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Part I — “Education is political”: The people and the polis

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All education is political, writes critical pedagogy advocate Ira Shor in his book, Empowering Education. He goes on to explain what he means by this:  that whether school curricula explicitly help kids to better understand and have a voice in shaping their world or  not, both approaches are “political”; neither is politically neutral.

An explicitly political pedagogy does not mean that the pedagogy is partisan — at least not in the way that Shor and other advocates of critical pedagogy intend when they invoke “politics” in their discussions of pedagogy.  Drawing upon the ancient Platonic and Aristotelean roots of contemporary Western understandings of the word, these thinkers link education explicitly to the process of becoming a citizen — someone who takes responsibility for shaping and maintaining his or her community or, as the ancient Greeks would have it, the “polis.”

Our word “politics” comes “from the Greek ?????????, [polis] ‘of, for, or relating to citizens,’” a concept reliant upon the inextricability of the people, their ideas, and their community.  To the Greeks, the polis and its laws were synonymous. And citizens, who spent their early lives becoming educated so that they might participate, as (propertied, male) adults in debate about community governance, created these laws. For Americans today, this conflation in polis of person, place, and idea is more akin to our understanding of “body politic” than contemporary notions of city, state, or federal government.

For the Greeks, therefore, education played a key role in equipping individuals with the knowledge, skills and critical faculties to run the community.  Ideally in a representative government such as ours, “we the people” still run the show — by electing individuals who will represent to lawmaking bodies our ideas about how things should be. And by continuing to participate in public debate (again, this is the ideal), we influence those elected offiicials to carry out our collective will at the local, state, and federal levels.

Shor alludes to a similar educational ideal behind our public education system, explaining that “empowering education”

[…] approaches individual growth as an active, cooperative, and social process, because the self and society create each other. Human beings do not invent themselves in a vacuum, and society cannot be made unless people create it together. The goals of this pedagogy are to relate personal growth to public life, by developing strong skills, academic knowledge, habits of inquiry, and critical curiosity about society, power, inequality, and change. (15)

For Shor and other advocates of critical pedagogy (of which Shor’s notion of empowering education is an example), education helps students to view the world as a text and ask questions of it;  to analyze systems, situations, and institutions; to query others’ actions, statements, relationships, and values; and to similarly examine their own. Education is political in that it asks students to question all of this, as well as the ways in which they situate and contextualize new knowledge by asking, How does this new understanding change me?  My view of the world?  This is making education political.

An “empowering” English Language Arts teacher, therefore, approaches Huckleberry Finn not just as a 19th-century American novel about slavery.  She looks at more than the politics of dialect or the novel’s symbols of freedom; she even moves beyond a discussion of its engagement with abolitionist discourse of the day.  Instead, she extends these lines of inquiry to ask students how Twain’s statement changes their own view of the past and their relationship to it? Their view of the present?  These are the types of connections that critical educators ask their students to make, whether in English class or biology.

Whether wittingly or not, teachers who view such “problem-posing” as “too political,” or who limit their teaching to decontextualized discussions of content matter, advance another political agenda altogether, argues Shor. Such teachers effectively promote the status quo by endorsing the way things are — inequities and all.  This stance is hardly apolitical or without political effects: decontextualizing knowledge and knowledge-construction in this way effectively disenfranchizes budding citizens by depriving them of opportunities to build skills and understandings that are essential for them to fully  participate and thrive in school and beyond.

Of course, such teachers usually intend no harm.  Often they have struggled mightily to provide students with the type of meaningful education that I advocate for here. But years of standards and testing have often led them to a place where they believe that there is simply no room for anything more than content in the curriculum.  And it is in that slight but significant shifting of perspectives — from seeing students as emerging citizens (and all the hope, joy, vulnerability, toil and pain associated with occupying that role) to viewing them as mere intellects, learners, or (at worst) test scores — that teachers do the greatest damage to students by robbing them of their humanity.

These teachers teach subject matter, not children. It’s a significant difference — one of which I myself must also strive to be every mindful of in this era of increased class sizes, reduced resources, and intensive focus on standardization and assessment.  It is difficult, in this climate, to foreground the students and their feelings, their relationships with each other, my relationship with them, and how all of those things, as well as their feelings about learning and themselves as learners, are just as — if not even more — important than what about the discipline they are learning.  If they are going to make a difference in their respective communities — to lead others toward change and understanding — they will have needed to have negotiated the experience of negotiating real ideas in a real in a community, with all the trappings that such things entail.

Ideally, school should be a time where students discover and become themselves, at the same time, learn to become a contributing member to something bigger than themselves:  a classroom community, a group of friends, a family, a neighborhood, a polis.  As empowering educators, therefore, we must aspire toward building classroom communities around this ideal:   where each person is encouraged to grow and thrive in harmony with others.

It feels good to be a part of something bigger than ourselves, to make individual sacrifices for the benefit of the greater good, and to know our that our efforts have been spent toward building something beautiful, something that we couldn’t have managed alone.  That is, I hope, is the trajectory of each our lives, lived fully.  Daily I hope that schools will help bring us closer to that ideal — sites where our children are encouraged to become their best selves, so that together they will be poised to surmount the challenges and relish the victories on the journey that lies ahead.

This is how I occupy education.

Cross-posted on 21st-Century Literacies.


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