Education, Utopia, Necessity, and Existential Poverty

This paper explores a perspective emerging from a community education project called Ragged University. The philosophical underpinnings of the project came as a response to necessity brought about by the existential poverty being created as a result of the process of enclosing the commons of the intellect.

Corporate structures are being used to commodify and as a result modify and impoverish the human experience on multiple levels generating an underclass and the conditions for exploitation.


As a response this is taken as a breaking of social contracts and legitimates a pedagogical position which liberates people compelled to develop their own intellectual life from these control structures.


Keywords: Utopia, Necessity, Poverty, Existentialism, Corporatisation, Education, Power, Control, Knowledge


In this paper I shall be exploring how our innately owned experience as humans is being currently commodified by financiers via the gradual concentration of power in corporate structures. We are born with our own experiences of learning, knowing and doing, but as financiers move to find new markets to capitalise upon – intellectual property and intellectual capacity is now being assaulted by a drive to enclose this part of human capital by bureaucratic means.


This amounts to enclosure of a non-physical commons, the stuff of which makes up our personal experiences, opportunities, communities, cultures, societies and psyches. Financial value is being created through the production of scarcity via enclosures, and as a result, the production of poverty. Consequently, the knowledge, abilities and simultaneously the opportunities open to people are being controlled by a rentier class aiming to license capability back to the very beings who are the legitimate owners of their experience.


I shall be exploring ‘Knowledge as Experience’ and understanding the value of this partly in terms of existential wealth; a call to the Gestalt of phenomenology, the life which extends beyond the thinking, acting, feeling, living human individual. I shall be expressing the rise of the Ragged University project as a manifestation of a reaction to this impoverishment of being and opportunity, contextualising the devaluation of non-institutional learning as a cultural phenomenon as well as a personal struggle.


The devaluation of non-institutional learning comes with the dismantling of Community Learning and Development across the country and the loss of practical appreciation in formal circles of Lifelong Learning. As a reflection on this I explore the use of the term ‘Utopian Pedagogy’ to describe Ragged University as a project, idea and movement. I uncover possible issues with the language used to describe such initiatives as reactions to an arbitrary intellectual hegemony of privilege and suggest alternative framings which highlight constructive starting points as being and necessity.

The Map as Metaphor of our Socio-Cultural Context

Average garden

A metaphor for the human socio-cultural context I am alluding to is the common managed garden – a symbolic picture many people pull into mind in thinking of the United Kingdom and some other parts of the western world. I am using this as a backdrop to the discussion I am provoking – one of seeming abundance which is actually a creeping desertification.


The common managed garden is often dominated by a lawn sterilised of all but a single genetically modified species of grass (Cummins, 2014; TBIGGAL, 2014). This monoculture as a centre piece is trimmed and presented through symmetry. Boxed in with borders the soil and land have been leveled onto a single plane.


The picture is one of seeming plenty, filled with bulbs and plants of alien species that flower but produce no fruit – these have become ornamental (Defra, 2012). Nearly all presence of unauthorized plant and animal species are sterilised and eradicated from the habitat to protect the transient design of the gardening hand (State of Nature, 2016).


State of Nature 2016
Click to download the State of Nature report 2016



When we observe over time we can notice the insect life, the soil biome (Tinker, 1986), the indigenous flora and fauna are imposed upon, uprooted, excluded and destroyed. As season follows season even the authorized plants are uprooted and destroyed when the whim and design of the garden changes, or they have stopped producing the desired aesthetic displays. Inconspicuously, perfectly healthy, living, displaying plants are binned to be replaced for the next season.


It is a rhododendron ecology (Woodland Trust., 2013) of invasive species; often the plants we see like bluebells (Pilgrim and Hutchinson, 2004) and daffodils (NYNPA, 2013) are not indigenous. The garden is enclosed to keep everything outside out, and everything inside in; it is blitzed with herbicides, fungicides and insecticides (Goulds, 2012), and fertilized by artificial nitrates devoid of complex nutrients (FAOUN, 1972). The perennial colonial country garden is not a scene of abundance but the displaying colours of an environmental and existential holocaust.


This is a map referring to the physical environment we have set up for ourselves and all of the natural world; it also serves as a metaphor of what is happening in our socio-intellectual and cultural context as a hegemonic monocultures act to homogenise the diverse landscape according it to its colonial values.


average garden too

The use of map and metaphor here is used in context with the work of Alfred Korzybski, the founder of General Semantics. A central posit of his was that “All human knowledge is conditioned and limited, at present, by the properties of light and human symbolism.” and “The solution of all human problems depends upon inquiries into these two conditions and limitations…all human life is a permanent dance between different orders of abstractions…all human knowledge is postulational in structure” (Pula, 1991).


Korzybski developed the idea of the importance of Non-Aristotelian systems of valuation. Where Aristotle wrote that a true definition gives the essence of the thing defined, the theory of general semantics argues against the existence of such a discrete ‘essence’ of such things.


In the theory of general semantics it is laid out that it is possible to give a description of empirical facts, but such descriptions remain just that – descriptions – a compression of the reality which necessarily leaves out many aspects of the objective subjective, microscopic, and submicroscopic phenomena they describe. He explains that language can be used to describe the smell of a perfume, but one cannot give the smell of the perfume.


In the field of general semantics, the content of all knowledge is structure, so that language (in general), science and mathematics (in particular) can provide people with a structural ‘map’ of empirical facts. There is no ‘identity’, only structural similarity between the language (map) and the empirical facts. Korzybski’s most famous axiom is ‘a map is not the territory’…


The menu is not the meal. – Alan Watts. La trahison des images - René Magritte.

If we consider an actual territory say, Paris, Dresden, Warsaw, and build up a map in which the order of these cities would be represented as Dresden, Paris, Warsaw. To travel by such a map would be misguiding and wasteful of effort. In case of emergencies, it might be seriously harmful.


We could say that such a map was ‘not true’… or that the map had a structure not similar to the territory (structure is defined in terms of relations). A map may have a structure similar or dissimilar to the structure of the territory. Two similar structures have similar ‘logical’ characteristics.


Thus, in a correct map, Dresden is given as between Paris and Warsaw, and a similar relation is found in the actual territory. A map is not the territory. An ideal map would contain the map of the map, the map of the map of the map, endlessly.


This is called self reflexiveness. Languages share characteristics with the map. If we use languages of a structure non-similar to the world and our nervous system, our verbal predictions are not verified empirically, and we cannot be ‘rational’ or adjusted.


Our knowledge is handicapped by semantic blockages, lack of understanding, lack of vision which is disturbed by inconsistencies and paradoxes due to the words not being the things they represent. Language has self-reflexive characteristics. We use language to speak about language, which introduces verbal and semantic difficulties. We are thus faced to deal with relative understandings when we engage in language (Korzybski, 1931).


By my setting out a map as a metaphor, my attempt is to communicate structural similarities I perceive to be true of what is going on in our human world of encounters to you the reader. Knowledge is being communicated by a system of abstraction in which human symbolism in the form of language expresses encounters with the thing(s) beyond our senses.


Knowledge as Experience

Part of knowledge, learning, and education involves reference the paramount reality – that is, both the “pre-predicative experience, where from the categories of the natural sciences, namely space and time, originate” and “the constitutive processes of the experiences of time, space, sociality and meaning” (Kassab, 1991). In simpler terms, part of learning involves referencing our experience of the world.


When an individuals reference to experience of the world (i.e. the paramount reality) is made void by a hegemonic system which defines opportunity, we enter into a state where the consciousness of the individual is being denied as well as its place in a community of peers. An impoverishment arises under the circumstances where someone is not allowed to say something unless they can reference someone else, with sufficient status, having said it first. This in part starts to give definition to what I refer to as existential poverty.


To listen to someone is to set store in that being and what they have to say; it is also to confirm that inalienable dignity which comes with getting recognized as a conscious, thinking, feeling being. Growth, learning and capabilities come from this. Voice, agency and the right to representation are all features in a broader discussion of how language and symbolism can be used as an enclosure of agency. Just as is commonly recognised with a child, it is a type of theft – an illegitimate taking from another being – to deny their being recognized and acknowledged as the agent they are.


In enclosing and thus taking this from people it sets up the increasing corporate circumstances for ill health, unhappiness, alienation from society and non-existence through deprivation. Withholding the means for people thriving on the basis that they do not have the finances to pay into schemes which enclose a commons held in us all is linked and connected to our current monopolistic and consumptive paradigm.


The merit based valuation of knowing and doing is under an increasing assault from a type of financial ‘license raj‘ (Aghion, 2006) that over time is pilfering the heritage and nature of education as a personally owned human resource and public good – one which generates positive externalities.


The Process of Un-valuation and Devaluation

Great stores of knowledge are being ‘un-valued’ as well as devalued in favour of highly bureaucratised processes which are alien to the circumstances of the personal development of people. I use the term ‘un-valued’ as a verb, as it speaks of taking an individual’s skills away from the notion of value without overtly deconstructing and dismantling their value. It is a way of ‘disappearing’ knowledge and skills without an explanation.


In practice, this is where the same knowledge is held by two people, but where one person has been discounted on a basis which has no bearing relevant to the knowledge. We might see the fact that women are commonly paid less or not considered for positions, purely on the basis of their gender.


The skills and capabilities they have are the same as men and have not been deconstructed; equally, they have not been overtly told that women are simply not as valuable. What has taken place has occurred in a esoteric way. We might see this kind of unvaluation in a comparison between a candidate from Oxford University and that of Saskatchewan University; or indeed someone who has been to university or not been to university.


In simple terms I suggest that the process of ‘unvaluation’ means ‘to not acknowledge the existing value of’. This is a chief mechanism of the demarcation of work in an increasingly professionalised world. An example is where people are newly expected to have a degree before being considered for a job in the police.


On this, Andy Fittes, general secretary of the Police Federation of England and Wales, said: “There is a balance to be struck around encouraging people to have a certain level of education before joining the force, and marginalising and excluding good quality candidates from all communities by limiting the pool of potential candidates if they are unable to afford it.” (Dodd, 2016)


It is this exclusion, or preclusion which contributes to the description of the process of ‘unvaluation’. It demarcates work and opportunities which many people should have access to based on their demonstrable capability but dont, according to which bureaucratic processes they have engaged with, their social disposition and background (Bourdieu, 1989), and what finance they have had available to them.


It is obvious that culturally we do want to make sure that the person knows certain things and that they hold specific skills before they get given special positions in society. We would not want to be on a bus with someone who had no knowledge or skill in driving such a vehicle.


However, if unattainable finance has precluded an individual from taking part in an opportunity to attain a bureaucratic qualification (but not necessarily the knowledge or skills) then the process thus unvalues them by shifting the axis of education from a meritocratic base to one of arbitrary advantage and good fortune.


We end up with a state of elite meritocracy – an ecology where only those who were born into good enough fortunes can take part in the tendering of skills which everyone, regardless of wealth, might develop. This is a human rights issue where ultimately it represents a withholding of opportunity or a denial of mind as a part of the process of dehumanization and is known as “dementalization” (Kozak, Marsh, and Wegner, 2006).


What Do I Think Youre Doing Action Identification and Mind Attribution by Kozak Wegner and Marsh
Click to download What Do I Think Youre Doing; Action Identification and Mind Attribution by Kozak Wegner and Marsh




Economic superentity
Economic superentity

Re-Creating Feudal Systems

At this point in history we are seeing a concentration of power and wealth into fewer people than ever before (Piketty and Goldhammer 2014). Our world has become financialised and has allowed economic agents to maximize their level of control, which has resulted in the formation of the tiny but powerful core: an economic super-entity (Glattfelder 2010).

Ownership Networks and Corporate Control Mapping Economic Power in a Globalized World by Glattfelder
Click to download Ownership Networks and Corporate Control Mapping Economic Power in a Globalized World by Glattfelder



Top economic actors are highly interconnected and organize as an economic super-entity of global corporations. An interesting observation is that most of the top power holders are financial intermediaries. What appears to be happening economically is the recreation of a feudal hierarchy which defines opportunities for everyone else.


As wealth aggregates, particularly through financial instruments, investment concentrates power and shifts value systems by the gravity of profit. For example, when the US Commodity Futures Trading Commission relaxed the rules surrounding the market in 1999, banks such as Barclays, Deutsche Bank and JP Morgan, could hold as large a ‘position’ in food futures as they liked. The result of this was the artificial inflation of the price of staple foods and the creation of famines (Kaufmann, 2010; Kaufman, 2012).



Indices became dramatically populated when various investment areas dried up. Trading in commodities increased 50 fold in a decade reaching $376 billion by 2010 (FOW, 2011). Olivier De Schutter, the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food examined the impact of speculation on the volatility of the prices of basic food commodities by large, powerful institutional investors such as hedge funds, pension funds and investment banks (De Schutter, 2010).


This is relevant because education, and by virtue of this, knowledge (or who is valued as having knowledge), has now become an investment target. George Monbiot wrote that “The corporate takeover of education is a palpable and verifiable move” (Monbiot, 2001). In 1998 the European Round Table of Industrialists declared “The provision of education is a market opportunity and should be treated as such” (ERTI, 1998).


Companies such as Pearson, EdisonLearning, and Nord Anglia sit on the stockmarket and are legally driven to make more profits year on year through the fiduciary duty of the CEO to the shareholder (Bainbridge, 2015). The result of hedge funds, pension funds, financial institutions and various financial instruments becoming involved in the provision of education is likely to create the equivalency of famine in terms of life opportunities through the same mechanisms.


Historically, the opportunities to create, innovate, share, learn and do through harnessing the power of an extended network were given home in a system of guilds that was to increasingly act as a supporting and preserving force for skills, trade and knowledge. These institutions became harbours for collusive practices (Dessi & Ogilvie, 2003).


It was the guilds in medieval times which formed corporate bodies of artisans and merchants who would control the practice of their craft in a particular town or city. Thus in feudal times the guild systems were at the helm of the folly of demarcating who can take part in which opportunities.


In the feudal system power was concentrated in the few which had wealth. During this period we can trace the emergence of the university from the development of guilds. The University, whether of Masters or of Students, was only a particular kind of Guild. The oldest continuously running university in the world is the University of Bologna, and it was articulated as a University of students (Rashdall, 1895).


University of Bologna

At Bologna the Guilds of students succeeded in gaining control of the centre of education where in other places such as Paris, matters were decided by the Masters of the arts.


The term University was appropriated by the Student-guild and the Doctoral Guilds were known as Colleges. They gained control through forming a corporate body which was to reduce the Masters at Bologna to servitude. They controlled all aspects of education bar the right of examining of candidates for admission to the Profession.


Traditions of education had continued among the noble families of Italy during a time when the French or Norman nobles tended to look upon reading and writing as effeminate luxuries or fit only for clerks.


The teaching of Irnerius (1050 – after 1125) drew men of wealth and social position many of them of older age sufficient to be entering political life. Discipline was not a concern and the students seemed not to answer to the Professors, but largely the other way around. The Professor did not originally hold any position in the institution, they were regarded private Lecturers who had been hired by a number of independent people of varying ages to instruct them. In this respect the teacher was much like the Sophist of ancient Greece and the Rhetor of ancient Rome.


The earliest Professors were citizens of Bologna. The city owed its scholastic fame to the fact that Irnerius and his successors happened to live, and therefore teach, in the city. If the earliest teachers had been from somewhere else they may have occupied some significant positions in the University. As it happened, the students choose their office bearers from their own body.


Citizenship was an hereditary possession of important value in the age. The citizens of one town held no civil rights in another. Prolonged exile from one’s own town was a serious cost associated with the education, to which a body of men of wealth submitted with reluctance.


At first the Professors were excluded not so much because they were Professors but because they were citizens. During the early development of the universities the Bolognese Doctors allied themselves with the city against the students in an effort to exclude outsiders from the privileges of the Doctorate.


The student universities represent the efforts of such men to create for themselves an artificial citizenship in place of the natural citizenship which they had temporarily left behind in the pursuit of knowledge or advancement. The importance of a Studium as a centre of learning to the commercial welfare of the city may explain the ultimate willingness of the Municipalities to recognize these Student guilds. Although the concession was made it was not without a struggle.


The antagonizm of interests helped formulate the Realpolitik of the institution and city. The Doctors through their need and desire for wealth became subservient to the growth of the student guild.


The growth of student universities across Europe is parallel to this history of Bologna in both purpose and organisation. This is illustrated by the statutes of the German nation which declare to be for the cultivation of ‘fraternal charity, mutual association and amity, the consolation of the sick and support of the needy, the conducts of funerals and the extirpation of rancour and quarrels, the attendance and escort of our Doctorandi to and from the place of examination, and the spiritual advantage of members’. This suggests the origin of why universities – at least in the United Kingdom – are maintained as charities and therefore are subject to charitable law.


Hastings Rashdall suggests that “To appreciate the fact that the University was in its origin nothing more than a Guild of foreign students is the key to the real origin and nature of the institution” and that this is also the starting point for an enquiry into the date at which these kinds of organisations began to be formed.


The rise of the Universities is part of a movement towards association which spread across the cities of Europe during the course of the eleventh century. In the city of Bologna itself, for instance, the first allusion to the existence of a Guild occurs in 1174, when we hear of a Lombard ‘Societas armorum’. The second oldest continuously running university in the world is the University of Oxford having been founded sometime between 1096–1167; the next oldest is that of Cambridge founded in 1209.


It is perceptible that the financial corporate world is recreating significant enough power differentials to sufficiently challenge the democratic foundations of modern western states (Provost and Kennard, 2015; Moody, 2015). Can we perceive of our institutions of education now becoming more alike in structure with the kind of pre-democracy organisations of feudal times ? As students are increasingly being framed as consumers and universities as brands, the relationships which exist around knowledge are changing.


Stock market education

As wealthy student populations are sought by universities which are being pit against each other in league tables run by stockmarket companies like Pearson, what concern is there for those who cannot afford to be a part of the guild ? When students demand to know why they did not get a first or complain that they did not get the education that they were wanting, what position does this put educators in ?


Do these neoliberal times equate to the emergence of neofeudal structures ? Are we losing sight of the deeper questions of knowledge and thinking by being subverted by practices such as the Research Assessment Exercise (UCU, 2009) and the Research Excellence Framework which promote hierarchies, infighting and gaming the system (Sayer, 2014; Matthews, 2016; Jones and Kemp 2016; Gibney, 2016) ?


The almighty buck is creating a gravity well which is generating issues both inside formal education and outside. These are important questions to acknowledge and account for in a society which weilds the term democracy or in institutions which carry charitable status and suggest the values of meritocracy.

Ragged University

Thinking Through the Term Utopian Pedagogy

As a reaction to the socio-cultural context of reduced opportunity the Ragged University project came about. This is an idea in which “everybody is a Ragged University; a unique and distinct body of knowledge accredited with their life experience and with a membership of one”. It is an idea which nobody owns and everybody is a part of; a premise capable of including all individuals and valuing them for their knowledge and abilities.


In practice, free events take place in social spaces which we all own; where individuals share what they are passionate about, and engage in what each other has invested their life in. As Susan Brown, co-ordinator of Manchester Ragged University events has pointed out, these are spaces in which each individual negotiates and re-negotiates the rules of; they are not institutional nor corporate.


People can share anything as long as they love their subject and as long as it fits within the bounds of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. With positive elements of the potlatch (Mauss and Halls, 2014), food is often put on and people are invited to bring along an item to share as well as take away what is left at the end. The project has run for seven years without funding due to avoidance of bureaucratic burden. It has been organised by many individuals over time and in several cities utilising the internet as a flexible infrastructure.


As a project it has been suggested that as a Utopian Pedagogy. Thinking through what the language symbolises, Ragged University derives from an alternative semiotic of the practical and pragmatic. There could be a problem with identifying with a fictional place which has as it’s etymological root οὐ (“not”) and τόπος (“place”) meaning “no-place”. It certainly has place, terrain and territory.


Along side this etymological issue with a fictional place, the associations it carries with wishful thinking and a type of light headed idealism which is not rooted in practicalities feels cumbersome. The term Utopia itself has suspicious provenance considering that Thomas More was a zealot who participated in persecuting and executing common people for reading the bible in English (Ridley, 1983). Can this all this luggage be helpful in the language used to describe an emancipatory and open practice of education ?


Putting aside these considerations on the usage of the term, Mark Coté, Richard Day, and Greig de Peuter discuss Utopian Pedagogys as valid concerns which create alternatives in the neoliberal age (Coté, Day and de Peuter, 2007). They state “We do not use the concept of ‘utopia’ in the sense of rationalistic dreams of a future perfect society. Rather, we mean it to refer to an ethos of experimentation that is oriented toward carving out spaces for resistance and reconstruction here and now.”



Utopian Pedagogy Creating Radical Alternatives in the Neoliberal Age by Cote Day and de Peuter
Click to download Utopian Pedagogy Creating Radical Alternatives in the Neoliberal Age by Cote Day and de Peuter



This is certainly something which sounds a bit more robust than the handle suggests. Looking to a society which is increasingly unequal with larger and larger sections of the population currently being excluded from meaningful social, cultural, education and work opportunities my preference would be to take on this thinking but to root the language more in terms of necessity.


This is particularly so as we are seeing the systematic dismantling of Community Learning and Development across the country at the moment with budgets being slashed (Whittaker and Offord 2015). Worth mention is referencing of how Margaret Thatcher whilst in office as Secretary of State for Education greeted a senior officer of adult education by ‘jeering at what she believed to be a curriculum contrived for housewives’ hobbies’ (Stevens, 2015).


The way in which the Ragged University endeavour is described will determine what sensibilities will be attributed to it. Speaking of it as Utopian rather than as based on meeting essential and necessary needs in pragmatic and practical ways might be problematic in getting the attention and ultimately agency which community contexts deserve.


Life is for many dominated by dystopian realities such as poverty, exploitative oligarchies, opportunistic financial systems, enclosure of habitat, habitus and innate human capabilities. Accompanying this communities face fragile, top-down, one-size-fits-all command and control policy driven initiatives which fail to meet the needs of people. Such anaemic initiatives which are funded or undermined by funding set people up to fail who are connected with the criminal justice system, exploitative working conditions, addiction and drug use, damaging mental health practices, benefits cuts, loss of amenities, and corporate exploitation.


The concept that people are not learning and developing their own knowledge and strategies for learning outside of the accepted spaces of orthodoxy is deeply problematic. The notion that somebody who carries a mental health diagnosis as a label is not capable of learning the necessary scientific and medical knowledge to better understand the phenomenon as well as query it with their experience is socially dangerous.


Criminalizing homelessness

The idea that people who are criminalised and persecuted for victimless crimes cannot have a deep grasp of the sociology of the criminal justice system and its flaws is degrading. The thought that a single parent cannot have all that it takes to manage a company, organisation or high level management post is offensive.


There are a great deal more situations which can and should be iterated if we are to question the regimes of truth which create the silences that tower over the unauthorized populations as capable, knowledgeable, valuable, skilled people.


Norbert Elias and colleagues examined the hierarchies of legitimacy which are set up in scientific establishments from a sociological perspective. Together they identify the “professionalisation” of academic science as partly a consequence of directly linking occupational status to international intellectual reputations so that jobs and promotions, especially in universities, are dependent on following particular intellectual goals and procedures.


Elias discusses how the ‘pattern of competition and increasing specialization is not not only controlled by reputational systems but also an outcome of the hierarchization of sciences according to their closeness in approach to parts of physics’ (Elias, Martins and Whitley, 1982).


The professionalisation of knowledge is an accelerating phenomenon, something which is prone to discriminatory group behaviours as much as any other area of human endeavour (Kofta, Baran and Tarnowska, 2014). Our rationalised narratives might highlight the notion that we are objective and fair in the way we organise our society but there is strong evidence to question this in hierarchies.


The objective view which is articulated as at the core of the sciences does not negate the effects of social psychology which governs the acknowledgement and communication of knowledge. We must credibly ask ourselves who gets to say what and make which meaning when confronted with a ritualised bureaucratic structure.


For example, it is increasingly popular to gaze adoringly at the lionized holders of Nobel prizes. The celebrity which is associated with people who have been awarded such a mark of prestige is akin to a secular beatification. We find that as universities and institutions are increasingly set against each other in bidding for funding and resources, the quest for having Nobel prize winners as a part of the institution is increasingly fetishized.


The more Nobel prize winners, the more automacity there is in the allocation of funding and resources to the institution. We imagine that the criteria on which these prizes are awarded is a carefully calculated objective endeavour to identify the greatest discoveries and talents. What we find is something disturbingly different to the imagined objective ideal.


Shrouded in secrecy, the Nobel Foundation first opened its archives to researchers in 1976. When the information needed to analyse the basis for the awarding of prizes became available, Robert Marc Friedman took to making such study of the rationales used to arrive at the decisions.


In his book ‘The Politics of Excellence’ he reveals how the nominations and awards fell short of Alfred Nobel’s vision of the ‘best of science’, instead rewarding middling achievement. What we find is a discussion of a politics of “narrow professional interests, boosterism, and careerist advancement” affecting the institution (Friedman, 2001).


So we find evidence of the intrinsic value of knowledge corrupted by the formation of power differentials, in-groups and out-groups, and values of status. Pierre Bourdieu discusses hierarchies of legitimacy as having a particular case of the ‘labelling’ effect which is well known to social psychologists (Bourdieu, 1989).

Labeling Theory Howard Becker

This discussion of the labelling effect amply articulates the kind of existential poverty which is imposed on marginalised sections of the population. Howard Becker developed labelling theory suggesting the premise: “Social rules define situation and the kinds of behaviour appropriate to them, specifying some actions as ‘right’ and forbidding others as ‘wrong’.


When a rule is enforced, the person who is supposed to have broken it may be seen as a special kind of person, one who cannot be trusted to live by the rules agreed on by the group. He is regarded as an outsider” (Becker, 1963).


Perceived as being outside of a particular social group or strata, people are often de-legitimised (un-valued) via being seen as outsiders holding untrustworthy funds of knowledge or skills. The existential life which extends beyond the thinking, acting, feeling, living human individual is impoverished by such practices (Macquarrie, 1972).


All the things which a person can be through opportunities reflect their potential existential wealth. All the capabilities which are innate to their being and simply need awoken through exercise in the social commons; these represent their existential wealth. If significant opportunity to engage in a community of peers in the public process of thought is withheld by some action, constraint or deed, then it is a hurt delivered upon that person. If that opportunity is taken from that person for the profit of another then it may be regarded as type of theft.


This is a cuckoo in the nest which displaces and erodes our interpersonal spaces, connections, and experiences, and our fundamental capacity for betterment at large. In part, I am examining here the capacities for betterment; the capacities we find in learning, in sharing through knowing, and ultimately understanding what it is to be living an observed life – one which we are aware of and sensitive to. A life where experience is knowledge.


Ragged University is symbolic of an attempt to preserve, value and add to the existential wealth of people so that they may thrive individually as a part of a community of peers. It is in this juncture that the Ragged University and a particular perspective of education is rooted.


To remove it from that context is not only intellectually dishonest but it is immoral as it acts to hollow out the existential and social space colonizing it with notions distant from experience which are removed from our sentience. Thus an existential poverty replaces the fertile opulent ecology of the child being (the Neotenist always becoming), with a repeatedly scarred and ossified encounter reduced to a monoculture of ideation.


The Ragged University project is to challenge and adapt to this denuding and defiling of our native habitat of the psyche as compelled by a human necessity to do so. In taking ownership of knowledge and education one is to fight for existence through developing one’s own means of learning and production. The super structures we live and work in and under are ruled by finance and the base fetishism to commodify and commercialise whatever possible; these are chief proponents of the reduction of our beings.

Pyramid Scheme

Understanding How and Why the System Replicates

A Ponzi scheme is an investment structure where the operator(s) of it pay something to those who have already invested in it from capital paid in by new investors rather than from increased or added value. Ponzi schemes are illegal but sometimes start as legitimate enterprises, however when an enterprise fails to increase or add value (instead only taking wealth and value from others), the perpetuation of the returns demands an ever increasing flow of investment from new investors to sustain the scheme.


ponzi scheme


As wealth accrues to fewer and fewer individuals worldwide, our opportunities are becoming increasingly governed by those who have control over the wealth; money, wealth, opportunities and power are trickling up (Piketty & Goldhammer, 2014). A culture has emerged where people are required to submit to the system before it pays out. It is increasingly a scenario of ‘before you can get access to the workforce, you must pay for your certification’. A system which does not acknowledge the innate human resources of which we are born with by dint of our being cognitive animals is a system which autocratically demarcates people out of opportunity.


The equity of our culture is being subsumed by those who have been absorbed by the power they wield and the systems created to preserve the Ponzi scheme of autocracy through finance. It is not mysterious individuals presiding over the world which bring this about – although individuals often capitulate to their own advantage – but it is self reinforcing structures and systems which significantly replicate the circumstances needed to perpetuate the existing paradigm.


We have grown accustomed to normalizing behaviours which amount to the corporate structures which institute rules upon our lives and living spaces. Through group behaviour in these structures we replicate what we have encountered. As Iris Marion Young describes (Young, 1990), we are often in situations where we have control over other people’s actions but none over our own. We act in systems where the institution is acting through our anthropomorphisation of a collective image of action (the university, the state, the security services, etc) yet on an individual existential level we think and feel differently rationalizing ourselves as justified actors.


Crowd crushing behaviours

Crushing behaviours can come about where a crowd in an enclosed space will cause the individuals in the system to act individually to increase the space they have for themselves. By each individual pushing outward, an effect is brought about where everybody is crushed.


Professor Keith Still suggests that a crowd dynamics emerge from the individuals propensity to expend the least effort to reach their objective (Still, 2000). When that is perceived to be taking part in an exploitative behaviour that others are seen to be complicit in then it is easier to normalize the behaviour than question it. For example, how many people have their pension fund invested in stockmarket financial instruments which artificially inflate the price of staple foods or the manufacture of arms?


It seems distant and exhaustive process for many to investigate, insist against the behavioural norm and divest their pension when such good returns are promised for one’s future. Compliance and herd behaviour are tricky and worrying phenomena to try and account for, particularly when thinking about widely normalized actions which result in somebody else’s misfortune. Taking the path of least resistance means, for example, that it is easier to normalize having a distant fund manager who’s role is simply to ensure that they will get dividends paid out for their initial pension investment.


Philip Zimbardo is famous for creating the Stanford Prison experiment where college students were randomly assigned to play the role of guard or inmate for two weeks in a simulated prison. This psychology experiment became infamous because the ‘pretend’ guards quickly became so brutal that the experiment had to be shut down after only six days. In his book ‘The Lucifer Effect’ Zimbardo illustrates how we are animals socialized into one behaviour, and easily socialized into another (Zimbardo, 2011). Situations can induce people to behave in very positive ways and terrible ways alike.


The work of Stanley Milgram demonstrated in a series of “obedience experiments” that people are strongly conditioned to respond to authority to such an extent that moral values can be blurred and displaced to perform callous acts (Milgram, 1969). Adolf Eichmann justified his sending millions of people to their deaths by saying he was just following orders saying, “Officialese [Amtssprache] is my only language” (Arendt, 1976).


Eichmann in Jerusalem by Hannah Arendt
Click to download Eichmann in Jerusalem; A Report on the Banality of Evil by Hannah Arendt



When a social animal such as a human has authority defined in terms of qualifications and wealth, some part of them will react to attain such things. Set into a corporate system where you are penalised socially if you don’t follow the order, and rewarded with agency when you do, the circumstance is set for normalizing what is trending behaviourally.


Niklas Luhmann explores the sociology of self fulfilling, self replicating systems in his systems theory (Seidl, 2004). More than just a sum of our parts, our institutions have a ghost in their machine (Koestler, 1968) or Tempest (Shakespeare, 2008) derived of kinship relations (Eco,1976) that self-replicate through a process of autopoiesis (Luhmann and Baecker, 2014).


The conflicts which arise in the corporate systems (which are our institutions) come from the heady mixture of being at once a part and a whole. In these corporate systems we are responding to the crowd dynamic and at the same time experiencing our own impetus. Our encounter is at once socially constructed and experienced independently of these terms of reference. It is a dichotomy which creates an illusion that can strand us in a double bind as we perceive that we want to be free, but sense if we give more of ourselves to the corporate action we might become freer through it.


A Practical Philosophical Foundation for Freedom of Education


Ragged University is a project of necessity from the fact that I and others are demarcated out of areas of production of meaning and participation in a culture of peers. It is left to us to create for ourselves a way of thriving under these constraints. Thus as part of the project of education in these terms there is a protection and enrichment of an intellectual realm held in common for all people.


This shares the origins of the Ragged Schools and other free education movements where rather than imagining and wishing for a better life, people such as John Pounds – that ordinary man of Portsmouth – took people into his life and shared what wealth he had by doing; in doing so he gained. As this is a social justice issue among many other things, there is not a case of arguing against a more just society but recognizing it as a situation where some better arrangement which will ultimately advantage all.


Moving towards a more just arrangement which better acknowledges and provisions all brings about the conditions for everyone contributing to advances much needed. The idea that one special person is to come along and advance the whole of the world is a misrepresentation of how advance is brought about. Knowledge is a collective endeavour, and is well described with the commonly rehearsed axiom ‘I can see so far for I stand on the shoulders of giants’. Many people over many generations contribute to collective advance, and our greatest strengths lie in the social behaviours of our species.

Magical thinking

To advance the frontiers of understanding and address the kind of problems we need to as a species to answer, we require everyone’s potential to be involved. The idea that it is better to take a small group of arbitrarily identified individuals to culture as elites is severely limiting the pool from which observations, talents and perseverance of will can be drawn upon.


The frailties of this perspective harks to a kind of superstition which is indulged that ‘geniuses’ are born and not cultivated. This kind of magical thinking suggests a fiction of aristocracy in the intellectual realm which is unhelpful to progress and feeds into a kind of ideology of privilege.


As an example, were we to take athletes only from one percent of the population without looking any further afield than some bureaucratic ledger was to identify we would be impoverishing the development of sports. By drawing from one hundred percent of the population it is more likely to discover the talent and innovations that will drive forward the frontiers. Multiple reasons factor into this, not all of which will be addressed here.


By the whole population being encultured to the activity through having the circumstances and opportunity available to them, a greater number would engage. More people would develop the skills and talents, and consequently both the psychology and physiology of the population would offer up a larger pool of candidates for advancing the activity. Also you increase the variance within the circumstances which give rise to the serendipity of discovery and innovation.


Whether sports or intellectual activities, the social and evolutional dynamic is the same. We need distributed understandings to also carry forward discovery and innovation when it does happen. For example, in the face of the environmental and climatic catastrophes which we are manifesting, when the advances are made we need the broader population to follow suit through an encultured understanding as stakeholders.


This is part of the need for education and a sense of place in it. Grouped as a response to need, the application of knowledge and skills generate many social activities which bring about joy and abundance when not controlled by a distant autocrat or financier.


In the conception of this philosophy, charity is innate to the experience of relationships, and knowledge is not teleologically transmitted from an ‘appointed authority’ but discovered in and through our being. It is a fundamental need which is always discovered and always responded to through a dialogue of sharing.


Where finances exclude people, the wealth of knowledge can take people in and accommodate them. Wherever this commons is devalued or un-valued through a power differential, then we have arrived at a situation which breaks the essence of the social contract. It moves from an exchange of benefits and responsibilities between people to a system of enslavement and servitude.


We can find in the work of John Locke his refutation of divine right and the duty of passive obedience in the first treatise of government. This largely concords with the perspective of education laid out in the Ragged University project, being that it relates to a human right owned by all rather than the few, and that an active intellect involves the faculty of questioning what our experience is and the questioning the world through that experience (Locke and Laslett, 2012).


As to the understanding of the human right in terms of knowledge and education, we can find in his Second Treatise of Civil Government that he talks ‘Of Slavery’:

“This Freedom from Absolute, Arbitrary Power, is so necessary to, and closely joyned with a Man’s Preservation, that he cannot part with it, but by what forfeits his Preservation and Life together. For a Man, not having the Power of his own Life, cannot, by Compact, or his own Consent, enslave himself to any one, nor put himself under the Absolute, Arbitrary Power of another, to take away his Life, when he pleases. No body can give more Power than he has himself; and he that cannot take away his own Life, cannot give another power over it.” (Locke, 1955)

Dr Luther King


In the thinking of John Locke we find that a contract that puts people into servitude is no contract at all – this echoes St Augustine’s apprehension of ‘Lex iniqua lex non est‘ – ‘an unjust law is no law at all‘ (Asher & Simpson 1994). Through this I can reconcile an understanding that ‘a system of education which does not educate is no education at all’.


It is upon this philosophical foundation that one can find a justified recourse unto their own means of education and knowledge, and that given proofs of that understanding must legitimately be allowed into the co-production of meaning.


It is in this liberty that I am freed of the grand narrative of cultural reciprocal obligations and can start ploughing my own furrow to feed my own needs – which are shared in others. It is a necessary journey of experiment and learning and of being. It draws from both history and the future and is come to be known through experience. Contained in that is the abundance we all need to thrive.



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by Alex Dunedin