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The Experiential Politics of Popular Education

It came to my attention recently that I’ve not seen (or don’t remember) a place where the politics embedded in popular education pedagogies are made explicit. Even finding the right language for this has been challenging, and I’ve searched under a number of terms. At best, this is described as the “values” of popular education, but even these areas don’t discuss explicitly the politics that are modeled in the practice of their pedagogy. My hopes that a simple list or framework of these embedded politics surfaced no immediate answers.

Experiential learning focuses on learning by doing. One does not learn political theory – one practices the politics. British psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion pioneered a more focused version of experiential learning in his Experiments with Groups. Bion recognized that groups are a fundamentally different unit of psychoanalytic practice from individuals, and that if individuals were to learn to interact in healthier ways in the world, they could, even needed, to practice in the context of the group. Thus Bion pushed for examination of one’s default relationships to social situations – for example, how one engages authority and the absence thereof. He also studied the ways groups themselves manifested characteristics, though that’s a little less relevant here. Like other insight-oriented psychoanalytic practice, the theory of change in Bion’s approach was that noticing might allow for more choices, which would enable potentially healthier choices in the future.

I’ve long been invested in popular education because of their explicit politics – which have always been revolutionary in nature, creating more communal, just, sustainable, caring worlds. The former specifically, whether Reggio Emilia, Highlander Folk School, or the work of Paulo Freire, all shared a more or less specific, explicit version of the world they hoped to create. However, my interest in participatory education and participatory methods has stemmed from the related belief that these methods, if done with a deeper extent of participatory involvement, share in common with popular education an implicit politics written into their pedagogical approaches.

This is referred to in some places as a “hidden curriculum.” Indeed, as written about the Paidea school,

“individualism, competitiveness and the acceptance of hierarchical authority, the dominant values of our culture, are subtly encouraged through schooling to this day (Whitty and Young, 1976; Giroux, 1988). Although not necessarily part of the openly designed public curriculum, these values are transmitted through the conditions of learning and the way the school operates. It is a form of “hidden curriculum” where implicit values and priorities are picked up at an unconscious level” (Haworth, 2012, p. 116)

Haworth, R. H. (Ed.). (2012). Anarchist pedagogies: Collective actions, theories, and critical reflections on education. PM Press.

Indeed, scholars of Paulo Freire argue that one cannot extract pedagogical principles from his work: rather, his form of popular education is a way of living in the world. These implicit values an priorities are, more precisely, picked up unconsciously as habits of mind (broad, abstract, orienting, habitual ways of thinking, feeling, and acting). Mezirow offers ethnocentrism as one example, so authoritarianism and neoliberalism seem like reasonable categories of examples as well. We thus might argue that there are ways that authoritarianism forms habits of mind, in that it shapes the ways we think, act, orient, and feel in relation to ideas, others, the world. A tremendous body of work documents the ways that our education system, but also things like the ways we resolve conflict, ageism (adult supremacy) and so on, inculcate us in authoritarianism, neoliberalism, etc.

As written by Anat Porat, in reference to a study on Reggio Emilia:

“The term democratic refers here to the description of the interpersonal relationships in everyday practice and not necessarily to formal social systems (Moss, 2009). A similar referral to democracy can be found in Dewey, who claims that democracy is ―primarily a mode of associated living embedded in the culture and social relationships of everyday life: “It is ―a personal way of individual life: … it signifies the possession and continual use of certain attitudes, forming personal character and determining desire and purpose in all the relations of life” (Dewey 1939, p. 2 cited in Moss, 2009). In other words, democracy is not just institutional, representative and concerned with equality before the law, but rather it is a society which makes choices and holds criticism, debate and dialogue in high esteem (Wisler, 2009).” (Porat, 2011, p. 33)

Porat, A. (2011). Conflict resolution among children in a Kindergarten class inspired by the Reggio Emilia Approach.

Let’s be more concrete for a moment. The Highlander Folk School supported the Citizenship Schools, which, embedded in communities throughout the South, taught black folks to read and write, accomplish daily literacy tasks like writing checks, how to pass Jim Crow voting tests, and to organize. These were explicit political acts, in addition to the traditional “passing on knowledge/skill” act of education. But there were underlying, alternate political realities being taught, modeled, and experienced as well. According to Moss, these are:

“The ‘democratic experimentalism’ model ―values certain attitudes, qualities and behaviours, whether in major decisions of state or in the everyday life of the family, nursery or school: plurality, respect for difference, dialogue, listening, deliberation, shared enquiry, critical judgement, co-operation, collective decision-making, individual freedom (Moss, 2009, p. 30).” (Porat, 2011, p. 34)

Here’s a few that I think are common across various forms of popular education:

  • Anti-authoritarian
    • Democratic decision-making
    • Nonviolent conflict resolution – Reggio, Paidea
    • Collective problem-solving with knowledges beyond global technical expertise
  • Ongoing personal, political development – conscientization
  • Collective agenda setting (setting the agenda determines the work)
  • Anti-alienation, anti-capitalist, local, cooperative economic arrangements

I intend to spell these out in greater detail in a future post. I believe there is evidence in the primary and secondary literature to support this as a list of experiential politics common to popular education work.

These experiences of alternate political realities give opportunities to experience and participate in different ways of constructing knowledge in the world, of solving problems together, and hence the moral imagination to explore a different type of world. The purpose is to establish, individually, in groups, and as communities, habits of mind and systems that embody a better kind of world we want to live in.

The primary difference in model between the Reggio Emilia and Paidea approaches and those of Paulo Freire and Highlander Folk School are that the former are working with young children who have little, comparatively, to unlearn, while the latter are working with adults who must unlearn deepset patterns of behavior that reinforce capitalist, colonialist, racist ideas and practices.

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