DESCHOOLING AS A POLITICAL MOVEMENT- SOME RADICAL ALTERNATIVE FOR COMMUNITY DEVELOPMENT
'A radical movement always begins to create within itself the structures that will eventually form the basis of the new society.'
INTRODUCTION: A NEW RADICAL SOCIAL MOVEMENT
The last decade in Australia and other advanced capitalist countries has witness the emergence of a new social movement, one which is in deep conflict with the core organising values of the dominant culture. The movement has its origins in a Marxist critique of the existing social order, but goes beyond it to propose a concrete blueprint for a post-industrial, post-capitalist society.
The blueprint basically affirms a model of community socialism. Fundamentally this entails collective ownership, control and planning of the means of production and distribution. Yet it also implies a system in which economic and service institutions grow from the smaller governing units in the society (be they communes, neighbourhoods or regions), and are responsive to the needs of these smaller units and under their direct control. In addition it assumes a lowering of per-capita consumption in line with ecological considerations, and a fabric of social relationships underlined by an ethic of cooperation.
In several important ways, this programme of radical change is already seeing fruition. One manifestation has been the move back to the land. Small towns like Nimbin, hit by the decline in rural industry, are experiencing economic and cultural regeneration as they become focal points for 'alternate living' experiments. In another, an expressed desire for community involvement has caused a fragmentation within the urban milieu, making it a haven for a multiplicity of coexistent life styles. The cities have become bases for community-controlled action projects in the areas of education, welfare, media and housing.
Owing to the lack of an overall political strategy, far too often have radical programmes been absorbed by the Establishment's tactic of encapsulating key sections or personnel, thereby leaving the programme with no constituency of its own. Indeed, it is difficult to know when an apparently new project is capable of being turned into something that will achieve change, or whether it will turn inwards on its creators and become another 'softcop' for the system. The reasons behind this state of affairs are projected by Marcuse who notes the paradox of striking contrast between the total character of the rebellion on the one hand and the absence of a class basis for this radicalism on the other.
"The search for specific historical agents of revolutionary change in the advanced capitalist countries is indeed meaningless. Revolutionary forces emerge in the process of change itself; the translation of the potential into the actual is the work of political practice. And just as little as critical theory, can political practice orient itself on a concept of revolution which belongs to the nineteenth and early twentieth century, and which is still valid in large areas of the Third World. This concept envisages the "seizure of power" in the course of a mass upheaval, led by a revolutionary party acting as the avant-gard of a revolutionary class and setting up a new central power which would initiate the basic social changes... the concept is altogether inapplicable to those countries in which the integration of the working class is the result of structural economic-political processes (sustained high productivity: large markets: neo-colonialism; administered democracy) and where the masses themselves are forces of conservatism and stabilisation."
What type of political strategy should we then adopt that will give us sufficient guidelines to achieve institutional changes? Will the subversion simply spread from the micro-political base of personal liberation (communes, collectives) or will it require the tactics of confrontation politics to render impotent the power structures of the capitalist system?
We must keep in mind that any considerations of
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course, only a particular application of his idea for left-convivial technologies. Logically his vision is compatible with the development of small scale self-help programmes in the areas of health, welfare, rehabilitation and community planning. Yet, as it stands, Illich's analysis is incomplete. A revolution at the level of the superstructure through the implementation of the left-convivial forms will not in itself counter the effects of capitalist development on social life. The core economic institutions (private control of the productive forces by owners of capital, competitive markets in goods and services, etc) remain unchallenged. Underpinning this basic weakness of Illich's otherwise convincing critique is the absence of an overall political strategy, other than the one rooted in individual liberation. 'Everyone is responsible for his or her own deschooling', says Illich, yet the demanipulation of values at the micro -social level may lead to no general alteration of values at all.
The reasons for this are clear. The concept of a de-schooled society is of course a politically dangerous proposition: the genuinely pluralistic society which the idea implies threatens authoritarians of all political parties, and the notion that learners need a significant say in determining their own learning needs and worthwhile activities threatens those who are now using schooling as a mean of political control.
Ian Lister in an excellent futuristic critique warns that the greatest danger facing us is that deschooling could happen but in ways quite different from those envisaged by Ivan Illich. 'A dissolution of the present school system could lead to a take-over by the international corporations of neo-capitalism. Another is that an alternative programme would be carried into effect in a form of caricature. What is most likely is that system-maintenance organizations and planners will feed elements of deschooling into present systems and, using deschooling labels as a cover, carry on with other programmes. Indeed if the example of France after 1968 is any indication, we are more likely to see accommodation than confrontation in any "politique de recuperation."
The moral becomes obvious. Although deschooling may provide the necessary conditions for real learning, that will not be enough. Unless we have a fairer social set-up a more equal distribution of wealth, privilege and power, progress towards a genuinely deschooled, non-curricular society might best be moderated by some sort of learning institution without, of course, the compulsory dehumanisation associated with existing mass-production schools.
On a more cynical note, I would suggest that schools, at least in the near future, cannot and will not be eliminated. Herbert Gintis brings this point home. His basic disagreement with Illich is contained in the argument that the point at which schools articulate with the wider social system is production rather than consumption. It is not possible to get rid of schools since they replicate the social relationships of production of the capitalist system. 'Just as workers are alienated from both the process and the product of their work activities, and must be motivated by the external reward of pay and hierarchical status, so the student learns to operate efficiently through the external reward of grades and promotion, effectively alienated from the process of education (learning) and its product (knowledge) For this reason the struggle to deschool must be aimed at the process of schooling.
What all this adds up to is that the school provides an ideal social/political context wherein contradictions manifest in society can be critically explored and alternatives posed, and subsequently implemented . Yet to my mind, the key question becomes—how is it possible to radically innovate within institutions and at the same time avoid the dangers of co-optation?Let us focus on the Australian situation and start by examining the educational system itself.
STRUCTURAL CHANGES IN THE AUSTRALIAN EDUCATION SYSTEM
Structural changes in education in Australia have assumed various forms: the creation of a federal body (the Schools Commission) to plan, fund and administer innovative programmes and developments; the setting up of new regional administrations and local school boards with representation of parents, students, and members of the community; the replacement of public examinations with other forms of assessment (e.g. Queensland Education Department's abolition of the Higher School Certificate). Most of these measures however have not led to any real changes. Instead they have proved to be classic examples of repressive co-optation by the powers who control the education system in Australia. The token offer giving students the right to 'participate' on decision-making bodies has effectively harnessed radical dissent through concentration over minor issues (like hair-lengths, uniforms etc.). Similarly, new innovatory projects have been effectively stifled by decentralising the operation of
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offer their skills, and basic information is provided about educational opportunities and facilities in the area. An important part of the Greensboro-ugh venture (called the Diamond Valley Learning Centre ) is the extent of official approval and sponsorship, evidenced by the seconding of a Victorian education department teacher and the granting of Australian Government funds to start the project. This may be indicative of future trends if this type of alternative is to survive.
How successful is the Learning Exchange? In statistical terms the phone at the Melbourne office is manned at least twelve hours a day. They receive about fifteen enquiries a day and over the last year in Malvern they have had about 1500 to 2000 visitors. The newspaper sells about 1200 copies in Melbourne and some country areas. What type of people use them? Mainly teachers and university and high school students who treat the exchange as an ancillary resource rather than as a genuine alternative to existing institutions.
Most of the collectives involved in operating the learning network mechanism have realised the danger of functioning solely as passive intermediaries between people and information. In fact they are increasingly taking a more active role in conciously attempting to change the community's attitude not only to education but to the entire institutional spectrum.
The Melbourne Learning Exchange for example cooperates with the Malvern Community Association and the Citizens' Advice Bureau in organising community activities. One outcome of this was a festival in January 1973 and another the following month when several hundred people turned up to enjoy painting, pottery, treasure-hunts, mask-making, baseball, music, eating and drinking in one of the local pubs. Another cooperative venture is a monthly Malvern Community Newsletter, delivered free to all houses in the Malvern area. The idea of the paper is to stimulate a learning network in the local area, with the aim of exposing a range of grievances and needs around which collective action could be mobilised. The focal issues may concern arbitrary officialdom, or the absence or in efficiency of local welfare or educational facilities. The underlying aim is to raise the political consciousness of the community towards playing an active part in the operational development of those services that occupy an important part of their everyday lives.
It is important here to note that there is no typical learning exchange mechanism. Each one has evolved a structure in response to the needs of the community concerned. A group of people in Sydney who run an organisation called the 'Learning Network' have concentrated their resources on initiating 'discussion/activity groups as a way of evolving communication channels within a predominantly middle class, north-shore based 'community'. Their brochure reads: 'Groups are gatherings called by people to either share the excitement of their own knowledge or to explore an idea with others. Any Network member may lead a group on any subject he wishes in any way he wishes. Groups are listed in this catalogue or can be called at any time through another Network channel (newsletter, telephone tree, notice board etc.)—most groups can be joined at any time. The administration and organisation of each group is decentralised and is the responsibility of the group co-ordinator - the Network only providing the channel for people to get together. 'The Network philosophy links learning with action. Groups will be experiences. Don't expect to be a passive recipient.'15 The learning exchanges have broadened their base of operation beyond the narrow apolitical 'intermediary' role conceptualised by Mich. To achieve the aim of a deschooled society they have redefined their role to that of conscientisation through praxis. 'Conscientisation' is a term borrowed from the radical Marxist educator Paulo Freire.16 It literally means an 'awakening of consciousness'—making people aware of their locus in society through shared dialogue, giving them the capacity to critically analyse the causes of the economic, political and cultural structures of oppression in which they live an inevitable consequence being mobilisation around a wide range of collective movements.
RESIDENT ACTION: PRAXIS IN OPERATION
Consciousness-raising is insufficient by itself to achieve real change. It has to be complemented by
the mechanism of 'praxis': working for the concrete realisation of theoretical ideals. The ideology behind the 'new' concept of citizen participation in urban planning has however traditionally proved to be an instrument used to blunt any real 'grass-roots' community control, in the interests of the professional and propertied classes. As Robert Goodman points out, simply giving the working-class more access to planning expertise doesn't basically alter their chances of getting the same goods and services as wealthier citizens. 'What it gives them', he says, 'is more power to compete among themselves for the government's welfare products. These are products designed by both liberals and conservatives who promote or at least accept welfare as some combination of paternalistic gestures getting the poor to be more "productive", "self-respecting" or, more basically, just plain protection money to make sure the status quo will not be disrupted.'17 The process of being given, for example, a token choice of making a decision between various possible locations of highway routes, each cutting a swathe through a community, surely demonstrates the extent to which the boor are merely being asked to finance their own oppression. 'Participation' is therefore only a subtle mask for political oppression because it involves consultation with people who basically lack the bargaining power to control the allocation of resources. It should be clearly distinguished from people's control over the conditions effecting their own lines.
A growing realisation of the danger of cooperation has led to a new style of radicalism emerging with in the cities. Refusing to place further reliance on working through existing bureaucratic channels, people instead are evolving new forms of self- organisation and self-management. Squatter occupancy (otherwise described by Goodman as 'guerilla architecture') is one important example of the sort of community control that can be achieved through adoption of alternative strategies of collective organisation at the grass roots level.
In May 1973, the Victoria Street (Sydney) Resident Action Group decided to sponsor squatting as a strategic form of organised resistance against an exploitative property developer. Their action was prompted by the developer's eviction of all but twelve of the four hundred tenants, some of whom had lived in the street for over forty years. Unaware of their legal rights, and on being told by the developer's agents that their buildings were shortly to be demolished, the working class residents moved out, either to the outer western suburbs or to smaller and dearer rooms in the inner city. The New South Wales Builders Labourers Federation joined the struggle and imposed a 'green ban', preventing either demolition or construction on the affected site.
One person in the squatting community described the 'spirit in the street' in the following way: 'It all began with the night patrol, and the establishing of the Stables as some sort of head-quarters for the group. Then the squatting began in earnest, and, with the help of the few specialists among us, and our own newly discovered skills, we occupied the houses one by one; cleaning and repairing them, restoring gas, electricity and water supplies, and securing locks on the doors and windows. Some people began cultivating vegetable gardens, others roped off large areas in an effort to grow grass between the houses.
'Every Wednesday night we got together in the Stables to discuss new ideas, problems, criticisms and general feelings. We called it a weekly meeting. Other nights we'd do much the same thing and call it a party. There were the Sunday nights at No 59 where we had soup and bread and coffee and more discussion, and there were the barbeques in the back of 113 and the Belfry, all of which provided not only relief from the tensions of the street situation, but also a basis for real community feeling; an opportunity to establish, outside the formal meeting structure, relationships with people who would otherwise have remained strangers.
'From these discussions a lot of "community" type plans evolved, one of which was the food co-op. Once a week everyone put in orders for fruit and vegetables which were then bought in bulk from the markets. This collapsed when someone disappeared with the money, but was re-established a few weeks later on the basis of buying the food from the markets and selling it on the street at cost price.
'Then there was the playgroup. a loosely structured "school" for the children of the street. The parents of each child gave two dollars weekly, and the money was used to buy equipment and to pay for outings. Interested people, not necessarily parents, volunteered to look after children for one or two days a week, and the area set aside for this was the back of 115, which included a downstairs flat, three old garages, and the grass and concrete areas between. Within this space we built swings, a cubby house and a sand-pit. We bought, collected or were given, books, jigsaws, dolls, cars, paints and brushes, black-boards and chalk, construction toys, building materials, paste, plastic and old clothes for "dressing-up". Outings included walks, rides on the ferry, and trips to the library, the pantomime, the beach and the zoo. When it rained, the downstairs flat, otherwise the "storage" room, became the playroom.
'Before long, the street gatherings were becoming a daily event. Sometimes it started with breakfast at the Belfry, sometimes with a chance meeting on the footpath. We decided to establish a communal area in 113. We had a week-end cleanup during which we began repairing and repainting, and we hung a "Victoria Street Action Group" sign from the front of the building. Someone with access to some old films and a projector started to run film nights in the front room. 50 cents admission, chips and soft drink available. We held a Christmas party for the kids, decorating the place with streamers and balloons. We planned to use the kitchen as a communal soup kitchen; maybe later setting up an outdoor cafe; and the second front room as a library-cum-games room. There was talk of hiring a snooker table and of turning the stables into a gymnasium.
'While all this was under way we started to pull down all the backyard fences, creating a large "park" between the houses. We also moved into No 85 and 87; these houses were to become the new play centre.
That was just before the crunch…'18
The squat lasted for seven months before the developer's hired thugs eventually moved in, broke down the barricades and forcibly evicted the squatters. Yet the confrontation was not without important political significances. It had exposed the need for sweeping changes in housing policies for the innercity by posing an explicit alternative, that of cooperative housing. Definite benefits derive to residents from this type of housing development. It combines the stability of ownership (security against developers, landlords) with the advantages of low rent and low cost, as well as a considerable degree of neighbourhood control. Renovating and adapting existing housing within this cooperative framework serves to not only preserve the architectural integrity of the area, but also enhances the spirit of community and involves a minimum of disruption to the lives of the people concerned. This style of redevelopment is a more humane alter-native approach to the one involving the wholesale demolition of working class areas and the construction of new houses within the range of only a privileged few.
Squatter occupancy is by no means a phenomenon that is confined to inner urban areas of Australia. In London, the movement has been growing steadily in momentum since 1968. The thousands of houses standing empty, either owned by speculators or bought up by local authorities for redevelopment, has created a chronic shortage of low-cost accommodation, leaving many families homeless. In these conditions squatting has become a way of life. As the fight for community control
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new Subject. 'Historically it is again the period of enlightenment prior to material changes a period of education, but education which turns into praxis: demonstration, confrontation, rebellion.'21
The point I've argued in this article is that the overthrowing of the ideology of repressive tolerance, by which the system re-adapts to cope with change, requires a combination of political strategies; direct confrontation with core economic institutions (such as private property being repudiate d by squatter occupancy), and the more indirect method of autonomous community development by people running their own schools, health clinics, welfare services. The bridging institution which operates to facilitate this radical programme of social change by raising collective awareness is the mechanism of the learning exchange. The slogan is 'conscientisation through praxis'.
Finally, it can be seen that Illich's deschooling ideas receive their extension and refinement in terms of what is basically a dialectical theory of political action. Only through organised action can we act upon, and in turn overcome, the glaring contradictitions within social institutions, so that in Illich's words we may deliberately engender 'a life style which will enable us to be spontaneous, independent, yet related to each other, rather than maintaining a life style which only allows us to make and unmake, produce and consume'. 22
1 on PG120
2-7 on PG 121
8Ian Lister, 'Getting there from here' in Peter Buckman (ed) Education Without Schools (London, 1973), pp. 20-9.
9Herbert Gintis, 'Towards a Political Economy of Education : A Radical Critique of Ivan Illich's Deschooling Society' in
After Deschooling What?: Ivan Illich et. al., A. Gartner, C. Greer, F. Reissman (eds), pp. 29-76.
10 on PG 123
11-14 on PG 124
15The Learning Network (Bruce Abrahams and Lil Hall, Gordon N.S.W., Autumn, 1974).
16Freire is becoming widely recognised for his educational/political work with Brazilian peasants at once raising consciousness
about their political and economic exploitation, and teaching them to read by making political ideology and economic reality
the substantive base for literacy training.
Paulo Freire, Cultural Action for Freedom (Harmondsworth, 1972).
Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, (Harmondsworth, 1972).
17Go o d m a n , Op. cit. p. 214.
18 For a graphic description of the Victoria Street confrontation, see City Squatter (Victoria Street Resident Action Group,
Potts Point, January 1974).
19 &20 on PG 128
21Marcuse, Op. cit. p. 53.
22Illicit. Op. cit. p. 52.