“Sit down and read. Educate yourself for the coming conflicts.” - Mother Jones
After only a week in office, Donald Trump has made it quite clear that we will facing some frightening realities over the next four years. Many of us are scrambling for ways to respond.
I love this Mother Jones quote as a reminder that the lessons can precede the conflict, rather than the other way around.
The particular lesson I always come back to as a scholar-educator-activist is Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed. For Freire, true liberation – for the oppressed and their oppressors – comes when the oppressed “[learn] to perceive social, political, and economic contradictions, and to take action against the oppressive elements of that reality.”
I do not think U.S. academics appreciate Freire as much as we should. Most of us are on board with his
critique of the “banking method” of education, but his core political message about education for liberation remains on the margins of academia.
It could be that the tendency in the Global North is to see education as apolitical. The conventional wisdom equates “political teaching” with imposing your views upon your students. Surging right-wing populism has stretched this narrative even further, in effect politicizing higher education to suit its own agenda. The “Professor Watchlist,” for instance, aims to expose “professors that advance a radical agenda in lecture halls.”
In the face of these criticisms and the parallel assault on facts that in all likelihood will continue to characterize the Trump Administration, it is going to be important that we make clear what makes teaching political and that we make a strong case for why political teaching is so important.
Teaching is a political act when it encourages students to grapple with realities that others choose to ignore, when it draws attention to oppression and gives voice to those who experience it.
Political teaching also involves thinking about education beyond the confines of the traditional classroom. Not just in service learning or community engagement projects, but also in studying with members of our communities, particularly those who have been unable to access higher education institutions. We ought to be learning together about the forces that keep so many of us down.
As I write, I am beginning my second semester teaching a course that is part of the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program. Inside-Out brings “traditional” college students together with people who are incarcerated to learn side-by-side in a prison setting.
Each week I will travel with students from my predominately white, relatively affluent university to a local men’s correctional facility. The course will unfold under the assumption that we are all equally capable and our voices equally valuable. Experiential knowledge and academic knowledge will have equal weight. Everyone will read the same readings, write the same papers, and participate in the same discussions. Although I will distinguish myself to a degree as the facilitator, I will sit in the circle along with the students, listening, learning, and resisting the urge to lecture.
The title of this particular course is Crime & Inequality. The name may imply an endless string of charts and stats about disparities in punishment, offending, and victimization. However, the crux of what I do is use crime as a jumping off point for an in-depth discussion about identity and oppression.
The focus, therefore, is out of step with traditional criminological approaches focusing on “them” as offenders or the subjects of social control. Rather, guided by a combination of critical writings and our cumulative experiences, we will be looking at issues like criminalization across history, the politics of crime, rape culture, and the criminalization of resistance.
What will gradually get unveiled is how complex, interwoven systems of oppression affect each of us differently. We will all struggle through the difficult reality that we, too, are complicit in such systems. Through deep reflection and honest discussion, we will also come to understand better the roots of our own day-to-day hardships.
The process, more so than the result, is what makes Inside-Out worthy of the label, “transformative education.” The program provides participants with a real-life example of what solidarity across difference looks like. Our experiences with oppressive systems mostly differ, yet I approach this course appreciating the possibility of finding unity in the shared experience of struggle.
Engaging with identity therefore gets us to this point, yet transcending identity is the larger goal.
Education, we might say, imitates life in this way.
As we enter a moment of profound uncertainty, it is my hope that life might also imitate this style of education. With truth seeking, reflection, and dialogue all under assault, our task will be to get at the root of our struggles, to become empowered enough to push back, and to stand in solidarity with, learn from, and inspire those who are engaged in struggles of their own. Following the advice of Mother Jones, what we need to do as we prepare is sit down and read – or, better yet, learn – together.