Education of the Oppressed

So I took a course at UMD this semester called Writing for Social Change (ENGL 292/388C), and I got to write a synthesis paper culminating the experience of the course – the Scholarship in Practice portion of the course as well as the internship. Here it is :

History has shown that when people come together to engage in dialogue about the problems society faces, empathy can be imparted and change-affecting agency can be produced. The ability to engage in such dialogue is a mark of community literacy and intercultural discourse. Linda Flower defines community literacy as “a rhetorical practice for inquiry and social change” (Flower 16). Whether the culture is church, home, or school, our participation in the cultures surrounding us through conversation and dialogue can allow us to be agents of social change. However, there are rules and codes that we live by within our different cultures that can place limits on developing the critical consciousness we desire to create through dialogic inquiry.

Over the past few weeks I have watched my high school buddies overcome fears and take on their rights as citizens and students to speak up and comment on the current status of their education. I have observed with my high school buddies just how dialogic inquiry-based discussion is the foundation for critical consciousness. In the beginning of the semester I set the objective for them to learn just how they could become agents of social change through the creation of an empowerment script. The goal was for this script and the culminating performance of their writing was to spur them on to take social action by engaging with their culture. This journey was to help them uncover just how empowering education leads to social agency. This script would identify exactly what or who needed to be empowered and incorporate rhetorical strategies that would clearly implore change in the classrooms where they encountered conflict. Although they were able to establish critical consciousness within themselves, they were unable to make the cognitive leap from their own outlook into beginning to consider the rivaling perspective of their teachers. They were able to identify the conflict they saw within the culture in their high school between teachers and students, but they did not consider the perspectives of the teacher as much as their own. Establishing community literacy and “discourses of empowerment” cannot stop at the dialogue within a given culture, but rather it must extend into the process of rivaling discussed by Linda Flowers in which individuals begin to take into account the alternative perspectives available. Therefore it is this transition from our own critical consciousness into successfully engaging the rivaling perspectives of others that determines whether or not dialogic inquiry truly takes place. This can especially be seen in educational and rhetorical empowerment.

As students, being agents means actively participating, listening, and learning. Being an agent is to “coordinate management of meaning” across cultural lines. Therefore the inability to consider the perspectives of all parties involved in cultural conflict can interfere with favorable outcomes of empowerment and understanding (dialogic inquiry and discourse). While some circumstances may make agency more difficult for students, it is pertinent to take into account the obstacles faced by teachers when students do not cooperate with learning objectives and the rules set in place within the classroom. In our initial conversation after establishing that student – teacher conflict and miscommunication would be the cultural conflict their script would focus on, I asked them what exactly were the expectations placed on students by teachers and vice versa. They each agreed that they expected teachers to act professionally, provide lessons by which they could effectively understand the concepts being presented, and lastly they expect respect from their teachers. I also posed another question to them, which was, “How do you see teachers actions contradicting or failing to meet these expectations?” They answered this question by offering up the examples of yelling, favoritism, intentionally disrespectful remarks, and ostracism of certain students. In contrast to this conversation regarding what they expected from their teachers and how some teachers fail to meet this standard, the students did not open up as much when asked about what their end of the bargain was. They all agreed that their teachers expect them to do their homework, be attentive, and understand the lessons taught. However the only thing they offered as an example of how students cause conflict with teachers is when students talk back to or sass a teacher. Of course the assumption is that teachers could be disappointed in student’s not putting forth their best effort or failing to complete assignments, but this can’t be the full extent of the teacher’s perspective.

There is so much that could have been bought up and considered in the context of the teacher’s experience within the classroom culture, but the conversation did not delve as much into this aspect of student – teacher misunderstanding. The conversation was one sided, and surprisingly any efforts to steer the conversation deeper into their role in the conflict was met by passive resistance. . I would reiterate the initial questions posed when I asked what their expectations and needs are for each – students and teachers – in the learning environment. There were also times where I posed questions about the teacher’s perspective pertaining to the scripts they were writing. I specifically remember asking them exactly how they thought the teachers may feel when they do not do their homework or they are disrespectful and talk back to their teachers. They would always find a way to shift the conversation back to how a particular teacher was in gross violation of their expectations for their education. Their resistance to the rivaling inquiry most often presented itself as silence or the students changing the subject. I do not think that they were silent on the issue because they had nothing to say about the matter, but rather I believe they saw critical consciousness as an opportunity to vent about their teacher woes. They seemed to be very frustrated about the status quo of their education as it pertained to a couple specific classes – namely their biology course. It is this frustration that caused my high school buddies to be readily able to develop a critical consciousness of themselves, their expectations, and exactly what is needed for them to gain an empowering education. However they were also not as successful in extending their critical consciousness beyond their reality to include the reality of others (in this case the teacher’s perspective). There was something prompting the students to being less open about considering the teacher’s perspective beyond this initial and obvious frustration.

Linda Flower names “an active search for diverse rivals” as an essential component of understanding (Flower 162). This was a missing piece in our performance. Although my high school buddies were able to identify a problem, they were not able to establish a strong rival hypothesis stance. They were simply not interested in establishing “rhetorical strategy for actively seeking out meanings (rival interpretations and alternative understandings) and for acknowledging others as thinkers, problem solvers, and constructive interpretive agents in their own lives” (Flower 83). Community literacy can only be affective for establishing social change if those on both sides of the problem learn to listen and speak with others. Therefore as Flower states, “community literacy [is] a commitment to honor the interpretive agency of others, in an active search for situated knowledge and multiple ways of representing that knowledge across diverse discourses” (82). This situated knowledge can help lead the individual to better understand their own agency through looking at the agency of others. If my highs school buddies had developed a stronger rivaling stance than they would have enriched their own understanding of their contributions to their learning experience. This would have manifested itself as more conversations about what they can do to be agents of social change by holding up their responsibility on their end of actively participating in their education. Whether it is being on time to class, being attentive, completing assignments to the best of their ability, or asking questions when they need to- this is all a part of being in dialogue with their teachers and their educational culture.

At the start of our visits to Northwestern High School, my high school buddies were very quiet and shy in terms of their input into our initial conversations in which we defined what exactly culture was, what the word “home” meant to us, and exactly what cultural conflict was. Although the students had no trouble identifying what places were like home to them, they struggled to identify places they saw conflict. One student mentioned constant conflict with her mother, and what she would do to provoke this conflict. She identified both sides of the problem. However this was not an agreed upon source of cultural conflict common to all the students. It did however serve as an example of how rivaling is very important – something they did poorly when it came to their chosen subject of student- teacher conflict and miscommunication. This example became very interesting throughout the semester because it served to showcase that the students were capable of rivaling. However it also exposed a deeper issue – why were my high school buddies more readily available to engage in rivaling the perspective of some groups as opposed to their teachers? The answer to that question, I believe, lies in one word – oppression.

Dialogic inquiry often needs to happen most with groups or cultures that we are most unfamiliar with. Family, although we may find ourselves in conflict with each other, is not associated with oppression or fear. In fact family, even in the activity we did about home, most often came up in contexts concerning familiarity and comfort. So although one of my buddies readily identified the frustration present when often arguing with her mother, she calmly explained her part in contributing to the conflict. In her explanation was also a sense of peace that although conflict occurs between her and her mother, there is a sense of normalcy present in the home that she finds refuge in. This structure is not seen in power dynamics. When there is a culture or group in power or authority like that in the classroom student-teacher dynamic one group may find themselves afraid to engage in dialogic discourse for fear of backlash or fear that their actions do not matter in the grand scheme of things. When the student is not made to feel like they’re a part of their education for whatever reason- their lack of input or the teacher’s insistence on being the one who feeds the students information- they understandably grow tired of thinking that there is a way to change what is happening presently so why discuss their contributions when their attitude is what it is because of their circumstances. They readily recognize what an empowering, encouraging, and healthy learning environment looks like and seem to detach from those they find disempowering. So even though my high school buddies would have benefitted even more from taking a closer look at the teacher’s perspective in that they would have gained a better understanding for their role in being agents for change, it is understandable that they engaged the issue on the level that they did. Stepping into rivaling would have taught them exactly how their agency can lead to a transforming understanding. This is a big idea introduced in Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed along with the contrast of oppressive and empowering education.

Freire rightly identifies the outcome for and the attitudes of those on the receiving end of a banking education when he says that, “in the banking concept of education, knowledge is a gift bestowed by those who consider themselves knowledgeable upon those whom they consider to know nothing.” My high school buddies felt helpless to change their situation because they were in the midst of a power struggle between the “knowledgeable and the unknowledgeable.” They were in effect told they knew nothing by having papers shoved at them constantly in preparation for standardized testing to the point that their own ideas and creativity had to be stifled. The projection of this “absolute ignorance onto [my high school buddies], a characteristic of the ideology of oppression, negates education and knowledge as processes of inquiry.” Dialogic inquiry, we hope when engaging in problem – posing, will ultimately lead to a transformed understanding. However, when the teacher “presents himself to his students as their necessary opposite; by considering their ignorance absolute, he justifies his own existence. The students alienated like the slave in the Hegelian dialectic, accept their ignorance as justifying the teachers existence.” I believe that this is the overarching reason for the silence of my high school buddies and their inability to make the cognitive leap into developing a strong rivaling hypothesis stance. They were silenced by the acceptance of the status quo due to the high stakes of needing to graduate and seeing that justifying their teacher’s existence was the only way to reach this ultimate goal. The problem with this banking education concept and justifying the teacher’s existence through acceptance of “absolute ignorance” is that, “unlike the [Hegelian] slave, [the students] never discover that they educate the teacher.” Even I learned this as I observed how my interactions with them in a mentor-mentee relationship changed me and helped me to develop skills for dialogic thinking. I found myself developing a better understanding of my own individual rhetorical logic. They were educating me because we were engaging in a dialogue grounded in the idea that education and knowledge are processes of inquiry.

Transformed understanding comes as a result of all parties involved coordinating meaning by taking each perspective into consideration. Although we must create a transformed understanding with situated knowledge from the different rhetorical logics of the individuals in conflict, “roles and rules can be transformed so that there is greater justice and equity” (Finn). It is actually the barriers of discourse that can lead to transformed understanding. However, neglecting the full consideration of one person’s view can prevent understanding from taking place and leave both parties on the same side of the chasm that bought them into dialogue in the first place. My high school buddies had a similar encounter with the process of writing their script. They told their stories, which developed critical consciousness within themselves, but the did not form that strong rivaling hypothesis stance so necessary to forming transformed actionable understanding. In other words, they were unable to incorporate the teacher’s perspective in a way that would translate into action on their parts. It is important to consider the effects and outcomes of their present; somewhat banking and depository style education will possibly bring them in the future. However, in order to affect change in their environment it is vital to develop an unbiased view of reality. This is something that Freire, Flower, and Finn seem to synchronously highlight within their literature.

In Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed the narrative nature of education is analyzed. In this classic model of education the teacher narrates while the student listens. Freire identified this mechanistic mode of education as the banking concept of education, and further explains how this perpetuates the ideology of oppression. During the weeks I spent with my high school buddies their conversations made it clear that they were able to identify the difference between empowering and disempowering education; and they revealed that they were able to recognize rivaling perspectives. My high school buddies exhibited this knowledge through their conversations about their biology class. Their teacher taught what he desired to teach and was subsequently fired. However the students have had the responsibility of “catching up” placed on them. They were given a hefty packet of biology information that they have been told they have to know for the standardized test they must pass in order to graduate. If they do not pass the standardized test in May they will have to retake the exam along with the rest of their standardized tests next year. So in their education there is a perpetual cycle of oppression, which seemingly places a great barrier on the ability to fully participate in dialogic inquiry.

Through my experience with my high school buddies, it became clear to me that the oppressive structures within a culture can stifle and prevent transformed understanding, which is key to engaging in dialogic inquiry (and ultimately the creation of community literacy). Failing to develop a strong rivaling hypothesis stance as a result of the acceptance of “absolute” ignorance imparted upon people within a culture by those in power, leads to the partial development of critical consciousness. As Freire identified, it is this failing to develop a critical consciousness that leads to the acceptance of the passive role imposed on those not in the position of power or authority. In this case we saw teachers imposing passivity onto students through the education they deposit into them. Ultimately the oppressive ideology stemming from banking education hinders the development of transformed actionable understanding. Accepting passive roles disables true social change and agency within a culture because in acceptance of this role you minimize your power and do not engage in the complete process of dialogic inquiry and discourse. To create community literacy is to actively engage in developing critical consciousness about your own individual rhetorical strategies, while seeking to understand and become knowledgeable about the perspectives of others through the inquiry based development of a strong rivaling hypothesis stance.

Works Cited

Finn, Patrick J. Literacy with an Attitude: Educating Working-class Children in Their Own Self-interest. Second ed. Albany: State U of New York, 1999. Print

Flower, Linda. Community Literacy and the Rhetoric of Public Engagement. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 2008. Print.

Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Continuum, 2000. Print.

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