[STRUCTURES] – KNOWERS, NOT-KNOWERS, AND PAULO FRIERE
This is one for the politics nerds, the gender buffs, the psychoanalysts and the dreamers. If you think the world is fine as it is, please stop reading.
On my adventure into intentional communities I hoped to find new models of human interaction. I hoped to discover how these pioneering splinter cells were collapsing the ordinary, shaking the box, and rearranging the pieces into a more peaceful pattern. I have seen some inspirational and revolutionary practices, details of which I’ve scattered throughout this blog – but disappointment lingers. I am the first to admit that this disappointment stems from my radically naive, saccharine optimism, from my believe that human beings are capable of finding a way to live together with less violence and less suffering.
This is the first part of a many-part blog within a blog. It is called [STRUCTURES]. It is concerned with investigating the structures which persist within intentional communities despite the unique possibilities that they have in deconstructing them. This is about the HOW and not about the WHAT.
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Here in modern culture, we have a common belief that there are knowers and not-knowers. Children are not-knowers and therefore go to school to be taught skills and facts that will make them knowers. In the realm of adults, knowers are spilt into camps in which they ‘know’ something others don’t. Doctors ‘know’ how to heal patients, engineers ‘know’ how to build bridges, judges ‘know’ how to give a fair sentence. In my opinion, this view of knowledge is flawed, and my opinion is largely shaped by Paulo Freire’s insights into how the structure of knowers and not-knowers causes a circular process of oppression.
Tamera eco-village is perhaps the most radical and forward-thinking of all the communities I have visited so far. They frown upon monogamy, encourage group emotion-sharing, talk to snakes to stop them from eating cabbages and use their pagan stone circle to communicate with kindred souls in Palestine. Whether or not these practices seem positive or negative, it is surprising to note that when it comes to education they seem content to use the most traditional of methods. Each day of the ten-day introduction course I attended began with a lecture. One person shared their wisdom with four hundred. The lecture took place in a church-like building, and everyone had to sit still and be quiet. Most of the speakers talked about their compassion for the humans who are suffering all around the globe, about how they were moved to join a peace march in Israel, or why they couldn’t bear to see their neighbours’ dogs chained up to posts. The lectures were emotionally evocative, they were honest and they were eloquent – I very much enjoyed most of them. But I was confused.
I was confused that a community of radical egalitarianism couldn’t see the irony in using a patriarchal, ‘listen-to-me-as-I-know-best’ communication structure where the not-knowers look up to the stage to hear how the knower experiences the world. I, for one, enjoy lectures. I like listening to inspirational stories, or specialists talk about their speciality – but the format is not for everyone. I have friends who glaze over and count the tiles on the ceiling, friends who are intelligent, motivated and creative but who can’t engage with words. (They’re probably not reading this blog.)
Oddly, Tamera use a very Freire-ian method to educate their children. The on-site school is a mix between Montessori-style open classes where kids choose what to learn, and a practical interaction with the physical world where they pick fruit in the garden and discover how rainwater is retained through permacultural policy. There is very little hierarchy and therefore very little knower/not-knower interplay.
Perhaps Tamera doesn’t trust its adults like it trusts its children, or perhaps it’s just playing the game. When two hundred outsiders take ten days out of their ‘busy schedules’ to ‘learn about Tamera’, Tamera has to choose how to best service their needs. Most of these newcomers are laced with the desire for efficiency; they want to ‘get the most out of the experience’ and want to be charmed. We are all suckers for leaders and guides. Despite Freire, we’ve grown up in a world of choice in which it is much simpler to submit to someone else’s vision than to create your own – in which we’re comfortable with hierarchy and with someone else taking responsibility. When we are confronted with a mysterious and unconventional environment like Tamera, we’re grateful for the familiar structure of lectures, we indulge in the chance for someone to explain what is going on.
In my opinion, Tamera was right to offer lectures delivered by the founders of the community, just like it was right to offer guided tours of the landscape where their gardening practices and solar energy generators could be explained. Freire may not be pleased, but you can’t jump from one world to another without using a bridge: some hierarchical ‘I-will-talk-if-you-will-listen’ transfer of information is clearly still helpful. The problem was that they didn’t see that this process was a necessary evil. It is impossible to understand a community and their practices unless you actually live there, and there is a strict limit to what you can absorb in a burst of ten days. But the key is not that Tamera eliminate all knower/not-knower exchange of facts, but that they recognise the limitations of the process, minimise its use, and maximise more horizontal ideas sharing.
Ideally, visitors would come to Tamera for no shorter than three months. These visitors would be told nothing about the practices of the community, but would absorb the structures and ways through working and living them on a daily basis. At the end of their time, Tamera would ask for feedback from these visitors – ask them to openly criticise how the community runs in the hope that this fresh pair of eyes would illuminate some of the creases in their project. Despite the economic difficulties for both Tamera and the visitor in such an arrangement (Tamera needs to provide food and shelter, the visitor forfeits three-months of earning no income), it isn’t money or resources that’s halting the idea. The problem is that Tamera isn’t interested in hearing criticisms from the outside world, an attitude that can be inferred from the way they structure their ten-day Summer University.
During this introduction programme, the knowers of Tamera treated their visitors as not-knowers. They overfed these potential allies with dogma and mantra, and made little space for them to offer what tentative feedback they felt confident enough to give. Any community is right to be scrupulous in accepting the criticism of an outsider who has only experienced their home for a mere week or so, but if they started playing the game, they should keep on playing it. If it was a conscious decision to use conventional learning structures like lectures in order to make newcomers more comfortable, then it would make sense to offer the newcomers some time to offer their feedback, even if it comes loaded with the cynical intention of making these not-knowers feel more important, more wanted, and therefore more committed to the Tamera cause.
The problem is that Tamerians are not aware of what they are doing. The teachers in the children’s school may have an advanced view of education, but the community at large seems steeped in the patriarchal structure of using one person’s words to convince others to do things and feel things. Like priests, like politicians, like football managers – the leaders of Tamera think they know best. Those who ‘think deepest’ and ‘feel deepest’ (a.k.a. those with the confidence and eloquence to stand up in front of devotees) are entitled to act as guides to the others, they are the shining lights in the dark and we must follow them to oblivion.
Fuck that balls.
If you’re going to save the world you’ve got to do it with everyone. Yes it’s difficult to find a process for engaging with the speed of the mainstream world when you’re trying to create a whole different approach to living. How do you create a holistic, non-hierarchical, immersive, inspiring, informative, interactive environment in which visitors feel they have ‘learnt’ some practical knowledge of the community and yet feel welcomed enough to add in their own opinions – all in under two weeks? In the case of Tamera’s ten-day Summer University it’s simple. Plan lectures for the first six days and leave the last four for visitor feedback. This feedback can take the form of lectures, theatre, dance, visual art, music, algebra, whatever – but must be given airtime. This shift of power won’t break Freire’s circle of oppression, it will merely take the stick of dominance from the Tamerians and give it to the outsiders to hit with. But in the short space of ten days, with a group of diverse adults who are programmed in the code of knowers and not-knowers, it may be the best they can do.
It is disappointing that the wildly revolutionary community of Tamera still use staid and oppressive forms of learning and communication, but Eden wasn’t built in a day. It may not be reasonable to dismantle every structure of the world we were born into, but the first step is to recognise what they are and admit our submission to them. If you want to re-think how humans can live in peace with themselves and the earth, you have to re-think everything … and that’s often more about the how than the what.
‘Whoever teaches learns in the act of teaching, and whoever learns teaches in the act of learning.’ Paulo Friere, Pedagogy of Freedom