02 March 2010

Book Review - Pedagogy of the Oppressed

Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Translated by Myra Bergman Ramos (New York: Herder and Herder, 1970).

Freire's work is truly a revolutionary pedagogy both in the sense that it is a landmark book cited by most of the pedagagocial literature that I am currently reading as well as in the sense that it is about empowering, and educating the oppressed in their struggle for liberation and freedom - or as Freire puts it - in their struggle to become authentically human. It is in the context of oppression that his work is addressed. The challenge, for Freire, is that the oppressed have "internalized the image of the oppressor and adopted his [sic] guidelines" (31); the oppressed become "hosts" of the oppressor. Since, for the oppressed, the oppressor is the only model of humanity available, freedom from oppression means becoming like the oppressor.
The central problem is this: How can the oppressed, as divided, unauthentic beings, participate in developing the pedagogy of their liberation? Only as they discover themselves to be "hosts" of the oppressor can they contribute to the midwifery for their liberating pedagogy. As long as they live in the duality in which to be is to be like, and to be like is to be like the oppressor, this contribution is impossible. The pedagogy of the oppressed is an instrument for their critical discovery that both they and their oppressors are manifestations of dehumanization (33 italics original).
Both oppressed an oppressor are in bondage. It is the burden of this book then is to discover how both may be liberated from their cycle of fear and become truly human. In the three subsequent chapters he proposes a liberating educational method, discusses reflective action, and finally concludes by discussing revolutionary leadership.

In his second chapter, Freire contrasts two educational methods. The traditional model calls "banking" eduction, and his liberating model which he labels "problem-posing". In the traditional banking model, the students are objects and receive education from the teachers. In this model eduction "becomes an act of depositing, in which the students are the depositories, and the teacher is the depositor" (58). By treating the pupils as passive recipients of knowledge, this method affirms the subjugation of the oppressed, and in the extreme it contributes to their domination by their oppressors. Fundamental for Freire is that liberation can only authentically happen through the active involvement of the oppressed. This active involvement will eventually lead to action, but must start with the educational method. So in problem-posing eduction. "students are no longer 'docile listeners' but are 'now critical co-investigators' in dialog with the teacher" (71). The teachers pose questions which help the students think critically about the causes of their their concrete historical situation. For Freire, as for Banks in Reenvisioning Theological Education (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), eduction should be directly related to the concrete situation - liberation for Freire, ministry for Banks. Freire concludes: "In sum: banking theory and practice, as immobilizing and fixating forces, fail to acknowledge men as historical beings; problem-posing theory and practice take man's historicity as their staring point" (71).

Freire's third chapter is devoted to reflective action. This concept which he calls "praxis" avoids two extremes. "Verbalism", on one side, is theoretical reflection which does not lead to concrete action. "Activism", the opposite extreme, is concrete action without any critical reflection. In contrast "praxis" is action based on critical, dialogical reflection. Freire sees reflection - and thus education - and action as inseparable. Action must be based on reflection and "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" (85).

In his final chapter Freire turns his attention to revolutionary leadership. His core concern is that revolutionary leaders do not just become yet another oppressor, but instead genuinely foster liberation. Revolutionary leaders must engage in praxis (action together with critical reflection) with and not just for the people. Leadership must act together with the people never simply on behalf of those to be liberated. Real liberation, for Freire, is community action.
We can legitimately say that in the process of oppression someone oppresses someone else; we cannot say that in the process of revolution someone liberates someone else, nor yet that someone liberates himself, but rather that men in communion liberate each other. (128)
Acting with the oppressed, means that leaders must act dialogically - in constant interactive communication. Dialogical leadership "does not impose, does not manipulate, does not domesticate, does not 'sloganize'"(168).
Revolutionary leaders who do not act dialogically in their relations with the people either have retained characteristics of the denominator and are not truly revolutionary; or they are totally misguided in their conception of their role, and, prisoners of their own sectarianism, are equally non-revolutionary. (119)
Antidialogical leadership or action, as far as Freire is concerned, is simply conquest where the conqueror objectifies the conquered subject. In contrast dialogical leadership never manipulates or objectifies. It is a communal action where "Subjects meet in cooperation in order to transform the world" (167).

I found this book very stimulating though it would be difficult to directly apply to my role teaching introductory Bible in a small liberal arts college. This is partly due to the extreme difference in teaching context. Friere is directly addressing the liberation of the the oppressed. It is not clear what he would say about education in general. He would certainly advocate a much higher correlation between the course content and the student's life situations. This may invlove much more discussion and interaction with the class to learn how to shape the presentation of the material in a way that is more directly connected with their life.

In Freire's chapter on problem posing verses banking education is probably the most interesting and proactive in my current context even when allowances are made for the difference with his context. Teaching for him would mean starting with a series of critical question and working together with the class to answer them.

01 March 2010

Book Review - The Courage to Teach

Parker Palmer, The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher's Life Tenth Anniversary Edition (USA: John Wiley & Sons, 2007).

Although subtitled "Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher's Life," which might imply an introspective focus on a teacher's psychology, Parker's The Courage to Teach, is rather a radical vision for education written with the clear intention to catalyze a reform movement. Indeed the aim of the final chapter of the original edition is to provide encouragement in the face of opposition to those working for systematic institutional change. The tenth anniversary edition also includes a epilogue describing several case studies where Palmer's ideas have been successfully implemented at an institutional level. The subtitle does however provide a good description of Parker's approach to education reform. Reform, for Parker, begins with the lives of teachers: the inner lives of individual teachers, as well as the lives of the communities of learners and teachers. He addresses the former in the first three chapters, and the later in the subsequent three, leaving the final chapter as an encouragement to larger reform.

Beginning education reform with educators, Palmer's premise is that "good teaching cannot be reduced to technique; good teaching comes from the identity and integrity of the teacher" (10, italics original). Good teaching begins, for Parker, not with learning correct or helpful techniques but a teacher knowing and trusting their selfhood and being willing to make it vulnerable in the service of learning (11). Trusting our selfhood requires both that teachers learn who they are as a person - their identity - and it requires approaching wholeness with this identity - or to living in integrity. Techniques are helpful, but only when they "reveal rather than conceal" the personhood of the teacher (25). So everything begins with understanding one's identity and then living in integrity with it. So for Palmer, a teacher does not choose a subject, rather the subject chooses the teacher. For example, I have discovered that I care deeply about reading the Bible well. My effectiveness as a teacher is tightly connected with living in integrity with this understanding of my identity. (It also explains why I feel violated with I hear others doing violence to the text). Good teaching means being connected with the self which then enables me to be connected with others.

Fear is the major obstacle to the connected lives that Parker is advocating. A basic fear that Palmer address is the fear of a "live encounter." "We fear encounters in which the other is free to be itself, to speak its own truth, to tell us what we may not wish to hear" (38). He breaks this fear down into a sequence of four fears: diversity, conflict when divergent truths meet, losing ones identity, and finally the fear "that a live encounter will challenge or even compel us to change our lives" (39). This fear is latent in both students and teachers (as well as administrators). A teacher must face this fear in themselves, otherwise they will be blinded to it in others and especially their students. Fear also effects our ways of knowing, Palmer summarizes his relational epistemology which articulates more fully in his To Know As We Are Known, (New York: HarperCollins, 1993). Palmer's solution to this pervasive fear is "reclaiming the connectedness that takes away fear" (60). Unfortunately he does not elaborate much on how one accomplishes this.

Parker's final chapter on a teacher's inner life is an exhortation to embrace paradox in teaching and learning. Eschewing the polarized either-or thinking which "fragments reality," Palmer advocates a both-and approach which looks for connectedness. "In certain circumstances, truth is a paradoxical joining of apparent opposites, and if we want to know that truth, we must learn to embrace those opposites as one" (65). To illustrate Palmer applies His paradox embracing both-and approach to limits and potentials of self, and pedagogical design. For example in the later he suggests a series of both-ands which should characterize the classroom. It should be both; bounded and open; hospitable and charged; invite individuals and the group voices; honor little and big stores; support solitude and community; and welcome silence and speech (76-80). While advocating that the teacher hold opposites in tension, Palmer admits that he cannot explain how it is done only that it "is about being, not doing;" they are held together "in the teacher's heart" (88).

In the second half, Palmer moves from the inner life of the teacher to the life of the learning community. The later, however, is firmly based on the health of the former; "only as we in communion with ourselves can we find community with others"(92). His agenda for educational reform, therefore, starts healthy teachers who then are in a position to form a healthy community. It is this communal vision for learning that is really driving Parker, as seen in his definition of teaching. To teach, for Palmer, "is to create a space where the community of truth is practiced" (92). Community for Parker, is not limited to teachers and learners but, importantly, encompasses the the subject as well. Again drawing on his relational epistemology (Palmer, 1998), Palmer even construes knowing in relational-communal terms "we know reality only by being in community with it ourselves." The stress here is on the personal nature of truth. Teaching then, is creating a space where both the teacher and the learners interact with the subject; were everyone is engaged in developing their relationship with the subject. This process does not degrade into phenomenological subjectivity because it gives significant focus on and dignity to the subject which is treated "with the respect we normally give to human beings" (105). It is the respect for the subject that provides the bounds of our inquiry. Parker is really advocating a subject centered pedagogy - one that is communally construed.

Parker now turns his attention to "Subject-Centered Education" where neither student nor teacher is the center of the dialog, but where both interact dialogically and in an egalitarian manner with the subject. It is the job of the teacher to help give the subject its "independent voice" (120). It is the teacher's passion for the subject that in part gives voice to the subject because passion is a way of showing how the subject has personally impacted the live of the teacher. Though Parker is not focused on particular teaching techniques, it is very clear for him that subject centered teaching means a shift away from traditional lecture centered teaching. "In a subject centered classroom, the teacher's central task is to give the great thing and independent voice - a capacity to speak its truth quite apart from the teacher's voice in terms that students can hear and understand" (120). Giving the subject its independent voice means for Parker, that students are interacting directly with the subject and with each other as well as hearing lectures about the subject from the professor. For example, Parker would certainly affirm many of the techniques and values expressed by Brookfield and Preskill, Discussion as a way of Teaching (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass: 1999).

This raises naturally a questions from one teaching an overview course where there is a substantial amount of material. Parker's response is that "if the aim of the course is to deliver a great deal of information, the worst way to do it is by nonstop lecturing" (124). Parker proposes a solution he calls "Teaching from the microcosm." It is based on the idea, which he never substantiates, that "each discipline has an inner logic so profound that every critical piece of it contains the information necessary to reconstruct the whole" (125). Parker would advocate teaching a few things in greater detail with much more student interaction than trying to cover a subject more broadly with less details. He would say that a grasp of the a few details will actually give a better picture of the broader topic. The idea seems very interesting, sadly he offers very little to sustained it.

The final chapter on the communal side of teaching concerns the teaching community. Parker suggests that teaching is the most "privatized of all the public professions." All other professions, in comparison, are practiced in the presence of ones peers, in contrast a teacher in a classroom is almost a private domain with respect to one's professional peers. The burden of this chapter is to encourage conversation between teachers. Parker provides a few tools and suggests to help faculty have meaningful conversation about teaching.

This book really is an outstanding achievement that deserves much of the praise given it. Parker paints a compelling new picture for education. But this picture is more like impressionism than a portrait; many details are lacking and much is unsubstantiated. The picture compels because of its beauty and possibly because alternative pictures are perceived as ugly. To be fair, impressionism is probably exactly right style for painting a picture calculated to engender a reform movement. A more detailed book would be too long to be consumed by enough people.