Opinion //

Alternative education: learning beyond the classroom

Andy Mason explores the knowledge that lies outside tute rooms and lecture theatres

Amelie Vanderstock and Andy Mason at the Leard Forest.

My dad’s stories about USyd in the late ‘70s to early ‘80s were a big part of my decision to study here. He painted a picture of a student community that was both socially exciting and intellectually engaged – tutors would hold classes at the pub, punk bands would play at Manning Bar to fundraise for Aboriginal rights campaigns, and students would organise their own reading and discussion groups if they weren’t satisfied with what was being offered in class. Marijuana smoke (allegedly) emanated continuously from the SRC, under which the Communist students (legend says) kept shipping containers full of firearms sent from the Soviet Union to exploit (mythical) opportunities for revolutionary insurrection.

While the SRC no longer resembles anything close to the above, there remains a strong radical student tradition at USyd that continues to offer an alternative vision for collective intellectual life. Self-organised student learning projects represent a counter to the corporate model of education that has come to dominate in recent decades – they challenge the commodification of knowledge and can have empowering consequences both on and off campus.

These projects have their conceptual roots in the work of thinkers like Paulo Freire and bell hooks, who argue knowledge is inherently political. While dominant models of education serve the interests of the status quo, there are alternatives that seek to challenge this and create spaces for what hooks describes as “education as the practice of freedom”.  These alternatives include “critical pedagogy”, a teaching practice that encourages students to question power relationships inside and beyond the classroom, and “community action research” where communities themselves set the research priorities.

The Critical Race Discussion Group, organised on campus a couple of years ago by the people who went on to form ACAR (Autonomous Collective Against Racism), was a really useful introduction to anti-racist politics for many students and other young people. Discussion sessions provided a challenging but supportive space to deconstruct representations of race in popular culture and the mainstream media, analyse whiteness and privilege, and talk about racism within the university.

As a white person who initially felt threatened and confused by anti-racist politics, this space was hugely helpful for me. Discussion sessions focussed on the implicit racism of the “hidden curriculum”, the implicit content of formal education where racial stereotypes and discriminatory knowledge can persist despite the surface appearance of multicultural progressiveness. The contrast with my first-year biology classes, in which any discussion of the social dimensions of science was taboo and some lecturers spouted openly racist and sexist views, could not have been any greater. The Critical Race Discussion Group organisers made sure that sessions were engaging and participatory – a welcome relief from the stuffy and hierarchical mode of learning in university classes.

However, other projects go beyond the University community. An inspiring historical example is the Detroit Geographical Expeditions. In 1970s Detroit, racial discrimination in housing, employment and services was near universal, and Black students were excluded from university education. A number of radical geographers decided to combat racism by developing research projects with African American communities to demonstrate the prevalence of racist practices, developing the communities’ skills in the process. Projects were designed and implemented by the community with the academics’ support, creating maps for the first time of racial housing inequality and racist policing. Black students were also able to get college credit for free courses run as part of the project.

The “citizen science” movement also seeks to take learning beyond universities by bringing researchers and communities together. An example of this is the Goongerah Environment Centre (GECO), which has run a campaign against native forest logging in remote far-eastern Victoria for two decades. The group uses legal challenges and direct action tactics, but the most distinctive part of their campaign is its program of citizen science survey camps. These involve volunteers carrying out scientific research on areas of forest that are scheduled for logging. This work is necessary because the surveys done by the logging industry are inadequate (to put it politely), and the Department of the Environment does not have the resources to do more accurate work to ensure that biodiversity legislation is actually followed. Participants in survey camps engage in a number of activities, including vegetation surveys to identify areas of protected rainforest and fauna surveys to locate threatened animal species. Some of this survey work has even resulted in scientific advances, such as the re-discovery in May last year of the Brown Tree Frog (Littoria Littlejohni), which was considered extinct for the previous two decades.  Through these methods, GECO has succeeded in protecting many areas of pristine rainforest which otherwise would have been turned into woodchips.

Whether held within the University or based in the broader community, radical education projects can be transformative. Although they allow individuals to develop their own skills and knowledge, they go beyond this to create spaces for community self-reflection and collective action. This kind of thinking urges students to be not only consumers of knowledge, but active participants in social change.

Want to get involved in student-run education at USyd? 

  • Many of the SRC collectives and other student groups continue to organise reading groups, forums, film screenings and the like on and around campus. Look out for them.
  • Cinema Politica Sydney hold monthly film screenings in support of grassroots community campaigns.
  • Fempower deliver feminist education for high school students.
  • USyd Environment Collective members have been involved in citizen science campaigns around native forest logging in Victoria and open-cut coal mining in North-West NSW.