Our two cents' worth...
The Popular Education Conference raised more problems for us than
it provided solutions. We consider that a mark of success, a step
beyond the attitude, all too common on the left, that we have all
the answers. When it comes down to it, we don't even know a lot
of the questions.
The conference was a success to the extent that it posed problems,
impelled people to evaluate their theories and their experiences,
stimulated processes of critical and self-critical thinking.
At the same time, raising questions is not the be-all and the end-all
of political activity. By itself, this can leave us wrapped in confused
frustration, and indeed there were those at the conference whose
experience was exactly that. One reason for this was that the conference
itself was a poor example of problem-posing education. Despite all
of our rhetoric about the need for new forms of political education,
the conference was organized along rather traditional lines, although
some attempts were made to develop a more participatory and reflective
approach. (Perhaps we should consider the possibility that conferences
are simply not suitable vehicles for the kind of collective self-education
we are trying to develop.)
However, most of the problems of the conference had to do with the
assumptions, experiences, and expectations of the people attending
it and planning it. The original impetus came from a fairly wide-spread
feeling on the independent left in Toronto that we were spending
too much time talking to ourselves. How could we "reach"
the working class? The answer, which was of course really no answer
at all, was that we had to do "popular education". But
how? What is popular education? How do you do it? None of us had
answers that were very satisfactory.
Yet, there are after all many independent left groups and individuals
engaged in a variety of different activities. It was hoped that
bringing them together at a conference would result in a pooling
of experiences and ideas.
The planning process for the conference took longer than anyone
had initially expected. The problem was not with the technical details,
but with political content and forms. To devise an agenda, arrange
speakers, decide on topics, set up a balance between plenaries,
workshops, displays, etc. meant making a series of political decisions,
decisions about popular education as it was to occur at the conference
and how it was to be presented at the conference. In effect, the
planning committee had to develop a basic analysis of popular education
before it could even set up a conference on the subject. With hindsight,
it is easy to say that we were not terribly successful in working
out a positive vision of what could and should happen.
But the shortcomings of the planning process cannot be attributed
primarily to the planning committee, which in its politics and affiliations
was fairly representative of the independent left in Toronto. The
lack of political clarity among the planners of the conference,
which is undeniable, was largely an expression of the political
level of the left of which they are a part.
One thing that the conference served to emphasize was the fact that
the independent left is not a homogenous whole. Yet it is frequently
assumed, at least implicitly, that it is. But really the main thing
that seems to bind it together, in addition to its general adherence
to socialism (usually left undefined) is a rejection of the sectarian
left. This rejection is more often than not not accompanied by any
clear analysis of just what is being, rejected and why, or of what
the alternatives are. Perhaps that is because the sectarian left
is so obviously off base. It seems unnecessary to analyze
its politics in a detailed way. But such an automatic rejection
can have undesirable consequences. For one thing, it can lead to
a tendency to reject large parts of the revolutionary socialist
heritage simply because the sectarian left has loudly laid claim
to it. This can cut us off from fruitful historical and theoretical
lessons. On the other hand, a failure to analyze why the
sectarian left is off base, why it is irrelevant, can and often
does lead large sections of the independent left to continue accepting
the basic assumptions and methods of sectarian leftism, even while
rejecting its specific politics. The rejection is superficial, not
based on a serious analysis of the root errors involved. For example,
there are independent leftists who reject the various leninist parties
that currently exist, but continue to accept various leninist formulae,
like the need for a vanguard party, the transmission-belt
theory of consciousness, the equation of education with propaganda,
etc. Some of the specifics have been rejected, but the underlying
assumptions remain. As long as there basic assumptions have not
been rigorously dissected and examined, and either consciously rejected
or consciously adopted, it is very difficult to construct a new
politics that has a positive theoretical and practical basis.
This was a problem that was apparent at the conference. Beneath
an assumed common purpose there lay an astounding hodge-podge of
political conceptions that were rarely articulated, seldom discussed,
and often not even thought out by those who held them. This in turn
accounted for the fairly frequent and frustrating inability to find
a common basis for dialogue. People were on different wave-lengths.
Yet this point should not be over-stated. Many people have
worked out their politics in some detail, and many more have at
least a gut-level under-standing of what constitutes good politics.
Under different circumstances, this would have been enough to stimulate
more solid political discussion than actually took place..
One problem was the rather passive, consumerist attitude of many
of the people who came to the conference. People sat back, waiting
to be educated. This again seemed to be at least partially due the
format: there was far more discussion in informal get-togethers
than there was at any of the plenaries that were supposed to "draw
it all together". Of course, these informal discussions were
part of the conference, but it is unfortunate that this process
and its results could not have been generalized more. The fact that
it wasn't stands as a challenge to our conceptions of popular education.
A cliched but important idea about the conference was that it had
to be a moment in a process of political development. That it was,
although the process proved to be less advanced than some of us
had hoped. But the important thing now is that this process continue,
that the questions raised there be pursued and discussed and re-defined
and answered. Certainly the most encouraging result of the conference
has been the amount of ongoing evaluation and discussion that it
To reiterate some of the concerns that emerged:
What is the relationship between socialist groups and mass organizations
at this time? What can it be?
The relationship between organizers and educators. Are they separate?
Does this distinction imply political choices?
What is the relationship between solidarity work and organizing
against capitalism in Canada?
What is the effect of mass culture on consciousness?
How can we integrate our theory and practice, to overcome the tendency
for them to develop in isolation?
What can we do to assist the political unification of the independent
These are questions we all have to consider, carefully, thoroughly,
The Toronto Liberation School Collective
Published in Volume 1, Number 1 of The
Red Menace, February 1976.
at the Conference - By Ashley Chester.
Education Conference (2) - Steve
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