Learning Is Liberation
Education can't be merely transactional. We have something better to offer.
Spring semester of 1990 I walked into a college classroom and experienced my own liberation.
Rhetoric 144, Introductory Creative Writing with Professor Philip Graham, meeting in a room at the top of the English Building at the University of Illinois, a quasi-atrium space that became more greenhouse than classroom as the gray Central Illinois winter gave way week by week.
Reading had been my original liberation. I had quite literally grown up in a bookstore started by my mother and three partners when I was a year old. I was an introverted kid who liked his alone-time, but with a book you’re never alone and books are frequently better companions than people themselves anyway. But the notion that I could or more importantly should make stories myself was foreign to me prior to that class.
And it changed my life. While I remained an indifferent student in just about every other course, when it came to writing fiction, I finally had something that felt like mine.
While it would be another eight years before I would begin publishing my work, I’d been introduced to something that has proved emotionally and spiritually sustaining for more than 25 years and counting. It has been my “life’s work” in every sense of those words.
I thought about this last week when I read Kelly J. Baker writing in Chronicle Vitae about “Teaching As Liberation,” in which she asks, “Do we as faculty practice education as a way to free students or control them?”
The key word in that sentence is “practice.” Even if I believe that the purpose of education is to free students, do I engage in my work in a way that supports that belief?
I recognize not everyone agrees that education should be a vehicle to “free” students. This is apparent in the reflexive backlash one sees against all forms of student protest. A Wisconsin Republican state senator criticized U. of Wisconsin system president Ray Cross for even meeting with students to discuss campus issues.
The President of Mount St. Mary’s University refers to at-risk students as “bunnies” to be drowned, hoping that a survey would help identify “20-25” likely dropouts to be shuffled off campus by the end of September. This is an ethos that prioritizes institutional metrics over individual student agency.
I see it in my students as well, who have been inculcated to view a college education as a purely transactional enterprise. And what reason do they have to believe otherwise? Much of their K-12 educations were spent pleasing the education accountability gods as happy little data generators. Students understand the game they’ve been required to play and the stakes if they don’t play it well.
The monetary cost of college veritably demands that a degree delivers a tangible payoff. We’d be fools to think otherwise.
I try to keep this in mind as I teach, that I need to be helping students acquire skills that will be of use to them. But I cannot shake the feeling that my primary purpose is to help students liberate themselves, to provide the necessary space for them identify that which they can hold and keep as their own.
I use a quote from Cornel West in my course policies to remind me of this:
“I want to be able to engage in the grand calling of a Socratic teacher, which is not to persuade and convince students, but to unsettle and unnerve and maybe even unhouse a few students, so that they experience that wonderful vertigo and dizziness in recognizing at least for a moment that their world view rests on pudding, but then see that they have something to fall back on. It's the shaping and forming of critical sensibility. That, for me, is what the high calling of pedagogy really is.”
I remember that vertiginous feeling coming over me in Rhetoric 144 as I realized that it was possible to become one of those people who writes these stories that meant so much to me. Suddenly, a path I hadn’t known appeared, and I felt compelled to take it.
I imbedded this spirit of this moment as a talisman in my novel, The Funny Man, where at the end of the book the titular character looks back on the (very sad and sorry) tale he’s told and says, “Everyone’s got a story and the best ones are those we tell ourselves. I imagined it and then after the imagining it had come true.”
I have been lucky lucky lucky lucky lucky, but part of that luck was because of an educational culture and class privilege that allowed me to futz around, bounce from course to course until something clicked. For my students I want to preserve – Dare I say, extend? - the opportunities that meant so much to me.
Those opportunities feel like the bare minimum, and yet we routinely deny them to so many.
I get sad when I think that perhaps we’re moving away from the spirit of learning as route to liberation, when institutions signal that students are primarily present to listen, as opposed to speak and be heard, where they are part of an organization’s bottom line, rather than individuals seeking meaning.
When I look at the world the generations before them are bequeathing, I have to believe that the current generation of students can do better.
We should be listening to them extra hard.
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