Learning from Utopia

‘The Dispossessed’ by Ursula Le Guin

Anarres and Urras

What is the function of alternative political and economic systems, whether actually existing or imaginary? Is it to offer hope that change is possible, or at least to provide some perspective on our own way of life?

For instance, what would it be like to live in a society organized in a radically egalitarian way – one with a more equal distribution of power, or with no competitive markets or organized or coercive exercise of power at all?

Actually existing alternatives can be examined and critiqued in real time. The test of a credible fictional utopia is in the details of the experience of everyday life, living and working arrangements, housing, eating, personal relationships, health care, decision-making, dispute resolution, transport, cultural production and consumption, and of course social care, childrearing and education.

How might learning be organized in such a society? The whole purpose and content of education would be very different in a genuinely egalitarian society. In the absence of competition for status and jobs and the valuing of a fuller range of human capabilities, new forms of learning and educational processes would be possible.

In Ursula le Guin’s ‘The Dispossessed’ (1974), the author imagines two close planets whose inhabitants have hardly any contact with each other and live with very different social orders. Urras is rich in resources and has a number of states run under different political systems and power structures. Its neighbour Anarres is poorer and was populated generations previously by people escaping Urras to create a more egalitarian society. Anarres allows no private ownership or accumulation of power and runs broadly on anarcho-syndicalist lines.

The novel was written before the digital revolution took off and personal computing does not feature, but some of the aspects of democratic economic planning, allocation of labour and resources seem to be facilitated by computer systems and essential decisions are taken following deliberation in committees.

The story of Shevek, our main protagonist, introduces us to life on both Anarres and Urras. He has a unique opportunity to compare the systems first-hand as well as to meet the underground opposition on Urras.

In this future universe, our Earth still exists, but it is a distant and marginal presence. As if to remind us of the risks of messing things up, we hear that it is now overheated, deforested and grey – just about habitable for half a billion people making a kind of life in the ruins. Shevek meets the Terran ambassador who tells him:

“My world, my Earth is a ruin. A planet spoiled by the human species…We controlled neither appetite nor violence; we did not adapt. We destroyed ourselves. But we destroyed the world first… We failed as a species, as a social species.”

We get a few insights into education on Anarres through some of the episodes of Shevek’s life. Walking through Abbenay, the main city on Anarres, Shevek finds it ‘charged with vitality and activity’, passing open doors of workshops and factories, laundries, repair-shops, distributories, a theatre… The city’s activity is visible to all, and this transparency contributes to the sense of shared collective endeavour which includes young people.

“It was all there, all the work, all the life of the city, open to the eye and to the hand.”

“The activity going on in each place was fascinating, and mostly out in full view. Children were around, some involved in the work with the adults, some underfoot making mudpies, some busy with games in the street, one sitting perched on the roof of the learning centre with her nose deep in a book.”

Dedicated learning centres seem to be tasked with a degree of knowledge organising and sharing, teaching young people and transferring skills. They seem to use investigative and project-based learning. We’re told little about the adults who work there; their expertise and their specific responsibilities, but we do get a sense of purposeful and motivated student activity:

“He went by the learning centre late in the afternoon and watched Sadik and the other children on the playgrounds, or got involved, as adults often did, in one of the children’s projects – a group of mad seven-year-old carpenters or a pair of sober twelve-year-old surveyors having trouble with triangulation.”

Letting ‘mad seven year old carpenters’ loose with their tools sounds a little dangerous and this description prompts questions about adult accountability for the welfare and safeguarding of the children. Neglect or exploitation may be less likely in such a transparent system but risk cannot be entirely eliminated – how would it be minimised? If all adults are teachers, how is their effectiveness ensured?

There do seem to be some agreed curriculum priorities based on the Anarresti values:

“Learning centres taught all the skills that prepare for the practice of art: training in singing, metrics, dance, the use of brush, chisel, knife, lathe and so on. It was all pragmatic: the children learned to see, speak, hear, move, handle. No distinction was drawn between the arts and the crafts; art was not considered as having a place in life, but as being a basic technique of life, like speech.”

The curriculum also appears to be co-constructed as much as possible, with learners shaping their priorities together with their teachers:

“This was how courses were organised in Anarresti learning centres: by student demand, or on the teacher’s initiative, or by students and teachers together.”

The imaginary ‘uninventing’ of institutions we have come to regard as indispensable can provoke fruitful thinking about how we might invent something different and better. This is the great value of the utopian imagination.

Another way to read ‘The Dispossessed’, is as a case for a multipolar world which can accommodate alternative ways of living and ordering society. Maedda, of the rebel underground tells Shevek of the importance to people on Urras of having the really existing alternative society of Anarres to look to:

“Do you know what your society has meant, here, to us, these last hundred and fifty years? …To know that it exists – to know that there is a society without government, without police, without economic exploitation, that they can never say again that it’s just a mirage, an idealist’s dream!”

For the rebels on Urras, eager for change, the existence of Anarres demonstrates that History has not ended, another world is possible and radically different systems may be able to co-exist in close proximity.

Alternative ways of living and meeting human needs, whether real or fictional are useful challenges to our concept of the natural order. They raise important questions about power, inequality, work, leisure and shared human rights and values as well as everyday questions about how we live our lives. They show us what might be possible and how things might change.

Whether we seek to transform our own system or would prefer a plurality of systems in friendly competition, we can surely agree with Shevek’s insights that:

“Human solidarity is our only resource.”

“When you are on the bottom, you must organise from the bottom up!”

See also:

‘You either bend the arc or it bends you’, ‘Attack Surface’ by Cory Doctorow (September 2021)

‘The Ministry of the Future ‘ by Kim Stanley Robinson (December 2020)

An A-Z for a world which has to change (March 2020)

‘What if?’, dystopias in fiction. (December 2017)

More fictional dystopias. (March 2017)

Utopia as the education of our desires. (August 2015)

Reading dystopias. (July 2015)

About Eddie Playfair

I am a Senior Policy Manager at the Association of Colleges (AoC) having previously been a college principal for 16 years and a teacher before that. I live in East London and I blog in a personal capacity about education and culture. I also tweet at @eddieplayfair
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