Thursday, February 18, 2016

On Brueggemann's Passing Reference to Paulo Freire And Why Atheism And The Harvards Of the World Are The Problem

In his lecture that was posted here the other day, Walter Brueggemann made a passing reference to the Brazilian teacher of the poor who developed some important ideas about teaching and the social and economic context in which that happens, Paulo Freire, whose most famous book is The Pedagogy of the Oppressed.  There is an interesting Youtube of a discussion on Friere, a lot of it centered on why, while his ideas are influential in many places, he is little noted in university education programs in the United States.  Well, of course you know why but you can listen to the discussion to hear a longer discussion of that among Noam Chomsky, Howard Gardner, and Bruno della Chiesa.

While that discussion is worthwhile, noting, especially, how Chomsky and della Chiesa relate Freire's work with his explicitly Christian motivation as as related to the Liberation Theology which arose at the same time, I'm going to go a step beyond that.

The first thing in the first chapter of Freire's book deals with something you might think is unrelated to teaching people to read.  It is among the most brilliant things I've ever read on the beginning of the problem of inequality and oppression

While the problem of humanization has always, from an axiological point of view, been humankind's central problem, it now takes on the character of an inescapable concern.1 Concern for humanization leads at once to the recognition of dehumanization, not only as an ontological possibility but as an historical reality. And as an individual perceives the extent of dehumanization, he or she may ask if humanization is a viable possibility. Within history, in concrete, objective contexts, both humanization and dehumanization are possibilities for a person as an uncompleted being conscious of their incompletion. 

But while both humanization and dehumanization are real alternatives, only the first is the people's vocation. This vocation is constantly negated, yet it is affirmed by that very negation. It is thwarted by injustice, exploitation, oppression, and the violence of the oppressors; it is affirmed by the yearning of the oppressed for freedom and justice, and by their struggle to recover their lost humanity. 

Dehumanization, which marks not only those whose humanity has been stolen, but also (though in a different way) those who have stolen it, is a distortion of the vocation of becoming more fully human. This distortion occurs within history; but it is not an historical vocation. Indeed, to admit of dehumanization as an historical vocation would lead either to cynicism or total despair. The struggle for humanization, for the emancipation of labor, for the overcoming of alienation, for the affirmation of men and women as persons would be meaningless. This struggle is possible only because dehumanization, although a concrete historical fact, is not a given destiny but the result of an unjust order that engenders violence in the oppressors, which in turn dehumanizes the oppressed.

Because it is a distortion of being more fully human, sooner or later being less human leads the oppressed to struggle against those who made them so. In order for this struggle to have meaning, the oppressed must not, in seeking to regain their humanity (which is a way to create it), become in turn oppressors of the oppressors, but rather restorers of the humanity of both.

This, then, is the great humanistic and historical task of the oppressed: to liberate themselves and their oppressors as well. The oppressors, who oppress, exploit, and rape by virtue of their power, cannot find in this power the strength to liberate either the oppressed or themselves. Only power that springs from the weakness of the oppressed will be sufficiently strong to free both. Any attempt to "soften" the power of the oppressor in deference to the weakness of the oppressed almost always manifests itself in the form of false generosity; indeed, the attempt never goes beyond this. In order to have the continued opportunity to express their "generosity," the oppressors must perpetuate injustice as well. An unjust social order is the permanent fount of this "generosity," which is nourished by death, despair, and poverty. That is why the dispensers of false generosity become desperate at the slightest threat to its source.

While I'm sure there have been many people who have nodded their heads at this brilliant statement of the origin and consequences of inequality and injustice, I'm just as sure that many of those people will have not begun to consider that there is a more profound source of that dehumanization which is deeply embedded in the culture of Western academia.   There is nothing more profoundly dehumanizing than the view of people as objects, automatons controlled by physical causation, the "lumbering robots" at the service of their genes, objects denuded of the possibility of even so much as free will, never mind higher activities involving choice and non-determinative thought, and that is not to mention the most essential possession of equal rights and moral obligations.

But without any of those things which the current academic-scientific regime of "brain-only" neuro-science, cognative science, evolutionary psychology, and the rest of the soft scientific assertion of atheist-materialist hegemony deny, nothing which Friere said about the rejection of dehumanization can find even the beginnings of persuasive power.

It is possible for someone, even someone who rejects materialism to find value in some of the ideas of Marx, because their ideological framing won't require those to find a foundation in the materialism that a conventional Marxist would demand of them.  But it isn't possible to begin with materialism and to, by a consistent logical argument, come to the conclusions that Freire does or, in fact, many of those arrived at by conventional Marxists.   The better intentions of such would-be radicals aren't artifacts of materialism, they are vestigial remnants of non-materialist acculturation or thinking.

At one point in the discussion, a questioner from the audience points out that his fellow radical classmates in a private school - as I recall it was in El Salvador - mostly went on to do well by doing good for themselves, what is the primary focus of a university education.   There was some mention of Harvard in that context, though I wish there had been more said on the point, given that it's more than likely that our education policy will be in the hands of a Harvard grad or their equivalent at another elite university.  Not to mention the other members of our government.  We, really, are on the path to the same radical inequality that afflicts Latin America, whose affliction was administered from Washington by Harvard grads like John F. Kennedy and his administration (hear what Chomsky says about the American war against the Catholic Church in Latin American during the course of the discussion).  The very things which the Liberation Theologians, that grass roots, education activists such as Freire were fighting against included the Best and Brightest as produced at our most elite, allegedly liberal universities.  Their policies were directly responsible for much of the support that the local elites got in the tidal wave of fascism that flooded Latin America for the next three decades.

I think there is very likely a very strong inverse correlation between the reputable status of a university and the likelihood that even the dispensers of "generosity" that are graduated from them will really produce anything good.  We've got to look elsewhere for the people who will really produce real change.  There will be very rare exceptions but they will be very, very rare, indeed.   I'd like to be able to ask Chomsky, a former Harvard University Fellow, about that but he's probably got other things to do.

1 comment:

  1. Ah, true radicalism!

    If we're going to be radical let's get down to the root, eh?