An Anniversary: Democracy & Education

Verdun, the aftermath
2016 is the hundredth anniversary of the appalling battles of Verdun and the Somme on the Western Front and the Brusilov offensive on the Eastern Front (the greatest Allied success of the war; 800 000 soldiers dead).  1916 was the year of the Easter Rising in Dublin, and the first conscription referendum in Australia, the only belligerent country that formally voted against the war.  Soon after that year’s end, the people of St Petersburg revolted, the collapse of the European empires began, and the United States joined the slaughter.

From that history of mire and blood, it’s good to be able to report another anniversary – the centenary of a great work of humanist scholarship.  1916 also saw the publication of Democracy and Education by John Dewey, once a high school teacher, at the time professor of philosophy at Teachers College, Columbia University, in New York.
Dewey, when not yet a Grand Old Man
It’s a chunky book in maroon hard covers (I have a copy of the 32nd printing, from 1960), originally published in a textbook series.  It’s subtitled An Introduction to the Philosophy of Education, and much of it dutifully expounds textbook themes: theories of knowledge, school subjects from History to Science, educational aims and values, the nature of philosophy, etc.
But woven through that is an extraordinary vision of what education could be, as the expression of a democratic society.  Dewey gives a sophisticated critique of the authoritarian pedagogy normal in schools at the time, and a hard-headed account of what a democratic outlook means in the practical life of schools.  These are the ideas that made the book an inspiration to generations of teachers, and the bible of the progressive education movement.  It’s still worth reading a hundred years later -  and you can’t say that of many textbooks!
If you never read any other part, read the chapter “Vocational Aspects of Education”.  The title sounds monumentally boring.  In fact it’s a brilliant short account of social change and alienation in industrial capitalism, and the role of education in reproducing, and also contesting, inequality.
Dewey could do this not just because he had a short unhappy experience as a school teacher, but also because he had been a very active academic psychologist and philosopher (the two trades weren’t sharply distinguished then) with a practical interest in teacher training and educational experiment.
In his second academic job he had been the key figure in setting up the famous Laboratory Schools at the University of Chicago.  Soon after publishing Democracy and Education he was one of the bunch of dangerous radicals who set up the New School for Social Research, an experimental university in New York. (Both are still running, though they have become less experimental.)
Dewey, when he was
I find it hard to get bearings on Dewey.  He was a socialist of sorts, certainly a radical critic of Gilded-Age capitalism.  He became a unionist, a member of the American Federation of Teachers.  But he left the public sector University of Michigan for the the new-rich University of Chicago, set up by Rockefeller money.  He then went to the Ivy-League fortress of Columbia University.  Well, many academics have contradictions in their lives, who am I to talk?  I’m happy to celebrate the fact that out of the tensions of Dewey’s life came this great inspiration to good education.

Decolonising the Curriculum

University of Johannesburg
Some months ago, colleagues at the University of Johannesburg invited me to join their discussion about decolonizing the curriculum.  This has become an important issue for South African universities, in the context of the Fees Must Fall movement.  I believe it is an important issue for universities all over the world.  Here are some thoughts on the question.
The hegemonic curriculum

A particular knowledge formation underpins the curriculum that most university teaching follows: it is a structure of research-based knowledge.  It is usually organized into disciplines such as Physics, Biochemistry, Literature and Law, but constantly evolves, so we also get Computing Science, Climate Science, etc.  Depending on the degree, this knowledge is woven together with the local practical knowledge that students will need in their future professions.

It’s the research-based knowledge formation that gives university education its prestige, and is the centre of the trouble about coloniality.  In many anti-colonial critiques, it’s called “Western” knowledge, and denounced as something that was imposed by the West on the rest of the world - and needs to be shaken off.

Collecting knowledge: Darwin's ship
I think that’s a mistaken view.  The dominant knowledge formation is not so much Western as imperial knowledge.  The scientific revolution was interwoven with the expansion of European empires, as information was collected across the colonized world, brought back to the imperial centre, processed there and assembled into the disciplines we know.  The knowledge institutions of the imperial centre became the key sites of theory, method, and intellectual authority.  (They still are.  Just look at the top names in any league table of world universities: Harvard, Stanford, Cambridge, Sorbonne...)

The colonized world wasn’t outside this knowledge formation.  In fact, colonized societies and their intellectuals had a massive historical role in creating it.  Post-colonial societies are still building it in the neoliberal age.  Think of the role of the global South in fields like AIDS research or development economics; or think of the huge investment recently made by the Chinese dictatorship in engineering, ICT, military and biomedical research.

The basic problem in the coloniality of knowledge is not a clash of cultures, but the operation of power, which has allowed unequal appropriations of knowledge, and marginalization of other knowledge formations.  Shaped into the hegemonic curriculum in a selective education system, it also delivers privilege.  Thus higher education has been connected with wealth and poverty, gender, racial divisions and language – all around the world.  The growth of a ruthless transnational capitalism, and neoliberal regimes in government, is making this worse.

The hegemonic curriculum has also, paradoxically, been a means of social mobility, and challenges to privilege.  Research-based knowledge demands critique of received ideas.  Universities are privileged institutions but surprisingly often have been sites of dissent against state, church and corporate elites.

Other knowledge formations

Challenges to the hegemonic curriculum often meet the question, “what can you put in its place?”  But we don’t want anything that goes exactly into that place!  If we look for resources to build a more inclusive curriculum, there are other knowledge formations of scope and power.

Linda Tuhiwai Smith
Indigenous knowledges are the locally-based knowledge formations created before colonization. There has been growing appreciation of their sophistication and scope: for instance, how precise knowledge of the natural world made it possible for whole societies to live and flourish in apparently very harsh environments.  Indigenous knowledge is not static, but has always been able to adapt and grow.  A classic illustration is Linda Tuhiwai Smith’s Decolonising Methodologies (2nd edition 2012).

Other universalisms are systems of knowledge intended to have general and not just local application, whose logic does not derive from the imperial knowledge economy.  Much the best known is knowledge based on Islamic culture, which did not stop short with its golden age in philosophy and science - it continued to generate new directions in jurisprudence, sociology, economics, natural science and more. A fascinating recent example is Syed Farid Alatas’ Applying Ibn Khaldun (2014).

Ranajit Guha
Southern theory is the name I use for concepts generated in the colonial encounter itself, and in the experience of colonial and postcolonial societies. Famous examples are the CEPAL school of development economics in Latin America launched by Raúl Prebisch and Celso Furtado, and the Subaltern Studies project in history launched by Ranajit Guha.  The extraordinary research on land, environment and economy by Bina Agarwal and other Indian feminists is a more recent example.

Curricular justice – on a world scale

All these forms of knowledge are potential resources for change; but they can be used in very different ways.  We also need principles of justice in education.  How this would work in curriculum has mostly been debated at a national level, but it can be taken to the larger scale.

Prioritising the interests of the least advantaged is the basic idea of distributive justice.  In education, it does not mean creating curriculum ghettoes, but is a principle for reconstructing the mainstream.  It means finding a place for the knowledge that least advantaged groups already have, but also gaining access to powerful knowledges that they need for the future.  Globally, that means accessing the resources of the dominant knowledge formation, as well as other knowledge formations.

Curriculum reform, if it’s not to be the imposition of an orthodoxy – as authoritarian regimes have tried to do - requires us to think hard about the relationship between democracy and education. In an education oriented to democracy, all learners are advantaged, not disadvantaged, by others’ success in learning.  And that is only likely to happen through curriculum that emphasises shared knowledges and cooperative learning.  Universities often do this better in graduate programmes than in mass undergraduate programmes.

Education is about fostering people’s capacities to act, and the society’s collective capacities to act.  It’s logically possible to direct education towards the capacities needed to build more equal social relations. That is actually done, by many teachers in many places.  The problem is to make that practice the mainstream.  For that, we need working models of good schools and good universities, and they can appear anywhere in the world. It’s important to circulate news of good work; I’d be delighted to hear from readers who have news to pass on.

These thoughts, I’m aware, are incomplete; but the issues seem very important for thinking about knowledge, universities, and research.  My paper for UJ is available on their website here:'s%20Paper%20on%20Decolonisation%20of%20Knowledge.pdf , and the basic ideas about curricular justice are spelt out in my book Schools and Social Justice (1993), described here: 

An American enounter with nuclear war

A few weeks ago in a second-hand bookshop (yes, they still exist!) I stumbled on the 1946 first edition of a remarkable book.  I’d heard of it, but never read it until now.  A small, somewhat battered paperback in the old Penguin livery, with a grey cover, and pages already yellow from the bad paper of wartime shortages.
The author, John Hersey, was a well-known American war correspondent during the Big Two, among other things reporting on the terrible fighting in the Solomon Islands.
After the atomic bombs were dropped in August 1945, the U.S. government and its occupation regime in Japan kept a tight lid on information about the new weapon and its actual effects.
In the following May, The New Yorker sent Hersey to Japan to report on what had happened.  The editors printed his story, occupying a whole issue of the magazine, just over a year after the bombs exploded.  The report created a sensation, was broadcast on radio, serialized in fifty different newspapers across the United States, and turned into a book, called simply Hiroshima.  Penguin bought the British rights, and despite the paper rationing, immediately printed a quarter of a million copies.  I now have one of them.
6 August 1945, from the ground
It’s written in a deliberately flat voice; Hersey rightly judged that what he had to say needed no flourishes of style. He tells the destruction of Hiroshima by weaving together the stories of six people who were in the city the quiet morning when the bomb was dropped.  The book narrates what each of them did, hour by hour and day by day, and what they saw, felt, and heard as other people died in the ruins.  And what happened to the six as they got sick, in the weeks and months afterwards.
They weren’t a representative group in any sense.  This isn’t ethnography, it’s journalism; Hersey wasn’t actually in the city very long. They were six whom he could talk to, who had survived the blast, escaped from the ruins, had radiation sickness, survived that (at least in the short term), come back to the city, and tried to pick up their lives.  
I’m not going to reproduce any details.  In this time when authoritarian nationalism and xenophobia are on the rise around the world, I’d encourage everyone to read the original.  It’s brief, and intensely readable.  You will find the New Yorker text here:
There are at least 10 000 nuclear warheads in the world today.

Rogue Oligarchs: Background to Trump

Donald Trump's success in the 2016 Republican Party primaries has mostly been interpreted by speculating about his local appeal.  He’s speaking to disaffected white men – capitalising on American racism – catching the fear and alienation of the American working class – and so on.  There’s doubtless truth there.  But something more is going on, and it’s not just a local issue.  
What is Donald Trump, after all, if not a billionaire who broke free of the usual organizational bases of conservative politics?  Trump’s media career already pointed in that direction.
Normally in liberal-capitalist regimes, there’s a clear specialization between the business and the political leadership.  Family or personal wealth can help a politician to rise in a party (David Cameron and Malcolm Turnbull show that), but it’s not essential.  What is essential is the network that links the business leadership to the political leadership.  That is a very complex tangle of connections – going far beyond official funding committees - through which conservative party machines and campaigns are funded, short-term deals are done and long-term strategies evolved.
That was the structure behind Menzies, Eisenhower, Thatcher, Fraser, and Reagan.  We got glimpses of it from time to time in corruption scandals, for instance when some of Nixon’s funding network came to light.  Most of the time the connection worked without publicity.  From the business leadership’s point of view, a grey anonymity was best.  The political and social stance too was normally ultra-conventional. 
Something in the neoliberal era has shaken this pattern.  Trump is definitely not the first owner of a large fortune to use it in a personal bid for power.  In 1992 the billionaire Ross Perot ran for president of the United States, campaigned against the Washington establishment, and was actually leading in the polls until his political naivety derailed his campaign.  In the early 2000s the oil company oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky seemed to be launching an independent political project in post-communist Russia, until he was crushed by Putin.
Australia launched a variation on this story. Rupert Murdoch started out in the conventional way, using a media fortune to back professional politicians.  But he took a different turn post-Reagan.  Especially through Fox Channel, the Murdoch empire became a stridently right-wing mobilizing force in its own right.  
Birds of a feather...
The most spectacular example of the rogue oligarch, however, is Silvio Berlusconi.  Starting as a property developer, becoming quickly rich as a media magnate, Berlusconi moved into electoral politics in the early 1990s.  At that moment, the established parties in Italy were massively discredited by corruption.  Berlusconi improvised a new party on the basis of his company, named it after a football slogan, and managed, through spectacular ups and downs, to be the centre of Italian politics for more than a decade.
In these careers, anonymity and conventionality have gone by the board.  Publicity is the breath of life to their campaigns (notice the connection with electronic media).  Being a bit shocking is one way to get attention; Trump plays this card repeatedly.  The Big Man image is important, so trophy wives can be expected; in Berlusconi’s case the display of virility went beyond this.
There’s an absence of detailed or coherent policy – of course!  That would be a hindrance.  There’s a good dose of nationalism and xenophobia (Berlusconi called his party “Forza Italia”, i.e. “Go, Italy!”; Perot became a noted opponent of the North American Free Trade Agreement).  Trump seems to have gone farthest towards racism and and is certainly using sexism.  This feeds the diagnosis of an appeal to anxious white working-class men.  No rogue oligarch, however, supports unionism, or any other effective form of working-class organizing.
Two background conditions seem important for this kind of politics.  One is the collapse of unionism, and mass party membership, since the 1970s - the latter has affected the political right as well as the left.  Mass organizations once provided political education as well as policies and campaign workers.  Now the parliamentary and presidential parties are suspended over a void.  Mobilizations like Obama’s internet campaign in 2008 can work electorally, but they don’t remain as a presence in working-class life.
The second condition is the corrosive effect of neoliberalism on the ruling class itself.  It’s significant that Trump displays no solidarity with the institutional system that made him very rich.  The outsider image matters.  Social solidarity at the elite level has badly frayed in the era of neoliberal globalization.  The old ruling class held together by conventional religion, dynastic marriages (you don’t get that with trophy wives), bourgeois high culture, establishment charities. Neighbourhood networks in Belgravia or the Upper East Side are not what they were!
The first of these conditions makes a Trump-style campaign possible.  The second suggests that even if this one crashes and burns, we are likely to get more Trumps in future.
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