Friday, October 14, 2005

10] A Critical Look at the Freirian-Ellsworth Dialogue

Context, culture and class in critical Pedagogy: A closer look at the Ellsworthian – Freirian Debate. by Azly Abdul Rahman Columbia University, New York This position, informed by post-structuralism and feminism, lets no one off the hook, including critical pedagogues. We cannot act as if our membership in our alliance with an oppressed group exempts us from the need to confront the ‘grey areas’ which we all have in us? (p. 114) So asserts Elizabeth Ellsworth in her critique of essentially Freirian and generically critical pedagogical perspective of looking at the issue of, ‘the oppressor’s and oppressed’s way of knowing’. The central thesis of Ellsworth’s post-structural and feminist perspective on critical pedagogy is that much of the semantic employed by Freirian inspired critical pedagogy is at best too abstracting and generalizing and at worst, repressive and perpetuating in their description of the thinking of the oppressor and the oppressed. Based upon her experience in discerning the validity and acceptability of the claim made by critical pedagogues, through her experience of teaching a class called “Media and Anti-Racist Pedagogics’, Ellsworth argued at the onset of her essay that: the key assumptions, goals, and pedagogical practices fundamental to the literature on critical pedagogy – namely, ‘empowerment,’ ‘student voice,’ ‘dialogue,’ and even the term ‘critical’ – are repressive myths that perpetuate relations of domination.’ (p. 91) Ellsworth asserts that within the “oppressed” there exist a multitude of perspectives which do not exactly speak like an oppressed but like defiants whose “speech of oppositional groups is a ‘talking back,’ a ‘defiant speech’ that is constructed within communities of resistance and is a condition of survival.’ (p. 102) She illustrates this ‘half-baked’ notion of what an oppressed voice constitutes by citing Peter McLaren’s over-generalizing of what is lacking in the teacher-student relationship to effect a struggle liberation. Ellsworth quotes McLaren, a defender of Freirian pedagogy who said that: [b]ecause teachers lack a critical pedagogy, these students are not provided with the ability to think critically, a skill that would enable them to better understand why their lives have been reduced to feelings of meaningless, randomness, and alienation… (p.103) Citing her experience in the C& I class, Ellsworth debunked McLaren’s notion of the “voicelessness” of student voice in the problematic Freirian oppressor-oppressed dichotomy by citing an example of how, participants expressed much pain, confusion, and difficulty in speaking because of the ways in which discussions called up their multiple and contradictory social positionings. Women found it difficult to prioritize expressions of racial privilege and oppression when such prioritizing threaten to perpetuate their gender oppression. (p.104) In brief thus, Ellsworth critique of the Freirian pedagogy is that the terms used to describe the relationship are couched in such academic, theoretical, and value-ladenness in themselves that they fail to take into consideration the complexity of the issue, overglossing even more fundamental considerations such as race, class, gender and other variants and hybrid of these. They gloss over the issue of shifting subject position in that the underlying question will then be, when does the oppressed becomes the oppressor and vice versa? Ellsworth’s employment of post-structuralism and feminism in her attack of Freirian pedagogy seem convincing enough to highlight the complexity of the oppressor-oppressed dichotomy. I believe that a powerful recap to Ellsworth’s thesis on the “shallowness” of the critical pedagogy approach to learner and teacher empowerment can be discerned from her claim that: [a]s long as the literature on critical pedagogy fails to come to grip with issues of trust, risk, and the operations of fear and desire around such issues of identity and politics in the classroom, their rationalistic tools will continue to fail to loosen deep-seated, self-interested investments in unjust relations of, for example gender, ethnicity, and sexual orientation. These investments are shared by both teachers and students, yet the literature on critical pedagogy has ignore its implications for the young, White, Christian, middle-class, heterosexual, able-bodied man/pedagogue that it assumes. (p. 105 ) How would Paulo Freire respond to such a deconstructivizing analysis of power relations? Freire, I believe would begin with a counter-criticism that Ellsworth is merely subdividing unnecessarily the voices into more pieces so that the ideology of ‘divide and rule’ can continue to prevail and hence further cloud the path towards liberation. He would provide this quote as a preamble to Ellsworth’s thesis: How can the oppressed, as divided, unauthentic beings, participate in developing the pedagogy of their liberation? Only as they discover themselves to be ‘hosts’ of the oppressor can they contribute to the midwifery of their liberating pedagogy. As long as they live in the duality in which to be is to be like and to be like is to be like the oppressor, this contribution is impossible. The pedagogy of the oppressed is an instrument for their critical discovery that both they and their oppressors are manifestations of dehumanization (p. 30). Freire, I think, would be glad to think that Ellsworth has indeed employed critical pedagogy unknowingly and relevant to the ideological context of her time by allowing first, diverse voices to be heard and differences to be argued about under the recognition of multiplicity of subject positions to be celebrate. The next step would then be to further analyze the sources of ideological formation of constructs such as those based upon class, gender, race and others and proceed next to a cultural action for freedom by passing and even bigger question; that of superstructure in invisible hands of power which has created the post-structurality, multiplicity, and diversity of such relationships. Freire would perhaps call upon critical pedagogist Peter McLaren to deconstruct Ellsworth’s post-structuralist view of the oppressor-oppressed dichotomy by first questioning Ellsworth’s agenda on her use of the term “post-structural feminism”. They would then ask the question “Why have you got a theory against critical pedagogy?” McLaren will then further approach the debate by insisting Ellsworth to examine yet another term called “revolutionary multiculturalism” in which cultural action for freedom and transformative acts in education need not be paradigmed within any postmodernist context of operation. This context includes feminism, futurism, cybernaticism and variants and hybrids of postmodernist terminologies which have the aim and agenda of relativizing and clouding the issue of ideological oppression which in fact can hinder a collectivist, authentic, humanistic and liberatory agenda in the process of cultural action. To the critical pedagogue, Ellsworth’s approach and findings may be consistent enough with the Freirian concept of problem-based learning in which the students and teachers together explore the objective condition they are in from the point of view of multiple perspectives. A second part is perhaps needed for Ellsworth to further examine the historical roots of the subject positions in which the defiant speeches should be further analyzed of its origin, problematized, and finally situated within the context of a paradigm explaining the overarching role of ideological domination. Ellsworth’s course in “Media and Race Relations”, Freire would say, would be in the stage called “problem-posing” as the individuals participating in it have indeed been shaped by ideological conditions which have created a society of learners fragmented into individuals a multiplicity in voices a such as those Ellsworth encountered. The next logical step would be for a second part of the course to be designed so that sources of defiance can be traced, dialogue can be crafted amongst the participants, and then a synchronized voices of the oppressed can be streamlined towards achieving understanding and cultural action for liberation. In short, Freirian pedagogy, as critical pedagogues would define, is based upon the pedagogy of hope and love and to engineer a praxis (a program of conscientization or cultural action for freedom) so that the “unthinking of whiteness”, “understanding of contradictions in power relations”, and “subjectivizing of perceived objective reality” can be achieved both as a process and a goal. Conclusions I draw from the Ellsworthian-Freirian debate are informed by factors namely the questions Ellsworth raised, my reexamination of critical pedagogy, and the experiences in Chris Higgins’s class “Philosophy of Multiculturalism/Pluralism”. The following are elaboration of them. To me, Ellsworth’s findings have convinced me of the complexity of the words “oppressor and the oppressed”; that the Freirian and critical pedagogical notion of these terms as dichotomy need to be further critically reexamined particularly within this so-called postmodern context of classroom teaching. One illuminating experience I have come across after analyzing the texts from Freire and Ellsworth is that I have begun to actually reexamine my role as an educator who is ready to look at the pragmatics of critical pedagogy, the complexity of “conscientization”, and the “grey areas” in-between the Oppressor-Oppressed dichotomy. Perhaps Ellsworth’s passage below concerning the post-structurality of the debate is pertinent to my experience of reexamining my pedagogical creed; a passage which also relates to my experience in Chris Higgins’s “Dialogue” class: Among international students, both who were of color and those who who were White found it difficult to join the voices with those of U.S. students of color when it meant a subordination of their oppressions as people living under U.S. imperialist policies and as students for whom English was a second language. (p.104) Although I had never thought of myself as an “oppressed” participant in the “Dialogue” class, nor of one as a substandard user of English as a second language, I came into the sessions with a set of assumptions among them that American friends I encounter are generally “voiceless” when it comes to their ability to articulate the conditions of the “oppression”. My agenda was to operate the “Oppressor-Oppressed” mode. Having compared the central theses put forth by Ellsworth and Freire, I am now beginning to see the issues of context, culture, and class in critical pedagogy; that there are indeed grey areas which must be examined if I am to go beyond my understanding of and the belief in the Oppressor-Oppressed dichotomy. Having been a staunch defender of Freire and critical pedagogy for more than a decade, I must admit that this reexamination is not an easy one. However, I am now beginning a journey of examining the complexity of the term “dialogue” itself, drawing from the narratives I have benefited from my classmates; those which constitute “defiant speeches” as well as “empowering assertions”, pillared upon the multitude of perspectives on “dialogue” we have examined. I find it remarkable that Ellsworth's description of her class is similar to what I have concluded of the “Dialogue” class facilitated by Chris Higgins: [o]ur classroom was the site of dispersed, shifting, and contradictory contexts of knowing, that coalesced differently in different moments of student/professor speech, action, and emotion. The situation meant that the individuals and affinity groups constantly had to change strategies and priorities of resistance against oppressive ways of knowing and being known. (p.114) I now begin to think that context, culture, and class as used in critical pedagogy can be scrutinized further as how Ellsworth has illustrated. Ellsworth’s passage below on her idea of a teaching method celebrating multiple ways of knowing and being know I believe should best summarize too how I can also perceive the issues in the context of my practice as an educator: To assert multiple perspectives in this way is not to draw attention away from the distinctive realities and effects of the oppression of any particular group. It is not to excuse or relativize oppression By simply claiming, ‘we are all oppressed.’ Rather, it is to clarify oppression by preventing ‘oppressive simplifications’, and insisting that it be understood and struggled against contextually. (p.114) As this relates to my own experience, I am now ready to analyze my own pedagogical creed under a new lens and live not close to ideals entirely but rather to people’s experience so that my inclination to overgloss, overgeneralize, and to be overtly critical can be restructured so that my own growth as an individual and an educator can be rejuvenated. At this juncture, I am beginning to believe that in order to “feel empowering”, the truth in dialogue and critical pedagogy lies not in the simplicity of naming dichotomies but in the experiencing of their complexities in discerning multiplicities within a holographic dimension of the meaning of the word “liberation”! References Ellsworth, E. (1992). “Why doesn’t this feel empowering?: Working through the repressive myths of critical pedagogy.” In C. Luke & J. Gore, eds., Feminism and critical pedagogy New York: Routledge, 90-119 Freire, P. (1997). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York: Continuum.

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Born in Singapore and grew up in Johor Baru; holds a Columbia University (New York City) doctorate in International Education Development and Masters in four areas: Education, International Affairs, Peace Studies and Communication; pursuing fifth, MFA in Creative Writing; has taught more than 50 courses in six different departments; written more than 350 analyses on Malaysia; teaching experience in Malaysia and the United States spanning over a wide range of subjects, from elementary to graduate education; has edited and authored seven books; Multiethnic Malaysia: Past, Present, Future (2009), Thesis on Cyberjaya: Hegemony and Utopianism in a Southeast Asian State (2012), The Allah Controversy and Other Essays on Malaysian Hypermodernity (2013), Dark Spring: Ideological Roots of Malaysia's GE-13 (2013), a first Malay publication Kalimah Allah Milik Siapa?: Renungan dan Nukilan Tentang Malaysia di Era Pancaroba (2014), Controlled Chaos: Essays on Mahathirism, Multimedia Super Corridor and Malaysia's 'New Politics' (2014), One Malaysia under God, Bipolar (2015); resides in the United States teaching courses in Philosophy, Cultural Studies, Political Science, and American Studies.