Conversation on Education: John Salway and Alex Dunedin

John Salway
John Salway


This is a conversation recorded between me (Alex Dunedin) and John Salway exploring different ideas and elements of education. Recorded in the National Library of Scotland, it was an informal opportunity to pick over and share what the living, breathing nature is of learning and teaching involves.


Eight years into doing the Ragged University project, lots of understandings have emerged on what the construct of education takes on in informal settings and about the environments that are available for us to learn in.


As our world becomes increasingly colonized by the march of the human made world, this has certain impacts which inform how the Ragged Uni project evolves as a means which can function in the harshest of environments.  This statement needs some qualifiers.


The human world is the world we have created through impulse; the urban terrain, the inside environment, the mental spaces which we craft with ideas and activities.  We are colonizing the natural world and also creating structures which are machines intended to serve purposes.


The etymology of the word machine hails from the 1540s meaning “structure of any kind,” deriving from the Middle French machine “device, contrivance,” and from the Latin word machina meaning “machine, engine, military machine; device, trick; instrument”.  Thus as a species we create artificial structures, organisations both in concrete and steel but also in paper and ideas, that are much bigger and more inflexible than the individual or community, which thus shape us and our activity.


Our built environment is not just the urban metropolis that has arisen across the globe in nodes, it is not just the flat, house and home, it is not just the buildings, roads and infrastructure we have imposed on the natural world through consuming and reshaping its elements – it is the ideas we have (and which have us – as Jung proposed) which sit on top of the transcendent reality that command our actions to drive us to colonize the external with the internal.  We take it, shape it and recreate it.


Why I am so interested in the informal environment is because of the changing habitat of the human species as a simian ape. The habitat of any creature is an important part of its makeup.  The habitat gives the physical sustenance and contributes to the psychological and emotional sustenance which make for a full and healthy being.


The abstract mental world of artifice has become so powerful a part of our existence and capabilities that we are dislodging ourselves from the natural habitat from which we have evolved to be suited; or at least the artificial world we are producing in organised structures is.  We are formalising nature by our impulses to straighten lines, fashion the world we find into geometric order, and ‘rehabilitate’ things we encounter which are different into the things we already know and have decided are a part of our identity.


Things we have decided as not part of our chosen sculpted identity we as a species often carelessly eradicate or ‘remove’ – for example the mindless and careless destruction of the insect world.



Insect Decline
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The result is that many of the most successful endeavours and dominant communities are imposing their internal platonic images of their world onto the external worlds which they do not recognise in a process of what is rationalised as formalising, standardising, callibrating, reforming and sculpting it to their internal vision.  The wilds are in recession; our habitat and many of its wild possibilities are in recession too.  This is the case I would argue in many fields including education and independent lifelong learning due to loss of the terrain.


Formal education which we know and love for its straight edges and production capacities, peccadillo and eccentricities is being colonized and in turn colonizing our cognitive capacities as simian apes with ‘more of the same’.  When there is only one form available we lack the worlds to choose from and to learn through contrast and analysis.


Informal education is a vital part of the human habitat referencing a landscape which transcends the human polis (city state); it is a landscape which reaches far beyond the political human.  It is engaging with the universe beyond the controlled laboratories, zoos, lecture theatures and administrative offices which perform such cherished platonic functions which have fascinated us.


In discussion with John Salway, you will hear some of the ideas explored of ‘education rewilded‘.  This takes from the notion in sustainability of what I read in simple terms as decolonizing the natural spaces which through our collective personal projects, we have devasted through ‘managing’ and letting nature beyond humanness have a foothold too.



In many ways the forests and trees are an important part of our wellbeing, other species provide important forms of wealth necessary to stimulate new unthought of internal worlds, and riches in the form of resources which we cannot manufacture help make our existence replete with pleasure.
We have destroyed so much of the diversities and multiplicities of the natural world, we need to take stock of what we are losing in our futures.  The discoveries and innovations which everyone is capable of and of which many people have achieved but become lost to time must similarly have some recognition directed towards.


In the mirror of the physical world we are losing the ecosystems which have spawned our imaginations through the apprehension that there are more things in heaven and earth, than are dreamt of in our philosophy.


Ragged University as a concept is a personal covenant with learning.  It is recognising that each person is a university evident through experience and shaped via activity.  It is a construct for the individual to embody all the functions and meanings of a university independent of distant artificial systems over which they have little or no control – for example money.  It is a mode of action connected to embodying the promise upon which money is based, it is a contract with your self-in-relation-to-others which steps away from the categorical abstract that we find coded and presided over in the formal.


Over the years, I have been searching for the language and means of education which are available to each and every person – the common instruments of learning which do not require license or look to authority from others, as Mike Neary suggests, the ‘subject is authority’.  I am researching the common instruments of development which find their expression in the personal and interpersonal that is locked in the coalescent rather than the oppositional.  What can we glean from our environment rather than impose upon it ?


I am writing this accompanyment to the conversation with John Salway to apend an account of the landscape and ecology of which we are a living constituent.  Just as we have as a task and priority the rewilding of our British Isle and world (whichever identity[s] you pin to it), we have as a corresponding job and priority the rewilding of our social and intellectual habitat which is a wellspring tangled with the ecosphere that produces all our sustenance.


Jane Jacobs wrote about the urban habitat and gentrification, corporate appropriation and the destruction of the natural environment as very important and pertinent problems to a sustainable existence.  Her work and ideas impacted on how we perceive our living environs and how they are planned shaping our modern awareness of the destruction of social fabric.  These all have growing importance today because we see the continued corporate bulldozing of natural and public spaces manifesting in new unforeseen ways.


Jane Jacobs The Life and Death of Great American Cities
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Our lifeworlds are being colonized by forces of commerce that are now buying up public spaces resulting in ‘privately owned public spaces‘ (POPS) meaning that the private company which owns the stretch of seemingly public land can dictate the local bylaws of a space which was previously accountable as under the common laws of the country; this agency has been used to further dispossess homeless people for example.  In social and psychological ways the homo sapiens environment is being bulldozed and stripped of common involvement as we lose public librarys, parks, woods, and trees, public benches, public toilets, public rubbish bins, community centres and small businesses.


The terrain in which we are social is shrinking, being appropriated and being rented back to those who can pay in the same way that our intellectual habitat is.  The intellectual work of the individuals which produce it is being enclosed by a march of financialism to involve monetisation in all aspects of living and shared existence.


This is all very well until we start investigating who and what this system of abstraction, ownership and exchange fails to represent.  Unfortunately finance is an anaemic and idiotic construct when writ in monopolistic ways.  We need only look past the token symbols to the phenomenological realities money is reputed to represent.


Real world physical resources and activities performed by individuals all have feedback mechanisms.  When we eat, there is only so much food we can eat before we are filled up, or have filled up our cupboards, or have filled up our warehouses and so on; there is a physical perameter which tells us when there is ‘enough’ and ‘we can take no more’.  With money there is no such mechanism – it is only an accumulating more mathematical numbers scaling into fantastical representations of eternity.


Money as an abstract concept has no feedback mechanism on the animal brain, there is just a hungry ghost eternally hankering for more to round up, to get a new high score, to make another magnitude of digits.  It is in this abstract world of money that so much is lost as we float on the excitement of gamified accumulation.  Dopamine and adrenaline releases as ‘more’ is perceived and in abstract B. F Skinner’s gambling behaviour becomes evident.


The common instruments of education, of learning and development necessarily exist predominantly outside of such a system precisely because said system precludes so many from taking part in an inherently human behaviour.  Which came first the chicken or the egg ?  The egg came first for eggs were around much longer than chickens.


Thus education, learning and development in their most resilient and wild forms I suggest are rooted in our natural capital which pre-exist the financial mode of operating.