In Response to Michael’s and Sarah’s posts

I originally planned to write something more isolated, but after reading Michael’s and Sarah’s blog posts I want to respond to some of the questions and points they raised in theirs, as I think they are germane to some of the things I’ve been thinking about in regards to this week’s readings.

I too was very taken with Pedagogy of the Oppressed, particularly because it conceives of liberatory education as a dialogical exchange which fundamentally recognizes the reality that oppressive ideologies are always already embedded in ontology (in our experiences and in our unconscious participation in symbolic networks), and that liberatory democratic projects necessitate cooperative, diaglogical frameworks that work towards (and make explicit their working towards) practical and local transformations. In fact (and I’m sure this is due to my own research interests/biases) I found a surprising amount of overlap between Freiere’s pedagogy and pragmatism broadly, even Jamesian and Deweyian pragmatism specifically, despite Freire’s neo-Marxist approach. I think there is a productive way to put Freiere in conversation with some of the digital humanist stuff we read this week and I will circle back to that later. Michael brought a really interesting question, so I will reproduce it here:

“My first question is: how do we as CUNY teachers help people realize that they are oppressed? I know that sounds very nasty. No one wants to realize he is oppressed. I’m sure it is very painful to learn. But, if I understand Freire correctly, in order to change the existing order of oppressors and oppressed then the oppressed need to realize their oppression. After all, how can we change something if we’re not aware of it?”

Michael also added this observant and very funny point/question as well:

“I believe […] telling the students “You’re oppressed” would be prescriptive, and not very good for anyone. It would be no different from the banking model of education: dumping information into docile students’ heads. But how does a person in authority (who, in my case, happens to be white, straight, male, if not Catholic then the son of lapsed Catholics, and bearded, which I understand is often unconsciously registered a symbol of authority, albeit a very stylish symbol) begin the process of addressing oppression in class?”

To me, Michael’s questions suggest two things: 1) How do we handle the personalization of oppression that Freire’s pedagogy seems to imply? In other words, how do we as teachers handle emotion in the classroom, trying not to dispel it but trying also not to allow it to over-influence the mood of the classroom? and 2) How do white male teachers, inherently in a position of political and social privilege, talk about the reality of oppression in a way that doesn’t amount to white “man-splaining.”

There is of course no definitive answer for this question, but I will share what I’ve done in the classroom and tie it into what Freire says about doing what he calls “The Word.”

In my classroom experience, I assume a degree of agreement between me and the students to some of the realities of oppression. That being said, I invite students to air out their objections, confusions, and disagreements with anything that’s being said and/or assumed as experientially evident. This allows for a fluid exchange that recognizes basic realities we collectively inhabit. I believe this is similar to what Freire talks about in Chapter 3, the dialogue chapter. On the subject of doing what he calls “The Word,” Friere says: “dialogue cannot occur between those who want to name the world and those who do not wish this naming–between those who deny others the right to speak their world and those whose right to speak has been denied to them” (88). This is because open and productive dialogue is necessitated by “the encounter between [people], mediated by the world” (88). “Naming” implies an active process, whereby interlocutors try out descriptions of experience in order to better improve the collective episteme, but not to come to any final conclusions. Hence, it is always processual and collaborative. “Mediated through the world” has two meanings. One, it implies that this dialogue is historical and situated within concrete relations and experiences, and two, that our knowledge of one another is always colored by the constitutive discourses we inhabit and that inhabit us.

So, what does this mean in terms of Michael’s question? Well, one thing I would offer from my point of view is that the idea of oppression, as personal as it may be at certain times, is also concretely observable, or can be. Thus, it need not be highly personalized in the classroom. If a student wants to bring his or her own experience into the discussion that’s fine, but generally these issues, while having personal effects, go beyond the personal.

Friere’s approach is situated within praxis, that is, mutual contemplation between student and teacher and student and student. This is what Freire means when he talks about humility within the dialogic process, as well as producing objects of contemplation that mediate student-teacher relationships (again, ch. 3). As I said before, this strikes me as a very pragmatistic enterprise in that it engages collaborative processes which foreground humility and limitation.