Resilience and scaling down in the face of decline (Dougald Hine discussion, part 2)

With hindsight, it was surprising that the first part of my discussion with Dougald Hine kept to a disciplined track for as long as it did. Perhaps it was the novelty of having the recorder turned on that kept the forces of entropy in check. But entropy will out.

On one level the discussion that follows has almost nothing to do with learning. On another, it has everything to do with learning. Part of the longer discussion we’ve been exploring concerns how you pull back the lens on your learning context, and what happens when you do? Do you develop a meta-awareness of your own learning process and a critical assessment of the systems in which it is embedded? Or is the meta-level not higher, but just different. I’m not sure now whether the discussion is profoundly important or just by the bye.


But here we start talking about scaling down and becoming more self-reliant. To what degree is this a response to a perceived, or real, decline in the fabric of our lives and infrastucture of our society. (Remember, I kicked off this thread 15 months ago talking about learning in the context of “progressive austerity” — a term that has since lost whatever charm it might once have had).

A reminder that you can also read Dougald’s own take on the same discussion, including an audio edit. Here we pick up the discussion where Dougald Hine has just been talking about the complacency of Higher Education in the face of a potential “scaling down” in the institutional infrastructure you need to organise rewarding learning relationships.

Tony Hall: Is there a name for the process of the scaling down? Because I am thinking of Illich again and Tools for Conviviality, which influenced me incredibly in terms of giving me the confidence to say the only tool I need to work with in education is my camera. And that is what I have always done — because everybody, more or less, has a camera. So you could just use that as your educational tool — you need nothing else in a way. Is that whole sense of “scaling down” is that a Dark Mountain thing, a Collapsonomics thing?

Dougald Hine (DH): The Collapsonomics stuff I have been writing recently deals with the sense that, in some significant ways, the middle class existence is being eroded. We are living through the immiseration of the bourgeoisie.

There is stress… there is a pile of stuff around quality of life and… the erosion of professional autonomy

The average house price in ratio to the average income has doubled in the last 30 years. Students graduate today with debt, when their parents were paid to go to university. In America, you might be talking more about the soaring costs of health insurance in relation to average income. There is a sense that throughout the western world the fabric of life — not for the people right at the bottom of the pile, for whom life has been pretty miserable for a long time — but in the middle of society, the people who are supposedly doing okay have actually been experiencing life getting harder, in a diffuse collection of ways.

That is becoming more acute under the current economic crisis and, if things don’t return to business as usual, it will become a really big story.

Patrick Hadfield: Victorian values?

Dougald: I think it depends. Obviously there is very little material hardship that we are talking about. There is stress, there is the fact that working hours are increasing, that the demands which employers put on staff are increasing, that job security is vanishing. So there is a pile of stuff around quality of life and around work where I think the erosion of professional autonomy which on the one hand — from an Illichian critique of the professions — might seem to be a positive move…

David Jennings: We’ve all got an enormous amount of professional autonomy haven’t we?

Clodagh Miskelly: Yes, we seem to spend a lot of time talking about something we are not actually experiencing.

Dougald: We have a lot of autonomy. But that’s because we are operating on the outside to a large extent. We are riding networks rather than institutions, on the whole.

You used to trade your loss of autonomy for the security of belonging to and working within an institution, and that trade has been getting less and less good for people for about 30 years. This is the untold story right now I think in our society.

In the same historical moment where there has been this progressive degradation of a lot of the things which made ordinary middle class life viable, there has also been this new wealth of networks. If you compare my generation to my parents’ generation, we are clearly better off in transport networks and information networks.

It is still very, very precarious to live by networks rather than to live by more ordered and institutional ways of doing things. But actually the trade-off benefits of institutions are diminishing. You used to trade your loss of autonomy for the security of belonging to and working within an institution, and that trade has been getting less and less good for people for about 30 years. This is the untold story right now I think in our society.

Clodagh: There still has to be a relationship between those networks — “riding the net”, which I have never thought of myself as doing until people started telling me that I was — and functioning within or with institutions.

A lot of the work that I do is outside of institutions, yet I’m often working with people on how they influence what happens in institutions. Because quite often they are people who don’t have power of choice — they don’t have much autonomy.

At the moment I am working with people who are largely immigrant refugees with chronic health conditions and possibly stigmatised for their sexuality. How do they interface with a Health Service, which is a massive institution that has improved all our lives enormously including theirs…

Patrick: … but it is very rigid, and very bureaucratic.

It is easier to consider de-schooling society than de-hospitalising it.

Clodagh: Yes, it is both those things. But whenever we talk about this, this is the the stumbling block for me. We talk about different kinds of networks, we talk about institutions, we talk about housing, we talk about education… but actually we don’t… I can’t map that: I can’t see how those relationships…

Dougald: It is easier to consider de-schooling society than de-hospitalising it.

Clodagh: Yes, the whole notion of health is a really big stumbling block… and I work within the NHS as a consultant (though not a medical consultant).

Patrick: For me, seeing the NHS from the outside, it seems to be all about curing illness rather than preventing it. The model seems to be: wait until people are ill and then there are hospitals where people can go and be cured; rather than helping society to be well, which would be a step towards de-hospitalising.

Dougald: Yes, but I think you [Clodagh] are right that health and the NHS is probably a good place to slow down and think carefully about this rhetoric of networks and institutions.

What I find so disturbing about what is going on politically in the UK at the moment is that it is quite clear that the Tories have an ideological drive to cut back the state. That doesn’t necessarily mean that there isn’t also a genuine need — in terms of the direction that the world is going in — for a serious retreat of the roles which the state has acquired during the era where economic growth was the norm — an era that was calmer and less chaotic than the one which it feels like we are heading into.

Where can we achieve genuine handover of things from the state to more bottom-up and more self-organised ways of doing things?

But because of that exuberance, the unpleasant joy at smashing back the state, there is not a sober process of asking, “How do we determine what it is appropriate for us to concentrate our resources on? Where can we, in the least damaging ways, achieve genuine handover of things from the state to more bottom-up and more self-organised ways of doing things?”

So I see the government appropriating the rhetoric that has gathered around the social innovation scene in London, which School of Everything has been part of. But they do so without a deep understanding of why some things work and some things don’t, and without a feel for what is mature and what isn’t within that scene. Also there is some kind of voodoo belief that, simply by cutting public spending, somehow the private sector will flourish in the territory which has been cleared — and I can’t see any rational basis for that belief.

What I want to see is cuts for contraction not cuts for growth. I want to see a sober process of recognising that we can’t do as much as we used to do with Government money. This would still have lots of scope for acknowledging that the Government has done things in wasteful and counterproductive ways in the past. But trying to legitimise it by saying that this is going to be good for the economy and get us back into growth serves only to distract from the kind of careful sober analysis that is what is needed right now.

That is a long way from where we started, isn’t it?

We should not mistake the institutional structures of the industrial era for the deeper level outcomes that they have contributed to.

David: That’s fine; it might end up being two posts. In which case we just doubled our productivity! I’ve got one more question which I had pre-prepared, and which I would like to just lob if I can.

What lessons are there for us in how the poorer half of the world learns — in other words those people who don’t have all of the tools plus the institutional and network back-up that we have?

Dougald: I don’t know if I am necessarily that well qualified to answer that, but here are some thoughts that I have…

People have been learning for as long as there have been people. There haven’t been schools for as long as there have been people. So we should not mistake the institutional structures and the systems by which we happen to have been doing things during the industrial era for the deeper level outcomes that they have contributed to.

There is an improvisational, muddling-through way of getting things done which flourishes in situations which — by our standards of what we think makes life liveable ought to be miserable. If you talk to James Wallbank from Access Space about their experience of running this open-access, walk-in learning centre using recycled computers and free software. He has gone backwards and forwards quite a bit to Brazil and there is a project in Brazil, I think it is called MetaReciclagem, which starts from similar ideas to Access Space and has led to a whole network of centres there. Whereas in the UK there is still just the one original centre.

The assets we have inherited from the industrial era are a burden that make it harder for things to happen in more improvisational ways in the UK

Clodagh: Brazil has that massive history of that kind of education and medium… It’s like the ground is ready.

Dougald Hine: Absolutely. The question is why can it flourish there and it can’t flourish here?

Clodagh: There are many reasons, aren’t there?

Dougald: Of course there are, but I think there is some sense in which the assets we have inherited from the industrial era are also a burden that make it harder for things to happen in more networky, chaotic, improvisational ways in countries like the UK.

Clodagh: Yes, I absolutely agree with you. It’s not just the assets either, it’s out value systems as well and our structures and ways in which we see or understand, expected to be all learning, a sense of need or perspective or anything.

I had one really great conversation with James Wallbank about the micro-level of what works at Access Space, how you engage with people in an open way. And it seems to be a lot of what makes those improvisations work is the micro-level stuff, so it’s going back to teacher/student/people relationships. Just creating a warm space or patterns that work, helps people see the potential. So it is about assets and relationships…

The more I talk to really poor people about how they learn, the more I think that I know nothing about how those systems work or how those people work

Dougald: Access Space was one of the other things that inspired me at the stage where we were first thinking of School of Everything. I remember the first time I walked in there, there was a sense of somewhere which embodied in practice the stuff which I was reading about in theory in Illich, so yes. And it is that conviviality, that human scale.

David: What inspired the question was actually the conversation that we [Dougald, myself and others] had at [a meeting in another context in May 2010] where we were talking about the possibility that the global flow of skills might reverse. We’ve grown up with the idea that “we are the developed world and we have things to teach you, you people down south”. But in the event of a collapse, we might actually need to gut a fish or build a hut. That’s the point where we go, “Oh shit” because we expect to be able to hire those skills, or find that service online, and, if we can no longer do that, we’re going to have to re-learn the skills.

Clodagh: We tend to see things in terms of learning from them [the poorer half of the world’s population] when we are desperate but actually we should be learning from them at all levels.

I have tiny privileged moments where I get to go to other countries for a week, and talk to really poor people about how they learn. The more I do that, the more I think that I know nothing about how those systems work or how those people work. But it would be nice to listen…

David: You are talking yourself into being interviewed!

Clodagh: But I don’t know anything about this… I will start listening out for people who are visiting this country, and invite them to come along to one of these discussions.

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