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Book Review: Utopian Pedagogy – Radical Experiments Against Neoliberal Globalization edited by Mark Coté, Richard J.F. Day, and Greig de Peuter

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Published by the University of Toronto Press, Utopian Pedagogy: Radical Experiments Against Neoliberal Globalization is a collection of essays and interviews that considers pedagogy in the context of higher learning. The University of Toronto's official motto is "velut arbor aevo" ("As a tree with the passage of time"), a snippet from a poem by Horace which suggests the image of a tree filling out and taking root. We are meant to draw an analogy between the tree and what? Knowledge? Or a maturing character? Maybe. But more recently it has called to mind the image of a growing economy.

This collection is premised on the supposition that in recent years our thinking about education has become increasingly instrumental. Certainly this has been the experience at the University of Toronto. At the end of the '80s it answered a looming financial crisis by recruiting to the president's office J. Robert S. Pritchard, who was then Dean of the Faculty of Law and well-connected to the business community. During his ten-year stint he directed a wildly successful billion dollar capital campaign. This included significant gifts that produced the latest jewel in the campus crown – the Rotman School of Management.

It is unclear whether the change in campus culture aims to meet the needs of business or is required to do so as a tacit condition of financial support. Nevertheless, as someone who has been lurking intermittently on the University of Toronto campus for 25 years, I can attest to the fact that the change is real. One need only look at the course evaluation questionnaires which are distributed at the end of each term. There is a striking shift to a more managerial style of human relations that depends on financial accountability. It is through standardized criteria that the university exacts its accountability.

For the student this means standardized curriculum and evaluation. For the professor this means standardized qualifications, compensation, research and publication expectations, and restriction of expertise to a clearly defined subject area. In this way accountability plays a role in constituting a higher education. It establishes what counts as knowledge and legitimizes the expert while marginalizing those who cannot or will not conform to its model.

This also has the incidental effect of playing neatly into the hands of the neoliberal global agenda. If one of the cornerstones of the new economy is mobility of labour, then globalization is well-served by a standardized education. It becomes important that a surgeon trained in Mumbai be competent to perform in a New York operating theatre and that an engineer from Los Angeles be able to design a bridge that meets Tokyo specifications and that a philosopher trained in… but what need has a global economy for philosophers?

Utopian Pedagogy is a handbook for anybody committed to resisting what some would have us believe is the manifest destiny of a global economy grounded in neoliberal principles. Its editors argue that the starting point of all resistance is education. As the university is made over in the likeness of a large corporation, its students become acculturated to the assumption that a business management model is normative for all life's activities (one of the contributors, Jerry Zaslove, calls it the Wal–Mart model). It is in challenging this assumption amongst students that we gain our greatest leverage in challenging the larger assumptions of globalization.

The book is divided into three sections. The first, "The Contested University," lays the theoretical and historical foundations for the discussion. However I must be careful in using the term "theoretical" because the practical is never far away; in function, this book is more like a laboratory than a lecture hall. The first section begins with an exceptional piece by Henry A. Giroux who tells a dystopian story in which "it has become easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism." And yet his is the "Project of Educated Hope," a call to resistance by educators.

Giroux provides a baseline for ensuing conversation about the two concepts which underlie this volume – utopia and pedagogy. Hope comes from the promise of a utopian vision. But here our eyes do not fix upon some far-off ideal; instead, we look to what is possible given our present location. Utopia is a radical social praxis rather than a disembodied concept. Or, drawing on Ernst Bloch, "utopian thinking is anticipatory, not messianic." Pedagogy then becomes the process by which we recognize and address the impediments to a utopian praxis – impediments such as the inertia embedded in our social, religious, political, and educational institutions. With the application of critical tools, we can unshackle ourselves and release the not yet which is latent in our location so that it may realize the possibility of a hope–filled future.

Giroux concludes his piece by discussing the role of the "public intellectual." The public intellectual remains public by maintaining independence from both government and corporate interests. The public intellectual asks the uncomfortable questions and this promotes an honesty which is necessary within a vibrant democracy. The obvious implication is that as the university becomes increasingly dependent upon partisan governmental and business concerns, this trend compromises the integrity of the public intellectual and, by extension, our democratic institutions. This stands in stark contradiction to the prevailing ideology that unfettered business is the handmaiden of democracy.

The balance of the first section illuminates this tension between the university as a haven for the public intellectual and the university as supplier of cognitive capital for big business. Nick Dyer-Witheford describes the rise of "Academia Inc." in the 1960s and 1970s as the convergence of two interests. Government sought ways to cut costs (motivated largely by reduced corporate tax revenue). And business sought greater control over the education "industry" to ensure an efficient supply of cognitive inputs. It is interesting to read Dyer-Witheford alongside Mark Edelman Boren's "A Revolutionary Learning: Student Resistance/Student Power." Boren points out that it wasn't until the 1960s that students acquired a political voice through resistance movements. While students have, for centuries, engaged in conflict with university administrations and other authorities, typically such conflicts have been self–interested.

But in the 1960s, students began to support wider causes, aligning themselves with political issues and labour movements to achieve more lasting social goals. Read together, these two papers point to an increasing polarization of students and academic administration, a polarization that mirrors the division of labour and capital. The campus has been reworked in the image of capitalism. This is reinforced by a shift in the dominant teaching forum – from seminar to lecture hall. Efficiencies of scale seem to make all these transformations inevitable.

The book's second part, titled "Rethinking the Intellectual," critiques the traditional view of the intellectual as someone standing prior to and outside of our social movements as a privileged explicator of events. Rather than treating the intellectual as a distinct division of labour — the person who lays the theoretical groundwork which motivates someone else's actions — we are invited to treat the intellectual as involved within these movements. We are also invited to treat those who march and shout in protest as active participants in the formulation of ideas.

Here, we encounter work from the radical left of both Italy and Argentina, with a particular indebtedness to both Antonio Gramsci and Paolo Freire. The radical intellectual conducts research "because she knows that she does not know." It is a humbling view of education as a process that works from the ground up. And so we have, for example, conricerca or coresearch, a method of learning which seeks not only to "know in order to inspire action … but indeed to know in order to lay the foundations for action." It had its beginnings in the factories of northern Italy during the 1950s when the presence of the mass worker began to challenge the traditional socialist–communist icon of the worker as self–sacrificing hero. But knowledge from an assembly line point of view leads to more than a recharacterization of labour and its reality: it goes further and produces experiments in organization that work to transform that reality.

Alongside conricerca is the researcher–militant. "For us, emancipatory thought does not look to seize the state apparatus to implement change; rather, it looks to flee those sites, to renounce instituting any centre or centrality." And so the content of academic education is not lost, but emerges from a more diffuse experience. In keeping with the researcher-militant, the essay which presents the idea is by Colectivo Situaciones.

The third section, titled "Experiments in Utopian Pedagogy," is like the practicum at a radical teachers' college. It is here that the nexus between class and pedagogical method becomes striking. Now we understand precisely why all that has preceded has been framed within a political discourse. Radical pedagogy really takes hold only on the social margins. So, for example, we have an account of the New Beacon Circle in North London which seeks both to empower migrants from former British colonies in the West Indies, and to engage in antiracist education. We encounter Anarchist U in the heart of Toronto, not far from the University of Toronto campus. We read about the Secwepemc Cultural Education Society, a First Nations school which works in association with Simon Fraser University. The book also presents new educational forms from South Delhi and from Pakistan, and offers a surprising critique of the typical workplace–sponsored antiracism workshop.

This is a demanding collection. Demanding not merely because it presents the reader with challenging concepts, but demanding also for any reader who has a university education because it forces the graduate to ask: what kind of knowledge have I acquired from all my learning? Does it serve merely to socialize me? Make me an informed shopper? Or can my learning empower me? Motivate me to act for social transformation? Inevitably, these questions must also be turned in upon the book itself since it comes from a respected academic press and so, presumably, must carry some weight within traditional circles.

But this is the paradox. Even if its editors and contributing authors abandon academia and move into the field, nevertheless they might never have encountered the work that provides a theoretical underpinning for their current positions without the benefit of a post-secondary education. And this leads us inevitably to the next logical question: how do the beneficiaries of a radical pedagogy disseminate their ideas? Through a u(of)topian press?

Utopian Pedagogy: Radical Experiments against Neoliberal Globalization, edited by Mark Coté, Richard J.F. Day, and Greig de Peuter (University of Toronto Press, 2007).

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  • This article has been selected for syndication to Advance.net , which is affiliated with newspapers around the United States, and to Boston.com. Nice work!

  • JohnH

    Nice article, we need more reviews of books like these.