MMCP: Learning Our Way away from Institutions

MOOC MOOC: Critical Pedagogy (MMCP) is a six-week exploration of critical pedagogy. For this fifth week, we’ll be discussing Henry Giroux’s Rethinking Education as the Practice of Freedom, Ivan Illich’s Why We Must Disestablish School, and Ricky Lee Allen’s Whiteness and Critical Pedagogy. Our discussion will center on the sites of learning and the oppression of institutions. Feel free to read/watch as much or as little as you are able (or find useful). We promise there will be no reading quizzes.

Schedule of Events:

  • Ongoing – Participant blog posts, casual conversation, and questions shared on the community hashtag #moocmooc.

The origins of critical pedagogy are outside the classroom, indeed, outside the common imagination of a school. Many critical pedagogues today continue to see the school itself, and not just the classroom, as an institution to be challenged, subverted, undermined, or ultimately, completely dismantled. Schools as a model for organizing learning are fundamentally oppressive: they force learning into a narrow schedule and space and simultaneously reinforce the notion that learning does not happen in important ways anywhere else.

Ivan Illich writes that

a … major illusion on which the school system rests is that most learning is the result of teaching. Teaching, it is true, may contribute to certain kinds of learning under certain circumstances. But most people acquire most of their knowledge outside school, and in school only insofar as school, in a few rich countries, has become their place of confinement during an increasing part of their lives.

As a place of confinement, both physically and psychologically, schools become a place where students learn to look to authority figures and experts for answers and come to recognize only a certain set of knowledges as legitimate. Or, for too many young people of color especially, they become a place of racist confinement as a route to that next place of confinement: prison (the school to prison pipeline). To get us thinking about the most empowering and effectual sites of education, let’s look at two historical American examples of schools outside the government-endorsed public system.

The Citizenship Schools and Civil Rights

The Highlander Folk School started as a labor organizing catalyst, situated in rural Appalachia. As the Civil Rights Movement began to pick up steam, Highlander turned its focus toward the movement. Septima Clark, Myles Horton, Bernice Robinson, and Esau Jenkins collaborated to create the first Citizenship School on John’s Island. They brought in Robinson as their first teacher, specifically because she’d never trained as a teacher. She was a barber. But, as they said, she knew how to be with people, and that was more important.

Part of the legacy of people like Ella Baker and Septima Clark is a faith that ordinary people who learn to believe in themselves are capable of extraordinary acts, or better, of acts that seem extraordinary to us precisely because we have such an impoverished sense of the capabilities of ordinary people. (Paine, 1995, p. v)

The Citizenship Schools enabled thousands of poor blacks across the south to teach themselves the skills they needed to vote. But much more importantly, people taught each other that they could be part of changing the world around them. And the curriculum was different wherever the schools went, because the schools were run by local people, on local schedules, and with local objectives.

And once the schools had done the work they set out to do in any particular space, they faded away. They were never institutions.

Black Power and Liberation Schools

The Liberation Schools sought to be somewhat more permanent than the Citizenship Schools, and worked with children rather than adults. However, the curriculum, inspired by the Citizenship and Freedom Schools, ended up similarly, and so did the everyday practices.

In the North, the Liberation Schools were one of the first places black families could take their children to school for them to learn both self-respect and to be treated as valuable human beings. The schools were part of the Panther’s Survival Pending Revolution programs, which saw themselves as helping black folks survive in a racist society.

Our concentration is not only on providing basic skills and an analytical way of thinking: we also seek to transform the way in which the youth interrelate to each other. The young people at the school are regarded as developing human beings whose ideas and opinions are respected…. Everything is done collectively in order to develop an understanding of solidarity and camaraderie in a practical way. (Hilliard, 2008, 5-6)

In this sense, the schools were very collaborative places. But they also made room for a self-image that contrasted the one broader society held: that black people have an important and dignified history.

Beyond Schools

But why create these alternative educational spaces? Henry Giroux writes that “too many classrooms at all levels of schooling now resemble a ‘dead zone,’ where any vestige of critical thinking, self-reflection and imagination quickly migrate to sites outside of the school only to be mediated and corrupted by a corporate-driven media culture.” What if we propose, in the realm of the Liberation Schools and Citizenship Schools, alternative ways to organize learning? Perhaps at the center (if, indeed, a center is ever what we wish to have) we can place what María Elena Torre calls a contact zone, a space where:

  • each participant is understood to be a carrier of knowledge and history,
  • everyone holds a sincere commitment to creating change for educational justice,
  • power relationships are explicitly addressed within the collaborative,
  • disagreements and disjunctures are excavated rather than smoothed over and there is a collective expectation that both individuals and the group are “under construction”.

The Sites of Education

In this week of MOOC MOOC: Critical Pedagogy, we will discuss the sites of critical pedagogy in the world. Join us on February 18 at 5:00 PM EST for a Twitter chat using #moocmooc. Check out to see when to join us in your time zone. And begin thinking about the following questions:

  • As teachers and learners, how do or can we begin to “learn away from schools”? Are there changes we can make to our classrooms? Our social spaces? Our living rooms?
  • How might Liberation and Citizenship Schools help us imagine more broadly the way we organize our society and opportunities for learning?
  • The Liberation and Citizenship School efforts focused in large part upon the dignity and self-respect of its students. What role does dignity play in our pedagogies? How do we remind students to respect themselves and their peers, and to what end?
  • Are our classrooms “dead zones” and not “contact zones”? What practical changes can we make to improve the qualities of reflection and imagination even under the pressure of curricula?

If you cannot join us for our synchronous chat, feel free to post your thoughts throughout the week on the #moocmooc hashtag or in the comments below. We’ll also be curating highlights from the community’s blog responses on the MOOC MOOC: Critical Pedagogy homepage, where you can also find the schedule for the rest of the MOOC.

Registration is not required for MOOC MOOC: Critical Pedagogy. No personal data will be collected and everyone is welcome. However, if you’d like updates about the course, there are a few things you can do. First, follow @hybridped, @moocmooc, and #moocmooc on Twitter. And sign up for Hybrid Pedagogy’s e-mail list where we send updates about events (like MOOC MOOC) and digests of recently published articles.

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