Education Activism Ethics: histories, strategies, economies

This post was contributed by Dr Nick Beech, Ian Gwinn and Calum Wright – members of the Raphael Samuel History Centre.

On 30 June – 3 July 2016, the Centre will commemorate the 20th anniversary of the death of the socialist historian Raphael Samuel, along with the fortieth anniversary of the journal he helped to found (History Workshop Journal), with the Radical Histories Conference.

Read other blogs about the conference here and here


A strand within the larger conference has been co-convened under the working title of Education Activism Ethics, concentrating on Raphael Samuel’s legacy of ‘history from below’. The aim is to consider the complex relationships operating between academic and ‘extra-academic’ historical research. A key question raised by the strand concerns the present possibilities and limits of working ‘extra-institutionally’ in political, economic, and ethical terms.

Though the strand includes formal academic paper panels, many of the sessions consist of workshops, roundtables, and other discursive formats. The aim of the strand is to consolidate perspectives on working practical strategies and tactics towards autonomous and self-managed education.

Education Activism Ethics explores ways of doing history which move beyond the confines of the academy and engage wider public audiences, and the challenges such approaches entail both in practical and theoretical terms. Guided walks, social media and blogging; free education, social art, DIY practices, and direct political action offer ways for the radical historian to promote forgotten or marginalised histories and to bring these stories to new audiences. But these practices and modes operate within specific conditions and face particular problems. What are the possibilities opened by history beyond the academy? What ethical conditions are negotiated? What politics are constituted? What economies are required?

Historical Research and Dissemination

Some of the contributions in the strand focus on specific historical research approaches, tools and media. On Friday, we have a panel (titled ‘Labour, Class, Community’) providing readings of history that have been produced from historians working closely with communities and social formations in their localities and conditions. On the other hand, a group of historians (Catherine Fletcher, Laura Sangha, and Brodie Waddell) will present different their different perspectives at the ‘Politics of Doing History Online’ roundtable on Sunday morning, examining the specific possibilities (and present limitations) of conducting internet research and dissemination.

These sessions, we hope, will not only introduce us to specific, unique, histories, but raise questions about the contributions that history can make to public consciousness and empowerment. On mid-day on Saturday afternoon a discussion and debate will be held, led by Bill Schwarz, Lynne Segal, and Nick Beech, on the role history plays in public and political discourse, and how historical reason might contribute to a radical politics.

Radical Historical Practice Beyond the Academy

An important question motivating this strand of the conference is how radical history can operate beyond the academic institution. We are excited that a number of different research groups, reflecting a range of constituencies, have responded to our call in this regard. On Saturday afternoon, the People’s Histreh Notts Radical History Group will be providing a workshop ‘Loveable Luddites and Righteous Rioters – Can we be radical historians without pissing people off?’

In this workshop, participants will not only consider the deradicalisation of the past within meleorist, institutional histories, raising the question as to whether the past is pacified, but will also consider the structural conditions in which history is reproduced—the systems of funding, control of public forums, and instrumentalisation of history toward economic or political ends: People’s Histreh ask ‘how can groups and individuals engage in radical history? What is radical about radical history? The stories we investigate? The ways in which we tell them? The reasons why we tell them?’

Radical Histories conference

Radical Histories conference

On Friday morning, a number of DIY arts and cultural practitioners connected with the Limehouse Town Hall, hold a workshop examining the economic, political and ethical questions that have been raised in the project to institute a new civic space in Limehouse. As Elyssa Livergant, convener and facilitator of the workshop state: ‘[Limehouse Town Hall] a former nineteenth civic building is now occupied by a range of creative residents – arts, cultural and community producers with studios who also run varied progressive and ‘radical’ cultural and educational activities for wider communities in Limehouse, East London and beyond. [It] has been user led since 2004 under the umbrella of the charity Limehouse Town Hall Consortium Trust.

The Trust holds a lease for the building from Tower Hamlets Council. Drawing on the heritage of the Town Hall as a civic centre and one time labour history museum, we seek to draw a contemporary parallel for the buildings present use. With the input of current creative residents, Trust members and you this workshop will explore the relationship between the more recent civic history of the building and the role of the arts and culture in contemporary civic life.’

Finally, we also have a workshop, convened by Ian Gwinn, that brings together a number of representatives, from ‘Free Universities’ and other student education activists, from across the UK. Since 2010, the cuts to education funding and trebling of tuition fees have lent new urgency and impetus to the struggle to develop radical and critical alternatives to orthodox educational models. New initiatives have sprung up, advancing a very different vision of the organisation and practice of education. The idea that the purpose of education should be for emancipation and liberation, that it should be run along democratic lines, and that it should equip people with ‘really useful knowledge’, connects these initiatives to a long and rich heritage, from Owenite and Chartist ventures in the 19th Century through to second-wave feminist consciousness-raising groups in the 1970s.

In this session we will explore the kinds of principles, forms and purposes that inform current practice with contributions from members of these initiatives and others. Here a host of issues arise, carrying both practical and theoretical implications for how we go about assessing the prospects for radical and critical education today. These include the structure of pedagogical encounters (curricula, assessment, space), the resources (institutional, material, personal) upon which they depend and how they are secured and enlarged, and the process of contesting dominant conceptions of pedagogy.

There are many other sessions throughout the course of the three days of Radical Histories/Histories of Radicalism that we hope will contribute to a searching investigation on the active, educative, and ethical dimensions of ‘radicalism’ in historical practice and dissemination.

Find out more


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