Saturday, October 24, 2015

Critical Literacy as “Compromisation”

Snea Thinsan
This article came out of a semester-long self study with L750 classmates under supervision of Dr. Stephanie Carter.  Each participant unpacked and repacked “Critical Literacy” following intensive discussions on what is and is not CL.
I. Introduction: The critical roots
II. A common theme: “Tensionsâ€�
Tensions that require “”compromisation”â€�
– To liberate and/or to empower
– To “unbankâ€� by way of “”compromisation”â€�
III. Bridging the extremes
To sensitize or conscientize
To challenge the commonplace, the dominant views, or the taken for granted
To unpack sociopolitical systems
To give voices to the silenced
To take action or to reach praxis
IV. Ending notes

Introduction: The critical roots

The notions of critical literacy, emerged in the late 1980s and early 1990s (Green 2001), refer to many things practiced by many groups of people and appear in various dimensions. Green further suggests that` “The notions of text, literacy as social practice, and discourse, which have been discussed within cultural literacy, are…integral to critical literacyâ€� (2001, 7), but that there are other stances and the distinction is not clear. Harste (2002), likewise, defines critical literacy as “a moving target” that generally involves efforts in “disrupting the taken for granted, interrogating dominant perspectives, exposing the political in what was thought to be innocent, and promoting social justice in all kinds of forms” (Harste, L750 Course Syllabus, Fall 2002, Indiana University), which is similar to Lankshear’s observation that critical literacy is a “contested educational idealâ€� with “no final orthodoxâ€� (1994, p. 4).
Wink (1997) argues that critical literacy is one name among the many similar views from around the world, which can be linked to the real education world via critical pedagogy, or radical pedagogy. See figure 1 below.
Figure 1: Critical Roots (Wink, 1997, p. 64)
Insert the figure here.
Gore (1993) also identifies a close link between critical and feminist discourses with critical pedagogy. Nieto (1999) defines multicultural education in a comprehensive sense and as conceptual echo of Freire’s pedagogy.
Paolo Freire, the Father of critical pedagogy, holds strong views about the oppressing world in which two opposing groups, the oppressed and the oppressors, are competing within the unjust status quo, (1970, 2002), and the contradictions thus result in a lot of tensions in pedagogical practices. His radical approach, the pedagogy of the oppressed, has influenced the writings of a lot of prominent authors around the world, including those under the broad critical literacy umbrella, such as Comber, Shor, Kempe, Finn, Street, Gee, Luke, etc.
Critical literacy, with its linked veins with critical pedagogy, has evolved around many themes as implied in definitions given earlier, but it is very often discussed in light of tensions, conflicts, opposing views, contradictions, and differences of varied sorts among people. As far as I see, the views among prominent authors of the field about how to deal with these opposing realities break into two major groups: one with and the other without “”compromisation”,â€� a new word I created to mean “making an effort to compromise.â€�
This paper will first argue that critical literacy has to do fundamentally with tensions. Then, it will relate relevant history of me especially as a person born and raised in a Buddhist culture and yet, later predominantly educated in the westernized mode of education, with why I view “”compromisation”â€� as an appropriate way for practicing critical literacy in the face of tensions. Next, elaborating the extreme nature of Freire’s views around Banking Education and his pedagogy, the paper will discuss what can be compromised and briefly how to do it.

 A common theme: “Tensionsâ€�

I believe tensions are caused when there are at least two extremes. Critical literacy, if we agree that it is a child of critical or radical pedagogy, is evolved around the theme of tensions because of the extreme nature of its parent. Freire. Freire started his renowned book, The Pedagogy of the Oppressed, by leading our attention to the task of ‘humanization’ and elaborating the opposite term, ‘dehumanization,’  by relating it to “injustice, exploitation, oppression, and the violence of the oppressorsâ€� (2002, p. 44).  When we look at these words and phrases, we can see that they imply the tensions between two major groups of people in similar forms: the oppressed vs. the oppressors; the winners vs. the losers; and the manipulators and the manipulated. Division of human beings into two main groups has become the basis for discussion of with whom to side among people dealing with critical literacy. Some divide human beings by gender; others by races, abilities, social classes, power and authority, cultural practices, religion, economic power, and so on. Essentially, a common theme that emerges is that the two groups do not share equal gains under even bases or just systems. Whether the authors in related fields that promote critical literacy take Freire as their inspiration or not, they tend to deal with this very basic division, but the details or emphases of their discussions and/or practices may vary according to the specific areas of their interests.
Let me point out the extreme nature of Freire’s pedagogy of the oppressed in order to see why tensions are inevitable and thus “compromisation” necessary.  As illustrated in Figure 2, Freire rigidly divides human beings as two contradicting groups, and in order for the pedagogy to work, Freire sides with the oppressed and bases his pedagogy on his belief that the oppressed, his students, need to be liberated or empowered through conscientization, or “learning to perceive social, political, and economic contradictions, and to take action against the oppressive elements of reality,” –Translator’s note in Freire (2002, p. 35). Conscientization is used to fight against naturalization, or the efforts by the oppressors to desensitize the oppressed and make them stay within the systems without challenging them. Freire contended that it is important to help the students see their position within the unjust systems within the status quo, in which the dominant group manipulates the systems historically, socially, and culturally. To conscientize members of the oppressed, he advocates “Dialogue Education,â€� which is the opposite to “Banking Education,â€� or the kind of education that is operated within the unjust status quo. It is the assumptions about the banking education that generate the extreme pedagogy.
Figure 2: Overview of Freire’s pedagogy of the oppressed
The oppressedThe oppressors
- LiberatingNaturalization= Efforts to maintain the status quo
- Praxis (Reflective action)-Banking Education
- Transformative education
Dialogue education

We will, in the next section, examine the extreme elements that Freire proposes. Now, Freire also sets the goal of his pedagogy at changing the unjust systems within the status quo. He thus encourages the students to engage in praxis, or reflective action. After the students learn that they are situated within the unfair systems, they should take actions in order to change the systems. Another extreme stance is created. Freire does not think there is an alternative to confrontation between the two groups. In other words, his pedagogy of the oppressed does not allow “compromisation” from either group. Freire, for instance, even sees that acts of charity and generosity by the oppressors cannot resolve situations of oppression, and are false because they do not attack the causes of oppression. On the other hand, walking softly within the status quo is also not advisable because, according to Freire, many times when the oppressed seek to liberate themselves, they become sub oppressors, identifying with the oppressor because “the oppressed find in their oppressor their model of ‘humanhood'” (1970, p30-31).

My history and how my views are shaped
While I love so many lines in Freire’s writings, the semester-long discussions in efforts to unpack critical literacy with the team has made me feel that some things are missing in this radical approach. In order to know exactly where I stand in light of Freire’s extreme views, I am forced to revisit my own history. I share his view that there are inequalities and unfair systems. However, I think viewing human beings rigidly as two opposing groups can be inadequate because an individual may belong to both groups at different times or even at the same time.  “You win some; you lose some,â€� say wise people with real world experiences that may confirm such inadequacy. The division of people into two opposing groups will dictate the ways with which problems are dealt, and my different view on this basic notion will prove to be influential over the way I view critical literacy. The journey back to revisit my ‘self’ helps me understand myself and the immediate present world differently and more clearly.
I was born and raised in a Buddhist country, Thailand, where ways of living were largely influenced by a selected portion of Buddhism. Having looked at the society in which I was shaped critically, I realized the society has moved through histories where the notion of classes has been accepted with Buddhism as a scaffold. By this I mean that Buddhism was adopted as the nation’s main religion because, as I have realized, it serves the status quo well, and perhaps it has proven to serve the society as a whole as well. A son of a farming family with nine children, I was taught to compromise in many ways. Within the family, I was assigned the outdoor and heavy work, and at home I never had to clean the house or cook. The gender roles were divided, but there was never a single complaint from any member about the division. In fact, we did what we had to do and just found our shared life very peaceful, rewarding, warm, happy, and constructive. The most influential piece of Buddha’s teaching that I had learned since I was a boy was to accept the fate as a starting point without frustration, but also to strive on with positive actions (mind, verbal and physical). Violence was not what worried Thais back then, because people were always compromising, often clinging on to the most prominent concept of “the Middle Path,â€� which can be perceived as staying between the two extremes in thinking, speaking and acting. Thai people accept their natural fate and recognize that people in a better starting point at the present time did better deeds in the past or even the past lives, and that they should give them recognition of their past deeds. Instead of envying and hating the people in a better socioeconomic status, for instance, Thais would normally seek to associate with them, especially if the gives and takes were exchanged and if opportunities for advancements could be associated with the relationship. And that was the way things went and still do now. Buddhism, therefore, was a best option for people in power because it would make people grateful for even the little thing they receive from the superior, dominant groups. People then submit in order to survive and yet find opportunities to do better in life, and that was what the ruling groups in the status quo wanted.  Is that necessarily bad? Does mixing with the oppressors lead to naturalization or endless oppression? I am not so convinced.
The most touching scenes in my life flash again when I keep traveling back. That boy I have known all my life was a member of the oppressed. He was the fourth child of the farming family with nine children. He went to school without a lunch box nor any money. He had no choice during lunch time, but to make friends with tap water. The regularly overheard conversations about debt and worries between his parents always haunted him. The poor neighbors, who had been in the farming ‘burden’ that never yielded as much gain as the ‘business’ that middlemen ran, kept showing their sad, hopeless faces to him. The only happy place was school, where he was brought into a new world full with dreams and far from oppressing scenes. His father always said to him, “I don’t have anything to leave with you because we’re not rich, but I hope you will pursue education.� The boy found it easy to take the advice and joyfully went to school, but he, at a certain stage when he moved to a new school for a higher level, had a hard time telling his father that he needed the new uniform to replace the torn, donated clothes. His father took him to the market on the back of an old bicycle to beg the Chinese shopkeeper to kindly grant some ‘credit’ and it would be paid back after the crops had been harvested. The boy felt inferior at the shop and at school, staying humble and obedient in classes. He was loved by his teachers for that. Despite the lack of his family’s ability to support his education away from home, he managed to enter higher levels of education because of scholarships awarded in return for his academic achievements. However, the intimidation kept haunting him as if it was embedded right inside the back of his head. He was small, thin and often hungry. It is funny how you feel hungry more frequently when you don’t have access to food or money. He skipped meals just to make the ends meet each month away from home.
The same boy luckily managed to go on to university after his entrance examination fee was paid for by donations from the kind teachers at his high school. At the university,  his confidence started to grow larger, despite occasional feelings of inferiority when he was in front of young, rich girls. He grew physically, mentally, and most importantly academically. His academic performance was still very good and his confidence rose to the level that he became president of the Voluntary Club for Social Development at the university, leading teams of caring students to learn and share with villagers. That thin, pale boy now became a young man with ample confidence. He started to question, challenge, learn and relearn about the world around him. After his graduation, he became a teacher at a refugee camp in Thailand for five years before receiving a scholarship to study in Australia. After that he returned to Thailand to teach at a famous university. His journey takes him as far now as the author of this article.
Having been educated in four continents Asia, Australia, Europe, and North America, I am now wearing the different lens, and yet I realize that I tend to still see and accept things they way they exist in reality, not necessarily seeing them as all bad or flawlessly good. I think more critically about solutions to a problem, yet again, in compromising ways. I tend not to see the world as black and white, although some Western-based academic tasks require me to take one position and be firm about supporting it with figures or proved evidence. I no longer see the systems in the Thai society as fair and non-oppressing, but I still appreciate a lot of the positive effects they yield. I look at issues at hand with more skeptical eyes, and yet I may still appear submissive and more frequently compromising. What I have learned in life so far is that nothing is perfect, and nothing is really completely wrong or useless. Enough about me, but how would I deal with contradictions that Freire invites us to face.
Buddha would suggest that I deal with conflicts differently from the Freirean camp members would about dividing people, because Buddha encourages me to see human beings as friends of the same fate, who are born, become old, get sick, and pass away all alike, whereas Freire encourages a clear distinction between the two opposing groups. These fundamental different views will later affect how Freire and I view critical literacy practices differently in light of the encountered tensions.  Freire maintains, “Washing one’s hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutralâ€� (Freire: ). While Freire refuses to compromise with any effort to get along with the status quo and would argue that “”compromisation”â€� will reproduce oppressive systems, I will try to challenge this fundamental belief of my own hero and propose “compromisation” as an option.

Tensions that demand “”compromisation”â€�

The semester-long discussions and the selected readings have informed me that, among the efforts by people claiming they practice critical literacy, they try to achieve several similar goals.  However, critical literacy can be used in different contexts by different people for different purposes. For instance, feminists may promote gender equalities; educators may try to reform schools; social workers may try to sensitize the oppressed and lead them to actions that would create positive changes, etc. Within the scope of this paper, I would like just to point out the tensions related to classroom-based efforts and argue in favor of the need for “compromisation”.
To liberate and/or to empower
I have to assume that we agree in principle that the hardcore or radical rationale for critical literacy stems from the critical pedagogy camp, of which Freire is considered the Father, and Giroux, Shor as well as McLaren as prominent authors. Their implications for pedagogy go beyond the classroom. McLaren, for example, states, ‘the major objective of critical pedagogy is to empower students to intervene in their own self-formation and to transform the oppressive features of the wider society that make such intervention necessaryâ€� (1988, p. xi). Giroux  maintains that teachers must not only see schools as places where the dominant society is reproduced, but also to develop alternative pedagogical practices, if they want to achieve such the objective that McLaren proposes.
The word “liberateâ€� suggests a goal at the level of humanizing the humankind (Freire, 2002). We can take this stance and go as far beyond the classroom as examining cultural domination at the global level. Spring (xxxx) very interestingly elaborates cultural, religious, education, and linguistic dominations in his chapter titled “Education and White Love: The Foundation and Language of the Global Economy.  However, such a goal to liberate humankind is not easy to practice in the restrictive classroom environments, i.e. under the shadow of the need to prepare the students for standardized tests, the need to respond to their real life needs that are dictated by the external forces (including economic, social, cultural, and even professional). Tensions emerge whenever we want to go as far as, for instance, challenging the invincible English language. How can knowing that English is a tool that gives advantage to its native speakers and a tool that helps maintain the higher status of certain groups of people help, when teachers and students know that the students will need English to pass high-stake exams, get a good job and gain access to a good materialistic life? Plus, how many teachers would view English in that light, anyway, because they are usually the people who enjoy their gains from teaching the language or using it to show their perceived higher social status? Therefore, a real tension emerges when such a radical goal is sought.
Authors in the critical literacy field, as well as practitioners, have limited their goal down to “to empowerâ€� probably due to the restrictive nature of classrooms and schooled literacy.  In fact, these two words are used almost interchangeably by many authors.  The intention is then shifted more towards recognizing individual learners’ abilities, background knowledge/skills, multiple ways of learning, etc., which in turn empowers the learners. The scope is thus reduced. The goal of liberating the humankind can be further reduced to specific details when critical literacy is used for narrowed-down teaching, such as reading. Whereas Freire maintains that education and knowledge have power only when they help learners liberate themselves from oppressive social conditions (Peyton & Crandall, 1995), The International Reading Association (IRA), for example, defines its position as accepting different stances, but “it consistently encourages pedagogical approaches that empower students to think critically and also equip them to participate responsibly in the life of their communities.â€� What they mean by “think criticallyâ€� and participate “responsiblyâ€� are not clear, but we can see that the goal is reduced. IRA’s definition of critical literacy is more relevant to reading texts and the world, the stance also encouraged by Freire. It says,
Notions of how texts relate to meanings lie at the heart of literacy instruction at every level. Among the various ways of approaching the question, a critical perspective on literacy “involves an understanding of the way ideology and textual practices shape the representation of realities in texts” (Cervetti et al., 2001). Because all texts are created and situated within particular social and ideological contexts, “students of critical literacy are generally encouraged to take a critical attitude toward texts, asking what view of the world they advance and whether these views should be accepted.” Recognizing the profound social and ideological dimensions of texts allows readers to “question, resist, or revise” their representations of the world.
I see this incident as an example of compromised goals. However, even with this specific goal, tension does not disappear. The word “empower”  or “empowerment” is rightly questioned and challenged by Street mainly in terms of what my colleagues and professor also asked during the sessions:
  • What is the nature power? Can it be given to others? Can it be taken?
  • Does power remain the same or does it change forms?
  • What does it means to empower?
In our class discussions, we reached a point where we saw that people could be empowered to see their problems and the causes, but they may still be unable to do anything about them. Thus, we questioned the extent to which such kind of empowerment helps liberate or change people’s lives. The tension between knowing the causes of unjust systems and the inability to direct changes is an important one. The tension teachers face in positioning themselves while trying to empower their students is another. Are they the persons with the power to give? Are they actually at the same level as the students, if they are to adopt the “dialogic” approach Freire suggests? The power relations between the students and the teacher, in my view, generate tensions that need “”compromisation”” which can at least take place in the form of negotiation. In this light, I find the notion of dialogic teaching very agreeable, but the question of where the balance is will still need to be asked, and “”compromisation”” would be required.

To “unbankâ€� by way of “”compromisation”â€�

Now, I will examine tensions that are embedded within the Freire’s views about banking education. In banking education, Freire separates the teacher and the students as two separate and contradictory groups. Freire (2002)describes “Banking Education” as one “in which the scope of action allowed to the students extends only as far as receiving, filing, and storing the deposits….Instead of communicating, the teachers issue communiques and makes deposits which the students patiently receive, memorize, and repeat” (p. 72). His Pedagogy of the Oppress obviously goes against this tradition, but tensions occur. Let’s look at the ways Freire assumes the relationships between the students and some of what my lens reveals and reflects in Figure 3.
The arguments or sometimes dialogues in the Figure 3 reflect my effort to compromise, or “compromisation”. I think we need to ask practical questions that will lead us toward concrete, positive and constructive actions without deviating too from Freire’s ultimate goal of liberating people. “compromisation” would encourage the questions and responses such as:
o       What if the teachers do not want to allow fossilization of bad habits, bad practices, or wrong principles that may jeopardize people’s lives or security of the country, such as in military or medical training?
o       What if, for some subjects such as mathematics, and physics, there is more need for the teachers to lay out principles or formula to the students first? Would their banking approach only oppress the students?
Figure 3: Assumed teacher-student relationship vs. my lens’ reflections
Banking education’s assumed teacher-student relationships (Freire (2002,p. 73):
My lens:
 The teacher teaches and the students are taught;We should not go to the opposite extreme. Teachers can teach and learn, but teachers cannot not teach. Balance must be found.
 The teacher knows everything and the students know nothing;Teachers know more about certain things, but not everything. Freire also thought “the teachers must be expert and knowledgeable to be a responsible critical-democratic educator (Shor & Pari, 1999, p. 13).
 The teacher thinks and the students are thought about;Who is in charge? Don’t students as human beings have the innate ability to think and challenge? (action<-> reaction!)
 The teacher talks and the students listen  meekly;This is not true in the real world. No teacher wants to talk too much and the students cannot do so either.
 The teacher disciplines and the students are disciplined;Students at least need self-disciplines; and teachers can help arrange the agreeable mechanism.
 The teacher chooses and enforces his choice, and the students comply;Both parties can contribute. Yet, thegoals must be firm, and teachers can have an agenda while students can learn to read the worlds.
 The teacher acts and the students have the illusion of acting through the action of the teacher;This depends on what kind of actions and the given roles and situations.
 The teacher chooses the program content, and the students (who were not consulted) adapt to it;Teachers as authority of knowledge that is not ill-structured need to set up the program. However, flexibility and space can still be embedded and negotiation can exist.
 The teacher confuses the authority of knowledge  with his or her own professional authority, which she and he sets in opposition to the freedom of the students;The freedom of the students can be constrained by many factors, linguistic needs, background experiences, etc. and the teachers usually can help to provide guidance.
 The teacher is the Subject of the learning process, while the pupils are mere objects.Where is the line? How far can the students be in taking care of their learning? The ground may vary in different cultures, fields of study and profession.
Learners are regarded as adaptable, manageable beings.Do we not want the students to be adaptable and manageable in the classroom?
A fundamental question my notion of “compromisation” would lead us to ask is, “Would banking education always push the teacher to reproduce the unjust status quo?â€� My journey through experiences with banking education may have shaped me in certain ways, but am I now a person reproducing the status quo, or am I actually trying to operate within it in order to change it? I hope and believe I am doing the latter. In addition, many academically successful people, i.e. scientists, doctors, critical teachers, who used to adopt and submit to rote learning, might not agree completely with Freire. Freire does not seem to value the expertise of teachers as a resource of experiences and known knowledge of the field, although he adds that in his later work (see Shor and Pari, 1999). I strongly argue for the place in the classroom where teachers can take different roles although I know that it is usually more difficult to take two or more contradicting roles at the same time. Practitioners and authors in the critical literacy field such as Philion (1998) have begun to realize that they as teachers should be honest about having their agendas while allowing the students to read them as a text in the world on which to encode, decode, and evaluate.

Bridging the extremes

Words have the power to both destroy and heal.
When words are both true and kind, they can change our world.–Buddha
I was surprised when Buddha is quoted as saying the above line because that is almost like what Freire would say, too. That led me to think that there is hope for compromising the extremes because after all everything is connected in one way or another. It would be fair to say that Freire also tries to compromise. In fact, the dialogic approach that is intended to erase the above contradictions between the students and the teacher is a sign of “compromisation”. The question here is how far we should go and where the needed balance would be. I will look further into Freire’s pedagogy for the oppressed and the common critical literacy practices to see where “compromisation” exists and/or would be appropriate.
To sensitize or conscientize
Freire encourages the teacher and the students to be co-learners, treating each other with trust, love and respect— the most beautiful line in educational philosophy. This is in fact a sort of “compromisation” between the two groups. However, he does not see that same principle as applicable between the oppressors and the oppressed. He believes in the potential of the oppressed to transform, but he does not seem to acknowledge the willingness of the oppressors to change and to support a fairer system. I have seen people working with the privileged children, and I think that is a way to go. In many mixed classrooms, teachers may have to teach members who are children of the oppressed and the oppressors. That means there is a good opportunity to conscientize both groups. How do we do it? That is a constructive question that will move us ahead.
I believe Freire’s principle of relationship based on mutual love, trust and respect applies as well to relationship between members of the oppressed and the oppressors. I hope we can hav….

(Sorry, but I will update with the rest soon.)
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