Beyond Educated Ignorance: A Conversation with Eli Meyerhoff

ELI MEYERHOFF is a visiting scholar at Duke University’s John Hope Franklin Humanities Institute and the program coordinator of the Social Movements Lab. He earned a PhD in political science from the University of Minnesota. In Beyond Education: Radical Studying for Another World (University of Minnesota Press, 2019), Meyerhoff exposes the predominant mode of study, education, for being a colonial-capitalist institution while also (re)thinking higher education as topography of intersectional political struggles rooted in alternative modes of studying and world-making.


M. BUNA: Beyond Education conveys a clearly outlined critique that arrays education as part of the creation of the preconditions for capitalist relations (“primitive accumulation”), but also as just one mode of study among (and parasitic upon) many alternative ones. How did education become the dominant mode of studying in the first place, and why is it essential to see it as a specific narrative ultimately “unworthy of romance”?

ELI MEYERHOFF: Education has been presented as if it is the best and only option for studying. Against the grain, my book takes aim at the romance of education. I contend that education is one possible mode of study among many alternatives, such as studying embedded with social movements like Black Lives Matter or in Native American people’s cultures of grounded relationships with the land. I show how key elements of the education-based mode of study — a vertical trajectory of individualized development, an ideology of “education” as a technique of governance, a pedagogy of emotional credits and debts, and a narrative of the “school dropout problem” — emerged from contingent histories of struggles in opposition to alternative modes of studying and world-making. These arguments have particular relevance for people involved in social movements, which often frame education as part of solutions to the problems of capitalism. My book puts this assumption into question by showing how education was key to the emergence and spread of capitalism while intersecting with other practices, including colonialism, patriarchal oppression of women, and the violence of enclosures that composed the preconditions of capitalism.

You contend that “an epistemology of ignorance is a way of knowing what not to know in order to maintain some dominant way of being in the world, whether white supremacy, colonialism, patriarchy, capitalism,” while advancing the notion of “modes of study” as a way to reveal how an unequal, racially segregated education system erases outlooks from people sidelined as collateral. What does this notion call and allow for?

I see the concept of “modes of study” as an antidote to what I call “an epistemology of educated ignorance” (a concept inspired by W. E. B. Du Bois’s Darkwater). The latter is a set of belief-forming practices that create systematic ignorance about the oppressive features of education, both in itself and in its complementary relations with capitalism, patriarchy, colonialism, and white supremacy. Two examples that I dissect in the book are romance narratives about education — stories of a heroic individual climbing the educational ladder, overcoming obstacles along the way toward the good life, and narratives about “crises” in the K–12 and higher education systems. The romance and crisis narratives complement each other. Crisis narratives frame a moral distinction between past and future by asking where we went wrong. They anoint crisis managers with the responsibility to manage people’s ambivalent relations to education through their expertise. The romantic story of education legitimates the crisis managers’ expert credentials, as potential heroes made rational and moral through education. The circularity of these romance and crisis narratives allows for perpetual distraction from the contradictions of capitalist modernity. “Modes of study” is a conceptual tool to help us unsubscribe from the narratives that make up our educated ignorance. By seeing education as one mode of study among alternative possibilities, we can deromanticize and denaturalize it. This offers a counter-measure to crisis narratives that frame the impasse around the politics of higher education as analytical and moral questions that could be resolved through rational debate and persuasion, particularly from an expert position. Assuming such a position has depoliticizing effects because it forecloses consideration of how one’s own position is implicated in producing the problems. Instead, we should see the impasse of higher education as rooted in political questions about conflicts between alternative world-making projects and their associated modes of study.

Among various narratives scaffolding the making of liberal-capitalist modernity and its prescribed, productivist expertise, the dropout one is of particular use, especially as a depoliticizing crisis-management tool that enables the sanctioned expansion of mass higher education. What are the (in)visible implications of having a school non-completer framed as a dropout?

I became interested in this narrative of “the dropout” when I was going through a tough time in grad school and somebody asked me if I was dropping out. I wasn’t, but this question sparked a line of inquiry. Why was I seen as “dropping out” when I felt like I was being pushed out? When my grad student friend committed suicide earlier that year, was that “dropping out”? Would it be better to drop out than to struggle as a precarious academic? Why did kids who were pushed out of inner-city schools get stigmatized as dropouts? Grappling with these questions motivated my research on education. Seeing the discourse of “the dropout” as a key element of the education-based mode of study, I wanted to understand its historical roots and political effects.

I found that the origins of the “school dropout problem” narrative in the United States lie in the early 1960s, when the liberal establishment faced threats from the left, the right, and migrants’ alternative modes of world-making. In response, the liberal-capitalists created colorblind institutions that focused on what they called “urban problems,” which included the “dropout problem,” a narrative promoted particularly by the Ford Foundation and the National Education Association. They avoided tackling racism by focusing instead on the deracialized figure of “the migrant,” who was denigrated as “culturally deprived.” The “dropout problem” narrative was opposed to alternative framings of “urban problems,” such as critiques of structural racism from the Civil Rights movement. Narratives surrounding the dropout include imagined “vertical life trajectories” tied with an emotional economy, contending that life as a dropout produces shame and anxiety, while imagining rising up as a graduate produces pride. Thereby, the dropout problem creates a terrain of intervention for liberal-capitalist governance that is framed as an individualized process of disposal and salvaging. The Ford Foundation’s dropout project dovetailed in the 1960s, with their promotion of an end to free tuition and commodification of higher education. With the rise of (neo)liberal versions of multiculturalism from the 1970s through the 1990s, the “culturally deprived” framing of dropouts was replaced by “non-cultural” descriptions, such as “educationally disadvantaged” and “at risk.” But the “dropout crisis” narrative continues to focus on governance of individual-school-community-family relations while diverting attention from structural racism.

The late-14th-century group the Sisters and Brothers of the Common Life initiated an alternative to the horizontalist, more egalitarian ways of studying promoted by the beguines. How did grade levels convert into the narrative of “spiritual ascent” that exploited pupils’ bodies as “commons” for the creation of capitalism’s preconditions?

During the disordering time of the Black Plague, the Sisters and Brothers of the Common Life found a way to create order by splitting their schools into graded levels, which helped teachers better manage and surveil the students. They also narrated an imaginary of individualized “spiritual ascent” up the levels of the school, which provided an ideological mechanism for maintaining order and preventing subversive relationships among the students across classes and ages. For this history, I took inspiration from Silvia Federici’s analysis of how the repression of women, such as with the witch hunts, has been part of the foundational and ongoing conditions for capitalism. I show how this patriarchal repression was interrelated with the rise of level-divided schools, as cross-class compromises that countered anti-feudal struggles. In addition to the Sisters and Brothers’ dividing their schools with levels, they also excluded girls and only included boys. The interrelated effects of these divisions were part of capitalism’s preconditions, as they increased differences within the working class, and created new relations of separation between individualized producers and the means of production. The imaginary of “spiritual ascent” up the school levels shapes an idealized self, while the body is treated as a commons of labor power for capitalist exploitation.

Arguably, institutions of education were constructed as a counterrevolutionary measure to suppress collaboration across age, class, and gender as potentially subversive of dominant hierarchies — “learning against learning” assembled the character of the educated individual as opposed to “Othered” imagined forms (the barbarian, the witch, the vagabond, the criminal) and a guarantor of civility and stability of the state. What new canons are invested in such previous figures “of waste” and deployed in the production of obedient, governable subjects through educational control?

The term “education” emerged in 1530s England in reaction to rebellions that pushed King Henry VIII’s regime into crisis. The king’s advisors found a narrative solution in the political technology of “education” coupled with binary figures: they framed themselves as “hardworking” and with “good education” in contrast to “idle” people, especially the rebels with “bad education.” A foundational theorist of liberal capitalism, John Locke, developed this education-based mode of study coupled with the pedagogy of self-formation based on an emotional economy of shame, pride, fear, and anxiety. When coupled with figures of Others in contrast with the self formed through education, this pedagogy creates a system of credits and debts that teachers can use to suppress subversive collaborations across class, gender, age, and race. This pedagogical mode of accounting becomes institutionalized in the practices of graded exams and courses that are second-nature for us today. Grades first emerged at Yale University in the 1780s as a disciplinary counter to rebellious students. In response to people’s further attempts to take control of resources for studying, the ruling classes have responded with further educational techniques to prevent “contaminating” collaborations across socio-geographic divisions including segregations between and within schools, and across levels of “lower” and “higher” education. Building on previous “waste” figures, education’s new figures of “waste” have included the truant, the delinquent, the school dropout, and, more recently, the at-risk youth and the college dropout. Coupled with the ascending imaginary of education’s levels, these figures provide imagined forms around which the affective relations of education can coalesce.

Alternatives to the education-based mode of study that continued various resistance movements include experimental colleges, free schools, and anarchist education, even unschooling and deschooling. Which are the modes of (un)learning you’re most engaged with? 

My book’s most important insight for resistance movements is that we shouldn’t abandon the dominant educational institutions of schools, colleges, and universities. Instead, we should see them as terrains of struggle over resources for studying. Simultaneously, we must denaturalize the dominance of the world-making project of liberal-capitalist modernity, to see it as contingent on the outcomes of particular historical struggles with alternative world-making projects, and thus, as open to disruption, resistance, and change. To offer avenues for putting alternative modes of study into practice in the present, my book includes reflection on my several years of participation in an anarchistic infrastructure for studying called the Experimental College of the Twin Cities. More recently, I have been engaged in studying embedded with movement organizing for prison abolition, as well as with projects that attempt to appropriate the resources of higher education institutions for studying tied with multiple, intersecting movements within, against, and beyond universities (i.e., with Abolition: A Journal of Insurgent Politics).

As your work gestures to the possibilities encompassed by an anti- and alter-university as counteraction to a higher education perpetuating colonial, white-supremacist, and heteropatriarchal capitalism, you bring forth the concept of the abolition university — how would its architecture present itself in terms of resources and relationships between people studying and thus creating new, active ways of world-building and fighting? 

The concept of “abolition university” is inspired by W. E. B. Du Bois’s concept of “abolition democracy” in his Black Reconstruction, as well as Angela Davis’s reworking of this concept in relation to the prison abolition movement (in Abolition Democracy: Beyond Empire, Prisons, and Torture). I’m developing this concept of “abolition university” in collaboration with many others, especially for an upcoming conference called “Whose Crisis? Whose University? Abolitionist Study in and Beyond Global Higher Education,” which I’m co-organizing with Abbie Boggs, Wahneema Lubiano, Nick Mitchell, and Zach Schwartz-Weinstein (see Questions of how to envision and enact an “abolition university” will be the focus of this event. To lay the groundwork for such conversations, we are developing an “abolitionist university studies” in contrast with the “critical university studies” that has become popular in academia lately. We break from the latter’s allegiance to narratives of a “crisis in higher education” that betray nostalgia for a “Golden Age” of the postwar public university. Instead, we show how mid-20th-century university expansion relied on projects of accumulation, by absorbing new populations and land, and creating new links with the military and corporations. We trace the continuities of these modes of accumulation with the US academy’s foundational projects of accumulation in settler-colonial, white-supremacist capitalism (building on recent research, i.e., Craig Steven Wilder’s Ebony and Ivy and the “Universities Studying Slavery” consortium). For an alternative periodization, we contend that an abolitionist university studies should start with the post-slavery university. Rather than assuming that slavery was abolished, this concept points to the unfinished work of the abolition movement, and highlights the afterlives of slavery. In the post–Civil War period, institutions of higher education, in concert with a wider counterrevolution of capital, developed new ways of understanding themselves and deployed new educational techniques that perpetuated racial-colonial capitalism. Complementing these critical perspectives, an abolitionist university studies aims to build an abolition university in collaboration with movements, such as student-worker coalitions and the Movement for Black Lives on campuses that are dismantling universities’ complicities with the afterlives of slavery, and enacting alternative modes of study and world-making.


M. Buna is a freelance writer.