I am not a turnout

An interesting couple of weeks. A friend of mine told me about the Ear to the Ground Project, which is a kind of state of the left in the US. Another friend set me to read Myles Horton and Paolo Freire’s “We Make the Road By Walking”, which includes many interesting things about the Highlander Center’s kind of education and also of Freire’s methods of education.

Before that I was reading a lot of Alfie Kohn, including his new book The Myth of the Spoiled Child, and thinking about the constructivist theory of learning.

It got me thinking about some of the more ritualized aspects of left events, at least in my city. The format for most events is borrowed from the academic conference genre: a panel of experts presents a paper to an audience. The trouble is that when this panel takes place as a one-off event, it’s not the right genre. At an academic conference, the audience is also all academics, most of whom are presenting papers on some other panel. Now, there are certainly questions about the value of academic conferences, although I think there are aspects of them that are justifiable. But there would be many more questions about the value of left events that are modeled on academic conferences. Consider: over the course of an entire conference, roughly everyone, or at least a large number of people, at the conference would have spoken, at least a bit, and hopefully had some discussion and feedback about their ideas, and also been able to discuss and think about the ideas others presented. At a one-off panel discussion, this isn’t the case.

But maybe it could be? What if we had events which, even if they were one-off, were events where everybody both talked and listened. Maybe they could be mini-conferences, where people worked on some common document or piece, which would stand as a record of the event. What if these were the main type of events, with one-off panels as the exception to the rule?

When you take into account Deb Meier’s insight that “teaching is mostly listening, learning is mostly talking”, then you have to face the frightening possibility that many educational events are mostly for the educational benefit of the speakers, not the audience. You also begin to see that if we want our events to actually be educational, then we need events that make it possible for people to talk. Maybe they read, watch, listen, and think too, but they also need to talk, if they are to learn. This means they might say things that are not as insightful as experts chosen for their special knowledge on the topic. But they might learn more about the topic by stumbling through a discussion than they would listening. Or, again, maybe they listen at home on youtube and they discuss at the in-person event.

This would mean that we might also stop measuring all events by a single metric – turnout – and start thinking about how else we could evaluate the educational value of events, and, indeed, how we could evaluate the kind of political education we are offering to ourselves and to society.

Could it be that “another (type of political event) is possible”? I hope so.

Author: Justin Podur

Author of Siegebreakers. Ecology. Environmental Science. Political Science. Anti-imperialism. Political fiction.