On Listening and Beauty: Freire hears a Horton and I hear a call

Bryan Alexander’s most recent book group around We Make the Road by Walking has caught my attention. There are several reasons for this but a big part of it is the community response; especially the Temporarily Embarrassed Millionaires post by Bonnie Stewart where she calls for a community to develop around the teaching of digital literacies. Bon draws from the rich histories of Horton’s Highlander Folk School and brings in the Antigonish Movement of her own Maritimes home to issue a call for discussion around how such a community could develop. What she, for now, is calling Antigonish 2.0. This catches my attention because I am drawn to community movements and to the idea of hybridity. I’m also in the midst of exploring digital literacy on my own campus and and continue to encounter others doing similar work through the conversations around digital citizenship that I pursue.

Besides Bon’s call and the many other excellent posts that have arisen from this book group (including this one from Laura Ritchie, this one from Amy Collier, and this one from Kate Bowles) I was also drawn to the book group because of the book itself. First there is the title which resonates with me as a kind little poem summing up this natural-interest kind of learning that I’ve always loved and have been reflecting on over the last few years. There are the interlocutors themselves: I’d never heard of Horton but after digging around and finding out more about him I fell a little in love with him, and to admit that I’ve never actually read Freire is a bit of a faux pas but there we have it. Finally, there is conversation. I feel this affinity for conversation and when I discovered that the book was a conversation, that Horton and Freire had gotten together to “talk a book”, well I was in.

I’m weeks behind the official schedule for the book group but I don’t mind making my own way a little later than others; it seems that may even fall into the theme of things a little. I had intended to get the book and try to catch up with the schedule before blogging but that does not seem possible to me now as my mind is exploding as I read this book. Though I am only about half way through the second chapter I just have to reflect on some of this – there is no way that I can wait. Mind you, again, this is all very new to me. I’ve never read Horton or Freire or the many other men that they list among their influences. However, it all seems so familiar. I have lived in community and done some community based organizing. I grew up white urban poor and among many rural poor family members. There is something familiar about this road and, yes, even something familiar about temporarily embarrassed millionaires.   

So, I mean for this post to be a reflection on a few of the concepts from the book but also how they might relate to our current endeavors around building liminal learning communities which lie on the borders of concepts such as time, location, topics, politics, online, etc especially building them around digital literacies. As I read the book my mind jumps in a ton of different directions but here I am just going to concentrate on two: Listening and beauty. I have explored these concepts before but I’m going to attempt to connect them as they came to in the book as a response to Bonnie’s call for a new community effort around digital literacy and other digital literacy initiatives that I’ve been hearing about.

On Community and Listening

If I am going to consider dedicating myself to a community I have pause for a second. Community is not easy. It is filled with possible pitfalls, arguments, negativities, and disappointments. The rewards can be numerous but why do it in the first place? Especially if we are considering a learning movement. Who are we educating? What do they need? I want to be sure that I think about those questions and listen to the community we are reaching out to.

In reflecting on this aspect I can’t help but think about the book but also Amy Collier’s response (linked above) with concerns around missionaries. Both Myles Horton and Amy seem to have become disillusioned by the idea of missionaries coming into a community to save the members from themselves. In the book someone asks Myles how he knew that there was a misalignment between the questions he thought people should have and the ones that they actually had:

“When they weren’t paying any attention to us. When we saw that we weren’t talking about their needs. We were going to bring democracy to the people, I mean bring it to them like a missionary and dump it on them whether they liked it or not. We thought we were going to make world citizens. All of us had traveled, we’d been around, abroad, and we’d read all this stuff, and we were going to bring all this enlightenment to the people… So we thought we were pretty good, but the people didn’t pay any attention to anything we were doing. Nothing we were doing they reacted to. We couldn’t even talk a language they understood. A lot of their language was nonverbal. We were verbal. We were certified as verbal, but we couldn’t communicate.”

I have no doubt that this kind of community is needed. We are seeing a shift in politics that is pretty scary and we are seeing that digital tools and media are having a huge effect. From fake news to public surveillance to exploited emails, I feel like digital literacy is the kind of the thing that is becoming critical to understanding the way that much of the world works. But what avenues of inspiration do we use to get people to understand the importance of the tools but also the complexities of how they are and can be used? Paulo also talks about this later remembering a conversation with his wife Elza:

“After one program, Elza and I were coming back home and Elza said to me, with a delicate understanding, “Look, Paulo, it does not work like this.” And I asked her: “What did I do? I spoke serious about serious things” She said: “Yes of course. All you said is right, but did you ask them whether they were interested in listening to you speak about that? You give the answers AND the questions…. You have to change. You cannot grasp the interest of the people while speaking with this language you spoke. It is the language you have to speak at the university but not here.”

How do we get people to speak about their struggles with digital literacy? Do they even know that they are struggling with this? Do they realize how many fake news propaganda stories they are consuming and sharing? How often is data hidden from them so that they don’t even know where to start with the questions? How do we start the conversation with them and how do we listen?

Something About Beauty

After the recent US elections there were unprecedented donations given to organizations that are working toward social justice and equality. Many of my colleagues have been publishing lists of who they are donating to or simply indicating their intent to give. When I see these I’ve been advocating for people to also support artists as a part of this effort. I’m concerned that this could get overlooked in times like these. I need to point out that there is something about beauty that is deeply important to these endeavors. Freire touches on this in reflecting on interest driven learning. Paulo talks about reading as an act of beauty “because it has to do with the reader rewriting the text.” and states “It’s an aesthetical event”.

I tend to think of reading as one way to come to understanding. It is a favorite, personally. However, I also really love listening and I’m a big fan of audiobooks. There is a difference between listening to audiobooks and listening to songs. There is a difference between reading a novel and reading a conversation. There can be beauty in all of these I don’t mean to separate them. What I do mean to do is draw attention to beauty and aesthetics as contributing to interest. Interest as in natural inclination to pursue a topic. Elsewhere I have written about this and juxtaposed the interest that one naturally has to the interest that one “should” have. Think, “in your best interest”.  I’m still making that road but I’m pretty sure natural interest has something to do with beauty. And I say all of this because I think that it can be easy to forget this in forming learning communities. It seems to me that this is a place where we should pay particular attention. I wish the book gave more detail into Zilphia’s (Horton’s wife) thoughts on this. There is a point where Horton states:

“I learned a tremendous lot from Zilphia, my wife, who brought in a whole new cultural background, drama and dance and music, oral history, storytelling-all kinds of things that I’d grown up knowing but just hadn’t thought of as being related to learning”

Perhaps I will have to dig deeper and try to find some of Zilphia’s work on my own or perhaps this will come up again later in the book. Like I said my mind is on fire with connections while reading this book so there is a good chance that there will be more writing in this area. I do hope there will be more writing about Antigonish 2.0 as well or some kind of initiative to pull these ideas together. I hope that we can find a way to have conversations about how we can listen to people and use aesthetics to generate interest in how technologies are shaping the world around us.