Elbowian ‘contraries’

My problem in reading Peter Elbow‘s essay “Embracing Contraries in the Teaching Process” is that I have been reading Paulo Freire over the past several months. Theoretical analysis is not one of my strong suits, but Freire’s contribution to this conversation would seem to be to make Elbow’s dichotomy between the student-focused and discipline-focused teacher a problematic one.

That the teacher has an obligation to uphold standards of knowledge, thus serving as a kind of gatekeeper for a student’s emergence into civil society, sounds quasi-authoritarian. One is obliged to ask some questions, influenced by context: Whose knowledge? Which society?

When dealing with an oppressive reality – as in the Latin America that Freire knew, or South Africa during apartheid, or Burma under military rule, or North Korea, or the United States (depending on one’s status as insider or outsider in a brutal economy) – the teacher’s obligations to knowledge and public life become complicated, demanding an approach to learning that privileges students and particularly students in their status as the dominated and unfree.

An appropriate question to straddle Elbow’s divide might be, “What obligations do I owe my students based on the liberating potential of education to which we should aspire?” Or, Bryan Stevenson might add, “What obligations do I have as a teacher toward a broken society?”

Freire’s Pedagogia do oprimido (Pedagogy of the Oppressed) was published in 1968 and translated into English in 1970. It would have been available to Elbow in the early 1980s and presumably part of the pedagogical conversations of that time. An additional critique from Freire could be directed toward Elbow’s focus on the teacher and Elbow’s relative lack of interest in the student’s life situation. What community does the student come from? What is her cultural background? Is she a beginning learner?

It would be foolish, for example, for someone teaching Level I ice skating to emphasize the Elbowian skill set that includes “high absolute standards,” “critical-minded,” and so on. Similarly, when I taught English to undocumented Mexican migrants in Atlanta, the tasks of discrimination, evaluation, testing, grading, and certification seemed far less critical than sitting alongside these inexperienced, alienated students as a co-learner.

Elbow’s dichotomies, nevertheless, have been helpful to me in some form. I recognize one of my great weaknesses as a teacher – including as a teacher in dominated and marginalized communities – is that I often fail to make demands and to issue challenges that help motivate a student to see her full capacities. I believe, however, that such challenge can be issued while working alongside.

My best teachers have managed to honor my ideas and creative efforts while not seeming to “stand above.” They certainly did not seem like gatekeepers, understanding as they did that, in the violence of my own mind, I served as my own gatekeeper. They were able to convey messages that I would never have sent myself. One Hebrew teacher, during a tutoring session, stopped to say, “I see your potential as a scholar.” I would not have considered this a possible truth had it not been formulated from the outside.

It’s interesting, finally, that Elbow’s list of a teacher’s public responsibilities sounds so draconian – “don’t get attached,” “identify with knowledge and the subject matter.” These are the bedrock behaviors behind the skills of discrimination, evaluation, and so on mentioned above. Wouldn’t the behaviors of validating, encouraging, and loving serve the broader good as well?

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