Remarks delivered in accepting the Atkins Library Faculty Engagement Award, September 17, 2015
Thank you very much. Thank you to the Dean of the Library, Anne Cooper-Moore, thank you Interim Dean Jay Raja, and, of course, Librarian, Stephanie Otis. And, thank you everyone for coming out to celebrate today.
I am very excited about this award because it formally acknowledges the value of education for critical consciousness. Often when we give awards we recognize a major corporation or a big bank. This time, we recognize something much more important to a research institution, one of the most valuable assets to the university and to the citizens of North Carolina. Today, we recognize the central importance of a great library, of books—Hooray for books!!!– and other sources of information and knowledge. We recognize authors and readers and, of course, we recognize great librarians.
This project started about three years ago, when I was looking for a partner to see what we could do for students who were struggling in senior seminar where they have to write a big research paper, and I was very lucky that Stephanie Otis agreed to work with me. Lucky because Stephanie is a wonderful partner who shares a vision and has been flexible and innovative and willing to go much farther than the extra mile to make that vision a reality. But this is also part of a much bigger project. For me, it is one that probably started three decades ago when I first began teaching. But, of course, the work of education for critical thinking has a much longer history.
Much of the inspiration for this project comes from the writings of the great Brazilian educator Paulo Freire, who taught us that education is not just about transferring information. Education, he said, either functions “as an instrument … to facilitate integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity or it becomes the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world” (Freire 1986 (1968)).
The practice of freedom? The transformation of their world? That may sound a little fluffy, but it’s actually very serious business—thinking critically and creatively is hard work. Teaching students to move away from learned patterns of behavior is tough—no, this is not about pleasing the teacher. It is not about guessing the correct answer. It is NOT about doing as you are told. It is about what Hannah Arendt called “thinking and judging,” which she said should be “distinguished from having correct information and scientific knowledge, (it) is a complicated process which never produces unequivocal results.” This is what Reading is Research is about, “It is an unending activity by which, in constant change and variation, we come to terms with and reconcile ourselves to reality, that is, try to be at home in the world” (Beiner 1992 (1982))
For Arendt “thinking and judging” might be the only tools we have for preventing some of the greatest horrors the world has known(Arendt 1963, 1971, 1994 (1954)). Arendt and other critical scholars of her generation were thinking about the horrors of fascism, they were reflecting on Nazi Europe and on what happens when people stop thinking and just do their jobs, just follow orders, or simply implement very “rational calculations” without considering the outcomes—that’s dangerous!
Here, now, in the U.S., we might not worry so much about the seeds of fascism sprouting on our soil. In our post-economic crisis economy we worry much more about the mundane practical issues of everyday life. We have turned our attention to more pressing problems about paying our own mortgages and keeping our jobs; about how to prepare young people for the challenges they will face in a changing economy. We worry that young people will not find jobs, or that they will not be competitive in the global marketplace. It is precisely this shift in focus that requires us to pause and think again, to think and judge with Hannah Arendt, to consider the Hidden Curriculum that Michael Apple(Apple 1982) taught us about, and to turn to Paulo Freire for direction(Freire 2001).
Today’s pundits, politicians, and educators debate the efficiency of our education system. Educators are judged on “student learning outcomes” which are measured in test scores and jobs upon graduation. Administrators’ eyes are glued to the numbers. How many students graduate? How many find jobs? Do they find well-paying jobs? Are our students as well prepared for the demands of our high-tech economy as students in China? Paulo Friere calls this market-driven education and explains how it works to maintain and widen income gaps, keeping poor people in poverty as the “rich get richer and the poor get prison”(Reiman 2007 (1979) ).
Of course we want our students to do well. But more importantly, we want them to do good, to do good in the world. And Freire was hopeful. Education for critical consciousness can make a difference. This project, “Reading is Research,” sometimes seems like tossing a pebble into the ocean, but the ripples have already begun. Faculty in my department (Global, International, and Area Studies) and across the university are implementing some of the tools we’ve developed and others are devising their own based on ideas generated through this project. But more importantly, we know the value of this work when we see the glimmer in the eyes of students who have taken part in this project, the excitement as they understand and come to own abstract concepts and find the confidence to ask informed questions—the questions they think matter—and begin to find answers. So, thank you, to all those who partake in this work and congratulations to us all!
Apple, Michael W. 1982. Cultural And Economic Reproduction in Education. Boston: Routledge, Kegan and Paul.
Arendt, Hannah. 1963. Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. New York: Penguin Books.
Arendt, Hannah. 1971. The Life of the Mind: Volume One Thinking. New York and London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
Arendt, Hannah. 1994 (1954). “Understanding and Politics (The Difficulties of Understanding).” In Arendt: Essays in Understanding 1930-1954, edited by Jerome Kohn, 307-327. New York: Harcourt Brace. Original edition, Understanding and Politics was origianlly published 1954 in Partisan Review XX/4. Arendt orignally called it “The Difficulties of Understanding”
Beiner, Ronald. 1992 (1982). “Hanah Arendt on Judging.” In Lectures on Kant’s Political Philosophy, edited by Ronald Beiner, 89-156. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Freire, Paulo. 1986 (1968). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Continuum.
Freire, Paulo. 2001. Ethics, Democracy, and Civic Courage. New York: Rowman and Littlefield.
Reiman, Jeffrey. 2007 (1979) The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison: Ideology, Class, and Criminal Justice. Boston: Pearson.