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Commentary | Re-humanizing knowledge

Popular education is crucial for overcoming institutional biases

As an Environment student living in the Educational Community Living Environment (ECOLE) house on University. I have been exposed to two very different forms of education. After spending years in the one-directional and contained learning environments of lecture halls and homework assignments, I turned my attention to ECOLE, and other similar grassroots initiatives. While traditional classes, predetermined to be ‘important,’ are an effective way to build a base of knowledge, they offer little to no understanding of the world as we truly experience it. The ECOLE project aims to facilitate a culture of sustainability on campus, including material sustainability, which minimizes our impact on the environment; and social sustainability, which aims to promote social harmony through anti-oppressive practices. Through ECOLE, I’ve acquired an understanding of sustainability through discussion, skill-shares, and lived experience. You could refer to the experience as popular education.

The term popular education comes from the Spanish educación popular – a term drawn from social organizing often found in Latin America – meaning ‘education for the people.’ At first glance, this phrase conjures up notions of public access to schools; in fact, the concept is far more novel than that. Popular education is an attempt to free education from the rigidities and institutional biases of centralized structures. Forms of extracurricular learning such as skill-shares and workshops are conducted by individuals or small groups, who can freely shape the material and the way it is conveyed. In that vein, community engagement can be a much more effective and real learning experience than anything encountered in a traditional academic setting.

Traditional education has been developed and improved upon over centuries. Thus, it is very efficient when it comes to acquiring very specific knowledge and skill-sets. However, it also has some undeniable weaknesses. Firstly, academic settings have a de-humanizing effect on students and the topics that are covered. One can easily feel intimidated, detached, and even isolated, sitting in a lecture hall filled with hundreds of students. Not only does this make learning dull, it also removes students from the social and practical implications of the learning material.

Popular education is an attempt to free education from the rigidities and institutional biases of centralized structures.

The second problem, arguably more pressing than the first, stems from academia’s hierarchical structures. Traditional education is designed to be centralized. This centralized structure imposes a certain rigidity, which ensures the propagation of institutional biases based on academic ‘objectivity.’ In a university this takes the form of faculties, and in public schools a provincial curriculum. These biases are often at the core of oppressive social dynamics, and they can’t easily be questioned or reconsidered by students or even teachers.

Take, for example, the case of a professor who assigns an author who blames Indigenous people for their marginalization in Canada. Under the guise of academic ‘objectivity,’ students are urged to consider this an ‘equally valid’ view, even though it’s dehumanizing. Some will claim that assessing all the literature is necessary for understanding; however, texts that are plain wrong can obscure meaning and dismiss real criticisms of social problems. This sort of education gets in the way of solutions.

Popular education, however, attempts to allow learning through dialogue. It brings theory into contact with social realities to create a more practical and dynamic learning experience. Our social nature as human beings often means that we learn better through storytelling, personal encounters, and lived experiences. This way, not only is learning freed from institutional constraints, it is also targeted at real world problems, and can be put to work in the form of collective action. Through popular education, social injustice can be confronted head-on.

These biases are often at the core of oppressive social dynamics, and they can’t easily be questioned or reconsidered by students or even teachers.

At ECOLE, popular education results from an intentional effort to educate both ourselves and others in ways that the traditional system cannot. ECOLE offers a safe space for open discussion and creative solutions to issues of sustainability. As such, ECOLE has no preconceived agenda. The project is open to be determined by a collective made up of students and community members who want to see change. Institutional biases and rigidities have no place or purpose in a space which truly strives to be safe for all individuals, and free from external prerogatives.

ECOLE achieves this by providing a variety of alternative forms of learning, ranging from bike-powered movies to interactive skill-share sessions. Through these alternative forms, education breaks free of the institutional biases of academia, and becomes more direct – whether the topic be civil disobedience to environmental racism or ways to take one’s finances into one’s own hands. With ECOLE, I’ve become aware of how storytelling can be used to effectively convey information one-on-one, and of how systems thinking (the process of understanding how things relate to one another in a whole) can be used to analyze an institution like McGill. Clearly, this form of learning is miles from the repeated analyses of market supply and demand in my traditional economics courses.

Popular education is the most impactful, if not the only, way toward fair and effective social change, making it the first step on the long road to sustainability.

Learning at ECOLE doesn’t only happen through workshops, movies, and educational programming. ECOLE strives to help us improve our understanding of sustainability by building community, connecting people and resources in an organic way, and living out sustainable practices in our day-to-day. Here too, we find that the principles of popular education are embodied: education of the community by the community, focus on applied and practical solutions, and learning by doing and trial-and-error.

Sustainability, both environmental and social, is possibly the most important issue facing our generation. Like most societal problems of such scale, environmental degradation and social oppression have deep cultural and systemic roots. Furthermore, education is one of the means by which such a culture is perpetuated. Students are instilled with a certain understanding of the world that is endemic of the society we live in. How then are we to solve the issues to which our institutions are blind, if we are not even taught how to think outside of those structures?

Popular education offers a way out. It is an independent platform that allows communities to develop an understanding of the world that is genuine and based in real experience. It’s more adaptable than a centrally-determined curriculum because it’s freed from oppressive structures, dogmas, and biases. For these reasons, popular education is the most impactful, if not the only, way toward fair and effective social change, making it the first step on the long road to sustainability.


Thomas Saleh is a U3 Environment (Water Ecosystems and Environments) student. To contact him, please email thomas.saleh@mail.mcgill.ca.


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