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 21, 2009

On Education Part Six: Articulating the World and the Implications of Literacy on Overcoming Limit-situations

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.


Malcolm X, recounting the mental enlightenment during his stint in prison in the chapter entitled “Saved,” lucidly articulated a vital concept for educators who desire to promote social justice and the democratization of society. As he explains:
I became increasingly frustrated at not being able to express what I wanted to convey in letters that I wrote…In the street, I had been the most articulate hustler out there – I had commanded attention when I said something. But now, trying to write simple English, I not only wasn’t articulate, I wasn’t even functional… every book I picked up had few sentences which didn’t contain anywhere from one to nearly all of the words that might as well have been in Chinese. When I just skipped those words, of course, I really ended up with little idea of what the book said (Haley, 1964, p. 197-8).
This passage vibrantly outlines how fundamental literacy is in combating one’s own oppression. Malcolm’s utter frustration and his conclusion that “going through only book-reading motions” (Haley, p. 200) was useless is not only a real and pressing issue for educators, it is a primary building block upon which the entire goal of individual development for participation in democratic life is based. Thus, for educators who hope to foster a culture of democratic participation and social justice in the classroom, the aspect of developing critical literacy is essential.

Without such critical literacy, the oppressed are permitted only an acrimonious severance from any genuine locus of control over their lives; this confinement to a specious, often naively individualistic comprehension of society reinforces the dominant ideology. The inability to articulate reality, or “read the world” as Paulo Freire outlines in chapter nine, implies a institutionalized, intentional paucity of intellectual development designed to undermine critical analysis of societal foundations and oppression stemming from them (Tozer, 2009, p. 288). Malcolm’s enlightenment, and with it the development of critical literacy and analytical skills, provides a glimpse of how percussive the acquisition and application of such skills are in altering not only the individual whom travails to hone them, but of helping to determine the destiny of humanity in a collective manner. This ability to articulate the world, then, is a prerequisite for the removal of the chains of real, or present, consciousness ; these chains bind the oppressed to simple, perfunctory responses dominated by the limit-situations  which define what can or cannot be done within the current structures. Critical literacy, as Malcolm demonstrated, facilitates the progression from real consciousness to potential consciousness and the subsequent blossoming, and pursuit, of untested feasibilities.

A prodigious amount of social interaction involves limit-situations, rational outcomes necessary to maintain order within the current political economy, which marginalize, oppress, alienate, and exploit the masses while serving the interests of the opulent. Often, these limit-situations are accompanied by a sense of fatalism festering within the oppressed who find struggle and liberation as unrealistic, or even undesired, outcomes. As Freire outlines, however, “it is not the limit-situations in and of themselves which create a climate of hopelessness, but rather how they are perceived by women and men at a given historical moment; whether they appear as fetters or as insurmountable barriers” (Freire, 2006, p. 99). Thus, critical literacy as exemplified by Malcolm’s development his voracious appetite to garner knowledge and understanding of the world becomes a vehicle through which limit-situations are no longer unfixable, eternal structures but institutions able to be altered, dismantled, or appropriated and creatively restructured or rebuilt by the oppressed. He goes on to explain, when the true nature of society is “concealed by the limit-situations and thus are not clearly perceived, the corresponding tasks – people’s responses in the form of historical actions – can be neither authentically nor critically fulfilled (Freire, p. 102).

Therefore, prior to Malcolm’s enlightenment, he simply responded to his limit-situations, as an animal responds to environmental stimuli in order to survive, rather than actively reflect upon methods through which to alter society. His actions only became historical when he engaged in critical analysis and sought to overcome and eliminate limit-situations through democratic struggle; literacy provided the prerequisite for the sufficient combination of action and reflection required to humanize the oppressed and allow them to play a role in shaping their own destiny.

Thus, one must necessarily view the political economy and the dominant ideology which reinforces it as definite limit-situations which heavily influence the majority of the people. These situations, then, must be articulated and understood in order to be dismantled and overcome. Literacy is an invaluable tool in the struggle to raise the oppressed from a level of real consciousness where limit-situations define them to a level of potential consciousness where untested feasibilities become collective possibilities which the oppressed actively work towards achieving. One should not, however, make the mistake of assuming illiteracy or ignorance on the part of the oppressed because they refuse to participate in the dominant culture or do not adhere to the linguistic norms of the oppressor.

Throughout history, the oppressed have always fought for freedom and liberation from the oppressor, often on their own terms, with their own words, their own dialects, and their own form of literacy. Freire further explains this concept:
In order to communicate effectively, [the] educator…must understand the structural conditions in which the thought and language of the people are dialectically framed… The object of investigation is not persons (as if they were anatomical fragments), but rather the thought-language with which men and women refer to reality, the levels at which they perceive that reality, and their view of the world… (Freire, p. 90-2).
To highlight just one historic example, Fred Hampton, deputy chairman of the Black Panther Party of Illinois, was someone who struck fear into the hearts of the establishment through his articulate oratory skills. He did not, however, simply adopt the oppressor’s linguistic style and attempt to use it for his own purpose but made prodigious use of eloquent black vernacular and what he called “plain proletarian English.” His brilliant oratory skills were not used to place himself above the oppressed but rather immerse himself within the oppressed community, of which he was a member. His words, many of the same words used by the community which he fought for, were a powerful example of honing one’s own linguistic techniques in order to educate and dialogue with the oppressed; through this Hampton avoided the isolation and projection of ignorance which plagues many activists, organizers, and educators. He was, however, not simply concerned with talking; as he explains, “so, what we’re saying there simply is, if [people] learn basically by observation and participation, we need to do more acting than we need to do writing. And I think the Black Panther Party is doing that. We didn’t talk about a breakfast for children program, we got one” (Hampton). The symbiotic combination of both reflection and action was essential; however, reflection could only be accomplished on the part of the oppressed when they were able to dialogue with educators and organizers, and the use of a culturally important vernacular facilitated this process. In fact, Fred Hampton presented such a threat that he was murdered by the FBI for his political leadership and percussive oratory abilities.

Lastly, educators should also be careful to avoid dismissing the language of the oppressor as inapplicable or unimportant; on the contrary, the language of the oppressor and what they intend to do must be thoroughly critiqued by those who wish to develop social justice in the classroom. This language can be analyzed through the dialect or linguistic intricacies of the oppressed but should be understood in terms of what the oppressor intends; to do this, one must understand the intricacies of the oppressor’s language. Hampton could both comprehend the oppressor’s language and communicate through the language of the people.

Therefore, the educator must be able to analyze the language of the oppressor in order to effectively combat it, even if they choose to combat it in the unique cultural and linguistic manner of the oppressed. For instance, educators (and students) facing privatization measures and budget cuts to common areas of study by a highly unpopular, unelected school president or board of trustees should not fail to understand and discuss the significance behind language such as “efficiency, extreme student centeredness, opportunities, business oriented, etc.” Words such as these must be highly scrutinized and a dialogue must occur, not necessarily with the oppressors who make use of such language, but with the students in how the best way to combat oppression is in the face of such benevolent-sounding language. Thus, what Malcolm shows is that an understanding of the oppressor’s language is absolutely vital, and what Hampton exemplifies is that understanding can and should be communicated to the oppressed in a way that is conducive to their specific situation and learning style. Professional educators could learn quite a lot by studying these political organizers, their methods, and their tactics. Black vernacular, bilingual education, and other forms of cultural resistance to the dominant ideology should be embraced by educators in the classroom who hope that one day social justice is not just an obscure pedagogical phrase but a dynamic, living reality in schools.

Works Cited
Freire, P. (2006) Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York, NY: Continuum.
Haley, A. (1964) The Autobiography of Malcolm X. New York, NY: The Random House Publishing Group.
Tozer, S., Violas, P., & Senese, G. (2009) School and Society: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives. 6th ed. Boston, MA: McGraw-Hill.
Vantowers "Fred Hampton" Youtube 1 May 1997. 16 March 2009 .

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