City as classroom

Mita Williams has just published an interesting long article surveying the history of the ‘city as classroom’, which arises from a one-year sabbatical. I was very interested to read that…

In either 1976 or 1978, a year before or after the City as Classroom, Marshall McLuhan paired up with Robert K Logan, a physics professor from the University of Toronto, to write a book on the future of libraries [but] That work was never published, and the only excerpts I’ve seen of it online are from an Australian art magazine called Island [# 140]. Of that excerpt, less than 500 words were excerpted online.”

I’ve always rather liked the quietist anarchist notion of ‘city as classroom’ (inspired by Colin Ward, A.S. Neill et al, in the UK, and McLuhan and Illich et al in the USA), in which six bright kids would be educated by roaming as nomads around their city in the company of an enthusiastic personal tutor. Each little band of learners would have a licence to go anywhere and talk with anyone in the city, just following their meandering interests and curiosities over the months and years. Observing and absorbing at first, most likely, but then also getting involved in the organic life of the city as their talents develop.

It seems a pity that this relaxed and personal small-scale model (so very different from an afternoon’s coach trip of 60 kids + fussing assistants to their local museum) isn’t tried, even for a few weeks in summer each year. If it is happening somewhere (other than among the children of the hyper-rich, with their personal tutors and nomadic lifestyles), then I’ve not seen it reported on. Such open nomadic pedagogic bands seems to me to be even more feasible today, now that we’ve been unchained from physical libraries and classrooms by digital tablets + and all the other open online educational resources.

I’ve always been less enamoured of the parallel and rather lumpen organisational ideas that involve wheeling a shelf of books into the street or setting up a ‘summer school’ library under a tent in a public square. Such a pseudo-radical gesture by a monolithic organisation seems to have become rather redundant now, though I can see the potential value of micro autonomous book-swop stands, just so long as they don’t just get trashed/neglected. The one such activity that does still work in cities is to take the gallery outside, showing exhibitions of large scale pictures on permanent weather-proof stands sited in public squares.