Popular education as a doomed project? - Inga Scathach

Popular Education often appears as a panacea for the anti-authoritarian Left. Inga Scathach looks at the uses and abuses of the term and the practices. Originally published in May 2011.

There’s the rumbling of a groundswell. You can hear it murmuring if you eavesdrop at activist-type gatherings. Unless you listen really closely, you may be mistaken in thinking it to be another utopian proposal, flung haplessly into the ring of consensus decision-making. But this is not a recent radical fad to be horizontally-organised beyond all recognition: popular education has been practised in Latin America for the past 70 years. Developed as a way of working with politically marginalised communities to identify the sites of their disenfranchisement and act towards addressing it, the region’s political ignition has seen its popularity grow. From its emergence in Brazil, the technique has gone global in the past 30 years, with particularly strong uptake in countries (at the risk of falling into lazy categorisations) in the global south. What distinguishes popular education from other forms of education? And why is it increasing in popularity?

Largely credited to the fieldwork and writing of Paulo Freire, popular education is based on the recognition that conventional forms of education replicate the oppressor-oppressed relationship. This Hegelian understanding addresses the authoritarian approach favoured by formal education as a dialectical relationship. By drawing on Hegel, it also echoes Marx’s bourgeoisie-proletariat dichotomy, and allows us to understand education in the context of the social relations that exist to reinforce capitalist and colonialist functions. By recognising the function of traditional forms of education as hegemonic, popular education supposes to offer a radical alternative that emancipates participants rather than perpetuating their subjugation. So, how does it work in practice? It is first important to note that even within a form of education that eschews the prescription of a curriculum, popular education theory has an aim: to address political marginalisation and confront hegemony as an emancipatory process.

The main aim of popular education is understood as conscientisation (a somewhat clumsy translation from Freire’s native Portuguese - conscientização) for action. Both components are key here, as “to surmount the situation of oppression, people must first critically recognise its causes, so that through transforming action they can create a new situation.” Conscientisation is a process of increasing critical consciousness of our present condition and the situation of self within existing power dynamics, and feeling compelled to respond to this by taking action. Popular educators reject any notion that people can become politically conscious without also wanting to act on their understanding, or that genuinely political action can take place without analysis. Consciousness and the will to act are acquired simultaneously and are facets of the same process. In order to build a political awareness, learners and educators need to participate in a mutual process of unpacking each others’ ontological assumptions. Henry Giroux acknowledges the imperative of dialogue and discussion in this exploration of ideas by referring to developing a “language of critique” and “language of possibility”.

The role of pedagogical philosophy as a method of confronting hegemony was explored in depth by Gramsci, while Augusto Boal explored variations on the dialectic form in his Theatre of the Oppressed. More recently, bell hooks has applied a feminist, anti-racist approach to university education and come to very similar conclusions on aims and methodology. It is hooks’ work that helps us address the question of popular education’s ever-increasing exposure, and why it might be gaining attention in radical circles. Speaking in a US context, she suggests that “without ongoing movements for social justice in our nation, progressive education becomes all the more important since it may be the only location where individuals can experience support for acquiring a critical consciousness, for any commitment to end domination.”

Reluctantly drawing tenuous connections between recent political developments in the UK and an ongoing global emancipatory project, there appears to be a correlation between growing interest in forms of education and rapidly diminishing economic and political agency: the simultaneous decimation by the British right of what little democracy remained in Higher Education has coincided with the launch of the government’s meritocratic Free School programme; meanwhile, there has been a surge in alternative education projects such as the Really Open University, Really Free School, Ragged Universities and Open Schools, while large numbers of school, college and university students of all ages are becoming radicalised into direct action and property destruction. Having been the preserve of education theorists and a clutch of radical educators, the buzz around popular education is getting steadily louder in our changing political climate. But is it a helpful tool, a cumbersome methodology or a lethal weapon? Does it work?

It’s not just radicals and progressive educators on the left that are falling over themselves to comment on this project. The inclusion of Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed on the reading lists of most US teaching programmes (and many UK ones) has triggered a backlash from the hard right. Sol Stern asks “How did this derivative, unscholarly book about oppression, class struggle, the depredations of capitalism, and the need for revolution ever get confused with a treatise on education that might help solve the problems of twenty-first-century American inner-city schools?” Stern’s question is a sobering reminder of the vulnerabilities of our approach, and of too hastily extrapolating meaning from a few snatched phrases of conversation or comments on Indymedia. The word on the street might be that popular education is where things are at right now but adopting popular education methodology is not necessarily indicative of political perspective. That its key theories are being explored within the American educational establishment should be enough to temper any blind acceptance or over-zealous enthusiasm.

If we come good on our intentions to be honest with ourselves, popular education is discussed frequently in radical circles but rarely translates into practice. One theory is that conscientisation is crippled by process. Through facilitated and mediated workshops, rather than open and dynamic storytelling, exchanges of experience become neutered. Without the shared learning and emotional outpouring of lived experience, individual perspectives prevail, and the process fails to find the flash-point of community solidarity, indignation and a call to action. Non-radical educators put popular education techniques into practice regularly. It’s easy to use participatory methods and use words like “empowering” and “inspiring”. However, the explicit aim of popular education is to inspire action, which raises questions about the integrity of many so-called popular education projects. So, how can we ensure that popular education doesn’t become just a toolkit for facilitating yet more meetings?

It would be naïve to believe that the oppressor-oppressed relationship is simply a relational dichotomy between individuals. The true oppressor-oppressed dichotomy is internalised - with the oppressed replicating the behaviour of the oppressors, with which they have become acculturated, and vice-versa - and can only be addressed through honest self-reflection and evaluation, or praxis. The nature of this internalised dialectical relationship means even the most committed pedagogue is still engaged in a process of self-emancipation. In part because of this impossibility of fully transcending the self, popular education is not inherently anti-oppressive. In fact, at times it can replicate the very same social relations it attempts to expose. From a feminist analysis, the emphasis on sharing lived experience through storytelling has been used to feminise political projects and legal battles. In a group dynamic, it also allows the loudest voices to dominate, and these usually reflect the relational privileges in the group. The abiding struggle of educators is to facilitate without leading. In trying to create space for horizontal learning, popular education practitioners risk exposing themselves and learners to the tyranny of structurelessness (ed.: for more, see Jo Freeman’s seminal 1970s text The Tyranny of Structurelessness) - whereby hierarchies become established via the attempted negation of their very existence.

The rhetoric of popular education, with the specialised terms and concepts discussed in this article, raises questions of who has access to what information and who then controls the content of discussions and flows of dialogue. Both Arlene Goldbard and Joao Bosco Pinto have criticised the all-too-frequent attempts of self-styled activists to embark on ‘awareness raising’ crusades, involving the dissemination of pre-selected knowledge misleadingly branded as popular education. Although increasing numbers of practitioners are adopting popular education techniques in various settings, there is no possibility of an emancipatory encounter without confronting our own motives, and abandoning the mythology of consensus.

Theory aside, the practice of popular education is a sticky affair. With an arsenal of techniques that includes theatre, storytelling and art, popular education carries the risk of being adopted by liberal arts organisations or the kind of social movements that promote self-improvement over confrontational political action. As with any radical project, there exists the tendency to fascinate and attract lifestyle activists, and while this seems somewhat contradictory to its raison d’être, popular education is proving no exception. In spite of aiming itself squarely at politically marginalised communities, it is frequently co-opted as a tool for the left to wave around while only really putting it to any use within existing networks.

Part of the enthusiasm for ‘doing’ popular education stems from a global south fetishisation that has been increasingly widespread in Europe since the heyday of the alter-globalisation movement. The proliferation of the technique through peasant movements in India and Argentina triggers ‘outreach’ obsessives into a heroic fantasy of liberating the working class; while its long-standing connections to Latin American struggles also lend popular education a certain cachet to revolutionary communists. Popular educators need to move beyond an understanding of political marginalisation as poverty and small-holdings, and furthermore beyond popular education as the only means of developing critical consciousness. Framing the pedagogue as a missionary-liberator who radicalises the marginalised through supposedly emancipatory techniques is missing the point: “I am not a liberator. Liberators do not exist. The people liberate themselves.”

Popular education is not imperative for conscientisation, merely an approach to developing it. The international student protests that have been taking place over the past six months demonstrate that students are developing a critical political consciousness and, crucially, innovating and hybridising modes of action in direct response to understanding the conditions of our existence. Our marginalisation is not over land rights or indigenous practice, but it is still over our political agency. We are educated with the linguistic and creative skills to articulate our desires, but we cannot yet transcend the dialectical relationships that govern our lives. It is the political climate, not an educational paradigm, underpinning the conscientisation of today’s students.

In response to hooks’ comment, is there still a place for popular education when social movements emerge? Perhaps a useful way to see popular education is as a method of agitating for conscientisation where the conditions for this don’t already exist. This means recognising the goal of popular education as planned obsolescence. As an approach confounded with contradictions, perhaps it only reaches the point of resolution when its continued existence is no longer required. Are we radical enough to face the facts?

Inga works with popular education and anti-oppression practitioners across the UK on projects aiming to support local struggles and community self-defense. http://www.sowestand.com