Liberation and Empowerment: The Birth of Dreamscaping

Education is a human right, but education is not a universal form. Education is a choice that gives us choices

I believe that education is a tool of liberation and empowerment.

My first encounter with the field of education outside of my own schooling was in South Sudan. In the years leading up to independence, I saw the hope that education was, and the positive power that it could have. Students would walk for miles to attend school, and many would stay after classes had ended to study on their own. Education was understood by many to be the key to improving not just their lives, but also their country. Age was just a number. Many in my class were in their twenties, well past the “traditional” age of a secondary-level student. I even had one student who was in his forties, seeking that which had been denied to him for so long. Education is a powerful force. Unfortunately, power goes both ways.

As an historian, one is profoundly aware of the characteristics of power – who has it, how it is wielded, and the violence that comes with it. My time teaching in the United States contrasted with my experiences in South Sudan and revealed the awful violence that is in the education system. Not physical violence, per se, but the mental and psychological violence of manipulation, oppression and control.

My experiences in South Sudan engendered the idea that true education is liberating, and I committed myself to working to ensure that all systems of education become constructed as such. I returned to the United States and pursed a teaching certificate in history. I eventually landed an Urban Education Fellowship and spent two years teaching in the Greater New York City area. I would spend these year struggling against an oppressive and violent system, working in “no excuses” charter schools where knowledge-centered curriculum dominated; oppressive school cultures diminished the inquisitiveness and curiosity of students. I found myself working in an environment that embodied the opposite of my own views of what education was supposed to be. In my second year, faced with the paradox of resigning in protest along with my personal attachment to my students, I, along with a few others, chose to stick it out and develop and implement our own curricula. We subverted the oppressive school culture whenever possible through implementing a parallel curriculum and focused our efforts on maintaining personal connections with our students instead of following the strict school policies.

I learned a lot those two years, mostly what one should not do. But I also learned a lot just by observing the curriculum. In my personal education in New Jersey and at Lycoming College (and later on at the University of Pennsylvania), I was taught to reflect, always. However, the schools at which I was working didn’t value reflection, at least not behavioral and cultural reflection. There was no evaluation of the effectiveness of the culture of the school on student performance, both academically and behaviorally. Administrators were more concerned about efficiency and respecting authority. But I held firm in my belief that without reflection there can be no understanding, no dialogue, and no growth. In my personal relationships with students, I actively sought to offer them avenues of reflection through journals and mediated discussions. They, in turn, were extremely receptive of the space to reflect, and often it gave them opportunities to step out of their comfort zones and try new things through a better understanding of themselves. They participated more, and became better public speakers. To deny someone the opportunity to learn how to reflect is to deny a person freedom, and further, in the case of my students, the freedom to be themselves.

I approach my research of education systems very critically, but I am not critical of education itself or of learning

These experiences shaped my view that learning and education should be liberating and empowering, but that the systems that are widely used constrict the liberating aspect of learning and are manipulative, controlling and oppressive. My interest in global educational development begins with understanding the competing interests of education – the learner, striving to discover the world competing with the state (society/culture/political), struggling to define it. Because of my experiences, I approach my research of and work in education systems very critically, but I am not critical of education itself or of learning.

As a historian, I was trained to identify patterns, and when I look at education systems I see patterns of control, oppression and violence. Out of this mindset certain goals and objectives have appeared, and continue to appear as I constantly explore who I am and who we are. At Penn, I dove deeper into the Post-Developmentalist/Post-Modern/Critical and Interpretivist framework and applied it to education through my own lens of experience and understanding. My goal is to deconstruct systems of power that plague educational institutions and I find that these frameworks present a point of access for me. Without discourse, without contextual understanding, without situated knowledges, freedom becomes nothing more than an illusory word. Education is a human right, but education is not a universal form. Education is a choice that gives us choices. And it comes in many different shapes and sizes. I believe that the best types of schools are ones decided on by a community for a community that is constantly immersed in an inclusive dialogue. These frameworks allow for the breakage of systemized education into a more indigenous, intuitive, and localized participatory model. And it is out of this framework that I explored and developed the idea of Dreamscaping.

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