Barbarian Education, state-evading learning and James Scott’s “Against the Grain”

Reading James C. Scott’s latest book Against the Grain: a deep history of the earliest states made me think of education and government. The following is a bit of fun really – seeing how far Scott’s argument about the development of early states could be applied to education and learning today.


James C. Scott is a political scientist who studies agrarian societies and is a part-time farmer. One of his interests – as Against the Grain and the earlier Seeing Like a State show – is how governments transform resources to make them more manageable.

Visibility and legibility are key to manageability and are recurring concepts in Scott’s writing. People, urban layouts, forestry practices, animal behaviour and grain crops are easier to manage and maximise if they can be seen and read against a background of expected uses, behaviours and growth. Legibility facilitates control and seems to offer the promise of reading the future too, of controlling what will happen. Legibility is tied to domestication – the bringing of the odd, unpatterned, irregular or ‘barbarian’, under control and making it knowable.

What does this have to do with education? I want to connect grain crops to particular kinds of contemporary learning and schooling where what counts is ‘the maximisation of learning gains’ as Masschelein and Simons (2013:139) put it. Next I want to illustrate alternatives under the heading of barbarian education which, in parallel with non-grain crops and alternative forms of living off the land, describes a form of state-evading learning. First though we need to understand what Scott thinks is so special about grains.



Only grain crops – Scott argues – provide what is necessary for settled groups of people to become states of people. The development and maintenance of a fixed government’s administrative machinery required easy-to-appropriate crop surpluses. Across the sites of the earliest states – Mesopotamia, Egypt, the Indus Valley and Yellow River – only grain could do that.

For Scott, grain is a classic ‘state crop’ because it grows above ground, making it visible and so legible to government. Also key: grains planted at the same time will ripen at the same time, in one go, (as opposed to legumes which fruit over a longer period or state-evading potatoes which can be hidden and stored underground). Grain therefore makes tax collection more efficient. It is easier to assess the size of crops and ‘archaic states endeavoured, whenever possible, to mandate a planting time for a given district’ (p. 133) so that tax collectors would know when the harvest would come, how much a given plot of land would deliver and so how much should be taxed: income and the future were (relatively) legible. But income is also more reliable because when crops ripen at the same time people can’t harvest earlier and so evade taxes, hence the development of a ‘hegemonic agrarian calendar’ (p. 128). If you’re building a state, ensuring individuals produce a taxable surplus is essential to subsidize the work of those in administrative, ruling, roles. Grain also has a ‘higher value per unit volume and weight than almost any other foodstuff, and … stores comparatively well’ (p. 134) making it efficient as a store and exchange material of value.

Finally, we should note that grain wasn’t simply a static thing. Certain features such as being easy to winnow were selected for, making it an even better state crop. Early states therefore drew on grain’s pre-existing properties and further ‘trained’ it into being a manageable resource while grain, in return, allowed humans to train themselves into government-by-state: being fixed, building walls (to keep people in just as much as invaders out), developing writing.



Scott uses ‘barbarian’ in an ironic sense: ‘“Barbarian” and its many cousins – “savage”, “wild”, “raw”, “forest people”, “hill people” – are terms invented in state centers to describe and stigmatize those who had not yet become state subjects.’

Barbarian-ness is beyond what the state can manage. Barbarians as nongrain peoples made up ‘most of the world’ and

…embodied forms of livelihood and social organization that defeated taxation: physical mobility, dispersal, variable group and community size, diverse and invisible subsistence goods, and few fixed-point resources (2017:136)

Barbarian areas include mountains, steppes, marshes and deserts, almost ‘any area that was difficult to access, illegible and trackless’ (ibid:228).

These were people who were out of reach of the state but whose greater mobility and relatively rich and free lives (compared with most of the subjects of early states) meant an existential challenge both to actual states and the concept of state itself.



Many efforts to make learning visible (and so legible and potentially maximizable) – whether in classrooms, research or in disseminating ‘what works’ – are interesting and remind me of Scott’s discussion of grain: the efforts to expose it, to make it visible, to make it more legible, but also to tame it, to extract more of it and to build an economy (political and financial) on it.

There’s an epistemological dimension to the idea of learning being visible (it regulates what counts as learning) and an ontological one (it provides an account of educational reality) that is fundamental to a lot of education and to government control so that grain-and-state and learning-and-state seem to have a lot in common. In this regard, I was struck by an interview in the TES earlier this year with Simon Lebus, the outgoing head of Cambridge Assessment (part of Cambridge University, it runs the OCR exam board in the UK and the IGCSE internationally). It wasn’t what he said (I’d worked as a curriculum and assessment developer for the same organization for a short while so understood something of the external politics) but how he said it, particularly the clarity and openness:

“The exam system is one of easiest levers available to government to make changes in the education system … Of the various institutional mechanisms available, it’s one of the lower cost means of having a pretty dramatic and powerful backwash right through the system.”

This was known, of course. But what I think is remarkable here is not government’s focus on cost reduction through exams as policy instrument but (implicitly) the open acknowledgement of what this means politically. Changes to the exam system are themselves relatively illegible being buried under detail and technical demands. In this sense, reform through exam system change avoids fuss, discussion, diversion from its aims, any distribution of political resources – it avoids democracy. Change learning by changing the assessment of learning. Change education by changing what is legible to the state and what can be extracted.

So there’s that but I also wonder about educational activities that are ‘barbarian’ – illegible to the state and outside of its control and territory. Practices that are ‘beyond the pale’: home-schooling of course, but really anything educationally that challenges what the state can see. The walls of the earliest states kept people in as much as invaders out. What potential is there for people to elect to be outside, to be ‘barbarian’. If they succeed and so are no longer part of the state, do they also threaten it? Or at least the institutions of schooling?

I don’t know but I do know that the following (short) book is helpful in exploring some partly related issues. Its refreshing and provocative and also free and downloadable here. In Defence of the School: a Public Issue by Jan Masschelein and Maarten Simons presents a case for thinking about what school is. Its aim is to ‘articulate a touchstone for a school of the future’ (p.30). Here’s a short extract from near the end:

We must experiment with ways of arranging and designing schools to create a dedicated space and time separate from that of the family, the economy and the political sphere. This should be a time and space that is not characterised by multifunctional use, permanent circulation and flexible services rendered to individuals with personal learning needs and individual learning paths geared toward maximising learning gains. But rather a time and space that stand alone and help to enable a shared interest in the world; a tranquil time and space in which one can dwell, a time and place where things can emerge in themselves and whose functionality is temporarily suspended. How might time and space appear if it were not (completely) occupied by expectations of individually-achieved gains but by a temporary suspension of those expectations allowing for the creation of shared, new interest through which a shared world can be awakened? This calls for experimentation in the design of a time and space that emphasises the ability of the world (the thing, the subject) to emerge and not one focused on the needs of individuals. (2013:139)

The book is a complement to some of the research I’ve been doing on Giancarlo De Carlo, an Italian architect and member of Team 10 who designed many schools and universities, and for whom a key step in architecture was moving beyond how to do things ‘better’:

[W]e cannot deal with problems of ‘how to’ [build schools] without first posing the problems of ‘why.’ If we were to begin discussing immediately the best way to build school buildings for contemporary society without first clarifying the reasons for which contemporary society needs school buildings, we would run the risk of taking for granted definitions and judgments which may not make sense anymore; and our speculations would turn out to be sandcastles (1969:12).

Two final links. How Grains Domesticated Us is a video of James Scott’s talk at SOAS, London which runs over the many of the issues of the book discussed above. The talk itself starts at 6.50mins. And Why did we start farming? is a very good review essay of Scott’s book in the London Review of Books.



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