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“… one of the paradoxes of education was that precisely at the point when you begin to develop a conscience, you must find yourself at war with your society.  It is your responsibility to change society if you think of yourself as an educated person.” James Baldwin

James Baldwin, France 1979 by Dmitri Kasterine

“… one of the paradoxes of education was that precisely at the point when you begin to develop a conscience, you must find yourself at war with your society. It is your responsibility to change society if you think of yourself as an educated person.”

– James Baldwin


Essential Back to School Readings: James Baldwin, Naomi Klein, Keri Facer, and Paulo Freire


James Baldwin opens his “A Talk to Teachers” (1963) with a claim that rings ever more true: “Let’s begin by saying that we are living through a very dangerous time.”

reports how “the rate of police killings of black Americans is nearly the same as the rate of lynchings in the early decades of the 20th century.” The right wing has found their demagogues. 13 million children in the Middle East and North Africa are not in school. And from where I sit in Brussels, I see not only terrorism, but also the fear of The Other result in the banning of women in full-bodied swimwear in France. Remona Aly writes: “Politicians talk constantly about integration and inclusion, and then proceed to kick out to the fringes the very women they claim are oppressed and excluded from society.”

What role should teachers play in these dangerous times?

In an age where it’s all to easy to think that google has supplanted the value of background knowledge, we need to teach about the historical circumstances that have given birth to the crises we face. Along with teaching the capacity to question power, teaching important historical knowledge helps to build our critical filters. Those filters play an essential role in how we construct meaning, and if they are robust, they open up possibilities to imagine the world being otherwise from what power tells us it must be. Paulo Freire would have called this process “developing a critical consciousness.”

In his ‘Talk to Teachers’, James Baldwin argues that we should teach students that they have “the right and the necessity to examine everything.” Those parts of history that our culture has covered over in myth are precisely the ones that have erupted as the cause of a crisis:

“What is upsetting the country is a sense of its own identity. If, for example, one managed to change the curriculum in all the schools so that Negroes learned more about themselves and their real contributions to this culture, you would be liberating not only Negroes, you’d be liberating white people who know nothing about their own history. And the reason is that if you are compelled to lie about one aspect of anybody’s history, you must lie about it all. If you have to lie about my real role here, if you have to pretend that I hoed all that cotton just because I loved you, then you have done something to yourself. You are mad.”

The choice between Trump and Clinton is between an America that needs to be great again and one that’s always been great. Between those two options there is little room for the oppression Baldwin writes about. And that’s where our critical filters come in, to tell us that an important side of the story is being left out. Then, in the hands of someone with that knowledge, google is exponentially more powerful as a tool to learn more. However, without robust critical filters, we wouldn’t even know there’s a question that needs to be asked.

Making an argument for helping students to build their background knowledge isn’t fashionable, and I don’t propose returning to what Paulo Freire called the ‘banking’ concept of education in Chapter 2 of Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Freire doesn’t suggest that it is impossible for teachers to transmit information to students and cram facts into their heads (as constructivist theories of learning might), rather Freire recognizes that it works too well. Freire essentially describes indoctrination:

“Education thus becomes an act of depositing, in which the students are the depositories and the teacher is the depositor. Instead of communicating, the teacher issues communiques and makes deposits which the students patiently receive, memorize, and repeat. This is the “banking” concept of education, in which the scope of action allowed to the students extends only as far as receiving, filing, and storing the deposits.”

Part of constructing a critical filter means that we must move beyond what sounds like instructions on a shampoo bottle — “receive, memorize, and repeat” — and instead teach students to critically listen, read, and compare sources, while at the same time asking questions about privilege and power. The lesson isn’t to abandon a curriculum and pursue only what the child is interested in, but to be critical about what we choose to teach and how we teach it.

The whole point of constructing critical filters is action, what Freire called “revolutionary futurity.” Freire wrote that “a deepened consciousness of their situation leads people to apprehend that situation as an historical reality susceptible of transformation.” Nothing is inevitable, and for revolutionary action, people “must perceive their state not as fated and unalterable, but merely as limiting — and therefore challenging.”

Keri Facer1 Facer’s talk about Learning Futures is good, but no substitute for reading her book, which supplies a very rich variety of sources. It’s the one book I wish all teachers would read. articulates a powerful role for teaching in bringing about a revolutionary futurity:

“The role of teaching and the role of education is also to treat the conventional disdainfully. To treat normalised predictions of the future with a degree of humour, wit, and disregard. To open up to children the possibility that things might be otherwise. When all the forces of our commercial and cultural world are pushing towards the acceptance of the mainstream the function of education is really to persistently create the space for young people to imagine that things might be otherwise.”

In our visions of the future, we must look beyond the cult of consumerism and obsession with the self, especially as we think about technology. We must look beyond the potential benefits that ‘we’ might reap from technologies, and as Naomi Klein reminds us, we must consider “how these technologies would be deployed in a world of Othering, in a world of racism.” (1:00:35) Our fossil fuel economy has always demanded “sacrificial people and places,” and so too does our apparently lightweight digital technology, whether its in mines, factories, or dumps.

Recognizing “sacrificial people and places” means understanding that we are not simply fighting against immaterial myths and ideologies, but against physical and structural oppression. Any model of agency and action must recognize what Facer calls our ‘principled interdependence’, “a recognition of the extent to which we are dependent upon other people, wider institutions, environment and tools to be able to act in the world; and of the extent to which our own actions therefore also have implications for other people and for their agency in turn.”2Learning Futures, page 55.

Most importantly, we must not educationalize these problems, making it the job of schools to produce students that flexibly adapt to the economic and environmental ruins that are sure to leave them unless we radically change course. Keri Facer calls that approach to education ‘future-proofing.’3‘Future-proofing’ has been the dominant logic ever David Snedden’s social efficiency agenda won out over John Dewey. Facer writes: “The myth that has dominated discussions of the relationship between education and the future over the last two decades suggests that there is only one question about socio-technical change that the ‘future-proof’ school needs to address: namely, how successfully will the school equip young people to compete in the global economy of tomorrow?” (Learning Futures, 103)

Instead we must create what Facer calls ‘future-building’ schools. But that project should not be confused with the idea that we suffer some sort of isolated educational crisis. It’s fashionable — and easy — to claim that schools are broken, while at the same time failing to call for changes to the broader system.4Examples of ‘future-proofing’ are everywhere, especially amongst Thomas Friedman followers. They commonly acknowledge the precarious economic future that our students will face, but argue that school must prepare students for that future, instead of arguing that we ought to fix both the educational and economic system. In broad terms, they accept the neoliberal orthodoxy that equates freedom with ‘free-markets’, which typically results in the socialization of risk and the privatization of profits in the top 0.1%. Given Friedman and his followers tend to interview CEOs and scribe what they say, it makes sense that they go in for what really is the least radical and disruptive option. See Belén Fernández on Friedman.

Naomi Klein’s most important point is that we must address the seemingly disconnected crises of capitalism, racism, and climate change (and we could add, education) at the same time:

Overcoming these disconnections — strengthening the threads tying together our various issues and movements — is, I would argue, the most pressing task of anyone concerned with social and economic justice. It is the only way to build a counterpower sufficiently robust to win against the forces protecting the highly profitable but increasingly untenable status quo. Climate change acts as an accelerant to many of our social ills — inequality, wars, racism — but it can also be an accelerant for the opposite, for the forces working for economic and social justice and against militarism. Indeed the climate crisis — by presenting our species with an existential threat and putting us on a firm and unyielding science-based deadline — might just be the catalyst we need to knit together a great many powerful movements, bound together by a belief in the inherent worth and value of all people and united by a rejection of the sacrifice zone mentality, whether it applies to peoples or places. We face so many overlapping and intersecting crises that we can’t afford to fix them one at a time. We need integrated solutions, solutions that radically bring down emissions, while creating huge numbers of good, unionised jobs and delivering meaningful justice to those who have been most abused and excluded under the current extractive economy.

We would fail our stations if we merely prepared students for the mostly likely future as it stands now. Read to find courage and hope, to cultivate yourself and your own critical filter. As James Baldwin writes, “It is your responsibility to change society if you think of yourself as an educated person.” And if we build movements, then that’s a obligation we don’t need to face alone.


 

References   [ + ]

1. Facer’s talk about Learning Futures is good, but no substitute for reading her book, which supplies a very rich variety of sources. It’s the one book I wish all teachers would read.
2. Learning Futures, page 55.
3. ‘Future-proofing’ has been the dominant logic ever David Snedden’s social efficiency agenda won out over John Dewey. Facer writes: “The myth that has dominated discussions of the relationship between education and the future over the last two decades suggests that there is only one question about socio-technical change that the ‘future-proof’ school needs to address: namely, how successfully will the school equip young people to compete in the global economy of tomorrow?” (Learning Futures, 103)
4. Examples of ‘future-proofing’ are everywhere, especially amongst Thomas Friedman followers. They commonly acknowledge the precarious economic future that our students will face, but argue that school must prepare students for that future, instead of arguing that we ought to fix both the educational and economic system. In broad terms, they accept the neoliberal orthodoxy that equates freedom with ‘free-markets’, which typically results in the socialization of risk and the privatization of profits in the top 0.1%. Given Friedman and his followers tend to interview CEOs and scribe what they say, it makes sense that they go in for what really is the least radical and disruptive option. See Belén Fernández on Friedman.
I footnotes