An education without the notion of politics can be self-defeating in the long run.
The exercise of education is a force for change. It has the potential to promote solidarity, justice, and democracy, among other fundamental social values, but for that to happen, it needs to be aware of its political nature.
The traditional way we envision education is not keen on this idea. The conventional point of view argues that the educational process must be apolitical to be free from outside interests. Those who support this idea are just trying to keep education non-partisan but fail to understand that political and partisan are different things, and the quality of education suffers for it.
Education, according to Freire
Pablo Freire, arguably the most influential education philosopher of the twentieth century, had a very particular way to address the political nature of education. Freire argued that far from providing children and youth with education without political prejudice, by avoiding the issue entirely, they were denied the opportunity to learn about the mechanisms that oppress and maintain a specific sector in power.
“Systematic education reflects the interests of those who hold power, and an educational system cannot be radically changed if there’s no global transformation of society first.”
Freire adds that it would be naive to think that the ruling classes would implement an educational philosophy that works against their hegemony. So instead, education becomes the resource to maintain order and enforce the idea of respect for authority.
Civility, respect, and recognition of social hierarchies are fundamental to function in an organized society. But what happens if we only teach these values, leaving apart the critical sense that people need to be aware of their political environment and how it affects them?
Thus structures are formed based on vertical leadership, which feeds apathy and passiveness into society, susceptible to the establishment of an insufficient political class, in the best case, or dictatorships in the worst.
Students need guidance as well as a voice
For Henry Giroux, a scholar, cultural critic and one of the founders of critical pedagogy, education is all about giving people agency. Educational methods should make way for narratives that expand the students’ perspective and understanding of themselves, their relation to others, and their place in the world.
Both Freire and Giroux favor an educational approach as democratic as we want or governments to be.
“When you put the children in a row of seats and tell them they can’t talk, and they should listen only to the teacher, the hidden curriculum that is transmitted is that they don’t have the right to speak, that they don’t have a right to be part of their own educational process."
To counter the effect of a neutral education, lacking the necessary political notions, Giroux recommends starting simple. Little changes, like arranging the classroom for the students to sit in a circle instead of rows, promotes dialogue and participation over blind obedience. An evaluation system that considers skills and learning over tests and numeric grading values could open a path to a more active and conscious approach in education.
For this, teachers must try a less vertical approach in their role as educators, aiming to teach students to think and not only to obey. Social awareness, social responsibility, and critical thinking start in the classroom if teachers choose to nurture those skills.
Education cannot be separated from its social and political role. Under this context, education can be many things: a tool to keep the status quo, a changing force, an equalizer, or a mechanism for discovery. But it is always one of these things; it can never be neutral.
Our job as educators is to question which of these scenarios we are leaning towards and why. If students are the future, teachers are the ones who shape it. To be neutral is to allow a system outside the essential purpose of education, to decide for us how this future will be.