Building alternatives


Chapter 14 of

Tied Knowledge: Power in Higher Education


by Brian Martin

Go to Tied Knowledge contents page

Considering all the difficulties in democratising education through policy changes and through critical teaching and research inside existing institutions, it is not surprising that many people have decided that it is better to build alternatives from scratch. There are numerous examples of educational alternatives, of which the free school movement is the most visible. Indeed, experimentation to create more egalitarian, 'client-oriented' structures is more common in the educational sphere than almost any other area. My aim here is not to catalogue the many wonderful, exciting, uplifting and laudable initiatives that are alternatives to conventional higher education, but rather to comment on some of their strengths and weaknesses as part of a strategy to challenge oppressive social structures. I look in turn at alternatives at three levels: whole organisations, small groups and individuals.

Large-scale alternatives

Many mainstream educational institutions have been established with one or more 'alternative' features. The British 'plateglass' universities were set up to go beyond discipline-based study, but they soon succumbed to pressures for disciplinary divisions. The difficulties in sustaining even a few nonconventional features are great. Therefore some educators have looked to a radical restructuring of the form of higher education. Some of the options are as follows.

* Subject matter would be focussed much more on social issues such as poverty, discrimination, peace and industrial democracy. Treatment of these areas would be integrated rather than broken up into disciplines.

* Theoretical study would be linked with social action. Industrial democracy would not be studied just through textbooks but also by interaction with workers at the workface.

* Certification would be separated from learning. Achievement in learning could be registered by recommendations and by visible achievements such as essays.

* The class, gender and ethnic basis of education - the orientation of the form and content of education to the needs of white middle and upper class males - would be changed to make learning useful and attractive to all.

* Learning would become much more a part of life, rather than something separate from and largely irrelevant to other parts of life such as work and leisure.

* Individuals and groups would be encouraged to become independent learners, no longer dependent on injections from curricula and control by teachers.

Peter Abbs and Graham Carey in their book Proposal for a New College describe a scheme based on the following features:

- small size;

- curriculum based around aesthetic education;

- equality of staff salaries and status;

- internal democracy (staff and students);

- work as an integral part of learning;

- practical use of skills for self-reliance, for example production of food;

- sharing of all routine tasks such as cleaning and preparing meals.

Abbs and Carey find the basis for their proposals in many vintage ideas and movements, such as Fountains Abbey, the Bauhaus and Gandhian schools and Black Mountain College, and also draw inspiration from more recent initiatives. Their proposal covers most of the alternative options above, except an active involvement in current social issues.

It is not hard to see that such an alternative education would be contrary to the basis of present higher education. For example, small size, at least if coupled with independence from standardised curricula and pressures for certification, would undermine the centralised control exercised by educational elites. A curriculum focussed on social issues and involving social action would be anathema to corporations and the state. Equality of staff salaries and internal democracy would strike at the roots of the privileges of academics.

It is precisely for these reasons that radical educational alternatives are important in providing a challenge to the academic power system. But there are many problems in building alternatives even at the smallest scale. These problems need to be assessed carefully to determine the most effective way to proceed.

Jonathan Kozol in his valuable book Free Schools provides practical advice to those in the United States who want to turn free schools into tools for democratising society. Many of his points would apply also to alternatives in higher education.

Kozol says that a free school should be incorporated as a non-profit organisation. Either a totally democratic structure or a small, benevolent dictatorship is best. The main thing here is to avoid power struggles which can rip a group apart. Often the hardest part in setting up a free school is obtaining a suitable building.

According to Kozol, teachers in a free school should not be manipulative by refusing to teach: non-coercive education is not for everyone. Middle and upper class whites may be able to do without credentials - since they can fall back on their contacts or cultural skills - but blacks and poor people need practical skills to survive in the marketplace. Teaching basket-weaving is irrelevant. Finally, free schools usually must struggle continually just to survive. Obtaining funds is a vital task.

Even assuming that a free university - to be distinguished from many universities with 'free' in their names but which are conventional in most respects - has been set up, is it an effective way to intervene in the complex of forces influencing higher education? There are many obstacles and pitfalls.

Any free university that looks good and attracts attention is very likely to be attacked by those committed to the dominant system. It will be dismissed as a soft option, as not rigorous, as irrelevant and as dangerous. Even more seriously, funding from government or foundations is likely to be denied, or only offered under stringent conditions. Perhaps the best prospect for obtaining independent funds is by the staff and students being involved in productive enterprises, such as growing food or selling goods, though this has its own problems, such as hostility from conservative capitalists and subordination of education to production.

Staff and students in a free university may face obstacles entering mainstream institutions. Indifference or hostility from the outside can create many problems on the inside.

To begin, most students in a free university will have had a long prior immersion in schooling. Considerable resocialisation will be required. This may take so much effort that no energy is left for much else.

Another danger for free universities is the belief in self-expression. This is often a reaction to the stultification of initiative in traditional classrooms. But 'self-expression' can become an excuse for flights of fancy and shoddy thinking. Furthermore, staff and students may become complacent and self-congratulatory, revelling in their 'alternativeness'.

Credentials provide a real dilemma. One way to proceed is to provide freedom to students but still provide credentials, which may even be recognised as significant if the free university mainly takes in talented but disgruntled students. In this case, 'alternative education' is used to promote social reform via the mobility of individual students. This approach suffers most of the defects of the approach of getting radicals into powerful positions.

If no credentials are given, a free university is very likely to have a low status. It will be marginalised and be unattractive to most students. Cutting off links to the credential system - which is a key break with orthodox higher education - also means forfeiting the status and drawing power which can be used to attack the orthodox system. But the other option, maintaining links to credentials, means adapting to the prevailing system.

A final danger is that a free university will provide space for individuals to learn and develop personally, without providing any challenge to mainstream institutions. This is a variant of the 'change the individuals' approach.

The idea of a free university is a very romantic and enticing one. Some free schools provide enormous satisfaction to those participating. But the reality almost always involves a lot of work and enormous difficulties. Many alternatives collapse due to external obstacles and to internal squabbles, leaving a trail of bitterness.

Small group alternatives

Rather than trying to establish a full-scale alternative, another approach is to work in small groups to promote learning which is egalitarian, self-sufficient, without credentials and with all sorts of other wonderful attributes. Quite a few such groups are set up. They go by names such as study groups, discussion groups, consciousness-raising groups and community research groups.

Some of these small groups are organised within higher educational institutions. For example, when I was a postgraduate student a group of us organised an informal discussion group on the topic of "interpretations of quantum theory". We were simply interested in the topic. While the choice of subject matter grew out of our interest in physics, it was a topic which had little bearing on professional advancement. Similarly, history students organise groups to discuss the politics of historical research, female scientists and science students organise groups to discuss the relation of women and science, and academics organise groups to discuss innovative teaching methods.

In addition, there are many learning groups set up outside the institutions of formal education. In the late 1960s and 1970s there were untold numbers of women's consciousness raising groups which played a major role in building support for feminism. There have also been all sorts of other groups, catering for workers, old people, neighbours and even family members. The topics discussed, studied and researched are incredibly diverse.

The small learning group has a whole range of possible relationships with formal structures, ranging from complete autonomy to close material and official support. Learning groups have often been fostered in various ways, most notably by 'learning networks' which provide lists of people, interests and skills.

The basic advantages of small learning groups are that they are flexible, easy to set up, low cost and not dependent on formal approval or subject to formal sanctions. People join these groups basically because of immediate benefits, which can be the practical application of what is learned, the satisfaction of learning or the pleasure of non-competitive group interaction.

The disadvantages are closely related to the advantages. The main problem is that there is no economic or political base for the groups, so they break up very easily. They often depend heavily on the enthusiasm and energy of individual organisers, and collapse when the organisers leave. Also, they often come at the bottom of people's priorities: when other obligations mount - such as formal education - the small voluntary groups lose out.

Should any of these problems really matter? The learning network, if there is one, will respond to people's needs as they are articulated. This would be a reasonable attitude if all learning were organised this way. But the education system is far from being a voluntary and egalitarian system. Because they are small and ephemeral, study groups provide no lasting challenge to the system which ties knowledge to powerful groups. To do this, they would require a permanent resource base and regular means for developing and applying knowledge.

Many small groups do provide an indirect challenge to formal education, since they foster critical thinking and skills in organising that can be applied in other contexts. On the other hand, some small learning groups may serve more as a way for disgruntled students to let off steam than as a pressure cooker for revolutionary action.

Individual learning and research

One step down from small groups is the individual. Instead of entering or staying in the formal education system, many individuals take control of their own learning, or help others to do this.

* Teaching your children. Especially in the United States, there is a large movement of parents who keep their children out of schools and provide an environment for them to learn on their own and with the help of parents, siblings, other relatives and friends. This is a major challenge to he system of compulsory state schooling. As John Holt ably documents, most of the arguments against teaching your own children reveal quite clearly the biased assumptions underlying 'normal' schooling.

* Teaching yourself. Quite a few people undertake their own learning programmes outside the formal education system. The most important resources for doing this are libraries and the internet. Also useful, sometimes, are radio, television and public lectures. In many areas of knowledge, a motivated person can become an expert through personal study. Teaching yourself is an option at least from the teenage years onwards, and could begin much earlier in many cases.

Often people undertaking their own learning contact others to gain advice or to discuss issues. Learning webs are very useful in putting people with skills in contact with those who would like to learn them. Many people who teach themselves become involved in small learning groups.

The biggest obstacle to teaching yourself is restriction of opportunities by formal educational institutions. Scientific equipment and laboratories are usually off limits to those who are not students or staff. Even many academic libraries cannot be used by 'outsiders', and it takes some initiative to overcome the regulations. Another problem is that many academics and other professionals do not take self-learners seriously. Without credentials, even people with impressive knowledge and experience may simply be told to take the institution's entrance exam and work through the courses from the beginning.

* Learning by doing. Most practical learning is learning by doing. This applies to people with credentials as much as to those without. Most learning takes place 'on the job' rather than in the classroom. So the question is, does learning by doing constitute any challenge to the system of tied knowledge? It all depends on what the knowledge and skills learned on the job are used for. Those who gain legal or medical skills on the job - after obtaining credentials to get into the profession - and then simply use their skills to make a living are not challenging the use of professional knowledge and credentials to bolster professional privilege. On the other hand, those who gain professional skills on the job and then share them around and expose their simplicity or their underlying value assumptions are challenging the occupational monopoly.

* Independent research. In spite of the academic mythology which decrees that only the most talented scholars (who went through the academic system) can do important research, there are many examples of people who have done research outside institutional channels. In the United States, some prominent independent researchers are Betty Friedan, Buckminster Fuller, Hazel Henderson, Eric Hoffer, Alvin Toffler and Barbara Tuchman. It is quite predictable that academics, if they take any notice at all, will denigrate such people as amateurs, popularisers or publicists - in other words, as not being 'real' scholars. (This response is partly jealousy and partly protection of professional status. Anyway, who besides an academic would want to be a 'real' dry-as-dust scholar?) But the point is that it is quite possible to do top-level research outside institutional channels.

Independent researchers can avoid the academic problems of writing for academics and of not addressing important problems. Independent researchers have much greater scope for tying their knowledge the way they prefer. They can study the areas they want, work with others as they choose without pressures for quick publication, and proceed in a way that maximises intellectual pleasures.

But independent research is not easy. The main problem is money. No one will pay much for it. After years of research to produce a book, the royalties are rarely enough to live on. That assumes that the book is published. Without credentials, and writing in a nonstandard area, it is often much harder to obtain a book publisher in the first place. Independent researchers usually must have another job, or be supported by family and friends.

There are other problems that apply to both independent learning and independent research (which blend into each other in any case). It is quite easy to go off into your own little groove. Getting sidetracked is a hazard for any learner or researcher, but without regular feedback from peers the hazard is greater.

More importantly, independent learners and researchers are very marginalised. It is very hard to break into the mainstream. Even after publishing articles and books, independent researchers are likely to find it almost impossible to obtain academic or other professional jobs. They just do not have the credentials or suitable job histories. People who learn professional skills on the job - engineering, law, social work, pharmacy - have absolutely no chance of formal entry to the profession without credentials. It is not what you know but what pieces of paper have your name on them. This is very similar to the way in which women are marginalised by formal academic requirements and expectations. It is no coincidence that many independent researchers are women.

The lack of status in independent learning and research means that it is hard to keep going. The continual struggle to gain access to learning resources and research facilities, the difficulties in publishing material, the low status of non-institutional efforts, the acclaim given to professionals for ideas first developed by non-professionals: all these are demoralising. Banding together with other independent learners and researchers provides considerable support. But most of the cards are held by the educational institutions. The few independent learners and researchers who do 'break through' and succeed by orthodox criteria may very well then be inducted into the formal system by open-minded academics and administrators. The remaining independents remain outside in the cold, posing little threat to the status quo.


Peter Abbs and Graham Carey, Proposal for a new college (London: Heinemann Educational Books, 1977). Precedents and prerequisites for a self-managing educational community.

Paul Adams, Leila Berg, Nan Berger, Michael Duane, A. S. Neill and Robert Ollendorff, Children's rights: towards the liberation of the child (London: Elek Books, 1971). Includes much material on education.

Robin Barrow, Radical education: a critique of freeschooling and deschooling (London: Martin Robertson, 1978). A critical analysis of the views of Rousseau, A. S. Neill, Paul Goodman, Ivan Illich and others.

Bill Draves, The free university: a model for lifelong learning (Chicago: Association Press, 1980). A positive-thinking survey of free universities and learning networks in the United States.

Alan Gartner, Colin Greer and Frank Riessman (eds), After deschooling, what? (New York: Harper and Row, 1973). Articles by Illich, critics and supporters.

Paul Goodman, Compulsory mis-education and The community of scholars (New York: Vintage, 1964). A libertarian critique of institutionalised education.

Allen Graubard, Free the children: radical reform and the free school movement (New York: Random House, 1972). A description and analysis of the free school movement and its relation to social movements.

Ronald Gross, The independent scholar's handbook (Reading: Addison-Wesley, 1982). Inspirational encouragement for undertaking independent scholarship, and material on how to do it.

Carl Hedman, 'Adversaries and models: alternative institutions in an age of scarcity', Radical America, vol. 15, no. 5, September-October 1981, pp. 40-51. On the need to combine adversarial and exemplary roles in alternative institutions.

John Holt, Instead of education: ways to help people do things better (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1977). Learning by doing.

John Holt, Teach your own: a hopeful path for education (New York: Delacorte, 1981). The arguments and the how-to of helping children learn outside of school.

Ivan Illich, Deschooling society (London: Calder and Boyars, 1971).

Jonathan Kozol, Free schools (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1972). A hard-hitting and practical book oriented to those who want to make free schools tools for radical social change.

Everett Reimer, School is dead (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1973). The deschooling argument.

Michael P. Smith, The libertarians and education (London: Allen & Unwin, 1983). An excellent survey.

Joel Spring, A primer of libertarian education (Montreal: Black Rose Books, 1975). An excellent analysis and assessment.