Liberation Pedagogy for Cities

Participation can empower students and citizens alike. (The Hindu04.08.2018)

The ideals of education — whether traditional or contemporary — are often touted as being above those that circulate in the world at large. If economic interests, the vagaries of war or dominant ideologies interfere with the space of knowledge production, the kind of learning that takes place, even if it is to equip the most privileged sections of society to play their roles effectively, would get contaminated.

That is why most educational institutions have historically shielded themselves from society. They tend to create spaces where young people learn without the pressures of everyday life. The monastic order or the secretive guild are both forerunners of the modern-day university and have built themselves within high walls.

On the other hand, some educationists suggest that traditional and modern educational arrangements always reflect the values of dominant sections of society. An “interest-free” space in the name of objectivity is a fantasy.

Contemporary educational institutions are hardwired into producing more inequality.

Scholars like Ivan Illich have shown how even contemporary educational institutions are hardwired into producing more inequality. They satisfy the hierarchical labour needed by economies to function. Modern life needs to have a range of different skill-sets which means that schools generate caste-like stratifications even while espousing the ideals of a free society. The first-division Ivy-League student rules, the ordinary student in a public school manages, and the dropout provides labour. For Paulo Freire, real education only happens when the dropout or the disenfranchised adult takes charge of learning herself.

What remains unchanged to date is the physical isolation of educational institutions. Even if the set-up is in the middle of the city, there are either high walls or gadgets that firewall the world from the institution. If there is any contact with the world at large — always from the safety of the campus, of course — it is highly structured and controlled, mostly accompanied by questionnaires and field-notes to test theories worked out within the cocooned campus.

In architectural and urban planning schools, immersing students in the “context” maybe valourised, but only to the extent that they can absorb the ways of the world accurately. The idea is to equip them to “intervene” most effectively with their academically fortified skills.

The disciplinary role-model for this is often anthropology — a double-edged razor of a subject that was used by colonial powers to study native cultures only so they could rule them better.

Most modern institutions — educational, administrative or economic — continue to follow the path of isolating themselves from the world that surrounds them in varying degrees. Bureaucrats prefer working from offices, new universities look increasingly like walled-off prisons and companies establish themselves in glass and steel fortresses with the world kept firmly off-limits.

Most modern institutions — educational, administrative or economic — continue to follow the path of isolating themselves from the world that surrounds them.

It is the conventionally schooled architect and urban planner who designs these new administrative offices, campuses and the glitzy corporate headquarters with the knowledge she has acquired in a similarly designed and walled-off school.

If architectural and urban planning schools followed the logic of educationists and thinkers like Illich and Freire, different kinds of cities would emerge. We would find ourselves in some very interesting urban landscapes, to say the least, with boundaries between practitioners, students, residents and activists becoming porous. Rules and regulations would emerge from the specific contexts of each neighbourhood. These would then be negotiated within the larger framework and urban infrastructure of the city in which the neighbourhoods are embedded.

If architectural and urban planning schools followed the logic of educationists and thinkers like Illich and Freire, different kinds of cities would emerge. Boundaries between practitioners, students, residents and activists would become more porous.

This sounds suspiciously close to what most respected and avant-garde urban planners already advocate. An organically embedded participatory ethic which shapes the growth of a city, neighbourhood by neighbourhood. In the Indian context, if the disenfranchised take charge of their own habitats, on the lines of Freire — the city as a whole would transform for the better, and educational campuses would finally break free from their centuries-old form to evolve into something truly modern.

A first version of this article was published in The Hindu Sunday Magazine on 04.08.2018.

Workshop with kids in Social Nagar, Dharavi - Mumbai
Workshop with kids in Social Nagar, Dharavi - Mumbai
Street exhibition on architectural showing a project for an elevated play-space for kids.
Street exhibition on architectural showing a project for an elevated play-space for kids.
Bareilly Compound kids workshop
Bareilly Compound kids workshop