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Reflections on Popular Education

So on Monday at the OK Cafe some of us met to discuss what popular education means and how a popular education group might function here in Manchester. Recently I’ve also been doing some thinking with a few other people about popular education and attended a great workshop at the Really Open University over in Leeds which have also given me lots to think about. The conclusion to these conversations for me is that popular education techniques would be really important for our movements and that they ask difficult questions both about wider society and its’ power structures and the ways our movements, well, move.

Here are a few interesting points I’ve jotted down in these meetings plus a few thoughts that have just occurred to me.


* Popular education is a set of techniques and methods for empowering individuals and communities. Of building communities of learners willing and able to work together and build dialogues. These methods encompass facilitation techniques, theatre techniques and forms of emotional support. It is often compared with forms of education we here in the UK are more familiar with with an emphasis on functional, target based learning, competition for grades and access to institutions and often disempowering form of teaching. There are lots of interesting examples of how popular education techniques have been applied, most notably in Latin America with projects such as the autonomous university of Oaxaca.


* Popular education supports the breaking down of the formal teacher-student relationship. We need to recognise that no-one has access to the truth and that every session is an encounter in which we all learn things.


* The importance of reflecting on our experiences came up several times. This is a technique which can be used to discuss and learn about many different things but our group focussed on the implications of this principle for discussing anti-capitalist politics. Capitalism affects us all, from the imposition of work, financial discipline to functionality of state violence. We are all affected by Capital and we need to constantly assert that a a post-graduate degree isn’t needed to be against capital. John Holloway starts “Change the World Without Taking Power” with the concept of the Scream (against capital), the emotional and direct experience of life in the face of the irrationality of capital. Anti-capitalism can and, in my opinion, should start with the recognition of its everyday nature.


* This emphasis on experience and emotional reflection and a support for uncertainty and questioning was contrasted with the format of most meetings and events our groups have been familiar with. We discussed how it often felt that there was an importance attached to being “correct” and certain forms of technical or academic jargon were often rewarded whilst questions and the mention of emotions and experience can often be seen as getting in the way of meeting efficiency. These structures within meetings facilitated certain personalities speaking and also hindered others from speaking. Whilst there is a time and place for reflection and non-outcome focused discussions we didn’t suggest all meeting should cater for this.


* The importance of learning by doing was a common point. This wasn’t just for issues such as building rocket stoves or cob ovens but also things such as practicing good facilitation. These lessons need to be built into our everyday practice. We were also wary of popular education focusing on sharing tangible DIY skills as these often speak to our subcultures only.


* Some of us were critical of the concept of “awareness raising” often found within leftist circles. We were wary of seeing people outside of our circles as people that we needed to meet and bring into the fold, The Leftist missionaries of 2010. In my experience this was clearly seen with discussions on climate change and the focus on consumer choices.


* For me personally this leads on to the necessity of critically examining our movements politics and clearly recognising subcultural, lifestyle practices attached to our politics. We need to critically examine our history and consign that which is not useful to the rubbish dump of history, or at least stop forcing it onto other people. We need to ask what do we and our politics have to offer people? And, what can we learn from other social groups, politics and world views.


* Having recently been on a perma-culture course the concept of edges seems useful to me. In permaculture theory an edge is where to distinct eco-systems or habitats encounter each other and create a third space. This is an unpredictable space, turbulence was the term which frequently re-occurred, in which interesting new permutations and forms are created in abundance. Many perma-culture designs attempt to create spaces in which Edges can meet in a productive way. Using this as a metaphor for how our politics encounters others is, to my eyes, a useful way to avoid a peculiar form of anti-authoritarian vanguardism wrapped in the language of consensus, awareness and direct action. We need to be aware to what commonalities we share with those outside of our immediate politics and of what both parties might gain from our interaction.


Please note, these points may not be reflective of the wider group. I hope they are but personal preference etc. is always bound to influence these things.


p.s.  Look out for a lovely poster being made by other people at the conversation. That’ll be on the OK cafe website and I’ll try and get it on here as well.