Physical Training Dec 2010
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From the Teacher's Corner 12:
Liberate the Oppressed!

copyright 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 ideas later.

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 teaches.

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. 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 schooling.

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 teaching too.”

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 teach better.

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 teachers” (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:

Question: 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…

Source: Kajitsuka Sensei interview

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.

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