John Hurst: On Popular Education

Education: A Powerful Tool

When Rosa Parks was asked by the eminent talk show host, Studs Terkel, what the Highlander Research and Education Center had to do with the fact that she chose not to move to the back of the bus in Montgomery, Alabama, on that fateful day in early December 1955, she answered quite simply, "Everything." As a result of its educational efforts on behalf of integration, the state of Tennessee closed Highlander in 1960 on bogus charges and auctioned off all of its property, only to have it reopen shortly thereafter under a new name and charter.

A few years ago, possession of the world's most widely read and influential contemporary book on education--and popular education's best-known treatise, Paulo Freire's Pedagogy of the Oppressed, was sufficient grounds to be arrested in South Korea.

Paulo Freire himself was immediately arrested and forced into exile for almost two decades after the 1964 military coup in Brazil. His crime? He designed and directed the previously elected government's National Literacy Campaign. The campaign's stated purpose was to enable the illiterate majority to become responsible, democratic citizens.

In the mid-1970s, a South African nun, Anne Hope, was arrested and exiled, and only recently allowed to return home. Her crime? She organized a Freireian-style literacy campaign for Steve Biko, the martyred founder of South Africa's black consciousness movement.

When the Sandinistas finally wrested power from the Somosa dictatorship in 1979, they immediately put a major share of their meager resources into mounting a massive and very successful national literacy crusade to further people's ability to participate in the decisions affecting their lives (V. Miller, 1985). Nicaragua remains a democracy today.

What is Popular Education?

What binds each of these institutions, events, and individuals together? They were seeking to build the capacity for democratic social change through education. Those involved believed that the fundamental purpose of education should be social transformation toward full human participation in society, and they possessed a philosophy, theory, and practice of education that often succeeded.

This form of adult education is now widely known as "popular education." The core of its meaning and definition are clear, while the boundaries are intentionally permeable. Popular education is, at root, the empowerment of adults through democratically structured cooperative study and action, directed toward achieving more just and peaceful societies within a life sustaining global environment. Its priority is ordinary people--the poor, the oppressed, and the disenfranchised people of the world--who comprise a majority of the world's population.

In the words of the well-known Canadian educator, Doris Marshall, popular education is "ordinary people all over the world feeling their own worth and seeing the same worth in other people. It is ordinary people taking responsibility for using what's left of the world's resources, together. This can not be done from the top down, but only by ordinary people, imbued with their own power."

I often encounter educators and others who have never heard of popular education, nor of its principal exemplars like the Highlander Center. In each case, there is the spoken or unspoken implication that, therefore, popular education must not have much impact or significance. We've always been told, and correctly, that the proof is in the pudding. Well, we know of the pudding, because there have been many successful social change efforts in recent U.S. history. Yet few of us know of the critical elements--like popular education--that contributed to the pudding's creation.

Myles Horton, co-founder and director of the Highlander Center for its first 40 years, once told me, "You can accomplish a lot of good in the world if you don't care who gets the credit for it." Certainly his is a very un-American and unacademic point of view. Paradoxically, it is the epitome of a successful popular education effort for the people to say, "We have done it ourselves."

One Example: The U.S. Civil Rights Movement

For example, virtually everyone knows of the Southern civil rights movement, the heroic role of Martin Luther King Jr., and the movement's contribution to achieving greater justice for people of color and others in our society. Yet few know of the Highlander Center's numerous contributions--often subtle and complex--to the movement. Many who played important roles, like Andrew Young, refer to Highlander as "the cradle of the civil rights movement."

The citizenship school movement is a case in point. It was at Highlander that the critical literacy and leadership training program--the citizenship school program--was conceived and developed. Martin Luther King's civil rights organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC) adopted the program, and enlisted its co-founder, Septima Clark, to direct it. Not only did it teach tens of thousands of Southern blacks to read and write so they could register to vote. At the same time, it also developed the leadership that formed the organizational nucleus for the movement in countless towns and cities throughout the South (C. Tjerandsen, 1980).

The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was founded at Highlander from a yearly integrated workshop for college students. Even the inspiring anthem of the movement, "We Shall Overcome," was originally brought to Highlander in the 1940s and transformed there by Zilphia Horton and Pete Seeger to be introduced later at a civil rights event in 1959 by Guy Carawan, Highlander's musical director (F. Adams, 1975). Highlander continues to this day to play a critical role in people's struggles for economic and social justice throughout the South, the nation, North America, and the world.

A Worldwide Movement

One of popular education's exciting strengths is that its prototypes have evolved in many parts of the world virtually independently of one another. The most important models have developed outside of the Eurocentric first world. Typically, people from diverse backgrounds become involved in organizations that enable them to retain their autonomy and regional power, while at the same time learning from and supporting the work and struggles of groups of ordinary people from every corner of the globe.

Most noteworthy is the emergence of the International Council for Adult Education (ICAE) in the 1970's under the leadership of Budd Hall, with its secretariat in Toronto. Latin America has been a very fertile ground for the development of the methods of popular education. Paulo Freire, the best known figure in the field, is a Brazilian professor.

The most active and productive regional organization is the Consejo de Educación de Adultos de América Latina (CEAAL) based in Santiago. CEAAL is the Latin American regional affiliate of the ICAE and thus, an integral part of the international network. The El Canelo Center near Santiago (directed by Francisco Vio Grossi) and its ten development centers throughout Chile comprise one of the most impressive and influential popular education complexes in the world. The El Canelo Center and the network played an important role in Chile's peaceful return to democracy a few years ago.

The Participatory Research Approach

The type of research or knowledge production associated with popular education, called "participatory research," was first articulated in Tanzania in the early 1970s. The most productive center for its scholarly development and promulgation has been the Society for Participatory Research in Asia (SPRIA) based in New Delhi, and under the leadership of Rajesh Tandon. SPRIA also coordinates the influential Participatory Research Network of the ICAE. Another leading figure in the field has been Orlando Fals-Borda of the National University of Columbia in Bogata. He calls his line of research "participatory action research" (O. Fals-Borda and M. A. Anisur Rahman, 1993).

Participatory research is the result of the on-going effort in popular education to come to grips--in both theory and practice--with the question, "What is knowledge, and what gives it credibility in a society that aspires to be genuinely democratic?" It asks and provides working answers to these basic questions: what knowledge is to be produced, by whom, in whose interest, and to what end ? It assumes that in a truly democratic society, knowledge is not simply for the people, but created with and by the people. Thus, it validates each person's right to speak, regardless of such factors as socioeconomic status, class, or race.

According to Muhammad Anisur Rahman, former professor of economics at the University of Dacca, Bangladesh, participatory research "... returns to the people the legitimacy of the knowledge they are capable of producing through their own verification systems, as fully scientific, and the right to use this knowledge--including any other knowledge, but not dictated by it--as a guide in their own action (O. Fals-Borda and M. A. Rahman, eds., 1991)." The objective is always social transformation toward more equitable, just, and peaceful democratic societies.

The Story of Yellow Creek, Kentucky

What happened to the community of people living alongside Kentucky's Yellow Creek in the heart of Appalachia served as the catalyst for their own participatory research work. Back in 1981, residents first noticed that the fish and aquatic life in the creek were dying. Gradually all of their livestock also died. By then they began to worry about what the effect on people might be. They knew the pollution source was a leather tanning factory upstream. However, they had been told repeatedly over the years by industry and government officials that there was absolutely no risk to human health.

Alarmed over the death of their livestock and the loss of much of their livelihood, they organized themselves into the Yellow Creek Concerned Citizens (YCCC) in the early 1980s. They began asking questions and soon discovered that chromium, one of many toxic chemicals used in the tanning process, caused cancer. They attended workshops at the Highlander Center and there met others struggling with similar environmental health problems from polluted waterways. Highlander is well known and trusted by poor people throughout the South, and is typically sought out when problems emerge.

Highlander workshops helped the group to frame questions and assisted them in their search for answers. The resources and expertise available at the Highlander Center enabled the group to conduct its own sophisticated research on the chemicals involved in tanning, as well as a thorough and comprehensive analysis of the pollutants in Yellow Creek.

They soon realized they would need a community health survey and epidemiological study that would stand up to the many industrial and government agencies that opposed them. Vanderbilt University's Center for Health Services agreed to teach the members of YCCC how to prepare a comprehensive health survey. They conducted the survey themselves and analyzed and interpreted the results in consultation with the health service professionals. Then they decided what actions they would take based on their new knowledge. During the survey, they were also able to educate their neighbors along the creek about the issues of the case. In the process, they built public awareness and support, and YCCC membership increased to one-third of the community or some 300 persons.

The YCCC findings were appalling in terms of the number and severity of health problems associated with Yellow Creek. Eventually they had to file a class action suit against the tannery and the city, which they eventually won. Even then, they had to initiate a number of other "creative actions," before anything was done to stop the pollution at its source and to clean up the creek.

For example, the tannery had given people in the community lumber from the cannery floors that was saturated with heavy metals. When YCCC exposed what the tannery had done, officials refused to pick it up. The group then dumped a truckload of the toxic lumber on the steps of the state capitol and held a press conference. The lumber was cleaned up the next day.

Today, some 14 years later, there are again fish in the creek and riparian animals along its banks. But there remain few families along the creek that haven't lost at least one family member to cancer or some other disease related to profound immune system damage.

The YCCC is a group of diverse rural folks, many with little formal education, that runs by strict consensus. They have been meeting regularly, at least twice a month, for over 14 years. During this period, they have undertaken a succession of legal actions. Finally this past February, YCCC was awarded $15 million by a jury, twice what they had asked for. If they actually get the settlement money, they will set up a long-term health surveillance program. They will also use the money to help pay the astronomical health costs of many community members who have no health insurance, and who are plagued with cancer and auto-immune deficiency diseases.

Another, virtually serendipitous outcome of the popular education and participatory research efforts of YCCC is the independent formation of many effective citizen groups in Bell County, Kentucky. These groups have achieved significant victories in a region beset with poverty and environmental destruction, and which had never previously experienced any sustained organized citizen education and action (J. Gaventa, 1980).

YCCC had demonstrated that ordinary citizens could make a difference, even in a very repressive community. People in surrounding areas also sought YCCC's advice and assistance in developing their own community education and action groups.

Bell County is one of the poorest counties in the United States (the real unemployment rate is close to 60 percent). In spite of this, people there are regaining control over their lives democratically, bit by bit, through education, research, and action that is theirs at every point in the process (L. Wilson, 1994).


Adams, Frank. Unearthing Seeds of Fire. Winston-Salem: John F.Blair, 1975.

Fals-Borda, Orlando, and Rahman, Muhammad Anisur, eds. Action and Knowledge: Breaking the Monopoly with Participatory Action Research. Apex Press, 1991.

Gaventa, John. Power and Powerlessness: Quiescence and Rebellion in an Appalachian Valley. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1980.

Hurst, John. Looking Holistically: The Conservation of Natural Resources Major. University of California, Berkeley: Conservation and Resource Studies Department, 1981.

Hurst, John. A Pedagogy for Peace, World Encyclopedia of Peace. OXFORD: Pergamon Press LTD., 1986.

McMartin, Flora; Spurlock, Linda; and Hurst, John. Peace & Conflict Studies: A Report on the First Years. University of California, Berkeley: Peace & Conflict Studies, 1986.

Miller, Valerie. Between Struggle and Hope: The Nicaraguan Literacy Crusade. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1985.

Park, Peter,, eds. Voices of Change: Participatory Research in The United States and Canada. OISE Press, 1993.

Tjerandsen, Carl. Education for Citizenship: A Foundation's Experience. Schwarzhaupt Foundation, 1980.

Wilson, Larry. "Environmental Destruction is Hazardous to your Health." Social Policy, 24 (4):16-24 (Summer 1994).