Challenging non-democracy through participation: Can the classroom be a place of resistance?

Gaston Bacquet

This is part of a special collection celebrating the centenary of Paulo Freire’s birth.

Almost a century ago, when arguing for what he believed to be the need for democratic participation within learning spaces, John Dewey stated that democracy in the way he envisioned is:

“…more than a form of government; it is primarily a mode of associated living, of conjoint communicated experience. The extension in space of the number of individuals who participate in an interest so that each has to refer his own action to that of others, and to consider the action of others to give point and direction to his own, is equivalent to the breaking down of those barriers of class, race, and national territory which kept men from perceiving the full import of their activity.”  

But although many have built on his work over the years, as a society and educators we have not been listening to John Dewey closely enough. 

The key element that factors in anti-democratic thought is ‘otherness’; the constructs we have built as a society around issues of gender, race, class and nationality are anchored in the concept of otherness, itself embedded in inequality. Thus, we seek to impose on others oppressive systems and structures that will maintain this ‘otherness’ in place. Such problem can be perhaps best described by what I have termed ‘violence-based inequality’; in using this term, I borrow from Judith Butler’s The Force of Non-Violence and from Kwame Anthony Appiah’s Cosmopolitanism. Butler argues that we live in a world where some lives are more clearly valued than others, and by reasons of ‘racism, xenophobia, homophobia and transphobia, misogyny and the systemic disregard for the poor and the dispossessed’, we fail to identify and empathize with those who are different, and thus neglect to acknowledge someone else’s loss and grieve them as we would our own. Complementing this view, Appiah presents us with his concept of cosmopolitanism by identifying two strands: the first one is the recognition of our responsibility for every human being and their lives regardless of gender, religion, race or any other identity construct, and the second is to take an interest in the practices and ideas that make those lives meaningful and significant. Appiah further argues through a series of lectures exploring common threads in identity construction (race, culture, beliefs and nationality) that we are given a position within a social group that comes with certain expectations of behaviour and actions, both done by us and to us, as well as certain characteristics that theoretically answer the question of who we are.  He quotes American sociologist Alvin W. Gouldner describing identity as a ‘position’ assigned to someone by members of their group, a position which comes with certain characteristics that answer the question “Who is he?”:

In this manner the individual is “pigeonholed”; that is, he is held to be a certain “type” of person, a teacher, Negro, boy, man, or woman. The process by which the individual is classified by others in his group, in terms of the culturally prescribed categories, can be called the assignment of a “social identity.” The types or categories to which he has been assigned are his social identities. . . . Corresponding to different social identities are differing sets of expectations, differing configurations of rights and obligations

The difficulty arises, he later contends, when we become so identified with the constructs of gender, race, faith and culture that we begin to separate from others. He argues that certain universal values (inclusiveness, non-violence, sense of community, peaceful co-existence) are choices rather than inherited legacy, and that such values should be used as a resource to live harmoniously rather than to lock ourselves into a specific, fixed identity connected with a specific social group.

Let us position these ideas within the field of classroom education.  Research by Goudeau and Grozet, for instance, dissects three studies looking at the impact of social class in classroom inequality, and shows how current educational practices they investigated reproduce the disparities that exist outside of education, thus continuing to build further barriers between social groups; this is particularly relevant when we begin considering the varying degrees of cultural and linguistic capital students bring with them into to a setting in which there are lifelong implications in the level of social participation someone can attain determined by language factors alone, and where learners are subjected to obligatory practices regardless of their cultural and linguistic background. Finally, Baralt et al. conclude in their study of millennial classrooms, inequality is intersectional, with one dimension (in this case, social class) affecting others such as gender and race. This is particularly important as 21st-century classrooms have a broader range of diversity with subsequent over-identification due to cultural barriers between groups; the need for inclusive pedagogical practices is particularly relevant today, at a time where issues such as race, religion, immigrant status, sexual orientation, disability and class can also further compound feelings of exclusion, marginalization or eschewed power dynamics.  Then, the question arises: to what extent is it possible to develop classroom practices that challenge these constructs in today’s world? 

Critical pedagogy, I argue, opens the door to possible answers. The aim of critical pedagogy is the liberation from education as a practice of cultural hegemony and oppression. In citing Paulo Freire’s influence in her own work and shaping of her philosophical perspectives, Antonia Darder signals to what critical pedagogy envisions education to be: a means of democratically shaping society through a process of humanization and the raising of critical consciousness in a struggle that ultimately results in freedom. And although she admits that this freedom might remain unattained as a whole, she does argue that the mere notion of freedom has the potential to ‘enliven our imagination, creativity, hope, and commitment to resist the forces of domination and exploitation within education and the larger society’.

How is this achieved? To begin with, as Darder notes, teacher training is known for minimizing the role of teachers to that of a ‘technician’: they learn teaching strategies rooted in outdated ideas of a what classroom environment should be, and become dependent on a curriculum that has already been determined for them, all of which place students and teachers in predefined positions within the learning environment. Freire also points to a number of roles commonly performed by the teacher within the traditional educational model based on the assumptions on what he called ‘banking education’:

(a) the teacher teaches and the students are taught; 
(b) the teacher knows everything and the students know nothing; 
(c) the teacher thinks and the students are thought about; 
(d) the teacher talks and the students listen—meekly; 
(e) the teacher disciplines and the students are disciplined; 
(f) the teacher chooses and enforces his choice, and the students comply; 
(g) the teacher acts and the students have the illusion of acting through the action of the teacher; 
(h) the teacher chooses the program content, and the students (who were not consulted) adapt to it; 
(i) the teacher confuses the authority of knowledge with his own professional authority, which he sets    in opposition to the freedom of the students; 
(j) the teacher is the Subject of the learning process, while the pupils are mere objects(From Pedagogy of the Oppressed)

In her book Teaching to Transgress , bell hooks tells of her own experience as a minority student in classrooms where the balance of power was heavily leaning towards the teachers and lecturers, and where learners, rather than being encouraged to develop independent, critical thought, were taught obedience to existing systems and structures in a way that she perceived helped perpetuate social inequalities present both inside and outside the academic sphere. She further describes her vision of what a socially just classroom would look like: a ‘communal place’ of collaboration and shared responsibilities sustained by ‘collective effort’.It is in her works and those of Antonia Darder that we find perhaps the clearest clues on how to bring the principles of transformative education into our classroom practice so it can more closely approximate that vision. Hooks’ works are particularly relevant through what she coined ‘engaged pedagogy’. In Teaching Critical Thinking, for instance, she distils thirty teaching practices that, she argues, should inform the actions of a critical teacher in building the type of relationships and learning environment conducive to social justice and more importantly, emancipation.

Perhaps the most relevant of hooks’ contributions is her approach to the teacher – student relationship as one in which students and teachers engage in the practice of creating knowledge together, where the teacher’s role is not one of leadership and where the classroom becomes instead an environment of mutual cooperation and growth. Adding to this, Darder, just like Freire indicates in his Pedagogy of Hope, makes a series of propositions regarding the way language should be used in the classroom in a way that does not reproduce inequality: her work with bicultural students revealed the need to use language in such a way that allows learners to engage with elements of their learning environment that might be foreign or new; beyond the way language is delivered and practiced, for instance through games, songs and stories, she argues for the importance of using language to participate in critical dialogues that permit the examination of ‘prevailing social attitudes and biases about language differences’.  Darder describes what she labels “the language of practice”, or a pragmatic way of using language for day-to-day, concrete activities rather than to elaborate in more complex issues; because of the existing cultural hegemony and the way language can be and is used to assert superiority it is important for teachers to embrace the linguistic and cultural diversity while at the same introducing the “language of theory”: the language needed to understand and recognize abstruse depictions of the world around us and the social issues that pervade it.

Photo by Barry Zhou on Unsplash

Gaston Bacquet works as an Associate Tutor at the University of Glasgow, where he supervises master’s dissertations at the School of Education, leads a seminar on Introduction of Educational and Social Research and where he is also a second-year PhD student in Education. His research seeks to develop inclusive teaching practices in Latin American classrooms using an intersection of Critical Pedagogy and non-Western knowledge systems.

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