Going to extremes: How radical are you? Art education & British values

by Carol Wild

Semantic satiation refers to the making strange of words by continual repetition until they become meaningless. Within the discourse surrounding the Fundamental British Values (FBV) since their introduction into schools in 2014 words such as extremism and radicalism recur so frequently they begin to float free from signification. Rather than scouring dictionaries for definitions, an alternative approach is to consider how, using an arts methodology, the words might be enacted through drawing, dancing, or miming. Extreme suggests stretching out, and reaching, poses that extend and expand from the norm. A radical posture would be wide and connected strongly to the ground. Such movements necessitate breathing deeply and are energising. Conversely, the antonyms of extreme and radical suggest the body curling inwards, shrinking and pulling away from the furthest reaches and rootedness to the earth, leading to feeling constrained, small, and defensive.

These contrasts of the expansive against the diminished provide a useful visualization of the problem of FBV in relation to art education in schools. Davies[1] argues that the anti-extremism agenda is reductive and superficial. She uses Sen’s term miniaturisation[2] to describe how speaking of ‘groups’ and ‘communities’ minimises individuals making it easier to generalise, stereotype, and assign labels. FBV are not the only reductive policy at play in education and seeing anti-extremist initiatives as separate from the wider situation can mask important criticisms. Sukarieh and Tannock (2015) contest that anti-radicalisation should be seen as part of a wider shift in schools and society  ‘leading to the abandonment and undermining of the radical tradition in education at precisely the time it is needed most’[3].

When reading the (highly problematic[4]) signs of ‘radicalisation’ parents and teachers are to look out for, I was struck by the how similar the list was to those found on websites devoted to other teenage hazards (such as eating disorders or addictions). These include the tell-tail signs of becoming withdrawn, changing friends or style of dress, behaving secretively, becoming obsessive, isolation at school, trauma, experience of bullying or discrimination, being a perfectionist. As a parent of teenagers one cannot help but be moved by families broken by the defection of their children to join terrorist groups. These are families as ordinary as those torn apart by a child’s self-harming, anorexia or addiction. All can arrive in a family’s life unannounced and are indicative of the challenges of contemporary teenage experience –  growing up in an incredibly complex and alienating world and working out how on earth I’m going to find a feasible life for myself.

The notion of a ‘feasible world’ comes from Martin Buber who produced his life’s work through two world wars and conflict in the Middle East, providing first hand experience of violent extremism and constant threat. For Buber, the discovering of a feasible world was the purpose of education. His understanding of the nature of being was relational taking the form of either the I-Thou or the I-It[5]. If students (or teachers) became ‘Its’ to be made useful, rather than ‘thous’ to be nourished the world created would be less expansive and life-affirming than it might potentially be. His philosophy is pertinent to the problem of ‘radicalisation’ today; individuals resort to unhealthy extremes when the world they inhabit feels unfeasible and they have no creative means to make it so.

Davies suggests the ‘current obsession with excellence and standards may actually be conducive to extremism. This does not teach people to be at comfort with ambiguity or with the notion of a school or pupil being ‘good enough’’[6]. School-based initiatives that seek to foster resilience in young people abound. Coppock and McGovern suggest that linking notions of ‘prevention’ to the well-being, beliefs and behaviour of individuals fails to address cause at a societal level.[7]Davies argues we are not radical enough, the current approach does not go to the root of the problem and the miniaturising language of de-radicalisation increasing the stereotyping and alienation that is known to make young people vulnerable. An alternative is to:

… enhance the resistance to such simple labels and categories, and give children status by showing how original and special each of us is… to celebrate not a bland diversity, but a resistant hybridity and originality in each child…[8]

Yet education policy currently mitigates against the celebration of hybridity and the uniqueness of every child. The shrinking and narrowing and constraining of schools is felt most acutely in those subjects that equip us as human beings to invent and imagine and hope for a feasible world that is uniquely ours. Adams describes how rather than exploring the ways arts practice can assist young people in creatively responding to the challenges they face,

‘… creativity is suppressed by performativity in the form of high-stakes testing and league tables, which makes it far too risky for school managers to contemplate, especially when more compliant and easily assessed activities can readily replace creative ones. This does not necessarily require the removal of arts or creative-designated subjects from the  curriculum, rather it entails the extraction of their critical, relational and subjective features, so that what remains is a husk largely devoid of actual creativity. … Such reductive practices, which may nonetheless be attractive or sumptuously decorative, effectively exclude the learners’ voices, or learners as directors of their own learning’.

In relation to British values this is seen most crudely in the prevalence of paintings of union jacks, portraits of the Queen, and other visual caricatures devoid of creativity and criticality.

The FBV agenda is an opportunity for art educators but it’s a problematic one because it goes against a core belief that teachers should maintain political neutrality. This perhaps leads to the selection of apparently benign imagery rather than a critical engagement with notions of democracy, free speech or tolerance. Buber suggested that teachers can influence the lives of students in two ways, through propaganda (coercion) or education (communion). As …. stated,

“the real choice, does not lie between a teacher’s having values and not having them, but between his imposing those values on the student and his allowing them to come to flower in the student in a way which is appropriate to the students personality…’

The Fundamental British Values of democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, and mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs and non, are arguably connected with a neoliberal agenda that sees the preservation of the status quo as necessary for the smooth exchange of global capital. Karaba argues that neoliberal education policies are eroding, democratic, progressive education[9]. He emphasises that Hayek’s definition of freedom ‘the state in which a man is not subject to coercion by the arbitrary will of another or others’[10] is both defined negatively (the absence of something) and conceived of individually. This is a notion of freedom defined by ‘tolerance’, where individuals (or groups) exist side by side but do not relate, or change, or grow. Buber suggests the opposite of compulsion or coercion is not freedom but communion[11]. He uses the word Zwischenmenschliche, meaning the space between people, to refer to this in-between place of communion and sharing[12]. Art is crucial to peaceful and meaningful existence in creating zwischenmenschliche and enabling communion.

Herbert Read, took up Buber’s ideas when, against the back drop of World War 2 he wrote, ‘Education through Art’ – his manifesto for an education for peace. Read saw the creation of the right environment as essential for learning; one characterized by trust and the absence of fear[13]. It is fear that causes us to retreat into ourselves, to put up defenses, to protect ourselves, to worry we will be misunderstood, to stay silent, to choose not to share who we are or want to be. As the Sufi poet Hafiz wrote,


Did the rose

Ever open its heart


And give to this world

All its



It felt the encouragement of light

Against its




We all remain





Of course, the aim of teachers everywhere is not to miniaturise, or diminish, or cause students to close up but to see students blossoming, expanding and growing. For that they need not to be afraid. This is where art pedagogy has much to offer the anti-extremism agenda. Every day through relation and dialogue, art educators sit, for example, alongside students as they draw and sculpt and create and talk to students about their lives. The process of making together creates the Zwischenmenschliche in ways that other subjects do not.  Art teachers choose imagery to share with students that ‘makes the familiar strange’ and encourages them to expand their horizons, they teach skills that equip students with a language through which to be expressive and communicate their unique perspective to others, they select starting points for projects that enable them to explore their own sense of who they are and what their ‘feasible world’ might be, they communicate one to one and understand the vulnerability of students when they share their ideas with others, and they engage in group crits where the establishing of trust is essential and respectful listening and challenge opens up a space for transformation. Effective art pedagogy is fundamentally about relationships – it opens up the in-between space where communion, or to use another german word, gemeinschaft is able to happen.

How does art education respond to the Fundamental British values agenda? – not through reductive displays of the Queen, union jacks, cup cakes and cups of tea but through doing what we do really well – valuing the uniqueness of each individual and encouraging them to imagine a feasible world for themselves. This is not the time to take on reductive pedagogies that miniaturise and stereotype – we need more radicalism, not less in schools. Sukarieh and Tannock point to Freire’s definition of ‘Radicalization’, as a ‘process of liberation’ that is ‘nourished by a critical spirit’ and ‘involves increased commitment to the position one has chosen, and thus ever greater engagement in the effort to transform concrete, objective reality’[15]. We need young people who are brave enough and extreme enough to dream of a better and more equal world – to find feasible solutions to the challenges of today. We need them to be deeply and radically rooted, not swayed by popular opinion or propaganda. We need them to reach out beyond divisions and stereotypes. As educators we need to be the light so that they will not be afraid.

[1] Lynn Davies ‘Educating Against Extremism: Towards a Critical Politicisation of Young People’ International Review of Education (2009) 55:183-203

[2] Amartya Sen Identity and Violence: The illusion of destiny (2007) Penguin

[3] Mayssoun Sukarieh and Stuart Tannock ‘The deradicalisation of education: terror, youth and the assault on learning’ Race and Class April-June (2016) vol 57 no.4 pp.22-38 p.24

[4] Vicki Coppock and Mark McGovern ‘‘Dangerous Minds’? Deconstructing Counter-Terrorism Discourse, Radicalisation and the ‘Psychological Vulnerability’ of Muslim Children and Young People in Britain’ Children & Society vol 28 (2014) 55 pp.183-203

[5] Martin Buber I and Thou (2013) Bloomsbury Academic Kindle edition

[6] Davies (2006) p.107

[7] ibid. p.3

[8] ibid. p.189

[9] Robert Karaba ‘Challenging Freedom: Neoliberalism and the Erosion of Democratic Education’ Democracy & Education 24 (1) Article 1 Available at: http://democracyeducationjournal.org/home/vol24/iss1/1

[10] ibid. p.4

[11] Maurice S. Friedman ‘Martin Buber’s Philosophy of Education’ in Educational Theory (1956) 6 (2) pp.95-104

[12] Laura Praglin ‘The Nature of the “In-Between” in D.W.Winnicott’s Concept of Transitional Space and in Martin Bubers das Zwischenmenscliche’ UNIVERSITAS  20006 2(2) Available from http://www.uni.edu/universitas/archive/fall06/pdf/art_praglin.pdf

[13] Herbert Read Education Through Art (3rd Revised Edition 1958) Faber & Faber

[14] Hafiz (author) Daniel Ladinsky (translator) The Gift (1999) Penguin Books Australia

[15] ibid.p.23



Carol Wild is an arts educationalist at Birmingham City University.  The National Society for Education in Art and Design (NSEAD) is a professional association and an independent trade union existing to promote and defend art, craft and design education in the UK. The following is a précis of a presentation given by Carol at a recent annual conference on Inclusion, Innovation and Diversity, with particular reference to art education and the British Values agenda in schools.

Categories: Diaspora, Diversity & Difference, Rethinking The World, Sociology of Education, Visual Sociology

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