First Enliven, Then Enlighten: Popular Education and the Pursuit of Social Justice1 

Lee Williams

e-mail: leewill@utk.edu
Department of Sociology
University of Tennessee
Knoxville, TN

Contents

Introduction
Education for Social Change
Highlander and the Institute on Education for Social Change
Reflections on the Workshop
Theoretical Discussion
Popular Education and the University
Endnotes 
References 

Abstract

For educators in colleges and universities who are interested in doing education for social justice, popular education provides some valuable insights. I start with the question: What lessons can academics working in college classrooms learn from the theory and praxis of popular education? In the essay I briefly describe the nature of popular education. I then examine the reflections and experiences of a group of practicing popular educators by presenting an ethnography of a Highlander Research and Education Center workshop on Education for Social Change for Emerging Popular Education Centers. The ethnography is followed by an analysis of several of the main elements of popular education that allow educators to deal with the third dimension of power — the control of ideas. I conclude with some of my own thoughts on how popular education challenges educators at colleges and universities. The importance of the lessons learned in the workshop for social scientists in academic settings is grounded in the inter-connections among free spaces, resistance, and the control and production of knowledge.


Introduction

Sociology has long been concerned with the relationship between the institution of education and the process of social change. Changes in sociological ideas and in the kinds of questions that have been asked about education do not take place in a vacuum: they occur because of wider political economic changes in society. Recent developments such as the debates on multiculturalism, the contraction of manufacturing industry and the move to an information society, and low literacy rates have forced questions of the content and purposes of education onto the public agenda. Thus, sociological questions and research about education are an important part of a wider public debate both about the kind of society we live in now and about its possible future development.

As a graduate student in sociology I have searched for avenues to learn more about education and social change. While I found some openings in the university curriculum, my exploration of praxis-oriented approaches to education led me outside the scholarly community, where I discovered community-based popular education. There, for the first time in my graduate school experience, I found authentic connections between critical theory and praxis in doing education for social change.2 Popular education grows from a long and under explored tradition whereby working class people have created and maintained their own free spaces in which to do popular education for democracy.

Social scientists as educators in primary schools, technical schools, and colleges and universities have a great deal to learn from participatory approaches to education and research. I concur with Henry Giroux that "theory must be seen as the production of forms of discourse that arise from various specific social sites. Such theoretical discourse may arise from the universities, from peasant communities, from worker councils, or from within various social movements. Each of these spaces of resistance provides critical insights into the nature of domination and the possibilities for social and self emancipation of people, and they do so from the historical and social particularities that govern their meaning" (Giroux 1988: 119). The social spheres in which knowledge production and democratic collective action are fostered at the grassroots level are the spaces where sociologists can move from a pragmatic to a critical approach to education for social change. This would involve a movement away from an approach to education that is reactive, results-oriented, concerned with short-term, individualistic, reform-driven social changes, and responsive to the needs of bourgeois culture, toward an approach that is pro-active, process-oriented, concerned with long-term individual and collective empowerment and transformation of social structures, and is responsive to the needs of working people.

Critical theorists find that the well-documented, repressive, coercive, and stratified nature of education is not preeminently, the result of an unfortunate accident of history, or the inhuman dispositions of its practitioners. Education, is a key element in the reproduction and legitimation of a stratified society, and an important means of transmitting an ideology underpinning a bureaucratic, consumerist capitalism. The work of Antonio Gramsci (1971) and others has made clear that, at least in the west, the continuation of unequal and exploitative societies rests less on the brute, coercive apparatus of the state, than on the development of a shared consensus (hegemony) of aspirations and beliefs. Within such a perspective education rather than force plays a key role in maintaining an acceptance of the present distribution of power, resources, and experiences. Education is an important, if not the key component in the operation of social control in the US (Shapiro 1985). If, as I believe, an important part of the sociological endeavor is about questioning hegemonic ideas and aiding students to understand and redress the inherent inequalities in our political economic system, sociologists must shift from doing pragmatic education about social justice to doing popular education for social justice.

In order to move sociologists toward a critical understanding education for social justice, we can start with a question: What lessons can academics working in college classrooms learn from the theory and praxis of popular education? In this essay I examine the reflections and experiences of a group of practicing popular educators. First I briefly describe the nature of popular education. I then present an ethnography of a Highlander Research and Education Center workshop on Education for Social Change for Emerging Popular Education Centers. The ethnography is followed by an analysis of several of the main elements of popular education that allow educators to deal with the third dimension of power — the control of ideas. I conclude with some of my own thoughts on how popular education challenges educators at colleges and universities.

Education for Social Change

Education for social change is based in the interests of oppressed groups. The process involves people in critical analysis, so that they can, potentially, act collectively to change oppressive structures through participatory, creative, and empowering methods of educational practice (Arnold et al. 1991: 5). The term popular education, a translation of the Spanish educación popular, defines this approach. Freirian popular educators, promote "conscientization" as a key aim of this type of education. For radical educator Paulo Freire (1973: 51) conscientization refers to a learning process in which people, as knowing subjects, achieve a deepening awareness of both the socio-cultural reality that shapes their lives and of their capacity to transform that reality. In Southern and Eastern Africa the terms "people's education" or "education for self-reliance" are in common usage. In Asia activists speak of "education for mass mobilization" and of engaging in "participatory research." In Europe we often hear of "cultural animation" work, while in Canada and the United States "transformational education" has influenced development education, feminist pedagogy, community-based adult literacy programs, anti-racist education, and union education programs (Arnold et al. 1991: 22).

Popular education begins with the lived experience of the learners. These experiences, in their humanizing as well as oppressive dimensions, are explored and validated through dialogue. The method then moves to collective discussion about the possibilities of transforming the oppressive elements of experience, culminates in collective social action, and thus begins again. This dynamic of reflection and action, or "praxis," is central to transformational education approaches (Arnold et al. 1991; Freire 1973; Horton 1990; Shor 1992). Popular education is political in theory and in practice and committed to the subordinated sectors of any society. It promotes a dialogical interaction and mutual understanding between educators and learners, questioning power relations in the larger community, as well as in the individual classroom. Popular education breaks the vertical relationships typical in traditional education by demanding high levels of participation by the learners and the recognition of the role that their knowledge can play in both the production of new knowledge, and in the construction of a new society.

back to contents

Highlander and the Institute on Education for Social Change

The Highlander Research and Education Center is one example of a place that has been doing the work of socializing popular educational practices for over 60 years. Highlander is a residential adult education center advancing participatory democracy with working class people through an educational program based on popular education and participatory research. While working with Highlander as both a participant and facilitator in a number of workshops on education for social change, I have developed a host of questions about what it means to facilitate learning for social change, rather than teaching about social change. I have also learned something about the practice of popular education which I have tried to apply in my work with communities and in the college classroom.

Founded in 1932 in Monteagle, TN, by Myles Horton and Don West, and relocated in New Market, TN in 1972, Highlander Research and Education Center has always been dedicated to the belief that working-class people can learn to take charge of their lives and circumstance. As aptly stated in the title to Myles Horton's autobiography, Highlander has been in the struggle for social justice and participatory democracy for The Long Haul (Horton 1990). The praxis at Highlander is guided by a concern for social justice and an understanding of the need to reorient society from an autocratic, authoritarian bias, to an egalitarian, participatory democracy. Horton believed that the reason Highlander has been so successful is ". . . that you have to trust the people, you have to love the people, and you have to care for the people. You have to practice what you preach with people" (Conti and Fellenez, 1986:15). As a central location in which marginal groups carry on the struggle for a democratic society, and as a well-known place of resistance, Highlander offers insights into many of the principles of popular education.

While Highlander has served as an inspiration to many adult educators, its primary activity has been to work directly with grassroots communities for empowerment, rather than to systematically share its educational philosophy and pedagogical methods. But in the early 1990's, partly as a way of responding to the numerous requests of educators, activists, community leaders, and organizers to learn from its approach, Highlander began to offer a week long Institute for Education and Social Change. The Institute brings people together who are active in many types of education programs. Participants come from other residential education centers, unions, service organizations, grassroots member organizations, non-governmental organizations, colleges, universities, and other public and private educational facilities of all types. The Institute for Education and Social Change is designed to facilitate dialogue and action related to the practice of popular education and participatory research methods. These workshops provide a free space in which to strategize, exchange, and develop praxis-based educational strategies designed to upset the traditional balance of power in capitalist society.

My research grows directly from the discourse of workshop participants at the Institute for Education and Social Change for Popular Education Centers held at Highlander on May 8-12, 1993. The report is based on my own participant observation, participants' written comments and notes, newsprint used to record major points, and audio-tapes of the workshop.3 The Institute for Education and Social Change addressed issues faced by both established and emerging popular residential education centers. Workshop participants hailed from twelve states and provinces in the US and Canada, including groups affiliated with formal academic institutions attempting to bridge the gap between the university and the community, organizations already pursuing community education programs, and members of several fledgling residential education centers. They were working on a wide range of issues, including community economic development, community and university relations, land rights, natural resources, problems in traditional education, homelessness, leadership training, and community organizing.

Highlander staff structured the Institute around three key problematics that emerged from the participants' written thoughts prior to the workshop: (1) the principles and practices of popular education; (2) the role of the popular educator; and (3) operating a residential education center. This paper addresses only the first two subject areas to show how popular education is a viable and necessary process for creating progressive social change in a number of settings, including colleges and universities.

back to contents

Reflections on the Workshop

The workshop unofficially started on Saturday evening with a gathering at the Horton House, providing most of the participants in the workshop a chance to get to know each other at an informal and friendly level.4 After lunch the following day we began our opening session in the Highlander Center. We began in traditional Highlander fashion by going around the circle and introducing ourselves and our reasons for attending the workshop. Some thirty people came to the Institute seeking a variety of tools and techniques to take back home to their communities where the real work of grassroots social change takes place. Reasons were many: translating peoples' needs to those in power; doing better political education; understanding how to bring participatory techniques and ideas into university settings; deepening understanding of the philosophy of popular education to better integrate theory and practice; linking urban and rural peoples; and strategizing on how to be more helpful to the needs of community.

Building the Foundation for Popular Education

After completing the circle we broke into small groups for some concrete discussion with people from our own local communities. Workshop facilitators asked each group to draw a visual representation of where they were at that moment in terms of a popular education program, and what directions they would like their organization to go. Each group shared their vision, allowing us to more deeply understand the contextual and cultural environments in which they worked.

After a break for supper and some time to relax we gathered again in our circle to listen to a chataqua by Frank Adams on the history of popular or folk education. Frank is an activist, writer, former director and longtime friend of Highlander. He provided us with an overview of the development of folk education throughout the twentieth century. Non-formal education centers can arise for a variety of reasons both for and against social justice. The centers referred to by Adams are those based in, for, and on a participatory democratic platform in practice and in theory. In these spaces peoples' experiences are transformed through an educational process and praxis informed by critical theory, radical pedagogy, and participatory research method.5 

Here follows some of Adams' remarks.6  An organizer from Chicago summed up the importance of the chataqua when he stated, These comments led us to speak for some time on the general nature of safe places. A political educator from New Mexico pointed out that "safe doesn't necessarily mean physically safe; it's a different type of safe, of somehow getting the strength to do what you need to do in spite of the fact that it might not be safe. Places aren't always physically safe but they are safe because they are the right places to be." Another participant offered that for her, "safety is not an option right now . . . we may move toward safety, which to me is creating a space that actually accommodates all of us with integrity and authenticity. I think this really packs a challenge." Physical and psychic safety are not guaranteed. They are to be worked toward whether in a college classroom, in a residential adult education center, or in a living room. The goal as a popular educator is to create as safe a space as possible while grappling with the intense issue of oppression in its many forms: race, class, gender, age, physical disability, etc.

Questions and comments which emerged from the evening's discussion had to do with understanding in a practical way what happens when spaces are created that bring together those from different backgrounds. "How do we create a space to learn where we can cross that mentality; a place where that struggle can happen? What sorts of things can we as educators do to facilitate free, safe, and effective interactions among persons of common or uncommon backgrounds to allow for experientially based, critical learning?" These would seem key questions for educators in any formal or non-formal learning environment. According to the group of community organizers from Chicago, what popular educators need to understand is that, ". . . we have no enemies; what we have are brothers and sisters who don't understand . . . yet!"

The night's discussion concluded with some debate on whether or not a popular educator needs a physical place to do critical and emancipatory education. Those who felt that defined space for popular education is a necessity are best summed up by a community organizer from Massachusetts who believes, Others believed that physical space wasn't the necessity, rather the important elements are the attitudes and interactions created by the learners and the popular educators wherever the learning takes place. Frank Adams summed up this perspective when he adjourned the session by saying, Some Principles of Popular Education

The following morning we began a workshop session based on the values and methods that underlie popular education. The evening before, workshop participants had challenged the Highlander staff to name the principles which guide their work. In response to the challenge we began the Monday morning session by watching and listening to excerpts from a videotape Adventures of A Radical Hillbilly, in which Bill Moyers interviewed Myles Horton. After viewing the tape, workshop participants named the principles of Highlander's educational approach that we heard during the interview: After naming the principles that guide the work at Highlander, an educator from a folk school in Maine raised an important question. "What about the responsibility of intervening educationally? Is it possible to rely only on people's experiences, or at times must we broaden them in order to do the type of educating we are talking about?" After some debate on the merits of experientially based learning, a long-time Highlander staffer responded, "Highlander does go beyond experiential learning. We intervene and at times do not admit that we are really pushing people. It is one of the least spoken aspects of the approach." A member of the Hawaiian delegation of political and cultural educators believed that admitting to pushing is extremely honest. To illustrate this point she told us a story about a mother and her baby. After this discussion we broke into five small groups to list the methods and principles which guided our work as popular educators, and the difficulties of putting these principles into practice. After the breakout session we returned to the large group to report back and discuss the issues that we raised.

A critical part of the discourse on principles and practices first involved a discussion of the learning process. Participants determined that "all steps in the learning process are to be affirmed, even the first small steps." "Whether one is working with young or old, all need to experience things for themselves and be allowed to learn and grow by discussing experiences." The experiential basis of popular education can not be underestimated. According to the director of a South Carolina folk school, "Not every step in the learning process is a forward one. Many times we reach the wrong conclusion. Some decisions, assessments and actions will be exactly what are necessary for the situation and others will be completely off the mark. The important thing to remember is that all these experiences can and should encompass critical learning."

One of the Highlander staff then shared a story about a community doing economic development work to illustrate the process of experiential learning. As illustrated by this example, a key for doing experiential education is that learning must take place in conjunction with collective action. Even though some missteps may be taken in the long-term struggle for justice, opportunities for critical learning take place at each step in the process. In fact, as each step unfolded in the example above, it afforded individuals an increasingly deepened critical perspective on how the world works. Thus, as a popular educator from a South Carolina folk school put it, "sometimes the learning process must take place even though you, the educator, don't agree with it." But throughout all of it, an effective popular educator will attempt to make connections and build relationships for future learning, empowerment, and action.8

After our discussion of the learning process each small group proceeded to identify the main features of popular education based on their experiences. The overriding principle of popular or participatory education for one group involved creating educational praxis in terms of people over institutions. Educators "cannot become a slave to bureaucracy--even when you're in the bureaucracy." As a teacher, one "needs to always see people as self-conscious political actors," and to "believe in the self determination of the people you work with." The work done by a popular educator "must be rooted in a commitment to both peace and justice" and "identify the links between the expressed needs of the people in the community and the resources and power-base of the status quo." The basis of popular education is to work with individuals as individuals. This practice radically alters the traditional model of education where one teaches toward the median. The underlying commitments to the self-determination of individuals and to a just and peaceful society separate popular education from traditional educational forms which aid and abet the dominant class in maintaining unequal power relations in society.

The basis of effective popular education for the second and third groups is connected to social action. Popular education is "education through doing social action and based always on the experiences of the learner." Education is conducted through translation, not interpretation. "Popular educators must be translators of critical consciousness, not interpreters of it; translators in the way that we share all the information at our disposal around a particular problem and let the people themselves sift through it to find and establish what may be useful in solving the problem. It is not up to us as educators to interpret the problem or the solution for the community. It is our job to facilitate a critical learning process. If we only pass on our own interpretations an important step in the conscientization process is lost." People must be allowed to interpret their experiences, data, or information for themselves. For, according to another of the Massachusetts educators, "It is when analyzing these collective interpretations through critical analysis that popular educators must seek to establish the right questions for any given period in history. This is what a popular educator must bring to the table."

The focus of the fourth and fifth groups emphasized similar themes, finding that "Popular education is based on the idea that it must move with the times and in order to be effective must be committed to and directly intertwined with dynamic, on-going, progressive social action." They also believed that the popular educational process is one "that takes place over time and that it is based on constant learning by all participants in the process, at their own level of development" Popular education must be based on an approach that "aims for simplicity while not losing the complexity of the political and economic dimensions of any problem area." A large facet of popular education is to reconceptualize issues of power. Group five identified a major feature of the approach as "a perspective which turns upside down traditional notions of power" finding that the key to popular education is to, "make the shift from seeing oppression to seeing resistance to oppression."

Overall, five significant principles emerge from the discourse on the principles and practice of popular education: (1) popular education is committed to the self-determination and emancipation of subordinated groups within society; (2) people are to be seen as self-conscious political actors capable of changing themselves and the social structure; (3) loyalties are developed and maintained in terms of people, not institutions; (4) the endeavor of popular education is to learn to critically analyze individual and collective experiences in conjunction with participatory social action and to build on and transform these analyzed experiences in a critical way towards progressive social change; and (5) popular education is about facilitating learning through practice based on peer teaching in which all persons involved learn with and from each other.

The Politics of Popular Education

The Monday afternoon circle began with several participants sharing their experiences of the people they worked with (their constituencies), how they worked, and why. After these presentations the workshop participants attended one of three discussions pertaining to the role of the educator: working across cultures; choosing issues and beginning points for critical education; and the general role of the popular educator. For the purpose of this article I only present information developed from the discourse in the general role of the educator and the choosing issues groups. The small group that dealt with strategies for working across cultures had a unique and powerful experience based on especially personal stories.

A focal point of the discourse around the general role of the educator was the distinction, or the lack of it, between organizing and educating. The discussion surrounded the differences and similarities between the organizer's and educator's approaches to social change. Participants saw community organizing models as "issue driven, reactive, results oriented, and concerned with short-term goals," while viewing popular education as "process driven, pro-active, seeking transformation, and interested in long-term changes." In fact, one of the Highlander staff noted that, "Maybe it's more than organizers or educators. I self-identify as a campaigner, but whatever one chooses to name it the point is — there are many good organizers and bad organizers and many good educators and bad educators. The task is really to define what good organizers and educators do since popular education makes both roles part and parcel of the same mission."

While discussing the process of creating learning situations based on the goals of empowerment and liberation participants in the small group identified several keys to the popular educators role. "Throughout learning activities rules and norms about process must be identified and agreed to early on." Conflict situations may arise but establishing the ground rules can avoid many of them. Identifying and following the ground rules is not only the purview of the educator, since "we need to allow all members of our group to be gatekeepers as to whether or not process is happening." Most important, and one of the most difficult things for teachers, is to "let go of power and promote other leaders." An educator isn't the one who always has an answer, much less the right answer. While it may be an overstatement to say, "a good popular educator will resist the temptation to say something really insightful," a popular educator should concentrate on striving to "learn from and with the community to make connections that lead to action."

In other words, educators can no longer view themselves as experts. "Educators must not just teach at people, they must help them to learn." If the goal of education is to foster a wide ranging democratically based leadership, ". . . educators need to work with the community as the source of information and experience." In fact, "the goal of any organizer or educator should be to work themselves out of a job, not become the entrenched person at the top of the leadership hierarchy." Critical educators need to see people as, "self conscious political actors" and to "believe in the self-determination of the people with whom you are working." We must begin to "let people make their own interpretations of events or problems based on their own experiences." The major role of the educator then becomes to "validate people's experiences," and help them to reflect critically upon these experiences, "to ask the right questions." Education for democratic social change can only truly take place by creating a framework that encompasses popular knowledge, critical consciousness, and an analysis of lived experiences, all coupled with progressive social action. 

A concrete matter troubling a number of participants revolved around which issues to work with and how to choose those issues. A member of the Hawaiian contingency stated that part of her way of operating within the community was to emphasize reciprocity, "The goal must be to find equalizers within community dialogues, between extremes in wealth and poverty and between the intellect and heart. Reciprocity is what needs to be articulated as a value." Another member of the Hawaiian delegation found that the early steps in choosing issues require that "educators become cultural community translators. By this I mean to listen closely to the people with the grievance. In other words the issues and problems must be of direct concern to the people you work with. A group struggling to preserve their way of life, such as the indigenous population in Hawaii battling the land and resort developers, can't be expected to be interested in issues related to the pro-choice movement." Educators in all environments must also strive to be in-tune with the learners in our classrooms and listen closely to the problems people really have, not the problems we think they should have.

Participants found that another step when attempting to define issues and questions is to re-name and re-define the assets of the community in terms identified within the community itself. "To change the nature of the questions we raise, we must change the focus on the binoculars." "Community educators should not pose the questions, they must help the constituency struggle to come up with their own questions and then answers, then back to questions and on and on." Key factors when choosing issues include "becoming aware of key issues and decision-making process in the community in which you operate"; "paying attention to the decision-making processes that impact on the group"; "gathering information, although one can only decide what information to gather after having begun to 'pay attention' to how decisions are made"; "monitoring of the decision making process"; and "taking actions such as lobbying, advocacy, organizing, and voting." Choosing issues that are authentic to the community and developing methods to grapple with them, requires an emphasis on popular participation and on popular ownership of the information created in the process.

The popular educator needs to embrace radically different relations with learners, and must "understand the dynamic of the ownership of the information that is shared." Social scientists and educators must be involved in the creation of popular knowledge in which the owners of the information are the people themselves. "Before we can accomplish our goal of a more democratic society people must reclaim what they already know." In such work, "research becomes a process of developing peoples knowledge and simultaneously of organizing and awareness building." It is at once necessary to be "honest and accountable with your own self, others, and the agenda." All parties involved in gathering data are "part of the process and share equally in the production of the knowledge that takes place at whatever level the critical consciousness of the individual." Academics can neither play nor fulfill the role of the traditional expert. Rather, they must operate as facilitators. Scientists and educators can no longer be the owners of expert, cultural, informational knowledge, nor may they lay claim as the sole owners of the material gathered while doing primary research. Scientists must understand the complexities of the information dynamic from the perspective of oppressed groups. An alternative research model envisions a participatory experience in which both communities and academics benefit from the research. This participatory research model involves the community in defining the issues that need to be addressed from the conceptualization of the action research project, includes them as democratic partners throughout all facets of the research process, and offers the community control of the information that is generated.

The report back to the large group on the discussion of the role of a good popular educator provided a summary of a number of key attributes: having respect for people; knowing when and how to validate peoples experience(s); being properly prepared to provide an effective learning experience and environment, and doing your best to have the right questions; maintaining clear vision while helping to heal others; being responsible and flexible to persons and situations; understanding the privileges one holds as a convenor; and being extremely process conscious. In a practical sense the role of the popular educator can be seen as one driven by the "need to think through problems with all learners to the point that you can begin to understand, address, and begin to undo what's wrong." This role cannot be taught, it must be learned by doing, and continually informed by actions and reflection on the part of the popular educator.

After dinner and a short break we came together on Monday evening for some cultural sharing and a discussion of the importance of integrating culture in popular education. Throughout Highlander's history, people's songs, stories, and other cultural forms have played an integral role in the educational format and process for students attending workshops. The evening proved to be an intensely personal one as people shared individual and family stories related to their names. From the events of the evening and the discussion generated the following day, the interconnection between authentic people's culture and education for social change proved a powerful one.

Tuesday was spent dealing with concrete issues of importance to those thinking about or actually operating a residential education center. The workshops dealt with issues of staffing, administering, managing, and funding residential education programs, networking with other groups and organizations, workshop planning and curriculum, participatory research, field work, and more. We attended a square dance on Tuesday evening and finished the Institute on Wednesday morning, when we wrapped-up our last session by using the drawings we made in the opening circle to answer the questions: "Where do we go from here?" and "What are your plans when you get back home?" One of my plans as I returned home was to share in some broader fashion what we learned at the workshop. Toward that end, over the last few years, I have grappled with these ideas and issues throughout my graduate coursework related to adult education, political sociology, and participatory research. Based on my work I will now attempt to address in a more theoretical way the nature of the discourse of the workshop participants at the Institute for Education and Social Change for Emerging Popular Residential Education Centers.

back to contents

Theoretical Discussion

For educators in colleges and universities who are interested in creating transformational social change rather than supporting the status quo, popular education provides some valuable insights into the relationship between power and education. The importance of the lessons learned in the workshop for social scientists in academic settings is grounded in the inter-connections among free spaces, resistance, and the control and production of knowledge.

A topic we returned to a number of times throughout the workshop is that of the role of power in education. How is it conceptualized? How do we alter the power imbalances that exist in society, in our communities, and in our classrooms? Whoever has power over the control and production of knowledge shapes consciousness about class, race, gender, etc. The problem of the working class when they have little or no control over what knowledge is produced, for whom, or why, is that this powerlessness erodes its ability to create consciousness. Educators who are making free spaces for critical thinking and trying to redefine power relations with and among learners only begins the process of deepening individuals' critical consciousness of the power imbalances inherent in the classroom, in our institutions, and in society as a whole. Popular education only happens when learners are connected to social action aimed at creating democratic and progressive changes in the institutional structure of society. Popular education is participation in collective action, built from the ground-up, through the production of people's knowledge, using participatory approaches to education, in order to question and alter traditional relations of power. The connection between popular education and social action challenges the unequal power distribution in our present society.

In order to do popular education it is necessary for educators to create spaces where democratic relations and open dialogue are fostered and maintained. Sarah Evans and Harry Boyte (1986: 18) find that "particular sorts of public places in the community, free spaces, are the environments in which people are able to learn a new self-respect, a deeper and more assertive group identity, public skills, and values of cooperation and civic virtue." Put simply, free spaces are settings between private lives and large-scale institutions where ordinary citizens can act with dignity, independence, and vision. A college classroom is certainly connected to a larger institution, but it can and does provide an excellent setting where a popular educator can create free space. Democratic action in society is dependent on these types of free spaces, where people can experience schooling in citizenship and learn a vision of the common good in the course of struggling for change.

Powerless groups are, by definition, marginal actors within the political economic system. The fact that the powerless are considered marginal by the powerful in society has created opportunities for "free spaces" to prosper where the "hidden transcript" of resistance may grow. James C. Scott (1990), defines the term "public transcript" as a shorthand way of describing the open interaction between subordinates and those who dominate; the term "hidden transcript" is used to define the discourse which takes place "offstage" beyond direct observation by power holders. Inasmuch as the major historical forms of domination have presented themselves in the form of a metaphysics, a religion, or a worldview, they have provoked the development of more or less equally elaborate replies in the hidden transcript (Scott 1990:115).

The elaboration of hidden transcripts depends not only on the creation of relatively unmonitored physical locations and free time but also a counter ideology—a negation—that effectively provides a framework for a host of resistant practices invented in self-defense by any subordinate group (Scott 1990: 118). The form counter ideologies take depends on the active human agents who create and disseminate them. In terms of education, the social scientist's public transcript can be seen in publications like Teaching Sociology. The hidden transcript is that of the practitioners of critical and emancipatory education for social change based on participatory and democratic principles in grassroots educational settings like the Highlander Research and Education Center. The hidden transcript of popular education offers access to an understanding of power in the form of resistant educational practice.

In his concept the "third dimension of power," Steven Lukes argues that we must allow for, ". . . consideration of the many ways in which potential issues are kept out of politics whether through the operation of social forces and institutional practices or through individuals' decisions" (1974: 24; italics added). Lukes postulates that, "the most effective and insidious use of power is to prevent conflict from arising in the first place" (1974: 23). In other words a key attribute of power is to shape consciousness through control of education, communication, socialization, and culture. As we begin to understand this third dimension of power, we can also begin to more effectively develop strategies to build social movements and empower individuals and collectives. The third dimension of power suggests that educational theorists and practitioners must enter the murky waters of socialization, media, culture, knowledge and information control, and the shaping of beliefs and ideologies, in order to understand the role of power and education for social change. At the core of such a political education is an alternative reading of the style, rituals, language, systems of meaning, and relations to power that inform the cultural terrains of subordinate groups. . . it is about organizing against the third dimension of power.

A dialogical perspective of power and education for social change is offered by Brazilian popular educator, Paulo Freire (1971, 1973, 1985). Power is viewed as both a negative and positive force, its character dialectical, and its mode of operation always more than simply repressive. For Freire power is seen to work on and through people. Domination is never so complete that power is experienced exclusively as a negative force, yet power is at the basis of all forms of behavior in which people resist, struggle, and fight for a better world. In a general sense, Freire's theory of power and his demonstration of its dialectical character serve the important function of broadening the spheres and terrains on which power operates. Power, in this instance, is not exhausted in those public and private spheres by governments, ruling classes, and other dominant groups. It is more ubiquitous and is expressed in a range of oppositional public spaces and spheres that traditionally have been characterized by the absence of power and thus any form of resistance. Freire's view of power suggests not only an alternative perspective to those radical theorists trapped in the straitjacket of despair and cynicism, it also stresses that there are always cracks, tensions, and contradictions in various social spheres where power can be exercised as a positive force in the name of resistance (Giroux 1988: 114-115).

All of this suggests taking seriously the cultural capital of oppressed peoples. By developing critical and analytical tools to examine culture, and by keeping in touch with dominant definitions of knowledge, popular educators can analyze all forms of cultural capital for their usefulness and for the ways in which they bear on the logic of domination. The issue here is that radical educators recognize that the cultural capital of the subaltern provides diverse and critical insights into the nature of domination and the possibilities for social and self emancipation. The relationship needed between grassroots academics and their community collaborators is a mutual respect forged in the criticism and the need to struggle against all forms of domination.

In the struggle to create a praxis-driven education aimed at creating resistance to domination, critical theory and human agency are the basic categories used to analyze educational experiences. A pedagogy based on understanding oppression in terms of resistance, rather than control, offers new possibilities for creating critical and emancipatory educational experiences for learners in our class rooms. As Willis (1977) contends, theories of resistance point to new ways of constructing a radical pedagogy by developing analyses of the ways in which class and culture combine to offer the outlines for a cultural politics. Although studies of resistance point to those social sites and spaces in which dominant culture is encountered and challenged by subordinate groups, they generally do not adequately conceptualize the historical development of the conditions that promote and reinforce contradictory modes of resistance and struggle. The issue here is that there have been too few attempts by social theorists to understand how subordinate groups embody and express a combination of reactionary and progressive behaviors—behaviors that embody ideologies both underlying the structure of social domination and containing the logic necessary to overcome it (Aronowitz and Giroux, 1985: 100).

If culture and the construction of consciousness are important to resistance, as Evans and Boyte (1986), Lukes (1974), Scott (1990), and Willis (1977), suggest, how then does this translate to the political work of using education as a tool for empowerment? A first step is to understand the process by which resistance is developed and codified. This involves investigations into the underlying principles of popular education and how practitioners of popular education carry out their work. It is only after examining the actual theory and practice of popular education that we can begin to move from an analysis of individual resistors to the socialization of resistant educational practices.

back to contents

Popular Education and the University

It is a difficult task for any individual to begin to unlearn the dominant social paradigm and to see the new possibilities and doors critical thinking and educating can open. We are all informed to some degree or another by the hegemonic ideologies of the day (e.g., capitalism over all other economic forms, free market ideology over planned markets, representative democracy over all other democratic forms, individualism over collectivism). In order to create and foster critical consciousness in academic classes educators need to facilitate critical learning rather than demand rote memorization. Educators have to redefine their role and seek participation by all, value each individual's experience, and become the persons who ask good questions, not the ones with the answers. Popular educators teaching for social justice in college classes need to be willing to experiment with the learning process and explore new and old educational forms. Educators must also realize that they are political actors in their own right and have biases about the way education is done. Only when values are made clear can educators begin to work toward a more just society.

Popular education requires a conceptual and practical shift from envisioning only oppression to seeing resistance to oppression. The subaltern must have voice. Most academic research and energies are guided in support of the status quo (e.g., tenure, promotion, grant moneys). If we as educators and researchers want to foster active participants in the political and cultural events of the day, we need to offer opportunities to practice and experience participatory principles in our class rooms wherever they may be. Popular education is not only suited for use in community-based educational settings; it can and should be used at all levels and in all facets of the places and spaces that make up the fabric of our educational system.

Popular education has generally been practiced in communities, where there is a constituency that has already determined that they have a problem in their own family, community, state, or society, and that they need to do something about it. Sociology classes are typically attended by students who are there because university or program requirements demand their attendance; they are not there to change the world, but to get a degree and a white-collar job, which helps to support the existing political economic system and maintain the unequal power relations in society. Some academics teach in environments in which their students are primarily white, from affluent and privileged backgrounds, empowered by the system, and who feel downright entitled to succeed, even at the expense of others for whom they may have little empathy, understanding, or regard. Popular education principles, whereby topics are chosen democratically, educators pose questions and listen carefully, students share experiences and ideas, and together educators and students analyze and reflect critically on what they have said, can still be used to enhance critical learning in the college classroom.

It is my understanding that the basis of popular education is to use individual and collective experience as a base from which to critically analyze the humanizing and dehumanizing aspects of those experiences. Although the group of people an educator works with may be comprised of the "privileged class," experiences can nevertheless still provide a basis for critical analysis. The popular educator would see profit in the critical engagement of that elite experience, for the experiences of students are not false: they are real and need to be understood that way. In a traditional class teachers generally begin by defining the subject matter and the proper feelings to have about the material rather than by asking students to define their sense of the subject and feelings about it, and building from there. The point is that the students' voices and words are the main points from which a participatory class begins its critical investigation into the workings of our present social system. While a classroom based in the principles of popular education cannot transform an institution or society by itself, it can offer students critical education of high quality and experiences of democratic learning. Participation and effective growth are not brought about by lecturing students on the values of participation and democracy; rather, the class itself is structured so that students reflect critically on meaningful questions and influence the direction of the syllabus.

I have no absolute solution as to how to create democracy and participation in the college classroom. What I do know is that in order to move education in a democratic and empowering direction a different form of interaction between both educators and learners and between learners and learners is necessary. Practitioners of popular education seek to produce a pedagogy based on participatory and democratic relations of power in which "non-authoritarian social relationships that support dialogue and communication become indispensable for questioning the meaning and nature of knowledge, and peeling away the hidden structures of reality" (Giroux, 1981: 133). Free spaces are created in social environments where persons can learn to think about and critically analyze the world around them. The popular classroom offers a chance to hear the largely silent voices of students. I agree with Ira Shor that "[t]he empowering classroom can open [students'] voices for expression rarely heard before. Their voices are an untapped and unexpected universe of words rich in thought and feeling. From it, students and teachers can create knowledge that leaves behind the old disabling education in search for new ways of being and knowing" (1992: 54). By embracing and promoting popular education in the academic classroom sociologists can, in a small way, stop reproducing existing power relations within society.

As a sociologist and educator I am concerned with the intersection between the sociological theories of education and the actual practices of educators. A central concern of this report has been to identify the underlying principles of popular education that allow us to deal with the third dimension or the structural aspects of power. Popular education, resistance, and theories or power suggest that sociologists interested in doing education for social change must develop a deeper sociological imagination and appreciation regarding critical approaches to education. This means that academics must look beyond traditional schools and institutions to alternative sites of resistance where democratic education is actually practiced. It requires more investigations into the social spheres that make up the few free spaces that offer oppressed people the autonomy to develop and practice resistant forms of knowledge production.

How sociologists as public intellectuals practice education in their own classrooms and how their scientific research defines education help to shape and frame the wider debate on the nature of education for our students and for society at large. Popular education centers based on participatory education principles offer academics an alternative educational perspective founded on participatory principles upon which to base our theory and praxis in the classroom and to inform the public debate about what education should be about. In order to move the debate on the role of education and societal development toward the goal of social justice for all, sociologists cannot be neutral. Education for social justice must be informed by practice dedicated to the collective empowerment of learners and grounded in resistance to the day-to-day operation of the political and economic system in which we live here and now. Sociologists can deepen their understanding of how popular education is practiced in free spaces where the hidden transcript of resistance is growing. We then need to work to introduce the praxis of popular education into academic classrooms. It is only then that sociologists will be able to shift from simply teaching about social justice to doing education for social justice.

back to contents

Endnotes

1. I would like to thank the workshop participants at the 1993 Institute for Education and Social Change and the staff at Highlander for their assistance and cooperation in making this project possible. This paper was originally presented at the 1995 Southern Sociological Meetings in Atlanta, GA under the title "First Enliven, Then Enlighten: Popular Education, Free Spaces, and the Pursuit of Social Justice." I would like to thank Drs. Randy Stoecker, Sam Marullo, and David Tandy for their critical reading and insightful comments and suggestions which helped to improve this subsequent version of my paper.

2. I owe a special thanks to John Gaventa, Professor of Sociology, at the University of Tennessee, for challenging my perceptions of what education and learning can be all about, for creating the free space that made possible my intimate association with the Highlander Research and Education Center, and for the close reading and comments on this paper which helped to solidify my thinking on the relationship between popular education and the university.

3. A note on usage. Throughout the ethnographic sections of the paper I try to utilize as much as I can material which is taken directly from the workshop itself. Where possible I have tried to attribute the quotes to the speaker. Where this is not possible I simply enclose these ideas and comments in quotes. Unattributed quotes are taken from sources (group presentations, newsprint, and audio-tapes), where individual voice is indeterminable.

4. The Horton House is the former residence of the founder and long-time director of Highlander, Myles Horton. The house is located on the 100 acre Highlander campus at the top of Bays Mountain and provides a panoramic view of the surrounding Smoky Mountains.

5. For more detailed information on critical theory see Evans and Boyte 1986; Giroux 1983; Gramsci 1971; Lather 1986; Weiler 1988; on radical pedagogy see Freire 1970, 1973, 1978, 1985; Horton 1972, 1990; Horton and Freire 1990; and on participatory research methods see Fals-Borda and Rahman 1991; Gaventa 1991; Maguire 1987; Park et al. 1993.

6. I would like to express my appreciation to Frank Adams for allowing me to present these ideas. I share a large piece of the Adams' chataqua to offer historical context to this type of popular education and to provide the context for the discourse on popular education which emerged throughout the workshop. As a participant and observer of the process, I believe that the substance and nature of this presentation shaped the direction of the Institute. These ideas are explored more fully in a forthcoming publication by Mr. Adams.

7. For more detailed information on Highlander's philosophy and approach to education see Highlander Research and Education Center (1989); Adams (1975); Horton (1990); and the videotape, Adventures of a Radical Hillbilly. (1981). These items are available through Highlander Research and Education Center, 1959 Highlander Way, New Market, TN 37820.

8. Paulo Freire (1973) developed a three-step model for understanding development leading to critical consciousness. The three levels, intransitive, semi-transitive, and critical transitive, are thought sometimes to exist in a pure state but can overlap. Intransitive consciousness denies the power of human beings to change their lives or society. The intransitive person thinks that what happens in life and society is controlled by inscrutable or divine forces, by an all powerful elite, or by dumb luck and accidents. The intransitive persons accepts or even celebrates the status quo. A person with semi-transitive consciousness believes in cause and effect and in the human power to learn and to change things. The semi-transitive individual does not connect the pieces of reality into meaningful wholes but rather acts on parts in a disconnected way. This unintegrated view of the world does not perceive how separate parts of society condition each other or how a whole social system is implicated in producing single effects in any one part. Semi-transitive thought is partially empowered because it accepts human agency in the making of personal and social change. This type of thinking is reformist insofar as it leads to partial or contradictory changes. The final stage, critical consciousness, is what allows people to make broad connections between individual experience and social issues, between single problems and the larger social system. The critically conscious individual connects personal and social domains when studying or acting on any problem or subject matter. For an excellent overview of this model see Ira Shor (1992: 112-135).

back to contents

References

Adams, Frank with Myles Horton. 1975. Unearthing the Seeds of Fire: The Idea of Highlander. Winston-Salem, NC: John F. Blair.

Arnold, Rick, Bev Burke, Carl James, D'Arcy Martin, and Barb Thomas. 1991. Educating for a Change. Toronto, Ontario: Between the Lines Publishing and the Doris Marshall Institute for Education and Social Action.

Aronowitz, Stanley and Henry A. Giroux. 1985. Education Under Siege: The Conservative, Liberal and Radical Debate Over Schooling. South Hadley, MA: Bergin and Garvey.

Bledsoe, Thomas. 1969. Or We'll All Hang Separately: The Highlander Idea. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.

Conti, Gary and Robert Fellenez. 1986. "Myles Horton: Ideas That Have Withstood the Test of Time." Adult Literacy and Basic Education 10(1): 1-18.

Evans, Sara M. and Harry C. Boyte. 1986. Free Spaces: The Sources of Democratic Change in America. New York: Harper and Row.

Fals-Borda, Orlando and Mohammad Anisur Rahman (eds.). 1991. Action and Knowledge: Breaking the Monopoly with Participatory Action Research. New York: Apex Press.

Freire, Paulo. 1970. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Continuum.

_______. 1973. Education for Critical Consciousness. New York: Continuum.

_______. 1978. Pedagogy in Process. New York: Continuum.

_______. 1985. The Politics of Education. South Hadley, MA: Bergin and Garvey.

Gaventa, John. 1991. "Toward a Knowledge Democracy: Viewpoints on Participatory Research in North America." In Action and Knowledge: Breaking the Monopoly with Participatory Action Research. Orlando Fals-Borda and Mohammad Anisur Rahman (eds.). New York: Apex Press.

Giroux, Henry A. 1981. Ideology, Culture, and the Process of Schooling. Lewes, England: The Falmer Press.

_______. 1983. Theory and Resistance in Education. South Hadley, MA: Bergin and Garvey.

________. 1988. "Culture, Power and Transformation in the Work of Paulo Freire: Toward a Politics of Education" Teachers as Intellectuals: Toward a Critical Pedagogy of Learning. Henry Giroux (ed.). South Hadley, MA: Bergin and Garvey.

Glen, John. 1988. Highlander: No Ordinary School. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky.

Gramsci, Antonio. 1971. Selections from the Prison Notebooks. Quintin Hoare and Geoff Nowell-Smith (eds.). New York: International Publisher

Highlander Research and Education Center. 1989. Highlander Research and Education Center:: An Approach to Education Presented Through a Collection of Writings. New Market, TN: Highlander Center.

Horton, Myles. 1972. "A People's Movement to Liberate Education." Cutting Edge 4(1), Fall.

with Bill Moyers. 1981. Adventures of a Radical Hillbilly. Videotape. New Market, TN: Highlander Center.

with Judith and Herbert Kohl. 1990. The Long Haul: An Autobiography of Myles Horton. New York: Doubleday.

and Paulo Freire. 1990. We Make the Road By Walking: Conversations on Education and Social Change. Brenda Bell, John Gaventa, and John Peters (eds.). Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.

Lather, Patti. 1987. "Research as Praxis." Harvard Educational Review 56(3): 257-77.

Lukes, Steven. 1974. Power, A Radical View. London: Macmillan.

Maguire, Patricia. 1987. Doing Participatory Research: A Feminist Perspective. Amherst, MA: Center for International Education, University of Massachusetts.

Park, Peter, Mary Brydon-Miller, Budd Hall, and Ted Jackson (eds.). 1993. Voices of Change: Participatory Research in the United States and Canada. Toronto, Ontario: OISE Press.

Scott, James C. 1990. Domination and the Arts of Resistance. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Shapiro, Svi. 1985. "Education and the Unequal Society: The Quest for 'Moral Excellence'." Schools and Meaning. David Purpel and Svi Shapiro (eds.). New York: Lanham Publishers.

Shor, Ira. 1992. Empowering Education. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.

Weiler, Kathleen. 1988. Women Teaching for Change: Gender, Class, and Power. South Hadley, MA: Bergin and Garvey.

Willis, Paul. 1977. Learning to Labour. Westmead, England: Saxon House.

back to contents