Welcome to our book club’s reading of We Make the Road by Walking. In this post we can discuss the first two chapters, “Introduction” and “Formative Years”, along with the book’s front matter and anything else that pertains.
In this post I’ll offer a summary of the reading, followed by some reflections and discussion questions.
To read previous posts about this reading, including explanations of what we’re up to, click here.
The text is almost entirely a conversation between Horton and Freire, a spoken book (3). In the brief opening chapter the offer some initial thoughts about the project, then get down to business.
“Formative Years” describes how these two great educators started on their respective paths. Myles Horton relates growing up loving reading and being frustrated by school, struggling to figure out what he wanted to do with his life, loving books then distancing himself from them, loving and learning from his wife, gradually developing a community-based school, then helping spin off Citizenship Schools. He admits to frequent missteps and frustrations as his model of learning and social interaction unfolded.
Paulo Freire explores his early passion for, and practice of, teaching, along with his learning about sharp class differences (57-58). This includes working within and being frustrated by the school system, but also rising in academia and attaining a government position. Like Horton Freire speaks of loving and learning from his wife (62, 65, etc.). He also touches on political struggles, the outcome of which – a coup in Brazil – forced him to leave his country.
Both men share their textual influences. For Horton, it was the Bible, Percy Shelley (Prometheus Unbound (1820) in particular), and Karl Marx (34-5). For Freire, Frantz Fanon (The Wretched of the Earth (1961)), Albert Memmi (The Colonizer and the Colonized), Lev Vygotsky (Thought and Language (1934)), and Antonio Gramsci (36).
Throughout the book is a frequent call to act, to get things going, which is definitely inspirational, at least to me. It also feels like an opposition to planning ahead, a urge to spontaneity and figuring things out along the way. For example, “[w]e cannot wait to create tomorrow, but we have to start creating.” (56) “[T]he way you really learn is to start something and learn as you go along.” (40) Speakers characterize the book itself this way, as unplanned and emergent. I’m reminded of some schools of thought in design thinking and IT.
A key theme for Horton is understanding individual problems in their social and political setting, as with his childhood realization of his parents’ financial problems (17) or figuring out why his classmates hated reading (27).
“I was always getting into trouble for reading in school” (20) – me too! (I wonder how many people working in education had this experience, and if we constitute a kind of rebellious strand within schooling)
This is a very anti-hierarchical discussion so far. Freire assesses the progressive pedagogy he began with as “elitist and authoritarian” (63), before he unlearns that practice in favor of an anti-authoritarian approach. Horton describes unlearning his academic approach of lecturing and presenting in favor of getting out of the way so learners can talk and learn (41). His account of the Ozone meeting (48ff) reminds me of unconferences, THATCamps, and open space technology.
Reading this in 2016, I’m struck by the historicity of both educators’ early lives, especially Horton’s. His account of active Community Party agitation in Appalachia (34) – ah, that was a different era.
It’s interesting to see differences between the two main authors/subjects. Freire insists that teachers be paid well enough “to be respected… to teach seriously” (60), while Horton’s Citizenship School teachers were volunteers (75). For Horton race is at least as much a concern as poverty, while Freire focuses more on class.
At the same time, there are so many similarities! Both men are widowers, still grieving the loss of women they saw as more than equals. Both wanted to teach literacy as liberation, and fought political battles to do so. Both love being surprised, even adopting a similar attitude of wanting to recover the curiosity of childhood. Both found learners motivated by social and political goals, especially obtaining the right to vote, then get more involved in politics. Both educators even look quite similar.
III. Discussion questions
Both educators/authors love spontaneity and tend to shun planning. For example, Horton describes how important it was to not document the initial Citizenship School through a manual, but instead to simply record it in action for later inspiration. A manual was a bad idea. (79) Similarly Freire celebrates learning and teaching as creative acts in opposition to bureaucracy, best not scheduled, but realized through ruptures in routine. “[O]ne of the most tragic illnesses of our time is the bureaucratization of the mind.” (37-38) In an age of extensive testing and data gathering, do you agree? How do we apply such an insight to (for example) government-run schools or faculty organized into unions?
Both educators emphasize the importance of enabling people to learn to disclose what they already know. Horton: “[T]here’s knowledge there that they [meeting attendees] didn’t recognize” (49). Freire: students “knew something before coming to the school, and it was important for me … to know what they knew” (61); “the people I was working with already had lots of knowledge” (65). This recalls Plato’s idea of anamnesis, not to mention some principles of knowledge management. If he’s right that this is a vital part of learning, how do we enable learners to speak their hitherto hidden knowledge?
So far Freire and Horton like an antiauthoritarian pedagogy (cf the former’s distinction between authority and authoritarianism, 61-2). Freire sees some well-intentioned, non-fascist pedagogy as”elitist and authoritarian”. Both like peer teaching (79). Do you find this critique and practice to be practical or even applicable in a time when faculty at all levels are under multiple threats, political, cultural, and financial?
Freire speaks of education having a direction, or “directiveness” (63-4). Does that mean curriculum, or something else?
There’s a strongly anti-school current in the book so far. I’ve already mentioned the educators’ critique of institutions and bureaucracy. Freire and Horton even call some of their projects by names that aren’t academic: Circle of Culture (84); “it wasn’t a literacy class. It was a community organization.” (72) How can today’s educators, very immersed in school structures and bureaucracies, apply what this book teaches? Can they? Or should they blow things up?
I’m not sure of the role gender plays in this book so far. In terms of systems of oppression sexism hasn’t made much of an appearance. Several women have been mentioned and highly valued. Is gender a blind spot for these men, or should we expect more discussion of it later on?
I’m still trying to understand Freire’s practice of teaching “codifications” (86-7). It sounds like it starts with word structure, then expands to something like Raymond Williams‘ Keywords (1976). Can anyone help me with this?
IV. And over to you
What have I missed? Are these notes helpful What do you think?