Yesterday Ross Little from Criminology presented a seminar on “Education in a Young Offenders Institution: What do young people say”. In the session, Ross asked the question “what kinds of learning can take place in a prison?” This strikes me as an incredibly pertinent question to ask of the act of learning and teaching inside all institutions, as the time and space of those institutions is framed less by the humanism of our relationships and more by contractual obligations.
These obligations are rooted in the idea of education as a commodifiable service, whether it is contracted through the prison service’s educational providers/partners or whether it is effectively contracted by an individual’s willingness to hand over a fee to a university. At issue is whether such obligations amplify our performance anxiety? And so we might ask, what kinds of learning can take place in a university? Inside educational spaces that are increasingly monitored and performance managed, is it possible to educate as the practice of freedom?
To educate as the practice of freedom is a way of teaching that anyone can learn. That learning process comes easiest to those of us who also believe that our work is not merely to share information but to share in the intellectual and spiritual growth of our students. To teach in a manner that respects and cares for the souls of our students is essential if we are to provide the necessary conditions where learning can most deeply and intimately begin.
bell hooks. 1994. Teaching to Transgress, p. 13.
The idea of obligation in the classroom is increasingly framed by the politics of austerity, which validate narratives around ideas of value-for-money and efficiency, alongside highlighting where the responsibility for failure lies. These failures might be rooted in a failure of rehabilitation or of recuperation or of developing resilience. What is worse, they are then situated and incorporated inside the individual.
However, Ross hinted at two ways of pushing back against these narratives, in order to reimagine what education in a young offenders’ institution might look like. The first was through the sharing of narratives of courage, faith and hope between young offenders, about the possibilities for doing and for being differently. The second was through the possibilities for collective work, between academics, educators working inside prisons and people in prison, so that failure is no longer accepted as an individual’s fault. Instead collective work and collective labour might demonstrate points of solidarity between people as a form of recuperation, or as what Sarah Amsler calls fearless practice.
In framing these points of solidarity, Ross’s talk reminded me that I presented and wrote a while back about whether universities care too much about students? and there I used Mike Neary’s work on “Student as Producer” to highlight that “social learning is more than the individual learning in a social context, and includes the way in which the social context itself is transformed through progressive pedagogic practice.” In this process of transformation, we might reassess the governing or organising principles for the design of the curriculum, and who has a voice in that process of design. Addressing these issues of voice in the curriculum are central to any attempt to push-back against marketised obligation, especially where we seek to sit with or even advocate with those who are marginalised.
Ross has written about participation and education in youth justice for the Howard League, here.