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, September 14, 2009

On Education Part Five: Humanization through Liberal or Vocational 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.


In educational and pedagogical discourse there is a dichotomy that consists of two contradictory methods of education. On one hand, an extreme emphasis is placed on vocational education, education designed for a specific job or occupation. Purported as the best for society by its proponents, some claim it would lead “to the development of marketable skills” that “prepares students for employment after high school” (Tozer, 340, 346-7). While in certain regards this may be true (although even the accuracy of these statements are contested due to the nature of employment in an advanced capitalist society such as the United States), education purely for vocation enervates students with a lack of the intellectually stimulating education required for the development of democratic culture, provides them with a narrow range of skills designed primarily to augment productivity, fails to promote an analysis of the material world in which they live, and hampers any sort of genuine democratic participation in society. On the other hand, some argue that vocations should be a vehicle through which a broader, liberal education can be pursued. Dewey articulated this concept as learning “through vocations” rather than “for vocations” (Tozer,  347). More generally interpreted, one can pose the debate between an approach that would prepare students to fill an occupational position in a hierarchical, oppressive society or an approach which would galvanize students to embark on the humanizing process of understanding, analyzing, and challenging society to help build the democratic ideal.
If education is to achieve “academic, intellectual, and personal growth,” (Tozer, 347) it must necessarily involve the process of humanization. This conception of humanization is illuminated by critical literary theorist Paulo Freire:
[T]he problem of humanization has always…been humankind’s central problem… Concern for humanization leads at once to the recognition of dehumanization, not only as an ontological possibility but as an historical reality... Within history, in concrete, objective contexts, both humanization and dehumanization are possibilities for a person… [b]ut while both… are real alternatives, only the first is the people’s vocation [emphasis added]. This vocation is constantly negated, yet it is affirmed by that very negation. It is thwarted by injustice, exploitation, oppression, and the violence of the oppressors; it is affirmed by the yearning of the oppressed for freedom and justice, and by their struggle to recovered their lost humanity (Freire, 43-4).
Humanization, then, is the struggle to control one’s own destiny free of violently coercive and undemocratic alienation. This can only be achieved for the masses in a relatively free, highly democratic society where private interests do not dominate social relations. Alienation, exploitation, and oppression are rational results of a society based upon the irrationality of a profit-driven system. It is consistent, therefore, to assume that these forms of subjugation and marginalization will persist until the system which creates them is dismantled by the collective effort of those in its yoke.
Richard Shaull, emphasizing Freire’s approach, explains that this humanization process functions on “one basic assumption: that man’s ontological vocation…it to be the Subject who acts upon and transforms his world, and in so doing moves toward ever new possibilities of fuller and richer life individually and collectively” (Freire, 32). The distinction between subjects and objects becomes relevant here since humanization produces people who are “no longer willing to be mere objects, responding to changes occurring around them; they are more likely to decide to take upon themselves the struggle to change the structures of society, which until now have served to oppress them” (Freire, 33). Some would proclaim that proponents of purely vocational education simply do not recognize the inconsistency between training one to fill an occupation and preparation for participation in, or further developing of, a democratic society.
However, it is much more likely that these theorists do indeed understand the implications of their approach. Proponents of such an education wish to successfully reproduce society; therefore, excess skills such as critical analysis, the ability to understand the world systematically in its totality, and other forms of thought which people may act to scrutinize society and propose alternatives, are rejected as unimportant and invaluable. Indeed, the concept of selling one’s labor in the marketplace takes on an entirely different interpretation when one begins to question the wage system and the free market ideology that supports it. Therefore, for those who control society it is infinitely more useful to train students to perform a specific task or group of tasks that will aid in the process of production without the ability to question how that process is structured. A worker who completes his task in a perfunctory manner and never questions the institutions of society is the desired result.
Further, this style of education solely for vocations shapes the very conception of democracy. It confines democracy to an extremely limited, hierarchical definition in which a small minority control the fate of humanity while the majority are marginalized into a position where they only perform their duties of production and consumption, once in awhile reaffirming or changing political leaders whom they vote for every so often. It is, in its result, much like the restricted and exclusive democracy Aristotle promoted in ancient Athens; it was a democracy for the few. Rather than taking a hand in how their own lives are managed through collective ownership of the workplace, workers are alienated from their labor. Teachers rarely control what they teach, how much they are paid, the number of students in the class, etc. Thus, the workplace is not democratically controlled by the teachers who work there, but instead by a small group of bureaucratic officials and private interests. Likewise, students are expected to conform to an extremely rigid, undemocratic environment where they have little to no control over how they learn, what they learn, and the environment they are placed in to learn. It is a vicious cycle indeed, one meant to perpetuate the dominant political economic system.
To highlight a specific example, once a fellow classmate explicated upon her experience in another class dealing with teacher preparation; she explained that the directions given to her by the textbook employed by the professor instructed that when a budget problem or lack of resources were the cause of an inadequate educational experience for the students (such as lack of funds to go on a promised field trip), the teacher should formulate some sort of personal excuse or reason for not fulfilling the activity (whatever that activity may be); the burden of blame lay was supposed to fall upon the individual teacher, not the school, the system, or society.  The logic behind this instruction was that it is better to lie to the students so they do not perceive the system to be working against them, regardless of whether it is or not, than tell them the truth and have them fall further into despair. The truth, it seems, is best hid behind a veil of benevolence, no matter how it affects the students. Rather than engaging in dialogue with the students, the teacher is supposed to shut up and review the material with no questioning of the structures in place. 

A liberal education which aims to fully humanize each individual and human society collectively, should not subjugate students into “mere objects” which respond to changes around them but should instead challenge students to become subjects who reflect and act to change the conditions which oppress them. The very act of discussing budget cuts and their relation to larger society upon a scenario like this would remove this veil of benevolence and engage students so that they become active participants in their own lives; in fact, this sort of dialogue should fit perfectly with any liberal concept of education where democratic discussion is valued. This can not be accomplished in an educational setting (or, more appropriately, a training setting, as that is what vocational educational philosophy promotes at its core) where vocations are the end goal.
If indeed humanity’s ontological vocation is to become more fully human, then the goal of education must be something more than filling an occupation in life like a cog is fills a place in a machine; a liberal, broad based educational approach is required. This is not to say, as Dewey emphasized, that vocations have no place or cannot be utilized in the educational process. On the contrary, vocational education is an essential aspect of education. As the text explains, “vocational educators who find ways to make intellectual developments come alive through concrete projects and activities may well attract a broader student clientele than they currently attract” (Tozer, 346). Not only that, they may even help to empower students who otherwise feel isolated from the traditional academic approach. However, the distinction between education purely for vocation and education through vocation is absolutely essential to formulating a pedagogy intended for liberation rather than subjugation. The impetus behind education, then, should be to fulfill our human vocation instead of filling vocations with humans.

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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