Radical democratic education: lessons from the past, hopes for the future

How do we “mobilise the past against a reckless present”? By drawing on a rich seam of successful, radical educational visions. Part of openDemocracy's "Left governmentality" mini-series.

Michael Fielding
22 May 2019, 1.00am
Protest against SAT tests for 6 and 7 year olds, 2016
Gareth Fuller/PA Images

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In this companion to Peter Moss’s ‘For an education that sees children as more than ‘human capital’ I too wish to argue for a more richly conceived democratic education in a genuinely inclusive public school and in so doing briefly explore how a creatively conceived left governmentality might nurture practices and sustain orientations that more fully realise those aspirations.

Among our initial tasks there are three that, taken together and learning with and from each other, seem to me to be of special significance.

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Radical democratic traditions of education

Firstly, if we are to develop a life-affirming, sustainable contribution to a future worthy of democracy in its richest and more creative sense we need to root our advocacy in the soil of radical democratic traditions of education. Now more than ever we must take seriously Robin Blackburn’s tribute to the radical left historian, E.P. Thompson, in which he insists we “mobilise the past against a reckless present”.’ In drawing on committed accounts of left-radical approaches to education in and for democracy we will be better placed not only to develop and sustain what matters and what works, but do so with an integrity worthy of those who have gone before us and of generations yet to come.

We must reject the poisonous betrayal of education by the current re-invention of schools, colleges and universities as profit-driven exam-factories – and partner that rejection with an equally firm commitment to affirm and demonstrate that another way has been and is possible. We must also deepen our understanding of how best to prepare for and sustain the realities of its emergence. What is particularly pertinent to the enabling aspirations of a progressive left governmentality is deeper understanding of the conjunctures – the key factors within the contexts of culture, place and time - that enabled alternative realities to flourish – and those factors that contributed to their later demise.

Take Alex Bloom, arguably amongst the most radical progressive secondary school headteachers the UK has ever seen. How was it possible for him in the immediate aftermath of World War 2 in the bombed out ruins of Stepney, then one of the poorest and toughest neighbourhoods in the East End of London, to create a radical democratic school that rejected all forms of regimentation, that refused the then widespread use of corporal punishment, that utterly rejected any form of competition and instead developed creative, co-operative, life-affirming alternatives?

How was it possible in the most challenging of circumstances for Alex Bloom to create and sustain a school that within four years of opening was, through sheer force of numbers, reluctantly forced to turn away further requests from international visitors?

What kinds of things enabled and supported the realisation of an educational vision of democratic living and learning that remains a beacon of inspiration over half a century later? Hard to answer of course - a tricky, contested terrain. From my research on Alex Bloom and from my own professional experience as a teacher working in radical comprehensive schools in the 1970s and 80s and then for the next 30 years as a university teacher and researcher, I can identify three influence factors - (a) mobilising existing progressive movements for reform, (b) a framework of legislation that not only legitimates democratic experiment but actively encourages it, and (c) nurturing values-based local, regional, national and international networks.

The point of democratic politics and its realisation in practice

And if we are to achieve and sustain democracy as a vibrant way of living and learning together in community it must also be committed to caring, creative forms of human encounter that express its purposes and aspirations.

The point of politics – the view of human flourishing that gives politics its legitimacy and its energy – must of course inform its structures and processes. But it must do much more than that. Thus, whilst Alex Bloom had highly sophisticated democratic structures at class-room, year and whole-school level, matched by an appropriately creative curriculum and a range of ways in which parents and community were involved in the school’s development, it was not these structures and approaches alone that justified its democratic status. Rather it was the daily realities and enduring commitment to delight in and care for each other as human beings, as persons of equal worth and shared responsibility.

Democratic structures are vitally necessary, but they are never enough, in society or in schools. They can be used and abused in ways which mimic its processes but betray its purpose. Drawing on the rich range of experience we have from post-war generations of successful, creative national educational initiatives left-governmentality can more readily develop what Roberto Unger so inspiringly and appropriately calls “democratic experimentalism”. In other words, a diverse range of democratic structures and flexible ways of working driven by “collective experimental practice from below”. These would not only be inclusive of age and identity but richly and energetically intergenerational. The recent school student strikes in the UK insisting all generations and nations take joint responsibility for the fragile future of our planet mirror and take strength from similar actions in other countries and continents. And furthermore, they exemplify a resurgence and further development of what in the 1990s I called a “radical collegiality”, a companion delight in and shared responsibility within and between generations for democratic living and learning in its fullest, most human sense.

Language matters

Lastly, language matters. If we are to resist the withering betrayal of neo-liberalism we must refute its corrosive discourse of performance and profit. Instead of the now well-established managerial colonisation of education typified by the bullying machismo of ‘delivery’ which distorts and denies the necessary reciprocity of learning, we need a quite different discourse that names, invites and celebrates quite different realities.

How refreshing it is to find those such as the Irish Higher Education Authority whose advocacy of the language of mutuality and the common good names a quite different reality to the self-obsessed consumerism of the market. How important it is to applaud their insistence that HEI must be active sites of democratic citizenship; on the need to make real our commitment to democracy, not merely by studying it, but by living it on a daily basis. As I have argued elsewhere, if democracy matters it must be seen to matter. Its aspirations require the dignity and eloquence of articulation; its legitimacy requires enacted practical arrangements and humane dispositions which embody its living reality. Democracy as a means of living and learning together cannot be left to chance or the vain belief it will follow inevitably in the wake of arrangements which lack the will, imagination and energising discourse to name and require its priority.

In the resonant words of the remarkable philosopher / politician, Michael Ignatieff, “[We need], as much as anything else, language adequate to the times we live in… Our needs are made of words: they come to us in speech, and they can die for lack of expression. Without a public language to help us find our words, our needs will dry up in silence.”

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