We Make the Road by Walking: A ‘Kinder’ Society after COVID-19?

“In December 1987, Myles Horton and Paolo Freire, two pioneers of education for social change, came together to ‘talk a book’ about their experiences and ideas”

(Bell, Gaventa & Peters, 1990. p xv)

The seminal book that ensued, ‘We Make the Road by Walking’, marked a major landmark in the development of participatory education for the empowerment of the poor and powerless.  The work of Horton and Freire provided an underpinning democratic and democratising epistemology which guided the work of the Highlander Folk School, (later to be called the Highlander Centre) and continues to influence participatory and democratic education processes to the present day. 

Resonating with the work of Fals-Borda and Rahman (1991), and de Sousa Santos (2007), it provokes us to imagine different, more socially just concepts of knowledges, their creation, and their value/valuing.  In relation to this, Freire suggested that for this to happen, required a renewed understanding of knowledge and power. The people’s knowledge, which he calls ‘organic’ knowledge, is interwoven with and derived from their experiences and practices.

More than ever in recent history, we are having to make our road by walking.  With the imposed partial lockdown, there is growing evidence of the ways in which many people have found positives in the experience by finding new, and often better ways, to live their lives both in family and community contexts. 

Within hours of the lockdown being announced, social media platforms across the UK were advertising community-based mutual aid groups, with contact details being collated and shared on an open google document. This rapidly became a way of mutualising skills and knowledge across communities within an ethos of care.  My own local group quickly became full of offers to ‘shop and drop’, help with gardening, collect medicines, etc. Despite being seemingly disempowered in relation to the way we had previously led our lives, this community-based initiative developed a sense of power and authority that was rooted in their own contextual knowledge and skill sets.

Of interest also, was the ways in which our highly complex society began to explore and redefine itself. The media carried daily accounts of the fact that people had taken up gardening and growing edibles, of an increase in arts and crafting, a return to reading (usually paper rather than electronic texts), and an increase in shared family meals, cooked from scratch.  Our collective actions and voices at this time speak to the hope of a kinder, and better world. This is an opportunity to reimagine society, and how we construct it.

Dr Mary McAteer is Senior Lecturer in Professional Learning at Edge Hill University.


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