Monday, March 11, 2013

On Education and Language

From my Honors Colloquium II mid-term exam:

“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 thoughts on them.”
–Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed: The Banking Concept of Education

When is a teacher teaching? This is the question implicitly posed in our selection from Paulo Freire’s seminal work, Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Freire had earlier expounded on and objected to the idea of a "banking” concept of education, wherein the student is a “receptacle” that is “filled” with information, as a bank fills a vault with cash (Freire 63). Freire argued that people are neither piggybanks nor tabula rasa, and thus lecture-style education is not actual teaching. This leads into the above quote, where Freire discusses traits that are inherently absent from true teaching, consequently enlightening us with the corollary. True teaching, Freire implied, comes only with communication, wherein one poses “the problems of human beings in their relations with the world”, resulting in “acts of cognition”, as opposed to “transferals of information” (Freire 65).
As a teacher, I find that I very much agree with Freire’s ideas on education. I teach ethical thought and comparative religion to elementary aged students at the local Unitarian Universalist church, and the actual teaching outlined by Freire mirrors the methods that I employ in class. Last week’s lesson concerned the concepts of inherent worth and dignity. These are concepts that I personally embrace, but my goal as a teacher is not to ensure that my students leave our classroom with my opinion, but that they leave with their own inspired opinion. To this end, we began our lesson by unpacking what those words “inherent”, “worth”, and “dignity” meant. We delved into the ideas of who has inherent worth, what that worth means/is, human rights, animal rights, and value vis-à-vis worth.
We began the class with the concept of ‘worth’, which my students had erroneously conflated with ‘fiscal value’. I responded by asking them how much to sell me their mothers. One student said three hundred dollars, which they obviously thought was a great deal of money. Another student said three million dollars per day, with the dramatic flair of a true devil’s advocate. The remaining students declined to sell me their mothers at any price, thus neatly elucidating my point. This is an example of Freire’s vaunted ideal of ‘praxis’, which states that “social… theories cannot simply be appreciated intellectually; they must be translated into concrete action” (Austin 63).
Later on in the discussion, one student argued that people do not have inherent worth, which is to say worth as a person, no matter our traits or behaviors. This student posited that inherent evil could be present, rather than inherent worth, using Hitler as an example. In turn, I offered Hitler’s imaginary treatment as a counterpoint.
”If we had captured Hitler,” I asked the class, “What would we have done with him?”
“Put him into prison.”, the students answered.
“Would we feed him there?” I replied.
“Yes,” the students answered. “Of course.”
“Would we offer him medical care, if he became ill while he waited to stand trial?”
“Yes.” the students answered.
“ Why?” I asked. “He has no worth. Why expend our resources for a being with no worth? Is this how we would treat a rabid dog?”
The class seemed to be stumped, and took a moment to consider the implications of our answers. I expected my students to come to the realization that even Hitler had inherent worth, and my students did not disappoint. However, in addition to this expected answer, the students suggested that our impulse to treat other people with dignity comes from our own inherent worth. This lead into the idea, which was a completely new line of thought to me, that our inherent worth is akin to our soul. In this exchange, my students exhibited original thought, inspired by the lesson. Although I led and shaped the discussion, we all learned together. This is an example of Freire’s ideal model of communicative teaching.
In our classroom, we eschew the traditional model of learning dictionary definitions by rote; instead choosing to examine the ideas themselves and to complete thought experiments relating to inherent worth and dignity in real world conditions. As postulated by Freire, the real teaching methods of praxis and communication led to actual learning in our classroom.

“For we all stand to lose when language is debased, just as every one of us is affected when the nation’s currency is devalued.”
–Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart: Language and the Destiny of Man

            In this essay, Chinua Achebe writes of his concerns with human language. “As society becomes larger and more complex,” Achebe asserted, “we find that we can no longer be in command of all of the facts but are obliged to take a good deal of what we hear on trust.” (Achebe 509). Achebe seems to be speaking of the philosophy of language; specifically the phenomenon of implications, wherein our understanding and opinions change based on the verbiage used to describe them. This is an important consideration in a variety of fields, including psychology, journalism, and education. In one study (ironically, it was a study of studies), the experimenters questioned the participants about their feelings on then-President George W, Bush. The experimenters asked the control group directly, but chose to prime the experimental group by first questioning them regarding terrorist attacks, followed by the same questions regarding Bush. Unsurprisingly, the experimental group responded much more favorably to Bush than the control group. This is an example of how our language can be used for base ends.
Achebe is clear on this thought; the problem is not the inherent inadequacies of either our language or its speakers, but is instead “those who will manipulate words for their own ends” (Achebe 511). In other words, the problem lies with the politicians, journalists, teachers, and any others with any agenda other than inspired thought and cognition. “Language,” Achebe reminds us, “can be used not only for expressing thought, but for concealing thought or even preventing thought.” As a result, we can be led “full circle” away from civilization and back to a primitive culture (Achebe 511), which is the inherent danger of debased language.

Works Cited
Austin, Michael. Reading the World: Ideas That Matter. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. 2010. Print.

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