The Organic Intellectual

If our greatest task is to liberate humanity, as Paulo Freire asserts, then it is absolutely essential that we create a culture of resistance from below that is able not only to counter, but transcend the limitations of the ruling culture imposed by above. Hopefully, The Organic Intellectual will help serve this purpose.

Monday, August 17, 2009

On Education Part One: Banking or Problem-Posing Education?

This mini-series "On Education" is a compiled list of short essays concerning theoretical approaches to classroom pedagogy and their broader implications upon us as educators and our students. I hope to continue it for a while, and, of course, any critical dialogue upon what is presented is more than welcome. I will try to space these out weekly.

Other Contributions
Part Two: Selective Omission and What We Learn from Malcolm X's Schooling Experience
Part Three: Education, for Liberation or Domination?

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One of the most fundamental distinctions educators must explicate upon and understand completely is the training-education dichotomy. The role of the educator, functioning within a purported democratic institution (i.e. school), is to democratize society and the schooling process to the fullest extent. This prodigious challenge can be met in various ways, including the engagement of students in dialogue, fostering critical thinking abilities, helping students understand the totality of both society and their schooling experience, and finally how the dominant ideology and the political and economic institutions which it arises from affects them. These vital concepts cannot be overemphasized. However, without the proper educational approach, or with a narrow training-centered praxis, the above mentioned topics become nearly impossible to communicate to students, let alone effectively foster understanding and critical engagement required for democratic participation by the majority.

Thus, the training-education dichotomy becomes a vital aspect to understanding how democratic education should be approached. “Training may be described as a set of experiences provided to some organism (human or not) in an attempt to render its responses predictable according to the goals of the trainer” (Tozer, 8). Training, in some limited sense, is of course a prerequisite for education (being taught to read prior to engaging historical or philosophical works). Humans, however, differ from animals in that they have the potential to transform society by their own self-activity. Animals live only for the present, the concept of time is absent and altering one’s destiny is an impossibility for the animal that simply acts (responding to environmental stimuli) and does not reflect. Humans have the capacity, given certain conditions are met, to perform both action and reflection and thus have the potential to transform society. Despite this, humans, like animals, can be trained to simply act in accordance with the dominant ideology and institutions of society. They can be psychologically manipulated to accept societal structures as unchanging and historically ossified; they can be taught that society is beyond their own capacity to alter. Functioning in a society where the goal is conservation of the social order, this style of top-down training serves its purpose; this applies to “democracies,” monarchies, and bureaucratic regimes alike where the ruling elite wish to conserve their dominance. However, if humanity is to fulfill its “historical vocation” of becoming more fully human and thus be able to collectively assert its democratic will as Paulo Freire articulates in Pedagogy of the Oppressed, a more profound educational pedagogy must be developed.

The pedagogy, extending beyond the narrow goals of training, is a true education which emphasizes various human capacities:
Education involves reason, the intellect, intuition, and creativity. It is a process or set of experiences that allows humans to ‘create’ themselves. The educated person’s responses to a problematic situation [emphasis added] are based on trying to understand and make calculations about that situation. (Tozer, 9)
This distinction is necessary to understanding how pedagogy in a democratic setting should be constructed. What has been articulated here is not simply the distinction between training and education, although this is essential; it also presents the conflicting models of the banking style education and problem-posing education. The former, where information is simply deposited in the student and regurgitated, facilitates the preparation of the student for a job of unquestioning exploitation and alienation within the current economic and social structures. The latter, stressing problem-posing to allow creative responses and foster analytic skills engages the students and presents society as a problem which can be transformed through human activity.
As Freire explains, “the dominant elites utilize the banking concept to encourage passivity in the oppressed” (95). On the contrary, the program of a problem-posing education must differ drastically:
The starting point for organizing the program content of education or political action must be the present, existential, concrete situation, reflecting the aspirations of the people. Utilizing certain basic contradictions, we must pose this existential, concrete, present situation to the people as a problem which challenges them and requires a response – not just at the intellectual level, but at the level of action (Freire, 95-6).
Broadly, this means that the material conditions within which the students function must be discussed and analyzed. The dominant institutions and structures of society which dictate these conditions must also be critically challenged and scrutinized. The issues facing society, such as poverty, war, racism, sexism, exploitation, etc. are all problems which the students can be challenged and urged to help propose solutions to. They must first, however, be convinced of the immense significance of their own historical vocation (that of becoming more fully human) and thus, to determine the destiny of their community and humanity in the broadest sense.

More concretely, this means in the classroom that students should be engaged in the course material. They should have a say in the material covered, in how it is presented, in the structure of the classroom. These issues should be posed as problems for the students, who in conjunction with the educator will help formulate a solution, a plan of action. History should not be taught as a static, unchanging sequence of facts and dates and events in isolation from one another, but rather as a dynamic interplay of contradictory forces which have forged human history to the point it has arrived at today. The problems within the school and within the community are not only to be passively reflected upon, but also acted upon; both action and reflection, in constant and dynamic integration, are essential. This manifestation of collective action and reflection in dialectical relation to one another is the truest form of democracy and plays a pivotal role in empowering students to actively pursue progressive change for themselves and future generations.

This also means that educators should be able to effectively communicate with students. Dialogue is vital to any sort of positive, trusting, and democratic teacher-student relationship. To postulate a hypothetical situation: an educator in an urban setting where black vernacular is the most often expressed dialect would only effectively isolate him or herself by moralizing to students about utilizing “proper English” (this term, at any rate, is not only completely irrational given the nature of language but carries with it implicitly racist undertones). Instead, the true educator would both respect the creativity of oppressed communities in formulating language which articulates their own objective conditions and also emphasize the importance of language as an expressive tool. The educator should “understand the structural conditions in which the thought and language of the people are dialectically framed” (Freire, 96). Dialogue is the tool which allows problem-posing education, and simultaneously, democracy, to flourish. Without it, education is nothing more than passive assimilation into a culture of oppression and alienation.

Works Cited

Freire, P. (2006) Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York, NY: Continuum.

Tozer, S., Violas, P., & Senese, G. (2009) School and Society: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives. 6th ed. Boston, MA: McGraw-Hill.




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