Overcoming Flawed Educational Views of the Human Person

Although I have been a student or teacher since I started kindergarten, I only began to study philosophy of education in recent years in an attempt to engage with what seems to be a pressing question on so many college campuses: How is the knowledge being taught relevant to students’ personal identity? In searching for answers to this question over the past few years, I led reading groups, summer seminars, and regular classes precisely on philosophy of education. Here I will explore the relationship between truth-seeking and consciousness raising through the writing of three authors: Jacques Maritain, Paulo Freire, and Luigi Giussani.

Writing in Brazil in 1968 about educating illiterate peasants, Freire’s basic argument is that what he calls the “banking model” of education subjects people to rote memorization of abstract knowledge that has no relationship to their personal experience. As Freire colorfully puts it, the banking model of education turns students into “containers” or “receptacles”; the teacher deposits information and the students “patiently receive, memorize, and repeat” that information (Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 72). Freire does not only critique the banking model of education for making students passive learners. Freire also aims to expose how the banking model of education emerges from an oppressive social and political system. Making students passive is not an accident. It is the design of the system to dehumanize people so they do not resist their oppression.

The question for Freire is then: how can educators resist this dehumanizing form of education and liberate the oppressed? Freire describes a problem-solving model of education that would awaken people’s consciousness about their social and political situation and lead them to transform their context. Education that humanizes, according to Freire, would link reflection and action. In his model, abstract learning is replaced by critical thinking. Critical thinking leads to concrete action. Dehumanization is replaced by consciousness-raising. In this practice of education as liberation, the power dynamic between student and teacher should disappear, and a dynamic of fellowship and solidarity should emerge.

Perhaps the scenario I have seen that most resembles a context of extreme poverty that Freire wrote about is rural Haiti. As part of my book Faith Makes Us Living: Surviving and Thriving in the Haitian Diaspora, I visited some of the most economically deprived regions in all of Western Hemisphere. I assisted in literacy training among Haitians both in Haiti and the Haitian refugee community of Miami, where I directly witnessing the kind of fatalism, passivity, and dehumanization that Freire talks about. Freire provides a colorful vocabulary to think about oppression, using words such as: alienation, domination, dependency, dehumanization, and cultural invasion. The praxis of liberation is described in equally colorful words: problem-posing, authenticity, humanization, critical thinking, consciousness raising, revolution, change, comrade, solidarity, and power.

One of the main limitations to Freire’s approach—his collapsing of truth-seeking and consciousness raising—can be aptly illustrated by a relatively brief conversation I had with a young Latino man in Chicago a few years ago. I was on a work trip having lunch seated at a barstool in a local pub. After a few hours of burying my head in Pedagogy of the Oppressed and taking notes on a hotel notepad, a young Latino man who was washing dishes behind the bar asked me what I was reading. I explained Freire’s thesis about the banking model of education and described his alternative of consciousness raising about one’s oppression.

The young man listened patiently, and then told me he was reading a good book: Orthodoxy by G. K. Chesterton. After he graduated from high school, he had served in the Marines for five years as a helicopter mechanic and was now using the GI Bill to study aviation mechanics at a local Catholic college. His college required a core curriculum of all majors that included several humanities classes. In one of those classes, he had read about Chesterton and was fascinated by his conversion to Catholicism. This young man was fascinated at how Chesterton’s search for truth had ultimately led him to a kind of existential commitment—a kind of certainty about our final destiny that he himself desired to reach.

Would dispensing with the banking model of education respond to this young man’s search for transcendent truth? The philosophical problem with Freire is that he has changed the end of education (therefore the end of truth-seeking) to political revolution. This young man had born arms on one side of a war—he had been deployed as a U.S. Marine two times to Afghanistan. He described how in his deployments he had witnessed the destructive power of evil. His life experiences of fighting a war had led him to question his Catholic faith. Without an a priori existential commitment to a notion of truth, one can fight a war but one cannot be certain one is fighting the right side of a war.

If the end of education is to pose problems, raise our consciousness, and act towards political liberation, how do we educate people to think about perennial human questions such as: Is anything right or wrong, true or false, good or evil according to which our actions and experiences must be judged? Is all action morally equivalent?

Another limitation of Freire’s approach is in how he describes the role of the teacher. Students to whom I have taught Freire have experienced something like the banking model of education. It is something they do not wish to replicate. But a question that comes up frequently, which Freire leaves unasked, is: Does the teacher bring any kind of authority or wisdom at all into the classroom?

In all my years of teaching, I certainly tried to be open to listening to my students even when they disagree with me. The the longer you teach the same subjects, the more you think you know, and the harder it is to remain open to the perspectives of students. Yet, the idea that a teacher’s role is simply to give everyone a chance to share their personal experience of reality presupposes that every experience we have provides some sort of unmediated access to truth. To have the kind of dialogue that Freire wants, there must be some way to judge, integrate, accept or reject certain aspects of our experiences as untrue. If not, when, how or why would anyone ever change their way of thinking or acting?

Freire draws on Marxist philosophy as his framework and exalts leaders who sought to put Marxism into practice. Freire’s framework for judging the truth is thus implicitly communicated by his praise of Lenin, Mao, Guevara, and Castro—all revolutionary thinkers and political actors who fought armed battles on the side of the oppressed and killed their oppressors. They did what was necessary for the liberation of their fellow citizens, including engaging in violence to overthrow capitalism.

Freire sought to develop a system of education to support the true Marxist revolution. The title of his book Pedagogy of the Oppressed explains his objective: to educate the oppressed to reject their passivity and embrace their power to play a revolutionary role in history. Freire’s model works towards the end he desires if and when teachers pass on their Marxist commitment to students.

If truth for Freire is equated with action that leads to a political revolution in this world, I would have no way to dialogue with the young Latino man who wants to explore his faith in God. I might, in fact, be obliged to find a way to show him that his questions about God are an impediment to fighting the revolution.

While I disagree with many of Freire’s presuppositions and therefore his conclusions, I agree with Freire in this much: being educated is more than just memorizing facts. Being educated entails knowing how to make connections across a variety of facts and ideas. Freire’s model resonates with so many because being educated means having the space to ponder how the facts and ideas we learn have significance to our own lives. However, is all we need to do to call ourselves educated it to get in touch with our personal experiences?

The dialogue I experienced in classrooms includes many facts that may not be a part of anyone’s personal experience—but they are part of the universal tradition of human experience that must enter into any education aimed at truth-seeking. The kind of dialogue Freire wants to see between teachers and students works best when teachers have clearly identified their own presuppositions about truth and accept their responsibility to be a guide to students. Students simply do not have the years, experience, and knowledge I do as a teacher to gain all the possible insights from the texts we read and experiences we share.

Writing decades before the publication of Pedagogy of the Oppressed, the Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain’s 1942 book Education at the Crossroads is a critique of both pragmatist problem-posing trends in American educational policy and a critique of Nazi propaganda in education (as well as Soviet Marxist education). For Maritain, the problem with those kinds of education comes down to their flawed view of the human person. That problem remains with us today; the need for sound philosophical anthropology undergirding education is as strong as ever.

For Maritain, “man is a person, who holds himself in his hand by his intelligence and his will. He does not merely exist as a physical being. There is in him a richer and nobler existence; he has spirited superexistence through knowledge and love” (Education at the Crossroads, 10). The true end of education is “to guide man in the evolving dynamism through which he shapes himself as a human person” (Education at the Crossroads, 10). All other ends of education—solving problems, making good citizens—must be understood as secondary to the primary end of education: to form the inner world of a human being, the conscience of the person, that can perceive and respond to a transcendent reality that is the source of all that exists.

Maritain’s view of education rests on a notion of truth held to by Greek philosophers and the Judeo-Christian tradition that there is transcendent, non-material, reality that we can interact with. An educated person does not only know how to act and solve problems in this world; an educated person knows how to be open and receptive to transcendent reality.

The highest good of the person, according to the French Catholic philosopher, is not one’s historical role in bringing about revolutionary action; the person’s highest good is communion with God, a communion that starts from the moment of our existence as physical beings and continues after our mortal life on earth is over. That conviction about the nature of the human person as body and soul is the basis for his concern not to reduce our spiritual nature or our intellect entirely into action, as pragmatist and consciousness raising visions of education do.

Part of what educators must do, Maritain contends, is preserve the traditions that represent millennia of wisdom about who we are as human beings. Those traditions are necessary to prevent education from becoming merely a tool for intervention in the here and now—the tools of education be easily manipulated for evil purposes as happened historically under Marxist and communist educational systems in China, the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany, and Cuba, just to name few.

Another author who understood well the central importance of the human soul in education is the Italian Catholic priest Luigi Giussani who founded the movement Communion and Liberation. In his book The Risk of Education: Discovering our Ultimate Destiny, which has been recently released with a new English translation and an introduction by Stanley Hauerwas, Giussani argues that any educational method must ponder how to educate what is truly human in us—and our human rationality is always open to the infinite. As described in the recently translated biography of Giussani by Alberto Savorana, Giussani developed his method precisely in response to Marxist student movements that denied the transcendent dimension of the human person.

Giussani’s short book on education is packed with words whose meanings may intrigue students, but whose origin and significance may not be totally transparent to them. Those words include many words that do not appear in Freire, like mystery, risk, tradition, authority, faith, reason, provocation and verification. It also contains words that seem to overlap with Freire such as: critique and experience. Giussani may have agreed with Freire that knowledge that cannot be linked to human experience is abstract and not useful. Yet, Giussani’s vocabulary shows that his understanding of human experience includes mystery, faith, and existential commitment, not only action and change. Students find that Giussani’s method synthesizes what is good about the pragmatist, experiential, subjective understandings of education with the kind of philosophical anthropology that is open to the infinite.

One important difference that emerges from this philosophical difference between Freire and Giussani is in how Giussani understands the role of the teacher. For Giussani, the teacher does not only pose problems and facilitate dialogue, the teacher shares with students an interpretive framework that is necessary precisely to go from personal experience to the kinds of moral judgements that influence actions. The authority of a teacher comes from both one’s own experience, an experience which (if true) would have led one to make a commitment to a particular tradition and a particular community that embodies that tradition.

For Giussani, critique and provocation are not aimed at tearing down a framework just for the sake of it: teachers who engage in critique and provocation should be ready to be honest about where their reasoning has led them, including about their view of the person. Both Freire and Giussani have a priori commitments about the truth. Freire’s Marxism is every bit as much an existential commitment to truth as Giussani’s Catholicism. If one does not communicate some kind of existential commitment to students, one is actually failing in one’s role as a teacher:

It is bitter to hear that this disorientation is intentionally provoked on purely methodological grounds, and even considered to be a crucial rite of passage, because people do not realize (or do not want to recognize) that simply being tossed into the fray inevitably produces skepticism in a young person . . . skepticism is absolutely not a rite of passage (Risk of Education, 38).

A teacher, according to Giussani, needs to impart a method by which we judge our personal experience; tradition offers a starting point, or a testing ground, for personal experience. To claim to be educated, to claim to be a teacher, and to avoid making a commitment to a philosophical or religious tradition or something that proposes answers to the perennial human questions about truth and goodness is to avoid doing one of the most important things we do as humans. Giussani’s and Maritain’s view of the person does not line up with Freire’s, which leads to a different view of education.

The end of education in Guissani and Maritain is coming to know ourselves in personal relation to God who created us for eternal communion with him. Knowing God is central to knowing how to live and act in this world, but knowing how to act in this world is not the only thing we need to know because humans have a soul that transcends this world.

For Freire, the end of education is understanding one’s place in world history leading to the revolution against capitalism. Maritain and Giussani both warned that when educational systems embrace a notion of collective liberation but reject personal liberation through a relationship with God, it becomes all too easy to turn the collective into another kind of god that eradicates the value of the individual. If the banking model of education is just one form of technocratic manipulation towards particular ends that dehumanizes, Freire’s problem-solving model of education replaces one kind of dehumanizing manipulation with another.

Students have commented that Giussani’s understanding of the human person as including the mysterious inner dwelling of the image of God may be precisely what makes possible the kind of community Freire dreamed would come. Students are seeking solidarity and communion that is much more complex and deeper than the solidarity of collective action to overthrow oppression. We long to accompany each other on our quest for the infinite.

In my several decades in education, I have seen that students are seeking an education that is personal, that speaks to their experience, but they are also longing for communities grounded in tradition—they are longing for a living witness of a teacher who has existential commitments that guide their actions in a coherent way. The model of education I seek to practice is “catholic” in the sense that it is open to universal human experience. All forms of knowledge can help encounter a transcendent reality in which we all share.

To ignore the fact that educational programs which ignore the transcendent dimension of the human person have gone horribly wrong is irresponsible. We need to judge, learn, and propose a new way for education, something for which Maritain and Giussani both provide guideposts that help us see the flaws in many contemporary approaches to education. Their writings have helped me as an educator, whether that be in the classroom of the Ivy League or a bar stool in Chicago, to remember that I have authority as a teacher. Accepting that authority means I accept my responsibility for the soul of the person in front of me who is asking questions about truth and goodness and wants to enter into not only dialogue but also communion with another human being and God.

Featured Image: Van Gogh, First Steps, 1890; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100.


Margarita Mooney

Margarita Mooney is an Associate Professor at Princeton Theological Seminary and is the author of Faith Makes Us Live Surviving and Thriving in the Haitian Diaspora. She also started the Scala Foundation, which is a nonprofit dedicated to reinvigorating classical liberal arts education.  

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