Tag Archives: Paulo Freire

What’s the Story?

“Constitutional democracies are themselves collective works of art accountable for their constructions. And constitutions remain open to performative interventions, obliging citizens to cultivate their creativity and criticism” (104).

-Doris Sommer

The idea that a constitutional democracy is a cultural artifact has a history that the cultural historian Eric Slauter shares in the Introduction to The State as a Work of Art: The Cultural Origins of the Constitution (2009). Sommer’s adds that a constitutional democracy remains open to performative intervention—a reminder of the essential lesson of Emerson’s comment on political institutions, that “they all are imitable, all alterable; we may make as good; we may make better.” For Sommer, though, the point is the inherent obligation for “citizens to cultivate their creativity and criticism” in the open space of a democratic culture.

This week we continue reading of The Work of Art in the World: Civic Agency and the Public Humanities, specifically chapter five, “Play Drive in the Hard Drive: Schiller’s Poetics of Politics.” In chapter four, you will recall, Sommer advocates an “integrated approach to literacy, art, and civics” to develop “personal faculties and collective disposition for democratic life” (112). A productive way to consider the cultural activity you have taken as the subject of your project is to think about it in these terms: That is, what might happen when you think about the cultural activity as pedagogical—as a method of engaging the creative and critical faculties, stimulating the imagination, promoting the freedom to speculate?

Friedrich Schiller’s Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man, Sommer argues, provides a way of seeing the labor of creative work as engaging individuals in making judgments, speculating, exploring, and testing possibilities, “disarming hierarchies through cultural interventions” (149). These interventions, by reformers, artists, educators, citizens, as we talked about last week, disconnect us from routine habits, preconceptions, and expectations.

Another way to think about the cultural activity you have chosen is to think about it as a story or narrative. What’s the story? As the psychologist Jerome Bruner points out in The The Narrative Construction of Reality (1991), narratives are a form of describing and a form of constructing and understanding reality. As Kerrin might remind us, Bruner is a “constructivist,” and indeed his thinking about education may be useful.

Brunner’s thinking is useful for the study of lived experience, as well as for examining ways of being in and ways of knowing the world. Here is Brunner explaining the importance of narrative:

Another domain that must be widely (though roughly) shared for a culture to operate with requisite effectiveness is the domain of social beliefs and procedures—what we think people are like and how they must get on with each other. . . . These are domains that are, in the main, organized narratively. What I have tried to do in this paper is to describe some of the properties of a world of “reality” constructed according to narrative principles. In doing so, I have gone back and forth between describing narrative mental “powers” and the symbolic systems of narrative discourse that make the expression of these powers possible.

To make experience and to describe the world we subjectively construct a story of that experience and the world—both in terms of what it is, and what we think it ought to be. As Paulo Freire explains in Pedagogy of the Oppressed, “To deny the importance of subjectivity in the process of transforming the world and history is naïve and simplistic” (qtd. in Sommer 139). At the same time, cultural narratives determine through discourse stories that help us make sense of our experience. For Sommer, however, creative activities and interpretation must engage individual citizens. “No enlightened masterpiece of the legislation can move people to identify with the state, unless each participant is already educated in the spirit of freedom that the state presumably represents.” This statement echoes Emerson, in the 1844 essay “New England Reformers,”

The criticism and attack on institutions which we have witnessed, has made one thing plain, that society gains nothing whilst a man, not himself renovated, attempts to renovate things around him: he has become tediously good in some particular, but negligent or narrow in the rest; and hypocrisy and vanity are often the disgusting result.

The call to cultivate creativity, and criticism, is a call for “self-renovation.”

What is the story? What is the cultural practice or performance or engagement and how does it make possible creativity and criticism?

 

 

Advertisements

Creativity and Critique

Patrick and I were in the archive this morning looking at the papers of the Reverend John Crocker. Rodney printed out Bryan Marquand’s 2012 obituary of Reverend Crocker that was published in the January 6th edition of The Boston Globe. The obituary includes a comment Crocker made to a Globe reporter in 1976. “We are responsible for what happens in this world,” he says. “It is possible for people to change, and there is time to change.”

This investment in the possibility of change not only animates the idea of democratic culture but is implied in what I am calling democratic literacy. What is it? How do we cultivate it?

9780813343297-400x600Reading Doris Sommer we are reminded of a Brazilian educator, Paulo Freire, who took these questions seriously. His wonderful little book Teachers as Cultural Workers: Letters to Those Who Dare Teach makes a case that teachers, and the institutions in which they work, are responsible for cultivating democracy. One of the most inspiring dimensions of Freire’s pedagogy was his suspicion of “the pedagogical populism that prefers easier engagements, because full citizenship requires high-order literacy” (112).

But how do we cultivate creativity and criticism in the open space of democracy?

 

One working answer is to explore the relationship between art and democracy, between creativity and criticism. I’m going to read ahead to the chapter in Sommer we will consider on Thursday where she addresses the relationship:

. . . .democratic life depends upon the dynamic between art-making and humanistic interpretation. This is no exaggeration. A disposition toward creativity and critique resists authoritarian single-mindedness; it acknowledges different points of view and multiple ways to arrange available material. Constitutional democracies are themselves collective works of art accountable for their constructions. And constitutions remain open to performative interventions, obliging citizens to cultivate their creativity and criticism (104).

The idea that a constitutional democracy is itself is a collective work of art, accountable to its making, calls attention to participatory and performative cultural activities—the “venture into the multifarious practices that make up culture, the range of cultures.

Whether in archives or outside of them, or whether in museums or in the streets, our cultural activities are constitutive of our democratic life. These activities made possible by an open cultural space and a spirit of creative interventions, critical conversations, and communicative actions. A vibrant democratic culture requires a continual effort to cultivate democratic literacy—the civic arts of creativity and criticism.

However, any conversation about democratic literacy raises fundamental questions about what we mean by learning, by education. Richard Rorty’s essay Education as Socialization and as Individuation, from his book Philosophy and Social Hope (1999), talks about the institutions that do this work, secondary schools and colleges. He talks about the cultural debates over cultural literacy and the confusion about a word “education” that refers to “two entirely distinct, and equally necessary, processes— socialization and individualization. Rorty then puts his cards on the table:

I think that the conservatives are wrong in thinking that we have either a truth-tracking faculty called ‘reason’ or a true self that education brings to consciousness. I think that the radicals are right in saying that if you take care of political, economic, cultural and academic freedom, then truth will take care of itself. But I think the radicals are wrong in believing that there is a true self that will emerge once the repressive influence of society is removed. There is no such thing as human nature, in the deep sense in which Plato and Strauss used this term. Nor is there such a thing as alienation from one’s essential humanity due to societal repression, in the deep sense made familiar by Rousseau and the Marxists. There is only the shaping of an animal into a human being by a process of socialization, followed (with luck) by the self-individualization and self-creation of that human being through his or her own later revolt against that very process.

He then draws out an interpretation of John Dewey’s contribution to our understanding of what education is, what it is for:

Dewey’s great contribution to the theory of education was to help us get rid of the idea that education is a matter of either inducing or educing truth. Primary and secondary education will always be a matter of familiarizing the young with what their elders take to be true, whether it is true or not. It is not, and never will be, the function of lower-level education to challenge the prevailing consensus about what is true. Socialization has to come before individuation, and education for freedom cannot begin before some constraints have been imposed.

We Deweyans think that the social function of American colleges is to help the students see that the national narrative around which their socialization has centred is an open-ended one. It is to tempt the students to take themselves into people who can stand to their own pasts as Emerson and Anthony, Debs and Baldwin, stood to their pasts. This is done by helping the students realize that, despite the progress that the present has made over the past, the good has once again become the enemy of the better. With a bit of help, the students will start noticing everything that is paltry and mean and unfree in their surroundings.

The challenge for us is to describe how creative cultural practices—let’s say art on a wall of the American University in Cairo, music festivals, urban architecture and design, identity formation in sport, social justice movements, writers collectives, body art, and so on—enact, intervene, construct, reveal, reframe the experience and the possibilities of democratic life.