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Contestations: Learning From Critical Experiments in Education

As a recent architecture graduate, Jack Self finds accord with this recent publication’s views on education and the potential for reform

My end-of-year design crit last July began the same way as all the others: I presented my architectural scheme, then waited for a panel of tutors to assess the work. Perhaps the proposal failed to excite the panel, or perhaps − like the students − they were suffering from sleep-deprivation; in any case I found the energy of the discussion lacking.

But rather than suffer through a weak response I found myself irritably demanding that they make more of an effort. Bemused, the panel couldn’t seem to decide who, as it were, was judging whom? Were they deciding if I should pass? Or was I deciding if they’d provided value for money? I was not being flippant. I’d been reflecting on the problem for some time, and intended to expose the fundamental ambiguity at the core of neoliberal education: am I the consumer of a service, or the product of a system?

I am hardly the first person to ask this question. However, what sets Contestations apart as a remarkable publication is the lucidity and brilliance with which its authors form a response. As Tim Ivison and Tom Vandeputte note in their introduction, ‘Once marginal and tactical, the discourses and practices discussed here increasingly represent practical, even necessary steps towards post-neoliberal learning.’

While I am sceptical about the term ‘post-neoliberal’ − the forces of neoliberalism seem to be doing just fine − I admit there doesn’t seem to be a better way of describing pedagogical strategies intended to operate outside or in parallel to the (possibly fatally) compromised institutions of mass education as they exist today.

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DFAB Arch, ‘the world’s first industrial robotic laboratory for non-standard architectural assembly processes’, was installed in ETH Zurich in 2005. With better facilities and no fees, wouldn’t British students be better off – and more faithful to neoliberal ideals – heading to Europe?

The process at work within architecture schools over the last decade is indicative of the general trend: either by government reform or self-initiation, there has been a push to render the complex educational process compatible with market metrics. At a macro level this has meant a new form of aggressive competition based on the perceived ‘value’ of a degree, which is always expressed in vocational statistics: how much do graduates typically earn, how quickly are they employed, and so on.

The only unknown variable in this profit/loss calculation is the ‘reputation’ of a school, influenced by increasingly sophisticated branding and marketing operations.

If, at the micro level, there is a sense that pupils and teachers are somehow victims of the same system, it is because metric measurement exploits both parties equally (though separately). Sean Dockray, founder of the fantastic online book repository aaaarg.org, neatly surmises, ‘Library cards, passwords and keys are assigned to individuals; so are contracts, degrees, loans and grades. Student and faculty are individuated at every turn, perhaps no more clearly than in online learning where each body collapses into his or her own profile.’

Meanwhile, educators find themselves wrestling with a bureaucratic hydra intent on dictating even the content of their classes. It is here, as the well-known activist Bifo Beradi explains, that the greatest threat to universities is located. For while the academy has never been truly fiscally or politically independent, it has always been epistemologically autonomous: in other words, for most of their history it has been up to universities to determine what and how they will teach.

That is less and less true, as the 2011 closure of Middlesex’s philosophy department testifies. Even though it was perfectly viable, the withdrawal of all funding from certain arts and humanities courses turned this well-regarded department into a financial black hole overnight. Far from being the case of free-market economics, this amounts to state intervention in the academic direction of the university. As Beradi notes, the death of epistemological autonomy is more broadly ‘destroying the space of autonomy for all intellectual life’.

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A crit at the Architectural Association. In a market-obsessed age, this venerable ritual fails to the ultimate test: customer satisfaction

Unsurprisingly, as the artist Gregory Sholette notes, ‘it seems that those who labour in, or are being processed by, the neoliberal edufactory system have begun to revolt, and the new structural adjustment initiated by the so-called Great Recession has served as a focusing agent for this rebellion’.

Within architecture the frustration has produced a diverse spectrum of effects: a surprisingly radically politicised generation of students, who see no contradiction in being Marxists who ruthlessly demand greater value for money; the intense desire to experiment with new forms of learning institutions (from self-funded collectives to alternative archetypes like The London School of Architecture); a targeted resistance to technocratic neoliberal management and the oppression of debt (at a recent Architecture Foundation event The Guardian’s Olly Wainwright argued that the logic of a neoliberal EU market demanded UK students should seek free education in Switzerland).

Within this context Contestations is essential reading, as the models it describes − from crowd-sourced diplomas to after-school activism − go beyond anything yet attempted within the design fields. A rigorous and enjoyable read, Contestations pragmatically demonstrates the possibility of post-neoliberal pedagogic autonomy.

Contestations: Learning From Critical Experiments in Education

Editors: Tim Ivison & Tom Vandeputte
Publishers: Bedford Press
Price: £1

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