Pedagogy for the Oppressor: Cease to do Evil, then Learn to do Good

Image courtesy of SFU.ca

In an essay collected in Rethinking Freire: Globalization and the Environmental CrisisDerek Rasmussen introduces Paulo Freire and those who would introduce his critical praxis to victims of oppression in foreign countries as “rescuers” attempting “to ameliorate the conditions of the oppressed.”

This is, Rasmussen admits, “certainly a worthy aim.” However, the blind spot in this well-intentioned practice is the fact that “rescuers often seem oblivious to the possibility of stemming the oppression of others in the first place,” and he introduces the problem of such foreign interventions of critical pedagogy as lacking if they do not address the fact that that which many westerners seek to rescue the rest of the world from, we in fact cause. For western conceptions of “progress” to be realized, social organizations not based in the same economic or social paradigm as our own must be disintegrated.

This, Rasmussen offers, is a problem at the heart of Freire’s emancipatory pedagogy, as “the two main life-preservers that the rescuers offer the world are education and economy.”

“What the rescuers view as tools of salvation, the rest of the world experiences as the things that cast them further adrift.”

And so before we can do good, we ought inquire as to how we might first cease to do evil.

Rasmussen cites The Great Transformation, wherein Karl Polanyi presents the modern nation-state and market society as part of a paradigm in which four guiding principles reign to create what Rasmussen calls the “disembedded economy”:

  • Land Ownership
  • Labour
  • Money
  • Corporations

“These fictions,” he writes, “dissolved society’s roots; dissolved essential connections between people and between people and place.” As the enclosure society and economy took hold in Europe with the fall of feudalism, it created the largest mass-migration in history as people clamoured for land, labour and opportunities to survive which had become (remained) the property of elites. This migration led to the same induced scarcity of enclosure across the colonized world, and continues unabated today as the IMF and World Bank, along with western governments’ commitment to foreign aid are tied to national goals of economic growth and the exploitation of natural resources.

Thus, in an effort to ‘free’ the oppressed majorities of globalized capitalism, Freirians of the west arrive in the developing world with a mission Rasmussen describes glibly as:

“Now we will train you to master alpha-numeric symbols in order to make money (from us) in order to get access to the land (we took from you) in order to buy the essentials of life.”

Troublingly, Freire’s critical pedagogy is tied to literacy as the primary means of engaging with the struggle against oppression, arguing that “human existence is not silent.” This perspective not only limits the scope of human knowledge in ways that discredit many indigenous ways of knowing, wisdom and heritage, but even goes so far as to build to the Euro-centric notion that cultures who focus “almost totally on survival lack a sense of life on a more historic plane.”

Freire warns that the non-literate may be “so close to the natural world that they feel more part of this world than the transformers of the world,” resulting in “almost a state of non-being,” unable to become “fully human.”

Such a cautionary reading of Freire will no doubt strike those of us who have read even introductory notes on the place within a local environment many indigenous populations envision themselves. Rasmussen notes that the “Nunavummiut do not experience this closeness to the natural world as less than human or merely human, but as more-than-human.”

Against such a worldview is Freire’s orthodoxy cast as a co-conspirator and, indeed, oppressor.

“Freire had no quarrel with the Euro-American civilization that spread the ideology of literacy, the civilization that spread the notion of language as non-silent, the notion of knowledge as print-based product, the notion of education as the means of knowledge-production.”

A crucial step such a praxis leaps past, Rasmussen offers, is the act of taking inventory of the “‘poisons’ that dissolve rooted societies in the first place.”

This needn’t necessarily mean that we throw Freire out with the bathwater; but it may require a significant re-positioning of the critical praxis, and this must begin at home, in the mind of the oppressor themselves. “As long as our way of life is causing most of the problems that the rest of the world has to deal with,” he writes. “The best thing we can do is deal with our own way of life.”

“Let us not presume to do good until we have ceased to do evil. This ought to be the essence of a pedagogy for the oppressor – first, cease to do evil. Next, study our own behaviour.”

On Reconciliation

Courtesy of Wikimedia.org

“There isn’t a profession in Canada that shouldn’t be required to understand the aboriginal experience.”

So says the Commissioner of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission yesterday, a statement that will likely rankle those in Conservative conservative circles, but which I believe may not go far enough in addressing the Commission’s mission and mandate.

From the Commission’s Interim Report in 2010:

“We will reveal the truth about residential schools, and establish a renewed sense of Canada that is inclusive and respectful, and that enables reconciliation.”

Lately immersed in Paulo Freire‘s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, this mandate to establish a renewed sense of Canada that is inclusive and respectful strikes me as narrowly placed on “professionals,” and more appropriately perhaps expanded to include all Canadians. Because wouldn’t establishing this “renewed Canada” stem from everyone on each of the sides of our nation’s “solitudes” understanding the experience of the Other(s)?

Isn’t this what is meant by “reconciliation”?

reconcile verb [ trans. ] (often be reconciled)

restore friendly relations between : she wanted to be reconciled with her father | the news reconciled us. 

cause to coexist in harmony; make or show to be compatible : a landscape in which inner and outer vision were reconciled | you may have to adjust your ideal to reconcile it with reality. 

make (one account) consistent with another, especially by allowing for transactions begun but not yet completed : it is not necessary to reconcile the cost accounts to the final accounts. 

Freire says that “the raison d’être of liberation education […] lies in its drive toward reconciliation. Education must begin with the solution of the teacher-student contradiction, by reconciling the poles of the contradiction so that both are simultaneously teachers and students.”

“The truth is,” he says, “that the oppressed are not ‘marginals,’ are not people living ‘outside’ society. They have always been ‘inside’ – inside the structure which made them ‘beings for others.’ The solution is not to ‘integrate’ them into the structure of oppression, but to transform that structure so that they can become ‘beings for themselves.'”

Now, he is speaking of teachers and students and oppressor and oppressed almost interchangeably here based on the premise that the traditional “banking” model of education, in “attitudes and practices, […] mirror[s] oppressive society as a whole.” Following with this idea, our schools should then be tasked with understanding the breadth of the Canadian experience: aboriginal, French Canadian, female, new immigrants, our Anglo-European fore-bearers, and all points between and beyond.

There can be no greater national import, it seems, than reconciling these disparate threads into a Canadian identity that each of us can say represents us. 

Which is something you can be opposed to, I guess… no doubt there are those folks out there who believe that a society is established by the “winners,” and that the “losers” should “move on,” or “assimilate” or… starve?

But I would inquire as to the logic behind such a disagreement; based on what grounds should we be opposed to reconciling the myriad interpretations of our history, or our future?

Each of us has out own view of this story, this much we can hopefully agree is true; but the leap we make when we discount others’ interpretations of a shared reality is domination by definition.

There is only one type of fascism, and it is exactly this prohibition against disagreement. Somewhat naturally then, I would argue that this type of domination is antithetical to the idea of Canada we are taught to celebrate in our socials curricula, national holidays, and – before the recent rekindling of our obsession with the military – museums.

Here the argument revolves around the value of diversity in a culture; if there is no value in diversity, I suppose, by all means: let those who can’t adapt rot. But then, this is decidedly not how our country chooses to represent itself in its laws, civic institutions, or national character.

Doesn’t our work as citizens in such a country then revolve around creating a narrative that allows for the continued expression of the country’s diverse elements?

If not this, then what?

“Diversity for diversity’s sake,” one of my colleagues said to me the other day, “is meaningless.”

But this is patently false; in fact, diversity in a population is an evolutionary necessity. Homogenous populations are ill-equipped to adapt to environmental, social, economic or other changed: when cultures become too similar, in other words, they face a higher risk of extinction.

Diversity for its own sake then is actually an imperative element of survival, making its cultivation and celebration all of our responsibility; but only if you believe that the laws of nature which govern all other life on earth apply to us as well.

Which of course is something you can choose not to believe, if you like. But you may encounter some difficulty in reconciling that belief with your experience of life here on earth. This failure to reconcile reality with our inner lives and beliefs is a process known as epistemic closureit may please you to know.

But it is the essence of dogma, not philosophical discourse:

The point of philosophy is not to have a range of facts at your disposal, though that might be useful, nor to become a walking Wikipedia or ambulant data bank: rather, it is to develop the skills and sensitivity to be able to argue about some of the most significant questions we can ask ourselves, questions about reality and appearance, life and death, god and society. As Plato’s Socrates tells us, ‘These are not trivial questions we are discussing here, we are discussing how to live.’

Cultural Geography Public Service Announcements

No sign of Boo BooAs a means to delve creatively into the cultural geography in Western Canada, our socials ten students will be undertaking the creation of public service announcements on issues relating to the present states of plants and animals across several different biomes. Having practiced digital storytelling skills in writing, performing and editing a brief time-line of human history in the local area last week, their sights will be set on documenting the evolving history of human interaction with, and use of, resource species such as the Rocky Mountains’ bears, the Plains’ buffalo, and the Pacific Coast’s salmon.

They were not a nation, nor even a tribe, but a loose association of groups consisting of up to a dozen families. All were, however, united in their allegiance to Tuktu – the caribou – which, in their millions, not only furnished the necessities of life but most of whatever else these people needed. Caribou skins provided clothing (the warmest and lightest known), footwear, tents, sleeping robes, covering for kayaks, even the heads of drums. Tuktu gave meat, and fat both to eat and to fill their lamps; sinews for sewing; and antler and bone for the manufacture of innumerable hunting and domestic implements, even including children’s toys. Tuktu was life itself to human dwellers in the Barren Lands.

Farley Mowat Walking on the Land

Unesco.

Each of the animals and biomes selected by the groups this week bear a similar tradition of use that reaches back to the dawn of humankind, and I look forward to seeing the class’ representations of these ecosystems as they once were, on through their current state. Even in our suburban setting, there is still a reverence for the outdoors in many of the class’ undertakings – whether natural or urban – and the energy in class today as the groups selected their biomes and animals and set out on research stemmed from a connection many members of the class feel with their local setting. In documenting the traditions of our ancestors on this land alongside modern Canadians’ stewardship of the country’s most valuable resources, the project’s lofty purpose will be to offer a message to those who will follow in our footsteps here.

“We are all five-fingered people, the holy people. My grandfather and uncles always said that when we are taught these things, they are for the people, the children, and whoever comes to you wanting your help and the medicine of our ancestors. It is our responsibility to help them.”

Brian Payton Shadow of the Bear

Hopefully we do better than Dwight.