Saturday 15 June 2019

'Think, we must'; a call to reclaim spaces of intellectual endeavour

I’m learning a huge amount from my PhD, but one thing that has excited me is realising how liberating it can be for educators to engage philosophically with education. Debates about the ontological and epistemological beliefs underpinning education systems; the impact of neo-liberal structures on our agency in the classroom, and the wider purpose of education using post-structural and post human concepts is proving sustaining and empowering. There is a thirst for spaces of critical engagement; much like the spaces we try to seek out for our own students. It’s doubtful that institutional CPD would include courses on educational philosophy, and teacher training (pushed as it is to more instrumental, tick-box content) can only offer limited amounts too. It is the kind of thing that happens on EduTwitter to a degree; although character limitations and binary thinking often sends interesting discussions down conversational cul-de-sacs; ending up with a resort to gifs and memes that leave the interesting ideas hanging. Our values and actions as teachers depend on our fundamental beliefs about the world and the role that education plays in it – so where are the spaces for slow, meaningful discussion and theoretical engagement?  

There is of course also a culture of anti-intellectualism at play, whereby subjects such as art, literature and science are downgraded into the kind of knowledges that can be regurgitated to suit prescribed tests rather than studied deeply and meaningfully. This instrumentalism can affect educators on a micro level too, deadening our own attitudes towards learning without us fully understanding why. Thinking, in an age of academic and expert distrust, is seen as the practice of the elite; yet we are in a time that calls for new ideas and approaches to complex ethical dilemmas more than ever. ‘Think, we must’ as Virginia Woolf said*; but in accelerated consumer cultures of product, customer and service, time and space for these activities is eroded. What I am not arguing for however is self-indulgent, ‘navel-gazing’ practices of rumination; what matters is not necessarily what we think, but how we put this thinking to work through social action. It becomes more Gramsci’s idea of ‘philosophy of praxis’, pushing thinking outwards to incorporate the politically-informed, socially relational aspects of our situated lives.

One helpful philosophical concept I have recently explored with practitioners is teacher as ‘cosmic artisan.’ (To be clear; I am no artist, and the word 'cosmic' is most familiar to me from early '90's school slang). The ‘cosmic’ here actually suggests having a greater awareness of the flows and multiplicities connecting us to each other; the concept has its roots in the ideas of Deleuze and Guattari and can speak to the deep affective nature of teaching as craft and potential for re-imagining the world.  Cosmic Artisans are sensitive to the affective, intense moments of learning that cannot be captured formally, in teaching observations or in testing frameworks.  They are attentive to moments of affect; below our normal threshold of attention. Who hasn’t experienced that strange shiver of embodied knowledge that somehow tells us learning is taking place?  Cosmic Artisans tell stories, not those fixed in positivist research practices of Enlightenment thinking, but ‘views from a body’; stories that challenge what it means to research, what knowledge is, and whose knowledge counts.   What might it mean to pay more attention to these moments in teaching, to acknowledge them and bring them into being?

Moments of affect can be best expressed and explored through creative endeavours; poetry, art, music.  At this point it is important to say that being cosmic artisan does not mean being an artist; it is more about recognising that we do not have to be limited by standard modes of expression in our responses to moments of affect. As Jagodzinski writes ‘ …this is not an out-of-the-world practice; it is just the opposite; it is to reveal, expose and experiment to show that the cosmic is of this world.’ (2017, p.36). I have written previously about the use of art as a stimulus for thinking differently about our teaching practice, going beyond the limits of reflective practice to a space of creative re-imaginings.  Artistic responses can challenge our linear capturings of teaching practice and give us new means to tell the stories of beauty and joy in our classrooms.

Last week at the StoryMakers Festival I explored the ideas further with a fantastic group of professionals. We considered those moments of teaching that affected us and elevated them, using poetry as a means of exploring feelings and intuitions more deeply. Using Al Zolynas’ ‘Love in the Classroom’ as a stimulus brought the philosophy of Cosmic Artisan to life.  In this way, standard reflective practices become diffractive moments of embodied knowledge, underpinned by connection to theory and philosophies that allow us to explore new ways of viewing education.

Cosmic artisans are ‘...committed to 'summoning forth a new earth, a new people...fabulating and fabricating new worlds...intensifying and livening events. They transmute the mundane or the machinic into a vision of excessive beauty and invention.’ (Sholtz, 2016). Studying philosophy together through engaged practices is empowering, in an educational world of struggle and disenfranchisement. It allows thinking to grow in oppressive spaces and offers something truly ‘for us’, unregulated, unrestricted, nomadic and liberating.

To close with the words of Virginia Woolf:
“Think we must. Let us think in offices; in omnibuses; while we are standing in the crowd watching Coronations and Lord Mayor’s Shows; let us think as we pass the Cenotaph; and in Whitehall; in the gallery of the House of Commons; in the Law Courts; let us think at baptisms and marriages and funerals. Let us never cease from thinking—what is this ‘civilization’ in which we find ourselves? What are these ceremonies and why should we take part in them? What are these professions and why should we make money out of them? Where in short is it leading us, the procession of the sons of educated men?” (Woolf, 1938, p.60).

* thank you to Rosi Braidotti for sharing 'Three Guineas'; an important and overlooked work.

Jagodzinski, J. (2017). What is art education? After Deleuze and Guattari. London: Palgrave.

Sholtz, J. (2016). Intervals of Resistance: Being True to the Earth in Light of the Anthropocene. University of Alberta. Available at:

Woolf, V. (1938). Three Guineas. London: Hogarth Press.

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