Monthly Archives: January 2014

(De)humanizing the academy?

Paolo Freire begins the Pedagogy of the Oppressed by writing that the “problem of humanization has always, from an axiological point of view, been humankind’s central problem, it now takes on the character of an inescapable concern” (45).  I have to work through sentences like that.  First, what is humanization?  A quick look in two online dictionaries comes up with two definitions, one expected, and one unexpected.  The first is: to make human, which itself opens up a larger discussion; the second: to make humane, was one that I didn’t expect.  But let’s take the dictionaries at their word.  Therefore, the art of and practice of teaching (pedagogy) of the oppressed is to make people more human and humane.  And Freire tells us that this is from “an axiological point of view;” axiological means the study of values, especially ethics, aesthetics, and religion.  Axios, the root word, is from Greek and means worthy.  Wow.  So, to bring it all together: the art of teaching the oppressed is a to make people more human and humane in a way that values the worth of truth, beauty and what’s right.  I’m probably taking some liberties here, but I think this gets at the heart of what Freire means.

I have to say that many of the classes I’ve taken are like this, especially ones within English Departments, but I wonder if most of my students and students in K-12 environments, or students in an economics class, or a history seminar, or biology sections, have experienced what Freire describes above.  And, perhaps more importantly, would teachers, administrators, and board members agree with Freire that humanization from an ethical viewpoint is an “inescapable concern.”  I remember walking the halls of Iowa Western with the Dean of Enrollment who would later become the Vice President of Student Services and discussing that the college was getting rid of or wanted to get rid of a humanities requirement for students.  I was shocked (and really naïve) that there were people who didn’t see the value of these kinds of classes and what they would do for students.  I can remember how strident the dean was in arguing that students didn’t need those classes for degrees and to enter the workplace. To her they were a barrier.  I felt punched, but I didn’t really have a good argument for why she was wrong.  I believed it, but I couldn’t articulate it in a way that she would understand or listen to.  And in her reality, she was doing the students a favor and being practical.

And it is this belief, her predication that there is no need for the humanities in technical education, that moves me to Freire’s next point.  And yes, I realize that humanization and humanities are a false equivalency, but in a broad stroke, the connection is clear.  Freire continues on in Pedagogy of the Oppressed writing to his audience that “humanization and dehumanization are real alternatives” (45). I would go further and say that they are real predications of a reality for how the world and its people are supposed to operate.  Paolo tells us that humanization is our real vocation and that the first is constantly being negated.  I love his use of vocation here.  It is not an avocation, a hobby, being more human and humane in an ethical way isn’t something that we do part-time.  It is our real work and it is negated he says.  My experience with that Dean in 2005 was one of the first moments that I had experienced that negation from institutional power in a way that I understood or felt.  I didn’t understand it fully then, but her negation of the student’s need to be human or humane or be exposed to the material and teachers that emphasized those ideas, was a negation of those students’ need to be fully human.

In essence she was saying that is was ok that they were going to be electricians or chefs or nurses, but to fit those places in our society they wouldn’t need to be fully realized humans who could judge their situation axiologically.  Of course, she wasn’t saying that out loud, and probably hadn’t really thought all of that through, but it’s there just the same.  And it is this thinking that dehumanizes our students and our culture.  And, to extend this a bit, when a person is dehumanized and robbed of their true vocation, they are oppressed.  What’s more, if we have taken the means and curricula of humanizing them out of school, then they will not even be aware of the oppression, of their incompleteness.  Clearly, there’s more thinking to do about this, but it’s interesting to look at our institutions and our curricula to examine them for dehumanizing tropes.  They aren’t hard to find.

Luck and Poverty

I read the paper every morning. My wife and son roll their eyes at me because I have arguments with it, read parts of it to them.  My son, Max, has to do current events at school and he’s informed me that he’s the only one who gets his events from the newspaper—most of his classmates and their parents have migrated to the interwebs for their news.  I guess I’m old-fashioned. Yes, I see the irony as I get ready to post this in my new blog.

A couple of mornings ago my conversation with the newspaper came from Kathleen Parker’s Washington Post column “Don’t ignore luck, marriage as factors”.  In her column on the war on poverty she writes that “we recognize the role luck plays” that “there are the unlucky, who, whatever their relative talents, are born into broken families, often to single mothers, in neighborhoods where systemic poverty, inferior educational opportunities and perhaps even crime constitute the culture in which they marinate.”  Well, you can see why I was talking to the newspaper, can’t you?  We can begin with the logical fallacies in what Parker has written.  If poverty is systemic, that is it is a created quantifiable system, then that isn’t luck.  If the educational opportunities are inferior, and we know what it takes to make good schools, then that isn’t luck, it’s a lack of national will among other things.  We’ll stop with just those two.

But I want to look at those two more deeply as well.  This summer the New York Times published an article “In climbing income ladder, location matters” written by David Leonhardt.  The article goes through a longitudinal study that looks at economic opportunity.  The authors of the study looked at millions of records over time to figure out the chance of economic mobility, that is moving from one income bracket to the next, based on where a person lives.  The news isn’t good.  If a person is born in a poor zipcode, she or he has very little chance of moving up in the world.  According to the article, if you’re born in the bottom fifth of the income spectrum in my city, Omaha, then you have an 8.6% chance of moving up to the top fifth of the spectrum.  It’s not luck then, is it?  Or perhaps we colloquially say that if one of every 11 people can “move on up to the apartment in the sky” that is “lucky.”  But I don’t think so, rather it looks like systemic poverty and poor educational opportunities reify poverty and that very few can trudge their way out of that world.

All of this made me think of Paolo Freire’s work with the poor.  In the Introduction to the Paolo Freire Reader Ana Maria Araujo Freire and Donaldo Macedo write that Paolo’s work challenged the poor “to understand that they are themselves the makers of culture” and that their “status of ‘being less’ is worked on so as not to be understood as divine determination or fate, but rather as determined by the economic-political-ideological context of the society they live in” (7).  This predication that a woman or man’s poverty isn’t divine determination or fate or luck seems to be supported by the longitudinal study, by data.  However, we love the predication of reality that Ms. Parker puts forward:  Some of us are just lucky, dammit! Certainly it’s easier to appeal to luck than it is to look as systems of oppression.

Setting the Stage

Thanks for stopping by!  I know you have a lot to read and I’m grateful for a few minutes of your time.

This blog is meant to be a journal and a conversation about education and the work of teaching.  I am an English instructor at Metropolitan Community College in Omaha, Nebraska.  I love the work, but it’s difficult.  My students face a great many challenges in getting their education.  I want to have a dialogue about those challenges.

This blog is also a digital journal of my work this semester in graduate school. I am taking a class on Paolo Freire, critical pedagogy and social justice education.

Justice in education and the world are deeply important to me  and I work to make my classroom a space for critical literacy and critical thinking, which I think are essential for a just world.

I hope, finally, that this blog can be a space where a dialogue about education happens.  There is a lot of work to do.

Thank you for reading.

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