April 15, 2015 | Essays

Liberal Education and Complex Social Change

An excerpt from the publication: Complex Social Change (2014)

When research, learning, and teaching are stirred together with students in the pot of a classroom, wonderful things can happen. This was the case in the Fall semester of 2013 in the Liberal Education course I coordinated on the topic of activism.

The first ingredient was a hallway conversation with Josephine Mills, Director of the University of Lethbridge Art Gallery. Every Fall term the Liberal Education program in the faculty of Arts and Science offers a seminar on a topic that is broadly interdisciplinary (including elements of science, social science, humanities and fine arts), relatively “hot” or newsworthy, and of interest to concerned citizens in civil society (what we would like our students to become). The Art Gallery and Liberal Education had successfully worked together on a previous occasion around the topic of food in a parallel examination in both the classroom and the gallery. Josie asked what topic I might be thinking about for the future. I offered that I had been thinking about activism as one possibility. This idea clearly resonated with her and by the time we went our separate ways, we had a number of ideas from a fruitful brainstorming session. One thing led to another and another and another. The richness of the stew that resulted was very satisfying.

Liberal education aims to find a balance between, on the one hand, educating young people to be able to participate individually and collectively in the social, economic, and political milieu of their place and time (which students often reduce to: “I want a post-secondary education so I can get a good job”) while, at the same time, educating them to think and act freely, critically, and effectively to change the social, economic, and political milieu of their place and time (which might reduce to: “I want to be an activist and to make a difference”).

This particular class was populated with an interesting mix of students, some wanting to strengthen and expand on their already impressive activist experience, others wanting to understand and learn how to participate in anarchistic expressions of activism, still others prepared to critique and resist extremist activism, and all aiming to satisfy degree requirements of one kind or another. My own aim was to facilitate their development in the four pillars of liberal education: breadth or interdisciplinarity (by having a variety of guests speak to the class from a range of disciplinary perspectives on activism), critical thinking (by requiring structured student facilitated questioning and discussion round-table sessions after each guest visit), integration of a range of views (by requiring them to produce a synthetic paper on an activist issue of their own choice), and civic engagement (by requiring each student to participate at some level in some kind of action). Rather than follow an established recipe for educating activists, I kept stirring the pot, adding ingredients, and simmering the whole thing with the intent that students would take from the mix learning that was interesting, meaningful, and useful for them.

Was it a successful stew? Yes, as much as any one-pot meal can be so. There were a few students who felt they didn’t get as much out of the course as they would have liked; they reported they didn’t really learn anything that they didn’t already know. A few others felt that the course didn’t go deep enough with some of the topics, like the Idle No More movement for example.

However, most students in the course reported that they did develop a more nuanced understanding of activism and a greater appreciation for the different flavours that activist work comes in. Initially many felt activism only involved violence, destructive riots and police brutality. However, after hearing from a range of guests working in such areas as anti-oppressive social work, environmental and disability rights, gender equity, and international development, they came to see that social change could also be created by effective action within existing social organizations and social structures.

The biggest challenge, in fact, was to encourage the students to develop a taste for actual action. Most began the course describing themselves as participants (activists) in a number of on-line campaigns for a variety of causes. But when I insisted that they physically take part in some kind of an event or a meeting about an issue where they would need to meet and engage with other people, many struggled. They struggled to find time and energy. They struggled to find a cause with which they connected, and they struggled to commit.

Many of the students also felt that activism had to be big in order to be effective. They felt they wouldn’t be making a difference if they weren’t involved in something huge, well known and already successful in making change. Many were doubtful that any small activity they did could do anything to make change.

By the end most students reported some change in their views. Most reported that they could see how even small actions could contribute to larger change. However, as students, their lives were busy and full, their means to contribute somewhat limited, and their commitment to any particular cause restricted by the demands of their other courses and, for many, the necessity for employment. However, my hope is that, after having a taste of activist work, and when their situation allows, they will be willing and able to join with others to work with greater intensity and focus.

The richest part of this course for me was the mixing of research with teaching and learning. Colleagues from the Complex Social Change project were able to provide fresh insights from their own work when they visited the class. One class had a panel discussion which enabled the students to be included in the sharing of research amongst the members of our team and to be part of the dissemination of our work to a wider audience. In another class, Lisa Doolittle’s workshop got them up out of their seats and experientially embodying what change might look and feel like. The Theatre for Living presentation of “Corporations in our Heads” provided an opportunity for students to savour experimental theatre at the community arts centre, CASA, quite different from the test-kitchen of our classroom. Plus, the simultaneous University Art Gallery exhibition “Acting Out,” featuring the work of Wendy Coburn, General Idea, and Tiffany Muller Myrdahl, provided a broader context and gave students a chance to connect with more critically playful engagements with complex social change.

In summary, it was certainly rewarding to be stirring the pot in this classroom. The lively discussions, thoughtful presentations, and rich reflections provided by the students showed that they too found the experience satisfying. I’ll be back for more, certainly, the next time activism is on the menu.

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