April 28, 2005

Paulo Freire and the chic cultural capital of academe

I'm on the committee of a graduate student just getting into Paulo Freire's work, and that brings back memories. I remember reading Freire's Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1970) when I was sixteen, and it was an early, "Oh, I can read that" experience.

I was visiting my sister's intro women's studies class at UC Santa Cruz (Eileen called it her baby-feminism class), and the lecturer was discussing the sociology of knowledge (though she didn't call it that) and mentioned Freire's book. Cool, I thought, and when my mother and I hit a bookstore later that day, I convinced her to buy a copy for me to check out. Then, over the next few days, I waded through it (and those who have read the book know what I mean!). I was fairly sure I got the gist of his repressive-education-as-banking theory, though I did have the sense that he could have explained it more clearly and in about a quarter of the length. This was lesson #17 in the Socialization of an Academic: you, too, can read dense obfuscatory prose using the Force and the confidence that you can grasp the central concept with enough concentration—assuming, of course, that there is a central concept.

That confidence stood me in great stead in graduate school and since, but it was somehow disillusioning. Was there nothing to this work (whatever the work was) except a fairly simple central idea camouflaged by a few dozen thousand words of verbage? The generally dense style of postmodernist/poststructuralist/deconstructionist writers was not the only thing that made me wonder what made a work famous. There was also the wild-eyed tone of some authors (Michael Parenti, Noam Chomsky) who were minor bestsellers at the independent bookstore House of Our Own Books where I spent a few hundred hours behind the cash register. And then the pre-Civil War reading seminar where the prof casually explained why certain books won awards ("oh, shoot, the paperback of this omitted all the color prints; that's really why Bailyn won the Bancroft Award"). So I'm occasionally cynical about effusive praise of Big Men/Women on a Campus (and positively scared for the world when anyone treats me as if I have gravitas).

So when this student writes several adulatory paragraphs on Freire, I'm tempted to shout, "But don't you realize that Freire is now just chic cultural capital for Leftist academics??!!" But if I did, I'd be denying the student the chance to come to an independent judgment. Our committee needs to clue this student into the thoughtful criticisms of Freire's work but subtly.

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Posted in Random comments on April 28, 2005 7:55 PM |