Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Lessons from Weil

Today for our class entitled Spiritual Formation and the Life of Study we were to have read Simone Weil’s Waiting for God. I had read it last spring in French and found that there were many wonderful ideas inside despite Weil’s tendency toward melodrama. I was excited to read it again and discuss it in class today. I was particularly eager to talk about her idea of developing attention through school studies, and how that attention relates to the activity of prayer.

Stephanie Paulsell gave some background on Simone Weil and then the class launched into a discussion of her mental state and their reactions to her seeming obsession with suffering, spending a lot of time analyzing her and discussing whether or not she was deeply troubled and whether or not that should influence our reading of her work. “Can we trust her?” Stephanie asked.

I grew angrier and angrier during our class—realizing that the aim of our studies (I’m seeing this more and more clearly all the time) is more to talk about the author, to analyze her life, to discern what kind of person she was and what was going on in her head, than to wrestle with the essential questions she raises in her work.

Stephanie made a comment at the beginning of class about how this book-a-week system is constraining. “Well, if it’s Tuesday, it must be Simone Weil.” I was thinking…”aren’t you the one in charge of the syllabus? Why are YOU complaining about a book-a-week?” Just more evidence of the “form” everyone is following—even the professor feeling ?obligated? to follow a certain structure despite realizing that it’s counter-productive.

That’s it for Simone Weil; One two-hour session about her mental state and whether we should trust her. God, there was so much to talk about! We’re missing so much—the real point of education, in my opinion! What we’re doing is reading four books a week impossibly. How would I ever develop the kind of attention Simone Weil talks about in her essay in the kind of environment I’m expected to learn in? Why can’t we talk about THAT? I feel like a flat stone skipping across the surface of everything, never plunging deeply into the wonderful essence of the books we’re reading. What is the purpose in that? What am I meant to gain, learn by doing things this way? We miss the essential questions that these texts can offer us.

I feel a distinct need to INGEST the ideas I’m most drawn to—to take them into myself, to mingle them with my own experience, to balance them against my own thoughts, to let them rest and fuse and synthesize down in there, to simmer and stew until they are alchemically transformed-- fused with something authentic to me, until it can be brought back out in new form, rebirthed, the synthesis of the idea and my own soul in new articulation. This is the process by which I can make my contribution to the world. What we’re doing in the Harvard classroom doesn’t look anything like this process. What are we being taught? To accept a very constraining syllabus, class discussion, way of speaking, thinking, analyzing. We’re not nurturing the unique contribution of each individual’s potential in our here and now. We are creating automatons insecure in their own thought—concerned that it might not measure up to the accepted parlance or PC philosophy of the day. What kind of factory are we running here? I want nothing less than to come away from here thinking and talking like everyone else. I want to scream at everyone to wake up!

Yet I think we’re all hungry for what it is I’m talking about. We just can’t put our finger on it. We’ve taken ourselves out of the equation. We’ve agreed somewhere along the way that we’re just here to learn about everything and everyone else and to work to be the best example of the model that’s put before us. We need to be perfect cookies from the cookie cutter. We just need to make ourselves into round pegs that will fit the round hole. I can’t accept this. I’m screaming inside for more. It’s right there in front of us. The engaging questions are in those pages we’re skimming over. I need the time to take them in deeply. I need the time for them to mingle and be transformed. I need help bringing them back to the surface and speaking them into the world. I need support in making my unique contribution to the world. We are being duped into believing that mimicry is the highest achievement, that conformity to the academic, scholarly norm should be our collective goal. Our friend Emerson warned us of this dangerous temptation…the easy road to mediocrity. Why do we want to be like everybody else? Why do people appreciate sameness and fear difference? We all have incredible potential to articulate those unique fusions of past ideas with active spirit-in-the-world. Why do we settle for dehumanizing models? Why do we willingly remove ourselves from our own education? What do we expect to learn, to become, by valuing all else above ourselves as current manifestations of life on earth?

Monday, February 27, 2006

Reflection on Freire

PAULO FREIRE – Pedagogy of the Oppressed

My first impressions of Freire are that he’s another example of someone who seems to be articulating and writing down the very thoughts rising from my own experience. The first half of his book was so surprising in this way that I could hardly read it. I had to read each sentence and then pause in disbelief. I had similar experiences when I read Gandhi’s autobio and Schweitzer’s Epilogue in Out of my Life and Thought.

His idea of the fear of freedom also corresponds to Emerson’s insistence that a human being be true to his own soul, his own experience and to the idea of conformity which runs through his essays and also Erich Fromm’s observation that we accept society’s beliefs as our own.

Reading the first part of Pedagogy of the Oppressed I not only recognized the truth in what he was saying and in his analysis of Oppressor/Oppressed paradigms from my experience in Gabon, but I also found some language for describing the oppressive nature of the educational system I currently find myself in, which seems to fit exactly the “banking model” that Freire describes. I continually feel a lump within me—a voiceless mass of untapped experience that is not being drawn upon in my education. It is like my own secret because it is invisible to the educational process, which wants to expose me to certain ideas and ways of talking about them—satisfied if I can parrot back the same language, the same ideas it has taught me. Completely uninterested and unable to help me harness and articulate an authentic synthesis of the books and ideas the curriculum exposes me to with my own experience and ways of thinking about the subject matter. I have the distinct feeling that the education here is aimed at training me to be a particular kind of scholar (I’m expected to mimic certain ways of talking and vocabulary, accept certain forms of criticism and analysis as “best,” use, process and articulate certain kinds of information in particular ways, and defer to scholars who have written books as more authoritative than my own experience) rather than teaching me how to really think and articulate those thoughts.

I appreciate Freire’s thoughts about the oppressed having the power to free themselves and their oppressors…in effect, to transform the whole picture. There is something fundamentally true in this notion. I just know it—it resonates very deeply. The love that comes from weakness, as he describes it, and the act of rebellion described as an act of love, seem analogous to Gandhi’s idea of nonviolence and also to something Ricoeur wrote about divine weakness being a symbol of divine love “For all God’s power, God only gives Christians the sign of divine weakness, which is the sign of God’s love.” (Figuring the Sacred 288)

Freire’s whole definition of the banking model of education is as accurate a depiction as anyone could describe. I whole-heartedly buy his depiction of the framework under which most educational practice takes place. In his discussion of oppressor and oppressed and the transformation that needs to take place, the pivotal idea in the first half of the book is that transformation has to come from within the oppressed group itself and not be imposed from the outside. He speaks of the need for true solidarity from anyone who wishes to work with oppressed groups to assist them in recognizing their condition. But as he begins to describe his ideal model of this type of assistance, I was grieved to remark that it feels very dominating, in the way he seemingly wants to avoid. It’s a team of “researchers” analyzing the words, actions and daily life of an oppressed group, writing everything down in their notebooks! First of all, what kind of solidarity is that?? It sounds like an antiquated model of anthropological research which creates instant separation between subject and researcher—even if he stresses the importance of including a few “locals” on the research team. Am I wrong? This just seems so contradictory to what he was describing in the first part of the book when he says “It is therefore essential that the oppressed wage the struggle to resolve the contradiction in which they are caught.”

Also, his concept of codifications seems to be not only based on the assessment of the “problem” by outsiders but also VERY leading in terms of the desired results of analysis of the codifications by the “oppressed” group. Despite what he wants to say, I feel like this system still imposes upon the “oppressed” an idea of how their lives, their attitudes “should” be compared to how they are. Freire seems to want the immediate results he claimed were impossible to expect in the first part of the book.

I don’t know at this point what I would propose instead of his model, but my first thought would be that whatever “team” this is would need to commit to living with and among the people as their life’s work. If they are sweeping in to create some kind of revolutionary social change without actually living there and committing to living the life with the people, I don’t believe true solidarity can be achieved. It is what Freire calls in the preface “sectarianism.” A true “radical” has to accept the “oppressed” culture as valid in and of itself, not “acting as sympathetic observers with an attitude of understanding toward what they see,” (110) (this was SO disappointing to read!) but actually understanding what they see by living with and in it—by knowing and loving the people with whom one is living. Anything short is NOT solidarity but in fact sectarianism. You think you know what another group should think, feel, do. It is such a fine line!