The problem of “apprentice”, “student”, “teacher”, and the weakness of language (our weakness).
A few years ago at the pub, my friend Glenn Loughran made me aware of Paulo Freire. A name I’d heard frequently on the fringes of the alt.ed conversation, but never read. After drinks, I (with the help of my friend Matt Rohanna) read through a couple of his books. Freire is hard to read, and even harder to imagine putting into practice, but he’s right about a lot of key pedagogical problems. In writing back and forth with Chad about the future of the Saxifrage School’s Dev.Year program, and in all the work I’ve done the past few years, I’ve consistently struggled (and often ignored) the problem of naming learners and those they learn from or those they learn with.
Here’s an important excerpt from Freire’s The Pedagogy of the Oppressed that nicely gets at the heart of the issue:
“Education must begin with the solution of the teacher-student contradiction, by reconciling the poles of the contradiction so that both are simultaneously teachers and students. This solution is not (nor can it be) found in the banking concept. On the contrary, banking education maintains and even stimulates the contradiction through the following attitudes and practices, which mirror oppressive society as a whole:
- the teacher teaches and the students are taught;
- the teacher knows everything and the students know nothing;
- the teacher thinks and the students are thought about;
- the teacher talks and the students listen — meekly;
- the teacher disciplines and the students are disciplined;
- the teacher chooses and enforces his choice, and the students comply;
- the teacher acts and the students have the illusion of acting through the action of the teacher;
- the teacher chooses the program content, and the students (who were not consulted) adapt to it;
- the teacher confuses the authority of knowledge with his or her own professional authority, which she and he sets in opposition to the freedom of the students;
- the teacher is the Subject of the learning process, while the pupils are mere objects.
It is not surprising that the banking concept of education regards men as adaptable, manageable beings. The more students work at storing the deposits entrusted to them, the less they develop the critical consciousness which would result from their intervention in the world as transformers of that world. The more completely they accept the passive role imposed on them, the more they tend simply to adapt to the world as it is and to the fragmented view of reality deposited in them.”
The traditional student-teacher relationship, I believe, is fully at odds with “not merely studying, but living life earnestly.” It, to varying degrees, serves to pacify the learner and relegate them to a state of disengagement and inferiority.
In writing up a sketch on how to structure “yearning”, how to create a program centered on encouraging self-directed learners, I found it difficult to name the members of the learning community in a way that properly acknowledge the differences between members without the lesser-than nature of the student. While no one is listed as a “teacher” as part of the Dev.Year community, there are two roles that are important, but tricky to name: “mentor” and “apprentice[r]” (the one who teaches the apprentice, traditionally is called “master”).
As I have dug into these ideas, I have begun to see that, maybe, seeing the “School” as a broader community of members is, perhaps, an apt way to resolve these naming problems. Everyone part of the School (a community focused on learning together) is a member with a different role. The problem with the Mentor/Mentee, Teacher/Student, Apprentice/Master language is that it sets up an either/or dichotomy. As Freire says, one knows, the other does not; one is the subject, the other an object. The goal, I think, is to form a community, and a structure for that community, and names for members of that community which aptly describe a scale of experience and capability, which rightly up people in equal relationship, but with varying skills and experience—without resigning people to “knowing” or “not-knowing” roles.
In considering this, I’m realizing that it’s not so much a problem of language as it is a problem of what we’ve attached to language. The word “Mentor” for instance, is the name of the character in Homer’s The Odyssey who is responsible for advising the development of Odysseus’ son Telemachus. The power dynamic in that relationship was, actually, rather equitable (if not in the “Mentee’s” favor). Telemachus had leadership in the household during his father’s absence, yet he relied on Mentor for wisdom and help. Telemachus was, essentially, King Regent of Ithaca (who knew if his father was ever coming home?). In his relationship with Mentor, he was not inferior. He had agency and confidence to work on his own.
Literally, the word Mentor refers more to the relationship of a King and his trusted Advisor, than it does to an Adult-Who-Knows and a Child-Who-Needs-To-Know. Today’s use of “Mentor”, however, refers mostly to the latter. A classic example is the call to mentor “at-risk” youth creating a dichotomy between the do-gooder and the kids who need our help (those who have and those who do not have). However, at least in our time and state, Freire’s writing doesn’t fully apply when he accusingly defines the top-down education paradigm as something that was crafted intentionally so that it “serves the interests of the oppressors”. While there may be a few evil/powerful leaders who think this way, I think it’s safe to say that most educators and mentors are well-meaning regardless of their pedagogical approach (or lack thereof).
Overall, I mean to say that there is nothing intrinsically wrong with a “Mentor”. In a way, we must use the word if we are to be understood. In asking developers to form an intentional relationship with our community members, they will understand what we mean when we say “Mentor”. It seems like it would be more profitable to rightly define what “Mentor” means in our community rather than tossing the word altogether. A mentor is one who has experience and wisdom to share, and does so by working alongside a less-experienced, but nonetheless full member of the community.
As for the Apprentice/Master language, I’m having trouble thinking of a resolution. There is an obvious inappropriateness to using “Master”, but there really is no better word. The word “apprentice” references a relationship in which the apprentice is only allowed to work if someone lets them, reminding them that they need to ask permission before starting. Historically, apprenticeship actually was more akin to indentured servitude than to any sort of romantic notions we have constructed based on our Jedi-fueled imaginations. If you read into the contract in the header image, it talks about the indentured servant Apprentice and how, if he behaves obediently for his Master, will be given some clothes at the end of his indentured term. During this term, he will only be provided with “that which is fit for an apprentice”.
To repeat Wendell Berry for a third time, we need people who
“see something that needs to be done and start to do it, without the government’s permission, or official advice, or expert advice, or applying for grants or anything else. They just start doing it.”
We don’t need a generation of apprentices, but a generation of makers, a generation that just starts doing it. Maybe the simple answer is to sidestep “Apprentice” altogether. All we really mean by it is that we want to intentionally connect Dev.Year members with experienced people working on exciting projects. We just want to give them experience working on great projects with smart people.
The problem with language is that it’s easy to use without considering what it means. When we do this it degrades. In the case of “Mentor”, it’s degraded to mean something quite different than what is literal. In the case of “Apprentice”, it’s taken up a romanticized meaning that idealizes the past without really looking at the problems of the old model. It is easiest of all to refer to teachers as teachers and students as students, for we have always done so. It is easy to belittle the act of naming as mere semantics, but naming has consequences. Naming done incorrectly again and again, or not done at all, can act as a force of cultural and personal destruction.
The act of naming something requires fully knowing that thing in relation to the world around it. The necessity of knowing one to name, and the idea of naming in general, is expounded interestingly in Madeleine L’Engle’s highly allegorical novel, “A Wind in the Door”. The climactic tension of L’Engle’s story exists between a group of children (aided by some mystical beings) who are struggling to Name things and the opposing force of “Echthroi” whose evil purpose is to Un-Name everything and, therefore, tear the entire universe from existence. “When everyone is really and truly Named, then the Echthroi will be vanquished.” L’Engle uses a capitalized “Named” throughout the book to denote something much deeper than the regular use of human names. The heroes in the book are referred to as “Namers” and, explains their wise companion, “A Namer has to know who people are, and how they are meant to be” in order to properly and exactly Name them.
“A Namer has to know who people are, and how they are meant to be”
Interestingly, knowing and Naming, for L’Engle, are necessarily connected with loving. In the story, when a person is known and correctly Named, that person’s life changes dramatically and becomes unburied from the sort of dehumanizing burden described in Matthew Arnold’s poem “The Buried Life” (and echoed by Freire). L’Engle’s connection between knowing and Naming seems to mirror the idea of Poetry as intangible meaning and poetry as tangible language where knowing the Poetry (the meaning) of a subject must come before the act of representing it through Naming, through exactingly well-put language. When this alignment of knowing and naming happens for L’Engle’s characters they are able to defeat “the powers of nothingness, those who would un-Name.”
So, in planning Dev.Year, I’ll keep struggling to name well. It’s just a lot easier not to. In L’Engle’s story, I’d wager, we are, at once, both the Namers and the Ecthroi.