. Deserter’s Songs: The shape of education to come? | Ceasefire Magazine

Deserter’s Songs: The shape of education to come?

In this week's Deserter's Songs column on music and politics, David Bell considers the relevance of free improvisation for a 'new way of making and living education'. In so doing, he examines the resonances between the practice of free improvisation and what is commonly termed 'critical pedagogy'.The similarities, he contends, are startling.

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 [1] 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 [2].

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.

[1] 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.
[2] 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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Jennifer Mitchell
Oct 16, 2010 10:41

Hi David, This is fascinating, and so eloquently written and expressed. Thanks for sharing the link with me. I can see the connection with Friere, and Deleuze too, although my appreciation of Deleuze extends no further than a few hundred plateaus. I have a friend here in Melbourne doing interesting things in architecture and engineering pedagogy with a rhizomatic basis, look here: http://bit.ly/aUUXwO
There is so much here for me to think about. I love these striking parallels whenever I come across them, and this one is beautiful as well as eminently useful. Thanks.

Dr Jennifer Mitchell

Oct 16, 2010 23:25

What comes through here is the demand by some, but not yourself, of a ‘year zero’; ‘unlearn what you have learned or face eternal damnation at the feet of structure!’ Hierarchies in education are often ‘soul-destroying’ (the term Jeff Schmidt uses) on purpose, but they equally teach us skills of resistance and collectivity as a by-product- this is not to argue for their necessity, but simply that previous, hierarchical, education still has value when a new educational paradigm replaces or emerges from it (and with music its a lot easier to appreciate non-improv because it contains no innate harmful status quo bias that actually results physical pain to someone somewhere). Jensen’s broader thought reflects much of this and he drifts into fetishisation of indigenous culture (‘pre-civ’) that is a little uncomfortable much of the time.
This is where this comparison might reach a wall: noise and improv in music can be annoying after a while-its like camping in the woods- fun for an evening but you wouldnt want to live there. Education has to demand a longer-term or permanent engagement- its possble that the set of skills improv gives are only SOME of the skills that a nomadic education actually needs.

Arguably theres actually not that much wrong with an initially simplistic reading of Friere: participants in an education need to understand the principles on which that education is based and then form their own opinions about that interpretation or else we risk a hierarchy of knowledge- improv is often percieved as an elite process because of its over-theorization in music (free improv is often depicted as the realm of the bohemian, the hipster).

Oct 17, 2010 10:45

Thanks so much for the kind words, Jennifer. I’m glad you enjoyed this piece! I really hoped I wasn’t heading on an utterly irrelevant tangent with this. I’ll definitely look at your friend’s work: not least because it might provide an answer to a question I was once asked by a member of my department along the lines of ‘this is all very well for politics, but I wouldn’t want to live in a house built by someone taught through these techniques’. I tried to argue that that had missed the point somewhat, but hope that this will offer me some more insight! Sadly, this computer doesn’t like .pdfs (!!) so it’lll have to wait until tomorrow.

AB: I’m very wary of using improv in my work for the reason you mention. Most people don’t like it. When I’ve spoken about this at conferences I’ve avoided playing any out of the fear that if people don’t like the music they’ll not want to hear about my theory. Of course, I’m arguing that it’s about the process of production of the music rather than the end product (and of course recording improv is a grey area).

I didn’t stop to reflect enough on the uses of formal education for crit ped and of non improv for free improv, but your points are definitely very pertinent. I quite like being lectured at, sometimes! And I’ve argued that it needs to have a place in crit ped. I’m not sure I’d have ever understood Deleuze without Simon Tormey’s excellent lectures on him when I was an undergrad!

The anti-civ/pre-civ/post-civ thing is something I’m a little worried about, although it’s not something I ever mention in my work. There are two ‘obvious’ ways we could get to a nomadic culture: through technology (though I’m wary of the links between Deleuze and cybernetics) or through an apocalyptic event. The second, I feel, is more likely. But it’s not something I wish to advocate. I like toothpaste, trains and brutalist car parks too much to want to live like some noble savage. And, of course, I don’t think the world would be a particularly nice place if civilisation suddenly collapsed.

Oct 17, 2010 21:37

As far as I understand it (and I am not expert), criticial pedagogy is not opposed to formal teaching methods as such, but only when they are ossified to create situations of oppression, repression and social production that perpetuate these things. Therefore, some of the methods of what would apparently be formal teaching, for example, someone giving a group of facts to others, wouldn’t seem to me to be outside the critical pedagogues toolset. Indeed, in some situations, the conveyance of basic facts about some scientific field or piece of basic narrative history through oral presentation would seem to be totally acceptable, providing the humanistic ethical frameworks and the exposure and undermining of power relations were still present. Correct me if I am wrong..

Oct 17, 2010 22:07

Absolutely. If, for example, a group decided that an understanding of Derrida could help them further their aims and that the best way to gain this would be to invite a speaker, they would proceed with that. Same with mathematical principles, or whatever. But such formalised knowledge transfer shouldn’t be the dominant form of education. I’ve necessarily simplified the arguments for this column, but tried to point to problems/contradictions.

And though I don’t touch on it here, and whilst I perhaps essentialise the concept of community a little, my critical pedagogy tries to move away from the humanism of Freire. I don’t believe critical pedagogy can liberate something ‘essential’ in humans, but I do believe it can help escape hierarchy and oppression.

Oct 18, 2010 2:24

Interesting question on free improvisation: to appreciate this form of music, that in no way follows conventional patterns, you actually have to learn to appreciate it, you need to learn how to listen differently. You have to, at least at some level, have an aesthetic stance towards, say, the brilliance whereby an improvising unit thinks as a cohesive whole, or where two musicians seem to be beautifully interacting though what is heard might be minimal outside of the usual canon of Western popular listening experience – the same goes, it should be noted, in almost every genre – say grime, where what you are appreciating when you like a rappers flow is a combination of things (speed, cleverness of lyrics and so on) not immediately obvious to outsiders (so much so that there is a special language for it – people talk of a rap being ‘cold’, for example). In the same way, perhaps people have to learn to appreciate critical pedagogy, to learn that the values it takes as normative (equality, dividual liberation, horizontalism, relationality between learner/teacher/knowledge/process) are actually valuable so therefore things that appear initially unpalatable at an almost aesthetic level (the deconstructed nature of the class room for example) in the same way as in the musical form (squalling sax, microtonal interactions) become understood and are seen as worthwhile.

Oct 19, 2010 15:58

I’d be tempted to agree Alex, but maintain that my argument stands (and perhaps falls a little) on the fact that it’s not about the music produced by the improvising ensemble that’s important, but the social relations between those making it. This is precisely why improv isn’t an ‘avant-garde’ leading the way for others to follow in its wake: it’s not a utopia to be abstractly considered but to be lived. Christopher Small’s concept of musicking is relevant here: the power comes from the way the music involves people socially. It’s not a question of listening to improv and being inspired to change the world; it’s a question of doing improv and looking at the relevance of those social relations for the world.

LAB: ‘critical pedagogy’ in the art world? « Nottingham Critical Pedagogy
Nov 3, 2010 15:07

[…] between the practice of critical pedagogy and collective improvisation in music, which you can read here, and I’m going to involve critical pedagogy/popular education in the utopia I’m writing […]

Deserter’s Songs: The shape of education ...
Jul 2, 2013 23:05

[…] In this week's Deserter's Songs column on music and politics, David Bell considers the relevance of free improvisation for a 'new way of making and living education'.  […]

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