The last passages of Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed and B. F. Skinner’s The Technology of Teaching are particularly instructive to those of us exploring ways of improving education today, though they were each writing over forty years ago. Though their approaches are different, they both recognize, with John Dewey and so many others, the importance of both the method and system of education to the success of any society.
This work deals with a very obvious truth: just as the oppressor, in order to oppress, needs a theory of oppressive action, so the oppressed, in order to become free, also need a theory of action.
The oppressor elaborates his theory of action without the people, for he stands against them. Nor can the people—as long as they are crushed and oppressed, internalizing the imagine of the oppressor—construct by themselves the theory of their liberating action. Only in the encounter of the people with the revolutionary leaders—in their communion, in their praxis—can this theory be built. (Freire 185-186)
Absolute power in education is not a serious issue today because it seems out of reach. However, a technology of teaching will need to be much more powerful if the race with catastrophe is to be won, and it may then, like any powerful technology, need to be contained. An appropriate counter-control will not be generated as a revolt against aversive measures but by a policy designed to maximize the contribution which education will make to the strength of the culture. The issue is important because the government of the future will probably operate mainly through educational techniques. (Skinner 260)
Both writers are aware (Freire, of course, concentrating on it more than Skinner) that power imbalances have an impact on education. Both are aware that eduation cannot be sectioned off from the rest of society, existing and operating in a neutral vacuum somewhere off to the side. And both know that society is formed by the education it forms.
What astonishes me today is that so few in the discussion of reform of education show anything like the same awareness. Even the charter schools, which appear to have the opportunity of creating something radically different, radically effective, fall upon the same old patterns of teacher facing students, of assessment based on measurable outcomes, of imposed pedagogies. Many claim that they are bound by regulations to fit within certain patterns, and that may well be, but my suspicion is that they are stopped more by inertia and lack of imagination.
The danger remains that, by changing education, you change society. And few, and even fewer educators, are willing to face the wrath of a population that, while discontent, contanences little change. Freire’s “revolutionary leaders” are not seen as liberators but as simply new (and worse) policemen. There is “absolute power” in education today, but one Skinner would not have imagined, for its the power to insure that nothing new is tried; it is the power to keep education from any possibility of threatening the status quo, no matter how much that status quo needs to be threatened.
The current movement for educational reform is no such thing. In fact, it is a movement to make sure that reform never happens. If anything, it is a regressive movement, taking American education back to where it was before Brown v. Board of Education, when there was a two-tiered (multiple-tiered, actually) system in place.
Real reform of education will have to be revolutionary… or nothing will happen at all and catastrophe will, one day, be upon us.