Liberation Is the Purpose of Education
My goal is for my students to be free but I can’t do liberation for them.
Marquise can hold space. You know when Marquise is in the classroom. Not because he is fidgeting or cracking jokes or doing any of the fireworks that 15 yr old male students do. Marquise can hold space. Every time I think about my classroom, I think about Marquise. He is the embodiment of both my drive and my failures as a teacher. I don’t think I make his life harder but I know I have not made it any easier nor have I lit a horizon that holds any new promise. He’s bigger than most of his peers. His mind is sharp and expansive. His instincts are to guard who he is and what he can do. His world has taught him lessons I don’t have the lived experience to understand.
In 1938 John Dewey set the following fundamental question for a new form of education: “What does freedom mean and what are the conditions under which it is capable of realization?” (Dewey ch1). Dewey went on to rigorously describe a “Theory of Experience” (Dewey, ch 1) which is based on a deep and practical appreciation for the connection between personal experience and learning. In so doing he refines his question to be: “How shall the young become acquainted with the past in such a way that the acquaintance is a potent agent in appreciation of the living present?”. (Dewey, ch 1)
32 years later, Brazilian educator, Paolo Freire wrote “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” which to me feels like it is in dialog with Dewey. Freire said, “Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity or it becomes the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.” (Freire, p. 34) (Also quoted in Hammond, p. 12)
Freire condemned traditional education as an engine of oppression and compared it to banking where a knowing teacher deposits information into empty students. He said, “Those truly committed to liberation must reject the banking concept in its entirety, adopting instead a concept of women and men as conscious beings, and consciousness as consciousness intent upon the world. They must abandon the educational goal of deposit-making and replace it with the posing of the problems of human beings in their relations with the world” (Freire, p. 79).
I first encountered these works in the early 1990s when I was in graduate school studying to become a teacher. I remember being surprised that this brilliant vision for the purpose of education had been laid out so clearly so long ago and was now forgotten or muted into meaningless and perverted slogans. I am now back in graduate school but this time as a teacher. I am engaged in the strangely meta activity of teaching teachers to teach. I have re-engaged with these ideas but this time I find myself dissatisfied with just their explication and I am driven to discover the tactics necessary to apply them.
In her book, Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain, Zaretta Hammond joins Dewey and Freire in the conversation.
“One of the goals of education is not simply to fill students with facts and information but to help them learn how to learn. Classroom studies document the fact that underserved English learners, poor students, and students of color routinely receive less instruction in higher order skills development than other students. Their curriculum is less challenging and more repetitive. Their instruction is more focused on skills low on Bloom’s taxonomy. This type of instruction denies students the opportunity to engage in what neuroscientists call productive struggle that actually grows our brainpower. As a result, a disproportionate number of culturally and linguistically diverse students are dependent learners.” (Hammond, p. 12)
Hammond’s dichotomy of dependent and independent learners is a powerful framework for understanding how oppression manifests as an academic identity and it echoes what Freire calls conscientização (critical consciousness) which he says is necessary for liberation or what Hammond describes as independence. Freire and Hammond were both teachers and their theory and practice are deeply rooted in their experience. Freire taught adults in Brazil and Hammond taught high school in San Francisco. This chronological, geographical, and cultural separation only serves to accentuate the universal nature of their work which is to liberate students from the oppression of a system that demands obedience.
My classroom at Oakland Technical High School is intersectional across all the same characteristics as is my city, Oakland CA. Economics, race, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality are all characteristics of my student’s identity, and layered onto that are the trauma and advantage of their different life experiences. My job is to help them make themselves free within a structure that is designed at best for humane complacency and at worst, explicit and insidious oppression.
And this is where I have been stuck. It feels good to assume I am an agent of liberation but that is an old and ugly story of self-satisfied exploitation. I own both my white guilt and my white savior complex. I hold them awkwardly, imperfectly. Zaretta Hammond tells me to build cultural competence; that my job is not to appropriate the appurtenances of my student’s culture but instead to engage with appreciation and wonder for who they are and how they navigate the world. So that is what I try to do.
And this is where I have been stuck. Over the last year of this global pandemic, we have ignored the opportunity present in the crisis. All of the negatives of traditional banking education were clearly going to be magnified by remote learning but we were unable to muster the courage to embrace that truth and try something different. As George Floyd was everyone’s avatar; as we finally started real conversations about the oppressive role of the police; as we worked to remove the police from our campuses; we have not done the work to look within ourselves and see the analogous oppression caused by our actions. Teachers, like the police, declare positional authority and demand willing obedience. We don’t carry guns but, as a weapon, we wield the ‘F’ even though its application only serves to further separate students from their own liberation.
And this is where I have been stuck. Here are my questions. What is possible? What are the tactics of self-liberation? How do I remove the cape of the false hero and do the work of designing experiences that catalyze critical consciousness, foster independence, and lead students to be free? What are the characteristics of the environment that encourages Marquise to be enthusiastically curious and can that environment exist in a classroom?
These questions are not answered by a brilliant assignment or a clever exercise. The answers will never be a truth I describe, a lecture I give, a move I make. The answers to these questions lie in the spaces between us, in the relationships I have with my students. As I write this I notice the power assumed by my position. I hear myself struggling to eliminate the vocabulary of possession and property: my school, my classroom, my students, my curriculum. I choose actively and explicitly to struggle with this because I believe that understanding myself as owning the environment encourages academic dependence and limits the emergence of curiosity which is a necessary precursor to independence and liberation.
Liberation in this sense is a reflexive verb. The object of liberation is the self. And this points to the unavoidable contradiction inherent in “teaching”. My goal is for my students to be free but I cannot do liberation for them. My existence as a teacher and my possessing them as the object of my teaching actually impedes their liberation. In a very real sense, the default power dynamic of teacher over student is oppression; oppression defined as limiting a student’s ability to claim their right to speak their word.
Zaretta Hammond describes a dependent learner as a student who “is not able to do complex, school-oriented learning tasks such as synthesizing and analyzing informational text” (Hammond, p. 13). She goes on to describe that dependence is not the same thing as deficient and that academic dependency is an observable and predictable outcome of the banking model of teaching. This resonates with me and with what I have observed as a classroom teacher.
I believe the imposition of power over students rewards and even requires rote and dependent thinking and that this is true for both obedient, socially advantaged students as well as students from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds where the problem is exacerbated by misplaced paternalism and prejudice that convinces us to adapt the curriculum, to make it less complex, which forces the student into ever greater dependence.
So I have given myself permission to give up on being right and instead I focus on being conscious. I focus on the “generative word.” As we emerge from this global pendejo our defining activity cannot be the incessant screeching of shallow righteousness. No one is right. At least not so right that it is some great clarion blast that shakes free the tartar muffling our senses. I am not claiming that truth is relative. I am not claiming that right does not exist. I am simply saying that I do not find being right to be useful, especially as a teacher.
Only dialogue is useful; dialogue and work. Dialogue is work. And I declare this as if it were true as if it were universal but I can only understand it from within my own consciousness, from within my own lived experience and I can hope that it is universal because it would feel good to believe I was part of something bigger and I can ask if it is universal but I can only know the part of the world that I have experienced, through dialogue.
I say, declaratively, as if it were right.
And this is the mess that I subject my students to. This constant cycle of declaration and negation. This pulsing of power and retreat.
As we emerge from this global pablum and return to …
As we emerge from this global pandemic and grow away from what was, we will be recreating our world. First and foremost, we will be building. We will learn to practice a dangerous sort of curiosity. We will need lots of love and bandages. We will break things and not care if they get fixed. We will deconstruct things and not care if they get rebuilt. We will make things that are meaningless and wonder what meaning is anyway. We will invert the funnel and fall into possibility. We will build new habits that help us to be free. We will learn what it feels like. It will be hard.
Dewey, John. Experience and Education. Kappa Delta Pi Publications, 1938.
Freire, Paolo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Continuum, 2005 (originally published 1968).
Hammond, Zaretta. Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain. Corwin, 2014.
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