Lenses

There’s a lot of things that we have to look at critically that might have been useful at one time that are no longer useful.

Myles Horton

What is the space between the orchid and the wasp?

Jacques Abelman

1

In the third chapter, “Ideas”, of Myles Horton and Paolo Freire’s We Make The Road by Walking (1990), there’s a moment where the conversation suddenly looks right at us.

The [electoral] system that we have in the United States was set up at a time when the total population was the population of Tennessee. We’ve stretched it to try to make it work for different kinds of problems and in stretching and adapting it, we’ve lost its meaning. (p137)

Myles Horton suggests that there are always things that we need to look at critically, that have outlived their usefulness. In higher education, we’re used to this: the college lecture, the three or even four year degree, the textbook, the exam, the peer reviewed closed publication system, secure employment, shared governance—all under the hammer of disruption.

But can a whole electoral system lose its meaning in this way? When we look, can we see what needs defending, what can be lost?

2

Something about what happens when we talk.

Here’s a brief glimpse of the book’s origin, from the preface. Horton and Freire met and talked late in 1987 at the Highlander School that Horton had built, and that is now an education and research centre still focused on grassroots organising.

They could relax, explore their histories, and feel the texture and depth of each other’s experiences as they grew closer as good friends. Their conversations soon became like a dance between old companions accustomed to the subtle leads and responses by one, then the other.

Myles Horton was 83 and Paolo Freire was 66. They came to this meeting from different personal and educational starting points, with a shared interest in what radical pedagogy could contribute to social justice. They had worked across government and activist roles; they had lived as husbands and fathers and teachers; they had each experienced loss and grief and illness. The book exists at all because Horton’s collaborators at the University of Tennessee (Brenda Bell, John Gaventa and John Peters) felt it was “time to let the world in on what each man, whose work was already well known, had to say to each other.”

3

While I’m in this #HortonFreire reading group, I’m still working with others to fathom the potential to critical pedagogy of the open source network mastodon.social. The group of us who are looking at this, both uncertainly and with bursts of optimism, have shown up inside a refuge that’s still under construction. We’re trying not to get in the way of the host community for which the protections of this social space are evidently intended, and whose safety is important to us.

And yet we’re co-evolving something, working in the space between the orchid and the wasp. Outlier members of each community are passing round each other’s ideas and comments, making design or server hosting suggestions, with nothing much in common except that we are all humans living in these times. And the copresence of two such unlike demographics is probably helpful in constraining the tendency for anyone to succeed in defining the whole project. It’s more than usually obvious in that neither “we” can imagine for others who are their own “we”, with all their own conventions and hopes for the future.

In this context, Jim Luke suggests that viability for a growing online community hosting many overlapping conversations relates to what people can see, what they choose to pay attention to. To Jim, this is a matter of lenses. What you see depends on the lens that you bring to the seeing. Some of this is an issues for system design; more that matters is derived from personal and social history, and purpose.

My glasses. They're how I see.
My glasses. They’re how I see.

The etymology of the lens is literal. Lens is the Latin form for the word that forks in English to become lens because it resembles lentil. It turns out that many languages share the same or proximal words for these two things, based on their similar lenticular shape.

The purpose of a lens is to bend the light that passes through it, one way or another, to enable things to be seen.

4

The idea of the lens has become newly fraught since the US election. For critical educators, for those of us following Foucault or Gramsci or any thinker on the mutability of what is thinkable according to who is thinking it and what power they wield, this is a tough time. Postmodernism has sedimented into the high school curriculum, and the post-truth presidency is on the horizon in the US.

We always said that facts were made things, polished lenses, ways of seeing the world. And now here we are.

This is a time for critical educators to work together in new ways to address what’s newly at stake. To me it’s encouraging to be reminded by Horton & Freire that activists have always collaborated, that conversations have been the basis of growth as much as harm, that ideas come into focus when we talk. And maybe we’ve forgotten in the turmoil of bitterness, malice and panic that our online networks are there to let the world know what we have to say to one another.

It’s not a reason to re-assert a modernist faith system, to shore up an imaginary pre-post-fact era when things were truer than they are now. It’s more that accepting the relativism and mutability of perspective doesn’t give us the right to silence at this time.

4.

Book club part: the risk and promise of efficiency.

Horton and Freire draw a distinction between the kind of education that has the courage to be open to purpose, to what will turn up; and schooling which suffers (from) the same imperative as activism, to get stuff done. Between these two poles, there is something they call efficiency.

That is, efficiency, without being an instrument of enslaving you, is something that is absolutely necessary. Inefficiency has to do with the distance between what you do and what you would like to get.

Nearly 30 years later, we need to revisit this point. What can we wish for, when efficiency is the genius of the enslaving instruments of data management, of automated labour, of the market, of capital itself?

I’ve been thinking about this in relation to the things people say about their navigational experiences in mastodon. Relative to other platforms it doesn’t smooth the paths. Wayfinding is sometimes hard. Conversations break apart and reform. We lose track, back up, follow branching paths, calling out to each other. Learning is hard and in every sense, time is short. Our human bandwidth is at capacity.

Other platforms know exactly how to use design to exploit this sense of informational fatigue. Cashed up social networks have got us used to being led to content, like we’re in IKEA. Algorithms make paths for us; algorithms even make our shortcuts.

Look, here is the significant content you missed while you were away, here is the gap in the hedge for you to catch up, here is the moment that matters.

We fall on this efficiency with relief because Twitter is the firehose, and the world that’s on fire. It’s the crowded pavement where everyone is running.

Mastodon feels to me like something slow, rough edged, inefficient. It requires us to stop, to concentrate, to think more carefully. In every way, it reminds me of Mike Caulfield’s earliest federated wiki in design and purpose, and in the ideal that I discovered there of uncluttered co-working for the collaborative extension of complex ideas.

It’s good to remember that we still know how to manage in these spaces, as we try to name all the things the lenses of the powerful are asking us not to see.

5

It’s not too late to dip in or join #HortonFreire, in your own time. Thanks to Bryan Alexander there’s a trove of links and the backstory all here. The front readers have reached chapter 4 but plenty of us are tarrying, and there’s no deadline at all. Maybe we’ll all just read this book together until the end of days..

On chapter 3, I really appreciated Amy Collier’s thoughts on broken heartedness of leadership. Adam Croom has made a quote generator from his own notes on chapters 3 and 4 which will put something in your day.

And Bonnie Stewart has opened up an extraordinary discussion about the potential to make a new thing, remembering instead of forgetting our history. Go there.

Update

If you’re on mastodon, we’ve been following up Laura Ritchie‘s idea about using #lenses as a hashtag to gather up branching threads, and have run into a design feature that makes this awkward. Entirely unlike Twitter, this has led to an exchange with the developer about how things might work better.