educational politics and the dialogic classroom

Published online 26 December 2006.

Part one of a two-part series.  This diary will examine Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed in the context of American educational debate to show how difficult it is to teach according to a pedagogy that avoids “expedient purpose,” and about what the alternatives to NCLB are.  Here I will focus upon the problems set by the monological “teacher talk” nature of American education, and how it set the stage for the No Child Left Behind Act.  A future diary will discuss the problems American education has in the realm of political economy.

A cursory scan of this month’s DailyKos diaries will reveal the profundity of observation in one such: Horse Philosopher’s diary titled An Improbable Two-headed Snake: The Fallacy of Expedient Purpose.  I am in agreement with Horse Philosopher’s central argument, to wit:

To accept the outcomes of expedient purpose, or try to mitigate or modify them is to delude one’s self regarding as to the nature and function of education.  Education is not about getting a better job, or becoming an informed voter, although it helps in these areas.  “The essence of education is character formation, teaching young people how to live in society and encouraging them to think independently” (Ikeda, 2004, 5).  Educators must not subscribe to the cynical view that there is only so much any one teacher can do, and that kids simply need to be channeled into narrow, measurable outcomes if “education” is to be effective.


This is clearly valuable stuff, since, as Horse Philosopher argues, US education discourse is “devoid of philosophy” and has thus “reached a dead end.”  Certainly the near-unanimous passage of the Bush-promoted No Child Left Behind act, which (as Horse Philosopher points out) is actually a poison pill for the public school system, offers prima facie evidence of this dead end.  However, I wish to probe the notion of “expedient purpose” a bit further, to show how difficult it is to climb out of the hole created by the universal acceptance of “expedient purpose” as a substitute for meaningful pedagogy.  The difficulty of this climb will be revealed through a short look at the pedagogy of Paulo Freire (1921-1997), especially as regards his central text Pedagogy of the Oppressed.

American education is, and has been, typically justified as a mechanism for transmitting “educational skills,” captured in the cliché of “reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic,” and broadened by the notion of “liberal arts.”  Educators, then, were and are regarded as the providers of educational tools, and pedagogy, by this same notion, are supposed to be the best way to provide learners with the tools specified by a fixed curriculum.

What learners do with their educations, with all that time they spent absorbing curriculum, is, on the other hand, ostensibly left up to the liberal consensus.  The popular imagination, absorbed by the liberal consensus, holds that everyone does what they do out of “choice.”  The fact of the matter is, however, that society is the way it is because its members have been educated to behave as they do, whether this education is received through “book learning” in school, or otherwise.  When we, as thinkers and educators, merely dismiss our social order as a function of “choice,” we give up the ability to effectively criticize the social order itself.

Giving up this ability is not a good thing, arguably, because there are plenty of reasons to effectively criticize the social order.  Our social order produces plenty of violence, poverty, racism, pain, and injustice, and these are reasons enough to criticize it.  America’s foreign policy is in deep trouble, its middle class is sunk in debt, its prisons are overcrowded, its energy uses are ecologically unsustainable.  We do better to criticize the existing order, and to change society through education, than we would if we were to pretend that our society is the way it is through “choice.”

So if we really wish to change society through education, we must transcend the philosophy of “expedient purpose,” and name some explicitly social purpose for educational systems.  This is indeed what Horse Philosopher does: education, it is argued, is for happiness, best served through the promotion of character formation and independent thought.  Horse Philosopher quotes Daisaku Ikeda, who argues: “We should aim for the kind of society that serves the essential needs of education.”  Sure: society should serve education, education should serve happiness, thus society should serve happiness.  But how can we aim for any kind of society in particular?  Can we really choose what kind of society we want to live in?

One teacher who really believed that his students, our students, or rather all students, could choose the type of society they wanted to live in, was the Brazilian Paulo Freire (1921-1997).  As a teacher in the early 1960s, Freire brought literacy to Brazilian workers and peasants – so that they could humanize the world in which they were being exploited.  This was so effective that Freire was recruited by the government of Joao Goulart to work for Brazil’s National Literacy Program, and subsequently jailed in 1964 by the CIA-aided military government that overthrew Goulart.  Thus Freire was involved from the get-go in using education for political purposes, and his method was recognized as such by the most reactionary elements in Brazilian politics.

A good introduction to Freire’s pedagogy can be found in Chapter 2 of his book Pedagogy of the Oppressed, in which Freire begins by explaining that “education is suffering from narration sickness.”  This is the basic flaw not only of the educational programs that No Child Left Behind typically coerces, or of scripted literacy programs such as Open Court, but of all attempts at forcing students to learn some particular body of knowledge through the power of teacher monologue in an atmosphere of student silence.  For Freire, this is education as the exercise of domination, which he calls the “banking model.”  The banking metaphor imagines teachers as bankers who make deposits of knowledge into otherwise empty students.  The banking model of education, for Freire,

stimulates the credulity of students, with the ideological intent (often not perceived by educators) of indoctrinating them to adapt to the world of oppression. (59)

Now, the pedestrian Right in America conceives of the politics of education as being, strictly, about what is taught in the classroom.  We aren’t, as the good folks of Lynne Cheney’s American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) point out, supposed to have professors like Ward Churchill who ostensibly “impose their political agendas upon the classroom.”  The pedestrian Right, however, is obsessed with the notion that college professors can just “make it so” by teaching a particular ideology.  This is the banking model par excellence: pedestrian Right rabblerousers such as Roger Kimball invite us to imagine that there are hordes of politically-obsessed professors in the university breeding young Communists.
The reality, of course, is quite different: students, be they young or old, learn things by incorporating new knowledge into old understandings.  Most of the old understandings of life that American students have are not the same as those to be found in the opinions of “tenured radicals.”  Personal experience, not something some teacher said, is the ultimate foundation of what students believe. Professors who seriously want to teach anything, especially professors who teach politicized topics in the social sciences, know that they must address the real-life experiences and knowledge bases of their students, while at the same time learning from their students.  Public schoolteachers who care enough about their kids usually learn something similar.

Freire’s attack upon the “banking model” is balanced by his advocacy of “problem-posing education.”  This form of education, as he describes it, starts by demythologizing received understandings of reality through authentic dialogue about personal experience.  In a classroom based on authentic dialogue,

no one teaches another, nor is anyone self-taught.  People teach each other, mediated by the world, by the cognizable objects which in banking education are ‘owned’ by the teacher. (61)

Thus Freire believed, rightly in my opinion, that if a teacher is really to empower her/ his students to “change the world” or “make a difference” or whatever phrase you want to use to promote social change, she/ he must talk with, and not talk at, her/ his students.

Freire, as you can see, would politicize education in a way that would be completely unexpected by the pedestrian Right here in the US.  The essence of educational politics, for Freire, is not what is taught in the classroom, but rather how the classroom is run.  What sort of student power exists in the classroom space?  When we teachers use the “banking model” of education to dominate our students, aren’t we really educating them to be oppressed, to accept the world in which they are objects for the manipulation of other authority figures besides teachers?  Freire, on the other hand, wants students to learn for themselves, so that they can choose the society in which they live.  And that, I argue, is a good thing.

The politics of education is rarely discussed in this way, since the “banking model” is typically accepted as given by the political forces of both major political parties in the US (and to a certain extent across the political spectrum as well).  This is, to be sure, the reason the No Child Left Behind Act met so little resistance in Congress.  NCLB promised us “accountability.”  With yearly testing and sanctions for those who couldn’t “make progress,” Congress was told, the school system would make sure the appropriate bodies of knowledge would be taught, and absorbed, by all students.  Nobody in Congress dissented from this “banking model” of education.  Nobody bothered to ask whether the nationwide “teaching to the test” that resulted from NCLB would empower students, or merely punish those who fell into the bottom 38th percentile of testers (while leaving the rest running for cover).  And alternatives to NCLB, we are told, must offer NCLB’s sense of “accountability,” because that’s what Congress wanted when it passed NCLB.  Who dares leave America’s teachers “unaccountable” without risking political careers?

So perhaps we can agree that NCLB is not a good idea, and that American public-school education ought to be based on a different model.  How to proceed from here, however, promises to be quite a chore.  There are formidable barriers to the creation of dialogic, problem-posing classrooms in the US context.  American education, from Kindergarten to college, is institutionally designed to promote the “banking model” of education.  Students nearly everywhere receive grades for their performance in class.  The obligation to grade students means that we teachers/ professors are obliged to be judges of what students do.  In the American context, education is regarded as the key to social mobility, to a better job or entry into the middle classes, and these things are to be gained by acquiring diplomas (and not necessarily by learning anything specific).  As teachers, we see students enter our classrooms, expecting to have their heads filled with a pre-promised curriculum, and who (according to books such as Rebekah Nathan’s My Freshman Year, an ethnography of college life) ask only procedural questions such as “What do I need to do to get an ‘A’ in this class?”  American education does not promise a context like that of Brazil, where students know that they are “oppressed,” and where institutional education is not making the sort of promises it is making to American students.

By all means, however, we should support movements such as Students Against Testing, and we should be for the sort of dialogic education that people such as Horse Philosopher and I want.  But it seems as if we have a lot more thinking to do before we can say for sure what the alternatives to NCLB really are.  We may best start by rethinking the “expedient purposes” of education, as Horse Philosopher calls them, and by coming to the conclusion that we really ought to empower the students of today to choose a better society tomorrow than the one we have today.


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