Reclaiming Learning – beginning again

Learning then is that process in which the material world crashes into my consciousness, it is a space of both stress and possibility, a profoundly active process in which I continually contest who I am, where I may have come from and where I may be going. At every turn in the road I seek a way of moving, a particular way but that particularity contains a universal, a conception of life that acknowledges movement, backward sometimes but usually in the society I live in a movement forward, the use of what I have learnt being put some instrumental end. This moving forward, future, progress, keeping going, “running faster” become the universal motif’s of learning in our ‘learning society’.

The cultural and historical particularity of this notion of time in learning can be illustrated by reference to those human beings who think and act very differently because their relationship to the world is mediated, using Vygotsky’s  understanding of this term, by cognitive processes that put the future behind them and the past in front of them. Nunez and Sweetzer (2005) conducted research amongst the Aymara speaking indigenous people of the Andes highlands of Bolivia, Peru and Chile.

They found that older Aymara people gesticulated and spoke about their temporal positions in terms of the past being in front of them, in front of their eyes and bodies – because they could see the past through their experience of it. The future lay behind them because they could not see it. This was part of a social, cognitive, emotional and physical approach to the present that has resulted in a distinct social and cultural way of being and identity. Given the historical development of this part of the south with the development of urban living dominated by the social and cultural mores that insist we all move faster and faster forward younger Spanish speaking Aymara no longer gesticulate, speak or hold themselves bodily in ways that deny the future. The future they see is dominated by their position in the urban market economy. An individualist and instrumental view of self is embedded in social, economic and cultural relationships through learning to live in a particular way in society. Learning becomes that process of acquiring skills that develop human capital and employability.

The point being made here is that human learning is that natural process where complex biological and social dimensions play with and against each other as humans develop and create their sense of being (See Lewontin and Levin 2008 for a scientists view of the dialectics of nature and biology). We can choose to think and therefore act differently and herein is the heart of learning, the active process of thinking and living, theory and practice, those contradictions that that in their unity make up the whole of our lives, Marx (1977: 174) put it in this way,

“We presuppose labour in a form that stamps it as exclusively human. A spider conducts operations that resemble those of a weaver, and a bee puts to shame many an architect in the construction of her cells. But what distinguishes the worst architect from the best of bees is this, that the architect raises his structure in imagination before he erects it in reality. At the end of every labour – process, we get a result that already existed in the imagination of the labourer at its commencement. He not only effects a change of form in the material on which he works but he also realises a purpose of his own that gives the law to his modus operandi, and to which he must subordinate his will.”

This sensuous relationship between the individual and the world she inhabits needs reclaiming, as Shotter (2005: 6) says,

“in our interactions, we do not experience ourselves as living and acting in a neutral space of simple inert physical objects. As living, embodied beings, we can, at each moment in our interactions with the other and otherness around us, not only ‘go out to meet them’, so to speak, with the appropriate anticipations and expectations at the ready, but we can also have an evaluative and anticipatory sense of ‘where’ we are with them, and of ‘where next’ we might go with them-that is, we can have a shaped and vectored sense of how we are placed and how things are going for us in what we might call the landscape of now.”

That embodiment, that being in the world, no matter how thrown in  we may feel is again summed up by Marx (1970) when he declared that we are born into conditions we did not choose but we can go on to make our own history. So I claim it is our very nature (there is a human nature dialectical in content and form) to seek our selves through the world and to seek self development. For this to happen across the life span we have to actively attempt to transcend the social space we live in through a conscious struggle for new ways of seeing and to do that we have to plan and plot in our own minds and then establish principles that both work practically in the field of education and at the same time address and provide a philosophical basis for a practical grasp of our humanity so that we can use it to conquer the human condition.

It is the social dimension of learning that provides the critical resources for this work and in particular the principles, insights and perspectives of popular adult education. Work on popular adult education, particularly its radical core, is extensive and there is a long history of the struggle for “really useful knowledge” (Johnson 1979 and Thompson 1980), so a question could be asked about its relevance and use here in this paper, surely a sign posting to the literature would be sufficient?

My defence is that this literature and the practical projects of popular and adult education contain those principles that act both as a theoretical resource for action and at the same time are contained in that action, a discussion taken up by Aronwitz in his latest work on schooling and education with its focus on Gramsci and Freire (2008). This dialectic working inside each principle provides the motion for development precisely because it involves people working with each other, talking with each other, acting in social contexts, that leads to conflict and consensus in a way that celebrates both purpose and a sometimes joyous messiness, Eagleton’s point (2007:174) that “what we need is a form of life which is completely pointless” is found in these principles in the sense that they celebrate human life and learning as it is, explicitly rejecting the instrumentalism that would have us learning for work and then leisure rather than just for life itself. What needs to be added to these principles is an engagement with how our collective practice (again a working principle in transformative educational movements) works through the contradiction of conflict and otherness, given that our drive to self development requires that sensual relationship with the other that can descend into the barbarism of the human condition or ascend to that point where “we shall have an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all” (Marx, Engels, 1970: 53).

In dealing with these principles it is absolutely apposite to begin with practice and the question of how we direct practice and what the intention of that practice is. If the ultimate aim is the pointless then notions of leaders and led carrying out instrumental action has to be rejected. Practice is in this sense directed (a contradiction in itself) toward self development through non – hierarchical relationships between those who consciously direct their intellect toward change and development toward that world where we celebrate the pointless and those struggling toward an awareness of their place and a contestation of that place. The principle of a rigorous democracy is contained in these relationships in such a way that those at the centre of such relationships cannot modify or manipulate the relationship, holding back self development through a mono logical re – creation of that ideological abomination, TINA (there is no alternative).

Alternatives begin with a necessity, the necessity to break oppression and exploitation, the twin drivers of war and poverty that both in turn trap billions of people in those parts of the planet subject to the ravages of climate change and ecological crisis. There is no debate here, we should only be discussing and acting on the self development of billions of people through an identification of what strategy and what tactics globally and locally address the needs of people – needs that engage with liberation from exploitation and oppression and liberation for our humanity. An aside here, The Internationale is often sung as “the international unites the human race”, correctly sung it becomes “The Internationale is the human race.” The late Dr Max Adereth recounted that too me many years ago at Lancaster University.

To be true to our dialectical premise however principles need to have both something of the grand and something that speaks directly to people. The engagement of individuals in education programmes needs that refinement of the universal (liberation in both senses) into the particular. In this case programmes of education and study are negotiated and open, learner and teacher both bring critical resources to the meeting and allow that open space in the meeting for the creation of new resources. Wrigley’s notion of open architectures of learning (2006) I think is a particularly good example of practice that liberates and importantly is an operational strategy that introduces people to the notion of a shared education.

The principled dimension running through these concepts is that the oppressed and exploited have histories that have been systematically erased, in some cases in the most ferocious and bloody manner. These histories contain the building blocks of modernity, The English ruling class took over 150 years to build their economic ‘revolution’ on the bodies of the enslaved, colonised and working class of these islands. Stalin took rather less, a decade, but at the risk of being accused of simplifying historical process it was the same bloody spaces being created, the time frame was different. These spaces in history are the socio – genetic footprint of the vast majority of the human race. It’s this footprint that is revealed when people begin to use that history to shape possible futures from present action and study. This is not an archaeological exercise or some study in folk history, the political struggles and socio economic dimensions of history are part of, inform all current practices. Practice can move forward through our understanding and utilisation of history’s lessons today. This negation in a real sense carries forward the unfinished business of history, namely the throwing off of the rule of capital that emerged to liberate human power and then enslave that power to its continued production, thereby negating its early promise and in its production of that antagonistic contradiction – it frees and enslaves at the same time – providing a material basis for its demise. The problem here is that its totalising presence contains the possible destruction of the whole species as it both globalises the planet and stuffs itself with the wealth of the planet. The image of a system engorging its own being is a powerful and disturbing one, the point is that from this historical standpoint we can see the embryo of that possibility in capitals genesis and the mistakes we made at those epochal moments when we challenged its power. This point of both learning from failure and possibly failing again is discussed in Zizek (2008) hopefully we can go beyond failure.

This is the point where our engagement with each other, our education of each other becomes that struggle for knowledge that celebrates the complexity of knowledge and its relationship with our struggle to know what and who we are. If you read through Lenin’s early 20th century prose, e.g. “clerical obscurantism” this is what he precisely said in 1915,

“Human knowledge is not (or does not follow) a straight line, but a curve which endlessly approximates a series of circles, a spiral. Any fragment, segment, section of this curve can be transformed (transformed one sidedly) into an independent, complete, straight line, which then (if one does not see the wood for the trees) leads into the quagmire, into clerical obscurantism (where it is anchored by the class interests of the ruling classes). Rectilinearity and one sidedness, woodenness and petrification, subjectivism and subjective blindness – voila the epistemological roots of idealism. And clerical obscurantism (= philosophical idealism ), of course, has epistemological roots, it is not groundless; it is a sterile flower that grows on the living tree of living, fertile, genuine, powerful, omnipotent, objective, absolute human knowledge.” (Lenin, 1972: 363)

The language may appear overdrawn to a 21st century audience, but Lenin’s insistence in these notes is for real struggle over knowledge and not the easy dismissal of knowledge, it is an argument for the practical grounding of that struggle that should engage every one concerned with the human condition.


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