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.
Since January of this year, I have been employed as a full time Guide at The Infinity School here in London, Ontario. (http://infinityschool.ca) I work there in addition to running DEMOI.
I wrote this essay explaining to parents and interested parties why I sought employment at Infinity and it is featured on the school website. I would like to share it here:
Why I Want To Work Here At Infinity
My first full time teaching position was at a Charter School in Fort Collins, Colorado. In 2002, I was fresh out of graduate school and looking to teach in an environment that valued creativity and intellectual rigour. For those not familiar with Charter Schools, they are an attempt to reintroduce the concept of the Community School in cities and towns across the United States. The institution that hired me was brand new and founded by a group of concerned parents who wanted to make sure that their daughters and sons were receiving a world class education and who were prepared to take a chance. This new school not only attracted eager families who were excited about becoming educational pioneers, it also drew young and energetic teachers who were zealous about bringing high performance learning to children and young adults. This school, Ridgeview Classical, has gone on to become one of the top performing schools in Colorado.
That first work experience, I believe, spoiled me. I learned right off the block what it means to work in a school characterized by frisson and daring; a school that thought of its educators as co- learners alongside their students. It was a school that also encouraged unconventional methods like Socratic learning and it was there that I discovered that I was a Socratic thinker and learner.
As I continued on, working in public, private and even university classrooms, I found that what I was seeking was, in fact, a return to that energy and sense of adventure I had encountered in Colorado. I knew that what I wanted in a teaching position was the freedom to float away from standardized tests and state/provincial mandated curricula and to encourage children and young adults to design and implement their own learning programs. This has been a journey that has taken me across three U.S. states and into Canada.
In 2013, I founded my own private teaching business here in London. That business, DEMOI Independent Learning, was designed to offer interested families the freedom of pursuing, in depth, a humanities and social sciences curriculum that I would co-design with their children. This proved to be a very rewarding experience, both in terms of the pedagogical challenges I faced and because of what I learned about starting, managing, and marketing my own business (I had never been an entrepreneur before). I literally started from scratch and had to discover how to earn the trust of potential clients and figure out just what it was I was offering to a marketplace already packed full of tutors and tutoring services. I think it is important to mention this because I appreciate, I believe, the challenges and risks of going out on your own and starting something brand new. The advantage of working at an established institution is that you get to trade on its reputation; when you are starting something new that reputation is entirely in your hands.
When I learned last year that Andrea and Vineet Nair were establishing the Infinity School I was excited because I recognized that this was an institution whose pedagogical, philosophical, and personal values were closely aligned with my own. The first clue I received was discovering that Infinity would follow “The Hero’s Journey,” a concept developed by that great scholar of mythology Joseph Campbell whose works I know well and had used with my students for years. I was impressed by the Nair’s dedication to pioneering a new type of school in Canada and it thrilled me to think that London would introduce the first Acton Academy to the country. As someone who helped pioneer a new school way back in 2002, I was delighted to think that I might be able to do so again.
As any educator knows, gaining the trust of parents and their children is essential and not to be taken lightly. And as every parent knows, the process of awarding that trust is delicate and requires that certain, often inchoate, needs are met. I am fortunate to be both a parent and an educator and this has led me to appreciate even more just what is happening here at The Infinity School. I know that I have found a home.
I thought I would share some of the books my students have been reading this autumn:
The Columbian Exchange -Alfred W. Crosby
Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900-1900 -Alfred W. Crosby
Crime and Punishment -Fyodor Dostoevsky
A Complicted Kindness -Miriam Toews
The Book of Negroes -Lawrence Hill
Americanah -Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Siddhartha -Herman Hesse
The Birth of Tragedy -Friedrich Nietzsche
A Suitable Boy -Vikram Seth
Demoi Independent Learning has been nominated for a London Readers’ Choice Award. I am honoured to be in the running and I appreciate the recognition.
Over a year ago I provided a statement of what DEMOI Independent Learning is about and which pops up every time you or I open this page. I remain proud of that statement but I know now that what I then said is, of course, only a portion of what I am actually trying to do as a teacher.
Here is another, alternate form of synopsis which expresses for me what I believe I am doing:
“This,” he said, handling it, “is a stone, and within a certain length of time it will perhaps be soil and from the soil it will become plant, animal or man. Previously I should have said: This stone is just a stone; it has no value, it belongs to the world of Maya, but perhaps because within the cycle of change it can also become man and spirit, it is also of importance. That is what I should have thought. But now I think: This stone is stone; it is also animal, God and Buddha. I do not respect and love it because it was one thing and will become something else, but because it has already long been everything and always is everything. I love it just because it is a stone, because today and now it appears to me a stone. I see value and meaning in each one of its fine markings and cavities, in the yellow, in the gray, in the hardness and the sound of it when I knock it, in the dryness or dampness of its surface. . . Words do not express thoughts very well. They always become a little different immediately after they are expressed, a little distorted, a little foolish. And yet it also pleases me and seems right that what is of value and wisdom to one man seems nonsense to another.” -from Siddhartha by Herman Hesse