No pedagogy which is truly liberating can remain distant from the oppressed by treating them as unfortunates and by presenting for their emulation models from among the oppressors. The oppressed must be their own example in the struggle for their redemption (Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 1970, p. 54)
As I am setting in a cold, concrete classroom, prepping essay instructions for a group of young students who are trying to get to the US university system here in South Korea, I keep thinking of my duty to my students. The words for Paulo Freire sit with me, but also how misguided many of the attempts to use him by “progressive liberal” educators are. The focus was always on the banking model of education–fight against the idea that the teacher was an informational storehouse. This notion of Freire’s is totally in line with prior liberal models of education, such as the pragmatism of John Dewey, and thus didn’t really challenge the received political dogmas of most education departments. Must less focus was on the more difficult challenging implications of the Freire’s work, and sitting in the school I am sitting in watching students many of whom hope for nothing more than the go to America so they can could back here and work for some Chaebol (a word that generally translated like conglomerate or corporation, but literally means “business clan” which is more apt), I realize that I have no idea how to teach them to struggle exactly, and given that they have been taught in a Confucian education system that must values the passive “banking model” that Freire and his liberal admirers so detest. Yet there is something in both respecting that tradition, and always encouraging my students to struggle with it that seems like a fracture point.
So much goal is always to respect their wishes and yet try to model struggling: struggling with concepts, struggling with the fact that intellectual life is both hard and open to all those willing to engage in it. I was raised by a mechanic and a waitress, who later in life, became a nurse. I am an academic by demeanor, but during my education schooling I was often alienated by the approach of the slightly more middle class teachers I worked. Sure, we were all proles for the most part, but what of the most ingenious elements of late capitalism is how even slight class differences can seem massive in the way cultural distinction markers change. Taste is a matter of class war, and the liberal educators I worked didn’t seem at all aware of it. One day, I had enough in my MAT classes and brought in this video:
And I realized that the talk of the oppressed Paulo Freire often himself put in a binary that seemed to essentialize in an almost mystical way. Freire’s opposition to the teacher-student dichotomy is very similar to Buber’s distinctions about “I-it” and “I-thou,” but this in a way fails to see the way our educational aptitudes are conditioned themselves by any number of contexts that emerge from a larger contradiction in society: our class, race, gender, etc all limit our ability to process certain kinds of “truth.” Furthermore, a fundamentally unwillingness to admit to oneself that one’s students must also struggle against you may be implied. If we are going to use such dichotomies, Buber’s may actually be more helpful: The teacher who fractures a students identity softly may be much more useful to teaching them how to struggle than the one who affirms their identity regardless of how little choice the student had in affirming it. I-thou relationships can be in opposition because human beings can be in opposition. I-it relationships aren’t about such opposition: they see the person as an object.
At this point, it all seems very abstract, but in a real sense it is: if I want to teach people how to emancipate themselves I cannot simply affirm who they are out of some vague notion of respect for the other, or empowering the “oppressed” by letting them be themselves. I don’t want to be the class tourist, or in this case, the foreign tourist, who is merely is here to bring affirm my students preconceived notions of being by engaging in “teachable moments” or being with them in “authentic situations.” Or, worse yet, merely asking random questions which do not challenge their positions in society or their ideologies in the guise of pretending to be Socratic. I am to bring to them cognitive dissonance, and guide them through the personal terror that can come when you realize how much of an individual you aren’t, or when you realize that the truth alone won’t set you free.
This, of course, requires that this break down has happened to you as well. The truth won’t set you free and neither will education alone, but let’s also not pretend they aren’t necessary. Necessary, indeed, but insufficient. The fracture is only the beginning of carving out hollow so the water beneath can flow.