The Story So Far… Ragged University and Moving into the Future
Now that the covid pandemic is starting to move behind us all and immunity is improving in the general population the idea of public events can start to be thought about in terms of Ragged University. It has been a tough three years for everyone on a range of fronts and when covid 19 struck and forced population confinement I had to choose how to adapt the practice of Ragged University for conditions of isolation.
This is a blog article sharing some of my journey as janitor of the ‘Ragged University project’. I am going to share something about the decision not to go online with public talks and discuss the choices I made to evolve my continuing experiment with searching out practical philosophies of education and learning. I am also going to give a back story which I shared with someone recently who wanted to know about how I got involved in this. I am writing this to help me think through planning the next stage of public events and learning experiments.
The Digital is Problematic
The first thing which everyone rushed towards was the idea of cramming lives into the digital spaces. The world started to attempt to mediate everything which happened in face-to-face settings over zoom, email and other forms of digital communication system. It was bloody awful. I thought long and hard about the headlong rush into the world as constructed by tech giants and considered carefully the long term ramifications in context with the short term practicalities and wins. Straight off the bat I was aware of Virginia Eubanks’ work examining the ethics and exclusion of digital tech:
Having done various IT events over the years, trying various formats and working with a range of individuals, I would say that for broad spectrum use the world of technology is a disaster. The dreamworlds pushed by tech giants like Microsoft, Google, Apple and others are commercial fictions fabricated of moral abandonment, surveillance and profit chasing. Whilst the practical benefits of computers and software are foregrounded the harms are largely expunged from discussion.
As the world becomes more technocratic, the lives of people are becoming increasingly exploited as collateral damage. The world of surveillance capitalism is not just democratically disasterous but it has roving environmental costs associated with it. Lastly, the idea of wholesale trying to move a community online involved so many costs and so many points of failure that I felt it was not appropriate for Ragged University. The data costs of zoom are significant, and for low income individuals, they dont necessarily have the money or data allowance which enables them to participate:
The truth of digital technology is that for every gigabyte of data transmitted a corresponding amount of carbon dioxide is created and carcinogenic air pollution is generated. Add on this other issues associated with the manufacture – such as conflict minerals; the effects of electromagnetic pollution; forced obsolescence by the tech industry; and the truth is that we need to be warey about investing our lives in technology. The final decision not to attempt to mediate all of Ragged University through the digital world was made up by the fact that the person-to-person interaction, privacy and intimacy of real spaces and the social-sensory experience was impossible to replicate.
What happens in a real space does not happen in a digital space. Life has co-evolved with the multi-sensory environment for millions of years and has many of its capacities built from the social-physical environment, and over the years it is in these spaces – the third places as Ray Oldenberg names them – that so much of the complex benefits occur. If we liken it to the benefits of a forest, walking through a forrest will have a vast number of real capacities and effects that a computer facsimile will never be able to replicate; a picture of an apple is different from a real apple.
Along with that, the whole world was in a headlong rush to cram everything online and it became a bun-fight for people’s attention. Seeing so much provision had gone online there seemed little point in attempting to add to an abundance of choices (for those who could access the internet). After attempting a social evening where I had a drink with a friend in a zoom room I personally decided that I would not do that again as it just left me feeling more bereft strangely enough.
What I Did Last Summer etc
So with that decided, and with the long haul ahead with the covid 19 pandemic setting in, I thought about reconfiguring my practice so that I could manifest an appropriate response that would continue developing Ragged University as a search for a practical philosophy. I started contacting organisations and projects I knew and saying that I would do free web development to support them through; I also said to those wanting me to build them a website I would do it if they donated to Edinburgh Cyrenians and Lifeshare, two charities who are on the frontlines of supporting people who live at the hard end of society.
Teaching web development and how to do things with computers to those who were enriching the civic lives of people seemed to be the public value strategy. Along with this I decided to make an academic study of the microbiology of viruses producing a thesis called The Virus as Plasmid, taking the opportunity to learn about the phenomenon which was affecting us all. I turned off the news as it felt psychologically toxic and turned my attentions to doing deep research into glyphosate and the neuroscience of cognition. This bundle of threads allowed me to hold anchor in the feckless chaos which was inflicted by the donkeys of westminister. Ensuring that I was doing something that was constructive and generative kept me going in the isolation which came.
I further developed the pedagogical idea of the Ragged University practice being a process of manifesting each of the functions of a university within your own life. This created a series of notes on what I call The Living Curriculum – the notion of taking life evident in front of you as inherently embodying a curriculum necessary to understand the experience and one which provides a framework whereby your work is corrected through testing the hypotheses.
It organises educational ideas into an ecology with one another using what is available as a medium for learning and development. In this sense even barriers and constrictions become enriching experiences because it is a framing where you perceive that you are getting the opportunity to study the thing(s) which are preventing you proceeding on a different trajectory.
The idea of the living curriculum takes oppression and repurposes it for your ends, it assists you work in apparent chaos, complexity and emergent reality, and it encourages you to deepen and broaden your perception by taking you through every disciplinary lense made appropriate by context. Making a study of something, creating a set of notes and ideas, testing those ideas and comparing them to the actual reality you encounter is a powerful mode of validation which can sit outside of institutions dropping all this behind paywalls.
I, like others, am glad that the world is opening up again. Social interactions, even brief exchanges in shops, are so important to wellbeing. I have missed Ragged University events with all the various and ranging people they bring as a part of my life. What gets asked fairly often is how I got involved in doing it, do I do it full time and is there money involved.
Escaping the Mundane Culture of Money and Finance
Below I am sharing an account of how I got involved in doing Ragged; the view I take is that I am another person involved in carrying forward social traditions of learning and sharing. It is a full time thing as it is a means of bringing wealth and wellbeing into my life where needed, however there is no money involved, or at least, there is no funding and nobody gets asked for money to attend any events.
Money and the financial world is such a problem these days. Considering that money was invented purportedly to facilitate exchange when barter was not enough, money and finance seem to be acting to prevent more things occurring than it makes happen. Money is an exclusive basis to build a social practice on yet – hypnotically – so many default to thinking about it first, middle and last. No, for those who do not have much money, this enterprise has been about finding ways to achieve things without a series of dependencies.
Now twelve years down the road of doing Ragged University I argue that it closely maps to human development processes. Recently I was asked to apply for a position on a Masters course although I had no formal qualifications. Specifically they asked for evidence of learning and what I had to share were all the things I had written and published. This convinced the course tutors that I was invested as a learner and that I would be able to understand and keep up with the curriculum. By processes of accreditation of prior knowledge they were flexible as educators in valuing what my capabilities are, and by dint of this I have started on the course.
It will feel good to be acknowledged for my capacities but it also offers a moment of hope in a world which feels compulsively mercenary in its approach to qualification and education. This hope I believe is vital for a future of a thriving society rather than one which thrives off of creating poverty. As I learn through the course I am planning on sharing what I have learned through Ragged University events in the community. This practice of ‘learning through teaching’ will help me have the discussions I want and need to get a deep understanding of my subject and exercise all manner of skills.
And so there you have it, I plan on bringing the knowledge I generate and the skills I learn inside formal education out into the informal pub setting where I can get the benefit of a type of learning which I have come to see as education in the wild. The sum collective of knowledge is stored in the people and the majority of people sit outside of the academic context; as well as this the people who work inside Higher Education have lives beyond the walls of the institution and they constitute a part of the diverse collective of people in the wilds.
The beauty of the informal context is that people are no longer on a leash, they dont have line managers sitting on them for one reason or another, they dont have reams of paperwork or extranous duties they have to do; they can tailor their messages how they like and include whatever knowledge they feel pertinent. It makes for a rich environment where each individual is responsible and responsive to their own learning. If you read the material you get the benefit of the material, there is nobody there to impress on you the importance of doing so; in the wild you must develop self propulsion which I believe can only come from intrinsically valuing the subject matter.
This is what happens regardless of the organised production of public events as lifelong learning. It happens with your own company, it happens with friends, it happens with lovers, it happens with family members and it happens with strangers; I argue that those things found in learning are a part of the social glue that keep us together, a type of gifting ecology with vicarious intrigues.
The Story So Far…Ragged University
The story below is taken from a long email I sent recently to an academic I met whilst attending a free conference which was open to the public. I have throughout my life gone to these kinds of events as it is often a good way to discover what I am interested in when I dont know. At this one I got to listen to ten different presentations examining aspects relevant to the ‘Levelling Up’ agenda. I found some of the presentations particularly powerful and so sent emails to follow up on the conversations I had. To my delight the academic shared their work with me (not uncommon in passionate educators) and they asked me to tell them a little about how I had got involved in Ragged University:
“…Your work is a valuable and vital thing in the corporate-educational landscape of today. Talking about marginalisation is not in vogue so it is refreshing to hear your appeals for reflection. As soon as the recording becomes available would you kindly let me know please, I would like to listen again and also share it with a number of people I know.
Thank you for your kind words about Ragged University, it has been a lifeline for me to have what I have come to call a ‘sufficient sociological habitat’. I am self taught, or more accurately, the learning which I have done has come through the relationships I have with others in the community. Lots of this has been done in pubs and cafes by people who recognised I was interested and shared their time with me to enrich my world.
I come from a background where I subsist off very low income and lived on a sink estate in Scotland (Oxgangs, Edinburgh) in towerblocks which were earmarked unfit for human habitation several years ago – they have since been demolished. It was the kind of postcode where the telephone company would not even deliver a telephone book; needless to say, a place of deep financial deprivation but filled with highly intelligent and passionate people.
The way I started Ragged University was because I was helping out and volunteering for a friend in London who was doing something in Hackney. Jes who lived in Stoke Newington was doing work with the Street Performers Community Organisation and she asked me if I would help organise their office. Volunteering was a way of trying to create opportunity but most importantly, it was a way to keep busy with constructive things to prevent me from going mad and atrophying in the social contexts I lived in.
When in London, they asked me what I would do to bring community together and improve people’s lives. I said I did not know and went back to Edinburgh. In Edinburgh I talked to two friends who were retired teachers who taught me a lot and liked my company despite my scruffyness. They were Eileen Broughton and Leroy Wilsher. They became friends because I helped them with their computers and in exchange they taught me what they knew; systems thinking, economics, history, pedagogy, kindness and patience.
When I asked them how they would bring community together and improve people’s lives they said that I reminded them of the Ragged Schools and Ivan Illich. My learning has consisted of scavenging books from the streets of Edinburgh (very much a university city), stealing into lectures at the universities and also developing friendships with people who love their subjects. Eileen and Roy taught me about the Ragged Schools movement, Ivan Illich, social reform and a whole host of other things.
I then went back to London with my answer. I spoke to a few friends about the idea of updating the Ragged Schools movement except with Higher Education. I have no formal qualifications and so have struggled to get positions which give me sufficient money to function in society. Despite the rhetoric of education being free in Scotland, the truth of the matter is that lots of people have been blocked from entering the education system from the benefits system; there is also a range of other problems for people supporting themselves whilst they are in formal education.
There are a whole host of sociological problems which intersect on certain and specific populations ultimately preventing them from ever getting a foothold in society. I come from a homeless background and so found a simple conviction for possession of a small amount of cannabis in my teenage years created a spiral of exclusion and knock on effects.
Anyway, I saw this as an opportunity to build on social traditions of learning which I would argue exist in all places and times in some form or another. I spoke to three friends who liked the idea – Jes Haley, Grant Crozier and Will Bentinck – and we all decided to attempt a project. These three infophiles are people I have learned a great deal from, and who have played key roles in my life improving it.
The idea I had was to use available infrastructure and common technology because we had nothing. So I walked from Stamford Hill to Bishops Gate asking every independent business if I could use their premises to invite people in to share their knowledge in the tradition of the Ragged Schools. Of 34 asked, 32 said yes and 6 practically jumped over their counters saying ‘we need this’. I then realised that theoretically the 32 pubs, cafes, and other social businesses could offer 32 rooms which could be used as ‘classrooms’ or places of learning, that in theory was 32 ‘classes’.
I then asked lots of people if they would be interested in doing a talk in a pub about what they had invested their lives in and enjoyed. Several people said they loved the idea and I worked out the details with Jes, Grant and Will on doing a public event. Not having any money I had to leave London and return to Edinburgh to set up events there. It was in London that Jes, Grant (https://raggeduniversity.co.uk/2012/10/26/samuel-p-huntington-muppet-grant-crozier/) and Will (https://raggeduniversity.co.uk/2012/10/28/philosophy-sand-bentinck/) did the first event which met with great success as there was a good attendance of 20 people who enjoyed the experience.
It was through their friendship and their intellectual passion for life that I first really starting constructing my study of the sociology of education, knowledge and pedagogy. I had long learned a great deal from them and benefited from their interest in my improvement. They embodied a sort of positive vicariousness in my understanding what they had enjoyed understanding. We socialised and had great fun drinking and I recall in the Rochester Castle pub – another modern gin palace – that my apprehension of learning and knowledge gifting as a social behaviour crystalised. Whilst sitting with my friends in conversation I realised that we and everyone else in the place used knowledge gifting as a social exchange. This suggested to me that the practice could self sustain, or more that it happened anyway and that it could be built upon as a natural phenomenon.
I followed soon after with events in Edinburgh and it grew from there. With regards to finance and funding, I have realised that it is a quagmire and argue that the way things are resourced in the UK is a part of the problem. What I realised was that the funding processes serve to bureaucratise and colonise the lives and social activities which are essential for people’s wellbeing. The third sector is deeply damaging in the way it is configured, and whilst I got charitable status for Ragged University I immediately moved to close it after experiencing the harms which come with it (https://raggeduniversity.co.uk/2019/12/22/winding-up-ragged-scio-as-a-charity-miles-and-miles-to-go-before-i-sleep/).
I have written about how it is an extension of the financial sector and detailed how its organisational practices ultimately come to kill the thing it purports to love. In my opinion Britain is a landscape colonized by corporate practices which monopolise and control every aspect of living introducing antisocial dynamics.
Ragged University is a running experiment to discover what educational practices can survive beyond the enclosures of finance and corporate ownership; the world of privilege with which the country has been indoctrinated. I realised through reading international development literature that the same issues which get described in so called ‘developing nations’ are rife amongst our own populations and communities. The economy and social structure generate artificial scarcity as a means of concentrating financial value in the most enfranchised hands.
Thus I have come to see Ragged University as an attempt to forge educational techniques which can be owned and driven by any individual regardless of their circumstances so that they generate essential processes of human development. This speaks to my situation, and over the years I have used pedagogical focuses to study the barriers, obstacles and issues in my life and the lives of others so that intellectual, psychological and health benefits are manifest even if financial and credentialist ones are not.
Whilst the work I have done has been valued by individuals it has not been recognized by institutions or corporate bodies so I continue the project not only as a means of improving my welfare and the shared existential wealth of others, but also in a search for engendering a legacy that may serve the increasing populations displaced from their lives, communities, relationships, economy and landscape. I wrote Education as Human Development (https://raggeduniversity.co.uk/2019/05/03/education-as-human-development/) to encapsulate the theoretical issues as I see them.
So this has very much been something which I have done full time, but it has not been a matter of choice but more a matter of necessity; without Ragged University and that relationship with/in the world I believe I would be in a very much worse place than I am. I dont believe that the funding processes that are available can resource a social practice like Ragged University without entirely changing its nature, and as I see it and feel it, that would be a hollowing out of my life by unaccountable bureaucratic processes which are imposed on the least financially advantaged in life.
In the absence of the capacity to participate in other forms of social activity which involve money, I do Ragged University as a means to create space in society where I – and others – can experience the nourishments associated with cognitively and socially engaging with a community of peers. This does not mean that someone with the right status will not be able to access funding but certainly at the bottom of the socio-economic scale funding systems are a treadmill occupying people with extraneous work. There is a third truth also; that of the fact that generally if you are not financially poor, you are time poor.
And so it is through what I am calling the practical philosophy of Ragged University that I have come to meet with you. When the opportunties are there for me to interlope in formal academia I usually find fascinating and passionate individuals like yourself and Eric and Carl who provide a sort of curriculum for me to go off and operationalise; hence my conversation and all of my questions. I encountered Eric through my study of Norbert Elias as some time ago he did another open conference which I was lucky enough to attend and audio record. Norbert Elias’s work has been brilliant as it is sociology that maps well to my experience of the world, especially The Established and the Outsiders.
Thank you so much for sharing the library of Dewey – This is precisely the kind of generosity of spirit that has enabled me to manifest a curriculum of personal learning that has opened opportunities in conversation. I look forward to really getting to grips with the intricacies of his thought.
It is kind of you to consider doing an interview, not only is it a way which I learn but it is also a way in which I create open access learning resources for the rest of the informal community to tap into. There is no urgency in this, more that I think that your work will speak to many people and offers important sociological perspectives in the public domain. When the planets align, I am happy to travel to where it is convenient for you. I can generally find budget travel and think that it is important to meet people where they are at considering they are being generous enough to share their time and insight.”
So that gives old and new readers a chance to catch up on where Ragged University is and some of the things which have been occupying me. I am keeping an eye on the hospitalisations due to covid and when they hit normal I plan on starting events again. I am planning a series of six presentations personally and if other people want to do talks, events and presentations on what makes them tick etc they are most welcome – at its core it is a personal covenant with learning independent of any institutional controls.
The website has become popular enough that it may be a victim of its own success but I am looking into ways of allowing people to contribute to the upkeep as a publishing platform where everyone is welcome to publish without editorial control (so long as it fits with the values of the project – specifically the Universal Declaration of Human Rights).
People are welcome to organise events too but what is important is that people do what they commit to doing. Over the years there are a string of anecdotes I can relay about people who wanted to have events without doing the work. There was one person in Manchester who billed themselves as an events producer having his own events company; it seemed a good idea but he was hopeless. He (You know who you are!) set up an event and decided to cancel it the night before but failed to tell the speaker or anyone. At the time I got a phonecall asking why the venue was closed. It was a mess which I had to clear up; thankfully Rowey, the speaker, was very graceful about it and I organised another time for her to speak.
Ragged University is not a volunteering opportunity either; there are no managers who prompt things to get done and it is not about CV building – this is about something less mechanical and vertical in nature, more akin to throwing a house party. So whilst there is working together and mutual support, there is not the kind of centralised organisation and resourcing which you see in the third sector; this is done under the steam of self motivation.
I hope this gives you all some sort of update as to what has been happening and that the fact that the wheels of the project are being fired up again. I hope to see you all soon and be learning from y’all. Cheers, Alex – t’janitor