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    Utopia: An imaginative, critical and
    playful dialogue on the meaning
    and practice of contemporary
    ARTICLE · MAY 2015
    DOI: 10.1177/2042753015571039


    2 AUTHORS:
    Michael T. Hayes
    University of Hawai'i System

    Matthew T. Marino
    University of Central Florida

    Available from: Matthew T. Marino
    Retrieved on: 18 November 2015


    Utopia: An imaginative,
    critical and playful dialogue on
    the meaning and practice of
    contemporary education

    E-Learning and Digital Media
    2015, Vol. 12(3-4) 327–342
    ! The Author(s) 2015
    Reprints and permissions:
    DOI: 10.1177/2042753015571039

    Michael T Hayes
    University of Hawai’i at West O’ahu, USA

    Matthew Marino
    University of Central Florida, USA

    In this article the authors re-examine Sir Thomas More’s classic book Utopia as a potential source
    of ideas and concepts for examining, understanding and imagining contemporary education. Too
    often the concept utopia is used to criticize an idea, perspective or image as offering a simplistic
    solution to a complex problem, or, at its worst, as a model that all must be forced to accept. In
    our rereading of Utopia we suggest that the book and the concept can be best understood as an
    imaginative, critical and playful dialogue. When applied to the field of education utopia offers the
    potential for reimagining how we engage with and conceptualize educational theory and practice.

    Utopia, imagination, education, philosophy

    The year 2016 will mark the 500th anniversary of the publication of Thomas More’s Utopia.
    This landmark is an opportunity to carefully consider the role of utopia as a concept that
    informs various aspects of educational thought and practice. Utopia is one of the most
    recognizable books in the pantheon of English literature and was the opening for an
    entire mode of thinking. However, history has not been kind to this idea and over the
    centuries utopia and utopianism has gained the status of epithet. To be called utopian or
    engaging in utopianism is to be considered naive at best or diabolical at worst (Nozick,
    1974). The worst dictators of our age were said to have utopian visions of a paradise that
    society was to be forced to work towards. Hitler’s Third Reich was to be an Arian utopia of
    Corresponding author:
    Michael T Hayes, University of Hawai’i West O’ahu, HI 96707, USA.
    Email: mthayes@hawaii.edu

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    E-Learning and Digital Media 12(3-4)

    racial purity, and Pol Pot was intent on murdering his way to an agrarian Utopia. Despots
    typically seem motivated by their own narcissistic image of a future society to which all must
    be forced. Utopia has become associated with a form of externally imposed social engineering where everyone must conform to an individual’s singular vision of what the world can
    and should be.
    It is not clear how or why Thomas More’s original work could have been transformed
    into such a troubling mode of thinking and imagining. A thoughtful reading and analysis of
    the book and related scholarship would quickly discourage the reader from thinking of
    utopia and utopianism in such a problematic manner. In this article we will engage in
    such a reading of Utopia in an effort to resuscitate it as a form of thinking and imagining
    that is valuable to educational philosophy, theory and research. A full examination of
    More’s work reveals a number of ideas, images and metaphors that can be organized into
    a mode of thinking that is valuable to the field of education.
    Utopia was originally published in 1516 under the editorship of the revered humanist
    Erasmus. At the time of writing and publishing Utopia, More was the under sheriff of
    London; however, in 1535 he was beheaded for refusing to acknowledge Henry VIII as
    the Supreme Head of the Church of England. In 1935 he was canonized by Pope Pius XI
    and earned the title Saint Thomas More. Like his good friend Erasmus, More was a leading
    humanist of the time and argued for the virtues of a simple life of kindness and good deeds.
    Utopia represents his attempt to critique the social problems of his time and propose possible
    solutions that were based in a humanist philosophy (Skinner, 1987).
    Our reading of Utopia takes into consideration More’s personal philosophy, ethical commitments and the intellectual climate of his time. Utopia was not written as a description or a
    plan but as a dialogue. More was consciously mimicking the writing style of dialogue as
    found in the writings of the ancient Greek scholar Plato. In the early 16th-century the Greek
    intellectual tradition, particularly that of Aristotle, dominated and scholarship was more
    literary, philosophical and poetic. It was not until later in that century that the very idea of
    modern science emerged when Copernicus challenged the reigning earth-centric model of the
    universe with his heliocentric model, and scholarship became more factual and prosaic
    (Foucault, 1970). When More’s original intent and purpose for his book are considered
    along with the time period, the intellectual climate and the style in which it is written, the
    concept of utopia acquires a very different significance especially for the current state of
    educational technology and digital media.
    While our intention in this article is to rethink utopia and its application in computermediated education, the prevailing use of utopian imagery in educational discourse relies on
    the more colloquial and troubling use of this concept. David Tyack and Larry Cuban (1997)
    drew upon a common understanding of utopia to examine the history of school reform in
    Tinkering toward Utopia: A century of public school reform. They suggest that utopian
    thinking, defined as either ‘‘pie-in-the-sky’’ or ‘‘visionary’’, was central to the discourse of
    school reform. Moreover, early protestant reformers were inspired by utopian visions to
    reform schooling in an effort to make the US into ‘‘God’s country’’. Whether visionary or
    impossible, Utopia as the target for some desired future has often framed how reformers
    thought about the purpose and goals of schooling.
    If we turn more specifically to contemporary ideals concerning the role of computer
    technology in education, a similar mode of thinking is evident. There has always been
    something of a utopian impulse when it comes to the use of computer technology in education. Ivan Illich (1970) proposed a new form of education in which a renewed educational

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    Hayes and Marino


    institution could be formed around a series of computers that are linked and communicated
    with each other. The purpose was to deschool society and reconstitute education as the quest
    for freedom and liberty. While the internet was still some distance off, his imaginative
    proposal for the use of computers in education is clearly utopian. As the use of computer
    technology in schools has skyrocketed since Illich’s time, so have their uses changed.
    Ushering in the latest ‘‘innovation’’ in educational computing, Apple Computers has
    touted the iPad as ‘‘transforming the way we teach and learn’’. The company has created
    a virtual universe of dynamic imagery to spread its utopian vision (Apple Corporation, n.d.).
    The utopian image of computer technology in education extends to teaching and learning
    that occurs on the internet. The rise of the MOOC (Massive Open Online Courses) as a form
    of e-learning has Time Magazine (2013) touting it as ‘‘the ivy league for the masses’’
    (Meacham, 2013), and which Mike Rose (2014) dubs a utopian vision for education.
    MOOCs are a variation of ubiquitous or ‘‘anytime, anywhere’’ learning that hail a
    coming transformation for the scope, purpose and geography of education that will ‘‘blur
    the traditional institutional, spatial and temporal boundaries of education’’ (Cope and
    Kalantzis, 2009, p. 9). These are grand visions that promise a transformational and visionary
    potential for education.
    These historical and contemporary uses of utopia in educational scholarship use a colloquial form of the concept that suggests a preconstructed image that is deemed worth working
    towards. This conception of utopia in education primarily serves the interests of the powerful who have the resources to make their ideas and visions the ones that are the most valued
    or accepted as natural and unquestioned (cf. Apple, 1979). Michael Peters (2010) warns that
    e-learning, far from fulfilling its utopian promise, exists within the context of contemporary
    digital capitalism that generates a corporate and consumer mentality. Our understanding of
    utopia in education is much more critical, humanistic and playful and favors dialogue and
    openness over the oppressive normative conditions of a corporate imagination.

    Utopia as dialogue
    An analysis of Thomas More’s classic work must begin with the style in which it is written, as
    this is the foundation through which all other aspects of the text emerge. It should be noted
    that Utopia was not written in the style of an exegesis or a treatise and should not be
    considered an authoritative explanation or description of a place. Utopia was written as a
    dialogue between More and the fictional character of Raphael Hythloday. We come to know
    of Utopia only through this character, and how he describes to More his travels to the land
    of Utopia.
    A dialogue is a style of writing in which the main ideas are shared among the participants
    in the conversation. Dialogue is Greek for through (dia) reason (logos). It is important to
    note that dialogue always refers to a conversation between two or more people; thus, the
    notion of ‘‘through’’ is a reference to the process of creating a shared understanding among
    the participants. In a book such as Utopia, the reader of the text is invited as a third
    participant into the dialogue by working through their own reasoning and drawing their
    own conclusions in the context of the dialogue they are reading.
    In a dialogue the author refrains from stating or proposing facts or truths. All ideas are
    provisional and open for challenge, or even ridicule, by other characters in the dialogue.
    While these challenges may be a superficial confrontation intended to make the author’s
    intentions seem even stronger, they remain a potential threat to the ultimate authority of one

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    E-Learning and Digital Media 12(3-4)

    character or one idea. Consequently, the ideas presented in a dialogue are unstable, constantly shifting in the process of formation and reformation. Clarence Miller, who wrote the
    forward for this edition of Utopia, states that the book was written as ‘‘a dialogue with an
    indeterminate close’’ (p.44). Ideas and information are transformed through a special kind of
    dialogue, a conversation in which ‘‘facts appear only to be resolved once more into the
    possibilities from which they are made; certainties are shown to be combustible’’
    (Oakeshott, 1959: 198).
    A second kind of dialogue befitting utopia is teleopoiesis. The term was coined by Jacque
    Derrida to reference a conversation that has an effect on that which is at a spatial or
    temporal distance (Spivak, 2001). Utopia is teleopoetic as it constitutes a dialogue with a
    place that does not exist and could only exist at some possible moment in the future or in
    another topography. Utopia is as much a conversation with people who live in England and
    Europe in the early part of the 16th century, as it is a conversation with people around the
    world in the early 21st century. We treat utopia as a concept situated in More’s particular
    time and place while at the same time transcending it to offer possibilities for contemporary
    society. Utopia is a set of images that were intentionally inserted into a risky dialogue with
    the future; one without guarantees. The intent was to have some possible effect on the space
    that was not yet but will inevitably become. As an interaction with a space and time not yet,
    it is unclear what direction the images, words or deeds from the present will take in some
    undefined future. It is the sharing of ideas across space and time, and it is the possibility that
    those ideas will have a positive impact on the state of the planet that drives the purpose of
    dialogue. They become fragments offered as gifts to a conversation (Graeber, 2004).
    In the book Utopia, dialogue is the generative milieu through which the reader comes to
    understand and develop a vision of the place called Utopia. As such, the foundation of
    utopia is the sharing of gifts that are indeterminate, risky and combustible. When applied to
    online education or digital media, dialogue will serve a similar function as the fertile seedbed
    through which education comes to be. How we are thinking of dialogue shares some elements with Foucault’s discourse. For Foucault, discourse is the set of linguistic technologies
    through which social objects are shaped and emerge into being (Foucault, 1972). A discourse
    is a technology of power with authoritarian consequences that foreclose the object and deny
    engagement. If we can imagine for a moment that a discourse can be replaced with the
    linguistic technology of dialogue the object of attention, in this case computer-mediated
    teaching, learning and digital media, acquires shared, uncertain and precarious aspects.
    From within and through dialogue education has the potential to be shaped, molded and
    to emerge as a shared, creative and generative activity.

    Utopia as critique
    What was Thomas More’s purpose in writing Utopia? A commonly accepted interpretation
    is that More was proposing the contours of a society that he held as desirable and worthy of
    efforts to move towards. This has become the colloquial use of the term. However, this
    interpretation does not hold up under an examination of the context in which More produced his book. It is much more reasonable to assume that More wrote Utopia as a critique
    of what he saw as the intellectual direction of contemporary European social life and
    A robust debate in the early 16th century involved the form of government employed and
    valued in Europe. Eric Nelson (2001) suggests that Utopia was More’s creative rejection of

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    the Neo-roman civic thought of the day. According to Nelson, Neo Roman ideals define
    liberty as the absence of domination and characterized by ‘‘an imperative to do no harm, and
    respect private property’’ (p.892). More set out to completely reject this idea by constructing
    Utopia on the model of Greek ethical life in which, ‘‘The purpose of civic life. . .is happiness
    defined as human fulfillment through contemplation’’ (p.893). According to Nelson, this can
    be specifically found in the Utopian’s rejection of private property.
    The narrator of Utopia, Raphael Hythloday, is clear that the primary virtue of Utopia
    is the absence of private property. Private property, he argues, reduces human nature to
    the quest for individual private welfare. The abolishment of private property directs
    humans to work for the welfare of everyone. Hythloday states, ‘‘where there is no private
    property everyone works seriously for the public good’’ (p.56). The ultimate purpose of
    not having private property and focusing on public welfare is to produce a life that is
    joyful and without anxiety and worry, ‘‘For what greater wealth can there be than to be
    spared any anxiety and to live with a joyful and tranquil mind, with no worries about
    making a living’’ (p.196).
    Utopia was a critique of More’s contemporary society. Situated in the dialogue through
    which Utopia is written, his critique is sometimes direct and literal and at others evocative.
    By imaginatively generating the strange world devoid of private property, More is inviting a
    comparison to his contemporary society. The critique is fostered as the images of Utopia
    relayed by Hythloday bring the reader into an intentional conversation, in which the imagined geography of Utopia is placed into contradistinction with the world they currently
    Critique, as it is employed in Utopia, does not necessarily mean the kind of direct
    criticism that is based in authoritarian discourses. The form of critique that emerges
    from Utopia is conducted from within the generation of an alternative vision of schooling.
    Contemporary examples of such critique include the critical pedagogy of Paulo Freire
    (1972), the democratic education of John Dewey (1916) or Nel Noddings’ (1984) feminist
    ethic of care. In each of these examples, the overarching focus is the development of an
    alternative vision and image of what education could be that then serves as the basis for a
    critique of the system as it currently exists. As with Utopia, the critique can be directly
    stated from within the alternative vision, or the alternative vision can stand as the critique
    The work of Paulo Freire is one of the best examples of how critique can be guided by a
    utopian vision of education. Sacadura (2014) suggests that a pedagogy based in Freire’s
    work can only be conducted through a ‘‘sense of utopia, dream and imagination’’ (italics are
    from the original) (p.503). Critical pedagogy must also be an anticipation of the future that
    emerges from our dreams of a possible space and time (Shor and Freire, 1987). Much like the
    conception of Utopia we are arguing for here, Freire requires an imaginative and critical
    engagement with the work so that