Building A Democratic Educational Space
upon Benjamin’s Ruins
Benjamin (1968) noted “every image of the past that is not recognized by the present as one of its own concerns threatens to disappear irretrievably” (p. 255). In The Origin of German Tragic Drama, Benjamin quoted Borinski, who pointed out ruins, whether they be the “broken pediment, the crumbling columns,” these ruins are intended to “bear witness to the miracle that the sacred edifice has withstood even the most elemental forces of destruction, lightning and earthquake” (p. 178). As a ruin, it potentially is powerless, merely an artificial, plastic medium that as monument becomes an obsolete “heritage of an antiquity which in the modern world is only…a picturesque field of ruins” (ibid). Older monuments that have fallen into various states of decay potentially become precisely that: aesthetic curiosities with little value to typical passers-by.
Although my research project was limited to Chicago, the pedagogical approach to “critically” utilizing democratic space created by public art may be applied in any educational space since every community has at least a handful of monumental public art. By stepping into their own neighborhoods, all educators may utilize their communities’ public art as a place-based instructional tool, even if they may contain worn, shattered shards of glass like those found beside Leonard Brunelle’s 1919 Monument to Richard J. Oglesby (right). Gruenewald, although taking a different theoretical approach than hooks, agreed with her analysis, reiterating the importance of place-based education and its transformative effects on not just students, but also the entire community. While it may be argued that hooks’ and Gruenewald’s pedagogical theories may in spirit reflect those overly optimistic tones of their Romantic predecessors, their suggestions carry a weight of merit.
Gruenewald (2003a) argued as students, educators and community members become more conscious of place, “pedagogy becomes more relevant to the lived experience of students and teachers, and accountability is reconceptualized so that places matter to educators, students, and citizens in tangible ways” (p. 620). Gruenewald established that by escaping the confining walls of the classroom, place-based education “aims to work against the isolation of schooling’s discourses and practices from the living world outside the increasingly placeless institution of schooling” (ibid). He added place-based curriculum “aims to enlist teachers and students in the firsthand experience of local life and in the political process of understanding and shaping what happens there” (ibid). Gruenewald also noted place-based curriculum strengthens “connections between education and the places where we, and others, live” (p. 620). Echoing, to a certain extent, Benjamin’s theories of “critical” or “monumental” analysis of text and image, Gruenewald (2003b) concluded, “Developing a critical pedagogy of place means challenging each other to read the texts of our own lives and to ask constantly what needs to be transformed and what needs to be conserved” (p. 10). For my thesis, using Chicago’s 2012 Cultural Plan as a springboard, building upon Walter Benjamin’s theory of writing “critical” allegories from the “monumental” ruins of history, and applying place-based educational premises of hooks and Gruenewald’s concepts of stepping outside confining classroom walls, I proposed that by taking students into democratic educational spaces created by public art, the entire community potentially becomes involved in transformative, critical process of meaningful education.