Students Without Chests

In 1944, Clive Staples Lewis published The Abolition of Man which later became one of his most popular non-fiction writings. In the opening chapter of the book, Lewis expresses his frustration over an English textbook intended for grade school students. The authors of the textbook, referred to by Lewis as ‘Gaius’ and ‘Titius’ to protect their identities, comment on a short story about two tourists observing a waterfall, one of which remarks that the waterfall is ‘sublime.’ Gaius and Titius suggest that the tourist really wasn’t saying that the waterfall itself was sublime, but only that his feelings about the waterfall were sublime. Lewis goes on to challenge their line of thinking (which I will not cover in this post) but more importantly the unfortunate implications of inculcating youthful minds with this philosophical nonsense. Lewis writes:

The very power of Gaius and Titius depends on the fact that they are dealing with a boy: a boy who thinks he is ‘doing’ his ‘English prep’ and has no notion that ethics, theology, and politics are all at stake. It is not a theory they put into his mind, but an assumption, which ten years hence, its origin forgotten and its presence unconscious, will condition him to take one side in a controversy which he has never recognized as a controversy at all.” [1]

Since Lewis’ observation in 1944 of this subtle attempt to condition the minds of grade school students, the problem has shifted to higher education and has become more conspicuous. At most colleges and universities, ideological indoctrination starts before classes do and is often reinforced through the interweaving of political philosophy with course content. Opposing viewpoints voiced by students are sometimes welcomed; however, the didactic presentation and intentional discussion of alternative viewpoints is often severely lacking. Academia has become a clique of like-minded individuals who push their worldview on students and in doing so, prevent them from developing critical and independent thinking skills.

Of course, all of this is done in the name of seeking ‘truth’ and ‘justice,’ and anyone who disagrees with the current ideology is simply ‘anti-truth’ and ‘anti-justice,’ if not a bigot, racist, homophobe, xenophobe, etc. It is encouraging to know that at one point, some professors openly admitted their political motivations in teaching. In his 1998 publication Pedagogy of Freedom, Paulo Freire writes:

My very presence in the school as a teacher is intrinsically a political presence, something that students cannot possibly ignore.” [2]

Good teachers are ones that acknowledge their own political presence yet seek to be as objective and fair as possible to the other side. Is this what we see in today’s colleges and universities? Not even close. We often see political preference forced upon the next generation without even a mention of the controversy. Critical thinking is now a burden on the backs of students who can more easily find success in academia by throwing off the weight of reason and hopping on whatever ideological bandwagon is passing by at the moment.

One such ideology that has set up shop at the very center of academic institutions is postmodern critical theory – a Marxist-derived philosophy that views all interactions through the lenses of power struggle and oppression. In Chapter 2 of his book Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paulo Freire discusses the educational concept of ‘banking’ where, put simply, students have a knowledge void that is filled by the professor. Freire writes:

It is not surprising that the banking concept of education regards men as adaptable, manageable beings. The more students work at storing the deposits entrusted to them, the less they develop the critical consciousness which would result from their intervention in the world as transformers of that world. The more completely they accept the passive role imposed on them, the more they tend simply to adapt to the world as it is and to the fragmented view of reality deposited in them. The capability of banking education to minimize or annul the students’ creative power and to stimulate their credulity serves the interests of the oppressors, who care neither to have the world revealed nor to see it transformed.” [3]

In Freire’s banking concept, students are victims of oppression because they are the passive, changeable ones in the exercise. The students are viewed as the ones that need adapting and formation, therefore they are the oppressed, and the teachers who ‘impose’ their expertise on the malleable students are the oppressors. Is Freire’s argument against the banking concept valid? Only partially. Are there examples of teachers that use their podium to impose their worldview on the students? We can answer yes with certainty. Lewis identified this issue in European grade schools and wrote against this practice. In the same way, Freire obviously recognized this as a problem in his context which undoubtedly prompted his critical writings. The ‘man in the ivory tower’ concept is a real problem within academic circles – one that stifles the creativity and development of students. However, the problem here is that after correctly diagnosing this problem, Freire puts forth a solution that is a vast overcorrection. Through the lens of postmodern critical theory, Freire argues that students no longer need formative training and that liberation from the oppressive authority of teachers is the answer.  This proposition is simply irrational. A cursory review of two questions is enough to put this argument to rest.

1) Do students need adaption and/or formation? Given that the whole purpose of education is for students to be educated in something for their betterment, the answer here is obviously yes. If students knew all that they needed to know to succeed in a job or career path, why would they go to school? They would simply take their knowledge, apply it, and start making a living for themselves. But we all know this isn’t the case. Students do have a knowledge gap that needs to be filled and subject-matter experts, who have studied their respective fields for at least a decade, are considered the most equipped to train the next generation. Obviously there are ways in which the subject matter experts might not be the best teachers, but that can be worked on an improved – isn’t this the whole point of pedagogical studies? Nullifying the expertise of these individuals by suggesting that students need to be liberated from their oppression is ludicrous. We need to acknowledge that students do in fact need formation and better equip the teachers to separate their expertise from their politically-charged opinions.

2) Are students victims of the imposition of ideas? I think this question is best answered with follow-up questions. Are students simple machines that process environmental inputs in algorithmic fashion and simply return back some prescribed form of the inputs? Do students not have the ability to read an argument, critically think about its assumptions and propositions, and decide whether or not they agree with all, part, or none of it? Obviously not. Human beings possess this unique ability to engage with ideas and to reason through them. However, we must recognize the irony here. In response to Freire’s argument against the ivory tower concept, modern educators have attempted to correct this problem by employing the same problematic method, just with different ideological foundations. The prescribed medicine is just a different type of the same poison. The oppression the Freire speaks of is taking place and there is ‘credulity’ being cultivated, but not by the more traditional teachers. The foremost oppressors are the ‘progressive’ faculty themselves. The power of students that is being minimized is that of critical thinking, and the naïve, like-minded students that these faculty produce only go on to serve the interests of the faculty themselves.

Post-graduation, students are thrown into the real world and are expected to be the most studied, prepared individuals for the workforce. Some students make it out just fine. Others don’t know how to handle stress, failure, or the ‘oppression’ of a contrary opinion because they were coddled and sheltered throughout school. As Lewis wrote:

And all the time – such is the tragi-comedy of our situation – we continue to clamour for those very qualities we are rendering impossible. You can hardly open a periodical without coming across the statement that what our civilization needs is more ‘drive’, or dynamism, or self-sacrifice, or ‘creativity’. In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.” [1]

 

References:

[1] Lewis, C.S. (1944). The Abolition of Man.

[2] Freire, P. (1998). Pedagogy of Freedom.

[3] Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the Oppressed.

4 thoughts on “Students Without Chests

  • November 11, 2020 at 11:10 pm
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    Thanks for your post! I definitely see where you’re coming from in your critiques of Freire. I do agree that academia can be problematic and very quickly does become a vacuum. However, I struggle with the point you brought up regarding teachers acknowledging their political presence and then being objective–I don’t think this is truly possible as I don’t personally believe that we can truly be without biases. We cannot remove ourselves from them. Should we acknowledge them and learn how our biases may affect our actions? Absolutely. Should we be fair to others and have a dialogue that includes many different perspectives? 100%. From my perspective, this is what Freire is saying– teachers are not the end all, be all of education, and students can often bring different perspectives and knowledge which may be contrary to what a teacher is saying or a message a teacher is sending. Empowering students in this way does not nullify a teacher’s expertise or experience but offers a chance for everyone to learn from each other and to be in dialogue/dialogic action with each other as Freire argues throughout Pedagogy of the Oppressed.

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    • November 12, 2020 at 2:17 am
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      Hi Malle, thanks for reading my post and for your response! I agree with you completely that none of us can be truly objective – we all bring something to the table whether consciously (i.e., through worldview) or unconsciously (i.e., via implicit bias). I also agree with you that we cannot remove ourselves from these biases, else we would be careless creatures that didn’t stand for anything good or bad, right or wrong. That is why I didn’t suggest that we be objective, but rather that we are as objective (or fair) as possible to the opposing side of the argument. I agree with Freire that students have a perspective to offer and that perspective can’t and should never be invalidated by a professor because of pure pride. Yet, in my reading of Freire, I thought he went a step too far and got away from what education is and why the students are there listening to a teacher in the first place.

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  • November 12, 2020 at 1:19 am
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    Thank you for this incredible post! It definitely had me critically thinking about our readings! I also appreciated the questions you posed when it comes to the considerations toward our current or future students. However, I believe I would also agree with a slight challenge the political nature of a teacher. How I perceived both Darder and Freire was not so much objectivity inasmuch as positional reflexivity. An educator must always engaged in reflecting upon themselves, their biases, bends, etc… as this positions them and, ultimately, how they make meaning of their interactions with students, their own provision of knowledge, etc… In this, though, there is zero demand to be objective because it is humanly impossible to truly be so. Instead, what I heard echoed throughout the reading, was creating an environment of equity where teachers represent their most authentic self, the power they hold in the classroom and inviting students to encounter their own cultures and affording them power through intentional dialogues. That being said, I appreciate your perspective and what you had to share about it because I believe a huge, socially dominant narrative surrounds the construct of objectivity and how we equate objectivity with safety or equity sometimes – especially as educators.

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    • November 12, 2020 at 2:39 am
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      Hi Jenny, thanks so much for taking the time to read my post and for your response! I really appreciate the point that you and Malle both bring up. As I indicated in my response to Malle, I am in complete agreement with both of you on the point that we, as educators or as students, can not be fully objective. We are either intentionally ‘biased’ because we have our own worldview (I don’t like to call it a bias if it’s intentional – but maybe that’s still an appropriate word to use?), or we are subject to implicit biases that can’t be fully rooted out of us. My intent was to point out that we are doing a disservice to the students if we don’t try to be as objective as possible (even knowing that our best efforts will be imperfect) by all (or both) sides of an argument, which is what I see happening in the modern academy. I also am in full agreement with you (or Freire) on the point about positional reflexivity and I think that is something that comes with the territory of being a good professor and/or a good human being. We should always strive to be conscious of our beliefs, attitudes, words, and actions to ensure they are not unnecessarily hurting others. I think your last point about the conflation of objectivity with ‘safety’ or ‘equity’ is an extremely important discussion that needs to be had and one that I would love to engage in. Thanks again for your response!

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