Synthesis/Regeneration 5   (Winter 1993)

Popular Education In Schools?

by Chis Canavaugh, York University, Toronto

—some disruptively-connective thoughts of a popular educator

There are many contradictions in the simple title question of this article. And hurricanes are announced by a wee breeze.

Can popular education, a practice that has been developed for the most part in the realm of non-formal adult education, be done in institutionalized education systems (i.e. primary, secondary and post-secondary institutions)?

Having posed a yes-or-no question i am compelled to share one of my many learnings from popular education: "beware yes-or-no questions!"

i once thought this yes-or-no question more legitimate than i think it now. i would happily answer no, conveniently avoiding thinking about the relationship between my practice of popular education and schooling. i have learned that the lines i once thought separated things clearly for all to see are dotted lines and many people have busily been cutting along them for some time. i have practised popular education for almost fifteen years and i have learned the importance of the action-reflection-action dynamic. And as i write these words i am doing just that. What happens if i re-pose the question as, how can popular education be done in schools?

My answers to this "how-to" question would take far more space than i have. Here i share some of my own experience of popular education and my wrestling with critical questions. This is my contribution to what i hope is a dialogue, helping you to pose some generative questions about your own educational practice and persuading you that popular education as i know it has something to offer you.

i encourage you to be relentlessly critical of anything i say here. i know that i share a commitment to the above characteristics with many people i work with and i offer them to you to test out for yourself.

Popular education is a constantly changing and growing process that has roots in many countries. It has grown out of struggles to name and resist oppression as experienced by people who learn that they are oppressed. Some of these struggles have been revolutionary (notably, in Brazil, Guinea-Bissau, Chile, Nicaragua). The term 'popular education' is little more than 40 years old and it has come to characterize a set of principles that many educators engaged in social struggle share.


i wish to address head-on the first characteristic named. Each of these characteristics can be seen as an opening to deal with all the others, though i will exercise some limits for the sake of brevity.


This has been for me one of the most challenging principles of popular education work. Many years ago, i probably believed it enough to start off a workshop saying, "okay, what's your experience?" expecting to get the answer that would move us forward. My own experience of primary and secondary school and CEGEP as well as countless presentations in high school classrooms dissuaded me from being so naive. i felt the machinery of social control very strongly at work on me in high school which still remains one of the most violent experiences of my life. At its worst my high school had over 4000 students crammed into a building built for 2000. Drugs, violence and ridicule of authority were the order of the day.

The mechanisms of social control in Canada are very different from those of 1960's Brazil (where Paulo Freire developed an approach to literacy training that has contributed a great deal to popular education theory and practice). What was achieved in Brazil with the use of brute force is achieved here through the promotion and legitimation of ideologies passed off/received as "common sense." The mass media, education systems, entertainment and publicity industries and institutionalized religions all play a major role in conveying ideology as simple, unassailable reality. It is unnecessary to use coercion in Canada to get people to do what the state wants as various dominant ideologies "persuade" people to behave in "appropriate" ways. Coercion is available if needed but is rarely used. The social-political system that arises from this particular use of persuasion undergirded by the threat of coercion is known as hegemony (different from domination).

In a social system like pre-revolutionary Nicaragua it is fairly obvious who is the oppressed and who the oppressor. The argument that popular education can only be done with the oppressed is not hard to honour. The most poor, most disenfranchised are easy to find. And the implication of the education system in the maintenance of the dominant system was also quite clear. Working with the oppressed in Canada is still an important question for popular educators. Who are "the oppressed?" We do not live in a police state and there is much social service infrastructure here. What is the role of the education system in the maintenance of the dominant social-political order or hegemony?

Viewed as part of a hegemonic system, "the oppressed" then includes what we call the middle class as well as the millions of people who live below the poverty line. Canada's working class are middle class compared to the working classes of Latin American countries. This little bit of theory still doesn't make it easy to do popular education however. Going into high school classes to speak about international solidarity and human rights i learned that i couldn't speak about Canadians being oppressed without quickly being corrected by the students who passionately assured me that Canada was a democracy and that oppression didn't happen here and especially not to them.

So, here i am with my popular educator hat and these students totally confound me by disagreeing with my theory. How am i supposed to start with the experience of the learners if they won't cooperate with seeing themselves as oppressed? i choose this difficult example because it has been a generative one for my own thinking for over ten years. It provoked me, in part, to found an education project on youth and violence called "The International Youth for Peace and Justice Tour." The purpose of this tour was to bring together young people with stories of resistance to violence and send them into high schools and communities across Canada. The theory behind this project which included young people from around the world, including Native Canadians was, that by introducing Canadian high school students to peers who had experienced violence, there would be some recognition of commonality. i saw this work over and over again; and i met many young people who were influenced to see the world and their place in it a little bit differently as a result of participating in the Youth tour or simply attending a presentation.

Over many years i have learned the radicality of "starting with the experience of the participants." As a presenter in high school classes, what relationship of trust can exist that i should expect students to look at themselves as oppressed? Our social system legislates mandatory attendance of school. For many young people school is a violent experience where conformity is the most important lesson. Along comes a popular educator who says, "throw off your chains" and it is, of course, ridiculous. There are clear structural limits at work to keep students where they are. Should some of them decide to name their circumstance as oppression, what options for change exist? And what can a community-based popular educator offer but a brief experience with not much follow-through?

Popular education seeks to help people name their circumstances in a way that then allows them to work together to transform those circumstances. There is not much room in the education system for students (nor much for teachers) to effect change in the structures if they are seen as oppressive. But there is some room. And this is the important thing to underline as far as popular education in the dominant education system is concerned. There are some spaces where change can occur and discussion of oppression can happen in a transformative way. Sometimes it is merely one teacher's class, or a particular visit by a guest, or a project. Sometimes students do organize effectively to protest or change a policy.

Popular education in terms of its commitment to transforming oppressive structures has definite limits in the school system. Popular education certainly cannot happen if you fail to start with the experience of the learners as they choose to name it. There are many ways to intervene in this naming process, both positively and negatively. Ultimately it is the participants of a popular education process who must name their experience. For anything else to happen, for me to say we should do it "this" way because you are oppressed, simply reproduces the dominant relations.

Now, if participants name their circumstances as oppressive with an eye to how they would like them to be different, you might find you have a rather uppity group on your hands. Changes might have to be made.


* Rick Arnold, et al., 1991, Educating for a Change (Toronto: Between the Lines).

Synthesis/Regeneration home page  | Synthesis/Regeneration 5 Contents