Archive for June 24th, 2008

Education and liberation

Note: this week is Summer Experience at UMF, at which students spend the week in seminars doing some interdisciplinary reading, and putting together an academic journal. This week’s blog entries will, each day, focus on one of the readings for summer experience. The readings are all across the board, from politics to philosophy to experience…hopefully blog readers will find it an interesting change of pace. Today I choose to write about “The Banking Concept of Education” by Paolo Freire (1921- 1977).

I spent the afternoon Monday in a meeting about how the UMF website is being used to recruit students. One major focus was our ‘record of success,’ which includes the work one does in the field after graduation, as well as those students how go on to graduate, law, or medical school. People want an education because a four year college degree dramatically increases ones’ income potential, and gives access to better employment. Education is an investment, Farmington offers a “value” because we’re providing the liberal arts experience (personal attention, community support, professors not graduate students teaching, etc.) at a public university price.

For most people teaching, that’s not the primary goal of education. Many of us cringe when education is talked about as an ‘investment,’ with an emphasis on pay back in dollars and career options. Obviously if we didn’t provide that we wouldn’t have so many students and we’d be out of work, so I’m glad a college education provides that valuable outcome. But for most of us the primary goal is to help students think for themselves, take responsibility for their lives and education, and in a real way liberate themselves from simply following patterns of thought and behavior programmed into us by our culture.

For Freire that meant getting away from the ‘banking concept’ of education where the professor is the expert, instilling knowledge into a student the way one puts money in the bank. That, Freire argues, is a tool for oppressors. If they control how you think, what truth you consider valid, what knowledge you possess, then you’ll behave the way they want. If you don’t question authority, authority wins.

Consider education in Eastern Europe and the former USSR. During the Communist era few were as knowledgable about science, mathematics history and literature than those educated in the east bloc. Their level of knowledge would shame most Americans. Yet when learning criticism of a literature piece they had to regurgitate exactly the instructors’ notes or what a book stated. There was no room for independent critique, students were to learn, like a sponge being filled with facts. And, of course, those systems were the most repressive, even with a well educated citizenry.

Therefore many of us in education are worried by moves like ‘no child left behind’ with mandatory testing and funding for schools tied to performance on standardized, government tests. However, while I agree with Friere that the goal of education should be to liberate students to be able to think independently, questioning their culture, rulers and yes, their professors, achieving that goal can’t be done on the cheap. Students need to learn lots of essential knowledge before they have the tools for liberation. Otherwise, it’s easy to simply believe the most recent argument made. So how do professors and students deal with the desire for a liberating education without forgoing the need to learn facts about the world? One cannot think critically about politics, history and ethics just by the seat of ones’ pants. Opinions are a dime a dozen without thoughtful introspection and supporting arguments.

To me it means looking at issues from a variety of perspectives. So in studying the Cold War, I assign students different interpretations. People read some conservative, some revisionist, and some realist perspectives, and in class we debate, compare and contrast these arguments. The same goes for considering, say, the war in Iraq, the history of Islam and the West, or various views on ethics in world politics. By learning facts embedded in diverse perspectives, students not only learn about the world, but they have modeled for them the fact that knowledge about the world is always seen from an angle, a perspective that is shaped by assumptions, the beliefs of a discipline, and the choice of data considered. The best courses I’ve been involved in are interdisciplinary; I’ve co-taught with people from education, music history, art history and literature. Every time I am surprised by how much I gain going outside my usual set of perspectives and thinking about, say, links between music and politics.

So liberation is an ongoing process of learning, reflecting and questioning. It never ends, it’s a process, but one that makes life intriguing, fun and intellectually stimulating. There is a deep joy in crafting ones’ own identity and values, shaping and refining as we go. Everyone has choice: one can live a life just being carried by the currents of culture and trends, not truly discovering and creating the person he or she want to be. Or one can take control of ones’ life. The former is easy, you just sit back, go along for the ride and find distractions – troubled by a nagging sense that time is frittering away. The latter takes effort, but the rewards are immense.

That may not be a good argument for marketers trying to recruit students. And, of course, a good career and a rich life of the mind are not mutually exclusive things. Indeed, people who take control of their lives are more likely to succeed, and in fact have the power to define for themselves what success means. Being a part of that makes the role of teacher the most satisfying profession I can imagine.

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