16 March 2013

Alternative Education

My first experience with alternative education happened when I participated in ENGAGE University as a student intern, summer 2011. Seven of us students designed the five-week program, selecting readings, facilitating themed units, and coordinating everything from housing, transportation, and meals, to interviews, workshops, and the development of community-based projects.
There, along the Mississippi river, I learned about popular education, as pioneered by the brilliant Brazilian theorist of critical pedagogy, Paolo Freire. In the term popular education, “popular” means “of the people.” More specifically, “popular” refers to society’s oppressed, the poor, the working class. Popular education, as a form of alternative education, recognizes our unavoidable cultural, political, and class bias, and therefore concludes that education cannot ever be neutral. Hence, education that fails to challenge the oppressive society only serves to perpetuate oppression. 
My five-week introduction to alternative education with ENGAGE University caused in me a serious reflection of self. After fourteen consecutive years of prestigious schooling I felt as though I had never known less. I worried that my education at a mainstream private liberal arts college served only to perpetuate the existing class structure of a highly stratified society. ENGAGE University taught me that alternatives exist to oppressive schooling. Should I choose so, my education can be explicitly and actively engaged with human liberation. And so, two years later, I came to Thailand with CIEE to continue that alternate education.

Once here, I got to read more of Freire’s writing. His concept of education rejects the “banking model” where all-knowing teachers deposit knowledge into the minds of empty-headed students without any communication or inquiry into the process of human liberation. And as Freire notes in Chapter 2 of Pedagogy of the Oppressed, “…only through communication can human life hold meaning.” The ongoing process of communication through dialectics, praxis, and reflection can only happen when students dialogue both with their peers and their teachers. In contrast, the banking method does not encourage students or teachers to ask the question, “Why?” Instead, banking education presents our situation as fatalistically unchallengeable. In fact, banking education instills no reason at all to think our lives ought to be challenged.

“Authentic liberation- the process of humanization-“ writes Freire, “is not another deposit to be made in men. Liberation is a praxis: the action and reflection of men and women upon their world in order to transform it.”

While here in Issan (Northeast Thailand) I’ve been assigned to read incredible works like this. This is the kind of thought that revolutionizes one’s approach to education- how you relate to your peers, your teachers, yourself, and the world you fit into.

Our study abroad program also assigns authors like Jamaica Kincaid, Cherrie Moraga, bell hooks, and Audre Lorde. These are writers included in an education that is critical in the intentions of its pedagogy, and challenging to structures, both personal and societal, of oppression. It is no coincidence that these authors are all women of color. Furthermore, they represent poets, feminists, social activists, lesbians, and radical theorists. These sexual, gendered, racial, cultural, and political identities are too often left out of education. If we are to move past a society defined by stifling, normative oppression, these are the voices we must continue learning from.
Mariko Dodson
Occidental College


Jacqueline Ayala said...

Mariko!!!I can’t tell you how thrilled I was to stumble upon your blog. It takes me back to the deep discussions we would have in dialogue class. Being abroad definitely brings light to unjust social realities. It’s often makes it easy to become pessimistic about the world but studying abroad also allows us to see that there are international efforts that keep an optimistic attitude about the social issues we face today.
In relation to the theme of alternative education, we have both benefited from the dialogue program at Oxy that teaches us to question, to reflect, to communicate, and to tolerate those who are different than us. We’ve seen firsthand how effective this learning style is. I think you’ll be happy to hear that in the program I’m in (CIEE service-learning Dominican Republic) the curriculum center around the same values and objects. It appears that Freire’s message is having an impact! Look at how our programs are designed with his idea that “only through communication can human life have meaning.” I believe that’s why we do these blogs. They’re to make use reflect on our experiences in a place where people live differently than we do. The blog posts also allow us to communicate our thoughts and thus, spur international dialogue.

Frances said...

Thanks for your commentary on alternative education and the introduction to Freire, I had not heard of him before. I grew up in and out of alternative education systems (Waldorf, charter schools, international schools and service learning) and I am very grateful for my experiences with it.
I think it is tragic that education, especially opportunity to alternative education, is often determined by class and by resources; indeed—as you said—perpetuating oppression. I work sometimes in a homework help classroom for elementary school students here a marginalized area of Santiago DR and I am always disappointed with the assignments that fall squarely into the “banking model” of education (copying down paragraphs etc).
My assumptions about the ‘copy and paste’ style of education I have seen here were supported by a conversation I had recently with an American friend here who is in an equivalent to writing 101 class for incoming freshman at the university PUCMM. Though her Spanish is far inferior to her classmates’ she has been getting the best grades in the class because her peers have never learned to write. She said her professor clearly explained an exercise in summarizing an article and that the summary should be no longer than 1/4th the length of the original work. My friend said her peers turned in work of equal and even longer length because they did not know how to put things into their own words and summarize.
I think overall an education that encourages students to create and to question and challenge their society is critical to breaking the cycles of oppression. It worries me that education, much less an education that encourage these things is only available to so few.

Heather White (CIEE Santiago SL) said...

Going off of what Frances said, I too had never heard of Friere before reading your post. It was very interesting to read about your experiences and ideas on alternative education especially after participating in the Santiago Service Learning program, which, as Jacky said has very similar values and objectives as your program appears to. As we have spent the past semester here in the Dominican Republic constantly being pushed to challenge things by always asking the question of Why? and expressing our ideas, opinions, and feelings. These more alternative classroom aspects, along with the need to put the knowledge we learn in the classroom to work in the communities we have worked and conducted research in here in Santiago, we have surly been educated this past semester in an alternative manner.
Your post really made me think about the aspect of alternative learning and how it relates to my past semester I spent doing service learning, my past year spent studying in the Dominican Republic, and my schooling back in the states. I especially liked your last paragraph on learning form lesser known people who are much more the outsiders of society as being a crucial part of education. I, like Jacky, am happy that to have been pushed to read your program's blog as a way of connecting and learning from others globally. As I have experienced the education system in the Dominican Republic, which is much more goal or profession oriented, the values of it are not very focused on critical thinking. Hopefully in the near future alternative education will be accepted and reach more and more people.

Walter Wuthmann said...

This is a lucid explanation of alternative education, and the fact that you root it in your own experience makes your point all the more strong. The thought of achieving "human liberation" through an alternative form of education is particularly compelling to me. Yet as inspired as I am by the works we've read, and your post, I'm having quite a struggle with my experience here with alternative education. I have a sense that there is too much undirected commnication, which generates many compelling questions, and provides very little answers. We've learned so much about the violent structure of global capitalism, the complacency of governments to human rights violations, and the seemingly unstoppable force of Western materialism and globalization, but I can't figure out what to do with this knowledge. I miss an authoritative voice, a voice that has deeply studied these issues and has strong opinions, that I can listen to, absorb, and critique once I feel I've internalized their analysis. You can read an article, and talk to your (intelligent) friends about it, but talking to someone deeply learned in the issue with strong opinions adds a layer of direction (even if it be opposite their views) that I find lacking here. The inspiration I have found, however, is in the voices of the villagers we talk to, who put their livelihoods and lives on the line to challenge these forces as they threaten their homes, resources, and local cultures. Although I don't advocate the "banking" model, I think that some authority can be very productive for analysis and action - as long as you have the opportunity to challenge that authority as well.