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  • Place-Based Pedagogy for the Arts and Humanities
  • Eric L. Ball (bio) and Alice Lai (bio)

My own education speaks in me with contradictory voices. . . . The books I live by, the teachers I honor, and the friends I seek are ones that return me to the creation with new awareness and respect.

—Scott Russell Sanders, Writing from the Center

I can recall here my own frustrated efforts to educate young working-class girls by introducing them to literature that I thought would foster a kind of young version of class consciousness. Literature about girls like them—girls with decaying teeth, with fathers who sometimes drank too much with the pressure of being out of work—spoke more to my preconceived notions of "equity" and "empowerment" than the cultural and symbolic worlds of the girls themselves. It wasn't until I learned to open my pedagogical imagination to the girls' literary worlds, which for them hinged around popular fiction (notably horror films and related series paperbacks) that I stood even the smallest chance of creating an educational experience.

—Deborah Hicks, "Labor Histories"

In this article, we review and critique scholarship on place-based education in order to consider the ingredients of a critical place-based pedagogy for the arts and humanities. In addition to teaching the local, this pedagogy listens to the locals by paying close attention to local students' interests and by examining texts, artifacts, and performances of local cultural production, and it [End Page 261] empowers the local by legitimating local cultural production as literature and art. We argue that such a radically place-based pedagogy responds to the key insights and most obvious shortcomings of ecohumanist and critical pedagogies of place, while confronting the marginalizing effects on place(s) of the spatial politics of culture.

We begin by reviewing ecohumanism's call for a more locally responsive education in light of the marginalization of place and community. Then, we examine spatialized critical pedagogy's refinement of ecohumanist place-based education by putting greater emphasis on power, politics, and difference. We follow this with a discussion of the practical limitations of both ecohumanist and critical pedagogical approaches. Namely, we contend that their respective goals of fostering the common good and socioecological transformation through political engagement should be tempered by sensitivity to some students' indifference to the local and their resistance to transformative political pedagogies. We suggest that one way this can be accomplished is through the more radically place-based pedagogy practiced by some educators in the arts and humanities. The immediate focus of such pedagogy is taken to emerge dialogically between the particular interests of local students and the objectives of the educator, and it centers on consideration of the texts, artifacts, and performances of local cultural production. Finally, we argue that place-based educators in the arts and humanities should not only include the materials of local cultural production but also legitimate these as literature and art, in order to confront the politics of space in these discourses that privilege the (trans)national at the expense of place(s).

Ecohumanism and Education for Place(s)

In many ways, the call for rethinking or reforming education to better serve the social and ecological well-being of particular places emerged in the latter third of the twentieth century from an ecologized humanist tradition that allied itself with communitarian and civic humanist strands of the Enlightenment that were opposed to individualistic liberal theory (Harvey 1996: 125; Vitek 1996: 2). Perhaps the quintessential representative of this ecohumanist tradition has been Kentucky farmer and author Wendell Berry, an outspoken intellectual proponent of a place-based approach to social and ecological recovery and sustainability in the United States (for example, Berry 1972 [1970], 1977, 1987, 1990, 1993 [1992]). Unlike some of his allies, Berry makes no bones about the fact that the success of such a project requires dealing head on with the powerful social and political interests that have been reaping the benefits of a way of life that remains apathetic or oblivious to its effects [End Page 262] on local communities and ecosystems: "Everywhere, every day, local life is being discomforted, disrupted, endangered, or destroyed by powerful people who live, or...


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pp. 261-287
Launched on MUSE
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