November 2, 2014

Part 5: "Stayed on Freedom": Social Movements and Re-Inventing Education

Septima Clark and Rosa Parks at the Highlander Folk School in 1955,
before anyone knew who they were.
Connecting the dots:

Nai Talim and the Freedom Schools were two well-documented efforts to re-invent education toward empowerment.  Other efforts to establish a new vision for education is where things get very interesting.

Just prior to the launch of the civil rights movement in the mid-1950's, Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, John Lewis, Septima Clark, Ralph Abernathy, James Bevel and more visited the Highlander Folk School under the direction of Myles Horton.  Not only was Highlander instrumental in educating leaders of the Civil Rights movement, professor Jon Hale wrote the following in the American Education History Journal in 2007:

"Another notable connection between Highlander and the Freedom Schools comes in March 1964 at the conference called for the curriculum planning for the Freedom Schools. Myles Horton was in attendance at this meeting, ensuring, at least, that the tenets of critical education espoused at Highlander would be represented."

Founded during the depths of the Great Depression, Horton wrote about his vision for the school in 1931, saying:

“I would like to see a school where young men and women will have close contact with teachers, will learn how to take their place intelligently in a changing world.  In a few months, free from credits and examinations, utilizing only such methods as individual requirements called for… it is hoped that by a stimulating presentation of material and study of actual situations, the students will be able to make decisions for themselves and act on the basis of an enlightened judgment.”

Highlander was based on the Danish Folk High School movement which began in 1844 as a way to bring education to the adult lower classes in Denmark so they could also be active participants in the modern Danish state. Hallmarks of the Danish Folk High School movement included:
  • Students and teachers learning from each other
  • Freedom from examinations
  • Freedom from state regulation
  • Social interaction in a non-formal setting
  • Multi-age environment
As a side note, there are still 70 Danish Folk High Schools in Denmark with 5000 to 7000 people attending every year.

Many regarded the Highlander Folk School as a training program for organizers, but Horton disagreed. He saw Highlander not as a training center, but as a place for education. in the book "We Make the Road by Walking," he said:  

"We've called our work adult education. We thought of ourselves as educators. We deliberately chose to do our education outside the schooling system."

Life-long learning and people being able to solve their own problems was of paramount importance at Highlander. Horton did not use traditional teaching methods. He would not give anyone "the answers," nor did he want to. He recognized that telling people what to do would only make them dependent upon him for answers.

“Stretching people’s minds is part of educating, but always in terms of a democratic goal.  That means you have to trust people’s ability to develop their capacity for working collectively to solve their own problems.”

Empowerment was the educational root of Highlander. He practiced what was "experiential education." However, what students learned did not come from their experience in the classroom, as the term is used today. For Horton, students learned from the experiences of life before they even walked into the classroom. Horton believed the students already had the answers. Paul Freire said that Horton "was just awakening their memories concerning some knowledge and concrete experiences... What Myles did was to touch their memory about a subject and to remake the road."

This is where our road through the history of education forks. I hope to address both routes. Paulo Freire, author of Pedagogy of the Oppressed, had a similar journey in adult education in Brazil. So similar in fact, that Freire and Horton co-authored the book, "We Make the Road by Walking: Conversations on Education and Social Change."

Shall we now travel to Brazil with Paulo Freire, a man whose educational programs for the illiterate poor were so successful that he became a threat to the establishment and was jailed and then exiled?  

Or should we travel father back in time with Myles Horton to his formative years in graduate school in Chicago where he spent quite a bit of time with Jane Addams at Hull House? We shall soon see!

Next: Part 6

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