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.”

Blogs as Documents of Learning

Documenting Learning. Electronic Portfolios: Engaging Today's Students in Higher Education

Giulia Forsythe’s visual notes on Tracy Penny Light’s session on Documenting Student Learning with Electronic Portfolios.

I started blogging with the TALONS class (since expanded to two) a little more than four years ago. In that time I’ve learned a great deal about the capacity for such digital publishing tools to help realize aspects of the larger purpose of schooling; part of this has come through developing my own informal network and community of practice constantly interrogating the same question, and lately has included both a graduate community of SFU diploma students, and my own masters cohort. Including my own classrooms, every learning space I move through is suffused with discussion and debate about the purpose of school.

I’ve written about this a few times on this blog, as a matter of fact. Back in May, 2009, I began documenting my Adventures in a Gifted Classroom by quoting Nabakov:

The only way back to objective reality is the following one: we can take these several individual worlds, mix them thoroughly together, scoop up a drop of that mixture, and call it objective reality.

For Nabokov’s objectivity to be realized though is to realize the paradox of Einstein’s relativity (one degree of separation between Nabokov & Einstein: a productive Monday morning!): the more we know about the object’s speed, the less accurately we know its location, and visa versa. Any definition we seek – for Truth in the religious sense, to the tenor of our elected officials and the implementation of our education systems – must be constantly reevaluated, re-calibrated and ready at every moment to be torn down to make way for the New.

And while I still agree with the general direction struck up now four and a half years (and a few hundred thousand words) ago, a quick survey of my blog archive charts the evolution of my theory and practice in the time since:

21st century Learner

Giulia Forsythe’s 21st Century Learner

Breakdown of Posts by Category (from a total of 224) 

As broad terms, Pedagogy and Technology might be expected culprits in a teacher’s blog these days (and I am more than a little glad to see Pedagogy edging to the win here… phew); but I think the focus on Learning Networks and Classroom Communities is more revealing about the larger purpose of schooling I’ve been uncovering in posts on grammar, music, and outdoor education these last four years.

Across these topics, I have striven to refine a pedagogy that empowers learners to take ownership over their learning. As published in my most recent post, I believe that:

the skills attending to student “ownership” of learning are essential elements in the ongoing creation and maintenance of a democratic society.

In four years of blogging, I’ve refined my process in cultivating space in the TALONS class for students to find what Clare found, back in 2009:

“Writing, I think is both a way to think aloud and preserve ideas I’ve come to a conclusion about in my head or random observations; the blog is just an archive in that sense. I also have a draft saved on my email account where I journal on-and-off, as well as a word document on my desktop, but I think the stuff on my blog is more developed in terms of exploring what I have to say. Sometimes when I post something, I secretly hope that other people will read it and offer their opinions, other times I forget about it as soon as I click ‘publish.’ Blogging provides a lot of revelation and I’m still guessing at its destination, but I do know that it’s going somewhere good.

Untitled

Revelation without destination strikes me as a noble purpose for a school system concerned with creating lifelong learners that shifts our focus from product to process. But even while this has been a foundational piece of my beliefs about education since I began teaching, I have continued to refine the role that blogs and the development of student learning networks and communities play in this process.

More and more, both as a reflective practitioner and someone trying to create learning spaces and opportunities for others, I think this revolves around the praxis outlined by Freire – and explored into more than one recent blog post here – of a cycle of reflection and action. Blogging – and tweeting, and taking pictures, and journals, and many other acts of preservation – creates an object of those experiences that can be viewed in reflection, and can be manifest in future opportunities as wisdom.