Education, social justice and survival in a time of crisis.

Based on a presentation for the CSPACE ‘1000 little fires’ conference at Birmingham City University, July 2022.

A system in crisis.

Project for Progress (1924) El Lissitsky

It is clear that we are living in a global crisis which threatens our very survival. The climate emergency, the Covid pandemic, unequal and unsustainable production and consumption, the continuing transfer of wealth towards the richest, the damage done by war, poverty, racism, classism and sexism.

These are all are at dangerous levels. Rather than treating these as disconnected crises to be addressed separately, they can be viewed as connected manifestations of a single systemic crisis, with exploitation, inequality and injustice baked in as both cause and effect.

Nancy Fraser describes this as a process of systemic cannibalism; capitalism consuming the source of its own dynamism. This crisis of the system, caused by the system, requires a systemic response, preferably an alternative based on social justice and sustainability, equity, democracy and solidarity. This means developing a new common sense, or counter-hegemony, which can describe how to ensure human survival and create social and economic relations which work for all of us. In education, it means developing nothing less than counter-hegemonic content, pedagogy and organisation from both inside and outside the current structures.

Metaphors can obscure or limit our thinking about education. In this case I have drawn on our most basic tools for understanding the world; language and mathematics.

A vocabulary and grammar to name and frame this crisis.

James Baldwin reminds us that nothing can be changed until it is faced, and Maxine Greene urges us to be wideawake to the world as it is. In ‘Teaching to Transgress’, bell hooks describes how we can use words to liberate ourselves through counter-hegemonic speech. We need to name our current system of economic and social relations as the cause of crisis.

Taking climate change as an example: do we frame it as a lifestyle problem for which ‘we’ all blame ourselves as consumers and which can be solved through our market choices? Or do we see it as a systemic emergency created by our system of economic and social relations with most of the key decisions being taken far from us?

To take another example: when we choose to analyse ‘student underachievement’ or ‘youth crime’, do we see these mainly as failures of individuals or their families, or as the result of systemic inequalities which create the conditions for exclusion and exploitation?

Our naming and framing needs to be based on democratic deliberation not inherited structures of injustice and inequality. And once the challenges are named and framed, should educators avoid ‘scaring’ students or teach the full story and embrace what George Orwell called ‘the power of facing unpleasant facts’?

John Dewey speaks of communication being ‘meaning-guided and meaning-making’ where meaning is a social practice and reflection has a social origin. We need education settings to be places of full, ‘wideawake’ democratic meaning-making and meaning-sharing.

The geometry and algebra of alternatives.

Our existing social, political and economic relations are no longer fit for purpose, they will need a new geometry with new structures and institutions. Progress will depend on a complex algebra of dynamic relationships, equivalencies and dependencies.

The calculus of education: content, practice and structure.

Understanding the calculus of socio-economic change requires us to understand the world as it is, in all its complexity and difficulty. We also need to see the opportunities for flourishing and fulfilment and the relationships between the various forces which can contribute to making the world what it could be.


Crisis requires a new view of what knowledge and skills we value. A social justice curriculum would look very different to what is currently on offer. It would have values, care and solidarity at its heart. It would teach about risk, complexity and uncertainty and nurture the capacity for collective reflection and action. It would aim to develop criticality as well as critical literacies which integrate fields of knowledge with the experience of their application.


Crisis impacts differentially and magnifies class, ethnicity, wealth, disability, gender and geographical inequalities. These widening gaps cannot be overcome with a bit of ‘catching up’ of ‘lost learning’. We need to address deeper causes rather than surface symptoms.

We can’t assume that everything done in education’s name is positive and liberating. The social hierarchies, market-competitive pressures, sorting, selecting and segregating roles of the English system serve to drive inequality. Simply doing more of that will only widen the gaps.

We need to make crisis our teacher, to understand its reality and its dynamics. Will it be used to consolidate existing power structures or to challenge them and broaden the scope of democracy and emancipation? We should aspire to the progressive, holistic, engaged pedagogy which bell hooks advocates. This sees the classroom as a radical space of possibility where we go beyond boundaries, rethink and create new visions.


Education can contribute to a socially just recovery, but not as it is currently organized. Our incoherent patchwork of markets and hierarchies needs to be reshaped as a new democratic Public Education Service for England bringing together all public sector education provision and placing it at the service of everyone.

In Hannah Arendt’s words we need to ‘decide whether we love the world enough to take responsibility for it’. Rather than individual resilience we need the collective social resilience of the learning community; a resilience of solidarity – informed, organised and determined.

So, starting from where we are, how do we develop the content, practices and structures for an education which can help us survive?

Based on a presentation given at the Birmingham City University CSPACE Conference “1000 Little Fires” on 5 July 2022. The original blog is available here.

See also:

A political education. Why political literacy? (May 2022)

Redistribution and recognition should go hand in hand. (Apr 2022)

Owning our crises (Mar 2022)

Finding our voice in a crisis. (Jan 2022)

The promise of a National Education Service (Jan 2019)

A global crisis requires a global politics (Mar 2017)

Illustration: Project For Progress (1924) by El Lissitzky

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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2 Responses to Education, social justice and survival in a time of crisis.

  1. nivekd says:

    Thanks, Eddie. Excellent and thought-provoking as ever. What times!
    Good to see some fundamental (revolutionary?!) solutions being suggested. Truly we are living through disaster capitalism. Naomi Klein’s ‘Shock Doctrine’ has suggested current crises (she cited Covid) are perfect cover for the powerful to further engorge themselves. On a personal level they can always fly over the flames and hire the medics and erect their stockades, while their system conflagrates the rest of our world.
    The war on Ukraine is yet another opportunity to pursue the agenda, hacking at the communal, the utilities and public services, to apparently ‘pay for it’ when simply using the mythical metaphor of state = household to disguise the transfer of assets from the exploited to their exploiters.
    The war itself makes us think back to ideas being formulated 50-60 years ago, such as
    How can we secure your “Public Education Service for England bringing together all public sector education provision and placing it at the service of everyone” when the university mission has been corrupted, and when a private entitled school and employment system operates alongside and simultaneously subverts?
    The current welcome rash of strikes seems to me to differ from many in my lifetime in that activists (eg in the RMT and Unite) are able to raise important economic and social issues alongside arguments for decency in pay and conditions. The fundamental questions raised (eg why should FTSE 100 profits rise 73% in three years and expect to continue, while denying above inflation increases for nurses and train safety staff? eg In what way does a rise in universal credit or teachers’ pay cause inflation, yet profits, rents don’t?) clearly rattle many TV interviewers, let alone Tory MPs.
    As you tell, I’m thinking out loud – so thanks for offering a safe space to do so.
    All the best.
    Stay cool.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I agree, Kevin. I guess the short answer is to include a Green New Deal and a National Education Service in the policies we campaign for, as well as a wealth tax, basic income, living wage and a fully funded public health and care service. Surely fairly modest demands for starters.

      Liked by 1 person

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