Is popular education still relevant today?

What do maisons des jeunes et de la culture, youth hostels and scouting have in common? Each of these movements or associations is part of what is known as popular education, which aims to improve the way society functions without the support of conventional institutions.

Sylvain Wagnon, University of Montpellier and Mathieu Depoil, Université Paul Valéry - Montpellier III

Alexandr Vasilyev -

But how can we define this non-school-based educational approach more precisely? Popular education has its own specific history, principles and practices. What does it represent today? How can it be a truly innovative political and educational project in the 21st century?

Knowledge for empowerment

Historians of popular education emphasize the vagueness of its scientific definition, while affirming its importance in understanding our educational history. Is it simply an approach designed to give as many people as possible access to knowledge? Popular education is much more than that.

At once an element of continuing education and lifelong learning, with the ambition of making education accessible to all, it can be defined as a desire for individual and collective emancipation based on active, concrete practices.

Giving everyone access to the knowledge and skills they need to emancipate themselves and transform society is an ideal that stems from the French Revolution. But it was at the beginning of the 19th century, with the rise of industrial and capitalist society, that the ambition to educate the people and emancipate workers took concrete shape.

This nascent popular education took many forms. In 1866, when the Republican movement created the Ligue de l'Enseignement, it was thinking in terms of supervising young people outside school hours, even before secular and compulsory schooling was established.

The syndicalist workers' movement proposed political education for workers through labor exchanges and popular universities. For their part, Christian currents founded their own popular education associations, such as the Jeunesse Ouvrière Chrétienne (JOC) and the Jeunesse Agricole Catholique (JAC).

A golden age?

The boom in popular education began with the introduction of paid vacations in 1936 and the progressive policies of the Front Populaire, implemented by National Education Minister Jean Zay and Secretary of State for Youth and Sport Léo Lagrange.

This marked the beginning of the spread of popular education, with the creation of the Cemea(Centres d'entraînement aux méthodes d'éducation active) in 1937, and the many summer camp associations that provided educational and social opportunities for young people. The movement continued after the Liberation with the creation of the Fédération nationale des Francas (Mouvement des Francs et Franches Camarades) and the Maisons des Jeunes et de la Culture (MJC), which perpetuated and amplified this popular education of access to culture and knowledge for all.

At the same time, popular education became increasingly institutionalized. In 1953, the Institut national de la jeunesse et de l'éducation populaire (INJEP) federated the various movements, and an official status for professional youth workers was created. While popular education became more permanent, it seemed to lose sight of its socially emancipatory character, confining itself to the socio-cultural sphere.

New fields of action?

In 1998, the creation of Attac illustrated this return to a political conception of popular education. The social damage exacerbated by the current health crisis requires, more than ever, an awareness of the growing inequalities in our society and the worsening poverty in France.

ATD Quart Monde and Emmaüs, to name but two emblematic associations, have been actively involved for decades in the fight against social inequality through popular education and training initiatives.

So, as a report by the Conseil économique et social in May 2019 points out, should it be seen as a "modern, pioneering concept" and a "permanent laboratory for innovation and active methods"? Sociologist Christian Maurel points out that we are witnessing a revival, a fork in the road, or perhaps a return to the very roots of popular education.

Indeed, in May 2021, the Injep note on the fabric of popular education clarifies the multiple possible fields of intervention for popular education in the 21st century: continuing education, popular universities, but also support for urban policy measures, the fight against inequality or all forms of discrimination.

Popular education is rooted in all areas and represents an educational lever for all social categories and all generations, as illustrated by the work of the Fédération des centers sociaux on ageing.

A project for society in the XXIᵉ century

Because of its history, popular education has its own pedagogical figures, such as Fernand Oury and Gisèle de Failly. It also has its own pedagogies, such as decision pedagogy - "enabling individuals to decide what concerns them" - social pedagogy, theorized in France by Laurent Ott in particular, or the critical pedagogies inspired by Brazilian pedagogue Paulo Freire.

In this respect, the presence of Philippe Meirieu, a great name in pedagogy, as national president of Cemea is a symbol of this reaffirmation that education can be at the heart of a project for society.

But the vigor of popular education also lies in this link between active methods and political education, underlining the need to rethink a living democracy where all inhabitants have a place, can act and influence decisions.

The fields of action of popular education in the 21st centurye century are therefore innumerable. The desire to create direct democracyspecific forms of public expression such as the gesticulated lectures or new educational spaces, such as the adventure playgrounds which are redefining the place of children in the city, are just a few examples of this educational and political dynamism.The Conversation

Sylvain Wagnon, Professor of Education, Faculty of Education, University of Montpellier and Mathieu Depoil, Doctoral student in Education Science at Liderf - University of Montpellier, Université Paul Valéry - Montpellier III

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read theoriginal article.