Schools won’t embrace education as the practice of freedom if it rocks the boat too much. How might we care for a student’s soul in a disruptive sense?
“The purpose of education, finally, is to create in a person the ability to look at the world for himself, to make his own decisions… What societies really, ideally, want is a citizenry which will simply obey the rules of society. If a society succeeds in this, that society is about to perish. The obligation of anyone who thinks of himself as responsible is to examine society and try to change and fight it – at no matter what risk. This is the only hope that society has. This is the only way societies change.”
— James Baldwin, “A Talk to Teachers,” 1963
Dissimilarly, in Teaching to Transgress, bell hooks urges teachers to contemplate “Education as the practice of freedom” as their point of departure for praxis. A phrase originating from the work of Paulo Freire, hooks writes that “education as the practice of freedom” will come easiest “to those of us…who believe that our work is not merely to share information, but to share in the intellectual and spiritual growth of our students. To teach in a manner that respects and cares for the souls of our students is essential if we are to provide the necessary conditions where learning can most deeply and intimately begin.” Transgressive education and disruptive thinking therefore begin with the soul, and not the prospective career opportunities, of students.
Fellmayer openly questions how far she’s willing to take her own journey in the classroom.
If I as a teacher, an individual with more power than any student, have not been challenging myself to be intellectually and spiritually free in my practice, how much freedom can my students possibly experience?
After having recently finished White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo, I’ve been thinking about the continuum that she identifies between silence and accepting the systemic forces that keep individuals/groups down…and actively confronting and disrupting these forces. Fellmayer distills these tensions eloquently.
In my case risk relates to the potential sacrifice of privilege. By demanding that education be the practice of freedom I risk rocking what is, for the most part, an extremely comfortable boat. The truth is, I don’t ever have to do anything to combat oppression, and my life will be just fine. However, for anyone marginalised by systemic oppression, incurring risk is an unfortunate but necessary element of speaking truth to power. On the daily.
For those of us on the frontline of K-12 teaching, “education as the practice of freedom” requires forthright discussion and action regarding subjects that are messy (at least in terms of their challenge to the agreed narrative and the cultural status quo) and this messiness can potentially make people uncomfortable, confused, upset, angry, and even potentially confrontational or worse, violent. Administrators and teachers and colleagues generally do not want to embrace the concept of education as the practice of freedom if it means rocking the boat too much.
To interpret bell hook’s definition of “freedom” is to acknowledge that education in its current form advantages or disadvantages people to different degrees. Consider Kimberlé Crenshaw’s definition of intersectionality as a weight or influence originating from systems of power that affect individuals with varying degrees of pressure. From the perspective of intersectionality, schools, curriculum and pedagogy are bound to the same systemic forces that perpetuate systemic inequality. hooks and Friere’s understanding of freedom is an unparalleled level of disruption; it demands a de-centering of the standard narrative within society and education. Despite the best intentions of schools and individual praxis, without an acknowledged and proactive deconstruction of power structures, education cannot deflate the pressure of an oppressive system. “Education as the practice of freedom” demands that self-actualized educators open and centre the conversation and the cannon around marginalised voices and their narratives.