Radical learning environments

by | May 18, 2021

Dr Sarah Elisa Kelly, lecturer in engaged ecology at Schumacher College blogs with her thoughts on what radical education means for her.

woman picking apples

Image credit: Craig Whyte

A few years ago, I became fascinated with the word “radical” after writing about an ad campaign in a high-end department store that ran the tagline – “a radical luxury”. At the time I was interested in the ease with which corporate consumer narratives co-opt and greenwash the emotion and language of activist endeavours. This was around the time of Pepsi’s now infamous depiction of harmonious street protest in a TV advert featuring Kendell Jenner, alongside the white-washing and commodification of ideas once rooted in social justice movements, such as “radical self-care” emerging decontextualised, as t-shirt slogans emblazoned with faux gemstones in a high-street fashion store.

It seemed that “radical” was increasingly operating as a kind of vacuous buzzword across genres, a way to make something sound attractive, with an edgy yet thoroughly disingenuous sense of risk. All the real risk of course remains in the lived experiences of those whose bodies are considered valueless and expendable to the entangled infrastructures of colonialism and capitalism — the texture of this, in turn, carried as an imprint upon each and every surface of the products for sale.

The word radical is decidedly hard to pin down or contain, as all my favourite words tend to be. In English language, it stems from the Latin radix which paradoxically points to both the root of a thing, something inherent, at the inner core while also referring to the branches, the extremities, edges and margins. “Radical” conjures affirmative ideas of social and political transform, alongside more complex and often troubling images such as those linked to religious fundamentalism and exclusionary feminisms.

It feels important to remember that at any given time what appears to be “radical” is also always context dependant. Frequently, while some elements of a radical project might be deeply transformative, other parts of the same equation can simultaneously remain under examined, particularly those which power and privilege obscure. As uncomfortable as this inevitably feels, both truths perhaps always exist side by side.

Given all this, if the prospect of “radical education” has a tendency to sound exciting or glamorous, big and shiny or new and profound, I find increasingly that my interests lie in the smaller, sometimes quieter acts of everyday commitment — navigating this ongoing relationship between roots and branches alongside the tricky task of attempting to hold both “the planetary and the intimate” (to borrow the words of Astrida Neimanis) together in two all-too-human hands.

If I were asked to draw up a manifesto for what a subversive learning environment means for me today (and my companions at the college would rightly have different versions of this) it might begin to look something like the following:

  • A place where we nurture our critical thinking until it sharpens into swords of expansive attentiveness. Like artist Lora Mathis who invites us to “weaponize radical softness”, we might learn ways to turn towards each other which do not, in the process, turn us away from others – namely all those to whom we have always been indebted and inextricably bound.
  • A place where we choose to turn first and foremost to voices of colour, black, indigenous and queer, trans, and neurodiverse and non able-bodied voices. Where those of us carrying various privileges get to learn the often uncomfortable art of stepping back… and then staying in the room.
  • A place where the search for “answers” involves less energy directed toward re-inventing the wheel (and other traps of individualism) and more skills toward listening for what is already here present and being spoken-over or strategically silenced.
  • A place where we welcome rest. Where we might take naps, fall silent from time to time and allow rhythms of pause in everything from our lunch conversations to our weekly study schedule. Where we acknowledge that forming new neural pathways requires genuine effort. And where we aren’t so fearful of the creeping void that so often makes us feel unable to take ourselves off the productivity-validation train.
  • A place where those of us who need to can teach with hot water bottles each month, nursing the aches as we bleed. Where we can question the idea of what is deemed “professional” or “appropriate” if, in so many environments, it requires us to cover up and minimise the lived ecologies of our first relationship with place: the body.
  • A place where we value and welcome uncertainty, where stuttering, stumbling, grasping incoherencies are given space to move, free from the relentlessness of our perfectionism. Where we can in turn name this perfectionism as itself complicit within countless legacies of harm.
  • A place where we practice self-compassion shamelessly, tending to our insecurities and vulnerabilities through a lens which recognises that role they play in constructing narratives of lack and scarcity which also feed the insatiable “not enoughness” of both consumer capitalism and colonial conquest.

This said, it wouldn’t be set out as a manifesto in the spirit of declaration or proclamation. Rather one that seeped into things like a cloud in the cracks, taking up residence in the walls, crossing hallways, lingering outside doors, and settling into the chairs that we sit upon, hanging above our conversations, infiltrating the air we exchange as we breathe. Above all, it would be a manifesto-in-process, seeking accountability, amendment, dialogue and adaptation.

Alongside the idea of a radical education then, perhaps all this speaks to my desire for a “resilient” one, something that might eventually become transformative primarily through its capacity to stay response-able to the ongoing responsibilities of our times.

This blog was written by Dr Sarah Elisa Kelly, lecturer on the Engaged Ecology programme at Schumacher College.