Teaching : A Political Tool for Repression or Freedom

As a religious minority, I know how the power of education can affect substantive political change.
This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.

As I write this first column for the new Education section of The Huffington Post, I reflect on the reasons I became a teacher. Though I love to help others, as a religious minority I knew the power of education to affect substantive political change.

As the granddaughter of Jewish refugees who escaped the pogroms in Russia, I heard stories of cavalrymen bayoneting babies. The libelous "Protocols of the Elders of Zion" was passed off as truth, on a population educated on a daily diet of religious hatred and limited literacy focused on vocational needs. The educational system in that militarized dictatorship had no provision for free inquiry and the questioning of strongly held beliefs. Genocide was the result of such "blood libel" and unquestioning militarized thinking.

Now we have a revised pogrom aimed at another religious minority -- Muslims. Sept. 11 resulted in a militarized government, dominating all other functions including public education. For the corporatist, this takeover was a win-win: unbelievable war profits and an opportunity to brainwash future generations through a reinvented public education limited to test-taking factories and censored curriculum. Education as an instrument of democracy and social justice was -- dead on arrival.

As a teacher I was told my duty was to obediently teach the official curriculum. Questioning the legitimacy of the new standards movement was dangerous and labeled anti-child. Where was the notion of true education as a liberating force for the greater good? Where was the duty of every teacher to instill a sense of justice, compassion and social responsibility into our children? If not now, then when do we plant the idea that all people have the right to "speak truth to power" and openly question our leaders? When do we the people have the right to accountability and transparency from our political leaders?

I began to wonder, what is the nature of education?

Is it the acquisition of job-related skills and literacy limited to corporate needs, or is it also a necessary component for acquiring and maintaining a socially just democracy? Is education the attainment of a limited knowledge base or a tool for critical thinking? Does education become mere training -- a type of intellectual slavery -- or does it become a tool for liberation? Why do these questions matter?

Activist author Naomi Wolf alluded to these questions in her book, "The End of America: A Letter of Warning to a Young Patriot." In this work, she described the Ten Steps to Close Down an Open Society:

  1. Invoke a terrifying and external enemy.
  2. Create a prison system outside the rule of law for troublemakers.
  3. Develop paramilitary groups to intimidate citizens.
  4. Set up an internal surveillance system.
  5. Harass citizens groups.
  6. Engage in arbitrary detention and release.
  7. Target key individuals.
  8. Control the press.
  9. Equate dissent with treason.
  10. Suspend the rule of law.

I would add one more step to this list of infamy: control all public schools by deskilling the teaching profession and censoring any critical thought other than the correct thinking as established by special (read corporate) consultants, courtesy of the Business Roundtable and various charitable boards.

In reality, that is the system we have now, complements of conservative and neoliberal voices from the Bush and Obama administrations. Education is reduced to the acquisition of job sub-skills and corporate propaganda. Teacher effectiveness is measured by standardized (read corporate) test scores aligned to the myth of AYP, the average yearly progress.

It sounds reasonable until you realize that our children aren't identical cans of soup, but the future of our dying democracy -- already on life support. When you dig deeper into this corporate planned reform movement and see the little man behind the curtain -- you realize the wizard is just a greedy fraud.

Some reforms are more dangerous than others, including the reduction of public schools to "test-taking factories." Let me be clear. Testing is not teaching and regurgitating factoids from blind rote drill is not learning! Furthermore, no democracy can continue without a citizenry able to critically analyze and discern truth from propaganda.

Democracy and justice critically require an educated public willing and able to question office holders. The attainment of such a goal requires teachers who view the profession as a calling and not merely a notch in their resume. The theory I speak of is called
liberation pedagogy or critical liberation theory, and the father of this movement is the late Paulo Freire.

Freire not only lectured his theories -- he lived them. He was single-handedly responsible for bringing literacy to the poor in his native Brazil, was jailed after the military coup in 1964, released and lived in exile until his return in 1980. His most famous work, "Pedagogy of the Oppressed," was given accolades at Harvard in the 1970s, but is now one of the 50 most banned books in the U.S. -- alongside "To Kill A Mockingbird."

When reading Freire's vast works, you can easily see why they are considered dangerous to ruling elites who coerce blind obedience to authority, masquerading it as "reform." Freire knew the dangers of his beliefs and the threat it posed to anti-democratic forces.

When people learn at an early age to become what Freire called "critical agents," willing and able to actively question authority, to speak from knowledge, reason and moral courage -- would-be fascists have to work harder to sell their tripe. In short, whether it's the ravings of Glenn Beck or the slick rhetoric of President Obama -- packaging doesn't save a flimsy intellectual argument. Powers of critical agency are necessary to save democratic and just institutions.

We now live in an era where this president claims many unconstitutional powers, including the power to order assassinations. The capitol is no longer the "shining city on the hill," but instead the symbol of a failed state committing crimes against humanity, using the morally bankrupt excuse of "fighting terrorism."

It is indeed ironic that the first African-American president has continued and expanded the immoral actions of his predecessor, such as illegal renditions and transporting alleged "terrorists" to Black Ops sites where they are stripped of their human rights. The flights on these "torture taxis" are provided by the same corporate heads who now want to control our children's education from preschool through college. In this venue, Freire's teachings of social justice and constant questioning of authority has no place. Complacent obedience to arbitrary authority is a required ingredient to this recipe for neoliberal fascism. It hasn't been a sudden departure from democracy, but a gradual chipping away, a "death by a thousand little cuts." Founder James Madison warned of this slow erosion of our human rights:

"I believe there are more instances of the abridgment of the freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachments of those in power than by violent and sudden usurpations."

Freire was an unusual intellectual, shunning the role of the existential hero struggling in isolation. He challenged fellow intellectuals to double up and include building diverse coalitions to mobilize real power to produce substantive social and economic change. To quote fellow liberation theorist, Henri Giroux,

"Freire understood quite keenly that democracy was threatened by a powerful military-industrial complex and the increased power of the warfare state, but he also recognized the pedagogical force of a corporate and militarized culture that eroded the moral and civic capacities of citizens to think beyond the common sense of official power and its legitimating ideologies."

Paulo Freire instinctively knew what I had to learn -- that teaching is a highly political act! Just as those who taught slaves to read and risked death -- as teachers we have a moral responsibility to risk our jobs and possibly our freedom in the quest for a just society, now and for all future generations.

To quote another 'liberation theorist,' Edward Everett, "Education is a better safeguard of liberty than a standing army."

Popular in the Community