11 min read
This post is a contribution for an online book club reading of We Make the Road by Walking by Paolo Freire and Myles Horton. Here's the reading schedule, my notes from Chapters 1 and 2 and 3. You can also check out my quote generator.
As an undergraduate, I studied Advertising in the the College of Journalism and Mass Communication. The advertising program, like many advertising programs, is built around the concept of the advertising agency. Thus, the core of your curriculum is situated around understanding the different departments of a traditional ad agency: research, media buying, and creative. Industry changes faster than higher education curriculum and other than large agencies, most now focus on a very specific niche. I've always found these niche boutique shops much more appealing--much more entrepreneurial--than large agencies.
Unfortunately, I wasn't looking far enough ahead or simply unaware of what exactly an agency fully did to recognize that my curriculum was built to feed agencies until it was too late. At earliest, you take your first Advertising course in your third semester. Mine was my fourth semester and it only took a few weeks for me to realize I had no desire to work for an advertising agency and it was quite possible that I would never use me (I now am teaching the same advertising courses I took so it's now fair to say this is inaccurate). But I can still vividly remember that moment--sitting in the back of the 100 person class--where I felt that advertising wasn't for me.
This was later confirmed in my favorite course of the Advertising sequence which is called Contemporary Advertising Problems and it plays the role of the ethics/critical course and is arguably the only theory based course of the curriculum. It was taught by an adjunct professor who owned a mid-size agency in OKC and had taught the course for years. The semester I took the course, the owners of the Seattle Supersonics, OKC tycoons, decided to move the Seattle Supersonics to Oklahoma City and rebrand the team the Oklahoma City Thunder. Roy asked us to raise our hand on if we liked or disliked the team name. To my surprise, I was the only one to raise my hand. From the beginning, I was imagining the type of theatrical atmosphere you could create in an arena for a team named afterwards a very large bass-y weather noise. Now, to everyone else's credit, the Thunder logo still seems very uninspired, which makes a great case study for why you shouldn't groupthink creative work.
Anyways, the second thing I remember well from this course was a story Roy told us. Oklahoma is now home to several large casinos. These were just starting to really get built while I was in school and Roy told us a story where he had decided that his agency would not compete for casino bids even though they were bound to be very large clients as he had an ethical dilemma with promoting gambling. I don't know if this was due to personal reasons or not--and really all arguments about the specific issue aside--I really respected that he had decided would turn down work that he felt he couldn't promote in good conscience. I then begin to really think about if I could truly design/promote/sell anything that anybody asked, and I knew that the answer was definitively "no." I was definitely never going to work for an agency.
I share this story because it's a story of a youth at a crossroads discovering his boundaries and that sums up a lot of my view about my collegiate experience. Chapter 4 of We Make the Road by Walking focuses a lot on teaching but it's also about having a position. Much of it is about those positions being brought into the classroom and whether or not that breeds an authoritarian environment. It was a major moment for me to be awoken to the ethical struggles of the sector and to be ok with turning my back on it and I'm thankful that there were people who weren't afraid to expose me to that.
And so I try to bring that into my own classes. Nearly every semester that I've been in the classroom, I've had "the talk" with the students. And it goes something like "Look. I know much of your curriculum is based around the appearance of the outcome of you eventually working for an advertising or public relations agency. The truth is that, particularly if you are going to stay in Oklahoma, you won't be doing that. You might not even be in the field at all. This course is about creativity and the lens is ad/pr but it's also about you being able to recognize your own creative potential. You'll learn valuable skill sets but you'll also learn how to think with design."
For some strange personal reason, I feel like it's part of my duty to tell students it's okay if you never enter this field.
2016 has been (understatement) a lot of feelings for me. As it will be mentioned over and over again as we end the year, we lost a lot of wonderful people. For me, the biggest emotional hit was Seymour Papert. When I'm asked who my educational hero is, I always (and will always) say Papert. His way of thinking about technology and education--that the child should program the computer, not the computer program the child--was ahead of its time and may only ever be actualized in small pockets.
In Papert's book The Children's Machine he contrasts what he calls Schoolers and Yearners. I've paraphrased it below:
The parable sets up the question: Why, through a period when so much human activity has been revolutionized, have we not seen comparable change int he way we help our children learn?
People on one side, the Schoolers, are taken aback by my question... Many become indignant... Education today is faced with immediate, urgent problems. Tell us how to use your computers to solve some of the many immediate practical problems we have, they say.
On the other side of the great divide are the Yearners, who respond by citing impediments to change in education such as cost, politics, the immense power of the vested interests of school bureaucrats, or the lack of scientific research on new forms of learning. These people do not say "I can't imagine what you could possibly be looking for," because they have themselves felt the yearning for something different. (2-3)
Papert lays out this dichotomy of people sold out to the educational system who work tirelessly only to maintain the system and people for whom the system will never serve because there is a burning desire for something more.
And here is where I--somewhat dangerously--find myself in both camps. Someone who is coming to trying to find ways in which the system will allow for yearning to prevail. Papert acknowledges this as well.
Another important class of Yearners operates as a sort of fifth column within School itself: Large numbers of teachers manage to create within the walls of their own classrooms oases of learning profoundly at odds with the education philosophy publicly espoused by their administrators; some public school districts, perhaps those where Yearners have moved into administration, have made spaces for Yearners within the School system, allowing such programs to deviate from district policies on method and curriculum (3)
Open is not simply a quality to adopt or a direction to pursue. Open is attitude towards systems and the desire those systems empower and focus.
I can't think of a better way to describe a quality that we need on both the student/non-student sides of the institution than "yearning." All other words are just synonyms or adjacent. Wonder. Awe. Love.
Freire uses one that I like: "humility."
One of the virtues we have to create in ourselves as progressive educators is the virtue of humility. (195)
He talks about this knowledges inability to stay static; that it's a process. He talks about incompleteness.
I am humble because I am incomplete (194)
That last quote is probably my favorite so far of the entire book. I want to embrace my incompleteness in order to yearn for humility. (Side note: I read up on Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem for this blog post and I'm not going to build that in to this post, but I secretly hope someday Mike Caulfield will because he's better at thinking than me).
Very rarely do I sense a lot of tension between Horton and Freire. In fact, I often sense the exact opposite. It feels like a deep sense of love and reverence for another. But this chapter seems to subtly bring out some of the differences between them. For instance, Freire talks about teaching as a vehicle that comes through content whereas Horton seems to talk about a process of eliciting it from students:
My system is to make him thirsty, so he'll volunteer to drink. (148).
And there's an interesting moment in their conversation where I feel like "Third Party," is trying to confront an issue. Freire is very much open about being incomplete and learning from his students where Horton, as an organization, feels the strong burden to make change when he sees it, which can come across authoritarian. This negotiation--hold so firm to beliefs while also embracing humility and incompleteness--it brings me back to me wrestling with myself as an advertising undergraduate student.
MYLES: Well I think you have to divide that into principles. When I say what I believe, I'm talking about principles such as love and democracy, where people control their lives.
THIRD PARTY: Your vision.
MYLES: My vision. Now the strategy for my vision, the approaches and processes, I've learned from other people.
Amy Collier wrote a post about the burden you can face when yearning within the school--being critical--and it's beautiful in it's honesty and openness. I, too, think a lot about being on the wrong side with my ideas. When progressive agendas fail, whether they are political or institutional, I think it's important for me to remember the incompleteness and not falter from my vision, to use Horton's words.
If I was smart, I would end my blog post there because I've already written too much that nobody is going to read it, but I wanted to capture one last thing that I took away from Chapter 4 and that's Myles Horton about the three traits of progressive education:
I think if I had to put a finger on what I consider a good education, a good radical education, it wouldn't be anything about methods or techniques. It would be loving people first.
Next is respect for people's abilities to learn and to act and to shape their own lives.
The third thing grows out of caring for people and having respect for people's ability to do things, and that is that you value their experiences. (177)
I'm not any good about writing about love and education so I'll leave that to those who know better than me. There's also a line about being involved at a micro and macro level.
We were part of the world but we had to start locally. (179)
I'm continually more and more interested in how to promote localized movements and sharing those broadly rather than trying to collectively do something similar. Maybe I should have written about that before running out of steam, but I'm open to suggestions on how to organize that. I'm also still thinking through Kate Bowles' post on lenses and Mastodon so check that out. Onward and upward, #HortonFreire.
All of us have the urge to create a new reality online – either explicitly in coming up with something like the saga of Dr Oblivion, or in the work of Helen Keegan; or implicitly, in presenting a version of ourselves that is just plain nicer/funnier/smarter/more interesting than the decaying sack of bones, flesh and Doobie Brothers lyrics that exists in three-dimensional reality.
And when you do create a reality, do you pull away the mask and risk confusion and alienation. Or run the risk of keeping the story going, ending with some of the horror we have seen emerging from known falsehoods in 2016 (this week’s shitshow: pizzagate).