Philosophers of Praxis

This wordstorm was my preparation for speaking at Higher Education Cheshire’s Annual Conference, held at Mid-Cheshire College on 6th July 2016.  My intention? To provoke thinking and present a different view of scholarship than is, perhaps, the norm.  

I don’t do justice to some brilliant, connected Higher Education minds, academics like my pal Vicky Duckworth who could never be accused of living in an ivory tower (she’d be growing her hair ready for the long drop if she did).  Not only do I know many such thinkers, they are the very people who helped me articulate my own voice.  They are my fellow travellers, my space-to-dancers – and my friends.

When Frances Bell quite rightly called me out (in Comments, below), about Gramsci’s unhelpful binary (grassroots ‘feel’, intellectuals ‘think’) I considered softening my ranty polemic – and decided on this introduction instead.  Writing is an act of resistance, as my (HE) friend Kevin Orr often says.  If I can fire even one person up to write each time I speak, I’ll use what ever tools are (ethically) in my reach.  Enjoy the following words, and understand that I really mean we all should rise up and raise our voices.

Slide1Hello and thank you for inviting me to speak at your Scholarship Conference today.  My name is Lou and I am a Philosopher of Praxis.

My aspiration in the next twenty minutes is to convince you that you have a voice that needs to be heard in the world.  These are strange times indeed and challenging times for our profession.  And our voices are barely audible in policy or media discourse.  My belief is that this is because we do not have a professional identity as scholars.  We leave that to the folks in HE and they don’t know what our lives are like.  My session here today is about scholarship as praxis; that is, action and reflexion upon the world in order to challenge and change its oppressions.  Scholarship is thinking – yes, it’s reading – yes.  Sometimes it’s studying.  But in a praxis model, which is all I’m interested in, it’s about forming the words to speak out about something that needs to change.  It’s about writing, filming, recording – and then publishing.


Writing 100 years ago, the philosopher Antonio Gramsci called for Philosophers of Praxis, by which he meant grassroots, activist intellectuals.  Gramsci was a man of his time and he was writing in a Marxist context; in case any political theorists get me wrong I want to be very clear that I am transplanting his idea to the here and now and that is not the standpoint from which I’m operating.  The idea is what’s of use to me and, after all, philosophy is the study of ideas; the leadership, if you like, of ideas.  Gramsci is part of my philosophical genealogy, and I am standing on his shoulders to do new thinking that is relevant for now.

Putting semantics to one side for the moment, Gramsci made the point that “the popular element” – ie us and our students – feel an experience but do not always think about it, ie reflect.  In fact, reflexive practice is what we’re all about and the best pedagogies are reflexive experiences for all involved.  So the problem here is not that we don’t think, but that we don’t write it down/film it/sound record it.  Intellectuals, on the other hand – for the sake of argument let’s say these are today’s policy makers, academics, ‘experts’ – do lots of thinking/writing but they don’t ‘feel‘ – they are not in the experience that we are in, not any more or never have been.  It’s a no-brainer that a way out of that situation is for us to start writing and publishing stuff and that both is and isn’t as easy as it sounds.

The fact is that every political movement – and let’s be right about this, the liberation of Slide4further education from the sausage factory model to something more emancipatory is a political movement – needs its intellectuals, its dissident writers.  Here are a few.

bell hooks, amazing Black feminist writer and educator.  If you haven’t read her, you should, because her pedagogy of love speaks to us all (bear in mind that she is shouting with us, not at us).  She is one of many inspirational figures – Audre Lorde, Angela Davis – who wrote women into the political landscape.  Irina Ratushinskaya was imprisoned by the Soviet regime; she wrote verses on soap, then washed the words away once she’d memorised them.  Vaclav Havel stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the Slovakian politician Alexander Dubcek in Wenceslas Square at the birth of the Czech Republic, symbolic of art and politics together.  Nelson Mandela’s prison diaries gave hope to millions.  Chinese radio presenter Xinran transcribed the stories of women who told her the truth of their lives on her late night show.  Each of these writers have given birth to liberation through their words and now there is a new generation speaking through music and video to change the world: check out how many people follow Emma Watson.  Listen to Akala.  Where are our dissident writers in further education?  If you think I am stretching a point here, think of your students.  How many healthy, fulfilling lives and futures rest on the access to FE?

At the bottom left of the slide, there is the offering of me and my friends, the Dancing Princesses. Our book is inspired, two-thirds edited and half written by philosophers who are still working in FE.  Even now, though I’ve come here to do this today, I am embarrassed to be in such awe-inspiring company and even a little socially awkward at calling myself a philosopher. That’s because I am a working-class, adopted child from a town called Mexborough in the South Yorkshire coalfield and people like me aren’t philosophers, they aren’t writers (you may tell me that Ted Hughes and Margaret Drabble came from Mexborough but check out their growing up, their grammar school education, their leaving behind of their roots). What stopped me finding my voice for the longest time were untrue limiting assumptions that people like me – people from my identity groups – didn’t have anything to say.

Nancy Kline, whose Thinking Environment processes I use all the time in my work (and used at the start of the session today) says that the key obstacles in our life and work Slide6emerge from the key obstacles in our thinking – the untrue limiting assumptions that actually shape the way our brains are wired.  In a Thinking Environment, we’d identify those assumptions, speak them out loud and, like hoeing weeds in a garden, we’d see them shrivel and die, because mostly they are ridiculous.  However it feels on a day to day basis, we are privileged people in a privileged country, mediated by technology, able to get our thoughts out to others in 140 characters or more.  Finding a liberating alternative question, to barrel on past those untrue limiting assumption, is key to becoming a confident scholar.  Once this work is done, all the technical stuff will slot into place. At the end of my talk, I will ask you to ask this question of each other.

We live in an era of emerging open scholarship.  Yes, there are still academic textbooks costing upwards of £50 but they are a dying breed and, frankly, the words in them are often dead by the time they are printed.  To storm the ivory towers, we need to write/film/record things, then share them in creative commons; literally common land that anyone can access for free, for the price of crediting the creator.  This is the only way Slide7in which thought, opinion, knowledge and ideas can stop being the preserve of the ‘intellectual’ and start being the playground of the ‘popular element’ – ie us and our students.  Putting ideas into circulation means we start broadcasting, not narrowcasting to “people like us”.  It means that we connect and network with others of diverse views, challenging and sharpening our own thinking if we go into those dialogues with open minds.  It means that we collectively start to dismantle the #whitecurriculum – those unseen structures of oppression that shape our very existence.  If you do one thing after today, watch ‘Why is My Curriculum White?‘ on YouTube and then go out and find the diverse voices that are missing from your subject.

Put yourself in spaces which feel uncomfortable – otherwise, aren’t you just learning what you already know? It only takes a glance at the political shenanigans happening at the moment to know that new thinking is sorely needed.  Disrupt your own thinking through your scholarship and then disrupt the thinking of others around you.  Once you get used to it, it’s lovely! This creates a new, participatory, ecology of learning, where we are equal as thinkers.  At Northern College we don’t keep ‘theory’ at one remove.  On our Teacher Education programme, we crowd-source resources lists that are contemporary, meaningful and diverse; thinkers who we often interact with on Twitter, who are our equals as thinkers and critical friends.  We don’t ditch the whole teacher ed cannon – we love Dewey and Mezirow! – but we dump what’s not relevant any more, or not relevant to us.  Don’t Pavlov me…

…and we believe in co-production.  Because if we are equal to thinkers, our students are equal to us.  They help co-construct our curricula.  Bluntly, if you don’t think your students are your equal as human beings, you shouldn’t be in the game.

So what can you do, to become a scholar, a 21st century Philosopher of Praxis, a leader of ideas.  It’s not a zero-sum game.  If you take ideas in and you find dialogic spaces to Slide8discuss them with other open-minded people, new ideas are created, along with an activist energy that drives you through the untrue limiting assumptions of, “I can’t“, “I’m tired” and “I don’t have time.”  If you do one thing after today, I suggested you watch the YouTube video, “Why is my curriculum white?”  If you do two things, get yourself on Twitter.  Use it to get into spaces you may not normally go, spaces like @writersofcolour  Use it to open your mind to new and exciting stuff and then, as your own ideas emerge, start to record them.  Tweeting is publishing.  Shared blogging spaces are publishing.  Facebook is publishing!  I’m not saying don’t aim bigger – you should – but don’t decry the nursery slopes.  And stop thinking that the best way out is to lock yourself in an ivory tower.  Because you might just find there’s an army of philosophers heading your way.



Author: TeachNorthern

We are hard working educators with passionate interest in Teaching for a Social Purpose. Everything we've learned is through observing colleagues and students, all of whom are committed to changing the world. And reading interesting stuff. We work at The Northern College in Barnsley and its mission (and thirty-eight year history) of social transformation makes it an ideal base to face the challenges of teaching adults in 21st century England.

4 thoughts on “Philosophers of Praxis”

  1. That was spine tingling Lou – I really wish that I had experienced it in person. I have dithered over responding to you but after reading your post 3 times I decided to really respond to what you say. Your clarion call to your colleagues in FE to become philosophers of praxis is valid and powerful. I worked in FE for years part-time and 1 year full-time but that was nearly 30 years ago so I can’t know your current context. I do want to challenge some of your assumptions though, and that’s challenging them not telling you what to think. You say “Intellectuals, on the other hand – for the sake of argument let’s say these are today’s policy makers, academics, ‘experts’ – do lots of thinking/writing but they don’t ‘feel‘ “. Before I retired 3 years ago, I worked in HE, and the term ‘academic’ covers a multitude (not all of them sins). I have worked with academics who don’t ‘feel’ but also with many who do, and who work for change, who practise philosophy in their teaching and in their research, if they do it – not all do. So I respectfully challenge that binary from my own scholarship, praxis and feelings and also because I think it could hold you back in this amazing work.

    1. I absolutely agree Frances. I was using Gramsci’s dichotomy and publishing ‘live’ with the intention of a) making a provocative hit in 20 minutes and b) going back and editing. So I will be moderating my language as it doesn’t reflect the subtlety of my thinking! Quite right to call me out 😊

      1. Thanks for your response. I have to confess that I am bit obsessed with binaries, in my scholarship and in life in general. I will always think of this very sad time as a time of binaries 😦

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