It is often said that popular education is not about the participatory techniques that we use (or not just about the techniques), it is about the content. One argument is that techniques are just tools that can be used for good or bad purposes, to liberate or to enslave. I remember Neville Alexander making this point in Education and the Struggle for National Liberation in Southern Africa. He writes that after Freire was exiled from Brazil the military junta used some of his techniques to conduct pro-government literacy education. No idea if that is true, but it seems plausible.
Another argument is that focusing on techniques -- the dinamiqeurismo that Alforja writers criticize -- can lead to missing the point which is the orderly unfolding of the PE process, the development of the spiral of learning and action. I have certainly seen people - myself included - use techniques associated with PE in a way that I thought contradicted the goals of PE. (See Challenging the Educators http://re.rollingearth.org/?q=node/12) But, I have come to wonder if there is a different way of thinking about the problem of content and technique.
So, a provocative claim: PE is not defined by its content, but is, in fact, defined by the principles on which the educator operates and the techniques s/he uses. The principles are simple: equity, democracy, freedom, equality. The techniques come in many varieties and are constantly invented and re-invented, so it seems strange to hang the definition of PE on them, but the element of play is crucial and exists only in the form of an activity or technique. (This is another question, the role of the play element in popular education.) Content is arbitrary and, when it comes to defining PE, irrelevant.
The content of PE is arbitrary because it depends entirely on the context, and the experiences, needs, goals, interests, histories of the participants and the educator. The content is also arbitrary because PE can start anywhere, with anything and anyone, in circumstances that favor or undermine learning. Of course, once the dialogue begins, the necessity (in a logical sense) of the different elements will be one of the themes. Once the dialogue begins, the content becomes central, but the content could be anything.
The content of PE is irrelevant not because there is no content and not because the content is unimportant but because what makes PE different is not the content. In fact, PE has nothing to teach, no content to transfer (by participatory or non-participatory means), nowhere to lead people, nothing to explicate. This is an indefensible claim, I realize. Most (all?) PE practices of which I know do in fact have something to teach, do have content to transfer, places to take people and something to explicate. So I'm not trying to claim a "true" popular education, different from the real practice, but to point out a contradiction in what we do that is unrecognized and unappreciated.
What I mean is that the key, the active germ in PE is not the content taught/learned but what Ranciere/Jacotot calls the practice of equality, the practice of emancipation, no matter what the content and no matter what the outcome. The role of the popular educator is to put people in a box from which only they can escape, if they so decide. The popular educator does not know the way out -- the point is that each person has to find her/his own way out, either individually or collectively. To the degree that the educator is also part of the group, s/he plays more than one role, being both participant and facilitator.
Sounds like popular education is neutral, but that's wrong. What makes PE not neutral, however, is not the content taught but the principles of liberation, democracy and equality - what Jacotot calls emancipation - and the practice of emancipation in learning. Reminds me of that Woody Guthrie ditty: An FBI man came to see me, and these are the words he did say. "Will you point a gun for your country?" I answered him solemnly "Yea. I will point a gun for my country, but I can't guarantee you which way."
To be continued....