Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Don't Just Do Something. Think!

I recommend this article: Action Will Be Taken: Left Anti-Intellectualism and Its Discontents. The authors make a good case for the importance of combining critical thinking with action or, put another way, theory and practice (dare we call it praxis?). Their crtitque of "activistism" is as important for Canadians as it is for Americans. I agree with their claim that there is an anti-intellectualism that runs through left culture that needs serious work. They rightly identify some debilitating common sense notions such as "paralysis of analysis" that act as buylwarks against necessary critical thinking. I would add that we need to look at how our societies of have structured where and how critical thinking does happen - i.e. academia, for the most part. Of course, there are plenty of non-academic sources of critical thinking as well. And there's plenty of excellent academic work that deserves more popular attention. My concern as a popular educator is how resources are allotted to society to support critical thinking - especially collective critical thinking. What options are there for the activist seeking the company of like-minded (or at least similar-minded) people with whom to engage some of the necessary intellectual work of activism? I agree with the authors of this article that Left culture needs to take intellectual work more seriously. But there are two issues that, left undealt with, will only reinforce the very activistism that they are critical of: available resources and pedagogy. On the issues of resources they do point out that:
Unreflective pragmatism is also encouraged by much of the left's dependency on foundations.
And i would add that we need to look at the full picture of how the Left commits its resources (financial, material, human, etc.) across sectors (labour, ecumenical, anti-poverty, anti-racist, feminist, etc.) to assess how it is we collectively neglect our responsibilty to think better and more critically about the world we claim we are trying to change.

On the issue of pedagogy (an admittedly technical term), we need to look at how critical thinking is taught. For surely anti-intellectualism is linked to our common experience of education which has so much to do with how society is structured. Popular education is a practice that includes a fundamental idea/practice: that theory and practice must be combined. Not exactly a new notion nor one that is exclusive to popular education. Nor is it one that all self-identified popular education manages to meet well. To the thinkers named in the article (Bakunin, Marx and Fanon) i would add Paulo Freire whose practical and theoretical work on education and social change is a key to the intellectual work that is desperately needed by the Left. (There's plenty of other thinkers to add to this list as well - i'll save that for future posts).

One last point for now. The authors take an interesting swipe at participatory learning:

Nonprofit culture fosters an array of mind-killing practices. Brainstorming on butcher paper and the use of breakout groups are effective methods for generating and collecting ideas and/or organizing pieces of a larger action. However, when used to organize political discussions these nonprofit tools can be disastrous. More often than not, everybody says something, breakout groups report back to the whole group, lists are compiled—and nothing really happens.

I certainly recognize the naive application of tools for democratic learning. I suppose you could add to "activistsm" the unfortunate practice of "fli-chartism" - a naive interpretation of democratic learning that equates brainstorming lists of issues or points. Rather than simply dismiss participatory tools as "disastrous" when used for political discussions i suggest that we look critically at what participatory tools are good for and combine them with rigorous practices of collective critical thinking of which there are plenty. The field of popular education has a wealth of such practices (as well as excellent theory to support them). See the Catalyst Centre link (as well as the others) on the right of this page. Check out the Applied Research Center in Oakland (excellent work). And there's a new site that has just been launched: GlobalLocalPopEd that's worth perusing.

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