By Christine Darr
At the DSA National Convention in August, members voted to adopt a national training strategy to help chapters sharpen their skills in organizing and member retention as well as to teach members the history of socialism and inculcate DSA values, structure, and strategy. In listserves and in other online forums, conversations about how better to educate ourselves abound.
As we develop our educational programming on the local and national levels, let’s remember that not all forms of education are created equal. Some educational ideologies are more aligned with DSA’s goals than others. The ruling ideology is aligned with capitalism (think high-stakes testing and the continued destruction of the public education system).
Radical or critical pedagogy has an incredible leftist history. Beginning in the 1950s, some educators began to challenge the status quo. Paulo Freire, a Brazilian educator whose work among the poor, illiterate populations of Brazil drew the attention of progressive educators worldwide, was convinced that education has the power either to reinforce the status quo or to revolutionize society. His Pedagogy of the Oppressed is considered the foundational text, in which he says that “liberation is praxis: the action and reflection of [people] on their world in order to transform it.” Freire’s ideas spread abroad, where they were put into practice by the Black Consciousness Movement in apartheid-era South Africa and to the United States, where they influenced the Freedom Schools in the southern United States. They are already in use in many DSA chapters today.
Contemporary educators such as bell hooks and Henry Giroux have adapted and often challenged Freire’s ideas, but they maintain a commitment to the potential for education to free us from the dominance of the white supremacist, capitalist patriarchy in which we live.
Although some elites have managed to educate their children in “progressive” institutions, the majority of schools still reinforce the idea that students need only be trained to give the correct answers on standardized tests that will be their ticket to good jobs and futures. K-12 education has socialized most of us to see education as a transaction; that is, students are consumers of information delivered by experts, the teachers.
If these students make it through academic and financial hurdles to reach college, they are quickly slotted into a field of study that they are told will result in a career. As colleges compete for students, they are forced to ratchet up their promises of jobs and prosperity for graduates. These are jobs that often no longer exist except in college brochures. Because we live in a society fully oriented toward capitalist accumulation, our educational system prioritizes grooming compliant workers for jobs that, like our education, often have a low tolerance for curiosity or self-actualization.
This method of education is the air we breathe. Scores of children who begin school with a passionate drive to learn quickly come to think that school is terrible. Think back to your own childhood, your voracious appetite for information, and your actual experiences. If you were lucky, you had at least one teacher who broke the mold. However, it’s safe to say that many of us bring into adulthood the idea that education means torturous memorizing of facts and regurgitating material that does not connect to our lives and experiences. Many of us have so often experienced the pain of our voices and perspectives being silenced that it can be difficult for us to share our experiences. Additionally, most of us went through years of schooling that taught us not to question or criticize the dominant narratives of our lives.
“Problem posing,” a method developed by Freire, can be helpful as you plan your chapter’s educational program. Problem posing involves the three-part structure of listening-dialogue-action. First, we listen to each other’s experiences and struggles in order to identify problems of central concern to our members. In Dubuque, our conversations kept coming back to the lack of safe, affordable housing in our city. We then posed that as a problem to be investigated and understood more clearly, always with an eye to how we can act collectively to solve the problem.
In dialogue, we can uncover the dominant myths that have led to the problem being discussed. For us, our dialogue led to the conclusion that in a society ordered toward profit, housing is simply one commodity among others. The objective of the owning class is to make a profit, not to provide shelter. The Dubuque Landlords Association is very explicit about this fact. On their website, they say that “a full house in poker is a good hand, but a full house in the rental business may mean your rents are too low.” When the purpose of ownership is to make a profit, offering affordable housing is a liability. Once we have a clearer understanding of the problem, the action can be more targeted and powerful. Our chapter has started a renters’ union in order to put collective pressure on the landlords in our community.
The effectiveness of problem posing depends upon creating an educational space that is democratic, empowering, and holistic. We need to be intentional about the educational space we create. How welcoming is it? How conveniently located? Is the time of day or evening right? What about the day of the week?
For education to be empowering, we must actively promote respect for each other as whole persons who are capable of interpreting and critically analyzing the world around us. We should also consider de-emphasizing the role of experts. Putting an expert at the front of the room shifts the dynamic to an audience of learners waiting for learning to be done to them. There might be times when consulting an expert fulfills a valuable need, as when we’re trying to understand the ins and outs of health-care legislation, but that format would be the exception rather than the rule.
The most transformative education occurs when we encourage each other to share our own experiences and perspectives. This is more effectively done in smaller groups or in a circle, perhaps with a designated facilitator who is actively listening and documenting the discussion, drawing out connections when they see them, and asking questions. When facilitators are also experts on an issue being discussed, it can be helpful for them to share their knowledge as it fits into the conversation while also being attentive that they don’t dominate.
Finally, radical pedagogy is driven by a commitment to the well-being of the whole person, pushing back against the harm that compartmentalizing our lives has caused to our minds, bodies, and spirits. Our educational efforts must not be limited to intellectual understanding, but should expand to include the health of our bodies and our emotional lives. For an excellent discussion of this, see Dierdre Cooper Owens’s article “Black Bodies, Self-Care, and the Limits of Class,” on the Democratic Left blog. In this piece, she examines Audre Lorde’s statement that “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” Refusing to separate these dimensions by critically reflecting on how we as communities can bring about greater holistic well-being can be one of the most powerful tools we can use to create a vibrant, socialist society where everyone’s needs are met.
Sidebar: Dialogue Days
By Ray Miklethun
For four years, the Metro Atlanta DSA’s primary educational program has been twice-a-month Sunday afternoon events called “MADSA Socialist Dialogue.” The programs have ranged from deep dives into Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century to a viewing and discussion of She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry. Participants have been frustrated that the two-hour format of panel discussion and questions and answers didn’t allow for adequate member participation. So, in July we tried something different.
The topic was “An Age of Unrest,” focusing on the centenary of U.S. entry into the First World War and the subsequent repression of the left in this country. Under the leadership of MADSA member Ian Fletcher, a popular educator and people’s historian, we crafted a new format. The audience of 50 (most of them new DSA members) broke into groups of five to six people, and each person received a card with a description of an event or feature of the era leading up to the war (1890-1910s). After sharing the information on their cards, group members looked for patterns, connections, and contemporary parallels. This approach brought all participants into the discussion, grounded the conversation factually, and sparked lively discussion. Each small group then reported major findings to the whole group.
The cards had brief descriptions of war, imperialism, state and corporate repression, anti-immigrant policies, and attacks on women and workers. They also included information about resistance efforts. What struck most participants was how these attacks were met by organized unions, women’s groups, and environmentalists. Many were surprised by the global reach of progressive and socialist movements in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
The response to the new format was almost universally positive. Following the discussion, attendees were invited to go to a row of tables where they could connect with activists from a variety of local groups.
Christine Darr is the secretary of the Dubuque, Iowa, chapter of DSA and an assistant professor of Christian ethics at a small midwestern college.
Ray Miklethun is chair of Metro Atlanta DSA’s Education Working Group. You can get samples of the cards by writing to him at miklethun(at)gmail.com.
The article by Christine Darr and the sidebar by Ray Miklethun originally appeared in the Winter 2017 issue of Democratic Left magazine.
By Duane Campbell
Paulo Freire was regarded by many on the left as one of the most significant educational thinkers of the twentieth century. He wrote more than 20 books. His most famous, book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, applies the ideas of Antonio Gramsci and U.S. philosopher and socialist John Dewey to the educational projects of organizers and educators working along with the oppressed in a capitalist society.
In Brazil in the 1960’s, Paulo Freire and his coworkers taught peasants to read in about 30 hours using “cultural circles.” To explain their methods, they developed a theory which required praxis, an interaction of consciousness, and social action on the side of the poor. Often working alongside liberation theologians, Freire, his students and allies formed teams of cultural workers to engage peasants who were struggling for justice in dialogue, to help them develop literacy and to democratize knowledge, culture, and power in their societies. In this way, activists come to understand the relationship between education and a political commitment to struggle for justice through dialogue with a group of participants engaged in political struggle. Then, with a clear view, they can intervene to join the struggle for justice and democracy.
Freire’s noted that it is it was participation in social justice struggles and the practice of freedom, not classroom lectures, that educates profoundly. In the U.S., this work currently is described as Critical Theory, or, at times, Critical Race Theory, and begins with an analysis of class conflict and the ideological hegemony of the ruling class.
The works of Freire and his teams have had a profound effect on literacy, political, and education practices worldwide. Revolutionary projects in Brazil, Nicaragua, Cuba, Guinea-Bissau, and elsewhere applied and developed his pedagogical ideas.
Duane Campbell is a professor emeritus of bilingual multicultural education at California State University Sacramento, a union activist, and past chair of Sacramento DSA. He serves on the Immigrant Rights Committee of DSA’s Anti-Racism Working Group.
Individually signed posts do not necessarily reflect the views of DSA as an organization or its leadership. Democratic Left blog post submission guidelines can be found here.