Education is under attack. Book bans and ahistorical curriculum adjustments have been sweeping the nation yet again, ranging from demonizing queer folks and literature to parroting watered-down (at best) recollections of chattel slavery and other historical travesties. The upheaval over “critical race theory” being supposedly taught in K-12 schools has been the trojan horse overshadowing the erosion of the few inclusive, diverse, and critical perspectives in public education curriculum. Experienced teachers are being pushed out of the profession by unlivable wages and unrealistic expectations of how to support students’ learning, lending towards the admitted right-wing goal of defunding and privatizing the public education system. The American public education system is proving itself to be a factory for producing future workers and prisoners, its veil of benevolence falling before our very eyes.
This assault on historical awareness and critical thinking does not end at the schoolhouse, either. Since the mass media misinformation machine gained access to the internet and social media, it has funneled loads of conspiracy, disinformation, propaganda, and hyper-capitalist ideology into the minds of the young, old, and in between. Political participation and community responsibility have been watered down to just voting, and calls for critical analysis of the world around us are met with either “it’s not that deep” or “it’s not my problem.” Any attempts to encourage folks to read and study the past and the conditions of the present are met with a variety of excuses, from misguided accusations of inaccessibility to flat-out refuting the necessity of learning.
Anti-Intellectualism in Pop Culture
This trend infamously peeked its head three years ago when “woke” rap icon J. Cole infamously feuded with anti-capitalist icon and fellow rapper Noname. Cole felt targeted by Noname’s Twitter callout of wealthy celebrities not doing enough for social causes, and decided to ramble about the matter in his track “Snow on tha Bluff.”
“She mad at the celebrities, low-key I be thinkin’ she talkin’ ‘bout me / Now I ain’t no dummy to think I’m above criticism / So when I see something that’s valid, I listen / But shit, it’s something about the queen tone that’s botherin’ me.” – Jermaine Cole
Rather than turn inward and reflect on his complicity or lack of awareness of social issues, he instead turned to tone policing Noname. When the exchange moved back to Twitter after listeners rightfully accessed that he was dissing Noname, he slightly backtracked by encouraging folks to follow her and support her analysis and leadership. He goes on to say that he isn’t a leader or a reader, but that he “do a lot of thinking” and appreciates her for challenging his beliefs. In this near complete 180 from what he said in the song, he revealed the contradictions of thinking and being opinionated on social issues without having any basis for those opinions outside their own lived experience. While lived experience is a critical aspect of social consciousness and praxis, it alone is not enough to understand the complex reality of our times. This is why study and critical dialogue are so important, yet folks like Cole espouse the same anti-intellectual rhetoric that the conservative right does. Why read, why study, why take in facts and opinions from others when you have all the information you need in your head, right? Coupled with how dangerously undereducated Americans are, this is a very harmful line of thinking.
Anti-Intellectualism in “Revolutionary” Spaces
Even leftist organizing spaces are not immune to rampant anti-intellectualism. I’ve heard right-wing dog whistles around intellectualism and studying repeated in earnest in these spaces with little to no awareness of their origin. I’ve observed mounting resistance towards making time for critical reflection, study, and dialogue, with folks wishing to bypass these necessities and get straight to “the work.” In many spaces, various types of expertise are prioritized (donor foundation connections, non-profit management, electoral strategy, etc.) while the critical movement history and political grounding necessary for authentic and transformative collective action is left out. With so many rights and livelihoods currently under attack, many other progressive organizations are constantly on the defense and are forced to make taut decisions about how to allocate their time and energy. In either case, critical study of our past and present material conditions is no longer a priority in many spaces – to the detriment of a principled, unified left.
I don’t mean to make recklessly sweeping generalizations, but rather I seek to point out a worrisome trend in public discourse and in organizing spaces that is turning us against study, productive discourse, and action, i.e. praxis. Anti-intellectualism has historically risen at times of heightened inequality and coincided with the rise of cult-like thinking and behavior not rooted in material reality. Today, thinking and learning are under attack on all fronts – public education is dissolving, academia is as colonial as ever, misinformation and propaganda are abundant, and everywhere you turn ignorance is being weaponized and exploited. This in turn means we have an abundance of people indifferent to the exploitative ills of society, including their own experiences, and uninterested in seeking change. So what does all this mean for political educators who seek to use education as a tool towards liberation?
In our world, divide and conquer must become define and empower. (Audre Lorde, “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House,” Sister Outsider, pg 112)
My Experiences As an Educator
I’m a budding political educator and cultural worker. I am passionate about education and learning, revolutionary history, and community power. I use zines, workshops, clinics, writing, and other mediums to learn in community with others. A spirit of and commitment to revolution runs through all of my work, and I take seriously the task of creating a revolutionary culture. This means I must also take seriously any trends or patterns that deter the spread of revolutionary culture.
In the past year of leading political education programs primarily in organizing communities, I was faced with a number of questions and frustrations about how we could possibly transform our society when at base so many of us seem deeply unwilling to learn and take action. I knew in some sense that the answer to much of the despair people have felt in recent years must be learning about our reality and then together acting upon it, but I struggled to figure out how to get folks to prioritize this learning. I realized that this was a moment for me to take my own advice and seek answers from those who have done this work before me. Thus I’ve been undertaking a close read of Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed to ground myself in the purpose and responsibility of liberatory education.
Revisiting Pedagogy of the Oppressed
Freire, the renowned Brazilian educator, has long been heralded as a revolutionary teacher who observed and theorized the connections between education and liberation. Freire’s pedagogy is uniquely powerful because it puts humanism and the pursuit of becoming more fully human at its center. He posits that oppression revokes or inhibits our full humanity, and only through reflection and action upon the world can we transform it and in the process become more fully human.
“The oppressed, who have been shaped by the death-affirming climate of oppression, must find through their struggle the way to life-affirming humanization, which does not lie simply in having more to eat (although it does involve having more to eat and cannot fail to include this aspect). . . In order to regain their humanity they must cease to be things and fight as men and women. This is a radical requirement. They cannot enter the struggle as objects in order later to become human beings.” (Freire, pg 50)
Despite reading the text over 50 years after it was first published, I found deep renewal and understanding in his conceptualization of education as the pursuit of a fuller humanity through reflection and action. Oppression destroys and dehumanizes. Peeling back the veil and revealing its true character is the goal of education and the purpose of the educator. Only by making society’s malignant forces of racial capitalism, patriarchy, etc. visible can folks be moved to take action toward eradicating these ills.
Freire’s pedagogy centers the process of understanding the world around us to then transform it, becoming more fully human in the process. To create such possibilities, Freire offers “problem-posing education” as the antithesis to popular oppressive modes of education.
“In problem-posing education, people develop their power to perceive critically the way they exist in the world with which and in which they find themselves; they come to see the world not as a static reality, but as a reality in process, in transformation.” pg 64
“Problem-posing” education is based on a number of assumptions that Freire explains in detail, among them being:
1. learners are conscious and capable
2. learning takes place through problem-solving
3. learning must be practical
In short, this means that we must look towards our own lives and material conditions as the grounds for understanding the world at large. The teacher’s role is to then take the observations on the issues of the world around us and pose them as questions back to learners to critically dialogue about, and as problems to act upon. Intrinsic to this then is the understanding that we are capable of acting upon the world around us, and that we are moved to do so when we have a critical understanding of the world. Rather than approaching a community with factoids and theoretical perspectives that are seemingly divorced from their reality, a truly liberatory educational program would begin with making sense of participants’ worlds first. Only through dialoguing about our assumptions and observations about our lives, communities, neighborhoods, culture, etc. can folks then come to new conclusions about how the world works and be open to different ways of understanding. This opens the door for creating alternate possibilities for how we live together.
Dialogue is thus an essential characteristic of liberatory education that I previously acknowledged but that I haven’t done a good job of centering in my education work. Freire’s assertion that an educational program must begin with dialoguing about participants’ current way of knowing the world shakes up the teacher-student paradigm characteristic in banking modes of education. Freire describes the educational programs of oppressors as one in which teachers, who hold all the knowledge and determine the content of the program, “deposits” information into students who passively accept the teacher’s description of the world. It utilizes propaganda, slogans, and other “deposits” that when uncritically accepted, result in the underdevelopment of our critical consciousness and an inability to recognize ourselves as potential transformers of the world. This banking model of education creates passive individuals who accept that the world is stagnant and unmovable and that the flow of historical events has been inevitable. Beyond the classroom, this results in adults with no awareness of their capacity for transforming the world around them.
This conceptualization of education shook loose my frustration with folks who don’t see a need to learn outside of their own experiences – it is in human nature to base our worldview and understanding on our own lives. It has been intentional education malpractice, however, to convince us that we need not critically reflect upon our own and others’ experiences. Instead, “subjectivity and objectivity [must be] in constant dialectical relationship,” – we must constantly draw connections between our own experiences and those beyond what we know (Freire pg 32). Moving from our individual perspectives to making connections to broader systems and peoples requires a collaborative learning environment, not one in which educators simply try to re-program students into our “correct” way of thinking through more uncritical deposits. A 4th basic assumption of problem-posing education is that teachers and students must be co-investigators.
I, like many other progressive educators, have often failed to dissolve this teacher-student contradiction that upholds the teacher as the sole knowledge owner. I would bring my own expectations and objectives to participants based on what I thought they should know about the world and how I thought they’d best be pushed toward transformative action. I’d then find myself frustrated when participants were unable or unwilling to engage with the content provided, citing its inapplicability to their lives or the impossibility of devoting time to study when the world
outside is actively deteriorating into chaos. While I know that lessons on Marxism, Dialectics, and other revolutionary tools were indeed relevant to them, all they could see was me attempting to school them on far-out theoretical topics. To this end, Freire had to say:
“To achieve this praxis, however, it is necessary to trust in the oppressed and in their ability to reason. Whoever lacks this trust will fail to initiate (or will abandon) dialogue, reflection, and communication, and will fall into using slogans, communiqués, monologues, and instructions.”Freire pg 48
In order for education to lead to transformation, it must begin with reflection upon the experiences of the people and be dictated by their needs. Liberatory education isn’t about dictating dogma or winning folks over to “my side” of the political spectrum. It is about opening minds to the world’s ever-changing nature, to the possibility of acting upon and transforming the world around them, and to the oppressive reality in which they’ve been so deeply submerged that they fail to see its borders and holes. My role as an educator is to be a collaborator and co-conspirator as people study, dialogue, and take action toward transforming their society. My goal is to help folks make sense of their surroundings, to name the unnamed and invisibilized powers at play, and to connect their experiences to larger truths about the society in which we live. “The conviction of the oppressed that they must fight for their liberation is not a gift bestowed by the revolutionary leadership, but the result of their own conscientizaçāo.” (Freire pg 49)
The core of transformative education thus must be dialogue. Of all the reasons I gave for the rising anti-intellectualism and refusal to reflect critically on the world, the lack of critical dialogue among people is one of the main culprits. Siloing ourselves within our own experiences and refusing to engage with ideas and observations that contrast with our own creates isolated individuals. Freire points out that we are all entrenched in the dominant mode of thinking, that of oppression, and thus any information that counters that mode of thinking will be met with resistance. He also posits that for the oppressed, often the first impulse upon making more sense of the world is to want to emulate the oppressor – to become more like them. One example of both of these phenomena is that of Black Capitalists, or those who have concluded that playing the game of capitalism is better than succumbing to it. Turning to radical and transformative new ways of relating that aren’t riddled with oppressive dynamics would require rejecting the oppressive mode of thinking that would have us believe that capitalism is the only way. Instead, folks vie to play the game instead, hoping to simply not come out at the bottom. Open social media any day to find dozens more examples of the impossibility of thinking beyond the capitalist constraints placed on us – you’ll find people ardently arguing against their own wellbeing and in favor of their own oppression because they cannot imagine otherwise. “Freedom would require them to eject this image [of the oppressor] and replace it with autonomy and responsibility. . . freedom is not an idea which becomes myth. It is rather the indispensable condition for the quest for human completion.” (Freire, pg 29) Every day that we are not breaking down the barriers of capitalist thinking and helping folks to realize the constraints on their lives is a failure of the left.
Alongside the belief that society is not stagnant and can indeed be transformed, there must also exist trust that together you and your peers can cause that transformation. This trust is only built through dialogue and the bridging of experiences. A revolution cannot be carried out by a few revolutionary leaders for the people. A revolution is only a revolution if it is being carried out by equally informed and active participants, as anything less would not be representative of the people’s desires. According to Freire, dialogue and study bring about a commitment to simultaneous reflection and action. This is an ongoing trust-building exercise – dialogue, reflection, action, dialogue, reflection, action, over and over until collective transformation through revolution is attainable.
The Role of the Political Educator
I believe that it is our role as political educators is to push back against misinformation, against intellectual laziness and anti-intellectualism, and against the idea that we all already know everything we need to know inherently. We don’t. There is so much to understand about the world beyond what is observable in our individual experiences, and we educators must take up the responsibility of making these connections clear. We should not blame or shame individuals for falling prey to these forces, but rather work to help folks understand the source of their assumptions. Often we don’t realize we’re repeating white-ring propaganda because of the insidious nature of such propaganda. We often don’t realize that our resistance to committing to revolutionary study with our communities is both rooted in an anti-left, anti-critical thinking anti-intellectualism, and that it is actively standing in the way of a more unified left. Only through prioritizing critical reflection and dialogue about our material realities can we move towards transforming our world to one that is humanistic rather that necrophilic.
It is also our responsibility to make histories of resistance and revolution known, to make their unfinished possibilities irresistible. To expand on Toni Cade Bambara’s assertion that “As a culture worker who belongs to an oppressed people my job is to make revolution irresistible,” I posit that this too is the responsibility of the movement educator.
The study of movement history allows us to reflect upon and learn from past movements – their strategies, tactics, goals, blind spots, and downfalls are all lessons to be learned from. There is no time to reinvent the wheel, to spend valuable years on strategies and tactics that don’t meet the opposition of rising fascism that is here, now. Only through prioritizing the study of our movement’s history and the opposition’s development can we arrive at strategies and tactics that meet the current moment.
Beyond the realm of formal organizing, study and dialogue are so deeply important as proactive measures to learn beyond our own experiences. To truly prevent harm rather than constantly reacting to it, we must commit to listening and learning about identities, experiences, and cultures unfamiliar to us so that we don’t repeat harmful rhetoric and actions out of ignorance. As abolitionists and transformative justice practitioners constantly remind us, abolition is a journey not just a destination. We will constantly fail each other if we only attempt to mitigate harm that’s already occurred. We will constantly fail each other if we only understand conflict and debate as sources of harm rather than the generative processes they can and ought to be.
Only through collective understanding can we build collective trust and responsibility, which are essential elements for ridding our communities of unnecessary harm.
It is in the knowledge of the genuine conditions of our lives that we must draw our strength to live and our reasons for acting. – Simone de Beauvoir
Thus, this is not just a lesson for political educators, but to all who wish to be in better relation with the diversity of humans whom we share the world with – a commitment to critical reflection and learning is a commitment to community and revolution. And with that committed community and spirit of revolution comes action. Freire stresses that
“Critical and liberating dialogue, which presupposes action, must be carried on with the opppressed at whatever the stage of their struggle for liberation. . . It is essential for the oppressed to realize that when they accept the struggle for humanization they also accept, from that moment, their total responsibility for the struggle.” (Freire pg 47-50)
Nihilism and defeat are tools of the oppressor: we are less powerful when we don’t believe in our capacity to create change. But when we study, when we are truly committed to understanding the world around us, the desire to act upon the world follows with a force. Revolutionary optimism is made possible by being and acting in community with others, for only through seeing the results of our collective power can we continue to stoke our belief in our collective capacity. I guarantee you that if you commit to that book club or study group, you’ll find yourself invigorated towards action. Study compels us to figure things out together rather than to accept defeat at its face.
This change will never come from the top down, the colonial state, the capitalist or the techno-business class. These classes deny us our right to full humanity through devaluation, exploitation, and violence. It is antithetical to their purpose and existence to fight for our liberation. We will only see change through radical class consciousness and collective action, for the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house:
“Within the interdependence of mutual (non-dominant) difference lies that security which enables us to descend into the chaos of knowledge and return with true visions of our future, along with the concomitant power to effect those changes which can bring that future into being. . . Without community there is no liberation, only the most vulnerable and temporary armistice between an individual and her oppression.” pg 112, Sister Outsider
This line from the fourth and final chapter of Pedagogy of the Oppressed sums up the imperative of study and reflection for building a revolution:
“Lenin’s famous statement: “Without a revolutionary theory there can be no revolutionary movement” means that a revolution is achieved with neither verbalism nor activism, but rather with praxis, that is, reflection and action directed at the structures to be transformed.”
To be for liberation is to constantly reflect on society and the systems at play in order to transform them. This includes our educational practices in and out of radical movement spaces – these are also spaces in need of transformation. It is the charge of the radical educator to destabilize the teacher-student binary in their classrooms and commit to critical reflection alongside their students, as co conspirators. It is up to us to reject the teaching that dominant ways of knowing and doing things are the only possible option and to deepen our consciousness together toward new solutions.
This year and beyond, I want to approach my work as a political educator from a place of principled rootedness. The teachings of Paulo Freire, bell hooks, Audre Lorde, and other liberatory educators have provided us with the tools to deepen our critical consciousness and our capacity for transformation. I encourage you all – fellow educators, movement organizers, and regular people looking to turn their despair into knowledge and action – to join me in collective study and reflection. Despite the mounting fascist attacks on education, learning, and critical thinking, we must continue to push for prioritizing study and struggle in our movement spaces. Rather than be filled with shame for de-prioritizing or being resistant to study, let this be a call to you to incorporate revolutionary study into your organizing journey. Only through dialogue and critical reflection can we build the trust necessary to take risks together, and only through collective risk can we transform society away from dehumanization and violence and towards humanitarian care.
1 According to the translator, the term conscientizaçāo refers to learning to perceive social, political, and economic contradictions, and to take action against the oppressive elements of reality.
2 Pedagogy of the Oppressed, ch. 1 pg 47. Freire discusses the oppressed’s dependence on the oppressor and paraphrases Fromm description of “necrophillic behavior: the destruction o life – their own or that of their oppressed fellows.” ; pg. 58 “Oppression – overwhelming control – is necrophilic; it is nourished by love of death, not life.”
3 Toni Cade Bambara. “An Interview with Toni Cade Bambara.” By Kay Bonetti. Conversations with Toni Cade Bambara. Ed. Thabiti Lewis. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 2012. 35–47. Print.
4 Audre Lorde. “The Master’s Tools.” Sister Outsider. Ten speed press, 1984.
Thanks to my dear friends Sandhi and Natalie, whose conversations and co-working sessions made this piece possible. To all the transformative loves in my life that make it possible for me to create – thank you. Thanks to Paulo Freire, bell hooks, Audre Lorde, Shamell Bell, and all the other teachers I’m so lucky to learn from.