(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.

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