Education in the Negative Sense

What comes to mind when we think of the word ‘Education‘ ?  On one hand we must acknowledge that education has been used as much as a tool of oppression than as a means of liberation and collective progress.  Thinking of the namesake of this project – The Ragged Schools – we can find lots of examples where the noble idea of sharing knowledge for the good of all was perverted to petty tyrannies.


Charles Dickens
Charles Dickens

Indeed, Charles Dickens, whilst supporting the idea of universally available education, was a great critic of some of the Ragged Schools and the constraints they put upon people.  He worked very hard to raise the humanitarian issues of the day in all places and expose the how the ideal of education was being used in a negative way.


A good example of this is how Joseph Lancaster, whilst perpetuating free education as an idea, he chose to abuse the positions of power which were afforded him.  The standards were poor and the discipline to which children were subjected was brutal. Although Lancaster had publicly rejected corporal punishment he would inflict on ‘misbehaving’ children such tortures as being tied up in sacks, or hoisted above the classroom in cages.


The Robert Southey, a poet of the time said that despite his opposition to corporal punishment, he would rather be beaten than subjected to Lancasterian discipline.


Lancaster fell out with “The Society for Promoting the Lancasterian System for the Education of the Poor” over a number of issues. Poor financial management was the catalyst for the dispute but his colleagues were to discover that Lancaster had been privately beating a number of the boys who had been put in his charge. He was expelled from the society which was then to rename itself the British and Foreign School Society.


corporal punishment

Schooling and education has been appropriated in places and at times throughout history for reasons other than the philanthropic ideas we like to identify with these concepts.  Pink Floyd is famous for epitomizing the negative sides of education in their album The Wall and if this is not acknowledged as harbouring major truths we are in danger of working with a myopia.


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David Gribble has developed an interesting website around the subject of the damage which can be done in the name of education:


With all this in mind it is understandable that some people might dislike the idea of education if it represents a series of prescriptions, barriers and brutalities.  Similarly, if people have been excluded from educational opportunities because of exclusive and elitist practices it stands to reason that people may have their understanding of the concept tainted by their experience of exclusion.


ivan illich

The idea of elitism is ill considered and surprisingly pervasive when we listen to the latent comments which occasionally surface suggesting that one person can learn a subject where another cannot.  This flies in the face of our very established understanding of the plasticity of the brain and organism.  The brain adapts to activity like the body responds to exercise.  People are quite capable when given the right information in the right way with the right resources.


Equally, the idea that all education is closed and designed to oppress, indoctrinate, and/or produce a workforce is invalid.  One of the major problems of opportunity is knowing when there is one available.  Not everyone gets past their preconceptions when approaching formal education, and these institutions are all too easily used as a scapegoat.  The apathy which is produced by fears of exclusion/disenfranchisement can self fulfill.


Now, in this age the communication mediums and technologies available take the logistical problems away from education provision and open the way to discussing the different ways learning environments can be organised.  For the Ragged University’s part, our discussion focuses on the informal side of learning which happens in social spaces as it leaves the power significantly with the individual rather than being alienated into an institutional structure.


Trying to avoid the organisational problems which Monty Python send-up so well is key to the future success of the idea which we are trying to propagate – peer led teaching and collaborative spaces. Kafka also illustrates some problems with process driven superstructure organisations.



We are not concerned with attitudes which exclude, damn or underestimate the power of the individual to learn whatever they have a passion for.  Instead, by thinking about some of the thoughts of Ivan Illich in Deschooling Society, the Ragged project aims to build the third spaces which are necessary for people of all walks of life to share and self-improve through social relationships.


Those with a love of knowledge and education tend to not erect barriers around learning.  The formal needs to support the informal and the informal needs to support the formal.  Hiving off into small isolated stances at best helps to perpetuate a culture of abstraction and prevent the creative synthesis which should come of interested communities.


With this in mind, the Ragged project is now thinking about how we can develop an outward facing, peer-review system and an enlightenment philosophy which enables us to openly talk about knowledge.  Keep your eye on this space for the Fantasy Enlightenment League competition where a theory, idea, or piece of work is scrutinised and publicly critiqued for fun and knowledge…