Student as Subject, Student as Object–Take 2*

Middle-class parents are insatiable in their appetite for confirmation that they are doing a good job. (This may be a phenomenon which crosses class boundaries, but because I have no experience outside my own middle-class life, I refrain from a wider claim.) The fuel in those helicopters is anxiety. Where do parents look for evidence to confirm their self- worth? To their children’s performance—in sports, in school, in the arts, in entrepreneurship. For this essay, I will concentrate on school performance because it relates to the nature of schooling and Paolo Friere’s pedagogy and, in my experience, is the most acceptable visible measure of success or failure in the middle-class parent community. I know that Friere writes about the moral obligation of education to educate the oppressed such that they will be empowered to work against oppression and injustice. I do not envision most middle-class children being greatly oppressed in my society. They inherit a certain level of power from their middle-class parents. However, I am a scientist and an educator, not a philosopher. I do not have the tools to dig into Friere at a deep level. Therefore, I will reflect on how his writings relate to the world I know.

As a teacher and a parent, I have participated in many discussions of parent worth and child success. What does it mean to be successful in school? For most parents, this means earning A’s. A-student = A-parent. (High test scores and prestigious college are also acceptable markers of success, but only if they are in addition to high grades.) There is little thought for the lasting meaning of education. For me, the lasting meaning of education is in the knowledge you take with you, the ways of thinking about the world that you develop from that knowledge, the understanding that there are multiple ways in which you can understand the world. True education enables you to don different models of understanding to solve different problems. For Friere, education which neglects to develop “epistemological curiosity”—a well-developed method for learning and communicating more about a topic through critical questioning, thinking and speaking– is no education at all. (This picture is from the blog Mom Stories** in which a parent is boasting about her daughter’s kindergarten report card. Yes,kindergarten!)

This parent/student/cultural focus on making A’s has contributed to a school subculture that fails to value critical thinking or curiosity—what I call a conservative education. In most classes, curiosity is not rewarded with good grades although in some it is rewarded with engagement. I have developed a vocabulary for this. I call students who make good grades “good students” and students who love to learn “curious”. One would hope that curiosity is a requisite skill for being a good student, but it is not. Being good at school may not require curiosity at all. Sadly, good students are not always curious and sometimes do not even recognize the value of curiosity. Yet, parents are happy and colleges are happy to accept and promote good students. Tragically, there are practicing educators for whom the same is true. These are the educators who answer curious questions with, ”That is not on our syllabus” or “We don’t have time for that.” They fail to recognize that teaching students how to learn and that learning is not dead are much more important than teaching them a list of facts or procedures. They are either not interested in or not able to open themselves to the possibility of their own evolution through teaching. They fail to recognize the situations in which their students know more than they do. They fail to ask what lasting effects their interactions have on their student’s lives. To be fair, most educators probably lapse into these traits occasionally, but do not display them habitually.

Having no recollection of reading Friere in the past, I was surprised to find how, at least in my superficial understanding, I agree with him. For Friere, education is a social interaction between teacher-student and students-teachers with trust as an integral piece. While this practice requires critical skepticism of one’s own understanding, it does not advocate for teachers to simply let students learn on their own. “Here, no one teaches another, nor is anyone self-taught.” Educators (teacher-students) promote learner’s curiosity while teaching them how to learn—how to frame questions and communicate and support answers. Students-teachers (and teacher-students) construct and reconstruct ideas that are new to them. While teachers have authority due to their understanding of the dominant syntax of the subject, they are not authoritarian. They value their students’ experiences and voices through which they continually learn to recreate their own knowledge of the world.


How does this relate back to parents? I believe in educating communities about the value of a liberal education. This is the kind of education in which students and teachers practice thinking critically about knowledge, how that knowledge relates to their world, and how knowledge can empower them to recognize and (if they choose) work against injustice. It is through dialogue with parents, students, and colleagues that the possibility of a reversal of values in which learning is valued over grades can be realized.


*Last semester I wrote a blog post about college mission statements titled: “Student as Subject, Student as Object”.