The Pedagogy of the Oppressed

October 25th, 2012

The title is shared with a book I picked up on my last visit to Northern California; my Dad had reserved a shelf of his bookcase to volumes that had been owned (and predictably underlined, highlighted, and margin-noted) by my late Grandfather, who was a school principal and a professor of education. In fact, I picked it up pretty much for the sake of the title, perhaps a flippant or indulgent act; it seemed exotic, something to flip through now and then. Since I've had it I haven't done much of any flipping, but the title has worked its effect on others, recently calling attention to itself when used as a hard surface on which a business acquaintance signed some papers. After the book's political slant (if such a slant is to be found --the book remains unread) was jokingly called into question, and in the course of my recent return to the study of basic chemistry, the words "pedagogy" and "oppressed" have begun to take on increasingly relevant meaning for me.

Why? Because pedagogy, at least in my experience --which is limited to three albeit second and third-tier universities, and a great deal more independent study--, is suffering an intolerable and frankly disgusting state. Because the oppressed aren't limited to what we in the first-world countries imagine is the third-world, but in fact is making quite a meal of the world at large, at least in terms of education. The proof, if you want it, is anywhere you'd care to look; it's in the general public having little to no clue about such basic things as the order of the planets in our solar system or how to make change without a calculator, it's in the recurring dramas of altered standardized test scores and the failure of entire swaths of adolescents to pass exams. More importantly, it's in the fact that apologies are made in lieu of actual teaching.

Apologies to the emotions, apologies to catalogued and medicated "conditions" based on those emotions or even the lack thereof, apologies to the attention span and to the desire for speed and ease. Much of modern education seems to lean towards this culture of apologetics, from the book I remember my Dad picking up in his post-graduate days many years ago (Statistics for the Terrified) right on down to the infuriating line I came across an hour ago after trusting a chemistry resource for a few chapters and finally discovering it was uselessly apologetic: "Why does this matter? What significance do electron shells have on the fact that "you'd rather be fishing"?"

Maybe it's supposed to be funny. I'm not fucking laughing. The idea that those who have tasked themselves with teaching should take into account, and should actually cater to this modern state of affairs in which students can't be assed to actually learn something entirely undermines, at least from my point of view, the task of teaching in the first place. I understand that educators are more often than not held accountable for the performance of their students, and that the path of least resistance may well be the path that leads to a decent living, some comfortable shroud of prestige, and the ability to move upward into some ivy-covered leather-loungered candyland of "the real thing," where you can have a lab or a grad student and maybe find someone who shares your ultra-specialized interests. But as with pretty much any other widespread issue in which standard practice has gone to shit, those who are practicing thusly, for any reason whatsoever, are a large part of the problem.

Which isn't to say that the onus is completely on the educators. It's on everyone engaged in the act of learning, no matter their position or angle. As a reformed undergraduate earning straight As after a slew of failures, I quickly picked up on the fact that gorging on properly formatted bites of information and storing them for a few days was perfectly adequate for getting the grades and the certificates and the praise. Years later, I realize that I didn't learn anything at all, really, other than the system itself. And I'm far from being alone; following the system is an educational problem old and widespread enough to be a major topic in this pedagogy I'm describing. And if I reference Chomsky here and his discussion of the problem of obedience to the system outperforming meaningful learning, would I actually help anybody learn anything, or would I just be sending the right signal of systemhood to obedient compatriots?

As far as I can see, there are two equally important, and importantly interdependent, beasts to approach if we're interested in liberating ourselves from the oppression of modern pedagogy. The first is arriving at the purpose of learning. Of all the many things in this life that are subjected to our "shoulding" indoctrination, learning takes a backseat perhaps only to religion. Some of us are told that we should learn because it's what everyone else does, or because if we do it, we'll get a reward such as more money or the approval of other people. Some of us are told that we should learn or else we'll get into trouble. Few of us are told that if we learn, we'll actually become functional human beings. The purpose of learning isn't to pass someone else's test, or to become certified. It isn't to get more money (and in fact, as countless people have discovered, the route of learning to get more money is frequently derailed by the costs of that route). The purpose of learning isn't to impress your friends or to "become an expert" or any other trashy carrot on a stick so often dangled in front of us as children (or adult children). The purpose of learning is to fucking learn. It's not glamorous, it's not material, and for both of those reasons it has nothing at all to do with a cap, a gown, a piece of paper on your wall, or a piece of paper in your wallet. And the conclusion isn't that it won't actually win you anything. It will. It will win you the most important thing of all: your self, your personhood, your ability. I suppose you don't have to want that. But if you don't, by no means should you go through the motions of learning as though you're doing anything other than contributing to the stupidification of the entire human race.

The second beast is understanding what learning is, and how to do it. This is what you're supposedly being taught as a child. Supposedly, it's the foundation you're given before you breach into specific subjects. Unless you're one of the modern elite, though, and I do mean elite, as in the ability to master any subject you'd like and disseminate it correctly and meaningfully for any given audience*, you haven't actually gotten it. Alternatively, through some unfortunate miracle you could arguably have gotten it but are so lazy or apathetic you haven't put it to any use. Learning is a process, obviously, and requires the location and verification of reliable sources, which is a far more difficult task than it would seem. Wikipedia is not a source. Encyclopedia Britanica is not a source. The vast majority of university courses are not sources nor do they actually provide you with them. This isn't easy to accept in a world where we've been taught that you can Google something and "learn" it. Nevertheless, if you wish to learn you must identify the actual learning of actually learned people. As a consequence of our modern problem, this usually means that you'll have to look back several decades if not centuries, if not millenia. You want seminal pieces. You want thoroughly unbiased peer review. And you need to be able to cross-check, and to test. When you find truth, then, you must toil to understand it, until you can fit it into your own tree of knowledge, so that it can rationally interact with everything else you've learned in this manner. It's a bitch. It's also the only way. No, you won't ever "finish," but if you're particularly lucky you might stand a chance at discovering something, at contributing to our knowledge.

Certainly, and most importantly, you will without a doubt lead a more fulfilled, more capable, and more meaningful existence, whether you're rich or poor, whether you're fat or thin, whether you've suffered a little damage from today's bullshit or you've been digging through it for years. Confronting both beasts requires a great deal of honesty and discipline on your part, and you'll also need plenty of patience. There's no fast-track, no accelerated option. It is what it is, and at times, like me, you'll realize three chapters into what you thought was an already-verified source that you've been fleeced yet again and you've got to go back to the drawing board because the world is so freaking full of this apologetic half-assed approach to learning, and jesus h. christ enough already! Stand your ground, this is what we are fighting for. There are those who believe, either in a nod to the ancient ideas on pedagogy or because of their own idiosyncrasies, or both, that you will have to be physically beaten, starved, and put through the ringer in order to do this. It is my deep and earnest hope that this isn't actually true. It's also my deep and earnest hope that in my lifetime learning will be accomplished not with whips and chains, nor advertised with cars and houses and social labels, but will become again the natural and meaningful pursuit of people.

When my Grandfather was still alive, I was sadly still meandering through today's broken system, and I never really made the effort to get to know his perspective on learning or to talk to him about his experience. This article is dedicated to him; a reminder to myself of the time I've wasted, and of how many great unknowns still and will ever lie ahead.

*Yes, this exists, though I've only met one such elite and have sacrificed much to even gain access, and I'm not at this point convinced that there is more than one such person on this earth, though I have my hopes and suspicions.

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