On the school as utopia

A few weeks ago, I attended a presentation about the first attempts at universities in Australia to support the inclusion of students with intellectual disabilities. Laudably, these programs aren’t limited to vocational paths but allow participants to study the subjects they are most interested in. The students in turn spoke not only of the joy of attending these classes, but also of being able to share in the ordinary social life of university students – an experience they would otherwise be denied.

In introducing the work of her colleagues, one of the presenters reminded us that Australian universities were originally established as places of exclusion, fortified against anyone but the male children of the wealthiest white families. The opening up of these institutions to more and more categories of people has been slow and often hard fought, and is a work that is always in progress.

However, the goal cannot be to merely open the doors of the old university to new students and teachers. It must also be for those students and teachers to change the old university. Call it critical pedagogy. Call it decolonisation. Is there a word for when you cure an institution of ableism? If so, call it that. But in order for such a program to be truly meaningful, it cannot be additive (the university plus female students; the university plus Indigenous students; the university plus disabled students, and so forth). It must be transformative.

As this edition of Overland goes to print, my youngest son will be preparing to graduate from our local primary school. It will be the end of a thirteen-year association for our family, one that has been both lifesaving and life-changing. We didn’t know going in what it would mean. We didn’t know what inclusion even looked like, save perhaps as a break in the constant battle to assert that our two youngest children (who are disabled) have the same right to an education as their older brother (who isn’t).

Once that door opens – that is the easy part: the decision not to exclude – the transformation begins. An inclusive classroom needs to change so that everyone can find their place in it. The physical space needs to be adapted. The teaching needs to be creatively innovated and expanded. The very idea of what the object of education is needs to be constantly re-evaluated. (For some children, including ours, education has been primarily about learning how to be with others.) And, most importantly, students as young as the new entrants need to be placed at the centre of these critical decisions. It is, after all, their school.

We didn’t know that any of this was possible, nor that our perennially embattled local primary was one of the best in the country at this particular craft. It was to lead to a different kind of struggle, one in which we and other parents had to defend the school against those seeking to limit its ability to do this kind of work, ostensibly on the grounds that it costs too much money (chiefly to pay for more support staff) and therefore causes other areas to be neglected, such as property maintenance. The real reason is a deep and subconscious fear of that transformation, and of the challenge it represents to hegemonic power structures.

Transformation is confronting because it challenges many long-held assumptions about the role and purpose of education. Many teachers, parents and bureaucrats still subscribe to the banking model of education, as described by Paulo Freire in Pedagogy of the Oppressed. According to Freire, traditional pedagogy imagines children as empty, passive containers into which teachers must ‘deposit’ knowledge. And that is all there is to it.

The struggle at our school is similar to something I once heard described by Ann Milne, former principal of Auckland’s Kia Aroha College. She spoke of the pushback against her school’s efforts to transform its predominantly Māori and Pasifika student body into ‘warrior scholars’, trained to detect racism and whiteness in the institutions of public life, including the education system itself. Milne’s martial image reminded me of one used by late nineteenth-century socialist journalist and novelist Edmondo De Amicis in his immensely popular book Heart, in which he described the just established compulsory public schooling system as an army, and students worldwide as ‘soldiers of progress’.

There is a lineage in this view of the school as utopia, running parallel to the historical critique of education systems as factories designed to reproduce a disciplined workforce. This conceptualisation doesn’t merely offer a limited prospect of social mobility and enfranchisement for the subaltern classes, but also seeks to create alternative models of a more just society. In turn, this model places an expectation on the society outside and beyond. Students who have been treated like persons, like citizens, will get used to thinking of themselves as persons and citizens. Warrior scholars will continue to look for white spaces to fill in. And the vast, monstrous gap between aspiration and reality will continue to teach all of us that there is no alternative to revolution.



Giovanni Tiso

Giovanni Tiso is an Italian writer and translator based in Aotearoa/New Zealand and the editor of Overland’s online magazine. He tweets as @gtiso.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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