Pedagogies and the Oppressed

In the spring of 2008, a couple of the most popular books among my learners were the Terry Barber biographies of Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks. They were popular because of a black man named Barack Obama who, to the surprise of many, was in the running to become President of the United States.

The history of the civil rights movement was not the only focus of interest. There was interest in the American Civil War and - perhaps only because I insisted - its impact on Confederation. There was interest in early hip-hop and rap. There was interest in electoral politics, abroad and at home. There was interest in Nelson Mandela and the South Africa story. And, of course, there was interest in the presidential campaign.

In the fall of 2008, interest held and peaked. There was also... optimism. I can't describe it any better than that. "Who would have thought?" was a common sentiment, along with "It's quite a thing when you think what was going on 40 years ago."

The optimism was in no way diminished by our own Prime Minister shutting down parliament to evade the inconveniences of democracy. There may have been a feeling that, with George Bush gone, Harper's days were numbered. I don't say this was a sensible conclusion. But I do remember the remarkable sense that better days must lay ahead.

I don't know exactly when hope began to fade. Maybe "hope" is the wrong word here. Maybe I should say interest. I'm not entirely sure how one supports the other, though I believe they do. I can say that there was less interest in both black history and the political process by the time Spring arrived. Of course, there wasn't a contest going on, so the media coverage was different. For my own part, I saw by March or April that things weren't going to be very different in America.

Summer came, and went, and the next fall (2009) was as if the previous fall had never happened. We talked about Confederation and Sam de Cham and John A.'s National Policy (still a hot topic 130 years later). But not black history or hope.

Nobody talked much about hope.

Freire would surely chide us for building our sense of optimistic empowerment on lessons about a foreign ruler - not least the emperor of the American Empire. Much better to study the struggle New Brunswick residents have had with language discrimination, than to study the civil rights movement. Better to understand Louis Robichaud than Martin Luther King Jr. Better to understand the Acadian expulsion, and how its story has been appropriated in the power struggles between Moncton and Fredericton, than the Underground Railroad and how its story is told differently by the Nation of Islam or the NAACP.

Well, Ferrie would be troubled by many things about Canada's "little America" complex and how this influences even our adult learning program.

I'm troubled that today is Martin Luther King Jr. Day in the U.S., our Prime Minister has again suspended Parliament, and nobody in class is much interested in talking about either.

Hope fades.


michael chalk said...

Hi Wendell, your post got me thinking.. about how adult literacy learners can feel disempowered and helpless.

Too much thinking for a comment, so i wrote about it over at my place.

Thanks for sharing your experience, kind regards, michael

Wendell said...

Yeah, I saw your post.

I'm often tore between presenting the best face of history (in order to be encouraging) and a more realistic picture: e.g., you're statistically more apt to die in a motor vehicle accident on the way to the polls that you are to change the outcome of an election.

It's not exactly half-empty / half-full stuff. It's more, "The glass is half full... but it might not be safe to drink."

Best wishes