Popular education has been more associated with the struggles in Latin America, basically because of the strength of its impact in organizing powerful fighting movements in that continent and the roles played by Paulo Freire, who has become synonymous with the term as a result of his work with the oppressed, especially in Brazil which gave the concept a deeper ideological and political relevance as an effective tool for mobilization of people for social change.
The concept is as old as education itself, as it has been used overtime by the capitalist ruling class in Europe and North America fundamentally to further suppress the weak and subjugated from organizing against the system. The ruling class in these parts of the world, centuries ago, never believed the poor deserve any education beyond skill development.
In the eighteenth century for instance, “working class people in English speaking countries did not have the right to formal education and some educators and members of the aristocracy seriously argued that education would confuse and agitate working people.” Those in authority in those countries however later saw the need for the working class to have education but such education must be limited only to trainings in basic skills.
Education in whatever ways or means is political and it’s itself a weapon in class struggles as it is a means of conscientization of the people as education is the fastest means of giving political education to the people in such a way that benefits people, society and systems. It is the bedrock of society and therefore, education cannot be without class interest. Indeed, education re-humanizes society.
For popular education, while it is not opposed to individual skills development, as opposed to the ultimate intent of formal education which focuses on the individual more than the society, it is about giving education to those denied access to formal education in the simplest of ways not only to develop the individual but also to give political consciousness about their environment and provide alternatives that will cause social changes to the benefit of the society.
Here we will trace the origin of popular education and how it was used by capitalism to suppress and deny the subjugated from challenging oppression and how the oppressed changed its methodologies and used it effectively against the ruling class.
Popular education has been a major tool that has been used effectively against all forms of oppression including the struggles against colonialism, apartheid, capitalism and all structures of injustices and it remain the option even for Africa if the struggle against neo liberalism and all its institutions, policies and strategies must be combated.
Concepts of Popular Education
There are several notions of popular education, but four of them seem appropriate for the mission of this paper:
1. Working class education during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries;
2. Radical political education;
3. Adult education; and
4. The tradition developed by Paulo Freire through his “Pedagogy of the Oppressed”.
• The Working Class Education Concept
The working class education concept as developed in Europe and North America around the period of 18th and 19th centuries was rooted in a type of education that is developed for their common interests under their supervision to counter the aristocrats who believed workers and the poor would be agitated and “confused” if allowed access to education.
This was against the backdrop of serious class antagonism to workers education as the ruling class and their ideologues believed the poor do not need education based on the following:
• They will be “too proud to work” if educated;
• They will make demands for increase in their wages;
• They will not want to engage in jobs that demeans them;
• It may be fine teaching them to read but detrimental to let them have the ability to write.
One of the proponents of this belief was a certain Bernard de Mandeville, the author of Fable of the Bees. In the second edition of this book, Bernard added a new chapter for the purpose of espousing his anti workers education clearer. In the new chapter of the book published in 1723 with the title, Essays on Charity and Charity Schools, as mentioned in Neuburg, V. (1971) Popular Education In Eighteenth Century England .
According to Neuburg, De Mendeville’s thesis was based on his belief that nations cannot develop without having a lot of their citizens kept in perpetual ignorance. The more uneducated workers there are the better for the growth of the economy based on the principle of exploitation.
Indeed, the British Parliament, the House of Commons in particular, once debated this in 1807 when Davies Giddy who was a member of the parliament at the time said, ironically, on the floor of the House of Commons that “giving education to the labouring classes of the poor…….would be prejudicial to their morals and happiness; it would teach them to despise their lot in life, instead of making them good servants in agriculture and other labouring employments. Instead of teaching them subordination, it would render them fractious and refractory” .
Not until the second half of the nineteenth century after the passage of the Reform and Education Acts when some guided education was introduced, the working people and their allies, the peasants, were denied education. And even then, education was mainly provided through communal efforts for the children of the poor and working people, with the assistance of churches and local employers who still believe that education should not be in a form that allows critical thinking.
Consequently, the poor and working people formed themselves into study groups and organized community programmes through their associations to discuss religion and politics. But these were mere self help adult education programmes and not necessarily discussion groups about the crisis of the existing societal disorder or focused towards changes in religion, politics or work rules in any qualitative form.
Indeed, Harold Sylver in his Concept of popular Education: A Study of ideas and social movements in the early nineteenth century (1965) believes popular education in the nineteenth century was organized in an institutionalized military fashion of education for the people which were resisted resulting in the establishment of Mechanic Institutes fundamentally for the “diffusion of science among the working people” aimed at switching the working class from any influence that would instigate class consciousness.
This process did not encourage any education that questions authorities but made the conditions of the poor and working class appears natural and made them feel poverty is a normal occurrence or self inflicted. These institutes actually inserted in their constitutions that political discussions were not allowed.
• Radical Political Education Concept
This concept sought to change the authoritarian and domineering methods used in the periods up to the nineteenth century by creating alternatives that ensure the independence of working class education through self-determined methods. They abhorred prescriptive curriculum and teaching methods and believed that education must not be regimented if the ultimate aim was to ensure free and independent thinking.
In Germany, the League for School Reforms was founded to promote this concept which sought to value learning without formal structures that hinder human relations, which dismisses the teacher – student kind of relationship.
• Adult Education Concept
This concept emerged when the growth of democracy in Europe was becoming fragile and there was an urgent need to strengthen the capacity of the citizens through community groups to play relevant roles in advancing democracy and participation in decision making.
It is a concept that was targeted at making vulnerable groups organize at grassroots or community levels around issues concerning their specific interests. For instance, tenants can be organized around issues such as the management of their estates in ways that would provide them improved and better managed services.
The adult education concept is also about preparing educationally disadvantaged individuals for a better future with higher knowledge in their vocations or skills.
While adult education is in pursuance of personal skills development, popular education is also about the development of individual skills that will be of positive essence to society and can influence social change.
• Paulo Freire”s “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” Concept
Developed in the early 60s by a Brazillian, Paulo Freire who had done a lot of work with rural peasants and urban poor, this concept is about working with the oppressed to analyze their situations, organize and take actions that will change their unjust systems, and not just learning to read and write.
Paulo Freire’s concept as espoused through his Pedagogy of the Oppressed is the most popular concept and many writers believe that popular education that generates mass actions originated from Freire’s concept. It is about empowering socio economically and politically marginalized people to take full control of their own learning in all aspects for the purpose of effecting social change.
To Paulo Freire, education is not neutral and the process of learning does have a direct link with what is being taught, who is teaching and its purpose. Education in all forms is political.
Education that must allow people to learn through their own experience, empower them to ask critical questions about their existence and work together to change the formational basis of injustice is what the oppressed need and Freire conceived of this process as a political education and action process through which the oppressed can break the culture of silence against all structures of injustice.
Freire’s concept as contained in his books: Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Pedagogy of Hope and Learning to Question: A Pedagogy of Liberation inspired critical education or political education and social movements across Latin America, Africa, Asia, North America and Europe and was used successfully by liberation theologists and movements in South America as well as South Africa where the church played critical roles in liberation struggles.
Africa needs Popular Education Movement
Africa indeed needs not just a popular education movement but a borderless popular movement to confront the onslaught on the continent by neo liberal institutions that have systematically seized our economies and social structures in their desperation to engage us in second slavery.
In the face of the excruciating implications of globalization on our economies and politics, we need an exceptionally strong popular education movement that will cut across all countries and regions in Africa; connecting not just trade unions but the entire social movement built around an alternative that is capable of satisfying the needs of our people and freeing us from the prevailing circumstances of second slavery.
Today, Africa has become a convenient ground for unchallenged neo liberalism because our governments has offered themselves as heartless hi-tech compradors who believe they exist only in and for the service of imperialism.
For instance, all over Africa, lands are being given out to neo liberal interests without consideration for national or communal interests of our people. In fact, Ethiopia, a country that suffered famine for decades, has given out several thousands of hectares of her fertile land to foreign interests in the guise of the so called Foreign Direct Investment, for the production of “food or biofuel jetropha when ordinary Ethiopians go hungry.”
At the same time, Liberia too has signed off much of her land and given it out to a Malaysian company called The Malaysian Sime Darby Company which signed a 63 years agreement to take over 220, 000 hectares of Liberian people’s land in four counties, namely: Grand Cape Mount, Bomi, Bong, and Gbarpolu, for logging and agro business; specifically for oil and rubber production. And when the Liberian people protested, President Ellen Johnson-Shirleaf, one of the most disposed agents of imperialism in Africa, superciliously told her people while addressing a Town Hall meeting on 6th December 2011 that “when your government and the representatives sign any paper with a foreign country, the communities can’t change it. You are trying to undermine your own government.” And finally she warned: “you can’t do that. If you do so all the foreign investors coming to Liberia will close their businesses and leave, then Liberia will go back to the old days.”
This is how African governments have sold our people into second slavery. And it is almost impossible to find any African government that is not guilty. This business of selling off Africa is being conducted through all sorts appendages of neo liberalism such as the so called New Economic Partnership for African Development, NEPAD and its military wing, the African Command, AFRICOM; a military partnership through which imperialism train and arm African soldiers against African people in the guise of fighting terrorism. What is happening in North Africa, particularly Egypt and Syria where thousands of unarmed protesters are being murdered within minutes, with bullets provided by neo liberal interests is a clear practical indication of what AFRICOM is all about, in case you are still in doubt.
Even the new consortium called BRICS – involving Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – which paints the picture of an anti neo liberalism cartel is nothing more than a centre for competition for space in the onslaught against Africa. It has not shown any alternative to neo liberalism rather it displays more of a gang up for competition for Africa, like the old imperial scramble for Africa, with neo liberalism.
The haste with which our governments have moved our continent into second slavery is quite disturbing. Policies originating from the Washington Consensus of 1989, the intellectual warehouse of neo liberalism, are being presented to our people as home grown. This has not only taken our lands, it has also robbed us of incomes through the so called Foreign Direct Investment, FDI, through which our countries are deceived into a free trade system that encourages capital flight to Europe and North America with low tariffs and yet claims we are engaged in a level playing, equal market free trade.
While all these are going on, the western media that are mostly owned by neo liberal interests are busy praising our continent currently as against the massive condemnations of the past. For instance, The Economist have graduated from its headline in 2000 which appropriately descried Africa as “The Hopeless Continent” to a deceitful headline: “The Emerging Africa: A Hopeful Continent”, in its March 2013 edition. According to Ama Biney, this new characterization is based on “the alleged annual growth rates of over 5% in the past decade and that the African continent has 9 of the world’s fastest growing economies.”
For us who live in Africa, we know this cannot be true if the quality of the life of our people, state of industrialization, unemployment status, and provision of social services are to be considered as critical parts of what constitute parameters for determining growth rate. The truth is, what has made the continent “hopeful” is the increased acceptance of neo liberalism by our governments.
The challenge for us is to rebuild the movement if we are to reclaim Africa from second slavery and grow through a people driven path that ensures equity for all.
Popular education seems most appropriate because “the most potent weapon of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed”, as Steve Biko is popularly known to have said. With a strong popular education movement in Africa, the mind of the oppressed will be freed from the oppressor’s manipulations and made to think and take actions that can displace the oppressor. And Tajudeen Abdul Raheem was right when he wrote that “the collective African experience is that we can only be ourselves and we need each other to counter the threat of marginalization, rapacious globalization and the consolidation of whatever little gains may have been accomplished I a number of African countries.” And “no one (African) country can be sustainable miracle if its neighbours are in hell.”
In conclusion, one cannot but agree with Steve Faulkner, who wrote in his article in the September/October 2007 edition of Pathways, “the very existence of globalization provides golden opportunities to rebuild and strengthen cross-border intercontinental worker-to-worker solidarity” because our governments now operate under the same economic policies handed them by neo liberal institutions that presents these policies as if they were locally generated but are the same faces of the same coins only different in national currencies.
However, we can’t build internationalism with weak national movements.
Part of the strategies of neo liberalism is to weaken or totally destroy critical national organizations that are strong enough to mobilize effective opposition to their incursions. In doing that they start with education, which like their predecessors did centuries ago, have further been made not just inaccessible but locked against critical intellectualism.
Trade unions have also come under severe attacks through the denial of workers’ rights to belong to unions; sponsorship of internal crisis that lead to either a total death of the unions or diversion of the purpose and focus of the movement through fractionalization.
In building popular education in Sub Sahara Africa, we need to return to our ideological commitment and organizational discipline; we need to return to the peasants; we need to return to the working people and their allies. We indeed need to rebuild a strong alliance with the people, who bear the brunt of neo liberalism.
And this is possible and urgent.
.Assistant Secretary Nigeria Labour Congress presented this paper at the Ditsela 7th Education Conference held at St. Georges Hotel, Centurion, near Pretoria, South Africa 27 – 29 November 2013
1. Crowther, J., Martin, I. & Shaw, M (1999) (Eds) Popular Education and Social Movements in Scotland Today, Leicester; NIACE
2. Neuburg V (1971) Popular Education in Eighteenth Century England. London: The Woburn Press
3. Harold Sylver (1965) Concept of Popular Education: A Study of ideas and social movements in the early nineteenth century. MacGibbon & Kee, London
4. Valerie Miller and Lisa VeneKlassen (April 2012), Feminist Popular Education & Movement Building – Draft Discussion Paper, JASS Associates 2006
5. See Ama Biney: Is Africa Really Rising? 2013-09-04 www.pambazuka.org
6. The Popular Education News: www.popednews.org/newsltters
7. See J. Lichfield’s Treasure of Tyrants in The Independent of U.K P. 34-35, 13 July 2013
8. Diana Abellera: Popular Education: Connecting Movements Through Education: www.urbanhabitat.org
9. Ditsela’s Pathways (Spring Edition. September/October 2007)