Carol A. Hand
My career as an academic came later in life. It wasn’t something I had ever envisioned myself doing, but teaching seemed like an important way for me to share what I had learned. It was a natural progression from my work as an advocate with systems change initiatives for elders, tribes and marginalized communities.
Fortunately, I had the benefit of working as a teaching assistant for my graduate advisor. He was a charismatic Chickasaw scholar of international acclaim, an award-wining “master teacher,” and a kind, ethical, and humble man. He allowed me the freedom to do things my way as long as I followed the rigors of critical thinking and supported my work on the basis of empirical objective evidence. With a model like his to follow, it’s not surprising that I choose to teach from a foundation of liberatory praxis, or critical pedagogy. I have described this approach in other posts, but honestly it’s now become cumbersome for me to try to find them on my own blog.
The word “liberatory” is easy to understand without much of a definition. But as Freire (1998, 2o00) argues, to be ethical and effective, our efforts to improve conditions in the world need to be based on knowledge and respect for others and what they already know – praxis. Simply put, teaching from this foundation means meeting people where they are to engage in dialogue about the systems that oppress us all. Rather than forcing students to blindly memorize and regurgitate existing theories and beliefs, liberatory praxis provides students with opportunities to look at taken-for-granted circumstances and asks them to think critically about meanings and alternatives.
Yesterday, I was reminded of a framework I used in the past to teach social welfare policy. I had to renew my car registration and driver’s license, an unappealing annual task that required visiting two separate drab bureaucracies. As I waited in line or at the counters, I listened and observed. And I imbibed the depressing atmosphere, aware that staff were doing the best they could to function kindly despite the constraints of social control that the rules of their positions demanded. Again, I wondered about alternatives.
Image: Policy Alternatives (C.A. Hand 2008 PowerPoint Slide)
Intuitively, many of us sense that the policies and institutions that constrain our lives limit our freedom. And they do so in ways that makes us feel shamed, demeaned, devalued, or judged as inferior on some dimension. It shouldn’t be surprising. The values and assumptions built into many social welfare policies in the United States are based on sixteenth and seventeenth century British Elizabethan Poor Laws. These laws were meant to control people who were disinherited and displaced as the feudal system dissolved during the era of industrialization. Tenant farmers and artisans who were evicted from the land and their homes flocked to cities in hopes of finding some way to support themselves and their families.
“… Few of this population had the skills to earn a living wage, and as their numbers increased, pauperism became a national problem. The first attempt to correct this problem was the enactment of voluntary alms to be collected in each parish. When this enactment did not alleviate the problems, an act was passed that required severe punishment for vagabonds and relief for the poor. This act led to an attempt to discriminate between the criminal population and the poor. Finally, the Poor Law of 1601 provided a clear definition of the “poor” and articulated services that they were to receive. This legislation is the foundation for the current social welfare system existing today in Great Britain.” (Source)
Notice how even this historical overview of the context of massive displacement and human suffering fails to mention the profit motive behind the plight of those who found themselves without the means to survive because they had been separated from the land and labors that had been theirs for generations. Notice also the ease with which the blame for their circumstances has been labeled as an individual deficit, “pauperism,” rather than a critique of the system that forced them to survive in whatever ways remained open.
Following is a brief overview of the major provisions of the law that codified these assumptions and the punitive measures that were imposed in response.
Image: Elizabethan Poor Laws (C.A. Hand 2013 PowerPoint Slide)
And consider the mechanism for enforcing these laws. The “Overseers of the Poor.”
“The Elizabethan Poor Law of 1601 required each parish to select two Overseers of the Poor. The Overseer of the Poor was under the supervision of the Justice of the Peace. It was the job of the Overseer to determine how much money it would take to care for the poor in his or her parish. The Overseer was then to set a poor tax and collect the money from each landowner. The Overseer was also in charge of dispensing either food or money to the poor and supervising the parish poorhouse. While this may sound like a great job, these Overseers were actually unpaid and generally unwilling appointees.” (Study.com)
What a great tool this was to control the rabble in the old and “new” world! As in Britain and elsewhere, there have always been far greater numbers of people who are poor and propertyless than there have been among the propertied ruling elite. These assumptions about human worth – who is worthy and who isn’t – are built into the institutions, policies, and more importantly, the unquestioned values people are socialized to see as right and normal.
Some of our social welfare policies were grudgingly enacted to ameliorate suffering. But many have been eliminated or significantly reduced of late. The oppressive net has been becoming ever more controlling and deficit-focused in recent years, and sadly, those who are next in line to be displaced have internalized the same assumptions about the individual-deficit causality of poverty.
Image: Dancer 1 (by C.A. Hand)
Shame is a powerful way for the few to rule the many.
These were among the thoughts that flowed through my mind as I watched well-meaning staff refuse to help people who couldn’t produce the required documentation to prove they were who they claimed to be. It would mean they couldn’t vote, or get jobs, or travel as they chose. I watched as some grew angry and others walked away with shoulders hunched. But I repeated my mantra, “be patient, be kind.” As I neared my turn, I added a new refrain. “See if you can brighten the day by helping these poor staff smile.”
But social control is never a laughing matter. We have choices. I have seen the hope and excitement that is possible if programs are based on a foundation of life enhancement, using liberatory praxis as a method to open up possibilities. The powerful transformations that can and do happen in people’s lives have been profound.
Image: Dancer 2 (by C.A. Hand)
Paulo Freire (2000). Pedagogy of the oppressed (30th anniversary ed.). New York, NY: Continuum.
Paulo Freire (1998). Pedagogy of freedom: Ethics, democracy, and civic courage. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
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