Saturday, May 19, 2007

Popular Education Bookshelf - 0

For some time now I've been trying to figure out a way both to frame and to share the many resources available (electronically and otherwise) for practicing, studying and otherwise using popular education. This blog is, in fact, one solution to this challenge. And, while i've shared some links to good resources i've wanted to be more systematic about it for some time. This is a tricky task, as popular education is something of a moving target. Which is part of its pedagogical/political appeal as a strategy of resisting unjust uses of power or, in a word, oppression. As such a strategy popular education is a dynamic interweaving of theory and practice or, in a word, praxis. Unfortunately there is a tendency to reduce popular education to a mere bag of tricks for better facilitating meetings and doing education work that is more fun and easy. This is a naive interpretation that, though useful at times, is often dangerously misleading.

The english word "popular" is, no doubt, partly to blame for this. In english the word "popular", in the first instance, means well and widely liked or appreciated. But in spanish, from which we adopt the phrase popular education, the word is more closely associated with its root meaning going back to the Latin populis meaning "the people." I, as well as many educators, have chosen to stick with the term popular education, despite its contradiction in english, as an act of solidarity with the context that created the term, i.e. latin american resistance to colonial, elitist and authoritarian education that had as one of its central objectives the maintenance of the massive inequality between rich and poor. (Paulo Freire, one of the most significant practitioner/philosophers of popular education, is one of the most notable personalities in this history of radical resistance to oppression.)

It has been a challenge to sustain a critical awareness of the radical (and even revolutionary) disposition of popular education as we have applied and developed it in Canada and the US during the past 30 years. And, while there are numerous reasons for this that are worth exploring, i want to call attention to one for the moment. And that is the tendency to interpret (and reduce) popular education to better group process. "Better", of course, means many things to many people but here i'm referring to things such as friendlier, more cooperative (even non-conflictual), democratic, anti-authoritarian, fun, engaging, participatory and more. And, while i believe that popular education does support such better group process, this is merely the tip of a very large and subversive iceberg. Popular education has no monopoly on better group process and a search of the literature will quickly find many very useful resources from the fields of sociology, cognitive psychology, conflict resolution studies, corporate (i.e. private sector) human resources training, leadership studies, community development and more. And i'm a firm believer in 'stealing' what's useful. I recommend excluding nothing from popular education practice without examining it first for potential adaptation and application. After all, all these fields that i mention have long-since been 'stealing' and adapting to suit their own purposes.

But, as i've said, popular education is more than mere techniques and bags of tricks, as desirable and necessary as these things are for educators, activists, trainers and others. Popular education is about changing the political, social, economic, cultural, personal, familial (and so on) worlds such that they are more just, more equitable, more peaceful (though peace does not mean eliminating conflict), more compassionate, more kind and even more competitive (if by competitive we eschew war in favour of that competition that is perhaps better termed contest and which is a necessary and vital form of engagement for play and growth and even intimacy).

Popular education is a praxis, a tricky and contested term. Its meaning starts with its greek root meaning, simply, practice. But the word comes to us across time and space having passed through the hands of numerous philosophers from Aristotle to Hegel to Marx and, finally, for our purposes, Freire. Popular education claims (as well as advocates) to unite theory and practice in a dynamic relationship: theory informing practice and practice informing theory. In Pedagogy of the Oppressed (chapter 3) Freire argues that theory (he refers to "the word") without action is mere "verbalism" which is "idle chatter" and "alienated and alienating 'blah.'" He adds that action without reflection is "activism", "action for action's sake" and which "negates true praxis and makes dialogue impossible." (While i agree wholeheartedly with Freire's critique here, i prefer the term activistism to name what Freire means by activism.)

So, praxis, in Freire-speak can be summed up as action-reflection-action which is a cycle that goes on and on. I quite like the following definition from the Pakistan-based Sindh Education Foundation:
Praxis is a complex activity by which individuals create culture and society, and become critically conscious human beings. Praxis comprises a cycle of action-reflection-action which is central to liberatory education. Characteristics of praxis include self-determination (as opposed to coercion), intentionality (as opposed to reaction), creativity (as opposed to homogeneity), and rationality (as opposed to chance).
I have two critiques of this definition and one thing to add. My first critique is to bring Marx's take on praxis to bear on the notion of "individual": Marx's point about praxis is that it is social classes that are the actors in praxis and not individuals. My second critique has to do with the supremacy we grant rationality as a value and ethic but i'll save this for another day. More importantly for now, i think it is important to add something to what we mean by praxis. And this, perhaps, leads to a compromise between Marx's notion of social classes and the above definition's use of "individual." Along with action-reflection-action that changes the world i would add the process of critical self-reflection or, more accurately, a process of ethical self-transformation. While this might be implicit in some uses of the term praxis, i believe it central enough to require being made explicit. And my use of the term "self" does not refer to the individual (that supposed stand-alone, fragmented, separated-from-all idea) but rather the individual-in-relation (as in Martin Buber's notion of the I/Thou) or, to go back to the pre-17th Century definition of individual (see Raymond Williams' Keywords) which meant "indivisible."

Thus, popular education praxis is the activity of critically conscious, social actors (individuals, groups, social classes in relation with and amongst each other) that seeks to resist injustice, oppression, violence and tyranny and bring into existence a world with more love, more justice, more compassion or, as Grace Paley says in her poem The Responsibility of the Poet:

It is the poet's responsibility to speak truth to power as the
Quakers say
It is the poet's responsibility to learn the truth from the
It is the responsibility of the poet to say many times: there is no
freedom without justice and this means economic
justice and love justice

So, all this to say, that when i am sharing resources, some of those so-called techniques that we can fill our bags of tricks with or toolkits as some call it or skill-sets to use some contemporary jargon, there is an indispensable context of history, politics, theory and praxis the ignoring of and exclusion of which will lead at best to a contradictory practice of popular education and, at worst, hypocrisy and co-optation - popular education, with all its revolutionary potential would become its opposite and cease to be a force for liberation.

This blog post is the first of many "Bookshelf" entries, each of which will feature links (and perhaps annotations or even reviews though i make no promises) of resources that i think good for popular education praxis.

And because i love Grace Paley so much i'll give her the last word with the continuation of The Responsibility of the Poet:

It is the responsibility of the poet to sing this in all the
and traditional tunes of singing and telling poems
It is the responsibility of the poet to listen to gossip and pass it
on in the way story tellers decant the story of life
There is no freedom without fear and bravery. There is no
freedom unless
earth and air and water continue and children
also continue
It is the responsibility of the poet to be a woman to keep an eye on
this world and cry out like Cassandra, but be
listened to this time.