on respecting and challenging community norms

Here is a passage from We make the Road by Walking, a dialogue between the American civil rights leader Myles Horton (who founded the Highlander Folk School) and the Brazilian popular educator Paulo Freire. We talked about it today in the Summer Institute of Civic Studies as we discussed when power operates in a hidden way (by affecting people’s beliefs); when intervention is appropriate and helpful; what is “education” versus indoctrination or leadership; and related questions.

Myles [Horton]: We had to find ways to handle our own “weakness of culture.” One of the real problems in the South in the early days of Highlander was segregation, discrimination against people of color, legally and traditionally. One of our principles is that we believe in social equality for all people and no discrimination for any reason—religious, race, sex, or anything else. The social customs were to have segregation. Now how did we deal with that social custom? The way that was used by most people working in what then was called race relations was to talk about it and pray over it and wait for magic changes, I suppose. Some dealt with segregation by having segregated programs, and educating Blacks here and whites there, like it was traditional to do. We chose to deal with it directly, knowing that a discussion and analysis wouldn’t change their minds.

We decided to hold integrated workshops and say nothing about it. We found that if you didn’t talk about it, if you didn’t force people to admit that they were wrong—that’s what you do when you debate and argue with people—you can do it. People didn’t quite understand how it was happening. They just suddenly realized they were eating together and sleeping in the same rooms, and since they were used to doing what they were supposed to do in society, the status quo, they didn’t know how to react negatively to our status quo. We had another status quo at Highlander, so as long as we didn’t talk about it, it was very very little problem. Then later on, participants started talking about it from another point of view, a point of view of experience. They had experienced something new, so they had something positive to build on. When we started talking about it, it wasn’t to say: “Now, look you’ve changed. We were right and you were wrong.” We said: “Now you’ve had an experience here. When you get back you’ll be dealing with people in your unions who haven’t had this experience, and they’re going to know you’ve been to an integrated school. How are you going to explain it to them?” So they started, not ever talking about how they had changed or how they had faced this problem, but with how they could explain to other people. We just skipped the stage of discussion. Of course, it was going on inside all the time, but we didn’t want to put it in terms of an argument or a debate.

One aspect of the writing that fascinates me is the changing definition of “we.” First Horton, a white Southerner, chooses to describe racial segregation as a problem of the community to which he belongs–“our own weakness of culture.” But then the “we” becomes the Highlander Folk School: “our principle … is social equality for all people and no discrimination.” Later, “we” becomes the people who have experienced Highlander’s integrated meetings and will go back to their segregated communities. Even if you assume that “we” should not intervene to change “them,” who counts as “we” is usually open to change.

Another important theme is the avoidance of explicit argumentation. Horton thinks that to argue against segregation would be … what? Merely counter-productive in the particular situation? Poor pedagogy? Or unethical, because it would fail to respect the people who come to Highlander?

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.