Friday, February 26, 2010

Guest Post: Bootleg Education-- Myles Horton & Open Education

With the burgeoning of free university courses offered on the internet, such as MIT’s OpenCourseWare, there has been much buzz in the media lately about how technology is “democratizing” formal learning, and how higher education is experiencing nothing short of a revolution.

While the Internet has certainly made higher education accessible to an astonishing number of people from all backgrounds, the idea that learning must reach beyond the traditional, university-educated elite is not new. In fact, the philosophical underpinnings of today’s open education movement can be seen in the life and work of southern activist Myles Horton.

Beyond academic circles, not many know of Myles Horton’s contribution to educational philosophy in the United States. In 1932, Horton founded the Highlander Folk School in an effort to educate poor Appalachian whites as well blacks. A solid two decades before desegregation was even discussed, Horton’s school accepted students from any background, regardless of race or class. Although the school was shut down during the McCarthy era because it supposedly propagated sedition, the school still runs to this day, in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, as an educational research center.

In extensive interviews with Paulo Freire, a renowned South American educational theorist, Horton discusses his views on using education as a tool for social change. These interviews were eventually gathered in a book called We Make the Road by Walking.

In one interview, Horton explains,

“Here in the mountains we’ve had moonshiners and bootleggers, people who make illegal whiskey and sell it…so the phrase I’ve always used when I talk is, ‘You’ve got to bootleg education.’ You have to find a way to bootleg it. It’s illegal, really, because it’s not proper, but you do it anyway.”

Here, Horton was referring to his vision of changing the way we think about education. He felt what was wrong with traditional education is that it places limits on learners. He once wrote, “We have plenty of men and women who can teach what they know; we have very few who can teach their own capacity to learn.”

In many ways, the Internet itself is teaching the world this “capacity to learn,” simply because with open courseware technology, the emphasis is shifting from the material to the learner. Now, self-learning students, with the help of passionate educators, are directing their own studies, and in so doing, creating their own paths. Internet trends suggest that adults interested in continuing education--the people Horton was most wanting to help--are the ones who are benefiting exponentially from online learning.

The “Cape Town Open Education Declaration” , only one of the many such declarations drafted by important world organizations, including UNESCO, asserts,

"[Educators in the open education movement] are…planting the seeds of a new pedagogy where educators and learners create, shape and evolve knowledge together…”

This statement sounds similar to Horton’s writings.

Although Horton was pushing for education so that the disenfranchised could more actively participate in the American political system, open education through the Internet today strives for similar goals, only on a global scale.

This guest post was contributed by Katheryn Rivas, who writes on the topics of online universities accredited and can be reached at:

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