Working in the system

Section 5 of

Freire-inspired programs in the United States and Puerto Rico: a critical evaluation

by Blanca Facundo

Go to contents page of Facundo's essay

Go to comments on Facundo's essay from Alternativas.

Go to Robert Mackie's article.

Return to "Facundo on Freire" entry page.

This document is located on the

Suppression of dissent website

in the section on Documents

in the subsection on Facundo on Freire

Liberating education in the United States as seen by practitioners unfolded within a hostile environment. The assumptions of liberating education about the illness of the United States society, as well as its prescriptions for health, are deemed to be in absolute contradiction with those of the power structures in the country. The ultimate goal in the theory of United States liberating education, the ideal, is to be politicized with learners for a structural transformation of the society. It is not to reform the system in order to make it work better. Liberating educators are theoretically persuaded that reforms will not bring about social justice. Reforms are using a band-aid to stop a hemorrhage.

At the same time, liberating educators realized that "revolution" [1] is not even close in the United States, and that structural transformation is a long, uphill path. To a great extent, the attraction felt by U.S. progressives towards Freire's educational philosophy is based upon Freire's optimism. In the face of writings such as Marcuse's One Dimensional Man, [2] which almost defeats from the start any intent at transformation by defining the system as all-powerful, Freire's insistence on hope, on doing what is possible, on being utopian by denouncing the existing world and announcing a better one, on not giving up, was a welcomed relief and inspiration for many defeated "radicals" of the sixties. In a debate with Ivan Illich at the World Council of Churches in Geneva (1974), Freire had stated: [3]

The fact... that certain given historical circumstances in which educators find themselves do not allow them to participate more actively in the process of the revolutionary transformation of society does not mean that their more limited effort is worthless, since this will be the effort that, for them, is historically viable. In history one does what is historically possible and not what one would like to do.

The optimism we found in Freire led us to adopt his educational philosophy in a most uncritical manner: unplanned and spontaneously enthusiastic. We did not fully realize that, even if in fact there is a Third World within the United States, its conditions would be very different from those of the Third World out of the United States. Yes, we were aware of the fact that the United States is not Brazil and that there was a lot to learn. We were also aware of what Ivan Illich called "the modernization of poverty;" [4] that poverty in the United States is a subsidized poverty; and suspected that this would make our work much more difficult. But someone had to try, to search for an effective way to help out those who needed it most. The conditions of our people in the United States were so bad that we could not possibly make them worse. Alternatives were needed and we were prepared to discover them, in process. One proposal to the federal government stated just that (though in careful proposalese): "let us try something different, because the educational system has failed. We do not know if it will work but, do you have a better idea?" We were given a three-year grant to find out if something could be done. [5]

I must strongly disagree with David Reed, who states that Latino groups in various parts of the United States tried to implement Freire's literacy method and concluded "that the Freire technique is irrelevant to the people of North America." [6] (My emphasis.) In the pursuit of accuracy, I must state that we did not see Freire's educational philosophy as a source for a literacy "method" or "technique." As stated, out of 24 Latin projects I dealt with, only two had literacy programs, and of these only one tried to replicate Freire's method. We were not in search of a literacy technique, but of a total overhaul, both in the process and contents of adult education in the United States. Our stand was that as long as there is oppression in the United States, Freire would be relevant, at least at the theoretical level, but that practices for the United States had to be discovered in the United States based upon the realities of a complex, technologically-advanced industrial society that no one had succeeded at explaining.

Reed accepted my criticism through correspondence, but his book is still around. Thus, I feel it necessary to include his response: [7]

The criticism you raise about the quote in the book is a valid one. It should not read as a general criticism of Latin educators! It does, however, and as such is inaccurate (...) The real problem with the way the quote in the book reads is that it does not point out the many experiences led by Latino educators that have made very significant contributions to developing the concepts and practice of liberating education. The error stands to be corrected.

This minor disagreement with Reed is only an example of a series of frictions which took place between élite members of minority groups who were "inventing their way through" the application of Freire's pedagogy, right there in the field, and what they saw as mostly "white" or "Anglo" academicians who argued endlessly about the meaning and accuracy of Freire's theoretical formulations. We also argued endlessly. But we saw ourselves as "doers" and "them" as "talkers." We became separatists: a great gap developed between the Latino grassroots and all university-based people, Latino and Anglo alike. We felt that Freire was "used" as the subject of many publications and dissertations written by academics who were only moved by the publish-or-perish syndrome on behalf of their professional advancement. "Our" quest was felt as an endless, frustrating endeavor to make sense out of what we were learning in the field as compared with what Freire wrote. [8]

Latinos and other minorities at the grassroots seldom found the time nor had the inclination to write about their experiences. That was seen as a "luxury." I consider that attitude as a serious mistake. Those who did write refused, for the most part, to share with people out of their programs what they had written, the stated reason being that others would be inclined to "copy" instead of creating their own processes and materials. [9]

The issue came into the first [10] open conflict during the conference with Freire sponsored by the University of Vermont, in Burlington in 1981. News about the forthcoming conference spread and about 15 Latinos representing many projects in the liberating education network managed to get there. We were the only cohesive group in the conference and found that the program for the conference was contradictory to the practice of liberating education as we understood it. [11] Latinos caucused at night, at the end of the first session and opted to act in two ways: (1) to request from Freire a separate small group session, in the Spanish language, and (2) to request from the program organizers an opportunity to dialogue with other participants about what we were doing, as opposed to seeing films, listening to presentations and interrogating Freire about his thoughts in question-and-answer sessions. The organizers accepted our suggestion, provided a room for us and announced that dialogue sessions among participants would be open as an alternative to the structured program. The sessions we conducted attracted many non-Latino conference participants who expressed surprise at the realization that there were many projects already doing things to use Freire's educational philosophy (not just engaged in literacy) with the population for which it was intended. [12] Some naively declared us "experts." But this was an exception.

Our work has remained unrecognized in the larger world of the United States academia. Many useful results based upon field experience have been lost because of the resistance of practitioners to reflect in writing (much less to tape dialogue sessions) about what was being done. However, the problems posed by those who have published books (or written articles and dissertations) about the practices of liberating education in the United States are not very different from what I learned in close interaction with at least 10 of the 24 Latino projects that at one time integrated the liberating education network, and with many "isolated practitioners": educators who tried, in their classrooms, to do something to transform the process and contents of their educational experiences with students.

The work that, by far, I consider the best analysis of the practice of liberating (the author calls it liberatory) education in the United States has been written and published by Ira Shor. [13] Another (unpublished) work which is very valuable is Tom Heaney's doctoral dissertation. [14] Each must be looked at in context.

Ira grew up in the South Bronx as a son of a working-class family and was selected out of his world "as part of the fraction of worker-kids to be tracked on to the university," based upon his I.Q. scores. This he calls his first "class suicide": [15] rising through the school system, erasing his worker background, and becoming a university intellectual. Yet, "in an ironic way," says Ira, he returned to the people he grew up with: [16]

After a university education, I taught Open Admissions students for six years at Staten Island Community College.

Ira writes from the perspective of an individual faculty member who tried to do something with working-class learners admitted to college under the Open Admissions experiment conducted (and defeated) in the City of New York. His book is both theoretical and practical: he reflects upon the obstacles encountered in the larger United States society by those who try to practice liberating education, and shares what he did, how he did it and why.

Tom was born "of second generation middle class Irish parents with strong familial ties to the Catholic Church." His parents "made it"; "got theirs the hard way through diligence, night school, and many years of playing the game and waiting for their turn." In school, Tom and his peers, being third generation "contented [themselves] with meeting minimum expectations and reserved [their] learning power for those projects which most stimulated [their] minds." [17] Were it not for his middle-class background, Tom asserts, he may have ended as a dropout. Tom's work is his doctoral dissertation, conducted through "participatory research." [18] He focusses on two private, non-profit liberating education institutions working at the grassroots in the city of Chicago. His premise, the issue which motivates his study, is a conclusion:

Most attempts to develop liberatory education in the United States have failed.

Tom's research is an attempt to uncover the reasons for this "failure," using a research methodology that will not violate the integrity of what liberating education is. Tom wants to take a first step towards the formulation of a theory of liberating education within the United States.

I see Ira as more attuned to the reality which Latinos confronted in the United States, and Tom as having a negativistic -- if not pessimistic -- stand. Ira talks as an individual practitioner who critically reflects upon his role in a given system. Tom, in spite of all his efforts at dialogue and participation, is an "outsider" (he has not practiced liberating education with undereducated working class adults on a long-range basis). Ira invested years in the practice about which he writes. Tom invested 14 months in the participatory research process, and was a member of the Board of Directors at one of the institutions he studied. I disagree strongly with Tom's contention on "failure" as an absolute result: failure as compared to what within the United States? Ira's experience was the defeat of the Open Admissions program on behalf of which he struggled. Yet, this is not perceived as "failure." His is more a feeling that being defeated in a battle does not mean the end of the war, and that defeat itself is a learning experience. Ira writes, he says, [19]

As a means to resist the erasure of memory and as one means to prevent the forces which ended Open Admissions from ending our appreciation of an episode in social reconstruction.

For Ira, critical teaching is still possible. It may be visible or low profile, according to the space allowed by the powers that be, but it "helps lay a base for transcendent change, which will have to be fought for and won in multiple social arenas." [20]

My problem with Tom's view is his orientation towards institutions as aggregates of their parts, and his drawing of conclusions on that basis. At some point, Tom seems to realize this when he states: [21]

One unresolved contradiction emerged from the research process. While learners contributed much to the study, they were understandably less interested in the generation of theory than the staff and administrators for whom theoretical assumptions were highly significant. As a result the theoretical portions of this study were filtered through an increasingly conceptually oriented group of educators.... this group functions as a vanguard -- an élite within a program committed to egalitarian structures.

My experience with liberating education programs has taught me that an institution in itself cannot be liberating: people can be. And within any institution there are all sorts of people, points of view, practices, stated and unstated ontological and epistemological beliefs. I guess I have learned to trust more what people do than what they say they are. Particularly in liberating education, I have seen so many actions in contradiction with verbal expressions about those same actions, that I am cautious as to the validity of generalizations based upon what people say. Further, I know how resistant program people are to "outsiders" and Tom is still, no matter how empathetic, a university-based person conducting research with (or about) grassroots liberating education programs that, to begin with, he has declared a failure.

Both Ira Shor and Tom Heaney believe that obstacles to the development of critical consciousness are far more formidable in the United States than in the Third World. Ira sees the United States as subtly "imposing an anti-critical mass culture which is the first and largest learning problem of the general population." In his view, the United States opposes mass intellectualism and has created a mass denial of reason "achieved through a network of cultural instruments for thought control." [22] Some would say that the statement could apply to any country. I would agree. But it is the subtle, hardly noticeable, way in which it is done in the United States what constitutes the problem. Is not the United States, after all, the "land of freedom and democracy," where if you work hard you can make it, and where there is equal opportunity for all?

Ira distributes the obstacles to critical thought in the United States among several categories. Let us briefly go over them. [23]

Who has the time and mental disposition for dialogue and critical reflection in the manner of the ruling class in American society (either that of the "old" or the emerging "new class")? [24] After a detailed examination of all of the above circumstances, Ira Shor goes ahead to describe what he did with his students to fight against it all, and to promote critical thinking, both in himself and his learners.

As stated, Tom Heaney focusses on private institutions working at the grassroots -- quite a different environment -- although the learners in Tom's work were not very different from the ones Ira interacted with (except, perhaps, for recent immigrants). Reading Tom is another must, for different reasons. Tom focusses on the problems of liberating education institutions that work within the system and the limits they must confront. Ira, after all, is granted by the system the authority to be the master of his classroom. Liberating education institutions are not the owners of their lives, mainly because financially they depend upon "the system" for their survival. Also, while the people who integrate them ("we") are as subject to the forces described by Ira as anyone else, there is a tendency not to be so conscious of the fact: we are (or work) within a liberating institution, moved by this and that ideal, and, except for our funding, we believe ourselves to be "away from it all," as islands in the middle of nowhere.

Tom's findings are resonant to the experience of Latinos, but only partly so. I would say that they are most useful to those who in theory should not exist, but do: the élite of administrators and "old timers" within hierarchical systems of liberating education. These are the ones trapped into all kinds of conflicts. As stated by Tom: [25]

These liberatory programs have two levels of existence...they are academic institutions with the same managerial and maintenance needs of any other institution [and] they are the embodiment of a liberating education movement (...) Conflict is inevitable, and the conflict is personally centered on those persons who are charged with the direction and administration of liberatory education within a traditional educational context. The experiences either exhausts the energies of these leaders or grinds them into pieces, caught as they are between the demands of two contradictory purposes.

It is these people, whom Tom also called an élite vanguard, who can most benefit from Tom's work. Because, purposefully or not, I believe, it is for them that Tom writes.

Let us have a look at what Tom found as a result of his research. Regarding the characteristics, values and commonalities in the projects he studied, Tom finds that: [26]

The values that seem to be present in these projects, says Tom, oppose those believed to be inherent to non-liberating education. The contrasting values are:

Liberating Educators: Non-Liberating Educators

1. Collective learning: Individualized instruction

2. Culture-making: Culture-consuming

3. Creative alienation: Adaptation and compromise

4. Direct action: Conceptualization

5. Critical consciousness: Acquiescence

Finally, the roles that are (or should be) desired in liberating education programs are also in contradiction with those of "the system:" the students are "learners who teach." The teachers are "teachers who learn." Administrators are "persons who listen in collegiality." And the members of a Board of Directors are "persons who share power."

These, again, I only consider "shoulds," ideal stands or goals to be reached by an élite of liberating educators. Perhaps too ideal, given the conditions under which we work. Tom's conclusions, which I will reproduce below, stem from the standards against which liberating education programs are compared. The conclusions are:

I would agree with several of Tom's conclusions, and strongly disagree with others. Latino institutions for liberating education were created to be and to operate as educational institutions even if "different." No one can deny this. Many realize that "education alone" will not do the trick of social transformation and that education is political. But none of us has thought that education will bring "revolution," or structural change.

What Tom believes to be the "inherent weakness" of many liberating programs is that these are not tied to wider and broader movements of social transformation. This is true, if we look at them from outside, from "the mainstream." Many programs are, for the most part, isolated, utopian endeavors especially among Latinos who are not yet organized politically in any meaningful way. Yet, there are reasons beyond this fact. Where are the "broader movements for social and political transformation" in the United States within which Latinos can be integrated? Those directed and integrated by the progressive Anglos? Racism and distrust are prevalent and neither white nor Latino liberating educators are immune to these realities. Let me offer two personal anecdotes to illustrate the point.

Upon my arrival to the state of Virginia, I reached out to groups of organized women in the state to find out what they were doing and if there was a way in which I could pitch in. During a telephone conversation, this is more or less, what I heard:

Oh, an ethnic! Great. We've never had an ethnic in our group! 

As a Puerto Rican born and raised in the Island, I have never seen myself as "an ethnic." I felt not only offended, but angry at the so-called progressive, liberated white women of Virginia and did not even consider joining them again. Politically incorrect? Perhaps. But human. Each of us has to choose where to invest the amount of time that we can squeeze out of our personal and work lives. I did not consider this a worthy investment of my time.

The second anecdote was as recent as 1983, when I participated in an invitational conference of progressive adult educators. There was one Black and I was the only U.S.-based Latina among the invitees. I raised the issue both verbally and, later on, in writing. All hell broke loose. Later, I was informed by a friend that the "ruling" group had conducted a "trial in absence." The verdict? I had not followed the rules of the game. (What game? Which rules? No one had informed me there were any! But even if they had informed me, I would have refused to accept "hidden agendas" within a group of people who are supposed to be progressive working for the empowerment and liberation of the oppressed.)

White progressives in all sorts of U.S. movements for broader social transformation are always discussing "the lack of minority representation" in their meetings as a serious "problem." The Black participant had stated very strongly at the same conference that no one in his (Black) community would waste time in participating in a meeting such as the one we were in. A White from the northeast expressed his disgust at proceedings that he also considered a waste of time, and that in his view offered nothing of value, no new learning that he could take back to share with the community he represented, or justify the expenses made to cover the costs of the conference. They had other, more immediate, problems to deal with. [27] As far as I know, no one wrote about it. I did and was penalized in such a subtle way that -- except for identifying my sources which I refuse to do -- I cannot offer any evidence.

It is sad, it may be divisive in terms of political strategies for structural change or it may be what you want: but many Latinos and other minority members in progressive and not so progressive circles alike do feel treated as if they were laboratory specimens to be studied. As a result, we create our own institutions for our people. We provide perhaps "the same" things but, as Tom admits, in a better, more efficient way. And that may very well be the limits of what Latinos and other politically unorganized minorities can do at this time, given the economic and social situation of our communities, and the isolation of our élites within other progressive élites in the United States. [28]

I suggest that no program created in the system by Whites, Latinos or whoevers can be qualitatively different from any other program out there, if by qualitatively we imply something like "essentially" or "inherently" better. If we are in, that is exactly where we are. If the country in which we are is plagued by all kinds of illnesses, none of us is immune.

We can try to be different, we can try to create better ways, even to live differently. And many are, indeed, trying. All, however, are tempted by material incentives, and subject to cooptation by the system, not to mention the harassment that may come from very different directions, no matter how subtle. The system can get at any of us in many different ways.

We all need a salary or a means to obtain income. There are those who cannot afford the luxury of "risking it," and still try to do what they can. Others can more easily risk open defiance (e.g., tenured professors, single persons without a family to support and protect, persons that can always fall back upon the income of their parents to survive if left unemployed, etc.). Facing this subject, Tom says: [29]

Those engaged in a liberatory praxis must also eat and pay rent, so employment is not an unworthy goal for revolutionaries. It is frequently only when we possess degrees and credentials that we have the luxury to minimize their importance. (My emphasis.)

We might ask, as we did with Freire, about the type of "revolutionaries" of which Tom is talking and about which type of "revolution." I also ask: has Tom considered the type, amount and quality of credentials of the staff members in the programs he studied, to examine the extent to which these are sufficient to afford them "the luxury to minimize the importance of degrees and credentials"? To what extent is the perceived "failure" to be "liberating" in the institutions created by Latinos for Latino learners due to the fact that only a few can afford the luxury of being liberating as defined by all utopian "shoulds"?

The examples mentioned by Tom as successful programs (success meaning programs that have not made a compromise with the system) [30] are those which were conducted by Saul Alinsky and Myles Horton. These persons, says Tom: [31]

Might not be regarded as "educators" in the traditional usage of that term but have probably contributed far more to the liberatory education of poor and working class communities that the providers of programs more explicitly identified as educational.

I have already mentioned Alinsky's rules for radicals as compared with Freire's. Tom considers Alinsky's practice "reminiscent of the process described by Paulo Freire." I disagree, for the reasons stated in Section 2.

It would take a study of both Alinsky and Myles' class positions, their educational credentials, the conditions and composition of the communities with which they worked, and a comparison with the situation of Latinos in the United States over the seventies, to determine if Tom is comparing apples and oranges. That is out of the range of this document, but the issue stands for further exploration.


Notes to Section 5: Working in the System

1. The term "revolution" here means armed struggle.

2. Herbert Marcuse, El Hombre Unidimensional (Mexico: Joaquín Mortiz, 1968). Published in English by Beacon Press, Boston, 1964.

3. Dominicé and Darcy, IDAC Document #5, p. 28. See note 49 in Section 1.

4. Illich, History of Needs, pp. 10-13.

5. This was the origin of Project D.A.R.E. See note 13 in Section 4.

6. David Reed, Education for Building a People's Movement (Boston: South End Press, 1981), p. 13.

7. Letter from David Reed, dated August 3, 1983.

8. Alvin Gouldner in The Future of Intellectuals and the Rise of the New Class mentions that the cultural new class includes an "academic proletariat." I wonder if the gap I describe between the grassroots people and the academicians reflects this situation. Even though working at the grassroots, most project directors in IRCEL were college-educated people.

9. This was, in my opinion, another manifestation of the non-directive approach we sought.

10. The second -- and last -- was the IRCEL Conference described in the notes of the previous section.

11. There was no dialogue, but question and answer sessions. The program did not provide participants with time to discuss what they were doing. Proceedings seemed too "theoretical," demanding from Freire answers to problems specific to the United States context. The group was too large for a participatory approach.

12. A summary of what transpired in Vermont was provided in Educación Liberadora, April-May, 1981.

13. Ira Shor, Critical Teaching and Everyday Life (Boston: South End Press, 1980).

14. Thomas W. Heaney, "Adult Learning and Empowerment: Toward a Theory of Liberating Education" (Chicago, 1980).

15. The idea of a class suicide applies to more than one situation, as Ira helps us see.

16. Shor, Critical Teaching, p. xiv.

17. Heaney, Adult Learning, p. 2.

18. There is a considerable amount of literature on participatory research. For a good introduction to the subject, see Folke Dubell, ed., Research for the People. Research by the People. Selected Papers from the International Forum on Participatory Research in Ljubljana, Yugoslavia, 1980 Sweden: Linköping University Department of Education, 1981).

19. Shor, Critical Teaching, p. 269.

20. Ibid.

21. Heaney, Adult Learning, p. 12.

22. Shor, Critical Teaching, p. 47.

23. Ibid., pp. 47-87.

24. Thinking-for-survival may not be "revolutionary," but it is certainly critical. It is a different manner from that of the "haves" or the "have some, want mores" in Alinsky's terms. We must be careful with our elitist view of "critical thinking" as a synonym for "the manner in which we think (or would like to think)."

25. Heaney, Adult Learning, p. 53.

26. The summary to be presented in the next pages was excerpted for the 1981 IRCEL Conference, and distributed as a hand-out, with Tom Heaney's consent.

27. The value of the immediate problems and concerns of the learners we work with is perhaps the most ignored issue in our theory and practice.

28. Coupled with our lack of serious reflection on the issues I am raising in this essay.

29. Heaney, Adult Learning, p. 136. The very fact that the statements I have emphasized must be stated, points at the elitist nature of our endeavor.

30. Heaney, Adult Learning, p. 23.

31. Ibid., p. 32.