We Make the Road by Walking, Part 1

I lose track of things. It’s what I do. (Ehxibit 3,230,854: this website.)

And yet!

I’m going to loosely call this contribution Part 1 to Bryan Alexander’s Book Club reading of We Make the Road by Walking, and will hastily post where I am in the book – which is still into the first few chapters as of this posting. Bryan Alexander has a nice recap from chapters 1-2, as does Adam. I actually haven’t read Adam’s yet, mostly because I don’t want to just cut this post off and tell you to see his instead (although you probably should!). You can also see what our other friends are sharing on via Twitter, using #HortonFreire.

The quote that frames the book for me, thus far, emerged from the introduction:

“Both men believe, then, real liberation is achieved through popular participation. Participation in turn is realized through an educational practice that itself is both liberatory and participatory, that simultaneously creates a new society and involves the people themselves in the creation of their own knowledge” (xxx).

This squared with my understanding and experience with Freire’s work, and so it was great to dive deeper into Myles Horton’s story, and to explore the real bond that these two educators shared. While there are numerous avenues to explore in this work, including their influences, their critiques and histories with formal education (a la schooling vs. education) and their efforts working within both grassroots and bureaucratic operations, I found two important themes in my own connection to them.

Uncompleteness, Ruptura and Becoming

Probably the most profound bit of the early chapters was this thread articulated by Freire on the notion that we are incomplete (“uncomplete,” in his phrasing) beings, and that learning is a generative part of the human experience – or maybe even of becoming human.

“I think that one of the best ways for us to work as human beings is not only to know that we are uncompleted beings but to assume the uncompleteness. There is a little difference between knowing intellectually that we are unfinished and assuming the nature of being unfinished. We are not complete. We have to become inserted in a permanent process of searching. Without this, we would die in life. It means that keeping curiosity is absolutely indispensable for us to continue to be or to become ” (11).

“I think we should talk with the students about all the implications of writing and reading. We should make clear to them that it is irresponsible to suggest that reading something is easy. It is also bad not to make clear that reading is a kind of research. In this way, studying means finding something…a certain moment of happiness that is creation and re-creation. No, it’s not easy, but it is good to be done. You see, we should challenge students to get this creative moment and never accept their minds becoming bureaucratized…” (37).

“I’m sure that one of the most tragic illnesses of our societies is the bureaucratization of the mind. If you go beyond the previously established patterns, considered as inevitable ones, you lose credibility. In fact, however, there is no creativity without ruptura, without a break from the old, without conflict in which you have to to make a decision. I would say there is no human existence without ruptura” (37-38).

Horton initiates the idea of change and incompleteness earlier on page 11, recalling a conversation where the sociologist Robert Lynd suggested to Myles that “you’ll never end; when the mountains run out, you’ll imagine them.” I’ve spent a lot of time over the years with the Maxine Greene quote “I am what I am not yet.” Indeed, it has long been a hallmark of my identity, outlook and philosophy of life. Amy Collier has written and spoken some very powerful pieces on the concept of not-yetness, and I think her words are a really insightful, harmonic amplification of much of what I’ve long thought/felt. The idea that we are not complete, that we generate (see: “we make the road by walking“) our humanity precisely because of – and through – our incompleteness struck me as a beautiful foundation for where both Freire and Horton approach their praxis.

From the perspective of Amy’s work, particularly as she articulates her leadership manifesto, are these elements that resonate particularly strongly with me about what Horton and Freire are up to:

2) Always listen and seek to understand.

4) Tinker.

5) There are no such thing as best practices.

6) Talk to people all of the time about this, about your values.

Framed through the lens of Horton’s work, we can see how Amy’s values for leaders can help create mountains for folks to strive for, and provide the support for folks to take their own steps. Likewise, in an analysis of Horton’s approached training social justice leaders at Highlander, Andrea Evans (2007) suggests that Horton’s adopted methods focused on building relationships and engaging in dialogue that would foster “space for new perspectives but that also deepen and enrich understanding of one’s own biases, as well as how and why others construct their various understandings” (265). By focusing on people first, less so heavily on strict process, and by empowering people to lead from within their communities, I see similar hallmarks to what Amy values. And for me, that’s where there’s a kind of synthesis between being incomplete/uncomplete and leading for social justice.

Additionally, I see in these quotes from Freire on pages 37-38 both the full recognition of the contingency in our humanity and the need to connect with other people in ways that simply push to make progress, to advance our shared experiences and lives. I love thinking about the ways in which progress is often difficult, uncertain, and how it usually requires us to be willing to embrace the discomfort of really engaging with others. At a time when that feels threatened on several fronts in the United States, these ideas are not simply refreshing, they may well be life-sustaining.

In turn, then, this leads to the normative question of what this looks like in educational spaces. For Freire, one idea concerns the reframing what writing and reading are – and require! – for students to be empowered, critical agents in their own lives. I love the idea of reframing reading and writing from being mere tasks to accomplish in the construction of taking a course to the idea that they are necessary components of a generative kind of learning, a learning that actually humanizes them. Probably more than anything, this section gives voice to the idea that we shouldn’t just play the game of school with our students – read this, write that, regurgitate and repeat – but that we should invite them to be critical creators of knowledge, for the sake of becoming more human.

And no, that’s not easy.

The most powerful educational and educative experiences I’ve had, both as a student and as a teacher, have required me to face what Freire terms ruptura, or a conflict of competing notions, ideals and identities within myself. I’ve had to confront principles that no longer fit the data sets and lived experiences I’d encountered; I’ve had to really dig to empathize and try to understand how others’ lives and experiences were, in fact, valid and provided new paths for my own thinking. It’s never easy to walk away from long-held beliefs, and I think we have a natural tendency to self-justify when confronted with the refutation of not just facts of the matter, but with matters of identity and even self.

Creating a Call to Action

The truth is that up until earlier this fall, I’d never heard of Myles Horton. It just so happened that his name popped up in an article related to an article I was reading about Black Mountain College. But I instantly felt a kinship and connection to Horton, as a son of Appalachia and as one who sees himself dedicated to the educational practices geared toward improving life for others. I recognize my life, at present, is a far cry from the impact or effort of Horton, but I see him as a kind of role model for the work ethic and the spirit in which I hope to drive my pedagogy.

“Highlander always tried to remind people that they are part of of the world and they have responsibilities and opportunities to do things outside their own communities” (67).

“One of the things Highlander had always done was to say to people: ‘Highlander’s our base, but if you try to do something and need some help, we’ll respond to your request for help. We won’t go into anybody’s community or organization as an expert, but we will come in and try to help you with your problem'” (68).

I love that Horton took the approach, much like Freire articulated in Pedagogy of the Oppressed, that people are the solutions to their own problems. He repeatedly mentions that he approached people where they were, treated them with respect, and worked along side them to help them experiment and work toward their own solutions. He didn’t prescribe his own fixes, and he didn’t smother them with superiority.

I feel a strong call to action here from Myles Horton. I see his call in his assertion that “finding the pockets is not an intellectual process, it’s a process of being involved,” (94). I want to be a person who works in the pockets. To start, I’m going to need to get involved.

I’ll have more to share on this shortly, but I’ll leave the question here for anyone reading: where are the pockets you need to find, and what is the work you can help support?


Evans, A. E. (2007). Horton, highlander, and leadership education: Lessons for preparing educational leaders for social justice. Journal of School Leadership, 17(3), 250-275.