Learning from the ground up: Education for change

By Aziz Choudry

Aziz Choudry is associate professor in the Department of Integrated Studies in Education, McGill University, Montreal, and visiting professor at the Centre for Education Rights and Transformation in the University of Johannesburg’s Faculty of Education. His latest book, on which this article is partly based, is Learning Activism: The Intellectual Life of Contemporary Social Movements (University of Toronto Press).

The idea that learning occurs beyond formal institutions and programs is hardly new or radical. Much scholarship on adult education, including humanist, experiential, community, feminist, and workplace learning perspectives, agrees that significant learning occurs outside classroom settings.

20131223diasporaAll forms of learning are fraught with tensions and contradictions, but broadly speaking there are two major strands in the evolution of adult education. The first of these has served to domesticate learners, focus on strategies for individual self-improvement, and adjust minds to conform to a capitalist society. This strand embraces market capitalist ideas on learning as an individual responsibility. Like other forms of education, it sees adult education as oriented primarily toward acquiring credentials that benefit economic growth. The second is concerned with emancipation: ways in which learning, education, and knowledge; democratic reflection; and action through a critical identification of issues can help people overcome educational disadvantage, address social exclusion and discrimination, and challenge political and economic injustice.

Learning is social, and people’s everyday practices in struggles against injustice can help to build alternative forms of knowledge and tools for political praxis. In his 2002 book, Freedom Dreams, US historian Robin Kelley tells us that “too often, our standards for evaluating social movements pivot around whether or not they ‘succeeded’ in realizing their visions rather than on their merits or power of the visions themselves”. He writes that social movements generate new knowledge, questions and theory, and emphasizes the need for concrete and critical engagement with the movements confronting the problems of oppressed peoples.

Education is always inherently political, and non-formal learning certainly no less so. Many forms of non-formal learning are connected to and draw upon an often diverse range of struggles and visions of social, political, economic, and environmental justice. Meanwhile, the contribution of non-formal learning to education and society is seemingly recognized, validated, and endorsed by dominant institutions from government ministries to major intergovernmental organizations like the OECD and the World Bank. Yet critical educators and scholars suggest that the current celebration of non-formal learning must be understood in the context of cuts to resourcing public education in many countries. In the global South, this squeezing of policy space and resources to provide accessible education and other basic services has often been facilitated through aid conditionalities imposed by international financial institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank, and pressure from donor governments as well as domestic elites who insist that market forces are the solution to everything. In the North, cuts to education and community funding along with broader impositions of market-driven policies have undermined many gains for equitable access to education. Indeed, these concerns are very much at the forefront of popular mobilizations against the current policies and politics of “austerity”. However, it is to some of the more critical contexts of ideas and practice concerning informal and non-formal learning that I want to return.

As Kelley suggests, some of the most profound critiques, understandings and theories about the world, its power structures and dominant ideologies, and its fragile ecology—and indeed the most powerful visions for social change—emerge from ordinary people coming together and working for such change. US adult education scholar John Holst writes that adult education scholarship often tends to regard social movement practice as political and not educative and to dismiss informal education in everyday life. Yet social movements are not only significant sites of struggle for social and political change. They also represent important – albeit contested and contradictory- spaces of learning, knowledge production and research. Acknowledged or not, social movements have made important pedagogical, theoretical and political contributions to the fields of adult education, and schooling more broadly. Australian adult educator Griff Foley’s Learning in Social Action helps to reveal and understand the incidental learning processes in a range of social struggles and community organizing contexts in Australia. Brazil and Zimbabwe, Foley says that although learning through involvement in such struggles can transform power relations, it can also be contradictory and constraining. Indeed, sometimes struggles for social justice can reproduce rather than disrupt dominant power relations. But critical consciousness, rigorous research and theory can and do emerge from engagement in action and organizing contexts, rather than as ideas developed elsewhere by disconnected NGO professionals, consultants, or supposedly detached academics.

I am also very conscious of the significance of intergenerational learning and of personally straddling a critical period between politics, education and organizing traditions forged in the Cold War era (not to mention older forms of insurgent internationalisms and anti-colonial resistance and liberation struggles), on the one hand, and on the other, more recent kinds of communication and political engagement, which sometimes seem a little too uncritical of the utopian promises about digital media, or entrepreneurial, individualistic, professionalized approaches to social change. It can be instructive and sobering to reflect on how ideas and causes once viewed radical or subversive can sometimes become mainstream. Claims about the apparent newness of some contemporary challenges, more recent mobilizations and forms of activism can sometimes pull us away from thinking more deeply about continuities and change in the social, political and economic systems which people struggle with. The present day can often be disconnected from its relation to older histories, including concepts and lessons from earlier periods of struggle, in ways which essentially see all collective struggles everywhere as failures and openly or implicitly accept that there is no real alternative to capitalism as we lurch from one crisis to another at a planetary level.

People struggle, and can learn, educate, and theorize wherever they find themselves. The forms this takes may change, but the importance of spaces and places for collective action, learning, reflection, and intergenerational sharing is crucial to the ongoing project of building a just society. One pertinent example is South African scholar and activist Neville Alexander’s reflection on the process of education on Robben Island, where he was jailed for a decade under apartheid:

“We taught one another what we knew, discovering each other’s resourcefulness. We also learned how people with little or no formal education could not only themselves participate in education programmes but actually teach others a range of different insights and skills. The “University of Robben Island” was one of the best universities in the country. It also showed me that you don’t need professors”.

All knowledge is necessarily partial. And all knowledge is ‘interested’, whether serving to maintain or challenge existing relations of inequality. In an era of grave ecological, social and economic crisis, efforts to bring different forms of knowledge and learning/education processes alongside each other, in conversations arising from and related to people’s actual lives and struggles might not only be an ‘academic exercise’, but necessary and fruitful. Besides claims about whose knowledge counts, perhaps this process can raise uncomfortable but constructive questions that can lead to productive and necessary exchanges to challenge and reorient formal education in the 21st century to be relevant to, and serve the needs of all sections of society.

Walter Rodney’s academic and popular education work also reminds us that for action to be informed by deeper historical understandings of how and why we are in the state we are in, a historical perspective is important: one which also points to future prospects for change. But, more than this, the value he placed on the political relevance of everyday encounters outside academia, his respect for the intellectual life of, and the knowledge created by ordinary people, also remain important today, politically and pedagogically. We know that while lecturing at the University of the West Indies’ Mona Campus in the late 1960s, he preferred communal discussions and exchanges of ideas of socio-political and historical importance – grassroots reasonings, or ‘groundings’- with poor people in Kingston’s sports clubs, schoolrooms, churches, gullies, or wherever, to socializing within the cocoon of the university. Indeed, these kinds of learning and knowledge production experiences ‘from the ground up’ and their social and political dimensions need to be taken more seriously.

In his book, Freedom Dreams, Robin Kelley recalls speaking with US university students who view the ‘real’ world “as some concrete wilderness overrun with violence and despair, and the university as if it were some sanctuary distant from actual people’s lives and struggles.” Kelley challenges the idea that ‘dropping knowledge’ on ‘the people’ from universities will somehow generate social change and new liberatory social movements. Like Kelley, Rodney and many others (and without romanticizing these processes), I believe that community organizing and movements arising from ordinary people’s problems and frustrations generate new knowledge, theories and questions. They can also offer hope and vision for a fairer society and world. Academics certainly do not have a monopoly on the production of knowledge or education: theoretical and experiential forms of knowledge can enrich each other.

Alongside this, one thing is for sure. Without daily struggles, larger systemic change cannot come about. And it is in these daily, local struggles that people learn, reflect, strategize, and act. They can build analysis, skills, strategies, and a base needed for longer-term, broader change. Adult education scholar Paula Allman insisted on the significance of the struggles for reform, “whether these pertain to issues emanating from the shop floor, the community, the environment or any other site where the ramifications of capitalism are experienced. . . . These struggles are some of the most important sites in which critical education can and must take place. Moreover, if this critical education takes place within changed relations, people will be transforming not only their consciousness but their subjectivity and sensibility as well”.

To state the obvious, in 2015, struggles for social, political, economic and ecological justice are unfinished business. Indeed, given that understanding, and extending Allman’s thoughts about where critical education takes place, perhaps freedom then becomes, as renowned scholar and activist Angela Davis suggests, “not a state for which one yearns, but rather an incessant struggle to remake our lives, our relations, our communities, and our futures.”



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