Name the Colour, Blind the Eye: Reimagining Education
Bayo Akomolafe and Manish Jain
[Book Chapter in ‘The Other Hundred Educators’, 2016]
Around the world, going to schooling is such a normal part of growing up today that to question its legitimacy, to even hesitate a bit, is to attract blank stares and harsh criticism. How else does one expect to learn unless you are taught in school? How would one do well in an increasingly competitive world except you get a job that pays your way through? Isn’t it a crime to even consider denying a child the right to education? Aren’t these things encoded in international charters and laws? Why are you even asking these questions?
And thus goes a possible (and very familiar) series of questions one encounters from citizens of a mass industrial culture that has evolved to see institutionalized formal education – with its hierarchies of degrees, battery of tests, armies of teachers, skyrocketing fees, and Western bias – as the only legitimate way to think about learning. Schooling – like many once indisputable institutions before it – is perceived as ‘natural’ and ‘indispensable’ – supported by governments, promulgated by an expert class, championed by fearless NGOs, advocated for in public service announcements, and promoted even by the most left-leaning progressives.
This fundamentalism of formal education is so entrenched in our ways of seeing the world – especially in the so-called global South (where the imperatives of catch-up still burn brightly) – that even when a crisis in education is acknowledged, it is to complain that there isn’t enough of it. Recent perturbations in the educational landscape of Africa, particularly in South Africa, have inspired narratives that bemoan the ‘undue union influence, poor teacher content knowledge, [and] too little learning time’ as reasons why South Africans are not really learning. In India, an article reporting the failures of the country’s ‘Right to Education Act’, noted that ‘more than half of its 5th graders can’t read’, and called for sweeping transformations to the country’s paradigm of learning – mainly by selling more technology solutions to lubricate the exhausted gears of schooling.
What easily escapes awareness in these times, when unusual cracks are showing up in our social edifices, is that schooling itself is a crisis of magnificent proportions. And that attempting to fix it, or problematizing a lack of access to it, is part of a world-making practice that excludes and silences a disturbing truth: that there are many other ways to learn and see the world.
An old Zen saying insists that to ‘name the colour’ is to ‘blind the eye’. It’s an important observation with implications that touch upon new materialist knowledges, to wit: the identity of a ‘thing’ or an ‘object’ is created in relationship; relationships create objects, and not the other way round. Blue is only ‘blue’ because of the specificity of the apparatus that measures ‘it’. Change the measuring apparatus, and the very ontology of the object changes – as is the case when light behaves like a particle or behaves like a wave, depending on the way it is measured. What’s important about this point is that to see is to exclude something from the equation. The more strenuously you seek to measure a phenomenon, the more potently you silence its complementary status from mattering. Hence, to name a colour is to blind the eye from noticing other realities.
Schooling is the modern practice of ‘naming’ learning.
To account for its mercurial expansion is to lean in on the historical, social and spiritual dynamics that brought it into being – specifically the western industrial quest to remake the entire world in the monochromatic image of citizen-consumers.
Have you ever wondered why schools tend to look the same? Have you considered why curricula can easily be transported across cultures, disregarding contextual issues and premises, or why schooling was always part of an effective colonial intervention strategy? It surely wasn’t because the colonial lords cared enough for the people they sought to enslave!
Even with well-intentioned projects that seek to bring ‘education’ to the global south – to save the uneducated poor child or liberate women and down-trodden people – a stream of epistemological and historical-colonial influences and manifold exclusions still unfurls. With every educational tool imported, with every textbook generously purchased for a child starved of schooling, a world of learning is made extinct.
The white man’s burden, or deep desire to ‘uplift’ or ‘free’ the ‘little brown and black brothers and sisters’, has driven the spread of this monoculture institution all over the planet. But one must ask whether these ‘good intentions’ have led to greater liberation or to greater enslavement for the ‘educated’ and the ‘developed’. The World Bank-cited perceived benefits of literacy and school attendance such as improved child mortality and gender equality from increased income blind our eyes towards many other unsustainable externalities that have come with modern education such as over-consumption, breakdown of community, displacement, debt, pollution, suicide, and corporate control. Now, those of us who are recipients of schooling must face uncomfortable questions as ‘educated’ people: do we actually have more power or less power vis-à-vis the dominant global economic system and over our own lives? Are we more happy and at home now than we were when we were bereft, undone, and needing intervention?
The latter question is a crucial one to ask – especially as our homes rapidly take on new shapes and contours. In a sense, schooling, and the larger worldview of progress in which it is situated, is part of a generational quest for flight: flight away from intimacy with land, with context, with place and limitations, with bodies, with community. Like Icarus in his lust for ascension, the very real effects of schooling has been to desubjectivize the world, to treat it as a realm of dead resources and commodities, to deny the agential vibrancy of the world, and to carve a concrete path of linearity from birth to loyal citizenship and consumerism (even when the added nobility of becoming a ‘critical thinker’ is thrown into the equation). When we sit at school desks all day, we sever the particularity of the ways we commune with ancestors, with spirit, with grief, with time, with the eminence of eldership, with gratitude, and with each other. We internalize an arrogance (and deep sense of inferiority) that our grandmothers, and all those that came before them, were ‘uneducated’, ‘primitive’ and ‘backwards’.
Our contemporary discourse of education silences and delegitimizes the idea that there are diverse cosmo-visions, diverse naturecultures, many literacies, many knowledge frameworks, and many streams other than mainstream visions of what learning, knowing and being could be. By shirking a sustained commitment to cultural diversity, schools and the educational universe they are entangled with edge out biodiversity, multiple modes of framing wellbeing, and life possibilities outside the dominant money system.
Schooling inculcates in us a belief that we cannot learn or be civilized without institutions to teach, assess, organize, and label us. As learners, parents, lovers, and children, we cannot trust our own capacities or each other. Hence, fearing that we would ruin our kids or be left behind, parents comply and outsource them to a standardizing process that appeals more to an ideology of externality than to the very particular and embedded ways of seeing and hoping and yearning ‘within’ naturecultures. But our maps no longer work for understanding our territories.
The crisis is schooling. Not the fact that Indian children don’t know how to read, but the notion that reading is critical to learning, and the assumption that not knowing how to read or write proves inferiority. Not the fact that many African people cannot afford to send their children to school, but the insistence that learning is divorced from the ordinary, from play, from indigeneity, from the world – so that we have to meet special conditions like building sterilized ‘factories’ and classrooms to teach the universal ideals of moustachioed Caucasians. Not the observation that there aren’t more jobs or enough seats to cater to a teeming population of abandoned teens, but the material and discursive practice of denying the abundance around us in order to make the case for our scarcity-ridden economic and anorexic politic systems.
Around the world, people are walking out in liminal fields of reclamation. They are reacquainting themselves with the polyvocality of worlds we never noticed before. They are expanding their definitions of self. They are seeing that schooling is hardly about learning – it is about access to a very streamlined mode of being; it is part of an architecture of presumptuous universality that pays lip service to contextual difference, while working hard to remove them.
This movement to the borderlands of schooling is making possible the regeneration of new learning practices that critically contest and re-imagine many key dimensions of education. A crucial aspect of this ‘recovery’ and remembrance is taking shape as a movement of self-designed learning initiatives across the world, opening space for people disenchanted with schooling to rediscover their hands, hearts, heads and homes as key un/learning tools.
- Home-schoolers and unschoolers: “We can define our own learning agenda”
Millions of people around the planet are rejecting the top-down cookie-cutter regime of schooling and, in the process, are shaking the establishment norms of how a student learns, what s/he should learn, why s/he should learn it, when s/he should learn it, and with whom. There is a fundamental paradigm shift from frameworks that centralize teaching and the teacher to others that emphasize learning and learners; and, from learners as passive recipients of content to learners as active co-creators of meaning.
Most importantly, they are creating the space for a whole new set of generative questions to be explored with learners. In order to re-imagine and co-create a rich field of collaborative learning: what do you want to learn or unlearn? What problems would you like to solve in your neighbourhood? What dreams do you have for your community? What is your idea of happiness? Who are you and how is your life and your community related to other living communities? What are the products you use every day, how are they made, where do they come from, how can you make them?
Learners do not just theorize about solutions to everyday crises of food, energy, waste, water, transport, construction, etc., but actually start working on them in real-life practical hands-on tinkering and prototyping projects, which they can test out and get real-time feedback about. The processes are as important as the product. As such, this freed up space challenges the tyranny of school timetables, since learners are not restricted to the monotony of learning something in 45 minutes. The spontaneous pauses between questions where we are just free playing or doing nothing also become as important as the time engaging with the questions.
Additionally, learners within these spaces are not pressured to perform for exams, rewards or the avoidance of punishment, and can relate to, and strengthen, their own intrinsic motivations. Failure is seen as a gift, as a learning experience and an invitation to decenter ourselves vis-à-vis our learning ecosystems – instead of a pathological black hole whence nothing can return.
Shikshantar, a resource centre for home schoolers and unschoolers in India, is an example of how people are working hard to reclaim self-directed learning outside of traditional school settings. Run using democratic management systems and collective decision-making processes, Shikshantar is working to end the fragmentation between generations, and seeking to build intergenerational peer-to-peer learning spaces with at least three generations interacting, sharing, doing and making mistakes together.
2) Ecoversities: “Our Learning is Entangled”
Projects such as Swaraj University in India; ‘Unitierra’ in Mexico; Red Crow College in Alberta, Canada; the Free Home University, and 50 other founding organizations around the world, are conducting important experiments that are composting the hegemonic stance of contemporary higher education. Growing out of social justice and environmental movements, indigenous movements, art movements, and conscious business efforts, these peoples’ universities seek to disturb the exclusivity of higher education and are reimagining learners as being ‘community-ready’, instead of becoming ‘industry-ready’.
It’s a point that needs to be emphasized: nothing comes without its world. In that sense, the assemblage of relationships and performances that constitute schooling are entangled with the earth-denying, community-silencing, ecology-abusing, and industry-promoting practices that our increasingly hyper-consumeristic world is known by. Ecoversities are mobilizing a different sort of attention – calling on people to turn to each other, to listen to the sacredness of their lands, and see themselves as part of the world (or what nature is doing) instead of lords of nature (as is implied when we treat knowledge as anthropocentric and transcendent). They are inviting us to pay attention to our relationships in the learning field; to unlearn and see that we are not alone as individuals, but rather we live and learn in entanglement.
They are creating new kinds of rites of passage as disruptions for young people to remind themselves how to live right relationship and harmony with life. One of such practices at Swaraj University, the ‘cycle yatra’, invites participants to embark on a bicycled expedition over the course of several days – without the trappings and support their modern counterparts are used to. As such, participants leave their base camps without money, phones, food and even planning. They inevitably learn to trust in their neighbours, to see themselves as interdependent (or even, ‘intra-dependent’), and to trust in the abundance that emerges when one is in ‘right relationship’ with their ecosystems. Other ecoversities are creating inspiring rites of passage exploring themes of love, death, conflict, and identity in collaborative ways.
What also seems shared among ecoversities like Swaraj University are the practices that are challenging and dismantling the hierarchy of degrees, the culture of rabid competition, the ivory distance of institutionalized knowledge, and the necessity of standardized testing. One doesn’t need to be a B.Ed. or a Ph.D. to share his/her knowledge in the ecoversities. The practices of copylefting also sit well within these disruptive, liminal spaces of decolonizing education: by challenging the regimes of copyright and patenting, as well as the incredulous idea that we can be ‘owners’ of knowledge, we are resituating ourselves in a world where knowledge is not a scarce commodity that can be bought if you have the exclusive resources to do so and where we are active contributors to the learning commons. It is also worth mentioning that these ecoversities are composting disciplines by breaking down disciplinary categories and boundaries – thus leading to deeper authentic relationships, cross-pollinating conversations, and new holistic platforms for engaging the vibrancy and festivity of the world.
3) Learning cities and ecovillages: “Enchantment is never in short supply”
Eco-villages, learning cities and transition towns are localization projects designed to reclaim power from giant corporations and the impersonal, externalizing tropes of globalism that seek to flatten difference and contexts to make the movement of profit more convenient. These initiatives are seeking to make production/consumption more intimate, governance more pedestrian, engagement more relevant and local, and learning more accessible and embedded in the ordinary. Education is seen as building an alternative politics and economics. They are inviting us to re-imagine our notions of place and context when we think about a new world of education, and reminding us that learning doesn’t only happen in the sterilized, controlled, virtual worlds of schools or Internet MOOCs.
Learning cities and ecovillages contest the idea of schooling as an isolated, scarcity-based funnel and recognize diverse sites of learning and knowledge as part of a vibrant learning ecosystem. Homes, offices, parks, farmers’ markets, cafés, street corners and sidewalks, old age homes, dumpsites, urban farms, and festivals become enlivened, animated and charged dimensions of our learning landscapes– instead of blank frames that propagate a disenchanting anonymity. Learning is being recast as spontaneous, dispersed, wild, unstable, promiscuous, emergent, decentralized, distributed and most importantly, embedded as the concrete walls of schooling are dismantled brick by brick.
Service learning projects and local social entrepreneurship projects are seen as rich learning entry points to engage with place and context. People are thinking differently about the commons and community, and put time into evolving sharing economies, gift cultures, co-housing experiments, alternative currencies, artisan cooperatives, community-supported agriculture, and re-skilling platforms. Unplugging and spending time in the outdoors, conversing with the trees, fields, mountains, rivers, deserts, animals are also essential part to the invitation.
Instead of trying to make more and more money, get good jobs, or pushing for more and more global economic growth, education becomes a meeting place – it becomes about meeting the universe halfway.
The call to revolutionize schooling is therefore not so much an attempt to create a new world, as it is an invitation to lean into the mystery of the world that now is, and re-engage with it. We are being called to improvise-with, become-with, learn-with, fail-with, see-with, and identify-with the world around us. The movement towards self-designed learning highlighted in this essay does not constitute final solutions or answers, but ongoing responses and a coming alive to the material promiscuity of the world. They are unfurling exercises that remind us that there are other colours in the chromatic spectrum, and that the way to these alternative spaces of power is to pay attention to those ‘negative spaces’ in the ‘current system’ (such as failure, ignorance, illiteracy, under-development, disenchantment and despair) and recognize them as allies we have not yet met.
Let us therefore open our eyes by shutting them tight. Only then will we notice that that which haunts us are aspects of ourselves – hints of a more ravishing series of learning paradigms – that can bring us to a ‘more abundant world’.