Pedagogy of the Quarantined

The Wall of Failure, Thermal camera photography, Talita Virginia

Crisis upon crisis seems to be piling up these days. A pandemic roams freely, killing 1,6 million people in less than a year. Racist police violence, expositions of sexual harassment within art institutions, and a climate crisis that won’t be going away anytime soon. With so many threats asking our immediate attention, our mental health is put to the test. With our movements confined to small spaces for weeks on end, with little or no social interaction, our endurance is stretched to its limits. Meanwhile the ministry of education urges everyone to keep up appearances. Teachers must keep teaching, students must keep studying. Maybe they’re right. Perhaps education is one of the few last meaningful social activities outside our ‘household’ that is still allowed. But the emphasis on ‘the new normal’ also assumes that these crises will someday disappear by ways of a magic stick.

Crises are also potential moments for change. On the fringes of art education, groups of students and staff are transforming the school from the inside: decolonizing education, queering education, and support groups are set up that aim to counter violent structures within institutions. Social media accounts are publicly challenging the sexist and racist foundations of European design education, with its Eurocentric and male dominated discourse. Collectives like Teaching Design, Futuress, and Decolonizing Design, are asking design education to “decentralise their current models and ideologies [1]”. The failure of which becomes evident with design degrees that cost $50,000 a year or more. Education has evolved into a for-profit system that pre-sorts a class of design-elites [2].

Under capitalism, art and design education have come to serve a useful role as the research and development of the creative industries. Experimentation and innovation are welcomed, as long as they lead to new products and services which can yield profit. If design education wants to avoid a future role as merely a factory that simply churns out designer-workers to remain profitable, it needs to change. Unfortunately there is no agreement on how exactly that should happen.

When did learning become so complicated? Hunter-gatherers did not distinguish between education, play or work. Children learned through playing and exploring with adults, without a strict hierarchy between teachers and students. These learning/playing activities were intrinsically motivated, which is kind of the opposite of how we view education today [3]. In Deschooling Society (1973), author Ivan Illich notes that the most important lessons in life are learned outside of school [4]. So why do we have schools in the first place? We do, because the creative industry requires a steady supply of skilled workers. Secondly, design education accommodates the rigid control and standardization of knowledge which is necessary for efficient industrial production (Adobe, Javascript, Monotype, Pantone, RISO). The school has become the factory of knowledge which makes itself indispensable by issueing diplomas and grades. Without these markers of knowledge, a career in design becomes very difficult. It is the school who decides what knowledge is, how it can be taught and measured, while other forms of learning are marginalized or ignored.

Like his contemporary Paolo Freire, Illich proposed to reclaim learning from education: to imagine a world where everyone is a teacher, everyone is a student, and all spaces would be classrooms. Illich‘s call to abolish the school system perhaps sounds radical, but it would be welcomed by the Silicon Valley entrepreneurs who have seen their stock prices soar during this pandemic. If educational institutions devaluate into privatized forms of remote teaching, learning itself will be at the mercy of the Googles and Microsofts of this world. So it may be true that designs schools are not the utopias of free learning and experimentation that they claim to be, but that doesn’t mean art education should be over and done with.

Colleges and universities play an important role in fostering social relations and preserving local cultural specifics. If you grow up in a community that is hostile to the arts, the art school can provide a safe haven to nurture talent and meet likeminded makers. Institutions harbour a lot of knowledge and have facilities like workshops, libraries, and lecture halls. The civil rights movements of the 1960s and 1970s have shown that universities can harbour progressive and egalitarian ideas that challenge fascist and racist government policies. Governments which did not hesitate to use police and military force against students protesting the Vietnam war, against Occupy and Black Lives Matter protests on campuses. Universities and schools are still spaces where experimentation, exchange, and even radical ideas can live, that resist the confines of the market economy. As long as both staff and students realize these spaces must be continuously created and defended.

During my recent semester assignment for the first year students of the MA Non Linear Narrative where I teach, were invited to question the power structure of the classroom and the school, and experiment with alternatives modes of learning. This did not happen overnight. Both students and the teacher were so used to hierarchical power structures—the family, the school, the workplace—that it took some months getting used to this situation. For autonomy to survive in the complex realities of a learning environment, new ideas have to brought in from outside of the school. This did not mean new educational models were imported and implemented. Students just simply came up with ideas and interventions that seemed interesting for them, leading to different modes of teaching and learning.

From my own perspective as a teacher—the person assigned with a position of power by official decree—I cannot assess whether or not it was a success. At the very least the teacher versus student role was replaced with more natural social roles. Some students took on leadership roles that seemed to come natural to them, some students provided the necessary planning and organizational support that they seemed to have a neck for, and others preferred to be working alone on their personal work. This natural realignment of talents and voices seemed to at least offer less restrictions, and space for free development. I wasn’t responsible anymore for organizing or micromanaging the students, which was a relief. That situation also gave me a temporary feeling of uselessness, as if a teacher’s only role is to enforce the power structure. Instead I found myself assuming the role of an advisor with practical experiences about production and planning—as I have twenty years of experience working as a designer—being supportive, and at times also providing necessary critique, or inviting guest tutors. This resulted in many beautiful and educational moments, unlike any other I have seen in my seven years of teaching.

By the end of the semester, I realized that what we (the teacher and students) were trying to do, was develop our own rules and rituals within the community. The way mutual aid organizations and communes are run, without leadership, with consensus or consent decision-making, and self-care, which is often ridiculed and criticized by outsiders for being soft, inefficient or chaotic. While the prevailing top down hierarchy model is not necessarily more efficient, it leads to a lot of suffering and harm at the bottom of the pyramid, where people have to follow orders no matter what the consequences are. The point of using horizontal structures is to prevent the suffering or exploitation of the many to achieve the success of a few.

Whether or not it worked probably depends on who you ask in the group. I do know that trying out this model in the classroom at least created a temporary space for a natural social structure that allowed freedom for each individual in the group to develop her own fascinations, ideas, and talents. More importantly, our ability to do this in person—within the context of COVID-19 and social distancing—provided moments for social interaction, which we all so desperately need during this lockdown. Speaking for myself, I plan to keep my classes horizontal and open to each individual student’s interpretation, as long as the hierarchy of the school and educational system allows me to do so. During the process I have probably learned more from the students than they have learned from me. “Education must begin with the solution of the teacher-student contradiction” wrote Paolo Freire, “so that both are simultaneously teachers and students. [5]”

Ruben Pater, December 2020

Excerpt from James C. Scott, Two Cheers for Anarchism, Princeton University Press, 2012:

The school was, in a sense, a factory for the basic training of the minimal skills of numeracy and literacy necessary for an industrializing society. Gradgrind, the calculating, hectoring caricature of a headmaster in Charles Dickens’s Hard Times, is meant to remind us of the factory: its work routines, its time discipline, its authoritarianism, its regimented visual order, and, not least, the demoralization and resistance of its pint-sized, juvenile workers.

“These tests don’t measure what kids really need to know, they measure what’s easy to measure,” she said. “We should be learning concepts and skills, not just memorizing. It’s sad for kids and it’s sad for teachers, too.”

Drill and kill atmosphere.

Here it is worth recalling once again that the modern institution of the school was invented at about the same time as the early textile factory. Each concentrated the workforce under one roof; each created time discipline and task specialization so as to facilitate supervision and evaluation; each aimed at producing a reliable, standardized product.

The contemporary emphasis on regional or national standardized tests is based on the model of corporate management by quantitative norms, norms that allow comparisons across teachers, across schools, and across students so as to differentially reward them on the basis of their performance according to this criterion.

The short answer is that there are few social decisions as momentous for individuals and families as the distribution of life chances through education and employment or as momentous for communities and regions as the distribution of public funds for public works projects. The seductiveness of such measures is that they all turn measures of quality into measures of quantity, thereby allowing comparison across cases with an apparently single and impersonal metric. They are above all a vast and deceptive “antipolitics machine” designed to turn legitimate political questions into neutral, objective administrative exercises governed by experts.

Lindgren, Jacob (ed.), Extra-Curricular, Onomatopee, 2018.

Particularly private art schools in the US and art schools in the UK.

Gray, Peter, “Play theory of hunter-gatherer egalitarianism”. In D. Narvaez, K. Valentino, A. Fuentes, J. J. McKenna, & P. Gray (Eds.), Ancestral landscapes in human evolution: Culture, childrearing and social wellbeing (p. 192–215). Oxford University Press, 2014.

Illich, Ivan, Deschooling Society, Harrow Books, 1973.

Freiro, Paolo, Pedagogy of the oppressed, Bloomsbury Academic, 2000.