Popular Education and Capitalism

Popular Education is my approach to community organizing.  It is both a method and a worldview based on radical democracy.  It has a long history, but two of the most prominent practitioners and two of my heroes were Paulo Freire and founder of Highlander, Myles Horton.

Most pedagogies position the teacher as the knowing-subject and the students as the passive recipients of that knowledge.  Not only is this oppressive, it is not the way that human beings learn.  Human beings learn from the moment they are born and even before and modern institutional pedagogies actually teach people how not to learn by focusing on memorization and repeating information back to the teacher.  In popular education the knowledge of students is not so much imparted as it is revealed in their experience.

Instead of having an oppressive and hierarchical educational process, this method creates communities of learning in which students and teachers learn in community, recognizing and reinforcing the essential humanity of all involved.

An example of popular education is my Foundations of American Government Freshman class at UAB.  The educational process is completely controlled by the students.  A large part of the process is the lab which is done on Fridays.  Students have created their own government that directs the class.  They elected a president and are selecting Supreme Court Justices who will grade the test.  The students write and pass the test through a legislative process.  This puts what students are most worried about, grades, squarely within their control, and removes the hierarchy inherent in grading.  Students are also meeting outside of class to discuss the concepts in the class and are even teaching each other about important subjects such as race.  I have also met with student leaders outside of class who've told me what topics they want discussed in the class.

I've done popular education in many contexts, from teaching community members at community centers to teaching homeless at parks to teaching community organizers at my house.  I've found that when students control the educational process, they retain more information and are more invested in their own education.

I can't stress the importance of implementing a popular education pedagogy in all forms of education but especially popular education.  It has always been important, but it is especially important now.  There is no longer a situation of information scarcity.  Anyone with a basic internet capability can find and learn almost anything that they want.  What students need is a process by which they can produce knowledge, which is at the center of our current economy.  Knowledge production is necessarily collective.  If I write an academic paper, I cite past scholars who wrote on the topic.  I'm using their ideas to produce new ones.  The current economic paradigm requires people to produce knowledge within community.

No longer is community organizing and popular education merely the realm of radicals.  Instead it is necessary for a functioning knowledge economy.  Community organizing and popular education are thus now at the center of functioning capitalism.  This is the contradiction that Negri and Hardt talk about in their book Empire and it is the main contradiction that we should be exploiting.  Capitalism now needs community organizers to produce value.