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.

 

The roads we make

We all agreed we had to start learning from the people we were working with, and that we had to learn from each other.

Myles Horton, #HortonFreire , We Make the Road by Walking

So I’m in a pop-up book club, which is probably the only kind of book club I can manage, as I’m a terrible reader. I have a vision of book clubs that is part Oprah, and part my friend David the philosopher who tells me stories of Melbourne book clubs with wine and erudition and sustained relationships over time. I harbour unfair conclusions about both, and “join book club” is not on my bucket list. Worse, my own practice of opposing assigned readings when I teach makes me a peculiar candidate for synchronised reading even in a professional context. I can barely bring myself to read the agenda.

But I came across a group planning to read the transcribed conversations between critical educators Paulo Freire and Myles Horton, published in 1990 as We Make the Road by Walking. And this is a book I actually read, and care about, and keep by the bath, and go over and over like a well-thumbed bible of sorts. Bryan Alexander is at the head of the line, and you can follow his thoughts here. Beyond that there are posts by Adam Croom, Amy Collier and Ben Scragg that are extraordinarily rich companions to the first couple of chapters. There’s a schedule and a Twitter chat. As a demonstration of what group reading can do, it’s compelling.

So I’m in, figuring that if I have only one book club in me ever, this could be the one. And of course, Bryan is on chapter 3 so I’m already running behind. But I’ve been here before, thinking about how we learn from walking together, especially with people who don’t walk the way we do, or the way we think is right. This is from 2014:

If you’ve ever watched 8 year olds walk a school route, you’ll know that their progress is circular, wandering, attentive and distracted all at the same time. They stop to pick things up. They run about in circles for a bit. They dawdle and notice things you miss. Adults and older children nag at them to do it properly, to pick up the pace and make orderly, timely, productive progress. There’s an implicit schedule which we think they should follow, so that everyone achieves the walking-to-school outcomes on time.

But suddenly I realised that what they’re doing is learning: they’re learning about their community by making tracks through it, remembering that yesterday there was a lizard here or a dropped bit of trash there. And this is exactly the point smart people like Patrick Masson and Mark Smithers have been quietly making about online learning and MOOCs: what really threatens the privilege of universities as regulators of approved learning is the internet itself, because this is where we all go to learn, to “make the path by walking”. (Update: I remembered Bon Stewart talking about this, and she has now helpfully reminded me where. It’s in a beautiful post on her blog, and she’s taking up a point from Horton and Freire.)

Horton and Freire’s conversation about their shared histories of becoming educational activists begins with their own experiences as children, learning to read. In the chapter “Formative Years” (see, I’m really book clubbing it now) Freire talks about learning at home, sitting among mango trees, drawing in the dirt with a stick. Horton doesn’t remember how he learned to read, but recalls the transition from know-how reading to reading for meaning.

I remember learning to know-how read, my mother’s finger running along the words, the picture covered over with a brown window envelope so I wouldn’t guess. Next she was big on flash cards, and stuck them onto the appropriate items around the house, so we lived briefly in a labelled environment like people who might at any moment lose their minds and forget which was the door and which was the window.

Then my dad, the trained teacher, came home one day and switched all the labels around — Semiotics 101.

I did all right.

2.

“If I need a road, then I’ll make a road!” says Toad.

Start over.

When our older kids were little, my mother loaded us up with the Usborne phonics reader series. Slim little volumes of incredible tedium introduced us to phonics, rhymes, flattened cartoonish illustrations, and some modest relief hunting for a little yellow duck on every page, The girls loved them.

But there was one I also loved. Toad Makes a Road is the story of an enterprising and independent character who hops happily into her new house on a hill (brought to you by the h sound, get it?). Time ticks on (I’m quoting now, from ground in memory of those long nights) and the removalist truck can’t get up the hill, so (short version) Toad carries all her furniture up by herself, and then waits for her friends to appear, teapot in hand. One by one, they all tell her that her hill is too steep, and that she needs a road. She tells them brightly that she’ll make one, and is of course dismissed as a fool.

Illustration from Toad Makes a Road, Usborne Books
Illustration from Toad Makes a Road, Usborne Books

So I inwardly cheered every time when we turned the page and found Toad with her fully provisioned road building machinery—the really big earth movers, in the proper shade of yellow—laying the road, making it flat, and putting up a big billboard of welcome to all comers, all by herself.

Sometimes we make the road by making it. And this is hard work too.

3.

Why do we try new things? Very often it’s because of a recommendation. We’re social learners, it’s a survival skill. And so it is that this week I followed a pilgrimage of travellers led by Paul Prinsloo to try a new kind of social network. The result has been heartwarming, surprising, and something that will take more than this post to explain.

Here’s what I have learned briefly. There’s tremendous energy in the open source community to build social alternatives to Facebook and Twitter. There are some quite niche reasons why particular groups are drawn to these alternatives at the moment, and like any communitarian energy, it’s generating a lot of work thinking about boundaries and rules and ways of getting along. If you’ve watched enough post-apocalyptic survival fiction, you’ll know what this is about.

Entering one of these communities, even accidentally, is about practising the reciprocal hospitality of the guest, and I’ve been watching colleagues and friends manage this with real care and respect, engaging with a host community that self-represents as marginal and in many ways at risk. We’re not the only ones thinking about how to act well in relation to strangers, how not to trip or trigger. It’s going on all the time.

Many small technical things that Twitter has made (suspiciously) easy are harder in this space. It navigates like Moodle, and looks like a darkened cave. But what has really surprised and engaged me is the rewarding labour of learning from strangers–the time that people give to one another to work in collaboration. It’s reminded me of many things about the cooperative, curious, clunky internet of 1995, animated with the urgency of figuring out the paths we need to make in the swampy ground of 2016.

You can read more about it here and here (Daniel Lynds and Sundi Richard on its potential for higher education users) and here (Maha Bali in ProfHacker) and here (“Everything changed when the marxist anime twitter arrived”).

And I’m truly glad to be involved in thinking about the world we might make by learning from each other.