Recently, I heard Professor Stephen Ball talk about how the institution of the school was no longer fit for purpose and that a radical change to the way students learn is needed to address the social and political issues of our time. While I listened to Ball’s argument against the institution of school, I was struck by how his ideas resonated with the work of queer theorists. Perhaps this is because Michel Foucault, whose work provides much of the theoretical grounding for Ball’s polemic (Ball & Collet-Sabé, 2021), is considered a catalyst for modern queer theory. In the context I have in mind, the term queer is used to describe something that is somehow strange or out of step with what has come before. It is a disruptive or disidentifying (Muñoz, 1999) force that opens gaps within the fabric of normative reality. Given Ball’s invitation to (re)think the modern school’s epistemic fundamentals, I wish to reflect on the many promising and productive ways queer theory has already proposed how and in what ways such reform might unfold.
Queer theorists have long shown how such queerly educative work might be done. In 1981, American curriculum theorist William Pinar suggested that any curriculum that desired to escape the reproduction of traditional ways of doing must take a radical and degenerate commitment to learning. Later that decade, Eve Sedgwick began work on her evocative critique of the categorical binarisms that characterized much of queer politics at that time. In the 1990s, scholars such as Deborah Britzman, Susanne Luhmann, Mary Bryson, and Suzanne de Castell brought their own valuable and challenging ideas to the conversation regarding radical educational reform. These included strategies for (re)reading, refusing and reforming educational frameworks to encourage other, queerer ways of knowing and being. Jack Halberstam (2011) has (re)thought the concept of queer failure to outline a performative refusal of existing knowledge and alternative ways of knowing. More recently, Adam Greteman (2017) elevated a form of queer thriving that does not simply seek to gain acceptance through queer inclusion but embraces the genius of the queer imaginary. Elsewhere, Harper Keenan and Lil Miss Hot Mess (2020) introduced the radicality of drag pedagogy as a way to learn and live more queerly in the world.
Toward the end of Ball’s presentation, a colleague asked what advice he might offer educators who desire a more radical departure from current approaches to teaching and learning. Some seemed frustrated in the absence of a definitive answer to this critical question. However, this is where one may also look to the promise and potential of queer theory. For example, José Esteban Muñoz (2009) taught us that the radical realities one desires are often glimpsed through educated and informed aesthetic engagement with the world. Sedgwick’s (2003) theory of reparative reading suggested a form of weak ontology that helps locate responsive and adaptable dispositions to existing knowledge. More recently, Halberstam’s (2020) call to embrace the idea of Wildness has invited consideration of what it means to cross the boundary of homogenous knowledge into the uncertainty of not knowing. Finally, it is essential to remember that, for each of these queer scholars, their theoretical work was intended to navigate progress from within mainstream culture—not simply by affirming or denying exclusionary practices but by transforming them for queerer purposes. Thus, they demonstrate how queer theory is always performative in that it is intended to animate better life configurations for those who cannot live under normative conditions.
Hearing Ball’s evocative call to action, one may feel overwhelmed by a sense of urgency. Indeed, many of the issues he raised are urgent. However, the need for radical educational reform is already familiar to many queer individuals because reformation is necessary to address the intolerable conditions of the heterosexual imaginary. Moreover, these marginal voices have already fought and won battles to change seemingly mutable systems of oppression and violence. For this and other reasons, I wonder if educators might turn to queer and other forms of radical scholarship to think about education differently? If not, I wonder if ignoring existing, albeit marginal, contributions in educational research—including but not limited to those made by queer scholars—misses the means such scholarship provides for rethinking our present conditions otherwise?
If nothing else, one might consider queerness as a disposition that extends our collective vision for education into the unknowability of radical transformation. Such dispositions, Ball suggested, are vital to counter the influence of increasingly neo-liberal, product-driven approaches to teaching and learning. As Richard Ford (2007) suggested, queerness is “a political and existential stance, an ideological commitment, a decision to live outside some social norm or other… even if one is born straight or gay, one must decide to be queer” (p. 479, italics in original). Thus, queer might be considered a disposition that opposes what Ball & Collet-Sabé (2021) call the normalizing institution of the school. I understand that such a stance might help energize the substantive questions that must be raised, allowing discourse (and subsequent action). Queer theorists have already provided access to the ways and means to cultivate open dispositions to this queer imaginary through disruptive educational experiences. The question is, will our colleagues in education now choose to hear us?
(Above) Artist Prem Sahib’s, People Come and Go, (2020) installation invites attendees to enter a space of queer disorder and reconfiguration. Part of a larger exhibition, the gates provocatively invite the audience to make a choice; willingly engage with the experiences inside or refuse the invitation and walk away.
Ball, S., & Collet-Sabé, J. (2021). Against school: An epistemological critique. Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education, 1–15. https://doi.org/10.1080/01596306.2021.1947780
Ford, R. T. (2007). What’s queer about race? South Atlantic Quarterly, 106(3), 477–484. https://doi.org/10.1215/00382876-2007-006
Greteman, A. J. (2017). Helping kids turn out queer: Queer theory in art education. Studies in Art Education, 58(3), 195–205. https://doi.org/10.1080/00393541.2017.1331089
Halberstam, J. (2011). Queer Art of Failure. Duke University Press.
Halberstam, J. (2020). Wild things the disorder of desire. Duke University Press.
Keenan, H., & Hot Mess, L. M. (2020). Drag pedagogy: The playful practice of queer imagination in early childhood. Curriculum Inquiry, 50(5), 440–461. https://doi.org/10.1080/03626784.2020.1864621
Munoz, J. E. (2009). Cruising utopia: The then and there of Queer Futurity. New York University Press.
Muñoz, J. E. (1999). Disidentifications queers of color and the performance of politics. University of Minnesota Press.
Sedgwick, E. K. (2003). Touching feeling: Affect, pedagogy, Performativity. Duke University Press.