Struggle in the Classroom
“The history of all hitherto existing pedagogy is the history of oppressed classes.” – Arthur Wang
Such was my invented variation of Karl Marx’s opening statement to The Communist Manifesto, a brief ten-page publication that was first published in 1848 and subsequently changed half of the world as we knew it. The idea of the “oppressed classroom” comes from the founding intellectual of critical pedagogy, the Portuguese Paulo Freire, who wrote The Pedagogy of the Oppressed in 1968. Declared by popular belief to be a “revolutionary text,” titled by myself to be the “Communist Manifesto for educators (and really, really intelligent students),” and an ironic staple in teacher training programs nationwide, Freire’s central thesis makes it clear that he was inspired by the famous historian and sociologist’s idea of the oppressed proletariat. Freire also calls for a revolution – of course, not a violent one – in the classroom to eliminate and replace the (still) current system of what he calls “the banking concept of education” with “problem-posing” education.
The juxtaposition of the “banking” and the “problem-posing” pedagogical methods is best understood like the relationship between capitalism and socialism – this should bear little surprise, considering Freire’s Marxian influences. The nature of his sharply critical outlook towards the institution of education and its oppressive teachers is an incredibly faithful mirror of Marx’s sharply critical outlook of the capitalist bourgeoisie.
Paulo Freire presents the “banking” system of education (the prevalent form in nearly all institutions) as an inherently oppressive model in which the teacher, in every way, holds a position to wield absolute power over his students – there is no room for critical discussion or dialogue. Likewise, Marx presents the “capitalist” system of economy as an inherently oppressive model that places the bourgeoisie in a position to wield absolute power over the proletariats – the capitalist owns the means of production, a version of the teacher’s absolute ownership of knowledge (and the students, none) in the critiqued banking system.
Parallels in Marx and Freire’s theories extend past their proposed solutions – for starters, they are both ludicrously utopian in nature. Marx sees an ideal socialist realm as one without any form of oppression or authority; that’s the whole “dictatorship of the proletariat” idea being put into play here. Resources are shared, and no one individual lays claim to superiority over another.
Paulo Freire’s solution to the frustrating and uncooperative banking system is titled the “problem-posing” system, where asking questions perpetually (to borrow from Socrates) is the ideal. Taken to its extreme, Freire sees the ideal classroom as one without students nor teachers – there are only “student-teachers” and “teacher-students” who mutually educate, teach, and learn for a collective good. Once again, it imitates Marx’s socialism: there is no assumption that students are “empty vessels” or accounts where “deposits” are placed by the powerful educator; the knowledge is shared rather than doled out like a noble feeding his peasants; individuals have an equal say in the classroom; and there are no dominating geniuses (and ‘teacher’s pets, for that matter!).
Lastly, both of the systems the men posit are incredibly unrealistic.
Marx would have been delighted to live to see the hundreds of revolutionary movements that featured him as the ideological epicenter; disgusted he would be, though, if he witnessed how communism created bureaucracy and oppression like the world had never saw before, and that socialist utopias only flourished briefly in a pathetically small scale.
Freire succeeded in creating a problem-posing classroom himself, and many of his fellow critical pedagogues presumably followed suit. Unfortunately for him, that was about the entire extent of the implementation of ‘revolutionary’ pedagogic methods – like Marx’s utopias, it can be quickly discerned that in practice, an inherently egalitarian method of teaching quickly dissolved in favor of highly efficient, rigid top-down bureaucracies – such defines educational institutions as we know it in the United States, and around the world, today.
While Freire’s ideal classroom may only become reality in some alternate universe, my personal experiences in the classroom – a giant cubicle of sorts that I have grown fond of (but not necessarily attracted to) in my many years of sitting, listening, and taking notes in them – add flavor for arguments both in favor of and against “problem-posing” pedagogy.
The subject in which I have the most severe gripe against the “banking” system – or to be less Occupy Wall Street-ish, the “conventional” system – of teaching, is that applied to writing. As I have mentioned previously, writing is a flexible art that is done no justice by methodological approaches that reduce its complex, easily variable nature into simple formulas, approaches, and edict-like rules to play by. Writing cannot and should not be constrained, but oppressive educators do exactly that; it indeed transforms words into “hollow, alienated, and alienating verbosit[ies]” (Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Chapter 2). In a similar light (er, darkness), it’s easy to see why educators prefer telling students to conduct rote memorization and complete multiple-choice exams – it not only allows them to relieve stress for themselves, but it enables them to shackle pupils to the confines of dark bubbles and depressing lists.
There is a simple reason why relieving students from these shackles is unrealistic, however. If “ignorance is strength,” indeed, the point is proven time and time again in the classroom, where the ignorant student (and most students are ignorant, considering the nature of compulsory education) would only be binding themselves, were they to be allowed to engage in freedom of Socratic questioning and dialogical conversation. The question is not whether they should be allowed to do so (certainly they do), but whether they can do it or not.
Sadly, the answer is no.
And this point is quickly proven the moment you walk into any government classroom in my school – a school that has failed to offer an AP United States Government and Politics course for years. In every class, there is the juxtaposition of the school’s most brilliant minds – some future educators themselves, others future engineers, scientists, and businesspeople – with the utterly uninformed high school dropouts: it is perhaps too tragic to be considered an amusing spectacle. It is tragic, indeed, for the educator, who has no choice but to instill the simple, but drastically efficient, “capitalist” form of education. Certainly, not every student is legitimately capable of formulating questions about government – that of which is ironically one great case study of bureaucracy. No wonder Friere believes students are “[integrated] into the structure of [pedagogical] oppression” (Freire, Chapter 2).
The ones that can posit those questions, however, are at least allowed to fend for themselves. Ergo, this is why I have made the choice to self-study AP US Government as well as AP Comparative Government. In our bureaucracy, we still have the freedom to empower ourselves, at the very least!
A real pedagogical revolution? That’s not likely. “Deal with it?” No. Resist gently, and you shall reward yourself.
“All in all, you’re just another brick in the wall” — Pink Floyd