It is a truism for progressive education practitioners that education does not occur in a vacuum. Justice-oriented pedagogy recognizes that context matters, and there is no serious theory of education that disputes this foundational assumption of pedagogical theory and practice. After all, no student can learn at their full capacity if they lack food security, adequate housing, or physical safety in school. Considering these scenarios contextualizes education and learning matters on both the micro-level of individual students and the macro-level of education policy. The confluence of factors that influence the daily education of students scales up to a complex array of forces acting on institutions of schooling. There is obviously a connection between the systemic biases faced by students of color and the broader racial achievement gap in education, but this connection is hazier than much of the research based on education and pedagogy would often like to acknowledge. After all, the criterion for research being labeled “evidence-based” is whether or not the research can adequately show discrete causality of one factor unilaterally influencing another factor. This is an understandable criterion for the social sciences, considering that they are operating through an empirical, positivist framework. However, this framework and its accompanying discursive toolbox is inadequate for justice-oriented pedagogical research because it often relies on putting variables into a vacuum. While empirical research should not be abandoned, considering that social scientific research undoubtedly benefits the field of education and the lives of students, educational scholar-practitioners should expand their theoretical framework and discursive toolbox to more fully account for the broader context in which learning takes place. An informal epistemology and discourse of networks offers a promising heuristic for understanding educational contexts on all levels.
Networked ontologies understand the world as an interconnected mesh of nodes, rather than atomized bodies. While networks can be understood as an ontological structure, this structure can be split into two different operations on the basis of their technics, or uses. Networks can thus be understood as an apparatus when they operate as static, while fluid networks can be understood as assemblages. Deleuzian philosopher Manuel DeLanda helps delineate the difference between apparatuses/stratum and assemblages as he writes:
Deleuze and Guattari distinguish between different kinds of social wholes: strata and assemblages. The State is classified by them as a stratum. A tightly knit community, with its capacity to police its members and punish violations of local norms, would also be a stratum. But an alliance of several communities, such as those involved in a social justice movement, would be considered an assemblage. (18)
The social whole’s ontological structure is a network, but it can be a stratum/apparatus or assemblage based on its technics or operation. While one might agree or disagree that a network ontology is a correct characterization of reality, it is nonetheless useful as a heuristic for understanding how forces affect one another. Using networks as a heuristic does not create a rigorous epistemology, but rather serves as an informal way of understanding the world, and as such can be understood as an informal epistemology.
The problem with using traditional causality as the sole way of understanding factors influencing education is that traditional causality posits forces as discrete entities, rather than interrelated entities that cannot be fully disentangled with other forces. A student’s food insecurity might affect their ability to learn, but this food security is not a discrete cause for the student’s achievement gap because their food insecurity is itself caused by a confluence of other societal factors that may also be influencing that student’s ability to learn. Students certainly have agency, and it is important to acknowledge and support their agency, but educators must also take into account the entirety of the environment when teaching students, as John Dewey aptly puts, “The very existence of the social medium in which an individual lives, moves, and has his being is the standing effective agency of directing his activity. [...] There is not, in fact, any such thing as the direct influence of one human being on another apart from use of the physical environment as an intermediary” (33). One can understand Dewey’s social medium as the social field discussed by Deleuze and Guattari, and therefore one can understand the field of education as a network that can operate as static or fluid. The network of education oscillates between being an apparatus and an assemblage depending on the tractability of different nodes in the network. The entire network is never completely static or fluid, but rather contains both simultaneously as different parts of the network oscillate between being an apparatus and an assemblage. For example, school start times are typically an intractable part of education, and thus operate as a static apparatus. On the other hand, daily lesson plans are much more tractable, and are therefore better understood as an assemblage. Both of these contribute to the overall network of education, which is itself interwoven with other networks in the social field.
Another consequence of using networks as a heuristic for justice-oriented pedagogy is that it allows for a discourse of distributive agency and causality, rather than discrete agency and causality. Political theorist Jane Bennett explores the potential of a distributive notion of causality and agency while discussing the nature of assemblages, which she defines as “ad hoc groupings of diverse elements, of vibrant material of all sorts” (23). The vibrancy of these groupings lends to their fluidity, and thus their operation as an assemblage. The various actants in an assemblage, or any network for that matter, means that finding a discrete causal link is nearly impossible in many instances, or at least with any degree of certainty. On the interconnection of actants in an assemblage, Bennett writes, “an actant never really acts alone. Its efficacy or agency always depends on the collaboration, cooperation, or interactive interference of many bodies and forces” (21). This means that both causality and agency in networks are more distributive than discrete or direct, because one force never acts on another force in a network without that action being influenced by a multitude of other forces.
Although the heuristic of a network has fairly obvious implications for thinking about systems of education, the implications of a networked heuristic for individual students is less obvious. Under a traditional notion of individual agency and causality, each person is an atomized moral agent who makes choices based on their unconstrained free will and unhindered moral capacity. Those actions then have a direct consequence based on the intention of the agent. The individual agent is therefore culpable for negative outcomes that result from their actions. Such a theory of individual agency has already been problematized in educational theory for well over a century, which has lead to the shared agreement that education does not occur in a vacuum, or as Dewey states, “We never educate directly, but indirectly by means of the environment” (23). If a student fails to turn in their homework, this action should not always be treated as a moral failing of an individual agent. After all, this student may be situated in a context that makes it difficult to work on homework, such as when students have to work until midnight to help support their family.
Despite the fact that progressive educators who believe in justice-oriented pedagogy strongly agree that education does not occur in a vacuum, the discourse around education and education policy does not have a lexicon for escaping the trap of individual agency and discrete casualty. Using networks as a heuristic solves this discursive problem by offering a networked epistemology for viewing problems, the conceptual delineation between apparatuses and assemblages for understanding the difference between tractable and intractable issues, and distributive agency and causality for moving beyond the problem of individual agency. Understanding students as nodes in a network whose actions are distributive rather than discrete and direct solves the problem of blaming students for “moral failings” because it undermines many instances of moral culpability, as Bennett argues, “A theory of distributive agency, in contrast, does not posit a subject as the root cause of an effect” (31), and later continues, “In a world of distributed agency, a hesitant attitude toward assigning singular blame becomes a presumptive virtue” (38). Educators should take up this presumptive virtue in order to realize the promise of recognizing that education does not occur in a vacuum.
Networks as a heuristic not only provides educators with a better understanding of how their students fit into a broader educational system, but also helps educators reconceptualize the subjectivity of their students in a way that might yield better outcomes for teaching. As previously stated, students are not atomized, individual moral agents, but rather nodes in a broader network. Bennett elaborates on what this means when she writes, “What it means to be a ‘mode,’ then, is to form alliances and enter assemblages: it is to mod(e)ify and be modified by others” (22).
In other words, students are affected and modified by other actants in the network that surrounds them. Their capacity to learn is expanded or limited based on these other forces, such as a caring teacher that expands their capacity to learn, or a limiting factor such as a classroom that is underfunded and overcrowded. The capacity of students to affect and be affected by other forces constitutes their subjectivity. DeLanda draws the Deleuze’s utilization of David Hume’s philosophy to show that a subject is an entity (or node) that emerges from its interactions and the impressions of external forces on the subject (26). Actions that become repetitive, or forces that become stuck to one another by association, congeal into a habit, which is an operation of territorialisation. A subject becomes a subject through its habitual associations and actions becoming stratified in such a way that its actions become continuous and its future actions become more predictable and stable, such that the boundaries of the subject can be understood and defined. When the subject deterritorialises it becomes open to new associations and new habits (DeLanda 27). The oscillation between a network as a static apparatus and a fluid assemblage is thus a process of de- and re- territorialisation. The subject acquires habits and becomes an apparatus, sheds those habits through de-territorialising, and thus becomes an assemblage open to the influence of forces and the acquisition of new habits. This process of territorialisation is how the oscillation between apparatus and assemblage occurs, both on the micro-level of an individual subject (node) in the context of a network, and the macro-level of networks in the social field. This conceptualization of the subject is useful for education because education is about harnessing this process of losing and acquiring habits (de- and re- territorialisation), as Dewey writes, “Education is not infrequently defined as consisting in the acquisition of those habits that effect an adjustment of an individual and his environment” (52).
Students always have habits that constitute their subjectivity prior to entering the classroom. The process of educating will ideally open them up to being affected in such a way to gain new capacities as a subject, and therefore acquire new habits (Dewey 52). Furthermore, the process of education should help students learn by teaching them to acquire a habit of thinking in networked ways, as Dewey continues:
In other words, knowledge is a perception of those connections of an object which determine its applicability in a given situation. [...] An ideally perfect knowledge would represent such a network of interconnections that any past experience would offer a point of advantage from which to get at the problem presented in a new experience. In fine, while a habit apart from knowledge supplies us with a single fixed method of attack, knowledge means that selection may be made from a much wider range of habits. (359)
Students who have developed a habit of thinking through networks will thus have a greater capacity to affect their environment and have a richer understanding of the world around them. Therefore, not only should teachers use networks as a heuristic, students should also be taught in ways that help them use networks as a heuristic for the world around them, and therefore be more capable of influencing the environment they live within. Students would be a more potent force in the world if they understood themselves as one force among many, inseparable and interwoven forces.
While social scientific research in the field of education cannot and should not fully abandon the search for causal linkages, the informal epistemologies and discourses surrounding education should be supplemented with a heuristic of networks. Realizing the full potential of education cannot occur if educational scholar-practitioners are limited by an epistemology and discourse that attempts to put education into a vacuum, which is something pedagogical theory has been trying to escape for decades. Thinking through networks will help realize the promise of justice-oriented pedagogy by allowing educators to rethink the education system, the subjectivity of students, and the process through which students become open to new ideas and acquire new habits, which is at the core of what education has to offer.
Bennett, Jane. Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Duke University Press, 2010.
DeLanda, Manuel. Assemblage Theory. Edinburgh University Press, 2016.
Dewey, John. Democracy and Education. Simon & Brown, 2012.