Educated Optimism

Educational futures, knowledge cultures, environmental, technological and social change

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Universities – there is another way

Growing up in the UK in the 80s under Thatcherism, an era of strikes, hostility, growing inequality and racism – not to mention stone washed denim and dodgy perms – the Soviet Union played an important role in the imagination. It was a land where things were different, it was a whole chunk of the world where society, economy, culture were organised in a completely different way.  It opened up an imaginative space, a little crack in the perception of the world that encouraged you to think that what you were living with wasn’t necessarily what you were stuck with.

We need that crack in the imagination today in relation to our universities. We need to know that there are other foundations upon which education can be built, and other forms that it might take. Such a crack exists and is growing.

A couple of years ago, the Ecoversities network held its first gathering, convened by Kelley Teamey and Udi Mandell and bringing together over 50 people from all around the world who are demonstrably building new approaches to education.

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Communicate 2012

Last week, I found myself on a panel at the Communicate Conference ( #communicate 2012) with Rob Hopkins of the Transition Movement and Chris Baines, the broadcaster, writer and advisor to governments and corporations. We were being asked to talk about the next ten years for people and nature.

As is usual at these events, more substantial questions were opened up than there was really time to explore in an hour-long session. One question from the floor, for example, included – ‘what about radical discontinuities?’ – and from the chair, Angela McFarlane, there was an observation along the lines of ‘what hope is there when everyone is still buying water in plastic bottles and when, despite health evidence, there is still massive obesity – will local initiatives really cut it?’

I sadly arrived late at the conference. But from that short exposure to the debate, there seemed to be a polarisation in the audience and the conference between those advocating local responses – the just do it, get started with what you can work on yourself group – and those arguing for more systemic change – making the case for legislation, regulation and influence at national and transnational levels with both governments and the private sector. (There is, of course, another subtext to this debate – which is the equation of local action with defeatism and national/transnational thinking as optimistic and engaged – but there isn’t space to go into that element of it here…)

I was mulling over this opposition on the way home, and came to the conclusion that this polarisation doesn’t really take account of how policy actually gets made and changed. It also suggested to me that there’s a big gap where academic research should be sitting – namely, bridging the gap between on the ground practice and the theorisation that can drive wider change.

The problem with the polarisation between local and national/transnational is that it positions the on-the-ground work as ‘just practice’ and it reifies the ‘policy’ and the ‘governmental’ to some sort of decontextualised sphere, elevated sphere, uninfluenced by the rest of society.

Another way of thinking about it is to understand localised action on the ground as a form of practical experimentalism that might open up new ways of working, build new ideas and generate the sorts of practices that can open up new opportunities (see for example, Arjun Appaduarai’s work).  This is important because we know that policy changes don’t happen in a vacuum. They happen in a particular climate and context in which certain choices are seen as more or less acceptable, in which certain decisions are seen as more or less plausible. In Gramscian terms, policy making operates by negotiating and renegotiating ‘common sense’. What is important about action at the local level, therefore, is not only what changes it makes at the local level, but also the changes it makes in the taken for granted ideas about what is possible, about how people will agree to live, about how things can be organised. On the ground projects are not just good in themselves, therefore, they also potentially change what Belfiore and Bennett call the ‘conceptual reason’ about what is possible and through which policy is made.

For this to happen, though, and for localised activity not merely to be parochial, we need much better links between on the ground action and policy/strategy – and this is where the academics could and should be coming in. Community groups and others acting on the ground usually don’t have the resources, time and sometimes the skills to build the sorts of evidence about their practice that makes it easy for policy and others to pick up and run with their ideas. At the same time, they don’t always have access to the evidence of other similar projects, and to wider knowledge that could inform their activities. There is some truth to Alex Steffen’s accusation that local level projects often intentionally resist looking beyond their areas for resources of insight and optimism . The socially and environmentally engaged, academic, however, should be able to work alongside local activists to learn from them, to bring wider resources and theories to support and challenge their work and to work with local actors to create the sorts of stories and evidence of change on the ground that can inspire even the most moribund political culture to think of new possibilities. And here, of course, is where the Connected Communities programme may have a role to play in future …