In the summer of 2012, four academics/activists – Neil Howard, James Sevitt, James Morrissey, and myself – came together to try to establish a community education project in Oxford. The goal was to see if we could set up and run learning groups on political economy in community organisations. The idea for the project emerged from a combination of three major factors: our anger at the causes and consequences of the global financial and economic crisis; our participation in the Occupy London experience (Neil and James Sevitt had played important roles in running Occupy’s Tent City University); and our experiences of Oxford’s gaping town/gown divide. Consequently, the idea to create a community education project was both a direct response to the current crisis and a desire perhaps to bring the inspirational spirit and values of Tent City University into the lives of communities in Oxford.
That summer and into the autumn, we made contact with and agreed to run learning groups within five community organisations in Oxford, recruited and trained roughly ten ‘facilitators’ to run these groups, and produced embryonic plans for our curriculum. Four of the learning groups ran from early in Michaelmas Term last year with varying degrees of success.1 Since then, three of PPE’s founders have moved to pastures new, and we have new additions to our Organising Committee. We have recently trained a new cadre of facilitators and are just about to start up some new community learning groups. In addition, we are running our Critical Discussion Group and Critical Pedagogy Group this term. These are held at the Department of International Development, but are open to all.
The philosophy and vision that inspired PPE was quite clear from the start, and it remains clear today:
that education is the most powerful of political forces;
that education is never neutral, and can be used for purposes of either oppression or emancipation;
that a truly emancipatory education takes participatory forms that break down hierarchies between teacher and student and involve all participants in processes of knowledge co-production;
that all individuals have the right and ability to understand their own lives in the context of history and their society.
Finally, and more recently, we have come to recognise and assert that, since knowledge is power, empowering processes of learning can only be transformative if that new power is used to take individual and collective action. This final principle reflects our commitment to a praxis of thought/learning and action: thought alone is useless; action alone is dangerous. In our groups, we must come together to think, to analyse, and then to use what we have learned to take action. Once we have taken action, we must once more reflect before we act again. This philosophy of education is inspired by the work of many ‘critical pedagogues’, perhaps most significantly Paolo Freire.
Thus, the project was on relatively strong ideological foundations from the very start. Furthermore, I believe, our initial pilot experience showed us that, beyond abstract theory, PPE could also be a practical success. In short, we had proved to ourselves that we could indeed set up and run learning groups in Oxford, that we could use PPE as a vehicle to serve our community. However, from my perspective, as the remaining founder, I recognised that we now needed to think far harder about what we actually wanted to do within these learning groups and how to achieve it. In short, we had begun to generate helpful answers to the practical question of how to get people (often, understandably, very cynical about politics and economics) into a room to learn about political economy and the crisis, but a methodological question remained. This methodological question could be crudely stated thus:
“Once we get them in the room, how on earth do we help a group of disaffected people with bad educational experiences, low self-esteem, and little faith that anything in the world can be changed turn themselves into a group of people who have begun to understand the political economy of their lives and who want to take action and believe that they can change things?”
In what follows, I discuss in more detail our concrete response to this methodological challenge, a challenge that I personally have engaged with over recent months.
Exploring the Psycho-Social Method
In my explorations, the method I have found to be most promising for PPE thus far is called the ‘Psycho-Social Method’. It was developed by two women, Anne Hope and Sally Timmel, in a four volume work called Training for Transformation. Hope and Timmel, working in an African development context, sought to operationalise Freire’s educational philosophy. Their work is a detailed step-by-step answer to the huge methodological problem posed above. Crucially, it begins by listening, creating spaces for people to talk and, in the process, to build spaces, or ‘containers’ of trust and confidence. The initial creation of safe spaces is a fundamental prerequisite to any attempt to generate transformative learning processes. In addition, since the method rightly insists on the need to root positive learning firmly in the actual experiences of people, listening is vital because it allows the facilitator to learn about the lives and experiences of her/his group participants. More specifically, it allows the facilitator to listen for what Freire called the group’s ‘generative themes’; simply the themes, the issues about which group participants are speaking with strong emotions. It is only by identifying these emotive themes that a facilitator can hope to take the first and most vital step in overcoming apathy or cynicism. It is the energy of participants’ emotions that the skilled facilitator can begin to channel into motivation: motivation to learn and motivation to take action.
From here, the facilitator produces what is (perhaps overly dryly) called a ‘code’ – a cartoon, a poem, a skit, a photograph, anything – that accurately captures and reflects the generative themes the facilitator has been identifying. The code portrays a snapshot of social reality that the group’s participants are familiar with. It is vital that the code must only pose a problem and not offer a solution. From here, the group uses the code to move from ‘what’ to ‘why’: from describing what they see or hear in the code to discussing and identifying the factors they believe to be the root causes behind this particular social situation or problem. From here, the group can begin to scrutinise the causes they identify. The facilitator helps this process by providing the group with the information they need to perform this task. Ultimately, since knowledge is power, the knowledge and understanding the group gains in this process needs to be channelled into some kind of individual and collective action. Once more, the role of the facilitator is to help the group decide on and take appropriate action.
In short, what is presented here is an outline: the framework of a methodological answer to our question of how to help people move from a position of cynical disempowerment to one of hopeful and critically conscious social engagement. This is not to suggest that the method makes the task easy: far from it. However, the method does give us hope that our vision can be attained and a concrete plan to begin to try to turn our dreams into reality.
PPE: the way ahead
I am the last of the four founders of the project still here in Oxford. In December, I too will be leaving Oxford, heading abroad for a year. Yet the project will undoubtedly live on.
We have a great team of organisers already in place. However, we arelooking to bolster our Committee further by recruiting new organisers. We also have a great team of facilitators, most of whom recently participated in our 2 day facilitator training workshop. We hope to run another facilitator training workshop later this term. We have learning groups running or about to begin at a variety of community organisations, and there are various other groups (including trade unions and more informal groups of concerned citizens) with whom we hope to work in the near future. We plan also to run discussion/reading groups for students and academics this term in both critical pedagogy and critical political economy. Most crucially, I believe that everyone contributing to PPE believes in its foundational philosophy and vision.
I have been in Oxford for over eight years, coming first to do an MPhil at the Department of International Development in 2005, moving to the Politics Department for my DPhil in 2007, and spending the last two years teaching various modules in various colleges at the University. The research I have generated in the process of working towards my degrees has been of little consequence. I hope, however, that through PPE I can leave Oxford proud of making a small but significant social contribution to this town and to improving relations between its great, rich and powerful university and its great, but very often far poorer and less powerful neighbours.
Most crucially, to come right back to the initial reason for PPE’s foundation, we remain in a deep crisis (despite what Messrs Cameron and Osborne say): a crisis of profound political, economic, ecological, and existential proportions. Our systems and forms of education are not excluded from this critical situation. They are both symptomatic of it and conduits for it. Projects such as PPE, which bring people together in an effort to create more participatory, critical, and free (decommoditised) spaces for learning and taking action, seem to my mind to constitute an absolutely vital – indeed foundational – element of any attempts to resist the status quo, and to imagine and build alternative democratic, sustainable communities and societies.