Thursday, January 22, 2015

Connections, Flows, and Freire in #moocmooc

I'm taking a break from prepositions—at least from writing about them—to talk about MOOCMOOC and critical pedagogy. MOOCMOOC assigned reading for this week included Chapter 2 of Paulo Freire's Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1993). It's been many years since I read Freire, and it's pleasant to see how my latest readings are re-informing my understanding of him now. The most surprising idea to emerge from this week's reading was his reliance on movement and flow in his critique of the traditional banking model of education. He doesn't actually discuss flow as such—the term doesn't appear in the translation of Chapter 2 that I read—but I see the concept informing much of what he does discuss.

For instance, early in Chapter 2 he talks about inquiry as a practice necessary for humanity: "For apart from inquiry, apart from the praxis, individuals cannot be truly human. Knowledge emerges only through invention and re-invention, through the restless, impatient continuing, hopeful inquiry human beings pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other" (1). His words imply movement: knowledge emerges … restless, impatient continuing … human beings pursue. Inquiry is not passive, cannot be passive, but is active, moving, flowing. It reminds me of Deleuze and Guattari's flows of desire that drive all human activity—and I would say desire drives all natural activity.

One of the big problems with the banking model of education is that it stops the flow of inquiry physically, mentally, socially. Students are anchored in seats and forbidden to talk to their neighbors (real or virtual), they can't look on each others papers. The banking model has a very truncated, highly controlled flow that stops with the individual student: teacher > student—STOP, with the only expectation that the student can send the information back to the teacher on a test, but with no expectation that the information has any immediate use. The information will be useful in the distant, adult future, which for children especially is the same thing as never.

All students, of course, have drives for inquiry: they all desire to connect to their worlds and their societies to understand better, to engage that world, but the banking model dams all of those desires, those flows toward connection and engagement with the real world, restricting students to the sanctioned flow of information. The problem is, as Freud has helped us to see, those desires for connection may be dammed but they are not eliminated. They squirt out around the sides of the dams, cutting new channels, and flowing into the dark, forbidden corners of school hallways, lavatories, and playgrounds. Desires will not be denied, but they can be perverted, and that is mostly what the banking model of education does. It perverts the natural desires of students to connect to their worlds and understand it. It tries to stop the flows of desire that all students have to connect to each other and to their worlds, desires that are obvious to anyone who has engaged or observed a kindergarten class.

Freire points out that the main way to open the natural desire to inquire into the world is to change the flow between student and teacher: "The raison d'etre of libertarian education, on the other hand, lies in its drive towards reconciliation. Education must begin with the solution of the teacher-student contradiction, by reconciling the poles of the contradiction so that both are simultaneously teachers and students" (1). Not until we teachers reconnect to our own desires for genuine inquiry of the world, can we hope to remove ourselves as an impediment to our students' desires for inquiry, for sustained engagement of the world. In their chapter about rhizomes in their book A Thousand Plateaus (1988), Deleuze and Guattari distinguish between mapping the world and tracing the world. The banking model is focused on tracing sanctioned simulacra of the world, while genuine inquiry focuses on mapping. Deleuze and Guattari explain the difference between the two in ways that illuminate Freire for me:
What distinguishes the map from the tracing is that it is entirely oriented toward an experimentation in contact with the real. … It fosters connections between fields, … It is itself a part of the rhizome. The map is open and connectable in all of its dimensions; it is detachable, reversible, susceptible to constant modification. It can be torn, reversed, adapted to any kind of mounting, reworked by an individual, group, or social formation. It can be drawn on a wall, conceived of as a work of art, constructed as a political action or as a meditation. Perhaps one of the most important characteristics of the rhizome is that it always has multiple entryways … as opposed to the tracing, which always comes back "to the same." The map has to do with performance, whereas the tracing always involves an alleged "competence." (12, 13)
Inquiry has to do with performance, whereas the banking model always involves an alleged competence. You can't measure competence unless you freeze a flow into a traceable model against which to measure the student's tracing. Inquiry is always oriented away from the model toward an experimentation in contact with the real.

I think Freire speaks directly to this experimentation in contact with the real when he says that "only through communication can human life hold meaning. The teacher's thinking is authenticated only by the authenticity of the students' thinking. The teacher cannot think for her students, nor can she impose her thought on them. Authentic thinking, thinking that is concerned about reality [italics added], does not take place in ivory tower isolation, but only in communication. If it is true that thought has meaning only when generated by action upon the world, the subordination of students to teachers becomes impossible" (4). When both the teacher and the students, together, are flowing beyond the classroom and into contact with the real, then can they have genuine communication. In other words, their speech is not just tracing, but mapping the real.

Stopping the flow of our lives is painful, violent, and fatal. Freire is quite clear about this, as are Deleuze and Guattari: "Oppression—overwhelming control—is necrophilic; it is nourished by love of death, not life. The banking concept of education, which serves the interests of oppression, is also necrophilic. Based on a mechanistic, static, naturalistic, spatialized view of consciousness, it transforms students into receiving objects. It attempts to control thinking and action, leads women and men to adjust to the world, and inhibits their creative power. When their efforts to act responsibly are frustrated, when they find themselves unable to use their faculties, people suffer" (4).

The only way out, the only path of liberation, is to open the flows of inquiry and communication in contact with the real. As Freire says, "Authentic liberation—the process of humanization—is not another deposit to be made in men. Liberation is a praxis: the action and reflection of men and women upon their world in order to transform it" (5).

This physical, mental, and social practice of inquiry and communication to engage and transform the world joins not only the teacher and student but also the objects of inquiry. The things learned themselves join the flow of inquiry and engagement, both making and marking the connection of the student/teachers and teacher/students to each other and to the real world. We all become mediated by the world, changing both ourselves and our worlds, as Freire says:
It is a learning situation in which the cognizable object (far from being the end of the cognitive act) intermediates the cognitive actors—teacher on the one hand and students on the other. Accordingly, the practice of problem-posing education entails at the outset that the teacher-student contradiction to be resolved. Dialogical relations—indispensable to the capacity of cognitive actors to cooperate in perceiving the same cognizable object—are otherwise impossible. … Through dialogue, the teacher-of-the-students and the students-of-the-teacher cease to exist and a new term emerges: teacher-student with students-teachers. The teacher is no longer merely the-one-who-teaches, but one who is himself taught in dialogue with the students, who in turn while being taught also teach. They become jointly responsible for a process in which all grow. In this process, arguments based on "authority" are no longer valid; in order to function authority must be on the side of freedom, not against it. Here, no one teaches another, nor is anyone self-taught. People teach each other, mediated by the world, by the cognizable objects which in banking education are "owned" by the teacher. (6)
Life, then, our own lives right here and now, make sense only as mediated by the world, by cognizable objects. This mediation is not static, but a flow which the banking model tries to dam and restrict. These flows of desire to engage the world, the real world, are not ours alone. Rather, they flow through us. All humanity desires to engage, and we share in those desires with the world. When we open those flows, we are authentically engaged with the world and become real, here and now people. Freire says, "Education as the practice of freedom—as opposed to education as the practice of domination—denies that man is abstract, isolated, independent and unattached to the world; it also denies that the world exists as a reality apart from people. Authentic reflection considers neither abstract man nor the world without people, but people in their relations with the world. In these relations consciousness and world are simultaneous: consciousness neither precedes the world nor follows it" (6).

Education can flow with this desire to engage and to know, or it can try to subvert that desire for its own ends or the ends of State, Church, or Business. Damming the desires of people to inquire into the real does not stop those desires but tragically turns the desires in on themselves, cutting people off from the real and locking them into their own fantasies. What Freire calls genuine inquiry and D&G call mapping frees us from the dammed, perverse desires. As Deleuze and Guattari say, "The map does not reproduce an unconscious closed in upon itself; it constructs the unconscious. It fosters connections between fields, the removal of blockages" (12).

As it happens, Freire, Deleuze, and Guattari are just trying to save our souls.
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