Radical Math held its third annual conference in New York last weekend. Four hundred high school math teachers and education professors attended the conference on “Creating Balance in an Unjust World: Math Education and Social Justice.” At thirty-two workshops on Long Island University’s Brooklyn campus and in half a dozen city public schools, math teachers demonstrated classroom lessons to help students understand society from a “liberatory,” anti-capitalist perspective. For example, one workshop demonstrated how student math projects could be used to “explore the distribution of wealth in the United States and imagine more socially just alternatives.” Another showed how math problems could be structured to “empower and inspire students to change their world. This workshop will examine the Personal Proof Project, connecting Geometric proofs and activism.” At the Radical Math conference I attended three years ago, University of Massachusetts Professor Marilyn Frankenstein proposed that elementary school teachers who truly care about social justice should instruct their students that in a “just society,” food would “be as free as breathing the air.”
The Radical Math conference can be viewed as a demonstration of Freirism in action. The organization faithfully follows the doctrines of Paulo Freire, the late Brazilian Marxist and “critical pedagogy” theorist. The official program for the conference I attended was emblazoned with this passage from The Pedagogy of The Oppressed, Freire’s seminal work: “There is no such thing as a neutral education process. Education either functions as an instrument which is used to bring about conformity 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 our world.”
In The Critical Pedagogy Reader, a widely used text in education school courses, Robert Peterson writes about how he plumbed The Pedagogy of the Oppressed as a young elementary school teacher in inner-city Milwaukee, looking for ways to apply Freire’s theories to his own fifth-grade classroom. Peterson realized that he had to jettison what Freire dismisses as the prevailing “banking method” of education, in which “the teacher and the curricular texts have the ‘right answers’ and which the students are expected to regurgitate periodically.” Instead, Peterson switched to Freire’s “liberating” pedagogical approach, which “relies on the experience of the student. . . . It means challenging the students to reflect on the social nature of knowledge and the curriculum.” Peterson seems to have succeeded, turning his fifth-graders into critical theorists and junior scholars of the Frankfurt School.
Still, not leaving anything to chance, Peterson also made sure to give his students a few “right answers” about the world as it is. After teaching a social studies unit on U.S. intervention in Latin America, he took the children to a rally protesting U.S. aid to the contras in revolutionary Nicaragua. The children stayed after school to make placards that carried the following slogans: “let them run their land!,” “help central america, don’t kill them,” and “give nicaraguans their freedom.” (sic)
One of Peterson’s students described the rally in the class magazine: “On a rainy Tuesday in April some of the students from our class went to protest against the contras. The people in Central America are poor and bombed on their heads. When we went protesting it was raining and it seemed like the contras were bombing us.” Like Peterson, Paulo Freire surely would have been proud.
If You Like Radicalizing Students, You’ll Love This
If you think it’s good for American democracy that leftist teachers are permitted to use public school classrooms to radicalize their students you will likely also love the tribute to Freire in last week’s Chronicle of Higher Education by Henry Giroux, an English professor at McMaster University in Canada and one of Freire’s leading disciples. If, by chance, you still believe in the quaint notion that compulsory public education should be politically neutral and, further, that it’s a serious breach of professional ethics for teachers to use their classrooms to indoctrinate vulnerable students, then you are likely to regard the Chronicle’s decision to publish Giroux’s panegyric to Freire as one more troubling sign of the degradation of academic standards at the nation’s universities.
The Chronicle essay was occasioned by the fortieth anniversary of the publication of The Pedagogy of The Oppressed, and Giroux proudly notes that the classic has sold more than one million copies. But let’s give Giroux his due. At least he doesn’t sugarcoat Freire’s radical preaching, as do some social justice advocates, by calling it a harmless constructivist pedagogical approach that merely helps disadvantaged students become more engaged with their studies. In Giroux’s modest estimation, “since the 1980s, no intellectual on the North American educational scene has matched either Freire’s theoretical rigor or his moral courage. And his example is more important now than ever before: With public institutions —including universities—increasingly under siege by conservative forces, it is imperative for educators to acknowledge Freire’s understanding of the empowering and democratic potential of education.”
It is worth deconstructing Giroux’s notion of “democratic potential of education.” It can’t possibly mean the need for greater political engagement by students or a broader, more relevant curriculum. If that’s all that leftists like Giroux are after, it’s hard to see how the current environment on American campuses could become any more favorable for their position. Students looking to become involved in the major political and social issues of the day can find three or four radical campus groups to join for every conservative one. The most widely assigned texts in humanities courses are by Marxist or anti-imperialist authors such as Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky and, yes, Paulo Freire. (Giroux neglects to point out that Pedagogy of The Oppressed reached the one million sales’ figure because it is the most widely assigned text in America’s Ed schools. In other words, barely literate education students are expected to “regurgitate” this text full of Marxist platitudes back to their leftist professors.)
Giroux seems to acknowledge that the Freirian agenda for the universities and K-12 public schools is not really about students becoming more “critical thinkers.” Rather it’s about the teachers and the professors “who must match their call for making the pedagogical more political with a continuing effort to build those coalitions, affiliations, and social movements capable of mobilizing real power and promoting substantive social change.” Nor is this about “democracy” or education reform, as commonly understood. Freire’s Ed-school bestseller is primarily a utopian political tract calling for the overthrow of capitalist hegemony and the creation of classless societies. Freire isn’t at all interested in the Western tradition’s leading education and democracy thinkers—not Rousseau, Piaget, Dewey, Horace Mann or Maria Montessori. He cites a rather different set of heroic figures who have shaped his own educational ideas: Marx, Lenin, Mao, Che Guevara, and Fidel Castro.
One of the key words in the Freirian lexicon is praxis. The idea is that a philosophy’s validity is proved in the real world through action. Thus the essential question about Freire’s work is one that Giroux fails to ask. Where is the real life, real society example of Freirian education praxis? Throughout his career Freire himself was never very forthcoming about this. But in one telling passage in Pedagogy of The Oppressed he does mention a society that actually has begun to realize “permanent liberation” through its education system. That praxis “appears to be the fundamental aspect of Mao’s Cultural Revolution.” The millions of Chinese of all classes who suffered and died under the Cultural Revolution’s brutal oppression might have disagreed with Freire’s assessment. Millions of Cubans would also likely demur from Freire’s anointing of Che Guevara as one of his exemplary “revolutionary educators.”
So there you have it. Promoted in the academy for his intellectual integrity and as a great education reformer, Freire is in reality just another in a long line of twentieth- century intellectuals, masquerading as liberating thinkers, who have apologized for or enabled some of history’s most murderous, tyrannical regimes. Freire’s loyal epigone, Henry Giroux, is no less guilty of that deception. As an example of the widespread political persecution by “right-wing university administrations,” Giroux describes having been denied tenure at Boston University by President John Silber. In fact, judged by Giroux’s disregard for logic and facts exhibited in his Chronicle essay, Silber’s decision seems all the more justified. Unfortunately, we are not likely in our time to see another such courageous university president.