I am honoured that Childreach gave me the opportunity to write a guest blog post for them. My topic of choice was role play.
One of the things that I find myself thinking about often these days is how the word individualism is really a distraction from the individual; how individualism as an ideology is a disruption of what any politics of the individual should be about: that is, the individual.
If my wording sounds circular and therefore confusing, it is for a reason: I think the problem with the way we talk about individuals and their value is that individualism is about a system of living, that is, an economic system, that is hostile to the individual person.
George Carlin once said in a television interview that he had no use for people, but that he liked individuals very much (I am paraphrasing). He said that once people started forming groups, that was where the problems began. There was a tyranny in groups. Carlin also told his audiences late in his life that they were owned; that the United States was run by a club and that he and they were not in it.
I like the Carlin example because it speaks to the trouble I find myself encountering when I try talking about the value of individuals. I think the value of life -whether in the person, the plant or the animal – should be self-evident. But the rhetoric of individualism makes that seemingly self-evident truth hard to articulate. Why? The reason is, I believe, because there is nothing self-evident about the value of life in a system that determines value on the basis of profit and what can be called “profitable outcomes.”
Life is not based on profitable outcomes. Anyone who has children knows that the world of parenting is a world of non-stop challenges: challenges to time, to patience, to schedule; parents are constantly put in the position of balancing the need for spending time with their children to love them, nurture them, mentor them against the demands of work, money-making. There is no natural equipoise here and a lot of what amounts to parenting is not about profitable outcomes in any sense other than maintaining peace at home or hoping that the child will fare well in the near-term to longer term. Any parent knows that there are so many unknowns, so many unpredictable events and risks involved in raising children that duty, obligation and of course, love, become far more important than anything resembling profit.
I am harping on the word profit because it is so quickly, so easily paired with this concept of “the individual” that comes up in conversations about society and politics. Why does the individual matter? Because the individual is the basis of a free system that is free by virtue of its ability to serve the individual. For instance, a social and political system is designated as “free” if it is seen as enabling the individual to pursue their own interest. You will notice that seldom is it “group interest” or “family interest,” or even the interest of their community: it is self-interest. This is a basis of liberal democracy, political liberalism and its various neoliberal and libertarian offshoots. The individual is the focus and therefore the measure of liberal democracy.
My dissatisfaction with this construction is manifold; I can think of a long list of criticisms of it which I could -and should– include here. But I will not because it will deviate from a broad, sweeping point which I am trying to make. That point is simply this: individualism has little if anything to do with the living, breathing, thinking and feeling individual. It has to do with the limits that should be imposed on other individuals, groups and the state in order to prevent their interference with said individual in the pursuit of happiness, property or liberty. It has little to do with that individual’s need to organize with others, to place noneconomic and nonmaterial imperatives before their ability to compete in a legal, economic and social system which values her on the basis of her work ethic, her ability to pay, her contribution to the profit-system. In other words, I am dissatisfied with a political ideology, individualism, whose basis is in negative liberties.
Why am I telling you this on a page dedicated -seemingly- to education? Because my fundamental belief, the belief underlying this page and my work with others is that I do not feel that negative liberties -freedoms from- are enough to protect the individual from the unforeseen challenges and tragedies of life; that negative liberties do not prepare individuals for the many unprofitable choices they will need to make in order to contribute to their communities and their families; I do not believe that negative liberties are enough to help individuals understand what their own value is and what their calling in life might be.
I also believe that thinking in terms of the individual makes individual acts of protest symbols of personal aberration, heroism or pathology, depending upon the predilections of the viewer. This narrowness of understanding, this constricted lens is also an obstacle to solidarity. It is why I feel the need, also, to post these three photographs which have a broad and deep story accompanying them. Better yet, broad and deep stories. To get to these stories, to absorb their meaning and to think about them in terms of the aims and goals and purposes of education is to begin to question individualism.
I had a very helpful and productive conversation with a good friend of mine the other night. He suggested that I expand DEMOI into the field of oral history/public history. I think his idea is outstanding.
For those of you who have been reading and following my page, you know that I have a podcast called ‘Talking to Canadians’ which features quite lengthy interviews (more are scheduled, by the way). As the podcast has evolved it has become less of a podcast and more of an oral history project. I am thoroughly enjoying the work and I have been wanting to expand the interviewing that I do.
In London there are many opportunities to explore the history and heritage of the city’s many neighbourhoods. Right now there are several proposed “Heritage Districts” which will require that researchers go out into the communities and interview residents about the history of their homes, neighbourhood stores and organizations and to talk with them about their life in their neighbourhoods. As you might imagine, I want to be a part of this and will be looking to join in the effort.
I am starting to think of DEMOI not only as a place of Socratic teaching, learning and discussion, but also as an inchoate institution (if I am allowed to use that word without sounding pretentious). My dream is to build an educational project that is capable of pushing back against the top-down, hierarchical methods that are used to steer people toward professional, vocational and occupation futures -not to mention, maintain class futures- which limit the scope of human potential. Better yet, I have a dream of combatting the alienation of labour, the tyranny of work which impacts so many of us.
I have long held to the belief that alienated labour or workplace tyranny is not inevitable. I see DEMOI as an attempt to work with people of all ages to find alternatives to a world of work-for-profit, work-for-competition and work-for-complacency. I see oral history as part of a broader dialogical process which has the potential to reexamine and potentially redefine human relationships. I believe, following in the footsteps of radical educators like Paulo Freire and Henry Giroux, that dialogue is a powerful device for personal and social liberation and that it engenders broader empathy. Already I am attempting to use oral history in my work as an independent educator. Here’s to believing that this endeavour can be part of a broader effort toward a better, more democratic future.
This is a piece I wrote about how we negotiate democracy in the classroom at the Infinity School where I work. I enjoy this practice as it fits in with the teaching I do independently as part of DEMOI:
Democracy in the classroom
Democracy is difficult. It requires a great deal of patience and comfort with disagreement. Citizens who take democracy seriously have to be prepared to have their ideas rejected by their neighbours, friends and peers. They also have to be prepared to accept the vote of the majority even if they strongly disagree with it.
At Infinity School, we practice democracy. This is done as part of each of day with a specific time each Thursday morning set aside for the democratic process to be honed. On those mornings we spend half an hour doing something called “Town Council.”
From 8:45 to 9:15am the Eagles and I have a meeting that follows an Agenda, which they have set. I open our council by asking the Eagles what they feel are the most pressing issues facing our community. By a vote, they place their chosen items on the Agenda and then we address them in the order of priority the Eagles selected. We follow the “Process Map” system used by our model school, Acton Academy.
My role as Guide is not to choose the items or to come up with solutions: the Eagles do that. When an issue is raised it is then “on the table” where it is discussed and debated.
When the discussion/debate has come to a conclusion (they vote on this, too), the Eagles are asked to come up with solutions. They write their ideas down and post them on the blackboard. I then list their solutions and see what proposals are the most popular.
After we have narrowed down our options we hold another vote until a solution is chosen. During the “narrowing down” process there is further debate and discussion.
If this sounds complex and involved, it absolutely is. And funny enough, the Eagles love it. They enjoy voting, debating, discussing and, above all, they love setting the Agenda. As their Guide, it can be both maddening and delightful to watch a debate become contentious or inspired.
But as I watch the Eagles in action I am reminded of all of those texts, articles and tomes about democracy I read over the years as I studied history and political science. Our Town Council is democracy in action: this is community dynamics at work; this is political science.
At Infinity and across the Acton Academy system, the Heads of School and the Guides are asking for something that today seems extraordinary from their Eagles. We are asking for their commitment to experimenting with a democratic system in the classroom.
We are asking them to take the lead in designing their education and establishing the ground rules and policies, which govern their community. This is an intensive preparation for adulthood, citizenship and the working world. This is also an attempt to bring back a frequently missing component of education: self-reliance, personal responsibility and active citizenship.
Anyone who is familiar with democracy and democratic systems knows that sometimes the process of proposing ideas and arriving at solutions is messy, confusing and (dare I say it?) chaotic. But this process is the basis of a free society; it is a requirement of a community-wide commitment to personal liberty, individual creativity and the principle that each mind, heart, voice and individual matters.
We believe that our Infinity community cannot truly be a community without the participation of every member. We also know that for young people to grow up and be successful in a competitive and often contentious world, they need to be prepared to participate by proposing ideas, attempting solutions and accepting that disappointment and failure are part of life in the “adult world.”
As a Guide, one of the most important life lessons I am learning from my Eagles is that this process of participating, of problem solving, is an ongoing process that one never masters. If you and your child believe that life is a call to creativity and that the best communities (and societies) are those which reward creativity, I think your child has a home here at Infinity.
You can visit the website here: http://infinityschool.ca/education-concepts/democracy-classroom-infinity-school/
Starting September 22nd, 2016 I will be facilitating a literature discussion group through the London Central Library. Here is a preview of the advertisement that will be appearing in the Library Newsletter this summer:
(Public Affairs Discussion Group for Young Adults who are Thinkers and Activists)
Ongoing, 1st and 3rd Thursday evening every month, 7-8:30 p.m. in the Flex Space, London Central Library
September 22nd: Introducing Our Mission & Team Building Session
October 6th: Discussion of Benjamin Alire Saenz’s novel Aristotle & Dante Discover The Secrets of the Universe
Join a team of young adults (ages 15-25) dedicated to reading, discussing and debating contemporary works of fiction, literary non-fiction & memoir which cover pressing questions of ethnic, racial and gender identity and address matters of social, political and ecological importance. We will be presenting our findings to the City of London and the Community-at-large.
Further Information and Sign Up available at https://demoiindependentlearning.com
The name DEMOI is plural for the Greek word “Demos” meaning “the common people of a democracy.”
I decided upon this name because I fervently believe that education is a democratic enterprise capable not only of encouraging literacy, self-awareness and mutual understanding but that education is also an exercise in empowerment. I use the word “empowerment” with a specific meaning in mind.
The American philosopher John Dewey wrote that democracy requires a “democratic conception of vocation”: a person’s “work” should be their calling. In a democratic society each student has a right to be educated and to be given the opportunity to choose the work they would like to do. This is not a whimsical matter but goes to the heart of independence and self-responsible authority. Democracy requires vigilant and intelligent citizens who are capable of debating and discussing the pressing issues of the day and holding powerful private and public officials accountable through their own steadfast commitment to literacy, empiricism and intellectual honesty.
I share Dewey’s belief in the importance of a calling which is why I decided to become an independent teacher. I believe in public education but I also am promoting the need for one-on-one and small group Socratic learning. In one-on-one and small seminar sessions I am able to help students shape their own curriculum and pursue a rigorous course (or courses) of study that encourages personal independence and the idea that education is a lifelong objective. I model my pedagogical approach on the Oxford University Tutors who meet regularly with students to discuss what they are reading, to ask them penetrating questions as well as requiring them to write and debate the themes and problems which arise in their studies.
My goal is simple: I want each student to know that education is made for them. I want them to learn how to trust their own judgment, become critical thinkers and learn the dual art of rhetoric and literary expression. I am convinced that by acquiring these skills they will be able to discover and acquire their vocation and use it to better their own lives and the lives of others. Informed citizenship, personal autonomy and meaningful work all begin with independent learning.
–Jeremy Nathan Marks