A School for Problems

The root causes for the barbaric action on "September 11" are mammoth, complex issues. Some of them are clearly structural, others related to cross-cultural (mis)understandings and perceptions.

I believe complexity too overwhelming for one person to handle can be figured out by all of us together. We will need a new kind of school; not a school for teaching writing and arithmetic, but a school for problems. This type of "school" necessitates the latitude for participation, for the appropriate attitudes and structures on the part of personnel and institutions. A school which gives people the opportunity to identify their problems, deal with their problems, and learn from their problems. Analysis should begin at the level of the people within their own experience and their own level of understanding. This ensures people's collective initiative and participation in any kind of change process.

Trust can foster or inhibit communication and participation between and among all groups regardless of education, culture, social, or economic status. It is "an a priori requirement for dialogue ... without this faith ... dialogue is a farce which inevitably degenerates into paternalistic manipulation" [1]. It may be more important to know about trust than about educational standards, pedagogical methods, media technology or communication benchmarks.

Trust is egalitarian. We may succumb to superiors, and condescend to subordinates, but these are not manifestations of genuine trust. Freire contends those who do not trust others "will fail to initiate (or will abandon) dialogue, reflection and communication, and will fall into using slogans, communiques, monologues, and instructions" [2]. Trust isn't manifest in positions or labels, but in persons.

If we do not trust, we deem others untrustworthy. But is that quality within them, or in our own attitudes of insecurity and aspirations of superiority? More often than not, it may be the latter. Again, to the extent we trust, we are equals. We often do not trust those we want, and are socialized, to feel above, those "lower on the ladder".

Hence, education for social change requires first of all changes in the thinking of teachers and policymakers themselves. The needles, targets, and audiences of communication and development models, combined with self-righteousness, titles, and insecurities, perhaps sprinkled with a dash of misdirected benevolence, often renders "experts" a bit too verbose and pushy. Perhaps this is because it requires much more imagination, preparation and hard work to have dialogical learning. It is far easier to prepare and give lectures. However, there is possibly a valid reason why we have two ears, but only one mouth.

Communication between people thrives not on the ability to talk fast, but the ability to listen well. People are "voiceless" not because they have nothing to say, but because nobody cares to listen to them. In this perspective it is legitimate to say that education for social change begins with listening. It is so simple and yet we fail often because of an egocentric attitude. Perhaps the best advice to the modern development communicators is to shut up for awhile.

Authentic listening fosters trust much more than incessant talking. Participation, which necessitates listening, and moreover, trust, will help reduce the social distance between leaders and citizens as well as facilitate a more equitable exchange of ideas, knowledge and experiences.

Participation can involve the redistribution of power at local, national, international and global levels. As such, it directly threatens those whose position and/or very existence depends upon power and its exercise over others. Reactions to such threats are sometimes overt, but most often are manifested as less visible, yet steady and continuous resistance.

Such barriers are not limited to government-populace relationships, but are prevalent both among bureaucratic organizations and communities as well.

Attitude is paramount for the facilitator. S/He must truly believe the participants are not only capable, but are indeed the most qualified persons for the task at hand. Therefore, beyond class and organizational interests, perhaps the major obstacles to participation are large egos and self-righteousness. The most important expertise, technique, or methodology cannot be operationalized. What is needed is a change of attitude, the patient fostering of trust, and the ability to listen.

Professor at the Brussels Catholic University
President, European Consortium for Communications Research (ECCR)
Vice-President for Academic Research and Publications,
International Association for Media and Communication Research (IAMCR)

September 21, 2001


[1] Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York, Seabury Press, (1983), p. 79.

[2] idem, p. 53.

Bulletin Interactif du Centre International de Recherches et Études Transdisciplinaires n° 16 - Février 2002

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