Symposium: Prefiguring Democratic Education
Bridge House pic - Andy Weekes

Symposium: Prefiguring Democratic Education

University of Lincoln
May 8, 2014
9:30am – 4:00pm

This seminar, hosted by the Centre for Educational Research and Development, will explore the possible role of prefigurative politics in, for and through the democratisation of education in neoliberal societies.

What’s it about?

For several decades, educators across the UK have been reporting a sense of contracting possibilities for critical, democratic and progressive work. The decades-long process of transforming educational institutions into market-oriented competitive businesses, teaching and research into market activities, and pedagogical relationships into commodity exchanges has transformed conditions of work and study in all sectors of education. Shared concerns include the intensification of labour, the subordination of professional debate and critical judgment to managerial authority and technological rationality, the dominance of quantitative metrics over qualitative definitions of quality, and the marginalization of commitments to democratic life and social justice by the logics of profit, prestige and competitive power. Shared concerns also include the state of critical education, the possibility of teaching with integrity and love, and the connection between learning and social justice.

While popular media and ‘hallway talk’ in schools, colleges, universities and informal educational organisations can be dominated by despair, the need to alter this state of affairs has also generated new interest in more critical forms of educational practice, policy and politics. The traditions of ‘prefigurative politics’ have seized educators’ imaginations as offering theories of transformative social change that can open spaces of possibility both within and beyond neoliberalised educational institutions. For some, these traditions suggest that we must build and struggle for alternatives within existing institutions, and through this transform them; for others, that we can plant seeds and build foundations for other ways of working and being in autonomous spaces. But the politics of prefiguration are also highly contested, seen on the one hand as a mode of analysis and activity that undoes hegemonic systems of power by cultivating counter-hegemonic alternatives from within, and on the other as a feel-good genre of piecemeal reformism or co-optation. 

In this seminar, we wish to explore the possible role of prefigurative epistemologies and politics in the democratisation of education and society. A range of speakers will offer provocations to open discussion about a number of questions, including:

What are the limitations and possibilities of prefigurative political practices when we undertake them inside and outside formal institutions? What can we learn from past and present prefigurative social movements?

What are the embodied practicalities and affective experiences of prefiguring alternative practices that are not yet recognised in social or conceptual form?

Can prefigurative practices enable educators and students who do not regard themselves as ‘activists’ to create larger spaces of possibility and political identities in their own work? What are prefigurative pedagogies?

In what ways has the neoliberalization of education been achieved through prefiguration, and are there kinds of power that prefigurative politics are unable to resist, transform or evade?

Does prefiguration offer an alternative to managerial, corporate and bureaucratic models of leadership in schools and universities?

Are prefigurative politics inherently pedagogical or educative?  


Each session will begin with a 10-minute provocation to inspire discussion.

Against ‘Facts’ – the significance of Ernst Bloch’s concept of the not-yet for alternative pedagogical experiences 
Ana Cecilia Dinerstein

In this session, I’ll discuss how mainstream education demarcates the parameters of legibility of the reality of knowledge, and by so doing, it invisibilises another reality that cannot be grasped by facts for it engages with the experience of the ‘not-yet’. I will talk about the epistemological and emotional experience of the not-yet (a non-factual reality) by using the example of the MST (Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra, Landless Workers Movement) in Brazil.

Vital perception
Jamie Heckert

A long tradition in anarchism focuses on the anarchy, the vitality, which already exists. In this session I’m interested in discussing ways of developing the capacity to see, to feel, the anarchy in our own bodies, in the world around us, and to nurture that. Furthermore, I want to look at how we can learn from those perceptions to continue to build free & equal forms of social (including ecological) relationships.

‘Some changes have to start now – else there is no beginning for us’: on the moral necessity and enduring possibility of radical democratic public education
Michael Fielding

After briefly outlining my prefigurative practice framework I will further reflect on some of its strengths and limitations, firstly, in the light of my own experience as a teacher and deputy headteacher in some of England’s radical secondary state comprehensive schools in the 1970s and 80s. Secondly, and more prominently, my particular focus will be on the life and work of Alex Bloom who from 1945-1955 ran the most radical democratic secondary state school England has ever seen.


Coffee, tea and introduction

Vital Perception (Jamie Heckert)

Against ‘Facts’ – the significance of Ernst Bloch’s concept of the not-yet for alternative
pedagogical experiences (Ana C. Dinerstein)

Lunch (provided)

1:30–3:00        ‘
Some changes have to start now – else there is no beginning for us’: on the moral necessity and enduring possibility of radical democratic public education (Michael Fielding)

Reflections and closing


All participants will receive a reading pack prior to the conference, compiled of texts recommended by those presenting and others, which will contextualise and problematise the major themes.




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