I wrote this article in April, 1993 about liberatory education after going to a talk at La Pena in Berkeley, California, by Ira Shor.
When I first went to hear Paulo Freire, the Brazilian educator and author of Pedagogy of the Oppressed, he didn’t speak very long. He encouraged others to talk and said he was tired and had been talking too much all week. The second time I saw him the same thing happened and he asked if people had met with each other for several months before he came, as that is how he normally agrees to come and speak. In this way, it was impressed upon me that he didn’t intend to play guru. He wasn’t the entire answer; the answer lay in the process created by the whole group.
This philosophy of education really came alive for me when I attended a presentation on liberatory education at La Peña Cultural Center in Berkeley by Ira Shor, Associate Professor in English at Staten Island College at the City University of New York. He has written Critical Teaching in Everyday Life and Cultural Wars, School and Society in the Conservative Restoration 1969‑1984. He was then working with Paulo Freire to co‑write a book.
I waited for the presentation to begin, while chairs were arranged in rows of semi‑circles. I sat few a rows back and presently a man standing to my left introduced the evening and himself as Ira Shor. He directed us to gather in small groups of two or three to discuss any questions we had concerning liberatory education. We discussed for 20 minutes, becoming acquainted with each other. Ira sat in the front row, near one end of the semi‑circle. He stood up and asked what the questions were. People stood up to tell about their group and Ira asked who else had the same question. This went on for several minutes. Then Ira talked for awhile until finally someone said she thought he had been talking long enough, reminding him that it was not in keeping with his style to dominate the entire evening. At that point he faded into the background and merely pointed to hands to speak, interjecting something now and then. Then someone suggested it was time to quit and Ira asked for someone to sum up the evening. One woman gave a final testimony. I felt as the group broke up, that we were a group, not just individuals who had attended a lecture. I also knew one new person, the woman next to me with whom I had talked at the beginning of the evening.
One issue participants brought up was that school is often an interference to what matters most to students. They discussed how to get students to recognize the oppression of their school confinement while in the midst of it. One woman said she thought school, as confining as it is, is very liberating for some, compared to one’s home environment. Criticisms and disagreements flowed back and forth throughout the evening and this process was affirmed by Ira Shor as being part of the process of liberatory education which is dialogic and participatory.
Ira said it is his practice to give students in his classes equal time to speak as himself. He said he does the same assignments he gives students. He often sits at the back of the classroom, and when students speak he looks down so they won’t just speak to him. If their voice drops he looks up again until the volume picks up and then he looks down again. Ira begins each class with the assumption that he and the students each have zero knowledge and 100% knowledge. All have equal amounts to contribute. As teacher, he finds he has to fight to direct the discussion and to defend his own ideas, but that he always goes into class with a world vision which guides everything he does. He tries to make some part of that dream happen every day.
Shor described liberatory education as being a “highly conscious artifice” directed by the teacher. The teacher doesn’t direct the students but directs the process. His classes start with students discussing their issues with each other and agreeing on an agenda with the teacher. This is not a “one to one press conference” but democratic directedness in which people introduce their own agendas to each other. The teacher comes to class with a lesson plan and is prepared to abandon it and do something else.
Ira stated that the “verbal density of an over trained intellectual” can easily silence the inexperienced working classes and cause them to stammer and daydream about food and sex. Ira develops a strong presence and then disappears and creates a vacuum into which student discourse emerges. He listens for how to proceed, for what openings to get across some of his global vision. He always tries to stop talking as soon as possible‑‑as soon as critical thinking is on its way‑‑rather than to give pieces of meat to swallow and check digestion by giving a grade. Paulo Freire has called this process in which the teacher deposits knowledge into the student’s brain, the “banking method.” In liberatory education the teacher facilitates a process by which all teach each other and build democratic community in the process. Every time two people meet, they “commit an act of education,” Shor said.
Shor described a particular lesson in an environmental issues class. The students divided into peer groups of threes. Each group decided which of their papers they would read to the class. As the students themselves evaluated whose paper was the best, this was an alternative to grading. From hearing them read, Ira gleaned two main topics: environmental problems caused by car exhaustion and kids cussing. He divided the class into two sides. One side wrote about car pollution; the other, about kids cussing. Ira himself wrote on both topics. After the groups of three read papers again, each student drew pictures showing how car pollution is related to kids cussing. Ira passed around his own drawing of this phenomenon and had them draw on this theme once more. After the second time, he gathered their pictures and made a book for each student. Then he sent a copy of it to students on an Indian reservation in South Dakota who in turn told them they were full of “it.” This was done to put what they were doing into some kind of real, social context.
At the end of each class Ira asks three students to sum up the class. If there are no volunteers, he offers to start it if someone will finish or says he will finish if someone will start it, but he refuses to sum it all up himself. My own summation of this essay is to recommend a good project for dialogic education would be to invite some anti‑nuclear activists and anti‑drug crusaders to come together to talk about the interconnections, and then perhaps some Native Americans would have something to say about that.