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We Make the Road by Walking - Chapters 1 & 2

12 min read

"History gets in your way. History gets in your way." -Myles Horton

These are the two sentences that end the second chapter of We Make the Road by Walking, which is a transcribed dialogue between Myles Horton and Paulo Freire. For the uninitiated, Horton is best known for his role in cofounding Highlander Folk School, which focused its energies on civil rights and desegregation during the Civil Rights Movements and provided training for many movement activists. Paulo Freire is best known for coining critical pedagogy and his book Pedagogy of the Oppressed.

I am reading this book as part of an online book club that's being thankfully stewarded by Bryan Alexander. You can read up on background and reading dates here. I'm not exactly sure if this is the proper way to be involved, but it's how I intend to capture my thoughts.

I should probably mention I'm not reading this book to not just be a part of the book club. A few weeks before the election I took a semi-purposefully timed break from social media. A lot of it was an excuse to escape; to reconsider the media I was consuming; to re-shuffle the deck so to speak. I remember joking in graduate school that I would be so happy to just read fiction again, but the problem was I never actually did that. The break would give me that opportunity. I found an early 20th century American lit syllabus online and selectively worked my way through the books I had yet to read.

Since the election, I've found myself in a very different headspace and I believe it's fair to say that it's one I wasn't foreseeing. My hope was that the election season would end, both teams would shake hands and say we'll see you next season and we would go back to deciding whether the dress is blue or gold. I was deeply mistaken. For the passed couple of weeks, I've struggled with how to best work, act, and discuss in this "new" environment. A lot of this is for reasons I'm currently uncomfortable completely discussing publicly.

And that's why I am here. Hemingway is out the window and instead I've been currently working through other books that I hope will help me better critically evaluate the world around me and the role educators (I fear blanketing the conversations with education and will stick with the self version, educator, for the moment) hope to play. It is here, through my own reflections of the works of others, that I hope to both struggle and make sense of the level of weariness, guilt, burden, (insert other emotions) that I currently feel. I feel more motivated than ever--more of a sense of purpose--to be working in education.

It's also fair to say that because of these recent events I'll be reading through this book from a very specific perspective or lens, or as Freire would say, "in a historical space, in a context with some special historical, political, social, cultural elements." I was at OLC Accelerate a couple weeks ago watching a panel discussion on Gender Equity in Higher Ed. There were too many powerful moments to distill the conversation into a sentence, but, as Carl Moore from the University of the District of Columbia said, "I've put on the glasses and I can't take them off anymore." Me too, Carl. Me too.

With this in mind, I apologize in advance if some of my reflections read as if they are overly appropriated for the current climate. I mean to write these only as a way to document my current thoughts and know all well and good they could potentially be in no way beneficial to anybody else including future selves.

I should probably setup how I plan to respond. I'll likely be pulling pieces out of the book and commenting directly on how I see them applying to what's currently happening within education and education technology and sharing my reactions. Bryan has been kind enough to write some reflection questions for each chapter (see the questions for Chapters 1 and 2 here). It's possible that I'll touch on those and it's also possible I'll shy away from reading them as well for fear of them steering my own thoughts. I truly hope that my reflections are raw.

So thank you, again, Bryan for organizing. Thanks also to Allison Salisbury, who at the same afformentioned conference, encouraged me to join after mentioning she's read this book multiple times. I promise to not provide a 600-word qualifier for every chapter post, so thank you for putting up with it this one time. :-)

On place

Much of the conversation between Horton and Freire focuses on place. In one instance, Horton outlines how Citizenship Schools came to be in Johns Island, South Carolina, through way of Esau Jenkins, who was passionate about building literacy in his town since it was required to register to vote. Jenkins would leverage the long bus rides as a place to teach reading to a captive audience.

Horton spent time there setting up the first Citizenship School (these would later spread and help thousands of Blacks register to vote) where students would learn to read by first reading the Declaration of Human Rights. This was a suggestion by Bernice Robinson, who really set much of the success of the schools into motion. She remembered the Declaration of Human Rights poster being hung on the wall in Highlander. She wasn't a formally trained teacher and though she only had a high school education, her ability to follow her intuition with teaching was beyond her years. The way Horton recounts her first talking with her students is very beautiful:

"I'm not a teacher. I really don't know why they wanted me to do this, but I'm here and I'll learn with you. I'll learn as I go along" -Bernice Robinson

The declaration is a document worth visiting if you've never read it and revisiting if you have. Back to the Citizenship school: it's a beautiful story of how, as Freire puts, of how people learned to "read the world" as well as the words. As someone who is just finished teaching their daughter to read through sounds, gibberish really, and not narrative, it's timely for me.

Before telling this story, both Horton and Freire recount their formative years (the chapter bears this title) and both point to a similar first experience with learning teaching. I'm going to skip to learning part and jump to teaching. Neither learned much about teaching or pedagogy before taking the role of teacher. Horton led community conversations in Ozone, Tennessee as well as Vacation Bible Schools. Freire taught Portuguese. Horton describes these first teaching moments like so:

I was trying to find something that would fit, something that would be relevant. I wasn't looking for a technique or a method. I wasn't, and you know I still am not. That's not what I've ever been interested in. I was looking for a process of how to relate to people. Finally, it just became very clear that I would never find what I was looking for. I was trying the wrong approach. The thing to do was just find a place, move in and start, and let it grow.

There's a lot I see in that graph. Mostly, teaching not as a technique but as an human interacted situated in a place and time. I've spent time trying to think through the term of independent edtech (or indie edtech) as an approach of leveraging open tools to serve a local need, much like independent artists serving a local cultural need; as a way of serving your community. This has manifested itself best in the work that I've been doing alongside a student at Georgetown to build a community tool.

I've come to thinking about a localized approach to education technology from both my background as a musician as well as someone attracted to the new urbanism movement, which I've watched mostly from afar. New urbanism focuses specifically on real estate development and urban planning through the lens of building a sense of community and the development of ecological practices. The principles of new urbanism remind me a lot of the principles of indie web. Both have diversity, connectedness, and community at their core. Eventually, I'll write more on this, but these really are the intersection of my fundamental beliefs of good communities.

The other piece to what Horton is saying is time as a necessity. One thing that I've seen particularly conflated by the media is desire to speed up time to success/demise. Models like the Gartner Hype Cycle, Clay Christensen's Disruptive Innovation, or "fail fast" models, build in a desire too often to look for the conclusion. If it's growing incorrectly, rather than letting it grow, they say, kill it off now, build toward a different market indicator. I deeply fear the trusts we lose in rarely nurturing ideas in favor of the ever-churning news cycle.

Freire: I learned like Myles, no? He said some beautiful things. He said, more or less, it took time. Yes, it took time. One of the things that men like us, like lots of other people we know in the world--one of the things that we can do in order to help the younger generation is to tell them our stories and to speak out-- Myles: How long it takes. Freire: How long it takes. Maybe they will shorten their time to learn.

I think about this a lot in leadership. How long something takes to happen versus how long we have to enact it. Presidents get four years minimum and I don't know if that's a blessing or a curse. In education, we have grown comfortable to experimenting, even researching, sixteen week semesters. I should also note Freire's sexist phrasing above (again, I can't not take off the glasses). This is a documented criticism of Freire.

There is also some language that Horton uses that makes me think about the need for humanness versus algorithmic intervention. He makes this strong statement:

Third Party: Do you see... pockets of hope now? What are they? Horton: As you've heard me say, I'm not out in the situations where I know well enough what's going on. Finding the pockets is not an intellectual process. It's a process of being involved... I had to spend a long time down in Johns Island before people would really confide in me and talk to me so I could get a feel of where they were. I'm sure that in all times in history there are little places where things are beginning to develop, but I don't think you can arrive at that intellectually or by making surveys or taking polls or things of that kind.

It's an important point that Horton makes. You can't build models that produce trust.

On truth and history

The last point that I want to think about is stories. I'll briefly say this is where Horton and Freire do really well working off of one another. Horton tells these stories that have magnificent impact but come across so humbly. Freire then has the ability to counteract with almost a grandiose statement that sounds much like a universal truth. It happens multiple times within this Formative Years chapter. His critique, if you can call it that, of the Citizenship Schools is as such:

When we think that these things Myles spoke about, the struggle for black to read and to write; when we read that this fantastic man Jenkins, a great educator in being a driver who created a school in the back of a bus in order for people to learn, it was yesterday. Yesterday. At the same time, in Brazil we had discrimination. I am speaking here not as a Brazilian but as a human being just recognizing how much we have to do still all over the world in order to try to reinvent the world.

One of my major criticisms of how higher education media is not just how it is covered but how it is then leveraged at universities to push agendas without any idea as to whether something 1. completely worked or 2. if it can be replicated locally, let alone anywhere else (See: Purdue's Course Signals).

There's a bigger story here though about how strong narratives can drive the mass. TED Talks are one example of a vehicle that is too often used to try to follow up anecdotes with horoscope-like "truths." As of today, the Electoral College results show that the system has produced for us a president who ran his campaign off of stories rather than experience.

Freire and Horton end this specific conversation questioning whether something like Citizenship School could happen again. Blacks in the sixties were highly motivated to become literate not just because of the opportunity to vote but to, as Freire puts it, "to know why to vote and for whom to vote."

The question was not exclusively to teach how to read and to write but to challenge future readers concerning how to use the right the vote.

Ultimately, Freire and Horton decided at the time (1990) there wasn't anything of national significance that could warrant a national campaign. I don't know whether to worried or excited about the period that we are entering into. In some respects, I do see that national campaign; one which is an attempt to return to "great"--whenever that was--and I don't know what undoings have to take place to get there. On the other end, I can also see a real resistance beginning to assemble itself to be at the ready. And it leads to me to consider whether if anything is ever progress or if we are as humans are one vicious cycle exchanging blows. 

The only way teachers have to demonstrate to the students that they are serious sometimes is to fight--to fight in order to get a better salary and then to begin to become more competent.

History gets in your way. History gets in your way.