© 2010 Douglas Tong, all rights reserved
I want to share with all our teachers the ideas and words of a famous
educator, Paulo Freire.
Paulo Freire (1921-1997) was a Brazilian educator. Initially, his
family was from a middle-class background but in the Great Depression,
their fortunes changed. His father died and Paulo experienced poverty.
In his social life, he played pick-up soccer with the poor kids in his
neighbourhood. Academically, Paulo was four grades behind. But he
learned a lot from the poor kids and this came to shape his educational
Eventually, his family’s situation improved. Later in his life, he
worked as a teacher in secondary schools. He progressed onto
higher-level positions (e.g., Department Chair at universities) and due
to the significance of his work, eventually was given a visiting
professorship at Harvard University in 1969. The subsequent publication
of his book Pedagogy
of the Oppressed
in English in the United States gained
him worldwide fame.
In Pedagogy of the Oppressed
Freire tells us how our unjust society is composed of two positions:
the oppressor and the oppressed. He goes on to argue that education can
and should be a tool for the oppressed to regain their humanity and
overcome their poor condition. But they have to take an active role in
trying to gain their own liberation. Likewise, the oppressors have to
look inward at their own role in maintaining this oppression if they
are to help liberate the oppressed.
In terms of actual pedagogy, Freire is most famous for his attack on
what he terms the “banking model” of education. In essence, traditional
models of education see the student as an empty vessel just waiting for
the teacher to pour in the knowledge. Applied to a banking sense,
Freire insists that the student in the banking model is viewed as an
empty account waiting for the banker (the teacher) to deposit some
money (knowledge). Other educational theorists have expressed this
notion in different terms such as “tabula rasa” (Jean Jacques
Rousseau), which means “blank slate”. The student is essentially a
blank slate and the teacher writes on the blank slate (i.e., gives the
student knowledge). The student, in both these cases, is essentially
assumed to be passive in this process of education.
Why is this bad? Freire argues that, “it
transforms students into receiving objects. It attempts to control
thinking and action, leads men and women to adjust to the world, and
inhibits their creative power”
(Freire, 1970, p. 77). Students
are fed what to learn, controlled in what to think and how to react.
They are taught to conform, to follow. They are not free. Oppressed.
He also argued that the teacher-student relationship must be
re-thought. Oppressor and oppressed. He suggests that there needs to be
some reciprocity between the two for true education to succeed. “Education must begin with the solution of
the teacher-student contradiction, by reconciling the poles of the
contradiction so that both are simultaneously students and teachers”
(Freire, 1970, p. 72). The teacher must also learn from the student and
the student must also be the teacher. The teacher learns, the student
However, Freire does realize that the social relationship between the
teacher and the student is not one of total equality; they are not on
an equal footing. The teacher is still in a social position of
authority. However, the teacher needs to be humble enough to be able to
understand his position and its inherent power, and still open himself
enough to be able to learn from his student. The teacher must not abuse
that position of authority to oppress the learner (i.e., this becomes a
form of authoritarianism). Instead, the teacher’s “fundamental objective is to fight
alongside the people for the recovery of the people’s stolen humanity”
(Freire, 1970, p. 95).
Freire’s work has now come to be called Critical
. Pedagogy (teaching beliefs and approaches)
that is critical of the status quo, that questions and examines
educational approaches to see if they seek to dominate and oppress
learners. Teaching learners to examine domination and achieve critical
consciousness. That is, to think critically about their educational
situation and to liberate those disenfranchised by traditional modes of
So can this be applied to martial arts? What possible relevance can
these ideas have for studies such as martial arts, arts that are
infused with archaic customs and traditional ideas?
Recall my interview
with Sasamori Sensei of Ono-ha Itto Ryu. He said, “Of course, I learn from my students also.
They are my teachers too because teaching is learning.”
In other words, when you teach, you learn from your students about what
works or doesn’t work with students.
He also went on to say, “Learning is
Here I surmised that Sasamori Sensei might possibly mean that students,
when they are learning, are telling us how they learn and this is good
information for the teacher. Students are in essence teaching us how to
It’s very interesting that a martial arts teacher, who is also a
Christian minister, echoes the same thought as Paulo Freire. The
teacher should be a student sometimes and the student can in some ways
be a teacher.
Remember Paulo Freire’s ideas on the teacher-student relationship and
how the teacher, even though he is in a position of power and
authority, should not abuse that power and influence. Instead the
teacher should be humble enough and seek to empower the students, to
liberate them and help them achieve their potential.
In order to refresh our memory about this contentious issue of the
teacher-student relationship, I will reprint what Freire said:
“Education must begin with the
solution of the teacher-student contradiction, by reconciling the poles
of the contradiction so that both are simultaneously students and
(Freire, 1970, p. 72).
It is even more fascinating that this idea, an idea from critical
pedagogy, is also shared by some high-level martial arts teachers.
Kajitsuka Sensei of the Yagyu Shinkage Ryu (Ohtsubo branch), a great
philosopher and teacher, talked about this very issue. I cannot do
justice to his words if I paraphrase them, so I will just reprint them
here for you to read:
As a teacher, what do you believe is most important for students to
remember when studying kenjutsu (or budo)?
Sensei: Ah, an interesting question.
I would like my students to remember that everyone is the same. There
is no student. There is no teacher.
Question: There is no student, there
is no teacher??
Sensei: Yes. Everyone is the same.
There is no student. There is no teacher. Of course, there is still
teacher status but that is all.
Question: I am not sure I understand.
Sensei: Here is an analogy. Budo is
like climbing a mountain. Everyone is climbing up the same mountain. I
am just farther up the mountain than you. I have seen the path that you
will take. So, I can point out some of the pitfalls that I have already
encountered on my journey up this mountain.
However, you must realize that I am
still myself going up this mountain.
But, I am not a guide telling you
where you should go. We are all mountain climbers in the same group.
But there are, naturally, some of us with more experience than the rest
of the group…
So what does it all mean in terms of teaching? Teachers need to be
critical of what they do, how they act, what they tell their students.
We need to remember that we are there to educate, to guide, not
oppress. We need to learn from our students and yet not be afraid that
by opening ourselves up to such learning we are somehow losing that
authority in the classroom. That is what Kajitsuka Sensei talked about
when he mentioned “teacher status”.
Learning, for the student, is a journey. We, as teachers, need to be
there for them and to help them on their journey. Telling them what to
think or how to do things the way we would like to see it done is not
helping them on THEIR journey. It is THEIR journey, not ours. Their
liberation, not our oppression. We just have to remember that.
Mr. Tong has a Master’s
in Education in Curriculum Studies.