Liam Kane

Popular Education Seen “From Afar”

It was a great honour for me to receive an invitation from CEAAL to contribute to this process of reflection on popular education in Latin America. I therefore offer some thoughts from afar, from Scotland.

The Main Contributions of Popular Education over the Years

There are very many contributions, both theoretical and practical, but I shall restrict myself to discussing those that follow.

Political Commitment

This is the essential foundation; the world is unjust and if education does not commit itself to change with and for those who are most exploited and excluded, it will continue as it is: there can be no neutrality. This may be so obvious to you that there is no need to repeat it. Here, however, where “education” means “state education”, the official and professional discourse proclaims the contrary and exhorts teachers to aspire to supposed political neutrality.

Authentic Subjects

This is a simple but really revolutionary idea. Political education does not consist in delivering left-wing political banking education, but in helping people to think and act for themselves rather than simply being directed by others, however good they may be. This idea has been in existence for decades, but here it has certainly not begun to penetrate the consciousness of most political activists.

Popular Knowledge

A variety of forms of popular knowledge coexist with academic, technical and expert knowledge: there is no such thing as ignorance.


Education should consist of a dialogue between different forms of knowledge. Together with the idea of “authentic subjects”, this principle is what allows educators to put forward their ideas honestly but without manipulation (the role of the popular educator should not be restricted to that of a “facilitator”).


PE should also not be restricted to cerebral contemplation; it should help people to intervene effectively in the world in order to change it.

Education Linked to Movements

The Latin American experience in which it has been argued that “the social movement is the school” has been an inspiration here, forcing us to rethink what we do. The actual experience of various movements has also served as an inspiration.


At particular times, the methodology of Latin American PE – not only its various concepts, but also its famous participatory techniques – has had an impact here. Like everywhere else, it was often thought, wrongly, that PE could only be done by using this or that technique. I believe that with all the methodological cross-fertilization that is occurring between different educational disciplines and practices, the purely methodological contribution is now less important than it once was.

The Current Context

There is much talk of the “profound changes since the late 1980s”, of the reformulation “of various arguments about social change and political action”, and of “the affirmation of the idea that understanding reality is a complex task”, and the question therefore arises, “what arguments put forward by popular education are still relevant, and what changes have been (or should be) made?” It would be better to state right at the outset that I believe the talk of a “crisis of paradigms” and the arrival of a supposedly “postmodernist” age to be generally much exaggerated in both Scotland and Latin America. I would explain my reaction as follows.

  • To talk in this way is to make an ideological analysis and to adopt an ideological position in relation to the world, but we should openly acknowledge this and not pretend to present an incontrovertible truth. I am not against the adoption of an ideological position – on the contrary, it is impossible not to hold one – but I believe it is important to state it explicitly.

  • While this ideological position certainly contributes something to the understanding of the present-day world, I take the view that it is in general based on a false analysis of the significance of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Sandinista revolution (that is, that these came to symbolize the inevitable failure of socialism). These ideas are constantly put about by the dominant media, and I am inclined to treat them very critically.


As for the idea of complexity, I think we should proceed with caution and not complicate matters which may in essence be quite simple.

At one level, I do recognise that the idea of complexity serves some purpose. Everything used to be seen in black and white, with no shades in between: rich versus poor, oppressors versus the oppressed, the need for revolution, and so on. We are now more aware of different forms of oppression, on grounds of gender, ethnicity, environment, sexual orientation, etc.; the oppressor and the oppressed may even exist within one community, perhaps within one and the same person, and depending on the context, the oppressor may be more or less in evidence. This means, in consequence, that PE needs to take account of this complexity and to respond appropriately.

At another, deeper level of course, the fundamental problem is not so complex and it remains what it was: one particular economic and political system, capitalism, which is defended by those who manage and benefit from it. It is the source of all these problems of complexity, which do not exist separately but are intimately connected. Just at the moment when this system appears to have reached the zenith of its power, and its main protagonists are not even bothering to disguise its recent imperialist adventures, and the world is more globalized than ever before, I do not understand this postmodernist idea that there are no universalities or metanarratives. Is global capitalism not the greatest and most universal metanarrative in history?

Obviously, this analysis reflects an ideological position, mine, and not some irrefutable truth. But this discussion is important because the analysis that we make of the context necessarily influences the relevance or lack of it of various aspects of PE, and this brings me to one of the major problems that I have with PE and which we should, I believe, confront more openly.

A Weakness in the PE Concept: the Ideological Question

It is supposed that a good popular educator will, because of his or her political commitment, decline to be a manipulator or to provide banking education; that he or she will problematize the situation rather than offering ready-made analyses; and that he or she will set out to foster critical awareness of reality through dialogue – to which he or she is entitled to contribute opinions.

However good PE practice may be, it nonetheless seems to me that the ideological orientation of the educator will inevitably influence the educational process, in three distinct ways:

a) His or her understanding of what is “critical awareness”: with my more or less Marxist-humanist orientation, despite some confusion and contradictions, what I think of as “critical awareness” will obviously not be the same as what a postmodernist thinks. 
b) In problematizing a situation, the questions that occur to an educator will depend largely on that person’s ideological orientation: a nationalist will not go about it in the same way as a feminist, and the questions asked will be crucial in guiding the dialogue and investigation in one particular direction or another. 
c) And however much our good educator may resist imposing ideas, what he or she says in his or her contributions to the dialogue will also reveal some influence (although this will also depend on other factors).

Despite the significance of the issue, in my research in Latin America I have encountered little discussion of the ideological question, even though there is a huge variety of ideological orientations among PE practitioners. From talking to different popular educators and analysing their writings, I think it is very clear that certain popular educators are primarily motivated by ideologies as varied as religion, Marxism, nationalism, social democracy, feminism, postmodernism, etc. In view of the preceding discussion, instead of acting as if there were no variation, I believe that the PE movement should try to face up to this situation, should attempt to clarify concepts and, without looking to create stupid and unnecessary schisms, should recognise openly that the overall term PE covers many different trends and philosophies.

I think that the current lack of conceptual clarity creates confusion. I have read various criticisms directed at Marxist popular educators, for example, who are accused of being too ideological. Now, where Marxists try to impose their ideas on others it is quite right to criticise them, but on account of their poor educational practice, which is manipulative, not because they are ideological: they are no more or less ideological than anyone else.

Conceptually, therefore, I believe that those working in PE, both here and in Latin America, should do the following:

  • Recognise that while political commitment to political change is integral to PE, it embraces a variety of different ideological motivations

  • Distinguish conceptually between questions of ideology and questions of educational practice, and not confuse one with the other in their discussions and debates

  • Carry out further research into the relationship between the educator’s ideological orientation and how this is reflected in practice

  • Where possible (because on some occasions it might be inappropriate or misunderstood), be open about ideological influences. For example, I identify myself as a “socialist popular educator”, and I consider that many popular educators in Scotland are motivated by a nationalist vision. They are colleagues, friends and protagonists of exemplary educational practice, but since it is inevitable that these differences will permeate what we do, we should say as much.


Politics, the State, Democracy and Ideology in Latin American PE

Here in the United Kingdom, the “mother of democracies”, we are deceived, blinded even, by the myth of democracy. The way of changing things, we are told, is by voting once every five years. Outside this democratic process, private interests control the economy and the press, thereby manipulating much of the public debate. There is considerable apathy towards politics, and many people decline to vote, citing the cynical cliché that “if voting could change anything they’d abolish it”. They are partly, if not totally, right.

Against this background of powerlessness, our attention was caught in the late 1980s by the news reaching us of Latin American efforts to foster “participatory democracy” through “popular movements” (we seemed to have nothing comparable) supported by “popular education”. Outside the institutions of the state, Latin America seemed to offer a different idea of how to view and do education and politics, and despite the differences in context, this inspired us. It was ironic, therefore, that just when I began seriously to research the experience of Latin American PE, in the early 1990s, PE discourse was changing and confused me thoroughly. In many places it looked as though the same formal democracy that we have, which progressive forces here regard as very limited, had become some kind of utopia. When I visited Mexico, many popular educators were transferring their faith and energies from the popular movement to the Democratic Revolution Party (PRD) and admired analysts who argued for the adoption of capitalism and the need for more limited ambitions (when I dared to suggest to one group of popular educators that I found PE less radical then before, this caused furious debate). When studying the publications of the 1990s, including La Piragua and others from CEAAL, in which there was much talk of the relationship between PE and formal education, those from the UNESCO conferences, and those about educational theory or market-related economic and educational projects, I sometimes found it difficult to see what connection there was with the radical, alternative concept that I had initially understood by popular education.

In short, I do not dispute that there have been many changes in the context over the last twenty years, that formal democracy (even at “low intensity”) is better than dictatorship and that PE practice needs constantly to reinvent itself. But I would stress that the way in which these changes are perceived greatly depends on the ideological orientation of the analyst, and that the analysis will influence that person’s practice. In my research into PE in Latin America, I felt that there were more or less three “trends” among you:

  • The first has retained the radical, class-based vision that gave birth to PE but recognises earlier weaknesses and is trying to become aware of a range of different forms of oppression. It still aims to work largely with movements but does not refuse to enter the realm of formal, conventional public education, although in doing so it is very aware of the danger of being coopted.

  • The second no longer expresses or is concerned with any overt paradigm. Rather, it works energetically with groups and movements, adopting a practical approach to doing whatever it regards as most appropriate.

  • The third seems to have adapted to the discourse of conventional education, scarcely speaks any longer of political or social injustices, and seems to me to be only one step away from abandoning the principles of PE.


Personally, I value the first the most, I regard the second as interesting, and I am very afraid of the third. What is important, however, is that when we ask ourselves how PE is still relevant, this is not a purely technical question, but an ideological one, and each trend will have a different vision.

Relevance of Popular Education and New Directions

For lack of space, I shall conclude with a few quick notes without offering any further elucidation, in the hope that this can be gleaned from my preceding remarks.

  • The basic principles of PE are still relevant and we should make no apology for saying so.

  • It is obvious that these need to be strengthened, and to take account of new ways of understanding the situation.

  • When the opportunity presents itself, PE should certainly enter into a dialogue with formal education systems, while being clearly aware of the dangers of being coopted and annihilated. The Brazilian idea of “one foot out and one foot in” seems to me to be about right, provided that the foot that is out is firmly rooted.

  • But there is no need to abandon the movements which are the home of PE. Despite its limitations, being outside the state secures the freedom to proclaim uncompromising truths and to think and act creatively: influence can also be exercised from outside on the formal system. Historically, here in the United Kingdom, radical education movements opted to be funded by the state, and were swiftly coopted: their absence is remarkable, and it has proved very difficult to rebuild them.


And what should be done to strengthen the popular education movement so that it can contribute to social change? I do not think that there are miracle cures or tactics waiting to be discovered; rather, it is a long-term struggle with advances and retreats, in which it is vital to learn from experience, to be willing to experiment, and to do one’s best in the circumstances encountered. But I do think it is important:

  • Never to lose sight of a radical vision of how the world might be, even though the advances aimed at may be small at any given time

  • To go on with all the good work of systematizing and disseminating different experiences in order to learn from successes and failures

  • To go on making alliances with international movements and with those in other countries. I believe that the World Education Forum and the Porto Alegre initiative are a good start in this direction.