In my 4C’s post from yesterday, I mentioned that some important pedagogical figures have some ‘splaining to do, specifically Peter Elbow and Paolo Freire (who is safely out of reach, being dead). In Elbow’s case, I think some of this is the result of misunderstanding, but in Freire’s case, I think it’s the inevitable result of a pedagogy informed by Fanon and Marx.
Elbow begins with a pretty reasonable goal — he doesn’t want writers (especially relatively inexperienced writers) to be intimidated into silence, a condition he felt he faced in his younger days. Fine. He also suggests, as a means to this end, that some writing (what he calls “freewriting”) be performed without regard for external grading or the presence of an authority figure/teacher. I think this is useful as well. However (and this is important), he also says that writers should receive feedback, including what he calls “criterion-based feedback,” where we consider all the grammatical/mechanical/usage stuff that we condemn and use as evidence when we say our kids can’t write. That’s the part everyone forgets! Too many teachers in our self-esteem-poisoned culture have confused empowerment with fulsome praise (and I use the word fulsome in its original sense of “offensively over the top” or “unctuous.”) The problem with Elbow (apart from a certain utopianism that David Bartholomae has noted) is that bits of his work have been taken and applied out of context.
The problem with Freire, on the other hand, is that too many people have swallowed his work whole. I talk about that a bit in the comments to the 4C’s post, but I’ll copy it here as well:
He was the advocate of what he called the pedagogy of the oppressed, where the classroom was supposed to be seen as a meeting space of equals, who would ostensibly create knowledge together. I would contend that in most instances, this is nothing short of an abdication of the teacher’s role. Are my students my equals as human beings? Sure. Are they my equals as writers, readers, and thinkers? Not yet — not by a damned sight. If they were, what could I teach them?
Unfortunately, too many educators fell for this okeydoke, whether out of actual (lefty) sympathy or simply because they lack the imagination to regard this kind of stuff with suspicion when it’s thrown at them in pedagogy classes. Too many education professionals seem to have forgotten that they know more than the students (at least with regard to the academic subject.) That’s not being disrespectful — it’s simply the justification for why we’re in the front of the room in the first place.
But a more thorough takedown took place a couple of years ago at City Journal, where Sol Stern dropped the hammer in a big way. I commend it to your attention.