Adventures in Horizontal Education

The Yippie Museum Cafe. Pic courtesy of Yelp. And yes, that is a pot leaf overlaying a Zapatista flag.

In January I enrolled in Nicholas Mirzoeff’s “Visual Culture Methods” class at NYU. My interest had already been piqued by the Occupy-centric course description (“The class will develop and explore horizontal means of occupying visual culture”), but I have to say I was pleasantly surprised by how seriously Nick and the students took the charge of applying OWS’ horizontal ethos to a classroom setting. By the end of the first meeting, we had reconstituted the class as the Visual Culture & Politics Working Group and consensed on modifications to the syllabus. From the second meeting forward, group members took turns serving as facilitators with the goal of flattening the instructor/student divide as much as possible. This worked so well that after a session Nick couldn’t attend produced a great discussion about the Egyptian Revolution and the possibility of a globalized social movement, we joked that we’d managed to make the role of professor obsolete. “I hope not,” someone said, “or else what are we going to do when we hit the job market?”

Putting aside worries about the self-immolation of our professional futures, we’ve moved on to a new phase of our project in horizontal education. The working group members enjoyed the project so much that we’ve decided to continue meeting outside of the confines of our classroom on Mercer Street. This past Thursday–our second meeting since the semester’s end–we gathered at the Yippie Museum Cafe to discuss, among other things, David Graeber’s “Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology” (PDF here). Mirroring the Occupy Movement as a whole, none of us is really sure what this group is, how long it will last, or what it will become. We’ve talked about readings we’d like to do and field trips that we’d like to go on, but right now our future is undetermined.

This, I think, is a good thing.

There is little space in formal educational settings for organic, interest-driven work. The structures and strictures of the university create an education that is based around requirements, exams, final papers, and grades. This creates an intellectual climate based on production rather than contemplation. Learning becomes a job where students manufacture outputs (papers, exam responses) from inputs preselected by the boss/teacher (books, articles). It’s an essentially capitalist model that places the product over the person, a problem that is arguably even more severe in primary and secondary education than in higher ed. The standardized tests that are pervasive in the formative years of American students are (obviously) standardized. The students themselves are individuals. The result is an educational system that is too often geared toward the production of high scores rather than helping individuals explore their own distinct capacities. Substantial education reform has proven slow in coming and when it has come–think No Child Left Behind–it has accelerated the trend toward a standardized education rather than curtailed it. I hope efforts to alter education from the top down will continue, but the rhetoric is not promising. Rather than focus on developing human potential, politicians primarily speak of education in terms of career preparation and the media loves to flaunt lists of the worst (read: least bankable) college majors.

There isn’t anything wrong with vocational training. People need to be able to make a living. But if we’re serious about seeing education as something more than a means to money, it makes sense to look outside of formal channels. Our affinity group is attempting to do this. As radical as the structure and style of the original class was, it was still housed and administered by NYU. The students took it to earn credits toward our degrees, and for the sizable contingent of master’s students who didn’t have the benefits of tuition wavers and stipends, those credits cost dollars. Many, many dollars. We were bound to some degree by the arbitrary time rhythms of semesters and class sessions. And, of course, enrollment was contingent on having been accepted by NYU or, in my case, by another institution recognized by the Inter-University Doctoral Consortium.

The new affinity group is not affiliated with an institution, and one of the attendees at our most recent meeting is not a student or a professor anywhere. No money changes hand and Nick behaves as and is (for the most part) treated like just another group member. Our goal, inasmuch as we’ve articulated it, is our own intellectual and personal development. In this project, I feel the spirit of Occupy. One of the (many) underreported qualities of the movement and one of its greatest strengths is its ability to get so many of us to quit asking permission. OWS is about acting, about reclaiming the autonomy that we never even noticed surrendering. I felt this first when Niral Shah, Kevin TS Tang, and I collaborated to put out “The 99%’s Guide” pamphlet last fall. The movement had reminded us of the basic reality that we are people who can act and do things. We can write, raise funds, and disseminate our thoughts without seeking approval from anyone.

This adventure in horizontal education arises from a similar ethos. If we are not finding what we need in the academy, then we can do our damndest to build it ourselves. In Robbie McClintock’s Enough: A Pedagogic Speculation, the author lays out an exhilarating sci-fi future where education has transformed into a nearly unrecognizable, radically democratic endeavor. McClintock doesn’t go into how we get from here to there, but I see glimmerings of hope in our project and in others that OWS has spawned, especially Occupy University. I’m glad there are people who commit themselves to the reform of educational policy, but I fear that these efforts barely touch on basic, problematic assumptions. Smaller classes, better compensation for teachers, a decreased emphasis on standardized testing–these are all good things. However, they don’t address the social construction of education as job training, the way curricular requirements can smother difference and stifle the imagination, and how the rigid student/teacher divide is better for breeding alienation than empowerment.

The kind of cultural shift needed to redefine education isn’t going to come from legislation. There are too many powerful interests and institutional obstacles aligned against such a change. Even absent these obstacles, its unlikely that legislation could win the kind of hearts and minds buy-in–or, to use a less transactional term, opt-in–necessary for a new vision to take hold. We’re left with the hard, slow work of grassroots of organizing, of building a new world in the shell of the old, of refusing to ask permission. Whether we can achieve large-scale change remains to be seen, but to try is to concede the battle before fighting has even begun. This puts me in the mind of a Václav Havel quote that has meant a lot to me as I’ve pursued my OWS activism. About the Charter 77 manifesto, he wrote:

Whether, when, and how this investment will eventually produce dividends in the form of specific political changes is even less possible to predict. But that, of course, is all part of living within the truth. As an existential solution, it takes individuals back to the solid ground of their own identity; as politics, it throws them into a game of chance where the stakes are all or nothing. For this reason it is undertaken only by those for whom the former is worth risking the latter, or who have come to the conclusion that there is no other way to conduct real politics in Czechoslovakia today. Which, by the way, is the same thing: this conclusion can be reached only by someone who is unwilling to sacrifice his own human identity to politics, or rather, who does not believe in a politics that requires such a sacrifice.

We don’t believe in a politics–or an education–that requires such a sacrifice. However, I disagree with Havel that the stakes are all or nothing. Even if the vision of a horizontal, human-centered education never sweeps out older, antiquated models, small-scale projects like our affinity group can still achieve something, and something political. We can affirm one another, edify one another, teach one another, and we don’t need anyone’s permission to do so.

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