Voices in Education

Perceiving Learning Anew
The roots of “Perceiving Learning Anew” (Fall 2014, HER) stretch back to our work in graduate school at UCLA and our work with the Migrant Student Leadership Institute (MSLI), a summer, precollegiate program for high school–aged migrant students interested in attending college. Almost a decade after our participation, it is still a challenge to describe the dynamics of an educational setting that helped students reimagine the social world and their place in it. We remember:    
  • Migrant students breaking dormitory curfew to stay up and read “Enrique’s Journey,” a Los Angeles Times series on the international migration of children.
  • Migrant students and instructors standing in a circle atop a grassy campus field, improvising theatrical scenes rooted in the social problems of everyday life, and playing like children and thinking like philosophers.
  • A student describing the program as a place where reading and writing could be felt “en carne propia/in your own flesh” because of the intense identification with the texts and the bonds between participants.
We wondered about what the participants—young adults and older adults, authorized and unauthorized—were changing into. We marveled at the ways students used reading and writing to analyze and remake their social worlds.
Perhaps as a continuation of the MSLI experience, we began an inquiry into the origins of educational rights. We wanted to know what rights looked and sounded like before they came into existence. We imagined stars before they were stars in the sky and wondered whether you could ask the same questions about rights—those exalted social powers that traditionally came only from constitutions or divine entities. We desired an empirical and prophetic narrative that could stretch the perceptual limits of social science regarding the relationship between rights and human activity.
As ethnographers of education, we were drawn to the familiar territory of everyday life. The “historical ethnography” of Vanessa Siddle-Walker proved invaluable. We delved into the African slave narratives, especially those with vivid accounts of lettered learning. The narratives, powerful and valuable accounts of exploitation and resistance, now also appeared to us as serendipitous field notes of social interaction, philosophical commentary on the social value of learning, and precious documentation regarding what participation in educational activity meant to the persons involved. We had the sense that Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs were mentoring us from the nineteenth century.
Over the course of our research, we noticed that some of the most salient aspects of subjective
educational experience—from overt forms of exclusion/inclusion to more subtle words and gestures used to communicate a student’s perceived capabilities—were often treated as “intangible” within legal and educational discourse. Seeking to make the intangible tangible, in our essay we present an argument based upon a series of possibilities. Chief among them is the proposition that the heart of educational rights—the very idea that positive educative experience is a human entitlement irrespective of social or legal status—has come to inhere in the learning experiences of persons subjected to social degradation and humiliation.
We also began to think about dignity neither as a metaphysical essence, nor as a pacified bid for personhood, but as a socially recognized human quality and power, capable of transmuting certain kinds of learning into the raw material of rights. Further, if dignity were to help bridge the distance between everyday activity and rights, then it had to be observable. As a concept and perceivable fact of life, dignity allowed us to begin sentences in educational activity and end them in law. Our ethnographic and historical approach led us to conclude that the educational process can, in certain circumstances, be “dignity-conferring” and “rights-generative.” Owing to our MSLI experiences, we continue to be keenly curious about the power of learning to unfit individuals from subordinate social status and the ways that pivotal educational experiences can reorganize how we study and create learning environments for children, adolescents, and adults.

About the Author: Manuel Luis Espinoza is an associate professor at the University of Colorado at Denver in the School of Education & Human Development, where he works on issues of learning and civil rights. Shirin Vossoughi is an assistant professor at Northwestern University’s School of Education and Social Policy, where she draws on ethnographic methods to study the social, historical, and political dimensions of learning and educational equity.