A Political Pedagogy, or In Lieu of Dismantling the University

Woman with mouth covered by red tape

How does the ongoing constriction of academic freedom reverberate in the classroom? If academics cannot take a stand without risking formal or subtle censure, and so choose not to risk, how can we ask students to?

In March of 2003, anthropologist Nicholas de Genova spoke out in protest of the Iraq War. His comments sparked massive criticism and calls for his resignation. In 2009, Columbia University denied his promotion. Shortly after the 9/11 attacks, Ward Churchill, a tenured professor at the University of Colorado, wrote an op ed about the attacks, which invited serious reflection on their origins. In 2005, his op ed was at the centre of a controversy that led to his facing harassment and death threats when invited to give a lecture at Hamilton College in upstate New York. In 2007, the University of Colorado fired Churchill; while the university denied that his firing was connected to his political views, its investigation into him began immediately after the widespread circulation of his 9/11 op ed six years earlier.

For those of us in the academy who are overtly on the left, resistant to the commodification of our labor or students’ education, or are otherwise progressive, the last few years have held a number of cautionary tales. If you are too challenging to established norms, too critical of government policy or in/action, or simply too loud, you may be subject to sanction. Penalties may include queries about the scholarly quality or “objectivity” of one’s work, harassment by right-wing activists, or the denial of tenure or failure to renew one’s contract. For those of us who are contingently employed or untenured, the repercussions of these sanctions can be particularly strong. While the cases of Nicholas de Genova and Ward Churchhill are two sharp reminders of what can happen, more subtle forms of everyday sanction can wear on one’s mind and sense of hope and possibility.

What do those of us who believe that knowledge, and its transmission, are deeply imbricated in power do in this context? Do we wait until we are tenured, and then say, write, and teach everything we were too afraid to do before? Do we throw up our hands at the students who remind us—directly or indirectly—that their tuition pays our salaries and so we should award them the high grade that they are entitled to receive? Do we walk away from the university in protest of the quantification of our intellectual value by tallying how many peer-reviewed articles and books we have written per calendar year? Or is there another option?

These questions were on my mind as I reread Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed. An activist mentor gave me Freire’s book when I was seventeen and was spending the North American summer working on welfare rights in Washington, DC. Much of my time was spent observing landlord-tenant court, where residents were summarily evicted from their homes for not paying amounts of money likely miniscule in comparison to the fees the spotlessly dressed lawyers for the landlords collected. Freire’s analysis of the inseparability of the oppressor and the oppressed was a sober accompaniment to my time at the courthouse. His analysis made me reflect about how I could have grown up in the middle-class DC suburbs without realizing the profound struggle for material survival taking place a few miles away. Since then—through undergraduate years when I wanted to dismantle the university, before and during graduate school when I began studying Thai politics and read two translations of Freire, and in the last five years that I have taught in the United States and Australia—Pedagogy of the Oppressed has continued to challenge me.

In the introduction to the 1970 English translation of Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Richard Shaull, wrote:

There is no such thing as a neutral educational process. Education either functions as an instrument that is used to facilitate the integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity to it, or it becomes “the practice of freedom,” the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.(16)

Shaull captured one of the key insights of Freire’s work among the illiterate residents of Brazilian favelas: teachers can either work collectively with students to be critical of what we are told in the service of building a new consciousness— or teachers can instruct students to become compliant participants in the status quo. The comfort of compliance, Freire explains, comes at a cost. Even if one is relatively comfortable within the status quo, the costs of the suffering and injustice faced by others will soon reach everyone. My latest reading of Pedagogy of the Oppressed seems to be teaching me that Freire’s insights about teaching and learning as liberating practices, born out of years working as a literacy educator in Brazilian favelas, are not only relevant to ending oppression, but also to surviving in today’s changing university. With this in mind, in response to my questions above, I trace three points on my own journey, as an academic and activist, through Freire.

A women with her mouth covered by red tapeSolidarity and Complexity

Between my second and third years of university, I spent three months working with EMPOWER, a Thai sex workers’ rights organization in Bangkok. I was interested in feminist labour solidarity—or how North American activists could be in solidarity with Southeast Asian women workers and activists. My trip was funded by a university program, and the proposal focused on women working in the sex tourism industry in Thailand and existing at the pinnacle of racialized, sexualized, capitalist oppression.

The reality on the ground was far more nuanced. EMPOWER, which was established in 1985, works to support sex workers through health education, language classes, and non-formal education [the Thai equivalent of the U.S. General Education Diploma]. I taught sexual-negotiation-focused English to women working in Patpong and Soi Cowboy, two parts of the city frequented by sex tourists from North America, Europe, and Australia. We focused on vocabulary useful in sexual negotiation. Even though I was meant to be the teacher, I was actually the student, and not only because my ability to teach English is spotty, at best. What I learned was that sex workers were not simply women living at the pinnacle of globalized repression. They are individuals negotiating a panoply of potentially dangerous, difficult, and marginalized spaces of labor.

Writing about solidarity, Freire notes:

Solidarity requires that one enter into the situation of those with whom one is solidary; it is a radical posture. The oppressor is solidary with the oppressed only when he stops regarding the oppressed as an abstract category and sees them as persons who have been unjustly dealt with, deprived of their voice, cheated in the sale of their labor—when he stops making pious, sentimental and individualist gestures and risks an act of love. (31-32)

Solidarity is messy, and complex. What I struggle to do is to teach in a way that encourages students both to recognize the lived materiality of suffering in the world and to recognize that amidst suffering, individuals and communities are surviving, dreaming, and working for a different future. Sex workers are individuals working to improve their lives and those of the people for whom they care. In order to honour this, I also push students to see the difference between different forms of labour in the sex industry. In the Thai context, a Thai woman w­­­­­­orking in sex tourism in Bangkok faces a dramatically different situation and set of risks than a Burmese girl who is trafficked to work in a hidden brothel just inside the Thai border. Often, students see all of these different experiences as forms of unspeakable violence and are angry that I insist on the difference. To argue that every form of commodified sexual labour is the same masks the depths of potential repression and the possible spaces and forms of autonomy. It is through the recognition of complexity—and the power that each of us has—that solidarity becomes possible and oppression can be directly challenged. I would also argue that in the struggle to speak and write with this level of complexity—and often discomfort—learning occurs as well.

Against Dehumanization

The complexity of writing and teaching about oppression in a way that attempts to dismantle it challenges me at unexpected times. Although I continued to research and write about Thailand in graduate school, my focus shifted to tenancy struggles in between October 1973 and October 1976, a remarkable period of political openness sandwiched between long-running dictatorships. The use of the law by dissident farmers caused a panic so deep and wide that this, rather than the armed insurgency of the Communist Party of Thailand, constituted revolutionary change. Although Thailand transitioned from an absolute to a constitutional monarchy in June 1932, 40 years later the law was still largely in the hands of the elite. I tracked the courageous actions of farmers and their student allies, as well as the reactionary, violent backlash with which their actions were met by state and landholding elites.

Sympathetic to the struggle of the farmers—and how they had been written out of dominant histories—I assumed that the only way to write about the landlords was to portray them as capitalist oppressors. This would be the best way both to criticize the history of repression and clearly illustrate it, right? As it turns out, no. In the margins of one of my early draft dissertation chapters, one of my advisors challenged me to think more deeply about the landlords as human. She queried why I did not write about their lives with the same specificity as I did the farmers’ lives. It took me many months to figure out how, and why, to respond to her criticism.

As I did so, and worked to write about the landlords as complex figures, I realized that when landlords responded with anger to the farmers’ accusation of their actions as unjust, it was not simply a cynical attempt to retain power. While it may have been this in some cases, in others it was a defensive response born out of the fear of loss of power and revenue, and also the loss of the beneficent fiction of themselves as the kind patrons of the farmers.

Paulo Freire argues that oppression hurts everyone—the oppressor as well as the oppressed—involved in a given relationship of domination. He writes:

As the oppressors dehumanize others and violate their rights, they themselves become dehumanized. As the oppressed, fighting to be human, take away the oppressors’ power to dominate and suppress, they restore to the oppressors the humanity they had lost in the exercise of oppression. (38)

Choosing to think carefully about oppressors refuses them the dehumanization their power rests on, and it makes one’s analysis deeper. In the case of Thai landlords in the mid-1970s, counterinsurgency inside and outside Thailand ultimately crushed the farmers’ movement—and the possibility of justice and radical humanization for everyone. In refusing to repeat dehumanization in the writing of this and other resonant histories, scholars are able to both unmask the long roots of oppression and glimpse what liberation might have looked like.

Everyday Liberation in the Classroom

Making individual decisions about how to act and how to write in the context of ongoing inequality is consistently difficult. Yet it is in the university classrooms of the United States and Australia where I have found that it is most challenging to take Freire to heart. What does it mean to teach with a consciousness about oppression? And recalling Richard Shaull’s assessment of why Freire’s book was significant when it was translated into English—how might one teach the practice of freedom in 2011?

It is in the classroom—not when I am writing at my computer or doing fieldwork—that I most often feel a deep sense of possibility and the urgency of not consolidating the ruling order. This means, first of all, teaching students as co-collaborators and co-investigators in a shared project. Writing about Freire’s effect on her teaching in Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom, bell hooks notes:

Early on it was Freire’s insistence that education could be the practice of freedom that encouraged me to create strategies for what he called “conscientization” in the classroom. Translating the term to critical awareness and engagement, I entered the classroom with the conviction that it was crucial for me and every other student to be an active participant, not a passive consumer. (14)

What does this look like in practice? When I teach about human security in Asia and the Pacific, I try to unsettle students’ ideas about the sex industry and other forms of labour, not out of an insistence that I am right but because being challenged makes most of us into more careful thinkers. When students come into class bursting with passion to challenge injustice and oppression around them, I urge them to struggle armed with ironclad evidence behind them.

Perhaps most sobering, though, I am honest with them about the risks—overt, implicit, and entirely unseen—that thinkers inside and outside the university take in the service of developing ideas and analyses which challenge the status quo. What I find most concerning about the ongoing constriction of academic freedom is how it reverberates in the classroom. As a teacher, my goal is to teach students to discern that they can stake a claim based on their ideas—whatever those may be—and then develop an argument in their support. Whether I agree with a stance taken by a given student is immaterial. In other words, my job is to teach students how to take a stand and then defend it. This is true regardless of whether I am teaching a course on the lived experience of war or an introduction to gender studies and would hold even if I were teaching mathematics or physics. One learns by taking the chance to articulate what one thinks—and subjecting it to the scrutiny of one’s peers. Yet if academics cannot ourselves take a stand without risking formal or subtle censure, and so choose not to risk, how can we ask students to do so? I suspect that Paulo Freire, who died in 1997, after over 50 years of being an educator, including several months in prison and over 15 years in exile, would tell us that we cannot.

Tyrell Haberkorn teaches and writes about state violence and human rights in Southeast Asia at the Australian National University. Her book, Revolution Interrupted: Farmers, Students, Law, and Violence was published by the University of Wisconsin Press in 2011.