather, their quasi-total absence. Libraries then, have always been a point of reference for society.
Public libraries’ role as places of sharable knowledge is of primary importance in opposing to capitalist system of production. In order to survive, capitalism needs a market in a constant state of hunger for new commodities. In this viscous circle, on one side capitalism production fills the market with a huge variety of constant new products while the market, on the other side, sustains capitalism through profit. The maintenance of this market has terrible effects, such as labourers’ exploitation, dramatic climate changes and constant humans’ alienation. Public libraries hit the very core of capitalist production, namely the market, because they stimulate the active principle of sharing goods, knowledge, and consequently of non-production. Individuals use the product for the duration of their need and, once they are done with it, put it back in the circle, for the benefit of others. The market request of a product is then weakened, if not cancelled completely. These institutions’ service to share goods puts on the spot how unnecessary the capitalist production actually is and weakens its frantic race. More than that, libraries also represent a place where individuals can grow personal passions.

Public libraries are places for the growth of individuals and for the sequential production of new and, possibly common, knowledge. The current capitalist ideological system spreads the illusionary idea that capitalist production can provide personal fulfilment through a variety of individualised commodities. In reality however, individuals become but mere consumers of whatever product is offered within a limited range of possible choices. We then find ourselves arbitrarily lost in choices such as in which colour to buy our new cell-phone or tablet. We need to have “our music”, “our mac” and “our kindle” when studying, travelling, living. Surrounded by such an abundance of commodities we do not question, for example, when, why or how that certain product had already become a need for us. Without engaging here with the difference between technology for the common good and capitalist technology, it is nevertheless important to pay attention on how individuals lose their own individuality and the response that public libraries offer. In this respect, these public institutions offer the same product as the market, knowledge, but in a sharable way. Through libraries individuals can research topics of personal interest and conduct private research without the necessity to purchase goods and, therefore, dwelling outside the capitalist ideology of the “must be mine”. Furthermore, public libraries, because they are public and based on the principle of common use, stimulate the free exchange of ideas. They then become forums for discussion and for the production of communal and new knowledge for the improvement of common conditions.

In conclusion, this essay has tried to engage primarily with the importance of public libraries in an anti-capitalist approach to knowledge. These institutions have been a communal good since the ancient times, from ancient Egypt to modern times. In our era, an epoch characterised by capitalist system of production and ideology, public libraries are important more than ever before. They represent a challenge to capitalism because they undermine the market request and consequently, the production itself. They also offer a genuine approach towards learning without the addiction of possession- the “must be mine” ideology. Furthermore, due to their public feature, these institutions stimulate communal discussion and knowledge production.

Do we need an Alternative Education Strategy?

Below is the text of my own submission to the University of Exeter’s ongoing Education Strategy Review. As you will see I am quite critical of both the format of the Review and the context in which it is conducted. In the age of neo-liberalism and climate change it is my belief that the role of the university as a space of critique and the public use of reason must again be fought for by teacher-academics and students alike. I encourage comment and discussion here, and for colleagues and students to contribute their own thoughts to the Review here.



An Alternative Education Strategy for the University of Exeter

Submission to the Exeter Education Strategy Review 2013-19

1. The present format, structure and objectives of the Education Strategy Review, with its pre-defined thematic problematic, is designed to prevent the emergence of really authentic questions regarding the fate of education in the neo-liberal university. It should be opened up to a properly critical discussion of why we teach, and why we learn. That is, to the question of what, if anything, is (still) possible within university?

2. The authentic question for teacher-academics today, the moment of the triumph of the neo-liberal projects of privatization and marketization of education, is: “What is the idea of the university now?”. It is no longer clear that this ‘idea’ is invested in particular bricks and mortar, a place called the ‘university’, which reproduces itself on the basis of the extraction of a rent from the future, taken from debt-bonded students. The university is in permanent crisis. The emergence of the knowledge commons, of open access publication and knowledge production questions its very future viability. This is the proper context for a review of education.

3. The dominant discourse, which represents education at the University of Exeter as an ‘experience’, also limits a priori the manner in which we articulate our pedagogy. Learning is not, and never can be, a process of the production of abstract equivalence. There is no ‘experience’ of education, only the multitude of transformational encounters with ideas. The commodification of experience is, by definition, ‘anti-learning’.

4. The attempt to solidify themes for an Education Strategy around common ‘characteristics’, ‘attributes’ and ‘values’ is an attempt to solidify particular ideological categories as expressive of learning, which are in actuality antagonistic to it. They are an attempt to close down the multitude of possible meanings of learning and the pursuit of knowledge.

5. Where made concrete, i.e. in the document Towards a New Education Strategy these themes are little better than empty signifiers ready to be filled with almost any ideological content. What, for example, is the merit in being a ‘game changer’? Which game is to be changed? Is ‘excellence’ a value in any meaningful sense? Excellence at, or for, what? The absence of a referent for such concepts is the very essence of ideology, and their non-contextual use the very antithesis of critical knowledge.

6. Measurement is not learning. Learning abolishes measurement.

7. We need to move beyond the tired binary of ‘education’ versus ‘research’. In the digital age these boundaries are blurring. We should promote this process. A future education strategy should promote the idea of Student as Producer. It is time to negate a model of learning as a commodity purchased from a factory, what Professor Neary calls the model of the Student as Consumer. Today it is again necessary to rebuild from scratch the idea of the production of knowledge for the common good, and of the student as an agent in producing that knowledge.

8. In an age of social and environmental crisis, the classroom must become a site for the production of real knowledge. That is knowledge that is not just of, but for; knowledge that is disseminated and activated in public for the common good.

9. Against the privileging of individual research in the production of commodity forms of research for the satisfaction of abstract metrics, we as teacher-academics-students should take back the time of pleasure that can be experienced in teaching both in and far beyond the classroom. We must take back our own subjective agency and the creative joy time of our teaching-lives, that is of kairological time, against our submission to metric, chronological, time of the university-machine. We must create a counter-space in which it will be possible to devise our own educational strategy.

Dr Timothy Cooper

History Against Education for Sustainable Development

I have been writing a paper on the politics and pedagogy of history and Education for Sustainable Development. The paper can be accessed at the new History Working Papers Project website, an experimental site that provides open access to working papers and tools for comment and open peer review. It it an excellent initiative, worthy of support.

Teaching Climate Change as History

For the past two years I have taught a second year module about climate change. In many respects this is a departure onto unfamiliar ground for me. I am not a scholar of historical climate change, nor do I have an extensive background in the history of science. So the module that I teach (Past Actions, Present Woes, which is based on an HEA model syllabus that I collaborated in producing a couple of years ago) is very much at the limits of my experience and knowledge.

Yet, something draws me to teaching climate change as history that I think is both important in itself, and troubling about the ways in which historical knowledge is generally thought of. Anthropogenic climate change is after all, very much a subject for the future, and an uncertain future at that. As a problem its parameters are set by scientific knowledge and the heroic effort to push forth our understanding of uncertainty through that knowledge. What possible use can history have in such circumstances?

This is the founding question that has underpinned the way in which I have approached this question with my students. What if we cease to assume historical understanding is legitimate, and instead ask why we should bother ourselves with knowledge of the past when there may not be a future. This is a question that Mark Levene has provocatively outlined in his essay on the ethics of history in the present age.

In reality, there are many possible answers to this question. but one of the most fruitful to explore is the way that historical knowledge can query the very ways in which we perceive anthropogenic climate change as a ‘problem’ or ‘crisis’ in the first place. This is not, as many people take it at first, a ‘denialist’ statement. I am very much convinced that anthropogenic climate change is both real and an urgent social question. Yet, one of the first victims of urgent social problems, is often the historical context from which they have been produced.

Take for example the desire sometime expressed to find ‘lessons’ from history about how to respond to climate change, and other environmental questions, in the here and now. This is, of course, a legitimate way of ‘using’ historical knowledge, but we rarely do we stop to think about what such an approach excludes. It leaves a very flat utilitarian picture of historical knowledge that often fails to do more than reinforce the obvious point that we are in a very bad way.

Another real risk of this ‘lessons from history’ approach comes from the attraction for historical of sailing too close to the sun of policy making, in the course of which the critical spirit of history can be lost. The risk of surrendering a critical historical discourse to the language of policy making and techno-solutions is very great given institutional pressures to show ‘impact’ as measure from the perspective of those who exercise authority.

It is against these temptations that I think teaching history in an age of anthropogenic climate change becomes so important and compelling. Even after the radical transformation of Higher Education in the past couple of years, in the wake of which elites have sought to encourage students to see themselves as passive consumers of an education that is a product embodying skills and employability and little else, what remains astonishing is the way that undergraduates continue to resist this narrowed vision in everyday life. Students know very well that the world they will inherit demands responses to more than where their next job comes from. They desire and demand thought. They have a critical voice that is worthy of being heard. It demands answers to the question of human existence itself. How shall we live together on a planet at risk?

To even ask this question then is our staring point. To demand the right to do more than give instrumental answer to questions determined elsewhere. Rather  to rethink the very terms through which anthropogenic climate change it interpreted, and what is possible is delimited, this is what is both possible and utterly necessary now.