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ÉDUCATION POPULAIRE (Geneva/Zurich working group)

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In France, the term “Éducation Populaire” usually stands for an education that is taking place outside of traditional learning institutions and that is aiming at improving the social system.

One can find an archeology of éducation populaire in the 18th or 19th Century,  for example with la Ligue de l’enseignement, founded in 1866 by Jean Macé, whose ideas will lead to the creation of a free, obligatory and secular school in France or with the first “Université Populaire” in 1898, whose goal was:

“To help men to rise to human life, to do so, make them more and more able to free themselves, liberating them from the inner servitude that’s leading all the others”.

There is of course no unique definition of the term, that can be applied to a large variety of practices, from union education to social Christianism or Scouts’ movements, but the term, as it is usually meant today, has strong roots in the immediate post Second World War.

In 1945, with the idea of getting rid of the indoctrination system organized by Pétain during the War, ideas of popular education are developing.

There is in particular in 1945 a very interesting document, a Manifest, that is procured by a group of union workers, engineers, officers, students, teachers and artists who called themselves “Peuple et Culture”, people and culture.

Their goal is to “lay the foundation, according to the reality of the time, of a real education of masses and elites” and to get rid of the separation between the people and culture.

They believe, in particular, that the artists must find new ways to dialogue with a larger public and that it will not be possible to develop such new methods in the frame of art academies.

They insist on that fact that former experiments of popular education remained subordinated to traditional teaching methods and that new methods need to be developed and applied:

“The technique of popular education must not be the one of primary or academic training. The issues that the initiation of a whole people to culture leads us to clearly part with school methods”.

Those new methods require education technicians and should be based on psychological approach, leading to a functional pedagogy. The goal will be to:

“Prepare women and men to their individual and social functions”.

Concerning culture, the first need, before any teaching would be to develop a “cultural ability”, through mental drills.

The group “Peuple et Culture” imagined that popular education should be integrated in the city planning of the future, not as a uniform structure but as proposals adapted to specific needs. They imagined three main kinds of structures:

  • Popular Leisure Clubs, in factories, army facilities, movie clubs, youth houses, people houses and youth hostels.
  • Practical teaching centers, in particular in union contexts, to prepare the union members to their functions in organizing work and leisure, and to exchange about practical knowledge connected to different professional activities, in particular in the field of agriculture.
  • Popular community centers, or houses of culture, to establish a dialogue between the artist and the public, bring theater and libraries in countryside.

They advocate for those structures to be well funded by the state, so they can be attractive.

At the same time, just after the Second World War, Jean Guéhenno tries to restructure the “foyers pour la jeunesse” (home for youth) that exist since the beginning of the 20th Century. He proposes that one should exist in every town or village. Following this idea, the Federation of “maisons des jeunes et de la culture” is born in 1948 and will progressively try to be as independent from the state as possible. In the 1960’s the number of MJC is exploding, to raise 1200. It’s a huge success and one is inaugurated every week. An essential idea of the MJC is for the youth to educate itself, becoming conscious of its needs and its possibilities to do things. There are places of socio-educative leisure that provide equipment of different kind: sport facilities, classrooms, meeting places, photo labs, etc.

In 1961, another kind of maison (house) will be built: the Maisons de la Culture (Houses of Culture). The first French Minister of Culture, André Malraux will open them in 1961, with a strong idea of decentralizing culture.

But Malraux’s conception of art was an elitist one: his main idea was a democratization of culture, in multiplying the occasions for the people to encounter culture, but not in rethinking what the content of culture was or how culture was produced.

In May 1968, in the context of students’ and workers’ protests, some Houses of Culture are occupied and new claims are spoken out. The ideas of Cultural Action and of Cultural Democracy are emerging, advocating for the direct participation of people in cultural production and for a transformation of society through culture. The directors of public theaters and Houses of Culture meet and publish the “Déclaration de Villeurbanne”, asking for an engaged theater and a real politic of art education (“médiation” in French, which has a slightly different meaning). They underline the gap between an existing “public” and a “non-public” that is the vast majority of people, that will never be reached by the current cultural offer, in particular because school teaching is too rigid. Therefore, they refuse the idea of a mere transmission of culture:

“We deliberately refuse any conception of culture where it would be the object of a mere transmission”.

Popular education today in the French speaking world is still marked with those debates and with this confrontation between the democratization of culture and cultural democracy. It is still a very alive debate and two interesting publications were in particular produced about Education Populaire in the years 2000, a special issue of the Magazine Cassandre in 2013 and of the Magazine Politis in 2000.

In this second publication, Jacques Bertin defines Education Populaire as:

“[…] the education that is not framed in traditional structure of family, school or university. […] education within “the time of leisure”, yes, but with the conscious practice of a group life, of confrontation, of sharing […] the one that doesn’t limit to “high culture” […] finally, it’s the learning of citizenship that is not just politicization but an active practice: the art to speak in public, to be able to listen, to manage a group, to integrate in society…”

Moreover, echoing the Peuple et Culture Manifest of 1945, he sees subversion as the key mission of popular education, giving it a specific role in neo-liberal societies:

“By any angle we approach the issue, the conclusion which stands out is: popular education cannot escape its profound vocation: subversion […] That, the business sector will never do.”

Popular education – with this conception or not – is still currently taking place in many different structures today in French speaking area of course – popular universities, workers universities, clubs, community houses, cultural centers etc, etc. We can note that in France, an official status of “éducation populaire” exists and was given for example to ATTAC for its activities.

And finally, we must note that important structures for popular education today are the schools addressed and/or run by migrant people… A defense/ rediscovery of ‘mother tongues’ is at the core of several popular education structures (Escolas calandretas for Occitan, Bressola for catalan…) challenging the centralized approach of culture that was long the project of French government. And this would make an interesting connection to our research about Paulo Freire in Geneva, as Freire is talking, in Pedagogy of Hope, about his dialogue with Spanish workers in Geneva, who were running a school for their children not to be indoctrinated by the Swiss school system.

“The children would spend the regular school day in the Swiss schools, and them, on certain days, got to this other school, as well, where they would “rethink” what they had learned or were learning. The workers’ primary, overriding purpose was, on the one hand, to diminish the risk of having to watch the alienation of their children, cut off as these children were from their own culture–a risk greatly intensified by the Swiss school, which was unquestionably competent from the viewpoint of the dominant interests–and on the other hand, to stimulate in the children a critical way of thinking […]” (p.139).


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