We Weren't Taught To Learn
Finding radical education as an adult, in community with others
Most of us know very little about learning. We think we do, because of course we all went to school for so many years, and what was all that about if not learning? Well, unfortunately for most of us, a lot of our education was spent memorizing rather than really developing critical thinking. The vast majority of schools and teachers in the United States use what Paulo Freire called “the banking model” where students are seen as containers into which teachers deposit knowledge. This doesn’t allow for creativity, problem solving, or developing the skills that can be most valuable and helpful in the world today.
The banking model of education also doesn’t bring most of us much joy. So as adults, a lot of us don’t have very positive associations with education, which leads to learning being something we’re not too motivated to engage with. We’re all busy, we’re almost all working too much, and memorizing a bunch of stuff isn’t too high on a lot of people’s lists of what they’d like to do in their free time. And, maybe most crucially for this piece, those of us who do want to learn as we get older see acquiring knowledge and skills in adulthood as an individual pursuit. Don’t get me wrong; there are tons of people who want to learn and grow, even if we don’t want it to look much like school did growing up. But because we’re cut of from communities where we could learn together, and because learning from grown-ups is often thought of as reading or watching documentaries or other solo activities, it can seem like anything akin to the communal style of learning we had to do as kids must be boring and unappealing, even though we can technically pursue learning however we want.
The key, to me, is that learning is best done with others. Not for all of us, and not 100% of the time, but engaging in a group-based education means that we get different perspectives, and get to bounce ideas around and teach others as they teach us. Communal or group education is also extremely important if we want what we learn to be practical, applicable to the world we live in. Almost all of the real-world problems we might want to discuss and learn how to approach are issues involving relationship with others. From the micro-scale of our friendships and intimate relationships to the global scale of climate change and economics, the most compelling things we might want to wrap our minds around and grapple with and get better at involve others.
This doesn’t mean we don’t read, or watch those helpful videos, or listen to those podcasts. But it means we also try to learn with others. We can do this in groups we organize with, with friends, in zoom or online classes and workshops and panels, or through ongoing education courses at local colleges, community colleges, or other alternative institutions. There might even be some cool political hubs or non-profits offering really cool classes in your area!
When it comes to politics, used in its largest sense here to mean power and the structuring of society, continuing to learn over time is of particular importance in so many ways. Without it, we simply won’t be equipped to change world. Here are just a few of the reasons we need to learn political theory, history, ways people implement leftist ideas in practice, and why we should engage in this learning with other people:
We live within complex, international structures and cultures of racial capitalism, neoliberalism, patriarchy, and more. Understanding these complex systems is a first step to changing them.
These systems and structures are flexible and can accommodate change and reform. They can also push back against change and reform. So we need to learn how to target the roots of the issues we want to affect. And we have to learn how to do so in ways that will last over time.
Organizing to move towards this change is a skill, a skill that has to be paired with theory. Studying this skill and how to practice it in your community and workplace is best done with others, in fact it most likely needs others in order to be meaningful
Learning with others is also a joy. Knowledge and problem solving can becoming fun and interactive dialogues and puzzles, instead of the memorization we might’ve gotten used to as kids. This type of learning can truly make the world a more fun and exciting place to be, and can itself be a great element in building community.
Lastly, we’re lied to, a lot. Particularly about important political and economic issues. Deciphering what’s deceptive or inaccurate isn’t easy, especially since a lot of what’s suggested to us on the left isn’t bad, exactly, but a half-measure or a reform that might do some good but doesn’t get at the root, and will either be undone in time or not really get us where we want to go.
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I won’t say it’s easy. As I said in the beginning, and as I’ve written about before when discussing this topic, we’re all busy, and spending an hour reading plus an hour or two discussing the reading isn’t straightforward and easy for a lot of people. But this learning doesn’t always need to look like that. The neighborhood group I organize with does have a reading group, and I may or may not be the one trying to wrangle people into reading more. I may have sent a few dozen people a survey last week to try to see when everyone is free to discuss Jackson Rising and learning how folks in Jackson, Mississippi are organizing in a beautiful and radical way. But we, as a group, also do alternative forms of education. We’ve done a know your rights training, shorter article discussions, movie screenings, and more. In fact we’re trying to set up four screenings in community gardens this summer, and each one will be followed by both small group and whole group discussions. There might be a little beer on these summer nights, and a lot of joking, but there will also be multiple powerful conversations about these films and their political implication. And there will be connections made and connections strengthened and organizing capacity built in our neighborhood. There will be lots of learning and growth, and it will be done in joyful community.
So however you do it, I urge you to give this adult radical learning thing a try, and I urge you to try it shoulder to shoulder with others. In some ways what we’re aiming for is so simple. A more justice world, a more equitable world, a world with more care and support and less oppression and harm. But in some ways it’s complicated. The vehicles and systems and structure of injustice are like octopi in many ways, tentacles everywhere and oddly flexible, able to conform to various pressures and obstacles we may place on them or in their path. So we have to build strong foundations, unshakeable yet flexible structures of our own. And that’s no easy task. It takes some learning we weren’t taught in school, and it takes one another. And it can be immensely joyful and beautiful, but it’s also hard work. Work I hope to keep doing, and work I hope you’ll do along with me.
Before signing off I feel obligated to say, just once more, that my other pieces are very much trying to help folks learn as well. So here’s a link to the main New Means page where you can find everything I’ve written over the past several months. I just hope it’s helpful, thank you! - Josh
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