Finding voice in celebration of justice
EDFD 554/Dr. Jeremy Price
In “the shadow of silent majorities,” then, as teachers learning along with those we try to provoke to learn, we may be able to inspire hitherto unheard voices. We may be able to empower people to rediscover their own memories and articulate them in the presence of others, whose space they can share. Such a project demands the capacity to unveil and disclose. It demands the exercise of imagination, enlivened by works of art, by situations of speaking and making. Perhaps we can at last devise reflective communities in the interstices of colleges and schools. Perhaps we can invent ways of freeing people to feel and express indignation, to break through the opaqueness, to refuse the silences. We need to teach in such a way as to arouse passion now and then; we need a new camaraderie, a new en masse. These are dark and shadowed times, and we need to live them, standing before one another, open to the world.
Maxine Greene (1978) speaks of freeing the voices of the “silent majorities” in order to save the fading integrity of the democracy in which we currently live. In her essay, “In search of a Critical Pedagogy,” Greene argues that the “unwarranted inequities, shattered communities, unfulfilled lives” (97) that pervade our world can be drastically lessened with a critical education and a liberatory pedagogy that awakens the oppressed to the need for action in the name of possibility. She asks, “How can we communicate the importance of opening spaces in the imagination where persons can reach beyond where they are?” (Greene, 1978, p. 100). In this paper, I attempt to answer this critical question by exploring the notion of voice, a concept of individual achievement in which one discovers an intuitive place from which to speak for oneself – a place that is freed from the oppressive forces of powerful people and institutions that attempt to manipulate and control us. In achieving voice, we also earn our own agency to create change for our own lives and for our communities which have become long dormant and stagnant. Voice opens the spaces to which Greene refers, where possibility prevails and progress made.
Critical pedagogue Peter McClaren (1998) poses an interesting metaphor in contemplating why these spaces have been absent from our democracy. He says, “We have turned into disembodied repositories of reformist visions, shelved in moments of cynical despair, rather than active agents of new communities of risk and resistance.” (4) Our students have, according to McClaren, “inherited an age in which liberty and democracy are in retreat . . . and the resulting prescriptions for school reform are severely restricted.” (5) There is strong urgency, then, to begin redeveloping our ideologies in light of reshaping a school system which is not only over one hundred years old, but also so clearly does not nearly meet the needs of our students, communities, or society. The band aid approach we use to organize kids and teachers in our schools needs complete reinvention. For these reasons, education reform must be driven by a much broader vision than it has been in recent years, which is why I am interested in exploring the role of individual student voice and what this notion means in the construction of our communities, our schools and our classrooms.
What is voice?
The idea of student voice is an increasingly common neologism that, by formal academic definition, encapsulates the spirit of youth voice in the context of schools. Whether expressed in the course of learning, the process of decision-making, or the passion of self-advocacy, student voice acknowledges the unique position of the learner as an informed, active contributor in teaching, learning, and leadership throughout his own growth and education. (Wikipedia) In the context of this paper, though, I posit voice as a liberatory achievement concept, where an individual who possesses it is ultimately connected with an inner intuition that speaks his truth from a very grounded place within. This truth, although different for each individual, is real, insofar as it allows that individual to understand his own historicity in relationship to his past, in ownership of the present, and in control of his future. Similarly, it allows one to see his relationship and his obligation to others and to the world – not just the direct space one inhabits, but to humanity in general. In this sense, I argue voice is personal power because it frees us from the many oppressive forces that attempt to take our power and agency away from us. This very selfish, “take all” mentality has saturated our society, fostering a sense of entitlement in lieu of achievement, which ultimately prohibits any chances of individual and subsequent societal progress. In achieving voice, a realm of endless possibility opens for an enlightened individual who begins to work toward ending other inequities, rebuilding communities, and fulfilling lives.
My experience with personal power as a student
In high school, I had none. I was, or at least I believed I was completely without power. But it’s a tale as old as time: the kid who didn’t quite fit in. I was overweight and remember going to the Gap and not being able to buy a pair of jeans that were height/weight proportionate for my size. I was an average student with Bs and Cs in college-preparatory classes. I was close with many of the teachers though, because teaching as a profession had never fluttered from the top of my list of career aspirations. With embarrassment, I can admit that I “played school” in my basement—by myself—until I was well into my teens. I did not run with the popular kids, and the only reason I found myself comfortable looking in their directions was because my twin sister, Christine, was one of them. Yet I was so different. I so wanted to be the popular kid, the jock – because that is who received the positive attention from teachers, parents, and other kids. Everyone wants to be cool. That image was the ideal and I knew how far I was from it. On top of it, I had always known I was gay, but as my peers became more and more comfortable expressing their hetero-sexualities, I became increasingly distanced and silenced. It was certainly hard being called a “fag” knowing that I was one and feeling no personal power to make myself heard. Ultimately, there was never any place for my reality within our common ideology. As my voice was increasingly silenced, I moved further from my core intuition, because I was taught to believe that what I had to say and how I felt mattered little in light of the popular approach. There was less and less possibility for change because like all successful oppressors, they took that ideology away with my voice.
Because of my poor body image, my suppressed sexuality, and my subsequent fears of taking control, my self-esteem was nil to none. My modus operandi was to lay-low throughout most of my schooling, unless I was in the less-prestigious areas that allowed me to flourish: It was with the Drama Club, the French Club, and the Marching Band that I became an over-achiever – the groups that hold little clout in a hetero masculine world. For these reasons, I grew up never feeling adequate. I always felt that who I was and what I had to say never mattered. I retreated. I was very passive-aggressive with those in my life because I was depressed, suppressed, and oppressed – yet those feelings were all I knew.
Experiencing my older brother’s suicide when I was a young teen made me wonder how one is capable of taking his own life. I knew that I, personally, never thought to hurt myself, but there were certainly dark enough days where I felt worthless. Emotionally and spiritually, I was far from feeling whole. Although I was withholding much of who I was for the sake of what I thought “society” expected of a young, upper-middle class white guy, I knew my family loved me unconditionally, which I realize put me yards beyond those without familial support. But I didn’t love myself and herein lied the problem. I had no voice. I saw no possibilities. I had no power.
And then my experience as the teacher
Finally on the other side of the desk! Having my own class room—with real high school students—was finally a reality I had always dreamed of. By this point, I was closer to discovering my voice, but still had much more development in store. It was interesting to see students interact with each other, though it felt as if not much had changed since I had been in their shoes. Clearly the same politics of popularity existed. What I quickly learned was that some teachers were as eager for popularity as students because this popularity provides privilege. This inherent part of school culture is perhaps what silences many of the oppressed voices within its walls.
That year I was slated to teach American Literature, and like many first year teachers, had to read the selections and learn the material as I was teaching it. I took a historical route – and began the semester with Puritan literature, written by our nation’s founders, who came to this new world first and foremost because they felt their voices were not being heard in England. In lieu of remaining victims, they made themselves agents of their own change. What I noticed as we continued reading through the cannon was a pattern of silenced voices who found solace in writing – John Smith, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Emily Dickinson, Kate Chopin, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Langston Hughes, Ralph Ellison, Arthur Miller, and many others. These voices were liberated through their pens and each in different ways created spaces for individualism and for thinking for oneself in order to create one’s own meanings with the world. These themes are crucial for developing teenagers.
As we progressed, a unit on Romanticism and Transcendentalism was particularly difficult to get through, because the students had difficulty understanding these intangible concepts that both schools of thought pose: namely that following intuition will lead to fulfillment and happiness. The movement stressed strong emotion, legitimized the individual imagination as a critical authority (which permitted freedom within), and overturned some previous social conventions that were oppressive. To illustrate these concepts, I showed Dead Poet’s Society, (1989) a film in which an inspiring teacher shows students the importance of discovering their own voices in lieu of the voices that authority and popular convention try to impose. One young man in the film, Neil, goes so far as to take his own life, because his father was applying so much pressure on him to become a doctor and couldn’t see his son’s true happiness lied on stage as an actor. It simply was not within his father’s ability to see an alternate possibility for his son: he had to be a doctor because it was the more prestigious profession for a white, upper middle class young man to join. Hegemonic conventions dictate that so.
The film symbolized the power of intuition insofar as it demonstrated a recurring tenet for romantics: following one’s instinct over popular convention often yields true happiness. It is a liberating moment of self discovery, which is why I make the extension that true happiness is a reward of the discovery of one’s voice. Furthermore, when one has this core connection, one can contribute to the greater good of society. What is so powerful is that the film shows that when one’s voice is oppressed enough over time, it takes lives – even when the taking is one’s own. The alternative to live in the shadows of another’s desire.
It just so happened that close to this time, Matthew Sheppard was brutally murdered for being gay. To commemorate this and other hate crimes, MTV produced a “black out,” where for twenty-four hours they halted production and only posted hate crime stories across the screen. To provide closure on this lesson, I showed a portion of this programming for a full 90-minute block to my students. Never before was my class room silent for a full period. As the lights came up, I saw bright and teary eyes on their faces.
“Is this the world we wish to live in,” I asked? A resounding majority of the students shouted out a verbal, “No.” One student replied how sad it is to realize that people take lives based on difference, especially when that difference is not fully understood by the taker before it is too late.
I then asked, “How does what we’ve been studying this semester relate to the oppressive nature of our society today?” After some prodding to have them recollect the themes of the course, I saw the students “get it.” This was a true learning moment.
“There are people who feel power in taking our voices away,” one said. “Because it makes them feel better about themselves,” another added. We explored these notions of dysfunction and greed by locating ways in which was present in our community, in our school, and in our very class room. “Sometimes we make people feel that what they have to say doesn’t matter,” I said. which pushes them further away from listening to their voices, their intuitions, and their cores.” A conversation followed about how we can be more inclusive to hearing and learning from each others’ different voices, and that listening to these perspectives will give us new ideas to ponder, possibly changing our own opinions on the world. At this moment, my students learned something very important about the way the world works.
I saw some students responding with physical discomfort and I could not help but remember my own experience in high school and how I might have felt differently if my teachers brought these ideas into the curriculum as a strategy for societal change. If localized oppression is addressed and dismantled at a class room level, we might save the lives of some young people – both those silenced and the ones doing the silencing. We have the power as educators to change the world in this regard and by adopting a critical pedagogy, we might just be able to do so. (Greene, Freire, bell hooks)
My interest in exploring this notion in terms of education stems not only from this incredible teaching moment, but also from my own life experience as I described earlier. This sense of not belonging for high school students is extremely high. (McLaren) The inequalities in school culture and our wider society have a direct link between culture, power, hegemony and ideology. Clearly, I know what it feels like to have no voice because I lived a quarter of a century feeling so powerless and living life with no possibilities. And only recently – within the past four years or so – I have discovered my own voice. No one taught me how to find it, although it would have been easier if they had. Instead, was an achievement-process of self-discovery that led me to this transcendence. But I argue, why not make schooling a process that develops this achievement from a very early age? Why not make public schools an institution that society would mirror in a praxis for social change? We would live in a much happier, healthier world if we are all taught to know how we feel intuitively and that what we have to say actually matters. This power leads to true learning and true learning leads to democratic progress. It took me twenty-five years to free these chains and discover how powerful I am in creating my own possibilities. Some people never have this liberation of voice.
Wouldn’t reinventing our public schools “provide an exciting opportunity to use our often forgotten power to create imaginary worlds, share theories, and act out possibilities” as Deborah Meier argues? “This time not just on the playground but in all the varied public arenas in which we meet with our fellow citizens.” (Meier, 2002, 11) Quite possibly – with an institution as large and as impacting as public schooling, we can create a long overdue praxis that could possibly reinvent our ideologies and philosophies to finally do what our democracy has declared its mission: to bring liberty and justice to all.
The possibility of a new pedagogy
Granted, imagining the possibility of reinventing schools to focus more on the development of the “whole child” in discovering her intuitive voice might be difficult to do, but this difficulty comes only because it is how we have been trained to think: with limits, guidelines, with parents who prohibit us from acting when we are literally dying to do so. We as a people have little capacity to look at things as if it could be otherwise. (Greene, 1986) This hegemonic way of not questioning what deserves to be questioned must be replaced with a more inquisitive one.
Paulo Friere, (1989) a thinker who reawakened themes of a tradition regarding new possibilities dating back to Plato, argues that we need to begin by recognizing our “unfinishedness” and learn to put ourselves on a “constant search” of our individual voices. This voice becomes, like our education itself, a permanent yet extremely momentous process of discovery. True learning comes from a result of that movement insofar as it occurs in the exploration of individual curiosities. Here, we become conscious of ourselves as not just objects but active and informed subjects in the construction of our own knowledge. This presence comes from what romantics would call a transcendence to a higher place: a place of admiration and respect for individual selves, with a stronger understanding of our individual places in this world and our relationships to others’. It is here that we find inner trust and inner instinct which leads to true voice. It is in acknowledging and exploring our historicities, then, that we can become the empowering force in freeing our own voices from boundless oppression that attempts to immobilize us from being free – true – real. It is no wonder then that we live in a world of false realities. If only schools, as an institution, would make this empowerment of voice a core part of its mission, with focus on content secondary, we might live in a world full of more love, respect, order, justice, and moral goodness. Finally we would be an educated people and this institutional transcendence would mark true progress. But first, on a very philosophical level, we must open ourselves up to the possibility of this change in ourselves and our identities to and with the world in which we live.
McClaren argues that teachers must first make strides to understand the ideological dimensions of their students’ experiences, so that they can in turn give meaning to the different voices that constitute their class rooms. “Failure in this will not only prevent teachers from tapping into the drives, emotions, and interests that give students their own unique voice, but will also make it difficult to provide the momentum for learning itself,” he says to suggest how crucial it is that teachers understand how all classroom discourse is situated historically and mediated culturally for each individual student. (218) This is an enormous task for a critical educator to be responsible for the histories of each student, but clearly important in creating a class room of true learning experiences.
An Achievement Concept
Starting with the individual, much of the literature points first to the importance of being open to the possibilities surrounding the development of a whole, creative self. I think it is nearly impossible to inculcate the collective values of “personhood and freedom” as Philosopher Eliot Deutsch says, without first being present to one’s own person and one’s own freedom which takes time, patience, and guidance. The goal might be to achieve an actual transcendence to a place of ultimate empowerment and ownership of oneself. But what is it that we actually own in this sense? And can we work towards this ownership as part of one’s “constant search” in education?
I agree with Deutsch insofar as ownership here can not be defined literally in terms of mere possession, but instead in abounding “rich metaphoric possibilities.” (Deutsch 76) In this sense, I posit that we own all that for which we are responsible. Furthermore, we are responsible for what we understand, and that we understand that which we have constructed or reconstructed ourselves, whereas we become the subject of that inquiry, not merely an object in the learning process. Therefore, our voice becomes the medium for writing and living our own histories – our own realities – as democratic participants of a greater good. In discovering our individual intuitions, we become clear as to what it is that makes us feel good, and with this discovery, we become agents of our own lives with clear understanding of our relationships to others, and our world.
The individual who recognizes and owns his present history achieves a “creative morality.” It is through his own agency that he sees his choices or judgments in relationship first to his own self and then to his community to which he sees himself a necessary contributor. He who exudes such creative morality is no longer greedy; he does not put himself before or at the risk of hurting his community, but instead in unity with them, ready for “moral judgment, for such judgment is an acknowledgment of his personhood and freedom.” (Deutsch 258) Here, understanding and humanity prevail.
In looking at my own judgments where I have been tested myself as a moral actor, I am able to lob them into one of two categories: pre-transcendence (my first twenty-five years) and post-transcendence (my last few years…) to this freeing of my voice. Prior to being able to be present in and ultimately own my own actions and experiences, I would make judgments or choices that had ulterior motives, meaning motives contrary to progressing the actual situation at hand. Like most people who live dysfunctionally, I would judge others in order to make myself feel better about myself. What a horrible realization, but a true reality for many people who live as victims in their world as opposed to agents of their own change. In this bad place, I would make assumptions about others, as they were making assumptions about me. Making such assumptions creates a false reality.
Pre-transcendence was a time of blindness insofar as I did not know why I felt what I felt in certain situations, or why how I felt was not ultimately ethical or moral in terms of what I know is right, good, and just. Or why how I felt was different from how “they” wanted me to feel. Essentially, I did not see my role as the subject in the “representation” as an agent of change. Instead, I was a mask-wearer and victim like everyone else around me, telling stories about the story about the story, without realizing how “value-laden” (Deutsch 257) reality becomes by moving it through so many affected layers. The judgment then is not true to the experience itself, but in the representation of the experience in however many degrees it has traveled. It is manipulated and again, not real.
Furthermore, creative morality involves action and involvement in the situation to be judged – a participant and not a spectator according to Deutsch. We live in a world that is so quick to judge anything – everything – by simply sitting on the couch and watching it on television, or hearing it from a man behind the pulpit on a Sunday — not realizing how many layers by which it has already been molded or how many agendas that have tainted it. Without being embedded in the action of that experience directly, we do not have a right to qualify it. “No action is good in itself apart from the conditions and circumstances of its concrete performance (Deutsch 263) because moral actions are not universal. With a transcendence to this realization one learns how to live in the present, and here, “one comprehends the total situation one is involved in; one is spontaneous insofar as one is creative in one’s response to it.” (Deutsch 266) This creativity brings an ability to adapt to change, which a crucial element of the achievement.
Schooling for Voice
McClaren writes of a moral choice we have as we think about the reconstructing of our school system:
“a choice that American philosopher John Dewey suggested is the distinction between education as a function of society and society as a function of education. We need to examine that choice: Do we want our schools to create passive, risk free citizenry, or a politicized citizenry capable of fighting for various forms of public life and informed by a concern for equality and social justice? Do we want to accommodate students to the existing social order by making them merely functional with in it or do we want to make students uncomfortable in a society that exploits workers, that demonizes people of color, that abuses women, that privileges the rich, that commits acts of imperialist aggression against other countries, that colonizes the spirit and wrings the national soul clean of a collective social consciousness. Or do we want to create spaces of freedom in our classrooms and invite students to become agents of transformation and hope? I trust we do.” (McClaren 162)
“Creating spaces of freedom in our classrooms” means acknowledging different voices and creating teachable moments from the diverse historicities of the students. First, we need to eliminate the fear many people have in embracing differences. As bell hooks says, “Silencing enforced by bourgeois values is sanctioned in the class room by everyone” (144) which suggests the responsibility we all have to create a consciousness regarding these sanctions in order to work towards lifting them. Their elimination is important, for when individual voices achieve strength and confidence, there is a surge in the collective energy which yields true learning experiences. Furthermore, with this achievement, there is finally understanding and ownership of reality and with this ownership comes moral responsibility towards living with order in the promotion of justice. Here, we become present. We begin treating others the way they ought to be treated. We begin to value the worth of a good education. Rites of passage become rites of personal responsibility and achievement. We are liberated.
This liberation is necessary for both individual and communal growth. Greene summarized three predicaments confronting the educator: “the temptations of malefic generosity, the distancing by means of language from the culture of everyday life, and the implicitly revolutionary meaning of praxis, no matter what the context or the frame” (Greene, 1979 p 100). Dewey wrote that democracy “will have its consummation when free social inquiry is indissolubly wedded to the art of full and moving communication” (Dewey, 1978, p 77). bell hooks says that “the fruit of education is the activation of the utmost center” (Hooks, 1994, p 199). I propose, then, to teach virtue, we make a move to really develop the cores of each individual to the extent that the false reality we have created is replaced. While schooling will be part of this praxis, it cannot be the only institution to model the behaviors necessary for a surge in the energy. There needs to be a revival of community, so that what is being taught in schools is reinforced outside of them.
“The person who appropriates his or her experience and the terms of his or her individuality is the same person who creatively comes forth” (Deutsch 75) and in doing so, “inhabits a world with which it is in constant negotiation and becomes, so to speak, that world insofar as it is in a continual process of engagement with it.” (Deutsch 79) This appropriation transcends one to a higher self – where emotions like jealousy, anger, resentment, and ultimately victimization are replaced with an empowered control of the present to feel whatever one desires. Naturally, these feelings come from a higher self where goodness reigns. Deutsch calls this the “mature consciousness.” (80) Another Philosopher, Anthony Appiah calls it a “construction of self.” (107) I call it ownership of voice.
When one is in ownership of how one feels and what one thinks, he is a true teacher. Plato would call this virtue and Dewey would call this a naturally, self-inflicted methodology. While it does not matter to what methodology one’s direction leads, it does remain necessary that one recognize his intuition and follow it. Forget the emphasis we place on academic success. Whereas these skills are important, they are not the only or even best mediums we can use to develop one’s voice yet we place such emphasis on them. Instead, we should strive for constant growth, movement, electric energy. It is at these junctures of realization where we are really ready for the next chapter or lesson or discovery because we have experienced true growth and true love and true reward. It is here where our intuitive feelings are confirmed and our passions are livened. It is here were we are really alive and we can express, in whichever way we feel most directed, gratitude for that gift. It is here that we can become active participants of our own democracy which clearly needs our participation now more than ever.
I have been interested in this notion of voice for some time now. In one way or another, it keeps surfacing in my life, starting with my own experience in high school as a student who felt silenced by those who held power over me. These individuals, groups, and institutions that silenced my voice also took with them any sense of positive self-identity from me and at a very sensitive time during my development. For these reasons, I am interested in continuing to research the complexity of identity construction for school aged kids, and at the ways in which the culture of schooling (i.e. popularity meaning privilege) enables certain students and disables others from achieving voice.
My thinking on this topic will be pushed next semester as I embark on an independent study. I am going to read Ken Gergen’s The Saturated Self, some of Michele Fine, Iris Young, and others (I am currently working on a bibliography). I also hope to engage in some Action Research that will enable me to use real data in showing how and why students are either enable or disabled in achieving this very important phenomenon called voice.
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