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.”

Teacherless Discussion

Teacherless Discussion

Mapping the teacherless discussion.

Something the Philosophy 12 group experimented with in last year’s cohort was the idea of holding teacherless discussions. As research and work in my own graduate studies took me further into notions of citizenship education and a confrontation with contemporary political apathy, I began to look at the structure of classroom activities as a means of engaging student and peer ownership over the learning process.

I was inspired initially to take this course of action by the writing of Paulo Freire, who highlighted the need for emancipatory education to reconcile the student-teacher contradiction. “The more active an attitude men and women take in regard to the exploration of their thematics,” he writes, “the more they deepen their critical awareness of reality and, in spelling out those thematics, take possession of that reality.”

Perhaps more simply put, as I explained to the philosophy class today, ‘school’ should be less something that happens to students than something they make happen for themselves. And while teachers may approach their classroom activities with the best of intentions in this regard, there is still ultimately a group’s propensity to rely on a designated instructor / leader / teacher to move things along, creating a broadly perceived apathy that allows a minority to dictate – often without opposition – the course of the community.

So I started sometime last year deliberately ‘going dark’ for some of our classroom discussions, and found the results of the experiment to be immediately palpable, if not specifically nameable. Something which also struck me was the shift in participation, posture and presences making their way into discussions in which I re-inserted myself, as students reverted back to offering their responses more directly to me than the group, seemed to seek my approval or appraisal of their thoughts, and otherwise seemed to lose sight of their community of peers.

This morning I sought to begin our teacherless discussion efforts earlier in the semester with a dissection of the New York Times Opinionator Blog essay “Logic and Neutrality.”

The map above shows the course of the conversation as it moved about our classroom. Numbers show the order of speakers, with the two volunteer moderators (Jeff and Cassidy) noted in red. Dashed lines show spontaneous interjections, and numbers otherwise note the order of speakers as neatly as I could manage.

In my own notes I also highlighted several contributions which furthered the discussion, as well as a few points where things seemed to stall, and asked the class to create their own lists of these points in the conversation.

A few of those helpful contributions included:

  • Asking guiding questions to outline course of discussion in progress,
  • Attempting to define different vocabulary and concepts being used,
  • Highlighting quotes from the article at hand,
  • Incorporating examples from popular culture or common experience,
  • A willingness to pose what may sound like a ‘silly’ question, or hypothesis, and
  • Synthesizing board notes or past points and challenging the momentum of the discussion.

A few places where the class’ momentum faltered:

  • Getting bogged down in controversial or opinion-based hypotheticals (in this case the question of the morality of murder that was ended deftly by someone’s suggestion that “we move off murder”),
  • Moments where a more common understanding of discussion aims and/or vocabulary would have created more clarity around topics,
  • Encountering quiet moments of thought following tough questions or attempts to synthesize discussion.

As an initial effort in the teacherless discussion this semester, the Philosophy 12 group demonstrated many characteristics of successful group discourse, and will continue to build on these strengths as the class moves on into more individual and collective inquiry.

Citizenship Learning and the Project of Enlightenment

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As part of my personal learning project in #TieGrad’s studies I’ve been guided in my efforts to frame my learning – as well as the intentionality of creating my classroom spaces – by  delving into educational research surrounding topics of interest this semester. Aligning neatly with my opportunity this term to be teaching Philosophy 12 as an open course, my research concerns have been epistemological, ethical, and social-political; through many of my readings, the theme of student ownership and empowerment offered through a variety of learning opportunities constitutes a democratic necessity.

The act of learning itself is presented as a requisite component in bringing about greater human freedom.

There are two foundational texts I’ve taken on this semester, both of which create the progressive framework of many faculties of education in North America:

While Dewey’s tome may be seen to fall short for reasons critics have long-outlined as failings of his work, the necessity of public education as a means of cultural survival is an idea that resonates with me for many of the reasons he outlines. For Dewey, education seeks to achieve balance between the contradiction of its dual purpose:

  • To transmit the facts, dispositions and cultural heritage society considers to be of value; and
  • To raise a younger generation with the skills, persistence and ingenuity to transcend our historical moment.

Freire, while not offering a perfect system by any means, offers a similarly passionate characterization of education as an ongoing emancipatory process through which teachers and students engage in learning that resolves the power dynamic between them. His vision of education is rooted in similar sentiments, that:

It is as transforming and creative beings that humans, in their permanent relations with reality, produce not only material goods— tangible objects—but also social institutions, ideas, and concepts. Through their continuing praxis, men and women simultaneously create history and become historical-social beings.

Each’s vision of education is one of necessity, and one which holds the potential to increase the freedom and equality of opportunity for all as its ideal. Education’s role in delivering on democracy’s promise is rooted in the critical thought Michel Foucault uses to define the Enlightenment, which he says should:

“…be considered not, certainly, as a theory, a doctrine, nor even as a permanent body of knowledge that is accumulating; it has to be conceived as an attitude, an ethos, a philosophical life in which the critique of what we are is at one and the same time the historical analysis of the limits that are imposed on us and an experiment with the possibility of going beyond them.”

This semester I have come to believe more and more that all education is citizenship education. All education should be concerned with the Project of Enlightenment and the search for greater justice that it entails.

And I do admit that it is encouraging to note here that we spend a great deal of time incorporating ideas of “social responsibility” and “justice” and “democracy” into learning outcomes, core competencies and school codes of conduct. Ensuring that the education system’s explicit messaging system – The Curriculum™ – reinforces these ideas is an excellent place to start.

But if we are serious about cultivating “lifelong learners” capable of delivering on the promises of the Enlightenment, and to guard against our own democracies falling prey to those who would subvert their intent for private or minority gain and exclusion (I’ll let you decide who you imagine in that role), we must have the courage to address the observation that many of modern schooling’s implicit messages communicate to young people (and teachers alike) messages about power, agency, and citizenship that can be seen as contradictory to the basic values of learning and progress.

In his popular essay, Immanuel Kant begins his response to the question, What is Enlightenment? by stating that:

“Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-imposed immaturity. Immaturity to use one’s understanding without guidance from another. This immaturity is self-imposed when its cause lies not in lack of understanding, but lack of resolve and courage to use it without guidance from another. Sapere Aude! [dare to know] ‘Have courage to use your own understanding!’ – that is the motto of Enlightenment.”

It is within this notion of the intellectual tradition that I strive to frame my own notions of pedagogy and schooling, and with much time spent documenting my range of practice in carrying out what I’ve defined as my own efforts in citizenship education, I have collected here a variety of papers that have shaped the development of my underlying theory these last few months.

Epistemology and Theories of Knowledge

The Emergent Curriculum: Navigating a Complex Course between Unguided Learning and Planned Enculturation | Deborah Osberg and Gert Biesta

“…knowledge is neither a representation of something more ‘real’ than itself, nor an ‘object’ that can be transferred from one place to the next. Knowledge is understood, rather, to ‘emerge’ as we, as human beings, participate in the world. Knowledge, in other words, does not exist except in participatory actions.”

Information, Knowledge & Learning: Some Issues Facing Epistemology & Education in a Digital Age | Colin Lankshear, Michael Peters and Michelle Knoble

“In an age which fetishizes information, knowledge may seem either to be passe, or in need of a serious reframing. What follows is an attempt to identify some areas and concerns we believe need close attention in the context of burgeoning use of new communications and information technology, including their rapid incorporation into school-based teaching and learning.”

 Kant and the Project of Enlightenment  | Curtis Bowman

“…the development of a system of human freedom, both in theoretical and practical matters. Thus we are to accept only those beliefs found acceptable to reason; custom and authority are no court of appeal for theoretical matters. And we are to lead lives in pursuit of autonomy in which the chief goal of human action is the realization and maximization of human freedom (understood as self-imposed lawful behaviour). In other words, we are to be our own masters in both theory and practice.”

Piaget’s Constructivism, Papert’s Constructionism: What’s the Difference? | Edith Ackermann

Psychologists and pedagogues like Piaget, Papert but also dewey, Freynet, Freire and others from the open school movement can give us insights into:

      1. How to rethink education
      2. Imagine new environments, and
      3. Put new tools, media, and technologies at the service of the growing child.

They remind us that learning, especially today, is much less about acquiring information or submitting to other people’s ideas or values, than it is about putting one’s own words to the world, or finding one’s own voice, and exchanging our ideas with others.

False Dichotomies: Truth, Reason and Morality in Nietzsche, Foucault, and the Contemporary Social Sciences | Paul R. Brass

Even more distressing in the latter discipline is the celebratory character of so much work that takes for granted the existence of democracy and freedom in our world, and hails their extension to the rest of the world in processes of so-called democratization. It never recognizes the need for anything but reform without displacement, even if it ever makes any policy suggestions. It never offers a thoroughgoing critique. Before revolutionary action can be proposed, revolutionary thought is required.

Citizenship Learning & the Public Sphere

Understanding Young People’s Citizenship Learning in Everyday Life: The Role of Contexts, Relationships and Dispositions | Gert Biesta

“Young people learn at least as much about democracy and citizenship – including their own citizenship – through their participation in a range of different practices that make up their lives, as they learn from that which is officially prescribed and formally taught.”

Transformative Learning and Transformative Politics | Daniel Schugurensky

“The struggle over politics and democracy is inextricably linked to creating public spheres where individuals can be educated as political agents equipped with the skills, capacities, and knowledge they need not only to actually perform as autonomous political agents, but also to believe that such struggles are worth taking up.”

Education in a global space: the framing of ‘education for citizenship’ | Mark Priestley, Gert Biesta, Greg Mannion & Hamish Ross

“…a form of citizenship which is predicated on critical political activism, rather than upon social compliance. If we think of citizenship as something that constantly needs to be achieved (and this can never be guaranteed), then we need to emphasize the process character of citizenship.

Unpolite Citizenship: The Non-Place of Conflict in Political Education | Hugo Monteiro, Pedro Daniel Ferreira

Like social and cultural elements, schools have special responsibilities towards diversity. To affirm the richness of this diversity transcendent to the apparent unity of the whole becomes a particular task in public schools. There the “right to education” established in the Declaration of Human Rights becomes a particular challenge in the response to each singularity that actually composes universality. This is one of the political/educative roles of an education that does not deny or avoid conflict but actually underlines its presence as a particular and manageable value.

Doing Emancipation Differently: Transgression, Equality and the Politics of Learning | Gert Biesta

it is no longer so that we need to learn – need to discover some truth about ourselves and our condition – in order to become emancipated. If there is something to learn in relation to emancipation, so we might conclude, it is about what we can learn from engagement in the always open and always uncertain experiments of transgression and dissensus.