By Nicky Bolland
The names we give people are important. They define how we relate to them and how they relate to the wider world. A name can open doors and it can close them. It indicates where we fit and where we don't, our past, our present and our future. The same too can be said of the things we do. How we name the actions and processes we are involved is important. The names and language we use provide foundations onto which our practice is built.
So how do we choose the 'right' names and words for what we do? What do we need to consider in finding the right name for what we do? How do we find a common language through which we can include many voices but which also accurately defines what we do and how we do it?
My daughter has come to be known to the world as Iris Saima May. The reason she is called that is a complex mixture of relationships, history, possibility, phonology, country singers and what felt right when she finally arrived in the outside world (she had previously been known as Jerry). In trying to find the right name my partner and I had to weigh up lots of different values: we wanted to connect her to her family and her history but also made a conscious decision to disconnect her from the parts of history or tradition that did not feel right to us: we wanted to honour people that were special to us and hopefully to her: we wanted something that we liked the sound and semiotics of and that would be easy to spell.
Around the same time that my daughter began growing as an idea and a being, so did CAMINA. We wanted to develop something that would connect with and support people doing educational work that challenged the status-quo, which aimed to transform lived-experience and that was creative and critical in terms of principles and approaches. But what name to use for this work?
It seems to me that the journey to my daughter’s name has a lot in common with the journey to finding a name for what we're interested in in CAMINA (a journey we are very much still on). For before we can find a language that works, we have to ask - what do we need the language to work at? What does it need to do? Does it need to connect to history and tradition – or does it need to depart from it? Does it need to be open and accessible (easy to say/understand/spell) or does it need to speak only to those who are willing to do the hard work of understanding what it is?
To some extent – we need to do all of this.
Thinking first about history and tradition, perhaps we can find answers in the language that has come before – the family line, if you will. Much of the language that is used today to discuss education that departs from the mainstream springs from the work of Latin American educator Paolo Freire, whose influential theories certainly provide us with an important touchstone. The term 'critical pedagogy' was used by Freire as was the term popular education or to be more accurate 'educação popular'– for Freire's native tongue was Portuguese). But whilst we are keen to connect our present work to the historical work of Freire and critical pedagogy, and whilst many practitioners in Scotland use these terms, it is my feeling that there are limitations in this language.
In part my concerns are around the difference between our context and that which Freire was working in. Whilst the term ‘popular' means one 'of the people' in Portuguese (and Spanish) – it’s connotations in English are quite different. Furthermore, the term pedagogy – whilst appropriate in English in terms of its semiotics, is not often used in everyday language and might therefore be considered inaccessible to those for whom pedagogy is not part of their lexicon. In this sense – what worked for Freire might not work for us.
Another pitfall of this language is that it risks being too exclusive. If we use the language of Freire we risk limiting our exploration only to the practices he developed and theorised around, and only to those practitioners who can articulate explicit links with the work they do and the work of Freire (for example there is plenty of work going on that fits under the definition of critical pedagogy but which practitioners aren't calling critical pedagogy). Whilst undoubtedly practice which has explicit links to Freire is important – it is only one strand of the landscape we are keen to explore and one that has not always been agile in moving forward from its historical context.
We would like this research and the projects that might follow it to be open to a range of different approaches, theories and encounters and in this sense perhaps we require a more spacious language. But does such a spacious language exist?
The terms 'alternative education, 'radical education', 'global education' are all used today to talk about education that departs from 'banking education; that promotes new kinds of relationships, approaches and curriculums.
Yet we face dangers in the other direction also. For example, whilst the term alternative education has become popular, it poses the challenge of being too broad. An alternative to mainstream education could be anything from education in a different context to education that focuses on different topics. There are many education projects which might be labelled 'alternative' which do nothing to challenge oppression, disrupt traditional learning relationships or critique the status-quo.
Whilst the term radical education is more likely to be linked to these practices, it also runs the risk of connecting to practices and education models which we have no interest in speaking to, since 'radical' refers to the level of change rather than the type of change. As such, 'radical education' could as easily refer to an ultra-conservative approach – which is not something we at CAMINA are interested in exploring or developing.
An alternative then to these terms is to seek out a hybrid- an amalgam: to take what works from the past, whilst discarding what doesn't.
For our daughter this meant choosing a name that connected to our family history, but that disconnected from patriarchal lineage - my mother's middle name has become her family name. And whilst her middle name honours a dear friend, her first name is all her own. Iris Saima May.
In the case of CAMINA, we have come to critical education. For me the phrase critical education speaks back to the historical lineage of Freire - it is a descendent of critical pedagogy and of popular education. Yet by combining these terms it seems to open up more space - presents new possibilities. The words it is made up of are accessible (most people can interpret what it's about even if they haven't heard or used the term before); in terms of semiotics it signposts key elements of what we are exploring 'education' and criticality'.
To amalgamate, to depart from what was in it's purer form, is a risky undertaking: it risks leaving us too far from the past but not fully in the future; it risks being only fleetingly relevant to a particular time and space. But if we want things to work for us now – we must be willing to try doing things differently – to experiment.
The work of naming Iris began in the early months of her gestation but didn't end till hours after she was born when we had to break the news and needed a name to go with it. In the end Iris's name became final because there was a deadline on it. Naming what we do is also subject to the deadlines of the wider world – we must name it so that we can share it - so that we can talk about it - but this doesn't mean the name can't change.
The names we have come to are by no means the only possibilities (as we have demonstrated) and neither are they by any means final: they are for now (and for birth-certificates). Once they come into contact with the wider world they are subject to adaptation. I am wide open to the possibility that Iris's pals will find nick-names for her, or that she will reject her given name, to that she will eschew the matriarchal line and take her future partners name or the name of her favourite pop-star. We don't know. The same is true of critical education - it may fit - or it may not. Only time and sharing will tell.
And in case you're still guessing – the country singer is Iris Dement.
Whats going on?
This is where we will keep you up-to-date with the project as well as sharing regular insights/findings/resources.
Check out upcoming events here: