Thursday, June 3, 2010

Need for and Practice of Student Liberation

(A why for and how to guide)

by Denis G. Rancourt

The modern middle-class First World school and university systems are violently repressive [1]. These institutions are designed for replication and obedience training and rob the student of her natural thrust for independent inquiry, free expression, natural influence, and zeal for life [2].

Using the pretext that technical training requires “discipline” (read mindless repetition) and “standardization” (read demonstration of loyalty to imposed doctrine) the institutions of “higher learning” impose a regime of obedience training followed by professional and graduate school indoctrination [3].

The obedience training and whole-person neutralization is accomplished by strict and artificial disciplinal divisions, an authoritative classroom structure, an imposed unnaturally partitioned time use, unreasonable and repeatedly sequenced production deadlines (for assignments, tests, reports, examinations, etc.) that do not allow time to think, rank ordering of students to produce competition, a continuous administration of punishment and reward via grading and accreditation steps, isolation of the student where collaboration is cast as “cheating”, normalization of behaviour and opinion via imposed group think value judgments, liberal applications of double speak, and a myriad of other such methods – all constantly adjusted to the evolving cultural and local conditions.

After the student is broken down by the obedience training, she is ready for the high level indoctrination of graduate and professional schools. This is achieved by the sophisticated process described by Jeff Schmidt [3]. The professional worker must accept, make hers and project the doctrine of her “chosen” profession, in order to participate in the management of the First World Empire.

The repression of the student is real and is violent. The school and university institutions are the greatest forces in the student’s life. The outcome determines the economic and societal status of the graduate and this status in turn is the single most relevant (statistical) indicator of life expectancy and personal health.

The violence is seen in student suicides and assaults, in the widespread use of prescription psycho-pharmaceuticals and their trafficking, in widespread apathy and cynicism, in isolationism and escapism, in the modern array of self-destructive behaviours, and in the apparent relative inability to bond and form community. The root of the violence is maybe best explained by Paulo Freire [2]:
“Any situation in which “A” objectively exploits “B” or hinders his and her pursuit of self-affirmation as a responsible person is one of oppression. Such a situation in itself constitutes violence even when sweetened by false generosity; because it interferes with the individual’s ontological and historical vocation to be more fully human. With the establishment of a relationship of oppression, violence has already begun.”

“If people, as historical beings necessarily engaged with other people in a movement of inquiry, did not control that movement, it would be (and is) a violation of their humanity. Any situation in which some individuals prevent others from engaging in the process of inquiry is one of violence. The means used are not important; to alienate human beings from their own decision-making is to change them into objects.”
There is therefore a need for student liberation.

But the first barrier, as explained by Freire [2], is that the slave does not recognize that she is a slave. “We need the master because he organizes the work, feeds us, protects us…” (see also [1]).

Activist students prefer to fight for reduced tuition fees to ensure access to the oppression and its rewards. The slave should not have to pay with her future life (student debt) for the privilege of serving the master – fair enough. Slaves want to be oppressed fairly. I have known many activist students to leave demonstrations, actions, and teach ins, in order to hand in assignments for deadlines and to obediently return to an oppressive classroom on Monday morning after a weekend of “solidarity action”.

What can the student do to liberate herself?

Following Freire, I have come to believe that the answer is praxis, the “praxis” of Freire [2]. Only such action fighting one’s own oppression, in a cycle of repeated action and reflection informed by the oppressor’s backlash, leads to both a deepening understanding of the oppression and an exhilarating liberation. True solidarity in battle then arises from the coalescence of these individual revolts and builds the culture of resistance essential to any societal liberation.

At the heart of this praxis lies “authentic rebellion”. In what is perhaps the most profound statement ever made about education and learning in a hierarchical society, Freire puts it this way [2]:
“If children reared in an atmosphere of lovelessness and oppression, children whose potency has been frustrated, do not manage during their youth to take the path of authentic rebellion, they will either drift into total indifference, alienated from reality by the authorities and the myths the latter have used to ‘shape’ them; or they may engage in forms of destructive action.”
How does this look in practice? How does praxis start and develop?

Students already resist a lot. Resistance is widespread and takes many forms. “Work to rule” is common, to the dismay of baffled teachers. Most students refuse to adopt an artificial interest in the horse shit that is downloaded on them in the guise of intellectual discourse and that will be “on the exam”. Students know when they are being spoken to rather than engaged with. And what would it mean to engage when the other side has a gun to your head?

Students turn off and regurgitate on command to appease the oppressor. Teachers see the result but must grade satisfactorily (with an emphasis on factory) rather than confront the system’s generalized failure and their part in it. Actually, we must conclude that this universal outcome is a desired feature of the school factory [4]. It ensures apathy and compliance and guaranties suppression of participation.

In addition, students secretly (among themselves) ridicule and criticize the professor, in a healthy expression of sanity-preserving resistance. Only at the higher levels of indoctrination, when the student emulates the teacher as role model, does this behaviour subside to be replaced with ass kissing adulation.

Students also make heroic attempts to sabotage the obedience training by challenging the deadlines, workloads, grading schemes, work conditions, and atomization. They individually and collectively negotiate for extended deadlines, reduced production, mitigated punishments, etc. They challenge the isolation and imposed competition by forming workgroups and by sharing output – they find ways to cooperate at the risk of being banished via the system’s ultimate charge of “academic fraud”. In the words of David F. Noble “When did cooperation become cheating?”

More frightening are the students who are able to feign interest and to self-indoctrinate and who aggressively defend the system by punishing dissidence in their colleagues. These students want their special efforts to be recognized, rewarded, and not questioned by alternative behaviours. They want to “excel” and aspire to joining the club.

All forms of resistance are healthy and preserving if the resister sees herself as resisting and acts in defiance of the oppressor rather than succumbing to negative self-talk and negative self-image along the lines of the oppressor’s imposed ideology. Authentic rebellion is where it’s at.

More direct and satisfying forms of rebellion, that have greater potential to empower the resister, might include the following: Speaking out in class to question aspects of imposed discipline, such as the deadlines, grading scheme, relevance of the material, imposed methods, disciplinal perspectives, etc.

Such direct interventions have the benefit that the teacher will react and thereby inform the class about real aspects of the system that it would be impossible to learn otherwise. Professors will show their true colours. The students will see them deflect, misinterpret, quash, impose, negotiate, etc.; a highly instructive experience.

Start small and see if you want to push it a little further. Ask to clarify the professor’s response. Maybe ask “Why not?” Maybe state that you do not understand the reasons given? See which colleagues side with you after class or express similar questions or opinions during class. Build on that support by developing ties with potential supporters and co-resisters.

Never accept overt intimidation or abuse from the professor. Stand your ground in such violent attempts to repress your agency in the classroom. Explain the nature of the unacceptable behaviour and request an apology. Do this either privately with a witness or publicly in the classroom. If the potential for escalation of the repression exists, consider using modern technology to voice record the encounter for your protection. Such recordings of conversations that you are party to can be done secretly and are not illegal. No one needs to know and you have the benefit of knowing that you have physical proof if you ever need it for protection.

Only you can decide how far to go and how much to risk. The main point is that the lesson NOT be that you are powerless and must be subservient. Find a way for the lesson to be that you have power and can defend yourself. Find a way to win. The victory is not necessarily a policy change but rather your liberation.

In finding a way to win consider that making things public and exposing the institution’s in-class behaviour is a powerful way to both exert influence and protect yourself from further reprisals. Consider a blog and speaking to the student media or distributing flyers, etc.

A formal complaint to hierarchical authorities can also be useful, in that it will allow you to press further, to expose mechanisms of institutional cover up, and will show that you are not to be messed with. Keep your head up high knowing that you are right, that the violence against you is illegitimate, and that you need not fear the thugs that enforce the slavery from which you seek liberation.

You can always come back into the fold and power will be relieved to take you back in. This can be a good way to rest, reflect, and regroup, as you plan your continued liberation.

Eventually, you may find allies that will allow you to practice “academic squatting” of an entire class [5]. I have found this practice to be highly rewarding, even life-changing [5].

If the professor is not an ally, groups of students can consider “academic hijacking” of credit courses in which a professor is told how it is going to be and that he can either stay and participate or leave.

Students with squatting and hijacking experience have what it takes to impose reforms on the curriculum. And liberated students are independent thinkers that do not practice immoral exploitations of others. They continue their liberation into the workplace.

Such a program of liberation activism is consistent with Paulo Freire’s much repeated mantra that one can ONLY fight one’s own oppression. Individuals that accept their own oppression cannot help liberate others. They only replicate, defend, and adjust the hierarchy of oppression that they inhabit.

I wish you a joyful and intense liberation full of self discovery and learning. Kick ass, don’t kiss it.


[1] “The student as nigger - essay” by Jerry Farber.
[2] “Pedagogy of the oppressed - book” by Paulo Freire.
[3] “Disciplined Minds - book” by Jeff Schmidt.
[4] “Canadian education as an impetus towards fascism – essay” by Denis G. Rancourt.
[5] “Academic squatting – essay” by Denis G. Rancourt.

List of other essays by Denis G. Rancourt:


Anonymous said...

Russian kids get it:

Denis Rancourt said...

University of Ottawa student Liam sent this response:

I definitely feel like the lesson of my last semester was that I am powerless and must be subservient. Calculus was run by a young, Oriental girl who only knew how to give examples on the board and tell people to ask questions in the DGD's (which were again more examples and may as well have been a second lecture). She threatened to go to the Dean because the class was too noisy, no one could follow her. She never did. Since highschool, I have had a hard time with calculus. I just wanted to pass the course. I didn't want to "cause trouble." I wound up failing the course anyway. That would have been a great practice field.

One of my other courses, technical report writing, I took because I needed to take a first year course from my old program (if I switch in to geography, I have to reapply since it's in another faculty, I wanted to put that off as long as I could so that I didn't have to make another switch if I changed my mind.) It's an English course for ESL engineering students, but it's required in all sciences. It made me want to shoot myself. The minutia, the lessons about "intellectual property rights," the ethics of writing to your superiors, blah blah blah blah. When I wrote a report about how I didn't like the class, she told me it wasn't a technical subject and asked me to do it again and promised not to take marks off. Basically, she used soothing grades to shut me up, I feel, and it worked. I let it work.

Then there was the geomatics course where the class was split in to two rooms with the professor in one and a tv monitor in the other. I had a class on the other side of the campus before, so I was always in the room with the monitor. It was dark; they kept the lights low, maybe so we could see the screens better. More than anything it just hurt my eyes and made me feel tired in every class. I felt like I was dragged through the dirt. Technical problems; really slow demos; mundane powerpoint lectures; irrelevant, theoretical exercise problems. I didn't fight there either.

I liked the content in geomorphology, but it was still mostly powerpoint. I did feel comfortable asking questions, and the professor welcomed it, but I can safely say I was one of two people who asked questions all semester, and I gave in to that aura of "hurry up" I feel from silent crowds. I felt the professor had low expectations of us, the way the labs were fill-in-the-blank, the midterm questions, so that didn't help with motivation.

scarsarestories said...

Thank-you so much for your fast reply to my question! ;)

I discovered the "trick" (absolutely disgusting that claiming your rights as a student is in the realm of tricks) of going straight to the uppermost person that you can complain to about the violation of your rights as a PAYING student (the head of my graduate studies program was trying to delay my graduation by a year, and thus charge me about $9000 extra dollars in tuition, because I had emergency surgery and had to defer two papers...). I go to a university that was built as a centre for praxis - and it has turned into a corporatized, assembly-line centre for NON-critical thought since the 1970s, but especially over the past few years.

Anyhow, I cc'd the very firmly worded e-mail of complaint I sent to anyone who would give these powers that be a bit of a scare to the admin faculty in my department - lawyers at the school, the student union, etc. After a month of struggling, things were resolved within a few days! Not only this, but others have come forward to complain, albeit not as publicly, about the same person. I like to think some other e-mails I sent to everyone in my department helped, as well as a little speech I gave in my last theory class (I'm a sociologist...I couldn't live with myself if I didn't "practice what I preach"...I didn't realize how much of a "radical" I was until grad school!)

Since the previous problem was resolved I've decided every time the program screws me over it is THEIR job to fix it, I cannot let myself become a bureaucrat or worry myself to the point of insanity when all I want to do is learn/teach. The same head of grad studies managed to put an "F" instead of a "WD" on my transcript. Suddenly it was her "top priority"! I guess I've earned a bit of a reputation as a loudmouth.

I am the only member of my cohort that speaks out politically about the institution, and I've consequently become very alienated. I didn't travel to this school to make friends, but I did come to be part of a COMMUNITY Of CRITICAL THINKERS. I only experienced this last fall when I was I was running my classes a little differently than the supervising prof wanted us to :D ...some students started coming to my class instead of those of other T.A.s... I ended up getting "RELIEVED of my position for NON-PUNITIVE REASONS".

I will never stop fighting the good fight, but the state of academia really frightens me. I think an overhaul is in order.

I digress - I'm a bit of an anarchist and don't really think things can be "reformed" under the current social order. Thinking of where I'll be in, say, 15 years, is thus scary, but also quite exciting...

You are a true inspiration, Dr. Racourt.

Best Wishes,
scars, Vancouver

Anonymous said...

Please see:

Jeff Schmidt's book "Disciplined Minds" describes the system which curtails and punishes original thought in favour of turning out automatons who will toe the conventional line for that subject matter. Others have described their experiences; I remember one student described having difficulty not because he wanted to be a dissident, but because he was taking classes in two disciplines that each required different behaviour and responses, and he was not able to adapt fully to either.

And from an earlier but highly relevant period of history (which is apparently in the return phase), please see:
Hope this link works, to the account written in 1930s by a German law student on the factors driving down his culture into Nazi regimentation. Some principles worth examining. Or search for "Germany In 1933: The Easy Slide Into Fascism" + "Bernard Weiner" +
"Co-Editor, The Crisis Papers"

Anonymous said...

(physics student)Tbh, in physics and math, at least, i find exams an effective way to test students' knowledge. In this case, at least, it is a place where students can apply their knowledge in the test.

One pitfall that might happen in teaching of math, is that people are taught how to mechanically do the math, rather than being able to do so because they know why the mechanical approach works. But if students are not sufficiently interested, it might be very hard to teach it the latter way.

tl;dr imo not all exams are bad.