Community Letters: Andragogy

Dear friends,

I hope you are enjoying the beauty of the sky, soil and sun that connects us, wherever we be. I like to start off our semester's dialogue with what I call a community letter, a letter addressed to all who are in my advising group. Since this is the first one, I'd like to focus on learning and knowing; or in fancy words, pedagogy and andragogy, epistemology, and some thoughts on the philosophy of informal and social learning. But first...the image above is from a photo I took a couple years ago at Goddard in Plainfield, Skyping with my younger son, Mica, and his friend, Owen. They were playing with a magnifying glass, perhaps a bit abashed about being on camera. And Mica was rather nonverbal, more so with his friend next to him. We live in such a spectacle society, and sometimes it feels like slick, mediated, reconstructed images of who we're supposed to be overwhelm the possibilities of the “I” who wants to be seen. This image reminds me to have fun, to play trickster with what gets thrown at us and flip it around. (See Mica's wink?)

I value collaborative learning and intend for these letters to contribute to our sense of collectivity. They remind us that the intimacy of the relationships between advisor and advisee unfolds within a broader community, a learning community that we began to co-construct a month ago at residency, through our warm conversations in front of the commons fireplace, outside the coffee shop, and in the Schoolhouse. (Thank you to Joy, who re-imagined in her letter, a moment like this in Port Townsend). I like to remind us that we need to continually stir the coals to keep alive the flames, as the residency grows more and more distant in time.

Geographic distance is such a big challenge for us at Goddard, and the challenge is exponentially magnified with the explosion of mediated forms of communication. When I first began my modest experiments with film and video years ago, we used to cut physical strips of film and hang them in bins. People still wrote letters to each other, inscribing their love and affection through pen and ink as they imagined the receiver sitting at their dining room table reading their words; and then folding the paper and slipping it into an envelope as they saw in their mind the letter being touched and opened. These letters we send back and forth can recall those times--the venerable kitchen table conversation, the epistolary dialogue. These letters can be a form of experiential learning. This is our way of approaching what Paolo Freire called “informal education.”

You've probably heard our pedagogy described as “progressive pedagogy.” Both those words kind of bother me, now.

“Progressive” is too steeped in the modernist (and settler culture's) assumption that progress is inherently good. I’ve learned more about the early history of Rhode Island in my studies; European notions of progress certainly did not work in the favor of the Algonquian people who were dispossessed of their land. And the word, “pedagogy,” as derives from the Greek word "paid," meaning child and the word "agogos," which means leading. “Thus, pedagogy has been defined as the art and science of teaching children.” The on-line etymology dictionary interpret the latin roots to mean “education, attention on boys.” So I've tried using “andragogy”; but that's an ugly word, isn't it? We might follow on bell hooks, who writes in Teaching Community: a Pedagogy of Hope, that teaching requires love, and that “Love that can bridge a sense of otherness.”

I can embrace that kind of pedagogy. For me, the practice of teaching sits very closely with the practice of compassion, and that sense of mutuality and caring is missing from any of these words, pedagogy, andragogy, constructivist education. Let's see teachers and learners as dance partners; sometimes we switch roles; always we learn with each other.

Paolo Freire wrote about informal education, in Pedagogy of the Oppressed, “This pedagogy makes oppression and its causes objects of reflection by the oppressed, and from that reflection will come their necessary engagement in the struggle for their liberation...Only as they [the oppressed] discover themselves to be ‘hosts’ of the  oppressor can they contribute to the midwifery of their liberating pedagogy. As long as they live in the duality in which to be is to be like, and to be like is to be like the oppressor, this contribution is impossible. The pedagogy of the oppressed is an instrument for their critical discovery that both they and their oppressors are manifestations of dehumanization. Liberation is thus a childbirth, and a painful one.”

A real downer, eh? I think this is about internalized oppression, about how living in a system of oppression, we all absorb the patterns of behavior that divide the haves from the have nots. Freire’s model of education is grounded in the intention to create the conditions for reflexive practice—for critical reflection on one’s place in systems of oppression. As an educator, I “grew up” on Freire. Now see fissures in this attachment to the framework of oppression. On the one hand, it's empowering to see learning as an act of liberation, and teachers as midwives. But on the other, the binary of oppressor-oppressed is not so fixed or so easy to identify. I think about my family history; in Taiwan, we were both colonizers and colonized—colonizers of the Yami people, colonized by the Japanese. My parents are now telling the stories of how they were prohibited to speak Taiwanese as school children. What forms of learning can bridge this sense of otherness, and midwife a commitment to the resilience and spiritual well-being of all beings?

Now I want to share a bit of poetry. I've been studying postcolonial ecocriticism...making my way towards a “decolonial aesthetics.” Poetry by Derek Walcott is helping me find my way there through the beauty of language. Reading this with my advisor today, she pointed out how he flips the images of soft “ruffling” and “tawny pelt” with sharp “batten” and “corpses” and “carrion.” It's best to read this out loud, so you can enjoy the shifts in sound. And read it twice.


A Far Cry From Africa

A wind is ruffling the tawny pelt
Of Africa,
Kikuyu, quick as flies,
Batten upon the bloodstreams of the veldt.
Corpses are scattered through a paradise.
Only the worm, colonel of carrion, cries:
“Waste no compassion on these separate dead!”
Statistics justify and scholars seize
The salients of colonial policy.
What is that to the white child hacked in bed?
To savages, expendable as Jews?
Threshed out by beaters, the long rushes break
In a white dust of ibises whose cries
Have wheeled since civilizations dawn
From the parched river or beast-teeming plain.
The violence of beast on beast is read
As natural law, but upright man
Seeks his divinity by inflicting pain.
Delirious as these worried beasts, his wars
Dance to the tightened carcass of a drum,
While he calls courage still that native dread
Of the white peace contracted by the dead.
Again brutish necessity wipes its hands
Upon the napkin of a dirty cause, again
A waste of our compassion, as with Spain,
The gorilla wrestles with the superman.
I who am poisoned with the blood of both,
Where shall I turn, divided to the vein?
I who have cursed
The drunken officer of British rule, how choose
Between this Africa and the English tongue I love?
Betray them both, or give back what they give?
How can I face such slaughter and be cool?
How can I turn from Africa and live?

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Derek Walcott was born in the West Indies in Saint Lucia, an ex-British colony. The violence and trauma are vividly painted, yet the questions he ends with, “how choose/ Between this Africa and the English tongue I love?” brings us back to the softness of ruffling winds. I deeply respect the way this poem speaks to his mixed lineage, and the impossible choices those of mixed race (and aren't we all?) are asked to make. What do you hear in his words? How does your heart answer his questions? I invite you to respond in poetry, song, dance, or image.

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