Looking at the conference

Looking at the conference

An account of the Popular Education Conference held in Toronto over the weekend of October 3-5, 1975.

By Ashley Chester

How do average people become socialists?

How can the left break through its isolation?

How can intellectuals become revolutionary educators?

How does revolutionary education differ from the prevailing form?

These essential questions were raised by the Popular Education Conference held in Toronto over the weekend of October 3-5, 1975.

Organized by six Toronto based groups, it was intended as an opportunity for the local non-sectarian left to present its practice to a critical and collective scrutiny.

Friday's session opened with a talk by D'arcy Martin of the Development Education Centre. Two themes were particularly important -- the description of 'problem-posing' education as an alternative to 'banking' education and the danger of the left's isolation.

According to Paulo Freire, conventional education is based on the depositing or 'banking' of objective knowledge within the empty skull of the student. It is totally consistent with a social system that renders most people objects of an incomprehensible and uncontrollable leviathen.

The educator ignores the insights and experiences that might prompt people to learn in a systematic manner and assumes that his/her language is the only one that can describe reality. Dialogical problem-posing education seeks to restore the humanity of all involved by creating a truly egalitarian relationship between educator and student. The educator discovers with the students those dilemmas in their lives that can neither be understood nor changed with the concepts they had been using. Instead of providing broader conceptions she/he continually probes the students as they collectively struggle to develop the intellectual tools necessary to confront their own existence.

Martin generally confined himself to the critique of 'banking' education and the explanation of Freire's basic theory without dealing with the problems of applying it to our situation. He did not elaborate on the opposition of this pedagogy to the pedagogy employed by most Leninists and other exponents of 'scientific' Marxism, though he did decry the identification of propaganda with education.

The second theme, the left's isolation, was very much on people's minds. According to Martin, the Toronto left has both an obstacle and an advantage in the existence of a leftist culture. The fact that there are many leftists who meet each other frequently allows them to accomplish things that would be impossible if they were less numerous. However, they are not forced, as they otherwise would be, to make personal links with the working class. They are insulated.

Unless the Toronto left can link up with a strong progressive movement it is in a very dangerous position individually and collectively. Individually, its members can become cynical, disillusioned and can crack up. Collectively, it faces the threat of repression against which it will be powerless -- October, 1970 was not an aberration. Unfortunately there was little useful response to Martin's talk in the discussion period that followed.

Saturday's session began with a brief report from the 'watching committee'. Intended as a representative group of participants, the watching committee were to analyze the Conference as it progressed, summarize issues and questions raised, and suggest possible points of departures.

Their main criticism of Friday's session was that it did not develop what it means to work with people in a non-dogmatic manner, it was not specific enough in defining "our constituency", and it did not explore whether there is a "mass base for a socialist transformation", whatever that means. It seemed possible that some aspects of those questions would be broached by the Saturday morning panel -- representatives from Women's Press, the Toronto Committee for the Liberation of Southern Africa's Colonies, the Daycare Reform Action Alliance and the Brazilian Studies Group.

Frumie Diamond of Women's Press gave a straight forward account of her group's history and some of its problems. When first formed, the collective expected that manuscripts would be submitted which could then be screened. But now this process seems inadequate and the collective is considering the problems of manuscript development. Some of its future publications will likely be the result of collaboration with groups which have a specific need, such as for a daycare manual or a labour organizing manual.

Diamond also indicated that her group is aware of the fundamental question that has to be faced by those using print media: who reads what? Women's Press aims to get as many of its books into schools and libraries as possible, though that in itself raises the question of how to make a book "acceptable" without making it politically useless.

Further problems stem from the general ambiguities of the women's movement. Some of their publications have individualized history in an effort to reveal the role of women in it. Another example simply reversed roles while leaving intact the ideal of a middle class nuclear family.

Judith Marshall of TCLSAC listed three functions for her group -- education on the liberation struggles in Southern Africa, provision of material aid for these struggles, and the development of leverage within Canada that can assist these liberation processes.

TCLSAC provides speakers, films, and books and organizes visits from representatives of the various liberation movements. It has organized campaigns to provide material assistance to them, in the past having bought a ten ton truck for FRELIMO, and having raised $10,000 for Guinea-Bissau. At present TCLSAC is conducting a campaign to get an ambulance for Namibia's anti-colonialist organization.

Examples of the kind of leverage campaign TCLSAC sees as part of its function include a petition campaign that successfully pushed the federal government to recognize the revolutionary government of Guinea-Bissau, and the current campaigns going on to expose the role of companies such as Gulf Oil and Falconbridge in southern Africa.

In general, Marshall summarized her group's activity as "support for liberation groups elsewhere in an attempt to develop the struggle here". She noted the danger of encouraging a type of left "consumerism" in which concern and energy are diverted to the struggles of other peoples which seem more advanced or immediate than our own. In response to this problem three new committees are being developed to relate the work of TCLSAC to women, to the labour movement, and to schools.

The discussion that followed Marshall's presentation was the most critical of the day. Repeatedly participants questioned how TCLSAC can engage in anything other than propaganda. However Marshall fielded these queries confidently, indicating that it is her group's sensitivity to this problem that has led to the formation of its three new committees and has prompted greater attention to focusing on the links between struggles within Canada and those in southern Africa. For example, communication has been established between striking employees of Falconbridge in Sudbury and those working for the same company in Namibia.

One of the more salient points made in support of this kind of solidarity work is the effect of successes abroad on the already committed leftists within Canada; if it contributes to the development of "a culture of resistance" it is important. As for reaching beyond the more or less committed, one of the best suggestions came as an example offered by a member of the audience: the Quebec Conference on International Worker Solidarity. Apparently it began with Quebec workers discussing amongst themselves the various conditions and problems they face. It then proceeded to discussions of the same sort between Quebec workers and their counterparts abroad. As an example, ALCAN employees from Quebec met with workers from that same company's plants in Guyana. However, this kind of an event in itself presupposes certain conditions within the labour movement that may not exist outside of Quebec.

The other two groups represented on the panel both have a narrower educational perspective. Julie Mathien of the Daycare Reform Action Alliance, explained that her group was formed in response to an attempt by the Ontario government to decrease the staff-child ratio in daycare centres. It consists of parents, daycare staff, and other concerned activists and professionals. Initially it produced a video tape with the assistance of the National Film Board, which showed what the effect of the government policy would be by comparing daycare centres using the different ratios. The tape was a success as a tool in mobilizing the considerable opposition to the proposed policy change, and the government backed down.

One of the difficulties in this type of movement that Mathien noted, is that its focus on a government funded or subsidized service encourages an electoral strategy -- vote for a change, any change that promises action on that one issue.

At present the Alliance counts around twenty "very active" members, with a mailing list of over 200. It is not involved in actual daycare organizing but sees itself assisting other groups trying to start centres. It is also undergoing a period of reassessment now that the campaign around which it was originally organized has subsided.

The Brazilian Studies Group is essentially a research group. Its representative, Herbet de Sousza, described its aim as researching the specificity of neo-capitalism and the future of political struggle particularly in Latin America in light of the failures of the recent past. It prepares articles in Portugese, Spanish and sometimes English and French, which are distributed to around 400 activists or sympathizers in Latin America, Europe, Africa, and North America.

Speaking to the purpose of the Conference, de Sousza warned that "we can not be effective if we know only one side". Rather we must understand how people are educated in advanced capitalism, and what are our opportunities, where are the contradictions.

On Saturday afternoon conference participants were assigned to one of a half dozen workshops in which they were to discuss the questions raised in the previous panels. As a discussion aid the Watching Committee suggested five questions to be considered. Most of these were hopelessly broad for an afternoon discussion among people who hardly knew each other. In the workshop I attended everyone gave a short personal political history by way of indicating their particular interest in popular education. This was essential but time consuming.

Two questions were raised in our workshop that seemed important to me. The relationship between popular education and organizing was recognized as fundamental but perhaps for that reason it was skirted as being too difficult. The second, how to avoid reinforcing feelings of powerlessness and despair, was perhaps difficult beyond our experience.

Sunday promised to be the most fruitful day, with the morning devoted to a variety of workshops on the politics of different media of communication. The afternoon was to be a concluding plenary.

A film called Forget It Jack was used to explore the use of audio-visual media in the promotion of political consciousness. This film was not the most appropriate choice, being rather a fine example of straight forward, old fashioned propaganda. Produced by Jim Littleton with narration by Harry Brown, this film documents the case of Simcoe County hospital workers, members of the Service Workers' International Union, charged with an illegal strike. It was skillfully executed but its possible use was very limited. It may have given the facts to activists wanting to help the strike depicted but was of little use in developing political consciousness beyond this point.

Unfortunately the producer seemed unable to envisage any other form of political film making. He identified the workers with the union and ended the session with a patronizing little lecture on respecting the workers' i.e.. union: tradition.

Next, to the Theatre Workshop. It was conducted by Joyce Penner, director of Toronto Automatic Repertory Theatre Ensemble. If half the communications workshops were led by people as thorough and conscientious as Penner than the Conference was worthwhile. In the short time available she managed to indicate the theoretical and practical work that faces radicals seriously interested in theatre.

Quoting Brecht on "preaching to the converted", she defended the use of theatre to strengthen a nascent culture of resistance. But if it is not mistaken for a documentary form, the dynamism of theatre gives it even greater potential with an uncommitted audience. To achieve this potential it must be taken cut of the conventional setting.

Penner went on to discuss some of the methods of developing a theatre group. One of these is the 'open theatre' technique. A play or elaborated idea is treated merely as "words for action", which the company collectively interprets, revises, and forms into a theatrical whole.

Street theatre or guerilla theatre is another form that deserves reconsideration. If the group attempting it is cohesive, carefully rehearsed and clear in its political intentions it has a far greater chance of reaching an audience than a soap box orator.

Improvisation is also stressed by Penner, though not in its conventional sense. As suggested by surrealism, "automatic improvisation" is intended to strip away the actors' superficialities. Though "blocking" can be a problem she insisted that it can be overcome if the actors are serious about exploring the unconscious.

Returning again to Brecht, she endorsed his famous concept of alienation effect. To be revolutionary theatre must promote thought, not just indulge the emotions. It must avoid "sucking" the audience into an uncritical empathy; it should instead distance the political questions raised from the "life" of the theatrical characters. Signs of slogans or quotes, slides of historical events, a chorus commenting on the "action" have all been used to "break the spell" in order to make political questions inescapable.

As her group is still in the process of formation, Penner could only relate how it hopes to relate to audiences. She felt that prisons, schools, hospitals, unions on strike, tenants and housing groups might all be receptive to a theatre group. She stressed a dialogical relationship with such groups which would hopefully extend to teaching theatre to some of the potential audience. Fantasy as a vision of the future can raise important strategic and tactical questions.

Though there may be much to debate with some of Penner's notions, her theoretical richness and boldness of scope should serve as an example if not a goad to the 'independent left'.

The final plenary suffered the same problem as the earlier ones -- a lack of direction that could not be solved either by the best efforts of the watching committee or the chairpersons. The question to be discussed -- "what the left in Toronto can do most effectively at this time" - was premature to say the least. The floundering that occurred should have demonstrated that the basic level of unity assumed by that question just does not exist among the so-called independent or non-sectarian left in Toronto.

There was much hair-pulling about or status as "intellectuals", intellectual-workers, "petty bourgeois", or workers. There were pleas for some hair-splitting to ensure that further confusion be avoided, (e.g. lets define the working class).

Workerism came with facility to some, (you have to be part of working class life, whatever that is, before you can...) Economism was an easy answer to others, (why aren't we organizing around food prices). And there was the "craving" for "an organization" to be formed by the conference to look into all the problems raised by it. (Surely a mother to cuddle us is no more necessary than a father to discipline us.)

One phrase heard often at the conference was "non-dogmatic Marxism". People wished to distinguish themselves from the Leninist left but how? It seems that the distinction for many is not one of fundamental assumptions. Instead they seem content to hold views that are merely less rigid than those of the Leninists. Until people who call themselves "non-dogmatic" begin to explain what distinguishes them from Leninists then it will be just to assume that the distinction doesn't really exist.

In its own educational terms how should this conference be evaluated?

It was organized on the basis of certain conclusions that did not seem to be the result of any dialogical process between the organizers and the participants. That is not at all surprising. It is a commonly held assumption that anyone who has been to university or who has a job that is 'white collar' or who is radical, in fact, must be an intellectual. The corollary to that assumption is that intellectuals learn best in a conventional educational setting, i.e. the lecture and the seminar. Both assumptions are problematic.

One obvious conclusion from the conference is that a distinction should be made between intellectuals and intellectual-workers. Though the distinction is not discrete and it does not apply to artistic creation, I would argue that the latter have been educated to work in the assembling and distribution or dissemination of ideology; the former have been educated to be the theoreticians of that sort of production. The people involved in the immediate production of ideological offerings are not necessarily better equipped to develop a theoretical critique of their own production than are autoworkers. Nor are they necessarily more predisposed to do so.

Even the intellectuals who organized this conference to begin the development of that kind of critique need this kind of mixed experience to fully assimilate the implications of dialogical education.

By the end of the conference sufficient dialogue had occurred to make possible a guess at some generative themes that might be posed to the independent left.

How do we develop conscious practice when we are so deficient in our theory? How can we grasp the need or significance of theory when we have such limited practice?

The traditional left provides a 'religio-scientific' evasion to these questions and in so doing perpetuates authoritarian relations. But until we develop some serious efforts to cope with this dilemma, those same traditional concepts and methods will dominate us, and ours will be a poor confused relative of a practice we abhor.

Published in Volume 1, Number 1 of The Red Menace, February 1976.
Taken from web-archived version of The Red Menace website.