[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #5 in October 2007]
How We Learn?
Healthy social movements need spaces for learning and experimentation, healthy democracies need wise citizens to make wise decisions about resources and politics, and healthy people need outlets for dialogue in order to learn about new ideas and form cooperative tendencies to help one another.
(from the Call For Proposals for Issue#5)
In this issue you will be able to better understand the motivations of a wide variety of artists, educators and activists that seek to create more of a link between lived experience and formal education; political organizers who interpret their mission as requiring the group and/or self-education of their members in order to become critical of the structures they participate in; and narratives and interviews highlighting the relationship between spaces, education and imagination.
The amount of discussion and reading groups, free public programs geared at promoting critical understandings of the world, and informal classes and workshops going on in this city is astounding. These gatherings offer a time for eager and passionate people to slow down, to think about their goals and their work and to look forward equipped with new ideas and a better sense of history. So what does this say? People are trying to learn something; they are trying to move in new and different directions. This issue of AREA Chicago uses this tendency or desire as a jumping-off point to ask not only “How We Learn”—but also what we learn and why education is important for effective and meaningful social and cultural movements.
These are the questions we sought to begin to address with this issue:
— What is the role of the reading/discussion group in social movement work – are they filling the void of rigorous thinking and research for activists or are they just a bunch of people “talking” that should be “working”? How does such activity challenge notions of what is or isn’t productive?
—What role does formal/informal/experimental/creative education play, historically and in present day, in the strength of social movements?
—How do we learn what we learn, learn to keep learning, and constantly refine our use the city as a curriculum for articulating a shared vision of a better and more livable Chicago (and world)?
(from the Call For Proposals for Issue#5)
kinda, shoulda, coulda, woulda learned
There are practices and concerns that we wanted to address that did not end up being included in this issue. We could have highlighted the long history of training community organizers to do their jobs, which started with Saul Alinksy in the Back of the Yards neighborhood, and is still continued today with efforts like the Midwest Academy and also various youth organizer training projects, including the new summer institute, Southside Together Organizing for Power. It would also have added a lot to have a discussion about the role of researchers in or outside the academy who produce the data and the concepts, which can be used by social movements—some call this workmilitant research.
Last spring a new organization, Finding Our Roots, formed in order to create a series of conferences. They offer an inspiring model because, instead of jumping directly into organizing, they recognized that an important place to start would be an understanding of their own histories and the history of the ideas they cared about. Their first conference last spring on the North Side was about anarchist theory and history, their next steps are to organize 2 more conferences, which will start to give their organization shape and purpose. We look forward to highlighting this work in more detail in future issues. Additionally, this summer the Platypus reading group initiated an ambitious “History of the Left” reading/lecture series that was inspiring in its scope and scale. There are tons of reading groups in Chicago (in addition to the few that are mentioned in these pages), and details on contacting many of them are included on the back page of this issue.
We would also like to have addressed more about educational history and pedagogical theory in these pages. There are many important ideas and thinkers that have passed through Chicago and made an impact. Initiatives like the late 1960s Cooperative High School Independent Press Service, started in the suburbs of Chicago, should be contextualized with current narratives about small schools workshop and a history of the Alternative School Network. Timelines of the history of public education in Chicago should be presented in these pages together with analysis on the wave of privatization in schools, and its impact on teachers’ unions and on students in neighborhood schools, charter schools, magnet schools and private schools.
But, after all, we cannot do it all! Hopefully this will issue will at least give you a sense of the spectrum of things going on in the city—moving from the informal and casual educational experiments, we also have contributors reflecting on the possibilities of reforming CPS. In this issue we tried to think beyond the trap of seeing all education and learning-related questions in relationship to schools and school policy. However, we might have fallen into another trap of valorizing or celebrating the informal. This is not our intention.
This issue not saying experimental or informal is better or more important than what goes on in the schools. The intention is to celebrate and ask questions of both—to suggest that there are ideas that classroom education might find useful from these other spaces of knowledge production, and vice-versa—but not to be unrealistic about what needs to happen now for the vast majority of people to access critical thinking skills and information through a reformed and equitable free public education system.
—What are the relationships between public school settings and settings for informal educational? What do we expect from the State as far as our education is concerned?
—Why do teachers, parents and students so often (in Chicago) set up satellite shops for engagement and learning across the street from their local schools? What is the perception of what cannot happen inside a school?
—How are academics from elite contexts making their research and teaching relevant to the city? And what do they get out of “community collaborations” and vice versa?
—When we say ”popular” (as in popular education) or accessible or legible, what do we think about pop-culture? And when complex ideas and information take such popular forms, whom are we helping, and what is the long-term impact?
—What is the relationship between providing information and producing knowledge?
(from the Call For Proposals for Issue#5)
The education issue had to happen. There is just so much incredible self-education, political education, and activist teacher-organizing going on in this city. To not take time and space to reflect and comment on it all would be a mistake.
learning from area
Another interpretation of the How We Learn framework is literally: How do we learn different things? This isn’t an issue where we will discuss how we learn manners, basic skills, bad habits or good habits. More specifically, we could ask: How do we learn to be critical? How do we learn how to research, plan and initiate thought and action? I’ve thought a lot while working on this issue about how I became politicized and where I learned critical thinking. What was it that occurred at an earlier point in my life when I decided that I wasn’t satisfied with the way that things were, and that I wanted to seek out contexts, organizations and efforts that would work to change things for what I thought was the for the better. Those inklings of ideas that would later sprout into ideology, programs and game plans—where do they come from and how do they change over time?
In every issue I have used part of my editorial introduction to reflect on the ideas of that issue’s theme and the remainder of the space to reflect on the inner working and evolution of AREA as a project. In this issue I am challenged to reflect the question of the issue, dealing with how we learn and the relationship between education and social movements, in relation to my own experience of learning while doing.
Since meeting with fifteen people who would become the AREA advisory group in the offices ofVideo Machete over two years ago to decide to start AREA, I have learned a lot. It has been a hybrid project that has operated on many levels and meant many different things to many different people. For some, AREA is a publication or an email newsletter that provides a partial but thoughtful directory of things going on in the city. For others it is a space to get outside of one’s own head, community and specific practice, and think about the spectrum of important and critical work happening in the city. For others it might be old news, or not news enough. And still for others it might be a space to imagine a different future for Chicago, or for the direction of our lives—or a place to ask big questions through the lens of local practices.
For me, as someone who has read all the texts, written editorials, organized events and thought a lot about where the contributors to AREA are taking Chicago—what have I learned? I have used AREA as an educational tool, as a chance to learn, and to survey the local Left as it currently exists.
The list could go on about why certain decisions are made within the pages of this publication, and it is always a challenge to think of different and better ways to reflect the editorial strategy of this project to the readers. Part of the reason that AREA texts and events have focused so much on how people do what they do—and ask for definitions of terms—is because we think that people are not given the chance to reflect much on their methodology, their creativity or their intellect. Part of the reason we focus on practices is because we want to learn about ideas through the lens of things people are doing, in order to have hope for the future. Part of the reason that the texts ask people to talk about things that didn’t work, or questions they have for themselves and those working around them is that we think people can benefit from sharing more about failure, and having a critical approach to each other. Part of the reason we include reflections by people involved in academia is to, as Brian Holmes has said, “Help the people who are part of the formal machinery of knowledge production to start learning in a different way.”  Part of the reason we include contributions by people who are on the ground as activists is that they might help complicate some of the ideas and places which people theorize, but add a social and cultural element. Part of the reason we emphasize things like spaces, networks and communication systems is that we feel that they are the infrastructure that is required to get important and critical work done in this city. And part of the reason that we deal with broad themes is that we want to find ways of showing the interrelatedness of different practices that are not commonly thought of as being connected, or possibly in cahoots.
There are things about AREA that have worked quite well—its editorial approach, its themes and its structure —and there are things which are in need for drastic improvements or evaluation. For the first four issues of AREA we tried to develop some of that organizational infrastructure: a methodology, an editorial policy, an agenda and a framework. After developing an infrastructure—where it was basically possible to think of an idea, craft an open call, get responses from a wide range of contributors and put an issue of the magazine out—it is now time to mess with our approach. There are several reasons for this. One is a pretty obvious one: in order not to get stale, too formulaic, or bored. Another reason is that we can treat this project, which has the basic infrastructure of a journal or a magazine, as something more—or at least be hopeful that we can continue to push in new directions. This is why this issue was put together alongside an exhibition and a lecture/workshop series that helped to develop the ideas of the magazine. Because of that difference in our approach, you will see more texts and contributions that directly reflect on AREA as a social entity, out in the world as an event organizer, a host. As a platform.
Future issues of AREA will continue to experiment with new models. The next issue will take a break from the open call format (where we think of a theme and cast out the net to see who in the city wants to write about it). Issue#6 will be guest-edited by some local journalists who are developing an issue of AREA around the theme of the “Right to the City.” For Issue#7 next summer/fall 2008, AREA will be in residence to develop the content of the publication and to produce a thematic event series around the theme of “1968: The inheritance of politics and the politics of inheritance.” This issue and project will deal with the legacy of the Left of 1968 and its impact on contemporary social movements. This will expand on the model that we began with this issue, where we did an event series of 25 lectures and workshops at the Hyde Park Art Center. By developing the publication in conjunction with an event series, we will develop AREA as a platform for inquiry as opposed to merely a space for education. We hope you will continue to use AREA as a place to share, teach and learn.
1) Constituent Imagination: Militant Investigation and Collective Theorization Edited by Erika Biddle,Stevphen Shukaitis, and David Graeber (AK Press 2007)
2) Bad At Sports Podcast Episode 104, Brian Holmes Interviewed by Lane Relyeawww.badatsports.com
See also the http://www.edu-factory.org project dealing with the political economy of the corporate university