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Considering the Bigger Picture: Education as a Practice of Freedom

Erica Eaton, PhD, MFA, MSW's picture
MFA Interdisciplinary Arts Blog
Considering the Bigger Picture: Education as a Practice of Freedom

Goddard values the principles of liberatory education. Even if it is not directly stated in the educational philosophy, it is clear. We care about critical thinking, experimental learning, dialog and becoming lifetime learners who impact social change. We care about social justice. We understand that liberatory education is a practice of freedom…a practice that at asks us to critically reflect until we are able to recognize our own roles in society in a way that allows us to work towards the elimination of oppression or more simply, against the barriers and psychic pain that are unequally imposed in our society.

Our history as a college includes work programs that helped make sure that students without financial means could benefit from the programs, a single parent’s program and other initiatives that serve as proof of what “Royce” Tim Pitkin’s reminds us of in his speech, The Ideas Upon Which Goddard Was Founded, that at its roots, Goddard is a place that believes in putting theory into action. We are charged with being participatory citizens.

I am deeply invested in these ideas as an educator, an artist, a clinical social worker, an activist and as the person that embodies these connected parts of my identity, but as I move between these worlds, as I claim that education is a practice of freedom, I often shudder and look over my shoulder, because I cannot “not know” that my ability to create intellectual, physical and basic freedoms for myself through a lifetime of learning is on the backs of others. I know that there are others whose opportunity for this same freedom is being taken from them, right now, as I write and you read. I know that I cannot call myself a liberatory educator or someone who is concerned with social justice without admitting that I am participating in systems that perpetuate this situation.

I teach at Goddard, in part, because we can have this conversation, we are at least, at some level, self-conscious about these issues when they are brought up, but that is not enough.

In order to consider if and why we engage in liberatory practices we must consider stories outside of our own circles of awareness. If we don’t push beyond our comfort zones then in fact, there is nothing radical or liberatory about it. For these reasons I want to share a story about education as the practice of (one kind of) freedom. Words like freedom are so big and elusive. In reality they mean very different things to different people. Freedom is relative, like it or not. What is socially just in some circles is most certainly not in others.

Part of my job as a social worker in my home community is to do home visits when a student has gone MIA. I do a lot of home visits. On a recent one, I pulled off of the expressway. Directly in front of me was a police station.

                  

Next-door is a boarded up house. It strikes me as a visual illustration of the slow, visceral, painful death that my city is undergoing. I turn the corner and as I look for the address I realize remember that more buildings are boarded up than not.

  

I look at the four vacant lots on the corner…the lots where homes have been demolished because they were too run down and easy shelter for dealers or because arsonists have taken to burning down homes as a form of retaliation when gang relations go wrong. I see a "greentopia" sign posted in one of the lots, but it’s lying on the ground, so I have to walk over to be able to read it.

                

The intentions are good. Take the now vacant lots and create community gardens after cleaning the soil with plants flowers that will do the job while simultaneously providing a small oasis in what, let’s face it, looks like a war zone.

I get to the house and still, I cannot find the young person, a girl who was full of hopes and plans last year. All of this in the span of 3 city blocks.

When I get back to school two of my students are waiting for me. This writing has been on my mind and it’s started to meld with my thinking about the home visit, so I ask them, “what is your education doing to make you free?”

M: “What do you mean Miss? We’re free. We live in America.”

Me: “I know, but I mean you personally. How is your education working to get you closer to your dreams…to make you understand your life better...How is it helping you to learn the things you need to know to participate in your community and have a full life?”

H: “We’re girls, we ain’t going to jail. Is that what you mean?”

Me: I guess that’s something, but no, that’s not really what I mean. What do you dream for yourself?”

M: “To get outta my house. I just wanna get out of my house and away from…well you know away from what…so I gotta go to college… but I gotta get out of high school first and too many things get in the way.”

H: “I’m going, somehow…I’m going…or I’m trying to go. Sometimes it just feels like we say we’re going because that’s what we’re supposed to say, not ‘cause it’s really true. I think only like 3% of us make it for real. That’s us, right?”

M “Miss, you already know. Being poor keeps it crazy and crazy keeps you busy just trying to get through…I wish one of these suburban kids would walk up in here and even try to get through a day. Let’s see their skills then. Least I know how to keep it movin’ no matter what.” 

J walks in. “Miss, I hate math class. I told them a million times what I need but no, they gotta wait ‘till I fail it a-g-a-i-n to do anything.

Me: "Aren’t you supposed to be there now?"

J: "Kicked out. Again. Don’t much matter though does it?"

H: "Hey J, your education make you free?"

J: "What? No…you ain’t seen the metal detectors? That’s not about freedom. They’re getting us ready. Not me though. I may not graduate high school but I’m keeping my freedom."

                      

??? Freedom=staying out of jail???

I have the same conversation so many times a day that my head could explode. These young people are bright, but in reality their daily-lived experiences do not reflect college as a real possibility for them. They have been taught to say that is their goal and they know the mantra that education is the way out of poverty, but in reality this mantra may do more harm then good when only state sanctioned standardized education is considered valuable. Teaching this mantra restricts them from imagining other less limiting possibilities. In this way and many others our educational systems function to maintain the status quo where race and class are concerned in this country. They are set up to include some and exclude others. They are set up to create people who do not think outside the box. They are set up to maintain comfort and (a perceived) freedom for some.

Goddard has a history of trying to do this thing called a college education differently. Paulo Freire suggests that if we participate in oppression we dehumanize ourselves, but we blind ourselves both to our role in the oppression and to its impact on our ability to be fully human, to be free (Freire 56). If we are an institution founded on the ideas espoused in Pitkin’s speech, then I wonder; is the freedom we are working toward real if it is not for everybody? I think not. I know that in the face of what feels like an unsolvable set of very complex problems it is easy to surround ourselves with this language and put time and energy into creating theoretical knowledge and hypothetical action plans that leave us feeling like we are actually doing something radical and transformational. I know that to stop there brings our participation in liberatory ideals and social justice into question. I believe that doing, experimenting and radical transformation are fundamental values at Goddard.

We have workshops and panels and discussions about “diversity” and “social justice” and activism as part of nearly every Master of Fine Arts in Interdisciplinary Arts residency, but still, I leave this writing with a question that I will continue to ponder: Can we move beyond having the same conversations in new words to actually raising consciousness, making sanctioned ignorance something to be ashamed of and pushing these changes into real-life, brick and mortar, ecologically based, life impacting transformation…a transformation that would insist on valuing and making possible a (real) education toward freedom…that would put our love of social justice into real life initiatives in even grander ways than we currently imagine?

Art and education can be a powerful communicators. They can be actions. They, when done authentically and with intention, can create change.

Works cited:

Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Continuum, 2000. Print.

Goddard College. "College History." Goddard College. Goddard College, n.d. Web. 01 Nov. 2013.

***Permission was granted by students to use this text. I wrote it out right after the conversation and asked them to approve it for correctness. First initials have been changed so that their identity will remain private. All photos property of Erica Eaton.

Comments

Submitted by k. warma (not verified) on
Erica, I was drawn to read and comment on this because of your unwavering commitment to social justice. Thank you for your passionate heart and your willingness to help. You helped me complete my practicum at Goddard, and your guidance was central to me finishing my degree. So the Good News is your efforts can and do effect others significantly, the Bad News is America has no shortage of oppressed people in the worst of circumstances. Thanks for reminding me of the gift that you gave, and my responsibility to pass it on....Be well, and please, take some reassurance that in spite of towering odds, you are making things better. KW/ MFAIA '06

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