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Glenn Rikowski: Critical Pedagogy and the Constitution of Capitalist Society
Glenn Rikowski: Critical Pedagogy and the Constitution of Capitalist Society
Glenn Rikowski, Senior Lecturer in Education Studies, School of Education, University of Northampton
A paper prepared for the Migrating University: From Goldsmiths to Gatwick Conference, Panel 2, ‘The Challenge of Critical Pedagogy’, Goldsmiths College, University of London, 14th September
Critical Pedagogy: A Brief Introduction
Critical pedagogy began life in the works, thinking and pedagogic practice of Antonio Gramsci, supplemented with the works of key thinkers from the Frankfurt School, but especially those of Jürgen Habermas. It attained wider recognition in the writings and teachings of Brazilian radical educator and activist Paulo Freire. Specifically, Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1972) laid the foundations for what became the American Critical Pedagogy School of the 1970s and onwards. The writings of Ivan Illich and the plays and radical drama theory of Augusto Boal were also importance elements for the development of critical pedagogy during the 1970s. Today, Critical Pedagogy in North America, whilst not mainstream, has spawned doctoral and Masters programmes and a plethora of web sites devoted to it .
Ten years after Freire’s death in 1997, a major international conference has been organised in his honour . Significantly though, this conference focuses on Freire’s relevance to education in the Mediterranean Basin, indicating that Paulo Freire and critical pedagogy are now having impacts far beyond North and South America. Regarding the UK, the writings of Paula Allman (1999 and 2001) have ensured that critical pedagogy has attained a firm foothold in education debates and politics – especially in the field of adult education, but increasingly more so in the contexts of higher education generally and teacher education specifically . The Reinvention Centre for Undergraduate Research, a joint initiative between the universities of Oxford Brookes and Warwick, cites Paulo Freire as one of its inspirations . Significantly, St. Martin’s College of Higher Education in Lancashire runs a Masters course in Critical Pedagogy and Social Justice . The British Sociological Association (BSA) Education Study Group, via the BSA Conference 2008, will stage a symposium on ‘Critical Pedagogy: Creatively Responding to Government Education Agendas’ in April 2008 . This indicates that some acolytes of critical pedagogy in the UK are thinking about how it can be incorporated into New Labour’s education policy initiatives. Though whether this strategy results in critical pedagogy becoming crushed under the hoof of government education agendas, or those agendas becoming radicalised, remains to be seen. Even New Labour’s own Teaching and Learning Research Programme (TLRP), sponsored by the UK’s Economic & Social Research Council includes a ‘Critical Pedagogies Project’ headed by Deborah Youdell .
But what is ‘critical pedagogy’? It is not easy to pin down. Ira Shor (1992) characterised it as:
“Habits of thought, reading, writing, and speaking which go beneath surface meaning, first impressions, dominant myths, official pronouncements, traditional clichés, received wisdom, and mere opinions, to understand the deep meaning, root causes, social context, ideology, and personal circumstances of any action, event, object, process, organization, experience, text, subject matter, policy, mass media or discourse” (p.129).
This definition reads similar to what the radical sociology of the late-1960s and early 1960s was about. It suggests commitment to social transformation, but no more than that. On the other hand, it could be read as advocating a form of “empowering education” that was agnostic regarding social emancipation – emancipation from capitalist society on a collective basis. Shor’s definition also reads rather like a sophisticated commitment to critical thinking that is based on individual cognitive emancipation. This form of emancipation is primarily concerned with uncovering underlying truths behind sometimes baffling and debilitating appearances and ideological smokescreens. The aim, it seems, is to get at the “deep meaning” of phenomena encountered in everyday life, including what goes on in schools, colleges and universities. Social emancipation, therefore, appears to be suspended above the quest for cognitive depth.
Of course, the moment of individual “cognitive emancipation” can be linked to a project of “social emancipation” which is necessarily collective. But it need not be, and when it is not, critical pedagogy contains a ‘critical deficit’, and heralds an impoverished and stunted form of ‘emancipation’. Certainly the extensive and seemingly comprehensive outline of critical pedagogy enunciated by Dardar, Baltodano and Torres (2003, pp.10-16) seems to be all embracing, yet it too rests insufficiently upon social emancipation: the liberation of humanity from capitalist society, indeed from capital’s social universe . For example, the discussion on how education in contemporary society systematically undermines the ‘class interests of those students who are most politically and economically vulnerable within society’ rests on a neo-Weberian conception of class-as-status-group and implies, by default, that the class interests of these students can be met in the existing form of society: capitalism. Furthermore, there is no mention of the abolition of class; the termination of all classes in society. In these ways, and through key omissions, critical pedagogy becomes a form of Left liberalism, where social justice, equality, social worth etc. (in general, and in relation to education specifically) can be solved or resolved within the existing framework of capitalist society. The solutions appear to rest on equalising resources and rewards, and on changing attitudes towards certain groups (and education has a key role here for Left liberalism) within capitalist society. Critical educational theorists such as Peter McLaren, Paula Allman and I believe this outlook to be an alluring but simplistic, and an apparently easy way out of our social predicament. In practice, it locks the educational Left into chasing rainbows. Critical pedagogy for social emancipation should be the goal; emancipation from capitalist society with its value-form of labour and the rule of money. With this goal, substantial and sustainable social justice and equality become possibilities.
Revolutionary Critical Pedagogy
The lack of ‘criticality’ in some versions of critical pedagogy was apparent many years ago. This can be seen in Giroux (1981), who preferred to speak of ‘radical’ rather than ‘critical’ pedagogy, where, in a US context, ‘radical’ is aligned more closely with socialism, or at least a Left project that threatens the smooth running of capitalist society and is committed to furthering the interests of disadvantaged groups. In despair, Giroux noted that:
“… the American left often appears baffled over the question of what constitutes radical educational theory and practice. Beneath the plethora of pedagogical approaches, that range from deschooling to alternative schools, one searches in vain for a comprehensive critical theory of education which bridges the gap between educational theory on the one hand and social and political theory on the other” (p.63).
As well as the divisions between educational and social and political theory, Giroux also noted a further deficit within critical or radical pedagogy, for:
“One also searches in vain for a systematic theoretical approach to a radical analysis of the day-by-day socio-political texture of classroom structure and interaction, i.e. how specific forms of knowledge and meaning penetrate, develop, and are transmitted within the context of the classroom experience” (Ibid.).
This deficit has been addressed in many studies since Giroux was writing in 1981, with the work of Michael Apple, and especially his work with James Beane (Apple and Beane, 1999) particularly pertinent here. Yet it could still be argued today that classroom studies, even radical ones clearly committed to challenging hierarchies, inequalities and championing the disadvantaged in education, are not strongly connected to a project of social emancipation. Indeed, it is not clear, as Richard Hatcher (2007) has indicated, how they could so be without theorising also on how critical pedagogy relates to extra-education political movements and parties and to trade unions and workers’ and students’ struggles, and making the necessary practical links though political action.
Finally, Giroux (1981) argued that:
“Amidst the theoretical shambles characteristic of the educational left, two major positions stand out: these can be loosely represented, on the one hand, by the content-focussed radical and, on the other, by the strategy-based radicals. These representations are, of course, ideal-typical and should not be seen as exhibiting rigid boundaries. … The content-focussed radicals define pedagogy by their insistence on the use of a Marxist-based perspective to provide a demystifying analysis for students of the dominant ideology reproduced in varied forms in the prevailing system of schooling. On the other side, there are the strategy-based education (sic). This group defines radical pedagogy as the development of ‘healthy’ non-alienating classroom social relationships. In this case, specific classroom social encounters are designed to help students break through the engineered boredom and oppression characteristic of late capitalist relations of production and its everyday life” (Ibid.).
On Richard Hatcher’s (2007) analysis, the content-focussed radicals are misguided as they fail to acknowledge that changes in consciousness are not just ‘ideational’ (p.4) but linked to concrete practices and struggles. Indeed, he argues that decisive and significant changes in consciousness take place in concrete struggles against the actual forces and human representatives of capital. Ideas change through struggle. Regarding the strategy-based radical in the classroom, Hatcher holds that any limited prefigurative classroom activities, based on visions of how education in capitalism might be different, are either reformist or utopian, and invariably both. This is because they are typically not linked to campaigns, movements and parties outside of the classroom. Thus, the capitalist state finds them relatively easy to neutralise, control, terminate or degrade. Giroux, like the vast majority of critical or radical pedagogy protagonists, according to Hatcher, simply gives what goes in educational institutions too much significance and prominence in the struggle for socialism. For Hatcher the problems of ‘changing the consciousness of teachers’ and ‘state limitation and repression’, have not been addressed adequately by critical (or even by revolutionary critical) pedagogues (p.7). Thus, he asserts:
“My argument is that the strategy that addresses these two issues most effectively has at its centre the experience of collective action both inside and outside the classroom – campaigns, struggles, collective forms of resistance and for alternatives. It is through collective action that the consciousness of the mass of teachers can change, and the constraints of state repression, mediated by school management, can be resisted” (Ibid.).
In light of this, he advocates the ‘united front which unites a range of political-educational positions, reformist and revolutionary, liberal-humanist, social-democratic and Marxist, on the basis of common campaigning objectives’ (Ibid., original emphasis). Thus, for Hatcher without these underpinnings, critical or radical pedagogy can degenerate into the illusion of ‘socialism in one classroom’ without being anchored in any substantial movement or campaigns for socialist advance .
The shortcomings of mainstream critical pedagogy have also been noted by many others, and Dardar, Baltodano and Torres’ (2003) summary of these (pp.16-20) is a useful starting point. It is precisely because of these shortcomings and the propensity for critical pedagogy to slide into Left liberalism, that Paula Allman (1999 and 2001) and Peter McLaren (McLaren, 2005; McLaren and Farahmandpur, 2005; and McLaren and Rikowski, 2006) have distanced themselves from more mainstream versions, and have advocated ‘revolutionary critical pedagogy’ or ‘critical revolutionary pedagogy’ instead. For McLaren:
“A revolutionary critical pedagogy operates from an understanding that the basis of education is political and that spaces need to be created where students can imagine a different world outside of the capitalist law of value, where alternatives to capitalism and capitalist institutions can be discussed and debated, and where dialogue can occur about why so many revolutions in past history turned into their opposite. It looks to create a world where social labour is no longer an indirect part of the total social labour but a direct part of it, where a new mode of distribution can prevail not based on socially necessary labour time but on actual labour time … Generally classrooms try to mirror in organization what students and teachers would collectively like to see in the world outside of schools … [And] … drawing upon a Hegelian-Marxist critique of political economy that underscores the fundamental importance of developing a philosophy of praxis, revolutionary critical pedagogy seeks forms of organisation that best enable the pursuit of doing critical philosophy as a way of life” (McLaren and Rikowski, pp.7-8).
It is this final point that really distinguishes mainstream critical pedagogy from McLaren’s ‘revolutionary critical philosophy’. It highlights that political organisations must incorporate ‘critical philosophy as a way of life’; that is, encompass a philosophy of revolution as real, sensuous activity. Contrary to Hatcher’s (2007) outlook, McLaren takes the quality of social relations in organisations seeking to transform capitalist society into account. It is the quality of human relations as expressed in collective political projects against capital, where all are encouraged to be ‘philosophers of praxis’ (McLaren, in McLaren and Rikowski, 2006, p.16), that is a crucial feature of anti-capitalist organisations for McLaren. Of course, McLaren is well aware of the constraints and social structures making this process difficult (see p.6); though Hatcher views him as otherwise, casting the hapless McLaren as only being concerned with the ‘battle of ideas’ (p.3).
Whilst I agree with the arguments of Paula Allman and Peter McLaren about the ‘domestication’ of critical pedagogy, and see the need to move towards a more radical ‘revolutionary critical pedagogy’, I would want to pinpoint precisely that which makes revolutionary critical pedagogy truly critical. In this way, I build on their work.
The Constitution of Capitalist Society
For me, a critical pedagogy should have at its foundations the critique of capitalist society. However, at the core of this enterprise is a critique of what Moishe Postone (1996) takes to be the basic structuring features of capital’s social universe. These phenomena constitute the ‘fundamental core of capitalism’ (pp.24-29). However, Postone argues that for Marx, the category of value is key:
“… for Marx, the category of value expresses the basic relations of production of capitalism, - those social relations that specifically characterize capitalism as a mode of social life - as well as that production in capitalism is based on value. In other words, value, in Marx’s analysis, constitutes the “foundations of bourgeois production”” (Postone, 1996, p.24).
“… value does not refer to wealth in general, but is a historically specific and transitory category that purportedly grasps the foundation of capitalist society” (p.25).
Thus, the critique of capitalist work as the production of value as well as of use-values (useful things) as commodities is essential, and from this it follows that critical pedagogy should be concerned with the analysis and critique of work in society today – and this includes the work of teachers and all those involved in education and training. Indeed, later on I shall argue that the labour of teachers has a special status as an object of critical pedagogy.
Postone goes on to uncover other aspects of the basic structuring features of capitalist society. The commodity, incorporating exchange-value as well as value and use-value is important. The analysis of surplus-value is essential for understanding the form that labour exploitation takes in capitalist society. However, Postone includes a long list of other categories: abstract and concrete labour; socially necessary and surplus labour; abstract time, historical time and socially necessary labour time; money; and capital – and many others, and their relations and configurations in capitalist. These should also be part of any worthwhile enterprise in critical pedagogy. Finally, how these relations are effected via various social mediations is explored by Postone, and also ripe for critical Pedagogy. Thus, it is the critique of all these categories and their relations that should be at the heart of a truly critical pedagogy. In this way can we can come to comprehend the nature of social domination in capitalist society – all the better to terminate it, for:
“In Marx’s analysis, social domination in capitalism does not, on its most fundamental level, consist in the domination of people by other people, but in the domination of people by abstract social structures that people themselves constitute” (Postone, 1996, p.30).
Hence, social emancipation for Postone, and for me, consists in liberating ourselves from these abstract social structures. It is imperative that we understand them; a key task for critical pedagogy.
Though Postone works through many of the basic structuring features of capitalist society, in my view he does not address sufficiently one of the most significant: labour power. As I have argued elsewhere (in Rikowski, 2006), labour power is capitalism’s ‘weakest link’. This is so as:
“It is the only commodity in the social universe of capital that can create, sustain and expand capital through surplus-value production. This establishes its supreme importance in the firmament of commodities. In addition, this magical commodity resides in the personhoods of labourers, and is ultimately under the jurisdiction of their wills. Thus: labour power is the supreme value-creating power on which capital depends for its existence, and it is incorporated within labourers who have the potential to withhold this wonderful social force (through strikes or leaving the employment of a capital) or worse, to use labour power for anti-capitalist activity and ultimately for non-capitalist forms of production. Together, these features make labour power capital’s weakest link. Capital depends on it, yet has the capacity to be used by its owners against capital and to open up productive forms which capital no longer dominates. Marx and Marxist analysis uncovers this with a great force and clarity as compared with any other critical social theory. In indicating the fragility of capital in this way, and in pinpointing its weakest link, Marxist analysis is vindicated and justified” (Rikowski, 2006, p.8).
In contemporary capitalist society, education and training play a crucial role in the social production of labour power – the single commodity on which the expansion of capital and the continuation of capitalist society depend. Thus, a truly critical pedagogy that has political resonance should uncover this fact of life in today’s capitalism – with many examples and studies and debates and discussions, drawing on people’s everyday experience of education and training in capitalist society. Hence, the process of education itself, and its role in reducing human life to labour power, should become leading topics in any worthwhile critical pedagogy. This is also why the critical analysis of the labour of teachers and trainers – those involved in socially producing labour power – is particularly relevant. These workers are involved in the social production of the singular living commodity on which the whole social universe of capital rests for its maintenance and expansion.
Critical Pedagogy and the Constitution of Capitalist Society
From what I have said so far, the main priority of critical pedagogy is to critique the ways in which human labour constitutes capitalist society (how we become dominated by our own creations) and the constitution of capitalist society in terms of its basic structuring features. This will entail a critique of capitalist work and education, amongst other things. It is also clear that rather than starting out from Gramsci, Freire or Habermas, I am advocating a critical pedagogy based on the works of Marx and Marxism above all. Furthermore, this perspective on critical pedagogy situates it as an aspect of anti-capitalism. Critical pedagogy is a form of anti-capitalist education, and indeed is the latter’s ‘first moment’ and primary level (see Rikowski, 2004, pp.567-568).
Although the starting point for critical pedagogy as a species of anti-capitalist education is critique of the basic features of capitalist society, there are other levels involved in this educational adventure. The second level is the analysis and critique of the inequalities that are generated by capitalist society, which is a critique of:
“… all forms of inequality in capitalist society – class inequality, sexism, racism, discrimination against gay and lesbian people, against disabled people, ageism and differential treat of other social groups – and how all these forms of inequality link to capital accumulation and value production. The content of the allied critical pedagogy indicates how these divisions, these insidious rifts, are embedded aspects of capitalist social life. But it is also indicated how people struggle against these divisions and how unity in difference can become a reality (with examples from contemporary society and history)” (Rikowski, 2004, p.567).
It is here, too, that notions of ‘social justice’ (fairness, equality etc.) arise.
The third level of the ‘moment of critique’ is ‘a critique of all known aspects of capitalist social life’ (Rikowski, 2004, p.568), which can be related to the second and third levels where necessary. Yet:
“The key point is that we need to encourage our students to be critical of all aspects of capitalist society, whilst acknowledging its advances over previous forms of society such as Feudalism and ancient societies based on slave labour. No aspect should be sacrosanct” (Ibid.).
Critique of capitalist education itself is important here, as noted earlier, and Rikowski (2004, pp.573-575) provides further material on this point.
Of course, thus far I have not discussed any of the contingencies revolving around this form of critical pedagogy as anti-capitalist education. Some may be sceptical about whether school students, for example, could be or should be taught much about the basic structuring features of capitalist society. Yet as Mike Cole has indicated to me, in the former Yugoslavia school students were taught Marx’s theory of exploitation in capitalism, including how surplus value is generated . I taught Marx’s theory of surplus value to A-level sociology students in the mid-1980s to mid-1990s; it doesn’t take up much time if you have decent diagrams, and most seemed to grasp it easily enough.
Yet there are certain things the critical educator needs to consider: the age of the students, and their prior learning, which relates also to the sector (primary, secondary, further, higher and adult etc.) they are in. The academic subject is important too. Those teaching economics, sociology and history would seem to be blessed. Those teaching education studies in higher education particularly so, as the social production of labour power can be appropriately addressed there.
All of Hatcher’s (2007) points about the capitalist state clamping down on some of the critical spaces necessary for critical pedagogy, whilst also opening up some avenues or ignoring some aspects of it need to be kept in view and worked through within our own lives as educators and workers. His advice about how teachers might gain support from colleagues and trade unions in their endeavours in critical pedagogy is also worth keeping in view. There are a growing number of examples of critical pedagogy in the mainstream education literature and in the radical education literature, but more examples, and analysis of them, are required, and Hatcher is right to point this out. Finally, Hatcher’s view that we need awareness and analysis of actual and potential resistances to critical pedagogy from our colleagues, managements, parents and other significant actors is to be heeded.
Conclusion: Critical Pedagogy as Anti-Capitalism
It has been argued that a truly critical pedagogy, a pedagogy of real critical depth, has the following features:
- It is based on the works of Marx and Marxism, first and foremost;
- The starting point is the critique of the basic structuring phenomena and processes of capitalist society – which involves a critique of the constitution of capitalist society;
- The second most significant level of critique is the host of social inequalities thrown up by the normal workings of capitalist society – and issues of social justice can be brought in here;
- The third level of critique brings in the rest of capitalist social life – but relates to the first and second levels as frequently as possible;
- Two keys fields of human activity in contemporary society stand in need of fierce critique: capitalist work and capitalist education and training (including the social production of labour power);
- Labour power – as capital’s ‘weakest link’ – deserves special attention as it has strategic and political significance.
These are the basics of critical pedagogy as anti-capitalism.
This does not preclude bringing in all the insights, teaching strategies and approaches that can be found in the vast literature on critical pedagogy. However, if sight of these reference points becomes lost or very hazy then critical educators need to take stock as their anti-capitalist status is open to question.
Self-criticism is also necessary in relation to how we operate as academics and teachers: our writings, our research outputs (if in higher education), our teaching and learning resources, and other ways in which we use media (e.g. web sites, blogs, social networks such a MySpace and so, as well as TV and radio appearances). How do all of these gel with critical pedagogy as anti-capitalism?
I have not explored here how critical pedagogy as anti-capitalism relates (actually or potentially) to larger questions of political strategy, i.e. the relation between it and various campaigns, movements, education within political parties and groups, informal and non-formal education – and indeed how it relates in a more general sense to socialist transformation. Paula Allman (1999 and 2001) has given many valuable insights on these topics. Building on her analyses I hope to address more general questions of relations between critical pedagogy, anti-capitalism and social transformation in future work. Like Allman (in her 2001), I also hope to write about and critique aspects of my own practice as a critical educator starting from the principles stated above.
 Many of these developments can be viewed at ‘Critical Pedagogy on the Web’:
 See ‘International Seminar, Paulo Freire (1997-2007) – The Life Wide Learning in Europe and in the Mediterranean Basin’ at:
 Joyce Canaan at the University of Central England has also contributed significantly to the development of practice, research and writing on critical pedagogy during the last few years (see or example Canaan, 2005). Michael Neary at the University of Warwick (see Neary, 2005; and Neary and Parker, 2004) and Ian Cook at the University of Birmingham (see Cook, 2000) have also advanced critical pedagogy in the UK, along with a number of others too many to mention.
 The Reinvention Centre for Undergraduate Research web site, with a quote from Freire inscribed in its logo is at:
 This is run by Dr. Margaret Ledwith. She also heads the Centre for Critical Pedagogy and Social Justice Education at St. Martin’s College. See details at:
 For details on this, see:
 Details on the Critical Pedagogies Project can be viewed at:
 These authors look at critical pedagogy through the following perspectives: cultural politics; political economy; historicity of knowledge; dialectical theory; ideology and critique; hegemony; resistance and counter-hegemony; praxis: the alliance of theory and practice; and dialogue and conscientization. Despite my reservations regarding that their characterisation of critical pedagogy lacks critical depth, it certainly has critical breadth. I would recommend their chapter to any newcomer to the literature and practice of critical pedagogy.
 Although I have cited approvingly Hatcher’s work here, there are other aspects of his analysis with which I disagree. First, his understanding of my own work constitutes gross misrepresentation – but he has been doing this for a couple of years now (see Rikowski, 2005). Second, he offers familiar platitudes regarding how to link struggles inside and outside education. Does he think folks can’t work out, or have not worked out this basic stuff for themselves? Third, critical pedagogy in his eyes has only limited value. Indeed, it could even be seen as a form of fatalism and utopianism, though he appears very inconsistent on this (see p.5 – where he argues that ‘the movement to multiply instances of radical pedagogy is a vital element in socialist strategy in education’). Fourth, his analysis tends to focus on schools (where his arguments are strongest) and to ignore, higher education, adult education and teacher training (where they are weakest). Fifth, his critique of ‘revolutionary critical pedagogy’ (RCP) (drawing on the work of Paula Allman, Peter McLaren and myself) is a travesty. According to Hatcher, RCP remains a vision and a programme with no means to implement it. That is true, but Hatcher has no vision or programme – only platitudes offered in a patronising and self-righteous manner. All he has is a lot of familiar stuff about links, campaigns and united fronts, and interesting analyses of three instances of class struggle in the schools sector, boosted by wishful thinking regarding their significance. Finally, he misunderstands (via Stewart Hall’s flawed characterisation of Marx), Marx’s notions of ‘ideological forms’ and the superstructure, and writes as if the opening sections of Marx and Engels’ The German Ideology had never been written. There are more examples of where Hatcher’s superficial reading of Marx and his predilection to misrepresent my own views in his BESA, but these will be addressed (along with the issues noted previously) elsewhere.
 Mike was told this whilst on holiday in one of the countries constituting the former Yugoslavia.
Allman, P. (1999) Revolutionary Social Transformation: Democratic Hopes, Political Possibilities and Critical Education, Westport, Connecticut & London: Bergin & Garvey.
Allman, P. (2001) Critical Education Against Global Capitalism: Karl Marx and Revolutionary Critical Education, Westport, Connecticut & London: Bergin & Garvey.
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Cook, I. (2000) ‘Nothing Can Ever Be the Case of “Us” and “Them” Again’: exploring the politics of difference through border pedagogy and student journal writing, Journal of Geography in Higher Education, Vol.24 No.1, pp.13-27.
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The Flow of Ideas, 13/09/07