Sunday 15 May 2011

Freire, Ayers and Economics

Extract of an article written by Emma Rose Roderick, workers’ rights activist
Paulo Freire, author of Pedagogy of the Oppressed, is widely regarded as the father of the "critical pedagogy" perspective of education. Ayers, a scholar of Freire, picks up where Freire leaves off: in his book Teaching Toward Freedom, he examines how Freire's ideas (and the ideas of other like-minded scholars) can be concretely integrated into the classroom. Both agree that the methods with which teachers teach are at least as important as the content of what they teach; in fact, the methods are perhaps even more important. Both stress the importance of the breakdown of the subject/object relationship between teachers and students; the dangers of the "banking" method of education and the potential that lies in a "problem-posing" method; and the close connection between students and the world around them, which, they argue, should consistently be emphasized across the curriculum.

As Ayers argues, deciding how to teach is a moral choice. Every teacher teaches for something and against something else--there is no neutrality. Ayers writes that many teachers unknowingly teach for obedience and against freedom of thought, and that he tries to do the opposite: "I want to teach against oppression and subjugation, for example, and against exploitation, unfairness, and unkindness. I want others to join me in that commitment. I want to teach toward freedom, for enlightenment and awareness, wide awakeness, protection of the weak, cooperation, generosity, compassion, and love. I want my teaching to mean something worthwhile in the lives of my students and in the larger worlds that they will inhabit and create. I want it to mean something in mine."

Each teacher must decide what s/he is teaching for and against, and must make a commitment to hold fast to that decision, even in the face of pressure from the outside. Sticking to generic curriculum frameworks and teaching directly from the textbook is certainly a form of teaching for something and against something else, despite the fact that most would regard it as simply following the status quo. Every decision a teacher makes is a moral decision, and every decision must ultimately be made by her/himself.  

So once one has decided to teach for social justice and against maintaining the status quo, how should one teach? For a large part, the answer lies in Freire. He argues that for education to be truly revolutionary the teacher must cease to be the subject and the student must cease to be the object. Instead, students must be regarded as subjects and as agents of their own destiny. The teacher does not teach the student; rather, the teacher and student teach each other, and both become students and teachers. It is only through this process that the student--or, the oppressed--can realize his or her full humanity (and, in doing so, realize the historical conditions that have crushed this humanity and the necessity of fighting against it) and can conceptualize him or herself as an agent in the struggle for change. Freire emphasizes the need for dialogue, and the importance of letting the oppressed decide for themselves what their needs and demands are. Whether the teacher believes the students to be "oppressed" or not, one can certainly argue that such a teacher-student relationship is necessary in order for students to see themselves as agents of revolutionary change.

Ayers extends Freire's thinking into the classroom, asserting that while breaking down the subject/object relationship between teachers, a teacher must have an unshakeable commitment to loving and respecting each of his/her students, and of discovering their unique strengths and potential. Ayers argues that making a commitment to the humanity of students is an act of great resistance in a society such as this. Both scholars stress the need for truly revolutionary education to free the hearts, minds, and souls of the people, and to reassert their humanity, in an attempt to undo the dehumanization that has been done to them and to make them effective agents for social change.

While Freire argues for educational "projects" over traditional schools, believing schools to be largely a product of the oppressive society and therefore not a good site for revolutionary change, Ayers believes that, despite these constrictions, schools are still probably the best place available for such change to happen. He agrees that schools reflect the societies they exist in, and that, as we live in an unfair, rapidly corporatizing, and increasingly violent and authoritative society, our schools reflect those values. But he also argues that they can be a mirror back on the world: that when schools change, society changes along with them. When one teaches for fairness and equality, when one teaches toward freedom, spaces in our society are opened up, and change starts to occur.

The two scholars emphasize the need to bring in the outside world over and over again in their texts. Freire's theory of revolutionary praxis requires the interplay of theory and action; he argues that the two cannot be separated. Students need to be engaged in both reflection and action. Their thoughts will necessarily lead to action, and their action will necessarily lead to thoughts. If this is not happening, then neither true thought nor meaningful action is occurring. Freire writes that human beings are categorically different from other animals in that they have the capacity to reflect on their actions and change the world around them.

However, in the contemporary public school setting, such an approach is almost impossible. The vast majority of students attend schools in which the curriculum is written in advance, there is a fixed set of material they are expected to have in their heads by the end of the semester. As Ayers says, educational institutions are a mirror of our society. The question then becomes, how do we use these schools to create sites for change? How do we turn the mirror back, and reflect these new possibilities outward?

Freire and Ayers' theories seem to depart from the standards for economics. Freire and Ayers try to engage students in a discussion about why some people have money and other people don't; the increasing amount of power corporations have in our society, and the economic structure of capitalism that has led to both of those things.

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