Revisiting Freire’s work: Howard Gardner, Noam Chomsky and Bruno della Chiesa

I’ve been reading Paulo Freire’s “Pedagogy of the Oppressed“, and one of my favourite things to do is to look for videos in which people discuss books I’m currently reading. That’s how I came across the video embedded above. Howard Gardner moderated the discussion with Noam Chomsky and Bruno della Chiesa. Held at the Harvard Graduate School of Education as part of its Askwith Forum series, the discussion was about the impact of Freire’s work and its relevance for education today.

My first contact with Freire was when I encountered the term “critical literacy” in the context of educational research in Singapore. Some dedicated Googling led me to Freire, and I quickly got the sense that there was nothing very critical – in the Freireian sense – about any curricular design in Singapore. At that time I still didn’t understand why. I read a paper by Aaron Koh that critiqued the co-optation of the term by educational planners in Singapore, but my understanding still remained very much at the level of exasperation that something could be implemented that could really move the young of the nation to be politically active and yet it was not being done. Repressive Singapore government etc etc.

It took actually reading “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” to understand the very specific context that Freire was addressing with his work. I had assumed from the way the terms “critical literacy” and “critical thinking” were being used in the Singapore context that it was precisely this context that critical pedagogy was meant to be able to address. But of course it was not. Freire was critiquing the approach of communists in Brazil – who claimed to want to free the oppressed, yet went about it by telling the peasants what to think. Freire argued that the oppressed need to be ‘conscientized’, or made aware of their oppression, so that they could then decide for themselves the terms of their liberation. The power of the prepositional choice comes through very clearly: Pedagogy OF the Oppressed, and not Pedagogy FOR the Oppressed. The learning must come from the people if it is to belong to  them and be authentic for them. Not be pre-determined for them and  then poured into them. In the case of the latter, which Freire refers to as the ‘banking model of education’, pedagogy becomes another form of oppression, and not a means of liberation.

In fact this stress on the preposition OF as being the key to Freire’s approach was pointed out by Bruno della Chiesa in the above video. Chomsky provided some important historical background, but it was Bruno’s* comments that really drove right to the heart of Freireian pedagogy. There are two major points from the discussion that I would like to draw out here, and both emerged from audience questions:

(1) In the US – specifically at the Harvard Graduate School of Education where this discussion was held – Freire’s work does not appear on the curriculum. It was pointed out that this was surprising, and the audience member who brought this up asked if the lack of Marxist and other critical scholarship was because it was seen as dangerous. Howard Gardner replied that it may not be seen as dangerous. Rather, it might be seen as irrelevant. This is when it got interesting, because both Bruno and Chomsky contested Gardner’s bifurcation, arguing instead that “irrelevant” is a mask for “dangerous”. Bruno gave an example that I have transcribed below, because I found it both relevant for my interests, as well as fascinating. It is from his work with the OECD, which is the organisation responsible for PISA. Bruno described his response to PISA when it was introduced, as well as the criticism he faced when he raised some critical objections:

“PISA is certainly a very interesting study. However, some of us – a minority, a small minority – had a critical stance from the beginning and said well look, PISA is interesting. It’s certainly one of the most powerful comparative tool that has been developed so far in terms of – well, you know – comparing performances of fifteen-year-olds here and there. However, it’s statistics, for god’s sake. And it’s only statistics. You have statistics which you… what does it tell you? Nothing. You remain at the surface of the whole thing. And then the discussion started but it was crushed very quickly. “Oh you guys are old-fashioned. You are like sixty-eighters”. Or it said “Oh look at your hair”. You’re completely superseded. You know, exactly that sort of things. And I said “Well look. I wonder actually if it’s not too easy to say – to take for instance a book like that, or in what we’ve done, examples that are yes maybe a bit out of date – to completely dismiss very powerful ideas that go back well beyond sixty-eight, to the gospels, or to the other writing of wisdom that we have in all great philosophical systems. Just one thing. Quantophrenia. You know this tendency of…the social sciences to put everything in numbers in order to look serious. Like the natural sciences. But in fact it is in the first place to look serious that at the very end of the day it is much worse than that. It is a way to not go deeper into the explanation. Again, it is one thing to say so many people are living under this standard of poverty. Once you have said that, you are still not asking why are these people living under that standard. And when you say, for instance, in this country or that country in studies like PISA, for instance, so many children succeed, so many children do not succeed, et cetera, fine. Now let’s talk. Why is that? We can go further, we can go deeper. PISA provides the tools for that. But as soon as you start to discuss it – and you say well look at the sociocultural and socioeconomic background of these kids who are failing at school, then you are called a communist.”

Chomsky put the finishing touches on this narrative when he used Samuel Huntington’s “Crisis of Democracy” to explain that in the neo-liberal view, critical perspectives are deemed irrelevant precisely because they are dangerous.

(2) The question of the relevance of Freire’s work for the developed world was raised. Freire was quoted in an interview as saying that his work should not be imported into any other country. Rather, it should be revisited. In the US for example, it was pointed out that the middle class is both the oppressor and the oppressed, unlike in Freire’s time when there was a clear delineation between the oppressors – a small elite who had everything – and the oppressed – a large majority of poor people. There was no firm answer on the question of how to practically reinvent the theory for developed countries, but Bruno did describe situations in which “critical education” was introduced, but more as a “hollow incantation” than any substantive pedagogy. This, he said, was because in a neo-liberal framework, we want some critical education, but only for the elite. Otherwise “it starts to become unmanageable”. As Chomsky phrased it, if people become aware of their oppression, “they start to go after the throats of those with power”. In fact, the “crisis of democracy” was precisely identified as an excess of democracy, with the accusation that institutions responsible for the indoctrination of the young were not doing their job, which was why people were protesting, demanding  their rights, and generally making nuisances of themselves!

This brought me full circle, because it gave me new understanding of the initial introduction in, eventual co-optation by and ultimate disappearance of the term “critical” from Singapore’s educational discourse. It is not because Singapore is unique in its ‘authoritarian democracy’, but because such critical thinking is irrelevant for an avowedly neo-liberal context. What IS the scope for reinventing Freire’s theory in this context? That’s something that I need to read and think more about.

* I realise I have referred to him by his first name instead of by his last. My only excuse is that I was so taken by his humour and insight that I simply couldn’t think of him as anything other than just-plain-Bruno. Plus there is all that hair. 

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