I’ve just finished reading Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Heart. It is a bit of a strange read which hops about a bewildering array of subjects. As ever Freire’s thesis is the need to move towards a progressive democratic future in which human nature is not twisted into unnatural shapes by inequalities of power and wealth.
Pedagogy of the Heart broadens Freire’s focus from looking at teaching and education to an examination of politics and philosophy. Much of the discussion is particularly focused around the period in Brazil’s history (late 1980s and early 1990s) when Lula and the Workers’ Party were challenging for power and were seen by many as the great hope for a democratic radical government in one of the major developing nations.
I’ve got a lot of sympathy for Freire’s broader political positions, however, I really go to him primarily for his thoughts about the interface between teaching and politics. On this, pedagogy of the heart is less instructive than other books like Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Nonetheless there is considerable material of interest for those interested in radical pedagogy.
Freire makes a number of key points. The first relates to the broad focus of the book and is essentially that it is not impossible to separate the idea of pedagogy from the idea of politics nor to separate the responsibilities or practices of the teacher from those of the citizen or human being. Human beings are homo sapiens (wise man) and therefore to think and to learn is inherent to being human. However, learning about the world takes place within a political context, what is more learning about the world and teaching about it are inherently political acts because they are about understanding the world and constructing a new reality. The processes of political agitation or discourse are essentially pedagogic acts where we seek to help people to learn about the world and to change it. Similarly any attempt to teach holds within it political values and asks people to take actions which are inherently political.
Perhaps the idea that I’ve taken most strongly from Pedagogy of the Heart is the distinction that Freire makes between text and context.
One of the fundamental differences between me and such fatalistic intellectuals – sociologists, economist, philosophers, or educators, it does not matter – lies in my never accepting yesterday or today, that educational practice should be restricted to a “reading of the word”, a “reading of text”, but rather believing that it should also include a “reading of context”, a “reading of the world”. (43)
This desire to foster “a critical understanding of reality” (44) in which both text and context are acknowledged has helped me to start to see what a radical pedagogy might actually look like. Friere goes on to explain this further by providing an example.
If I teach Portuguese, I must teach the use of accents, subject-verb agreement the syntax of of verbs, noun case, the use of pronouns, the personal infinitive. However, as I teach the Portuguese language, I must not postpone dealing with issues of language that relate to social class. I must not avoid the issue of class syntax, grammar, semantics, and spelling. (75)
In other words there is no point in teaching language in a way that avoids the social reality within which that language is spoken. To teach about something out of its context robs the text itself of any meaning. The tasks of teaching and learning become little more than an abstract exercise. On the other hand if the teaching of language is placed squarely within the context of an unequal society within which power is held by those with literacy and command of language we enhance the meaning of the text and the purpose of learning. The learning is no longer abstract but rather connected to individual and collective aspirations to live in and influence the world.
The question that I am wrestling with is what is the relevance of this to the world of career guidance? It is not difficult to make the argument that career guidance is about how an individual lives in the world, it is about thinking about their values (which really means their politics) and aspirations and helping them to achieve these. However, there is a danger that career guidance as it is often practiced can both individualise and decontextualise leading people towards solutions that avoid the issues of social structure and inequality and encouraging them to find individual pathways through these social inequalities without raising the possibility of change.
In this sense the individual’s self and career is the text. They are encouraged to scrutinise themselves and, most clearly in the case of the narrative theorists, to actually turn themselves into a text. However, a Freirian take on guidance would argue that such a position is insufficient and that alongside the focus on text there also needs to be a critical focus on context. Such a focus would encourage them to think about the social structures which have formed their text and also to encouraged them to develop solutions to their problems which do not merely make their lives better, but which also seek to change the context.
My feeling is that career guidance is well suited as a vehicle for Freirian pedagogy. The focus on understanding the self in the world, could lend itself well to the kind of critical engagement with context suggested by Freire. However, there are clearly barriers in doing this, not least helping people to develop solutions that are at once personally developmental and politically progressive.
I am going to try and give this some further thought. As ever I would appreciate anyone else’s wisdom on these questions.