I have often been discouraged with the idea of education as a process wherein one person (the teacher) implants or imparts knowledge into the participants (students), however willing or unwilling, as though students are merely vessels to be filled. I have fought this misconception as a teacher, but my irritation is somewhat less important to me than the fact that there is such an attitude toward teaching that exists and is even moderately prevalent.

This trend is not new, of course; educator Paolo Freire was writing about the idea in a very interesting way in 1970, when he published his book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed. One chapter in particular, entitled “The Banking Concept of Education,” sheds light on the traditional model and its effects on education and the world at large.

As with the subject of my previous entry, Freire’s essay is in many ways about liberation, and like bell hooks, he is most certainly a humanist – perhaps even a radical one, at that. The beginning paragraph of the chapter gives an interesting view of how education really can be:

A careful analysis of the teacher-student relationship at any level, inside or outside the school, reveals its fundamentally narrative character. This relationship involves a narrating Subject (the teacher) and patient, listening objects (the students). The contents, whether values or empirical dimensions of reality, tend in the process of being narrated to become lifeless and petrified. Education is suffering from narration sickness. (Adler-Kassner 74)

When teaching is merely about communicating information, what Freire has described here really does happen. I know that one of the hardest part of instructional planning for me is finding ways to get out of the lecture mode and into activities that allow students to find real and practical ways of getting into materials. I think back to the discussions we had of Walden and how it went well in part because they were student-centered and not at all about them receiving knowledge from me.

This conception of education is what Freire calls the “banking” concept; as he puts it, “[e]ducation thus becomes an act of depositing, in which the students are the depositories and the teacher is the depositor. Instead of communicating, the teacher issues communiqués and makes deposits which the students patiently receive, memorize, and repeat. …In the banking concept of education, knowledge is a gift bestowed by those who consider themselves knowledgeable upon those whom they consider to know nothing” (75).

The first step, Freire says, is one that is very much in tune with the motto and name of this blog: “Education must begin with the solution of the teacher-student contradiction, by reconciling the poles of the contradiction so that both are simultaneously teachers and students” (75).

What an idea! Students being teachers, and teachers being students? (But I digress.)

Speaking of the essay as a whole, there are two things that really stand out to me. The first is how Freire talks of the tendency of the banking concept to objectify students, to make them into things that are “filled out” rather than transformed into something better. Students are passive, and the best students are the ones who learn how to sit down, shut up, and let themselves be filled by the authority figure. When students say (as one did to me), “Just give us the answers you want from us,” they are acting out scripts that have been written for them and that they have been acting out for a large portion of their education.

The second thing that was so striking is how the language of liberatory education struck me as so reminiscent of Orwell’s 1984, with its focus on how oppressors (like INGSOC in Oceania) attempt to perpetuate roles that maintain the cycle of oppression that exists. For Freire, the banking concept of education does just this: it puts the oppressed in a role where they are passive, where they lack the knowledge to act meaningfully and politically, and consequently where they are unable to upset the status quo in regards to education and understanding of reality. Learning is about adapting, and those who do not adapt – who do not become “orthodox” – are those who must be re-educated, who must, as Winston was, be emptied out so that they may be “filled” again with the Party: certainly there is no mistaking that image in Orwell’s novel. We may not realize it, but in many ways, this banking concept of education really is about reality control.

What we should strive to make our students is not merely learned but rather conscious. Students must be taught how to approach the world – the real world, not the sterilized version we put in front of them – with a critical awareness that is facilitated in the classroom not through narration by the teacher – a practice firmly grounded in the banking concept – but through investigation where the teacher is also a participant but not the mediator. When teachers mediate reality, they will inevitably conceal parts of it, but that is where Freire’s “problem-posing education” instead wants to demythologize the narratives that men create in order to hide aspects of reality.*

Ultimately, this is Freire’s goal for education:

Problem-posing education, as a humanist and liberating praxis, posits as fundamental that men subjected to domination must fight for their emancipation. To that end, it enables teachers and students to become Subjects of the educational process by overcoming authoritarianism and an alienating intellectualism; it also enables men to overcome their false perception of reality. The world — no longer something to be described with deceptive words — becomes the object of that transforming action by men which results in their humanization. (84)

Where men are dehumanized in 1984 by being used as a means to an end – power – such a model of education becomes about men gaining the ability to transform the world rather than to simply become a fixture in it. I think students know on some level what happens, whether or not they are entirely aware of it or care to do anything about it, but we as teachers should provide ways for students to be transformed by learning about reality, about the world around them, and by seeing how they can help transform themselves and the world in the process.

*It is fairly clear that both Freire and hooks are building off post-modernists in many ways; in hooks’ essay, she quotes an individual and specifies that they are working from a Foucauldian framework. This shouldn’t, of course, be any reflection on the truth of their statements, although it is always good to acknowledge influences and be aware of them.