Myles Horton: The Basics for the Long Haul

200275Things Myles Horton says often make you want to clap your hand against your forehead and say ‘of course!’ They are so simple, so true, so clear… They lack some of the complex theoretical framing of Paulo Freire’s work, which I am sure explains why they have not become as prevalent in academic discourses. Yet the two men worked along almost exactly the same lines developing critical praxis for changing the world. Horton speaks of decades of work and key support for two of the greatest social movements in the U.S., the 1930’s union movement and the civil rights movement of the 1950s-1960s. Through this retelling of his life and work, an incredible theory of education and social change emerges.

At bottom, the principle is so simple:

It’s the principle of trying to serve people and building a loving world. If you believe that people are of worth, you can’t treat anyone inhumanely, and that means you not only have to love and respect people, but you have to think in terms of building a society that people can profit from, and that kind of society has to work on the principle of equality. Otherwise, somebody’s going to be left out.

People always ask, “Can we wait till we have a society that’s perfect to have equality?” Well, of course, we’ll never  achieve it unless we start where we are, so you begin incorporating principles of equality into everything you do. That’s complicated, because it’s hard to avoid domination or inequality, or paternalism: but the principle itself isn’t complicated, it’s the application that’s complicated. (7)

All of the elaborations of both Freire and Horton among others are trying to figure out just how you incorporate equality, love and respect into everything you do, what that means. He has a vision similar to Freire’s on what the point of life really is:

I think that people aren’t fully free until they’re in a  struggle for justice. And that means for everyone. It’s a struggle of such importance that they are willing, if necessary, to die for it. I think that’s what you have to do before you’re really free. (184)

This shit makes me tear up just a bit, because it’s true. And me, I’ve been involved in struggle a long time but not quite achieved this full freedom yet. I’m not sure if it’s more distant now or not as I struggle to plug back in to meaningful work as a writer, an academic, a volunteer activist rather than an organizer. I think much of this will happen once I’m finally able to settle down again, put down roots, involve myself for the long term in a community. I am looking forward to that, and a job. But there are words of comfort here about that

I had to turn my anger into a slow burning fire, instead of a consuming fire. You don’t want the fire to go out — you never let it go out–and if it ever gets weak, you stoke it, but you don’t want it to burn you up. It keeps you going, but you subdue it, because you don’t want to be destroyed by it. (80)

Also in recognising the strength of what we are up against, and that this struggle is an ongoing one where we only play a part. Thus, the title:

I had to come to grips with this when I realized that the capitalist system was more viable than I had thought. It had more ways of lasting than I had understood from my experience in the Depression, when a lot of people, including me, thought that capitalism was on its last legs. When I finally found out it wasn’t even limping, that Roosevelt’s job was to make it work, and he did make it work, I realized that you had to slow down the fire, because you’d burn up the fuel and it would be over. That’s when I started trying to calm myself down, step by step, that it wasn’t going to come as a great explosion automatically. It had to be made, or it wouldn’t happen.

That’s when I started saying, “Horton, get yourself together, get ready for the long haul..” (81)

So…the basics of Horton’s teaching. First, that change must be collectively won through action upon the world:

I changed and became philosophically a socialist. I understood that you couldn’t act alone, and that you couldn’t withdraw into a utopian community. To deal with injustice you had to act in the world. you had to share what you knew. (30)

Popular education thus must be a collective enterprise:

It isn’t a matter of each one teach one. It’s a matter of having a concept of education that is yeasty, one that will multiply itself. You have to think in terms of which small groups have the potential to multiply themselves and fundamentally change society.

Therefore, you can’t have each individual go her or his own way and work separately. the people you deal with have to work with you in the name of a group, not for their own personal reasons. (57)

That this collective action is not just some idealistic pipe dream:

In the civil rights movement we saw people come out of the fields and get in the voter registration line and be beaten up and shot at and become leaders and run for office and get elected. Since we’ve seen that, we don’t think of ourselves as utopian.
My job is to provide opportunities for people to grow (not to make them grow, because no one can do that), to provide a climate which nurtures islands of decency, where people can learn in such a way that they continue to grow. (133)

A final recognition that through inaction you are as much a part of the dynamic as through action:

I do not  believe in neutrality. Neutrality is just another word for accepting the status quo as universal law. (139)

To work as an educator to achieve such a nurturing climate in our society requires a particular kind of framework and understanding that are very much based in standing with the poor and oppressed (even if you weren’t raised among them, it’s your choice). First, it is to understand the lived reality of the poor and people of colour and women  — in my own life this has been one of the biggest gaps in activist circles, and the lack of such understanding in others has been one of the most frustrating to overcome.

I didn’t have to work out theories about the violence of poverty, because I had been close to it all my life. The violence of poverty destroys families, twists minds, hurts in many ways beyond the pain of hunger.

There is another kind of violence that supports the violence of poverty, and that is institutionally sanctioned violence. We live in a violent society, a violent world; that is, a world in which force is a vital mechanism used to keep the economic and social system intact. We have laws that are backed up by a police force; and the state, when the police force can’t control defiance, is backed up by armies. The laws of the land are supported by the use of violence…If you oppose things in that system, then all those powers of violence can be used to force you into line. If you’re trying to change things, first you have to know that violence can be used against you, and second, you have to know what strategies to use in order to change the system, given that situation. (27 – 28)

Perhaps sharing this assessment and lived experience of such structural violence (while of course recognising the very real differences and my relative privilege compared to Horton and so many others) is why I completely agree with his assessment on violence as opposed to non-violence:

You have to fit violent revolutions into the whole context of thinking about violence. Violence is relative. Sometimes a revolution can be a lesser form of violence if people are suffering intolerably under their currently entrenched rulers. There are many kinds of violence: physical violence, mental violence, the kind of violence that causes babies to be born with brain damage because their mothers didn’t have the proper food, the violence that suppresses people’s expression of beliefs and ideas… (38)

For a time Horton was part of the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) where he engaged in many discussions about this. It would also be a key discussion point for members of SNCC, working in the murderous South. Charles Cobb describes remarkably similar conclusions to Horton’s below:

I believed that it was a matter of determining what was the lesser violence, not choosing between violence and nonviolence. Most of the poor people in the world don’t have that kind of choice. The people at this meeting were more privileged, and they could afford to take a theoretical stance. I was always needling about their unrealistic position. (39)

I wish I had been there. I wish too I had more of this uncompromising yet loving attitude that always speaks up…I would have probably sat angry but mostly silent in such meetings.

Key, of course, is that this is all about working with people to create a better world, to ‘incorporate the principles of equality into everything you do’, knowing that this means starting with where people are and moving upwards together.

Since I chose to work with poor, oppressed people, I had to take into consideration that they’d never been allowed to value their own experience; that they’d been told it was dirt and that only teachers and experts knew what was good for them.

I knew that it was necessary to do things in the opposite way…It also became clear that there had to be a place where people could learn how to make decisions by actually making real decisions. That’s how you learn anything–by doing it. (57)

Always a goal, its practice still emerged at Highlander through learning from mistakes:

We ended up doing what most people do when they come to a place like Appalachia: we saw problems that we thought we had the answers to, rather than seeing the problems and the answers that the people had themselves. That was our basic mistake. Once you understand that, you don’t have to have answers, and you can open up new ways of doing things.

Another idea we didn’t fully understand is that one of the best ways of educating people is to give them an experience that embodies what you are trying to teach. When you believe in a democratic society, you provide a setting for education that is democratic. (68)

People learn more through a process of dialogue and practice, rather than through a taught curriculum. Returning to the understanding of the violence inherent in the system, this praxis is never safe, nor conflict free.

It’s dangerous to do this kind of education, to push the boundaries to the place where people might be fired or get in some other kind of trouble… If people don’t take chances, they’ll never keep pushing. They must explore and push as far as they can. People get the exhilaration of liberating themselves, pushing that boundary… by the time they do, they are liberated enough that they are not going to spend the rest of their lives boxed in, and of course most of the time they land on their feet. (183)

To me this is as effective a message as Freire’s philosophy of humanization and dialogue, and it has to rest firm on a belief that we are here on this earth for more than just getting through each day. Risk is part of change, and it is part of becoming fully human.

I don’t think you help people by keeping them enslaved to something that is less than they are capable of doing and believing. … My position was that I believed in changing society by first changing individuals, so that they could then struggle to bring about social changes. There’s a lot of pain in it, and a lot of violence, and conflict, and that is just part of the price you pay. I realized that was part of growth–and growth is painful.

Trusting people — the role of the intellectual

You don’t have to know the answers. The answers come from the people, and when they don’t have any answers, then you have another role, and you find resources. (23)

This is key to it all, the belief that collectively, through critical dialogue, people will come up with the answers they need, and steadily refine and expand them over time.

People have a potential for growth; it’s inside, it’s in the seeds. This kind of potential cannot guarantee a particular outcome, but it’s what you build on. (133)

The role of the educator lies in creating a safe space and a process for the collective undoing of oppressions, bringing resources to bear when needed. This process is the only thing that can create the desired outcome.

If we are to have a democratic society, people must find or invent new channels through which decisions can be made. Given genuine decision-making powers, people will not only learn rapidly to make socially useful decisions, but they will also assume responsibility for carrying out decisions based on their collective judgment. The problem is not that people will make irresponsible or wrong decisions. It is, rather, to convince people who have been ignored or excluded in the past that their involvement will have meaning and that their ideas will be respected. The danger is not too much, but too little participation.

Popular education should give people experience in making decisions. Many take it for granted that people can make decisions, but actually, the majority of us are not allowed to make decisions about most of the things that are important. I have been put on the spot about the contradiction between my views on people making their own decisions and my action in making decisions that affect people’s experience at Highlander, such as my insisting there can be no discrimination or lack of freedom of speech. I think, however, if you’re going to help people make decisions, it’s important to show them that the decisions they make must be responsible. Whenever you take a position, you’ve made a decision. The decision at Highlander from its beginning in the 1930s to practice social equality was a big one – with legal, practical and moral implications. (134)

A little more on Myles Horton’s vision of democracy:

Democracy needs to be not only political but part of the fabric of society as a whole. When I use the word “democracy,” it is not limited to political decision making, to voting. It is a philosophical concept meaning that people are really free and empowered to make collectively the decisions that affect their lives. (169)

The practice of popular education

I like to think that I have two eyes that I don’t have to use the same way…I try to see with one eye where these people are as they perceive themselves to be…You have to start where people are, because their growth is going to be from there, not from some abstraction or where you are or somewhere else is.

Now my other eye is not such a problem, because I already have in mind a philosophy of where I’d like to see people moving. (131)

This movement happens, just as for Freire, as a natural outcome of critical and collective discussion in a circle:

I think of an educational workshop as a circle of learners. “circle” is not an accidental term, for there is no head of the table at Highlander workshops; everybody sits around in a circle. (150)

At Highlander there were two guiding principles:

nobody can be discriminated against, for any reason, and there is freedom to say anything or take any position on the topic of the workshop. (155)

It is, however, understood in advance, that students have to stay on topic. No rants on other things…we have all met those folks who enjoy that sort of thing. The working assumptions for each workshop (and I am paraphrasing here) are:

1. a workshop has to have a goal arising out a social problem that the students perceive
2. people have within themselves the potential, intelligence, courage and ability to solve their own problems
3. the Highlander experience can add to and enrich the educational experience
4. in addition to learning from their peers, Highlander staff members should have an opportunity to interact in the field with the students.
5. factual information and analysis presented has to be tailored to the expressed needs of the participants It is meant to be usable knowledge that can help when people return home.
6. follow-up receives special attention

Above all this is a process of praxis embedded in a community:

The most important part of a workshop come from what has happened in a community before the workshop itself, and what happens when people go home and act. (153)

A final reminder on why this kind of practice is so important, because any other simply reifies what the capitalist system currently imposes:

Any educational philosophy comes out of what you do and how you deal with people. When you believe in people and in the importance of trying to create a democracy, you must turn these beliefs into practice, and if you don’t believe in the free enterprise system and individual competitiveness, you practice group action and cooperation…(175)

This is one of three posts, the next looks at Highlander’s connection to social movement, and the third at the difference between popular education as Myles Horton practiced and envisioned it, and his understanding of community organizing as practised by Saul Alinsky and others.

[Horton, Myles with Judith and Herbert Kohl. (1998) the long haul: an autobiography. New York: Teachers College Press.]


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