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A Dissident Voice for Democratic Schooling: Writer Gabriel San Roman Interviews Radical Educator Antonia Darder

(Image: Peter Lang Publishing)

Working from a critical understanding of how culture and power work, Darder affirms the lived experience of individuals and communities as the foundation for developing our capacity to know the world, ourselves and each other as agents of change.

School is back in session across the nation as students return to the classroom after summer break. For youth in the Tucson Unified School District, that means their Mexican-American Studies program is no more – after having been controversially eliminated by the Arizona State Legislature.

Throughout the states, an increasingly corporate approach to education threatens this cornerstone of democracy. In this climate, the work of Antonia Darder – an internationally recognized scholar and radical educator in the tradition of critical pedagogy – is as urgent as ever.

A dissident voice, her theoretical promotion of biculturalism and cultural democracy in the classroom starkly contrasts with the so-called education reform movement. Darder, who holds the Leavey Presidential Endowed Chair in Education at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, is the author of numerous books, notably, “Culture and Power in the Classroom” and, more recently, “A Dissident Voice: Essays on Culture, Pedagogy and Power.”

In addition to her scholarly work, she is also a poet, visual artist and singer-songwriter – the very embodiment of the kind of well-rounded person democratic schooling is meant to cultivate.

SAN ROMAN: What is a “dissident voice” and how, as exemplified in your last book, do you raise yours?

DARDER: A dissident voice is one that speaks against the grain or against conventional notions of society. It reflects a political voice that speaks in opposition to many ideas or popular axioms embraced in society as commonsense. For example, “the poor will always be with us,” is one of those commonsense notions, supported even by the [Catholic] church. It pretends that somehow poverty is immutable and the result of human nature, rather than as a consequence of an unjust system of wealth distribution and unequal power. Hence, a dissident voice speaks against those fixed ideas that are readily accepted as truths, but yet negatively impact our efforts toward a more just society.

Similar ideas that were debunked by dissident voices of the past are the belief in the legitimacy of slavery or in the inferior intelligence of women because of their reproductive nature. Today the pro-immigrant struggles or the anti-racist struggle in Arizona and other parts of the country are being led by dissident voices that are committed to a culturally democratic way of life. In the book, my dissident voice is marked by personal experiences as a working class, Puerto Rican woman who grew up in abject poverty. In the process of my academic formation and my development as an educator and writer, I was forced to contend with a variety of inequalities that placed huge constraints upon me, and others like me, as a direct result of poverty, racism and sexism. Similarly, political constraints were also intensified by my activism and sheer unwillingness to remain silent when I experienced and saw others experience dehumanizing conditions of inequality, which function to betray a critically democratic vision of schooling and society.

SAN ROMAN: Mexican-American Studies has been banned in Tucson high schools, and education nationally is increasingly trending towards a corporatist model. It seems timely as ever to explore concepts you’ve written about extensively such as “biculturalism” and “cultural democracy” as it relates to our classrooms, does it not?

DARDER: The 20th anniversary of my first book, “Culture and Power in the Classroom” was recently released. As I was developing the second edition, I experienced tremendous angst as I saw that many of the difficult conditions I was addressing then have worsened today. For example, in 1991, there still was a mandate for bilingual education in California and other states, and there were still efforts being waged toward community-based governance of schools. As the neoliberal agenda of corporatization and privatization in education took hold, school districts began to be run like mini-corporations with CEOs at the helm, an economist language of “accountability” and “stakeholders” took hold, and high stakes testing began to systematically rip away at constructivist and culturally meaningful educational strategies and assessment approaches in schools.

With all this, attention to cultural and linguistic differences began to wane, as a new schooling culture of assimilation took hold under the guise of teaching to the test. In some ways, this was a direct attack on more revolutionary multicultural approaches that had been developing during the post-civil rights era. Meanwhile, for those dissatisfied with the status quo, the charter school alternative became the panacea for dissatisfied public school teachers and parents, who were more informed and more empowered to do something about their dissatisfaction. As such, they began to create charter schools along their own particular visions, rather than to remain in the struggle for improving public schools. Consequently, this movement toward a quasi-privatized schooling alternative actually served to create greater racialized inequalities within public schools. The majority of children of color, poor children and children with disabilities are still found in public schools across the country. In many ways, the accountability movement and the charter school movement, wittingly or unwittingly, worked in unison to not only preserve, but to deepen, the hegemonic apparatus of schooling in the U.S., reproducing the inequalities inherent in the process of class formation.

A decolonizing theory of biculturalism and cultural democracy attempts to break through the colonizing impact of such a process of schooling, by placing the voices of disenfranchised students of color and their communities at the center of the discourse, with respect to education. Through a critical understanding of how culture and power work within the context of inequalities, these ideas are meant to affirm the different cultural and linguistic experiences of educators, students, parents and communities of color, in order to support their political self-determination. This involves developing skills related to the knowledge and wisdom derived from their own histories of survival and lived experiences, which can then assist them in reading power and learning how to challenge more effectively policies and practices of marginalization, exploitation, domination and violence within schools and society.

SAN ROMAN: Paulo Freire has been a notable influence on your life’s work and his book “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” is one of the texts banned alongside the Mexican-American Studies program in Tucson. There’s a chapter in “A Dissident Voice” titled, “Teaching as an Act of Love” that reflects on Freire. How does that notion revolutionize approaches to education?

DARDER: For Freire, the notion of humanity was central to his deeply political treatise on schooling. He spoke of being human as “our true vocation.” Across his work, he spoke to the significance of human relationships and our capacity to love one another and the world. Without love, the solidarity or community life that is central to collective struggle cannot be forged. Dialogue in many ways constitutes both a political and pedagogical vehicle for developing our capacity to not only know the world, but to know ourselves and each other as social agents of change, as well as dreamers of a world that could be. Hence, love from this vantage point is a powerful collective and creative force that we generate together when we labor in meaningful ways – ways that embody new possibilities and remind us that we are all subjects of history. A revolutionary dimension here is the manner in which the collective or communal aspects of learning are privileged within the classroom, in place of mainstream individualistic and competitive approaches that dominate so much of traditional schooling. Moreover, this critical approach to knowing the world, others and oneself, also functions to break the isolation and alienation that is so inherent in the banking system of education where knowledge, as absolute, is taught in disembodied, fragmented and instrumentalized ways, which ultimately functions to further silence and disempower those from disenfranchised communities.

In contrast to an authoritarian schooling approach, Freire’s pedagogy is predicated on a humanizing pedagogy, which respects fundamentally the curiosity, imagination, passion and emotional life that students bring to the classroom. Rather than seeing these as distractions to learning, the embodiment of these qualities are understood as essential to students’ humanity and thus, essential to their motivation to learn and grow intellectually. This is one of the major reasons why children’s culture, history and language must be made central to their learning process. Similarly, teachers must also find the opportunities for creating openness in their classrooms so they may come to know their students in ways that permit them to engage more intimately with them in the process of learning. However, it is impossible to do this if teachers see students of color as deficient, or believe that their culture and language has nothing to offer to their academic formation.

On the other hand, when teachers are able to incorporate the cultural and linguistic knowledge of their students into the curriculum and their way of teaching, students are able to make sense of the new learning and they remain more present and motivated in the process of their education. This is one aspect that was very apparent in the response of students who participated in the Raza Studies program in Tucson. Finally, the pedagogy, classroom experiences and curricular materials spoke directly to the knowledge and wisdom of their own histories and communities. From this position of strength, students were better prepared to scaffold new and unfamiliar knowledge more effectively, in ways that nurtured their academic self-determination and political formation as subjects of history. Is this not what democratic education is suppose to be about?

SAN ROMAN: The Mexican-American Studies program in Tucson had measurable academic success for students. Your essays also speak about the need for bilingual education whose critics, despite studies demonstrating its efficacy, harshly oppose it. Doesn’t this make the push back a highly ideological one?

DARDER: Absolutely! It is not only an ideological struggle, but also a material one that is predicated, unfortunately, on a very narrow and irrational discourse that is clearly in opposition to differences at any substantive level. This is, in fact, what neoliberal multiculturalism has become. It is a view that may be willing to acknowledge that there are differences, but that refuses to permit communities of difference access to decision-making power that might effectively dismantle the anti-democratic Eurocentric nature of the institutional culture that drives mainstream schooling. Hence, the fact that students in Tucson were developing a sense of cultural identity, cultivating a sense of social agency, and evolving in their ability to give voice to their political views – in essence feeling a greater sense of empowerment – created a major disruption among those conservatives who feared losing control of resources, decision-making power and their hold on their mainstream privilege and power.

Banning books as a strategy to stop the process of intellectual formation in the direction of culturally democratic possibility is, of course, often used as a strategy to stop the progress of social and political evolution. This is no different in Arizona. If you look at the books that have been banned – those that offer alternative readings of politics and history, as well as literature that affirms the identities of students as bicultural human beings – they are books that have been pedagogically associated with the political and cultural formation of disenfranchised students in this country.

To clearly rational and politically democratic people, this action is not only xenophobic, but also unconstitutional. It interferes with the fundamental democratic right to free speech. Moreover, based on the 1968 Tinker case, an argument can be made that the actions of Arizona legislators have caused students harm and that the state’s actions are directly in opposition to a long legal tradition against the formal censorship of ideas and books (with, of course, the exception of so-called sexual “obscenity”). In this landmark decision on the issue, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that “First Amendment rights are available to teachers and students, subject to application in light of the special characteristics of the school environment” and that, “A prohibition against expression of opinion, without any evidence that the rule is necessary to avoid substantial interference with school discipline or the rights of others, is not permissible under the First and 14th Amendments.”

SAN ROMAN: One of the more interesting sections of “A Dissident Voice” is about the “pedagogy of the body.” What is it, why is it needed, and what is its emancipatory potential?

DARDER: A critical pedagogy of the body acknowledges the primacy of the body in all social relations and in the process of teaching and learning. That is to say, that our bodies are implicated in the process of academic formation and must be engaged as so, if we are to create the conditions for students to understand themselves in integral ways. Let me explain. Generally students are educated in ways that expect them to forget about their bodies, and thus, their emotions, sensations, and bodily responses are ignored, in favor of a cognitive focus. In fact, to engage with the body – in line with deeply Puritanical foundations – is often considered suspect or even dangerous to students’ capacities to develop so-called objective knowledge. In the process, students are taught in ways that divorce their bodies and feelings from their construction of knowledge. The notion that human faculties and capacities to know go beyond the cognitive is summarily dismissed, in place of an objective, neutral, disembodied and controllable approach to learning.

This ultimately functions to alienate students and separate them from the subject of their learning, even when what they are studying involves actual conditions of human suffering. Instead, a critical pedagogy of the body refers to a way of teaching that makes the body central to learning. Students’ emotions and sensations tied to their lived experiences, as well as the very process of learning, are considered to be absolutely central to their formation as full human beings and, thus, empowered subjects of history. In many ways, disembodied education serves well the objectives of capitalism and its system of meritocracy. Teaching students to divorce themselves from sensations and emotions, which are directly tied to their capacity for humanizing life, leaves them alienated in ways that make them more susceptible and vulnerable to rampant consumerism and the marketization of fabricated desires.

In contrast, a pedagogy of the body works with students in ways that acknowledge the presence of their bodies, sensations, emotions and responses to the world and, as such, supports students in developing comfort with actual expressions of humanity, in ways that allow them to bring both their hearts and minds into the process of their intellectual formation.

SAN ROMAN: Outside of the classroom, there’s a public pedagogy of dissent as you call it. How can Freirean-inspired concepts inside the classroom also shape media outside of it?

DARDER: The same principles that inform a critical pedagogy in the classroom are the same principles that inform a public pedagogy of dissent. That is to say, just as a critical engagement with cultural politics, history, economics, ideology, hegemony, critique, resistance, and dialogue are all key to teaching and learning in the classroom, these are equally significant to the process of political formation out in our communities and within society. Hence, when we think of the use of media, for example, we see this at work in the production of independent media that provide not only information about events, but also attempt to engage critically with the meaning of these events, policies, or practices within the context of both individual and collective life. Just as critical pedagogy creates the conditions for reflection, dialogue, critique, democratic participation, and solidarity in the classroom, so can independent or alternative media provide the conditions for such a critical process to take place out in the world, particularly with respect to policies and practices that require critical dissent aimed at social change and transformation. In many ways, this is precisely what we are seeing today with respect to the shooting and death of Trayvon Martin.

As such, critical approaches to media function to unveil the asymmetrical power relations and disrupt those regimes of power that must be challenged through the process of political protest and dissent. By providing alternative readings of the conditions of oppression at work, those committed to a vision of democratic life can gain a more expansive understanding of different facets of an issue, rather than being solely limited to official transcripts that generally support the interests of the wealthy and powerful. Moreover, the bringing together of critical pedagogy and media is essential to the development of a critical media literacy within schools, so that students will not be left at the mercy of corporations that deliberately seek to shape their desires and colonize their sense of pleasure and purpose.

SAN ROMAN: “A Dissident Voice” ends with a “personal as political” in-depth interview about your life growing up. What moved you to share that side of yourself and what do you hope readers take away from it, given that it concludes your book?

DARDER: As a critical educator, I firmly believe that our lived history informs how we make sense of the world and hence, how we construct knowledge. For many, this concept seems abstract. For this reason, I share my life as simply an example of the idea that each of us is, indeed, embodied history and all our life experiences impact the decisions we make and how we see the world. Moreover, we move in our lives according to the conditions to which we are born, as much as those in which we struggle to survive – conditions often not of our own making.

My hope is that from my personal story, readers might come to better value the preciousness of all life – with the good, the bad and the ugly – and recognize the manner in which politics is implicated in our lives whether we are aware of this or not. Moreover, it is my deep belief that the personal and the political are inextricably linked and, as such, our politics requires that we be self-reflective, self-vigilant and self-conscious of our own formation as both individuals and collective beings. Over the years, I have found that to do this most effectively, we must understand deeply how the different circumstances, relationships, events, and experiences we have lived shape our worldview, our politics, and thus, our dreams for the future.

Lastly, I believe that we can only embrace a sense of radical hope, which is so important to our political efforts, when we embrace the notion that the condition of inequalities we are struggling to change are conditions created by human beings, and as such, we as human beings are the only ones who collectively can change the destinies of our communities.

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