On January 18, 2012, NPR aired an interview with Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction John Huppenthal. In that interview, Mr. Huppenthal so misrepresented the work of Paulo Freire that PTO President Kelly Howe felt compelled to respond and offer a more accurate description of Freire’s core ideas.
Here’s the letter Kelly just sent NPR in response:
January 19, 2012
As President of Pedagogy and Theatre of the Oppressed (PTO), a US-based international organization for educators, artists, scholars, and organizers, I write regarding comments made yesterday on Tell Me More by John Huppenthal, Arizona’s Superintendent of Public Instruction. Huppenthal was interviewed in a segment entitled “Mexican American Studies: Bad Ban or Bad Class?” The superintendent mentioned Paulo Freire, the late Brazilian education philosopher whose myriad books have inspired a staggering number of teachers and students around the world across the last four decades. Huppenthal talked about Freire’s most famous book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, which has been removed from Tucson public schools as part of a ban on ethnic studies classes in Arizona. He pointed to the citation of Freire’s book by Mexican-American Studies teachers as evidence that those teachers’ courses stoked “resentment” based on race and ethnicity.
Huppenthal’s critique of Freire’s ideas was so difficult to follow and so lacking in substantive evidence that I thought it might be useful to offer NPR listeners a brief primer on Freire’s educational philosophy. Pedagogy of the Oppressed critiques what Freire called the “banking” concept of education. The banking concept imagines teaching as a mere transaction of information. The teacher is the expert with knowledge to dole out. The student is the passive container-perhaps imagine a child’s coin bank-into which the teacher drops his or her coins of wisdom. It’s a model of learning that emphasizes the authority of the teacher at the expense of the humanity and critical thinking skills of the student. It also tends to imagine the teacher as unbiased and unassailable. Such a model, Freire suggests, oppresses students by denying them the opportunity to participate actively in their education. They just receive and absorb.
Freire argues for replacing the “banking” concept with “problem-posing education.” Problem-posing education insists that students and teachers have much to learn from one another. Students expand their consciousness of the world as they become what he calls “critical co-investigators in dialogue with the teacher” (81).* As Freire puts it, “The teacher presents the material to the students for their consideration, and re-considers her earlier considerations as the students express their own” (81). Teachers and students collaborate in “praxis”-simultaneous action and reflection (87).
Huppenthal also cast suspicion on the term “oppression.” The word is a key term for Freire, who believed that as students hone their critical thinking skills they become savvier at recognizing oppressions. As a result, students seek to transform oppressions into more equitable power relationships. But Freire does not advocate “resentment” or demonization. Instead he values processes in which students gain tools to challenge oppressive systems and work lovingly but relentlessly toward new systems that recognize the full humanity of all. “The pursuit of full humanity,” Freire writes, must be carried out “in fellowship and solidarity; therefore it cannot unfold in the antagonistic relationship between oppressors and oppressed” (85). Freire hoped for classrooms where everyone-oppressors and oppressed-might become more fully human.
Freire was not beyond reproach; many teachers and scholars have rigorously questioned his ideas. And he welcomed critique. For example, renowned feminist scholar bell hooks lauded Freire while also acknowledging aspects of his perspective that she found misogynist. But rather than offer a similarly nuanced discussion, Huppenthal falsely pitted the use of Freire against the teaching of critical thinking, when in fact few educators have advocated more strongly for critical thinking’s place at the center of learning. Despite Huppenthal’s claims that he has studied Freire, the interview revealed the Superintendent’s embarrassing lack of knowledge about one of the core thinkers of contemporary education theory and practice.
It’s not surprising that teachers inspired by Freire reported increased classroom engagement. After all, Freirean teaching is all about helping students develop the tools to think for themselves. But Huppenthal’s rhetoric villainizes that learning process rather than the oppressions it reveals. He glosses over very real systemic inequalities in our nation’s past and present, and pivots blame onto those who name those problems. Put another way, he doesn’t blame the illness of inequality; he blames students and teachers who dare to diagnose it.
I invite Superintendent Huppenthal to join me at the 2012 Pedagogy and Theatre of the Oppressed (PTO) Conference in Berkeley, California, May 31-June 3. I’m happy to pay for his registration myself and to welcome him as my personal guest so that he can deepen his knowledge about problem-posing education. PTO’s name honors both Freire and Augusto Boal, the inspirational Brazilian theatre artist who wrote the book Theatre of the Oppressed and other landmark theatre texts. More information about our conference can be found at www.ptoweb.org. I hope Mr. Huppenthal will accept my invitation. I think our community would be eager to engage him in the sort of dialogue Freire hoped education could be.
Many thanks to NPR for your overall excellent work and your interest in the urgent, upsetting topic of Arizona’s ban on ethnic studies.
Kelly Howe, Ph.D.
Pedagogy and Theatre of the Oppressed, Inc. (PTO)
*All page numbers correspond to the following text: Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. 30th Anniversary Ed. Trans. Myra Bergman Ramos. New York: Continuum, 2003. Print.