Presence, Power, and Popular Education…Part 1

A funny thing happened on the way to Part 4 of my 21st Century Anarchism post…I realized that there is some other theoretical groundwork that I needed to lay out for myself before getting into all of the revolutionary strategery and anarchistyness that I want to explore. Since so much of my understanding of anarchist work relates to education-as-organizing, I need to go deeper into my own ideas of popular education, and how I think they differ from what I see practiced, and practice myself, in Seattle. Thus, this series of posts.

Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed is one of my favorite books. I think it’s the only book I’ve read more than 3 times. Sure, I think it can be simplistic, and I think it’s kind of pretentious, especially with all the untranslated quotes and references (what’s up with that, anyway?). However, I think the core of the book is really important and still relevant to organizers and grassroots educators today. In fact, it’s still a core piece of my own theoretical framework and my own ideas of what revolutionary organizing should look like. I think that’s why I get so frustrated by how much I see “popular education” advocates (including myself even) misunderstanding and inadequately utilizing the book’s ideas. Maybe if we better applied and experimented with some of those ideas, we’d have more success as educators and organizers.

Here’s my problem: I think a lot of what is currently talked about as “popular education” these days is really nothing more than doing political education workshops with maybe a heightened level of participatory activities included. I think this is linked with a superficial reading of Freire’s ideas that boils them down to just his critique of the “banking method” of education. That is, we see Freire’s primary contribution as his critique of teachers who deposit knowledge into learners and practice top-down methods, as well as his proposal for more dialogical, participatory methods of education to replace the “banking method.” From there, we think popular education is all about organizing educational activities (workshops) in which people are allowed to share their own experiences and participate in games and brainstorms and small-group activities where they can use their personal experiences as a base to engage the content that is being presented/proposed by the facilitator. I think this is super-common. There are tons of curricula out there that are based around this understanding and application of Freire’s ideas. And I think they make for great, fun, dynamic workshops. It’s useful stuff. However, I think it’s only a shallow understanding of popular education, if it really can even be called popular education at all [I know that the School of Unity and Liberation in Oakland is clear in calling their stuff “political education” instead of popular education for similar reasons as to what I’m saying].

In my view, the ideas of Pedagogy of the Oppressed in particular and popular education in general contain entire levels of richness that cannot be captured in workshops or even in entire series of workshops. What about Freire’s ideas of confronting limit situations, of thematic universes, etc.? Getting specific, and getting beyond Freire’s own counterproductive jargon, I think that the elements of presence and power in popular education require a much larger space and community to achieve their full meaning. Dialogical popular education cannot be restrained to a workshop or classroom setting.

In this series of posts, I want to talk about these elements of presence and power and their relationship to popular education. And I want to do this with an eye toward making this stuff relevant to grassroots educators on the ground, as opposed to academics or classroom teachers (who probably have explored much of this stuff in their own forms). My concern is with how grassroots educators–folks who are already skilled and passionate about political education in study group and workshop settings–can deepen their work and their understandings of themselves as cultural workers and revolutionary organizers. Even more, I want to work this stuff out for myself, so that I personally have a better sense of the kind of organizer and educator that I want to be.

One last point before going further. I’ve gotta recognize that I haven’t read or studied up on this stuff in years, and so I know that there is probably tons of work and ideas about this stuff circulating around (maybe, probably even in Seattle) that I’m not even touching. And I KNOW that in places like the Bay Area of California, there is a lot of fascinating grassroots education work going on that goes beyond workshops and stuff. No doubt.

So, that said, this is my blog and I need to explore this stuff in my way. So that’s what I’m going to do. Feel free to read along and contribute as you’d like.

Currently Reading:

-Dispersing Power by Raul Zibechi