November 15, 2014

Part 8: "Stayed on Freedom": Social Movements and Re-Inventing Education

A "talking book" by Horton and Freire.
Before I even begin about Paulo Freire, I have to recommend two books.  This is essential reading and encompasses far more than I can put into a blog post.

Pedagogy of the Oppressed
We Make the Road by Walking

These books are just two of dozens authored by Freire.  "We Make the Road by Walking" was also the last book Myles Horton authored.  He approved the final draft of it just days before his death.

Paulo Freire is from Brazil and is one of the most widely influential authors related to education.  While we have explored many re-inventions of education in these posts, most educational circles point to Freire as the father of "critical pedagogy."  He was the bridge between freedom struggles and educational theory.  He spoke truth to power in education.  That doesn't invalidate the work of Tolstoy, Gandhi, Freedom Schools and more.  Their work in education was simply overshadowed by their more popular efforts toward freedom and social change.

Early on, Freire was influenced by a popular movement of populist politics in the Brazilian Northeast.  This was around the time of the Cuban Revolution, 1959-1961.  The Catholic Church increasingly supported Liberation Theology and focused efforts on the poor.  Literacy was a requirement for voting in Brazil which excluded a large majority of the illiterate poor population in Brazil.

This backdrop set the stage for Freire to launch adult literacy programs, much like the Citizenship Schools of the Civil Rights movement that originated at the Highlander Folk School with Septima Clark.

Freire was so successful in his efforts in northeast Brazil that he was invited by the federal government to coordinate a national literacy campaign.  However, a military coup in 1964 drove out the populist government and Freire was exiled.  He returned to Brazil after 15 years when the military regime gave way to democratization.  

Let's pause for a moment.  You know how a statistic sticks in your head and then you go back to find it and you just can't.  Here's that statistic.  I believe it was in "We Make the Road by Walking," but I can't find it for the life of me.  So, take it with a grain of salt.  I remember seeing that the literate electorate in Brazil was about 250,000 people.  Freire's literacy programs touched around 750,000 people.  So, you can see how his literacy programs were downright dangerous to a government of the elite that wanted to hold on to their power.

So, what was his philosophy on education?  Traditional education is a political tool of the oppressors.  However, it can be used for liberation as much as oppression.  Here's a sample from Pedagogy of the Oppressed:

“Pedagogy which begins with the egoistic interests of the oppressors (an egoism cloaked in the false generosity of paternalism) and makes of the oppressed the objects of its humanitarianism, itself maintains and embodies oppression.  It is an instrument of dehumanization.” 

He called it the "Banking Concept of Education."

“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.  Projecting an absolute ignorance onto others, a characteristic of the ideology of oppression, negates education and knowledge as processes of inquiry.  The teacher presents himself to his students as their necessary opposite; by considering their ignorance absolute, he justifies his own existence.”

Instead, he suggests:

“Knowledge emerges only through invention and re-invention, through the restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry human beings pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other.”

He says teachers and students should be in an egalitarian, respectful relationship where students have voice rather than being coerced into a "culture of silence."  A culture of silence only perpetuates the submissiveness of the oppressed.  Instead, Freire argued, knowledge should be co-constructed without the authoritarian power structures of traditional education.  This evolution of the classroom begins by valuing and giving voice to the life experience of the students before they even enter the classroom.  Sounds a lot like Myles Horton?  Now you know why they wrote a book together.

Freire's programs were for adult education but they apply equally to younger people.  It begins with valuing the inherent worth and dignity of all people.  His model promotes freedom and equality and empowers students with their own voices, experiences, thoughts and actions.

For now, this is the end of my exploration into the lineage of re-inventing education through freedom struggles, humanitarian efforts and nonviolence.  There are many more stories to tell, like the Reggio Emilia form of education that began in Italy after WWII with the sale of a German tank, nine horses and two military trucks and the belief that "children are powerful people, full of desire and ability to construct their own knowledge."  It was an effort to bring freedom to education to ensure that fascism would not return.  

So, given all of these rich and deep connections, what might a school of nonviolence look like?  I shall write about my experience and ideas in the next post.  

Next: Blueprint for a Nonviolence School

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