Reclaiming Learning – introduction

The Challenge: “Given that structures function to give persons powers, the specific use that agents make of these structural capacities is not pre determined by the nature of the structures themselves. Alternative courses are open to agents: they may simply perform the routine actions that are necessary to reproduce the existing structures, or they may seek to modify or altogether to transform those structures.” (Callinicos, 2006:190)

The Questions: Is there something fundamental to our species that creates conditions and dimensions of being that enable people to take those ‘alternative courses’ of action – the submission of our will to the structures we have created historically and our capacity to challenge the very foundations of these structures – and to do them almost at that same time and in the same spaces. To submit, to resist and to change make up the contours of our lives, are they separate geographical lines, do we ascend and descend across submission, resistance and change or are these ‘impossible contours’ that cross the life span vulnerable to a past, those practices, that project people into their present, that moment of choice when the very structures that bear down on us provide that possibility of a future that is cast in front of us as a shadow? The crucial point here is that the shadow moves and turns as we turn corporeally. The future thrown before us is within our material grasp precisely because the structures we erect provide a capacity for us to submit. If we have that capacity to do something, we have it in moments before the act, do those moments provide that space that may yet provide years of servitude or struggle?

These moments contain the past, those historical, social and cultural locations that form some of the shapes that we call identity, reality, life. They do bear down on people and to deny them is a facile gesture, to be born in a disabling society is to, at that very moment, take on those disabling characteristics. What you then do across the life span with this reality forms the basis of Sartre’s “Roads” (The Last Chance Roads Of Freedom iv, Translated by Vasey, Craig, 2009, London, Continuum.) and the challenges of the grapes of wrath:

Ma: Scared, ha! I ain’t never gonna be scared no more. I was though, for a while it looked as though we was beat, good and beat. Looked like we didn’t have nobody in the whole wide world but enemies. Like nobody was friendly no more. Made me feel kind of bad, and scared too. Like we was lost and nobody cared.

Pa: You’re the one that keeps us goin’, Ma. I ain’t no good no more, and I know it. Seems like I spend all my time these days thinkin’ how it used to be. Thinkin’ of home. I ain’t never goin to see it no more.

Ma: Well, Pa. A woman can change better than a man. A man lives, sorta, well in jerks. Baby’s born and somebody dies and that’s a jerk. He gets a farm or loses it, and that’s a jerk. With a woman, it’s all in one flow like a stream. Little eddies and waterfalls, but the river it goes right on. A woman looks at it that way.

Pa: Well, maybe, but we sure taken a beatin’.

Ma: I know. That’s what makes us tough. Rich fellas come up an’ they die an’ their kids ain’t no good, an they die out. But we keep a – comin’.

We’re the people that live. They can’t wipe us out. They can’t lick us. And we’ll go on forever, Pa…’Cause…we’re the people.”

(Sourced from the DVD: The Grapes of wrath).

This essay has a point of departure, the process of learning, however running through it is a debate about the relationship between our condition and what might constitute our nature.

Human nature is an evolving multi dimensional process, in which the different dimensions of life (see below) conflict and also bond to push forward learning and development. The complexity of this process is deepened when we realise that both learning and development are both dimensions that push and draw individuals through life. At any one time historically – over centuries, decades weeks and even moments the dominance of particular social, cultural and historical dimensions bear down on our nature, our energies, our foresight, our curiosity. This is the human condition, the point is that this condition is not a given, it is the external expression of a particular set of relationships between the dimensions of life – usually the spatial and temporal moment in our development that we see, at that moment, as the given and taken for granted. But there is a tension here because the condition emerges from multi dimensional struggles across the life span. So such struggles can have catastrophic and barbaric outcomes and at the same time those outcomes are only recognisable as barbarism because we also experience and strive for justice, mercy, knowledge and the power to have all these things. That this profoundly human experience has been invested in god should, given the record of our condition over centuries, be hardly surprising – the point is it is we who invest in god, and the argument is should that considerable investment in our spiritless world  be re – directed (See Marx’s arguments on this in the later sections of this essay) so that nature and condition can provide the social space for the free development of each individual.

Many people might argue that these questions and such deliberation is both tendentious and subject to prolixity, why not just get on with life?  ‘Getting on’ is however the problem: The very words resonate with disability, how do we ‘get on’?

Born into a home in which I was deeply loved and well cared for it came as a surprise to me that at the age of 11 I was a ‘failure’ along with many others in our educational institutions in 1963. I had to get on in a secondary school and remember creating a social and psychological haven in being ‘average’ in that system. Having failed I relocated myself in the B stream of that school as average in relationship to my friends in the C stream, ‘B’ ness prevented friendship with those in the D stream.

That life in school was the beginning again of my political and social consciousness, that past in which I shaped an identity that refused to fit in even in my own fantasy of averageness. There in ‘B Land’ I took on a socialism, stimulated partly by my mother, and used that knowledge to keep that fracture line that partly separated me from my friends. It was the beginning.

So if we imagine our lives as a series of beginnings, using Brendan Kennelly’s evocative poem ‘Begin’ (Astley,N. 2002, Staying Alive, Bloodaxe Books) as inspiration, I can count my days at Lancaster University, an attempt to be a probation officer, the period of dropping out in Stockport as beginnings. Through out these days and in 32 and continuing years of marriage and raising three children I have charted the multi dimensional struggles of every individual through my own experiences, particularly of those successive working class struggles in the 1980’s, 90’s and ‘noughties’ to hold onto the post war social and economic settlement.

Intellectually much of this experience and practice was moulded by my participation in the struggle between Stalinism and Trotskyism in the context of that assault on Social Democracy by successive Governments since the fall of Edward Heath’s government following the 1974 miners strike. That political frame of reference for my own modest involvement in working class politics was broken in my professional and personal engagement with the effects of pit closure and the attempts at regeneration of what are urban settlements in rural areas – the pit villages.

The break led me to conclude that the human experience of pit closure and top down regeneration initiatives required a return to Marxism on the following basis.

It became clearer to me as I researched both closures and regeneration that the first interest of both individuals and groups of individuals was their position as human beings submitting their will, often as community volunteers, to the structures of regeneration through a process that manipulated the capacity of people to act even in the dire circumstances of local long term unemployment, ill health, poor housing and weak transport infrastructure. The ideology of empowerment and building social capital was parasitical on this capacity to act, modifying and manipulating it, making that capacity to act one that was given by the structures of regeneration in the context of local deficits that could only be met if each individual and group submitted themselves to the financial governance and strategic direction of external regeneration bodies.

In these circumstances traditional ways of thinking about how people could organise their own resources and capacity for change simply did not meet the realities of experience in these isolated communities. In order to begin it was necessary for me to strip away the past as a fossilised set of ideas and look for the kernel of development and being in our humanity. A series of questions emerged:

What process would allow me to do this?

Which thinkers could help prevent personal submission and collapse before the process of ‘getting on with it’ crushed ideas and innovation?

At what point in both development and ‘becoming’ were people both at their most innovative and practical in dealing with social, economic and cultural isolation and at the same time most vulnerable to manipulation and modification?

My point of departure was in the very process that is uniquely located in every individual’s capacity to both think and act, a process subject to the struggle between those structural forces that would reduce it to the acquisition of discrete skills and that collective capacity for people to share the process and its contribution to thought, action and self development

That process is learning and its relationship to the emergence and becoming of identity. That is where I would begin again.

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