Deserter’s Songs: The shape of education to come?
Deserter's Songs, Music & Dance, New in Ceasefire - Posted on Saturday, October 16, 2010 8:19 - 9 Comments
By David Bell
The Shape of Education to Come? Improvisation and Critical Pedagogy
Last week I argued that the practice of improvising music constitutes what I call a ‘nomadic utopia’: a space in which ‘dividual’ performers can come together collectively, yet still express their differences. This space is regulated immanently (that is, without reference to a transcendent object located beyond the space: a score in music, for example) and through non-hierarchical ‘multi-dominance’, in which the ‘dividual’ players must listen and react to each other, without there being a dominant player who the others follow (though, clearly, this does sometimes happen in improvised music). I noted that this way of reading the practice of improvising music gave it significant resonances with what the Latin American scholar Sara Motta has called ‘new ways of making and living politics’.
In this column, I want to follow on from this argument to consider the relevance of free improvisation for a ‘new way of making and living education’, which can help feed into ways of creating spaces of nomadic utopia. In so doing, I consider the resonances between the practice of free improvisation and what is commonly termed ‘critical pedagogy’. These, I contend, are startling- and the similarities extend to the problems of (and resistance to) their use in formal educational spaces.
As far as I’m aware, the similarities between critical pedagogy and free improvisation have not yet been considered, but the musicologist and improvising saxophonist David Borgo (whose theoretical and musical work is a constant source of inspiration) has laid the groundwork in relating free improvisation to (less obviously political) forms of education which, in Borgo’s words ‘insist that “knowledge” can never be abstracted from the dynamic complexities involved in learning and applying it’.
Rather, it ‘is “constituted” by the knower, the environment in which knowing occurs, and the activity in which the learner is participating’. It is ’embodied, situated and distributed’. He quotes the work of cognitive scientists Francisco Valera, Evan Thompson and Eleanor Rosch to argue that ‘cognition is not the representation of a pregiven world by a pregiven mind but is rather the enactment of a world and a mind on the basis of a history of the variety of actions that a being in the world performs’.
These forms of education speak strongly to critical pedagogy, which has developed out of the tradition of popular education in Latin America. For critical pedagogues such as Paolo Freire, Ira Shor and bell hooks, traditional approaches to education are blighted by what Freire calls the ‘banking method’, in which knowledge is considered an abstract concept quite apart from embodied social relations. This abstract knowledge is held by teachers, who ‘deposit’ it in the students, who may themselves become teachers depositing this knowledge later in life. There is no criticality brought to bare on knowledge and no chance to create new knowledge.
I am, of course, grossly simplifying Freire’s theory here (which may in itself be rather too simplistic an understanding of formal education), but if the majority of us pause to consider our formal educational experiences, I would wager that they largely ring true: we listen, we read, we repeat. We may criticise, we may synthesise, but we do so by quoting this dead white man, or that dead white man, or that token black woman who’s been clumsily shoehorned into our course. But we rarely create. And what’s more, we do all this as an isolated individual- very possibly in a space which actively excludes certain sections of the community (a private school, a grammar school or a university, for example) and thus denies the plurality of experiences which constitute our society.
In place of such a view of education, critical pedagogy privileges the co-construction of knowledge without hierarchy. The teacher becomes a facilitator, charged with opening up what I call a ‘nomadic utopia’- a concept I explained last week in relation to the musical spaces of free improvisation. The nomadic utopia of critical pedagogy allows learners to come together in a non-hiearchical space of ‘multi-dominance’ in which their puissance (or power-to) is liberated and their difference can be expressed (in this case, their ‘difference’ could stem from class background; gender; sexuality; race; historical, emotional, social, physical and psychological experiences; books they have read; people whose company they have shared, and so on). The knowledge created by this group may draw on abstract knowledge deposited through traditional learning, but it may also be hindered by it. Our theories and books can be a comfort blanket to retreat to when someone else’s ‘difference’ becomes too much for us.
Free improvisation shares critical pedagogy’s belief that knowledge must not be considered the reproduction of abstract forms (be they scales, chords or reified techniques)- but the exploration of the possibilities inherent in the embodied, social relations of making music collectively  although- as in the nomadic utopias of critical pedagogy- these abstract forms should not be completely disregarded; merely considered as potential tools to draw on .
Accepting this idea of knowledge as a verb can be troubling for the learner in critical pedagogy, who has to unplck assumptions about knowledge firmly embedded within the dominant culture- and for the improvising musician, who may find themselves unwilling or unable to open up new spaces of exploration through their inability to depart from years of formal musical training. It is, therefore, no surprise to find that the concept of ‘unlearning’ plays an important role in both critical pedagogy and free improvisation.
On a visit to the Centre for the Study of Social and Global Justice at the University of Nottingham in February 2008, the Venezuelan popular educator Edenis Guilarte spoke of the concept of ‘desaprendes’ which, he argued, is essential for critical learning to take place, and which translates as ‘unlearning to learn’. Following the teaching of Simon Bolivar, this ‘relearning’ is done through ‘doing’, along with others in the community. This approach is strikingly similar to that undertaken by the free jazz pianist Cecil Taylor who, remarking on the make-up of his band, stated that:
The inexperience of some of the players is a virtue rather than a drawback. There are fewer things to unlearn. My approach to the members of the band—which is similar to the kind of approach I use in the class that I teach- ‘Black Music from 1920 to the Present’—constitutes a fundamental attack against the whole structure of the way music is given to people and also against how our parents taught us and what they thought was necessary and important to teach us. All of us intuitively knew the things young people know today, but we could not implement our intuitions because of the way we were taught. This is why people drop out of school. I don’t tell people in the band how to play. I just tell them: ‘Play.’ Then, by doing it, they begin to see how to play.
From these quotes one will not be surprised to learn that critical pedagogy and free improvisation have a rocky relationship with the academy. Indeed, the ‘popular education’ movement of which Guilarte is a part remains suspicious of spaces of formal education, preferring to use spaces in the community at large for their critical pedagogical purposes, and universities frequently return this suspicion, as can be seen in the sad case of the physician Denis Rancourt.
A clear barrier for the uptake of critical pedagogy in the university is its attitude to grading (which comes up in the Rancourt case). The anarchist educator Derrick Jensen, who has taught at both Pelican Bay State Prison and Eastern Washington University and whose pedagogical approach has significant resonances with critical pedagogy (though he does not use the term) writes that
‘Grades are a problem. On the most general level, they’re an explicit acknowledgment that what you’re doing is insufficiently interesting or rewarding for you to do it on your own. Nobody ever gave you a grade for learning how to play, how to ride a bicycle, or how to kiss. One of the best ways to destroy love for any of these activities would be through the use of grades, and the coercion and judgment they represent. Grades are a cudgel to bludgeon the unwilling into doing what they don’t want to do, an important instrument in inculcating children into a lifelong subservience to whatever authority happens to be thrust over them.’
And how does one grade communal activity anyway? If the unit of critical pedagogy is not the invdividual but the ‘dividual’, to whom should a mark be assigned? These are tricky questions which frequently come up wherever free improvisation is permitted a place in the academy: how do you assess whether someone is playing ‘properly’ when there is no ‘correct’ technique and no score to judge them against?
Perhaps critical pedagogy and free improvisation are better suited to the kind of deschooled education advocated in Ivan Ilich’s infamous Deschooling Society, or in a number of anarchist utopias such as William Morris’ News From Nowhere, in which ‘education’ is a bottom-up process dictated by learners who decide when they’re ready to learn (and what they want to learn) and set about learning by doing.
Such a utopia is clearly a long way off, and it is perhaps foolish to try and realise it too quickly. Yet we must remain hopeful. ‘Teaching’ should not be seen as the task of leading, and giving learners abstract knowledge, but the task of creating nomadic spaces in which the co-construction of knowledge can be made possible. The improvising bassist Lisle Ellis made such a point in an interview with David Borgo, arguing that‘A good teacher is always teaching a lesson that the teacher needs to learn. I work with students on things that I am interested in and [that] I am trying to discover myself how to do. It keeps me from going into a rote thing. And also they can see me make mistakes. I think that is a really good thing to impart to young people: let them see you fail and let them see you deal with it. And no matter how many times you fail, you still get up and go back at it’ (quoted in Borgo, 2007: 70).
This is the task of a nomadic education: to ‘Fail again. Fail better’, as Samuel Beckett might have it.
If we remain open to the forms of knowledge constructed by critical pedagogy and free improvisation, we might be a little closer to achieving a nomadic utopia on a larger scale. As Paolo Freire writes:‘…there is no authentic utopia apart from the tension between the denunciation of a present becoming more and more intolerable, and the “annunciation”, announcement, of a future to be created, built- politically, esthetically and ethically- by us women and men. Utopia implies this denunciation and proclamation, but it does not permit the tension between the two to die away with the production of the future previously announced. Now the erstwhile future is a new present, and a new dream experience is forged. History does not become immobilized, does not die. On the contrary, it goes on.’ (Freire, 2004: 77).
Free improvisation does not tolerate immobilization. Nor should our education. We must revel in the joy of co-constructing knowledge wherever we can.
We must go on.
David Bell is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Nottingham. His work seeks to rethink utopianism through the work of Gilles Deleuze and anarchist thought. He is currently writing a book on the politics of improvising music for Zer0 Books. Deserter’s Song, his column on music, is published every Saturday.
 Of course, free improvisation can be a solo practice; or a practice of improvising over recordings of oneself. I need to think these through in relation to the arguments I am making here.
 Indeed, the ambiguity may be greater in free improvisation than it is in critical pedagogy. A number of musicians who practice free improvisation consciously school themselves in a number of forms of musical knowledge: non-western scales and percussion techniques are frequently utilised, for example. Consciously learning these forms may in fact give the free improviser a greater ‘freedom’ to experiment than had they not learnt them. Though I have little formal musical training, I am frequently frustrated by the way in which my playing tends to fall into a 4/4 time (this is, undoubtedly, because I am immersed in a musical culture where 4/4 is the dominant form). Playing ‘freely’ and without reference to a predetermined abstract is not enough to free me from cultural hegemony. Perhaps some lessons in, for example, Indian tabla drumming, would enable me to escape this problem.
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