Studies in Philosophy and Education

, Volume 31, Issue 5, pp 501–504

Response to Eduardo M. Duarte’s Review of Radical Education and the Common School


  • Michael Fielding
    • Thomas Coram Research Unit, Institute of EducationUniversity of London
    • Thomas Coram Research Unit, Institute of EducationUniversity of London

DOI: 10.1007/s11217-012-9301-z

Cite this article as:
Fielding, M. & Moss, P. Stud Philos Educ (2012) 31: 501. doi:10.1007/s11217-012-9301-z

Our thanks to Eduardo Duarte for such a thoughtful and imaginative critical engagement with our work. The issues he raises and the manner in which he reflects on and extends the discussions we began in our book validate and exemplify our hope for an agonistic democratic politics of recognition. Also, as the concluding sentences of the first half of his essay suggest, he, like us, underscores the need for understanding and celebrating democracy, not just as an agonistic, but as an embodied, existential encounter.

Perhaps the most challenging part of Eduardo Duarte’s review, both for us and for him, is a shared aspiration to respond to our metaphorical and literal rallying cry to those writing in this field to author ‘More poetry, less prose’. As he himself says, ‘How might educational critics, theorists and philosophers take up a counteroffensive of poetry? What would more poetry, less prose entail?’

For potential readers, we should first explain that the poetry/prose dichotomy forms just one part of our response to the question with which we open our final chapter, ‘what is to be done?’ Far more space is given over to ‘a discussion about possible processes for transformation’, guided by the work of Erik Olin Wright (on real utopias) and Roberto Unger (on democratic experimentalism) and the concept of prefigurative practice. Nevertheless the call for more poetry and less prose is important and we applaud the bravery and the adventure both of Duarte’s proposal and its enactment within the context of his review.

Our response, however much it falls short of our aspirations, is intended to emulate his example, not decry it or dismiss it as hopelessly utopian. For we write within the context of hyper-performativity which, at least in our own country, has been destroying both the manner and the matter of academic writing and enquiry for at least three decades—and which is in sore need of the hopefully utopian. We offer three themes, which we should like to briefly explore here. These are, firstly, the trope of ‘The Box’ which Duarte pursues with such relish; secondly, his own suggestions about the need for a new ‘portal of potentiality’; and, thirdly, some other possibilities that complement rather than displace his poetic crafting of alternative imaginaries.

Obliterating the Box

In one sense Eduardo Duarte’s destruction of ‘The Box’ is too accomplished. He, rightly, traces the semantic and existential incarceration, both of contemporary imagination and practice, through the constraints of a Box that is totalising, regardless of whether we are inside or outside its visible boundaries. However, the luminous vitality of his persuasive act of intellectual exposure blinds him to the possible disjunction between form and content: not everything that appears in a box is an intellectual or spiritual prisoner of its constraining circumstance.

Whilst ‘The Box enframes educational theory within the prosaic’ it does not exhaust the gamut of metrical or imaginative possibility. Would, for example, William Blake’s ‘The Schoolboy’ be rendered prosaic if we had included it in a box in our text? Ironically, perhaps to our detriment, perhaps not, the gestural articulation of a number of our proposed alternative possibilities—either as exemplars of other ways of being or as intellectual schemata tracing the intellectual contours of a quite different possibility—are placed in boxes. They offer to the reader images of the enactment in practice of the ‘common school’, a central concept of our radical democratic education.

Pace Shakespeare, the zealotry of Duarte’s omnivorous destruction of The Box comes close to the demise of ‘vaulting ambition which o’erleaps itself, and falls on the other’. This would, however, be an overstatement. His point is well taken and the importance of authoring alternative ways of imagining and enacting quite different, more fully democratic futures remains an important and increasingly urgent undertaking.

New ‘Portals of Potentiality’

Eduardo Duarte is largely right in insisting that the ‘question of form (is) central’, and whilst we must accept his observation that ‘too little of (our) book appears to be an experiment in writing theory’, our acceptance can only be partial for at least two reasons.

The first is that the truth it expresses needs substantial qualification: if we do not push the artistic and intellectual boundaries of theory writing sufficiently far, it is emphatically not the case that we forgo the attempt to ‘write education theory outside the Box’. The range of literature we cite, the ‘tales of hope’ that we tell, the manner of our expression, the existential and political impetus of our thinking, take us outside the Box of neo-liberal presumption and open up multiple possibilities.

Secondly, the manner and the matter of our writing assume a judgement about readership, about the range of participants we hoped to involve and the kind of dialogue we hoped to engender. In contesting education, we need both to sustain the already converted whilst trying to make new converts from the mainstream, or at least sow some seeds of doubt. Should we, and can we, address different audiences with different mixtures of poetry and prose? Or do we simply end up by failing to please either, being too poetic for some and too prosaic for others? In short, to whom should we be speaking and in what voice? Whilst we may well have got our answers wrong, or less right than we would have wanted, a judgment inevitably has to be made about what is most likely to further the kinds of possibilities one is advocating. To pick up on a phrase from Eric Olin Wright’s discussion of ‘real utopias’, that we find helpful and use extensively in our book, maybe one could usefully explore the possibility of poetic ‘way-stations’ that have enough of future possibility in their articulation and their visionary energy to develop a form of discourse that bridges the two worlds—of the converted and still to be converted—and has its own aesthetic and political integrity as a transitional gesture.

Certainly, we would entirely agree with Duarte’s invitation to those working in the field of education to support the development of ‘a democratic form of writing theory that is poetically prosaic, or prosaically poetic.’ Such a form would not only confront the ugliness, mendacity and arrogance of prosaically impoverished neo-liberal discourse. It would also confront those brutally unpoetic strands of critical theory that, far from being agents of liberation, ironically confirm the status quo through a self-referential torpor of incomprehension and resultant inaction by the very people who are well placed to enact and extend a counter-resistance in day-to-day schooling.

Parallel Possibilities

It is arguable that we should pursue alternative forms of writing and being in the world on more than one front and in more than one way. Whilst some may wish to explore Eduardo Duarte’s ‘new portals of potentiality’, others may wish to reacquaint themselves with older forms that have fallen foul of the neo-liberal leviathan in all its different guises. We are struck, for example, by the potential of the essay as a literary and political genre and thus by the subversive beauty of such writers as John Berger in The Shape of a Pocket, Raimond Gaita in A Common Humanity and Michael Ignatieff in The Needs of Strangers. We are struck by the way in which so much academic writing has, largely but not solely through the demands of performativity, become prey to omnivorous referencing and citation almost as a substitute for argument and a surrogate for original thinking.

Perhaps, too, we need to look beyond writing to other forms of expression, to make visible other ways of being in the world by finding ‘new ways of communicating our theory’. The ‘hundred languages of childhood’ is regarded as more than a trope in the early childhood education in Reggio Emilia, which figures much in our book as an example of sustained and municipal democratic experimentalism. It is both a theory arising from a political debate about the privileging of just two languages, reading and writing, and the name given to an exhibition of pedagogical projects from the city’s schools (Vecchi 2010). This ‘exhibition of the possible’ (the words are those of Loris Malaguzzi, Reggio’s great pedagogical thinker and practitioner) has travelled the world now for 30 years, reaching a far wider audience and communicating theories far more vividly than any amount of writing—poetic or prosaic.

We need both: Duarte’s ‘democratic form of writing theory that is poetically prosaic, or prosaically poetic’; and Reggio’s exploration of other languages to exhibit the possible. The urgency of such a double task is growing rather than diminishing. As John Berger in his essay reminds us,

The culture in which we live is perhaps the most claustrophobic that has ever existed; in the culture of globalisation … there is no glimpse of an elsewhere, of an otherwise. … The first step towards building an alternative world has to be a refusal of the world picture implanted in our minds … Another space is vitally necessary (Berger 2002, p. 214)

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© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2012