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Education, Imperialism and Critical Pedagogy

Imperialism is not a thing of the past but is ever present with education continuing to play an important role in the process. In this interview, Duygu Barut, from the University of Ankara and the Turkish teachers’ union (Egitim Sen) speaks to Maltese academic Peter Mayo, a frequent contributor to Counterpunch and founding co-editor of the journal Postcolonial Directions in Education, [i] about the challenges to education and the teaching profession in this context.  Mayo also discusses the promise of a Freire-inspired Critical pedagogy as an important antidote to the current neoliberal onslaught.

1. In your book Liberating Praxis you analytically expose Paulo Freire’s theories. Could you explain Paulo Freire’s idea of education, in a few words?

It’s a tall order to discuss Freire’s theories in a few lines. The central concept of his philosophy is that of Praxis which means an education that liberates by means of gaining critical distance from the world one knows to be able to see it in a more critical light with a view to transforming it. In other words it is a process of reading the WORD and the WORLD. Hence the choice of my title which is extracted from Pedagogy of the Oppressed but which also connects with liberation theology where I first saw the term ‘liberating praxis.’ Faith was described as a “liberating praxis” by Leonardo and Clodovis Boff.

2. In the  May 2013 symposium on critical education in Ankara you spoke about Gramsci’s impact on critical pedagogy. Can you explain to readers this influence in a few words?

Gramsci has had a huge impact on critical pedagogy especially because of the importance he attached to the role of culture, in both its highbrow and popular forms, in the process of hegemony which combines rule by force with rule by consent. His discussion on the role of intellectuals in this process also infuenced discussions centering around educators as cultural workers in the critical pedagogy field. Henry Giroux has been particularly influential here. One issue which deserves greater treatment in critical pedagogy, in my view, is that of ‘powerful knowledge’ which, though not necessarily popular knowledge and also needs to be problematised, should still be mastered for one not to remain at the margins of political life.  The role he attached to civil society, not used in the contemporary sense but in the sense of an entire complex of ideological institutions that prop up the State, influenced pedagogues such as Michael Apple, a self declared neo-gramscian, in his discussions concerning education and curricula as sites of contestation.

3. As a Maltese person, how do you define imperialism?

The spread of a set of ideas, modes of living and regulation emanating from one powerful centre which colonise the mental universe of the colonial subjects. In this respect, this stranglehold is not done away with once the former colony achieves its independence. The mental colonisation becomes quite enduring and the indigenous cultures suffer in relation to it. Malta experienced this. But once again colonialism is not monolithic and is often challenged through various ways not least through the critical appropriation of imported ideas. Some colonies did this better than others. A classic example is how Catholicism in the colonies of Portugal and Spain in Latin Amerca, which served a colonial purpose, was decolonised to take the form of Liberation Theology. It is never one way traffic. Some of the colonised, resisted, appropriated and transformed, all part of the process of renegotiating relations of hegemony.  As Raymond Williams argued in Culture and Society specifically with reference to T.S. Eliot, and elsewhere, no culture remains the same when it is transmitted to another community. Eliot highlighted, according to Williams, what he saw as the negative conseqences of this, using words such as ‘adulteration’etc. Williams saw the positive side of this process – how this culture gets transformed when connected to aspects of the way of life of the community. We must keep this in mind when viewing the processes of cultural transmission and appropriation and –why not?- critical appropriation in a specific community in the context of western colonisation.

4. In our world the dominant powers exert one type of hegemony,  in which education plays an important role. What are the negative consequences of this ?

Well, if we take education as an example, we have too much of a  ‘one shoe fits all’ standardised strategy which relegates contexts to the background. But once again hegemony, though reflecting a dominant set of relations, is also challenged within its own interstices. It contains the seeds of its own transformation as it is both cemented by some and contested by others who seek through their contestation over a long period of time to alter or renegotiate the relations of hegemony itself. Nothing is monolithic!

 5. What are the differences between the notion of education which imperialist powers develop in their countries and the countries they colonise?

Education serves as a means to colonise the “mental universe” (Ngugi Wa Thiong ‘O) of the colonised, the type of colonisation that cannot be gotten rid off simply through a declaration of independence. While being formally independent, the formerly officially colonised would still live a colonised life aping the lifestyle of the colonisers in their own way, their own “quaint way” as the colonisers would call it. As Fanon argued with regard to Africa, we would have a class of Black Skins in White Masks. And in many cases it would be a watered down education which gives the colonised the illusion of their education being on a par with that education in the metropole. Fanon’s description of the R-eating man from Martinique in his vain quest to learn the coloniser’s French is a case in point. It also enforces the view that the ‘good life’ to which one ought to aspire exists in the colonial centre. Hence once the promised or augured ‘development’ does not take off, people from the former colony seek that good life by emigrating to the colonial centre –the empire strikes back – which they perceive to be the Eldorado and where they are often treated as second class citizens.  This indicates that the colonal education they received was delusory in terms of its purportedly being on a par with the education provided in the colonial centre.

6. Malta declared its independence in 1964. Before it was, for a long time,  a colony of Britain. What are the differences between education during colonisation and education during independence.

Well we are no longer at the time when people thought they knew more about Britain than about their own country, as members of an older generation than mine (I am 58) would tell me. For one thing, our matriculation  examination system at Ordinary and Advanced levels is no longer administered by British bodies; we have gone local here. This has ramifications for curricula and syllabuses followed in our schools. While still reflecting structural connections with the British metropole, our educational system seems to be veering more towards that of continental Europe, primarily because of the country’s membership of the EU. It still remains too eurocentric, which is hardly surprising I suppose. This will be challenged given the changing nature of Maltese society owing to immigration from Africa, but perhaps not in my lifetime.

 7. What, in your opinion, should be the fundamental aspects of a genuine education system?

There should be nothing  ‘fundamental’ (given the word’s connotations) in my view. Criticality is a key ingredient which seems to be marginalised in this age of standardsation, classifications, bench marking and focus on the performative (in Lyotard’s sense of the term) where everything ought to be measured in quantitative terms. Together with criticality, I would also mention, following Maxine Greene,  the creative imagination. We require a critical imagination to provide imaginative responses to the issues exposed by our critical analyses. We also need to study various subjects from a critical multidimensional perspective and do so from a social justice perspective so that whatever is learnt is done so not simply for self-enrichment but also and primarily in solidarity with others with a view to helping create a world not as it is but as it can and should be –a world governed by a sense of democratic social justice.

8. What kind of protective measures do you advise for students and their families against the type of education system which is increasingly becoming reactionary ?

The ability to decipher what underlies what is being said and what is not said. Who is saying what and from which position and how?  To question what is presented as given fact.

Having said this, and following Gramsci, I would add: rendering the type of ‘powerful knowledge’ which has stood the test of time accessible to all but in a critical manner, indicating its ideological biases and also the empowering and emancipatory possibilities it still provides. For instance, Gramsci was very critical of the hegemonic Italian language since it was not ‘national-popular’ and yet he insisted that it had to be learnt not to keep people on the margins of political life. Short of doing so, one would be selling students and their families short.

9. Finally, do you have any advice for or something to say to those intending to join the teaching profession?

Following Freire, I would say: the commitment to teaching is a political commitment because education is a political act. There is no such thing as a neutral education. We must always ask on whose side are we when we teach?  More importantly we should ask, with whom are we educating and learning? I ask this question in the spirit of Freire’s emphasis on working with rather than for  the oppressed.

This interview appears in Turkish in the magazine of EĞİTİM-SEN, the Turkish national teachers union.

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