Political Economy, Education, and the Future: More Paulo Freire

Published online 27 December 2006.

Part Two of Two Parts.  In this diary, I will suggest that one of the main difficulties with making a “pedagogy of the oppressed” (a la Paulo Freire) possible in an American political context is the situation with American political economy.  Americans have a difficult time imagining themselves as being “oppressed.”  They also have a difficult time imagining group advancement, as opposed to individual advancement.  In the current context of political economy, American education is dedicated to cranking out self-interested, individualized consumers, suitable to America’s consumer economy, and so there is a sort of psychological resistance to Freirean pedagogy.

Introduction

My previous diary recommended Horse Philosopher’s excellent previous diary of 12/10, which suggested that American education was driven by “expedient purposes,” and that this accounted for the fact that the American educational debate was “devoid of philosophy” and “has reached a dead end.”  As a proposed solution, I suggested a discussion of Paulo Freire’s radical pedagogy, which emphasized replacing teacher monologue with student dialogue as a route to social change.  This suggestion was situated amidst the movement against the No Child Left Behind Act, about which I argued that if we are to be against NCLB, we will need something to be for.

In this diary, I will suggest that one of the main difficulties with making a “pedagogy of the oppressed” (a la Paulo Freire) possible in an American political context is the situation with American political economy.  Americans have a difficult time imagining themselves as being “oppressed.”  They also have a difficult time imagining group advancement, as opposed to individual advancement.  In the current context of political economy, American education is dedicated to cranking out self-interested, individualized consumers, suitable to America’s consumer economy, and so there is a sort of psychological resistance to Freirean pedagogy.  This psychological resistance takes the form of a blind spot toward the collective future, the future we all face, and so in addressing the problem of not being able to teach Freirean pedagogy in an American context, I attempt to get my students to imagine a positive, uplifting future through “utopian dreaming.”

The Basic Problem

Freirean pedagogy can be summarized (albeit in an oversimplified way) through a duality of ways of teaching.  On the one hand, Freire opposes the “banking model of education,” by which he means an authoritarian model in which knowledge is ostensibly stuffed into heads, to what he calls “problem-posing” education, which works through dialogue for the sake of social change.

Applied Freirean pedagogy has been quite successful, for instance, in teaching literacy to those who need to learn to read.  A concise example is provided by Peter McLaren in his book on Paulo Freire and Che Guevara (Che Guevara, Paulo Freire, and the Pedagogy of Revolution):

In 1962, the town of Angicos, in Rio Grande do Norte, was witness to a remarkable event: Freire’s literacy program helped 300 rural farm workers learn to read and write in forty-five days.  By living communally with groups of peasants and workers, the literacy worker was able to help campesinos identify generative words according to their phonetic value, syllabic length, and social meaning and relevance to the workers.  These words represented the everyday reality of the workers.  Each word was associated with issues related to existential questions about life and the social factors that determined the economic conditions of everyday existence.  Themes were then generated from these words (words such as ‘wages’ or ‘government’), which were then codified and decodified by groups of workers and teachers who participated in groups known as “cultural circles.”  Reading and writing thus became grounded in the lived experiences of peasants and workers and resulted in a process of ideological struggle and revolutionary praxis – or what was to become famously known as Freirean “conscientizao.”  Workers and peasants were able to transform their ‘culture of silence’ and become collective agents of social and political change. (143-144)

Since Freirean pedagogy does ground curriculum in lived experience, then, it can be much more effective than curriculum that is not so.  Politically-engaged readers of this diary should, as well, see the value in teaching in this way – instant political motivation.

However, Freirean pedagogy, when applied in the American context, has often been transformed into something less than that which deserved McLaren’s glowing description above.  The main difficulty faced by American instructors who are captivated by Freire is spelled out in an article by Victor Villanueva titled “Considerations for American Freireistas.”  (This piece is available in a reader titled Cross-Talk in Comp Theory: A Reader, ed. Victor Villanueva, NCTE, 1997).

Villanueva’s article is about an instructor named “Floyd,” who teaches composition to at-risk youth in a special program.  Floyd’s main problem, as Villanueva describe it, is that the students in his class favor individual achievement over collective achievement, and so many of them fall back upon “do what the teacher wants and you will get a good grade” writing strategies, which were not evocative of independent thinking, and which were definitely not part of the political consciousness Floyd wanted to cultivate in his students.  Students in Floyd’s class were not interested in becoming “collective agents of social and political change” as were Freire’s.  Their role models were professionals, people who made it into the middle classes.  They wanted individual achievement, and individual success.

Never mind that American society is vastly unequal, cautions Villanueva the author –- if only a few of the poorest make it into the middle classes, “the dream” stays alive for Floyd’s students.  This is indeed the problem for our students as well, I hold: as long as dreams of betterment are only reachable for the best and brightest, and as long as school is a place of what Jeff Schmidt calls the “cooling out” of student aspirations (see his book Disciplined Minds), we will need a sense of group social advancement, and of the possibility of social change; else individual advancement remains a gamble against the odds.

My Experience

In presenting Paulo Freire to a class in “Instructional Communication” Fall Quarter of this year (2006) at California State University, Los Angeles, I emphasized the historical aspects of Freire’s pedagogy.  In his most important work, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Freire argues that:

Problem-posing education bases itself on creativity and stimulates true reflection and action upon reality, thereby responding to the vocation of persons as beings who are authentic only when engaged in inquiry and creative transformation.  In sum: banking theory and practice, as immobilizing and fixating forces, fail to acknowledge men and women as historical beings; problem-posing theory and practice take the people’s historicity as their starting point. (65)

In explaining this passage to my students, I emphasized, problem-posing educators regard students as potentially capable of changing the course of history, since after all they (in Freire’s vision) capable of “action upon reality.”  The banking model, as Freire presents it, makes the future look like something static; either the future is presented as foreordained or inevitable, following a path laid out by history, or the future is supposed to look just like the present, ignoring the lessons of history altogether.

Then I challenged my students to explain to me and to each other their visions of the future.  My students, in response, initially found it difficult to imagine the collective future in anything but negative terms.  The individual future for each student, however, was full of strivings, which each student expected to result in success.  However (and I pointed this out to the class), if everyone expects the future to be worse for the group, and better for themselves individually, someone is being fooled, because not all will succeed according to such a vision.  This further underscored my point about history: if students do not think they can (at least potentially) change the course of history, then they are not likely to succeed as individuals, either.

We instructors must consider the future, the real-life future, of our students when giving them an education.  It is not enough merely to present “the best that has been thought and said,” nor is it enough to have a “dialogic” classroom.  Education must alter the future, and put it on a positive track, or we are not learning with a real purpose.  Without a future, we are learning facts and earning degrees until global warming screws up our lives, or until the value of the dollar collapses, or until the oil runs out.

In everyday life, we assign this task to politics, or to economics, and not to education.  But in politics, we cede power over the future to our “elected” representatives, and in economics, we cede power over the future to those in business and in government who really control the economy.  We need more direct control over politics and economics; we must start with education.

My Proposed Solution: Utopian Dreaming

Eventually, I decided to work with this class through a lesson plan based on an old lesson taught by Ira Shor, titled “Learning How To Learn: Conceptual Teaching in a Course Called ‘Utopia’”.  This lesson (which you will have to obtain through a college library if you can’t find it elsewhere) tries to get students to do “utopian dreaming” and imagine the radical reconstruction of their world in a fulfilling direction.  I started by asking them to envision how their university, “Cal State LA,” could be reorganized to make it better.  Now, perhaps my students came up with ideas that were “utopian” in the sense of “impossible.”  But before action comes imagination, and so it became necessary to think in utopian concepts, in what Freire called “utopian dreaming.”  Perhaps if our educators did more “teaching utopia,” their students would feel more empowered to change society, and affect the future.  It’s at least a start.

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