“We are not trained like dogs. We are educated.”

This image is of December Ndhlovu and Patricia Mdluli, water activists in the Bushbuckridge area. They are deeply concerned about the eucalyptus plantations that cover the Moholoholo Mountain. Here they are right on the top of the mountain which is the only part of the mountain free from Eucalyptus trees

..”since learning is human, then every academic discipline…has an implicit theory of learning”(Jarvis, 2009)

I recently set myself a task of revisiting my fascination with the work of Paulo Freire and critically articulating what his emancipatory learning theory has to offer trans-disciplinary research and practice. My interest was in articulating what an emancipatory approach to education means and how this intention of emancipation directs knowledge generation and learning. This includes understanding how learning happens if learning is to be emancipatory. I have two reasons for giving myself this task 1) to clearly articulate emancipatory educational approaches and 2) to suggest what this means for knowledge generation and learning for trans-disciplinary research and practice that has emancipatory aspirations.

I formalised the task around a paper that I said I would submit to the Southern African Journal of environmental education. The deadline for the paper has long gone and I’m still struggling to finish my task. When I submitted the abstract for the paper I had a draft paper in front of me which I thought would only need a few little tweaks before submission but as I have tried to articulate the core argument of the paper I have found myself falling down rabbit holes upon rabbit holes of theory. Each paper I read suddenly sits on top of a silent history of books and papers. The old cliched ’tip of the iceberg’ comes to mind. I find the links. I track the writers theoretical history, their lineage of thinking to find I don’t know enough about what lead them to where they are to make a final call. Often the lines of thought are so intermeshed, sometimes drawing superficially from one discipline and deeply from another. Sometimes the depth of tracking and tracing is mind blowing and other times the lack of clarity and the jumps in argument leave me gasping for breath and wondering whether I am just too stupid to follow what the author is saying or whether that was a serious leap of the edge of a cliff without a rope and a harness.

Okay so I admit it. I’m lost in the landscape of theory. Hang on! I’m lost in the landscapes of theory because when working with trans-disciplinary theory there is no nice delineated discipline and I find myself trying to get my head around an economists view of trans-disciplinarity followed by a biologist, a few physicists and a couple of social scientists from various flavours of social science. So I’ve decided to blog my way through this paper mostly because I need help, I need conversation because there is only so much one brain can take. The task is still set so I’ve decided to try a different tactic and start with investigating one paper and one position and then follow the leads like a good detective or a biographer. I’ve given up on the idea of the paper I was going to write which feels like I’m letting some people down. Hopefully they will forgive me and understand that once lost in the thickets of ’ology’ it is hard to conceive of something so formally structured as a paper.

Before I begin introducing the first super star theory that I wish to write about I thought I would like to remind myself of the ethos of Freire. Paulo Freire is a emotive, passionate writer. He is also a clear intellectual thinker. He embraces the human condition. He embraces, what he sees as the essence of the human condition, the ability to love. His educational pedagogy is all about allowing this ability to love to emerge and drive the curiosity that sits at the root of all learning. Because we love we can get angry at the inequalities around us. Anger, for Freire, is a response of love for to be angry we have to care very deeply about something. Often in my work I forget that beneath all the manoeuvring between the need to make a living, the desire to be recognised, the continual search for funding, the negotiations between different people’s drives and responses – the competitiveness and sensitivities.. the need to own things . . . even words and ideas – there is a deep feeling of love. All the long words, all the ism’s and ’ologies’ can seem quite dry and sometimes ineffective, maybe even unnecessarily confusing and dense but if we look deeply enough into the roots of these theories and ideas (and into our own motivations) we may find the anchor to an ethical position and often that ethical position leads us back to love. Freire never turned away a single person who wanted to talk. Educated, uneducated, poor or wealthy he would drive, fly, walk.. sit under a tree, in a board room, at a lecture hall and share what he knew, encourage and learn. His books are full of moments of inspiration and realisation. How many of us can say we do this as we rush around our worlds?

So I will start my explorations (which I hope will be like conversations) with the trans-disciplinary theorists with a statement: I strongly believe that the work of the people that I am conversing with and getting to know (by reading their papers and considering their voices) were driven by love. I state this because a trip up the Moholoholo mountain (also known as Mariepskop) yesterday with my fellow learners reminded me that as intellectuals and activists the evidence we so carefully look for and articulate is not just bone dry evidence. The search for evidence is motivated by feeling and passion and these statements of feeling are also a kind of evidence. Yesterday I was reminded that when an activist or a scientist looks at a ravaged landscape or river they do so with a breaking heart and with love. Consider this description, by a local activist,  of the Moholoholo mountain which is covered with Eucalyptus plantations that are not being maintained. ”When I first saw this I found it so painful. It reminded me of a poor dog that is covered with ticks drinking his blood and making him sick. This mountain is like a mountain covered with ticks.” Think also about this connection and meaning that the activist makes from a fact ”Each one of these trees drinks 25litres of water per day, that is one person’s human right to water and how many trees are there here – thousands – and how many people in Bushbuckridge don’t even get 25liters of water per day?” (In South Africa the National Water law ensures what is called, the human rights reserve, which reserves by law 25 litres of water per person per day as a human right).

This is why I find the debates that have gone viral about it being wrong for a climate change scientist to should show emotion a ridiculous and a useless distraction. In my experience as an educator we engage with learning and with information with our whole being. When I was teaching research methodologies at Rhodes University I saw how theoretical positions can challenge people to their very core. Their reaction is never just intellectual it is also with feeling that they engage with ideas that can challenge cultural positions of superiority, personal identities and beliefs about the way the world works. It is because of this whole-hearted human-way-of-being that I approach these theoretical discussions with care. Theories and ideas are rooted, alive lineages of thinking that exist within the networks of human and environmental relations. Understanding this, however, does not excuse us from allowing our feelings to drive the search for truth. To feel does not mean we give up our rigourous tools of truth-searching. Feelings are what motivate us and guide us but a feeling cannot replace the methods and tools we use to make truth claims about the world. A feeling always follows a thought, some psychological traditions would argue that a feeling is just the physical sensations that accompany a thought, and returning to the thought with love, respect and careful consideration and critique is, for me, the act of love that a researcher brings to the world.

There is one more thing I need to articulate before introducing the first super star celebrity which I will do in the next blog. I want to remind myself and whomever is reading this that I am particularly interested in three things:

1. emancipation

2. Learning

3. How knowledge is generated, shared and activated (this third interest is linked strongly to the first two)

I’m not going to go into much detail about what I mean by each of these. I’ve touched on some of this in other blogs but as a small reminder. . . and because it always helps. . .

Emancipation is the process by which a person, group, country, landscape is freed from something that is oppressing, harming and inhibiting. This means different things to different people and the act of emancipation has been against different oppressive ideas, systems and people at different times in history. For example, what Hume found oppressive in his time was the freedom from superstitious thought that inhibited the ability of human’s to make valid truth claims about the world. For Marx, oppression was in the form of the people who owned and controlled the means of production and that an emancipation from this would be for the means of production to be for the benefit of all and not just for the ruling class or the elite. In South Africa, emancipation has meant the freedom from an unethical legal, political and economic system that was designed to ensure that one race, the white race, ruled South Africa. The feminist movement sees oppression as the patriarchal system that has been accepted as the norm all over the world and thus allows for the unequal and often brutal treatment of women around the world and in every form of social life. From these examples it can be seen that oppression is not just a physical act of harm. Often the act of harming another is the symptom of oppression. What allowed to that harm to take place can be traced back to an ideology or even an epistemic position of the way we know the world. It comes back to the way we think about and know our world.

Learning is a process by which we understand, question and engage and act with our world. There are many theories about how learning happens both in terms of what goes on on the human brain and how learning is either inhibited and enhanced by our social context. There are two general opposing theories of learning. The one is what Freire calls ’the banking model’ (Freire, 2000). This is the belief that learning and education is nothing more than a knowledge transfer from an expert (be that a teacher or a professional) to a student. The idea is that the student’s head is empty and just needs to be filled with knowledge. Knowledge, in this scenario, is nothing more than content that the student needs to assimilate and then apply. Knowledge is also viewed as neutral meaning it has not value or ethic attached to it. It is also not seen as contextually influenced. Other learning theorists, Freire included, would see this approach to learning as oppressive. For Freire in particular the process of learning through the art of education happens in the world and with the world. Context is relevant and knowledge is embedded within the social world. This means that it is not neutral although realisations can be a truth. How we come to these realisations though is never from a neutral space but through an interaction and relationship with the world.

The purpose of learning for these two approaches is very different. In the ’banking model’ the purpose of learning is to transfer knowledge from one person to another. It could almost be considered a kind of brain cloning. A person’s intelligence is then easy to measure. It is related to how much the person has assimilated. Often this purpose of gaining knowledge is so we can act upon the world. This split between the world and ’me’ is necessary for in order for us to view knowledge as neutral.

When we accept that learning is a social process and the purpose of education is a process of learning to understand, question, engage and act with the world then all relationships change including our relationship to knowledge and to how learning happens. Acting with the world does not only include a transfer of knowledge it includes a process of meaning making with the world and this means with other people and with the environment too. It is a relational exercise where we, if you like, enter into a conversation or dialogue with each other (and this includes dialoguing with those that have spent their life in conversation with a particular aspect of the world, say the hydrology of the river). So learning is a social process but it is not only social in that it happens between people but because it happens between people and the world – the animals, plants, rivers and mountains and our human structures of cities, governments, institutions and knowledge systems. This kind of learning can be emancipatory or it can be oppressive.  Certain people or ideologies can control the mechanisms of meaning making and thus oppress through education. Sometimes, without even being aware of it, our epistemic position can be oppressive such as the position that believes that education is simply a transferance of knowledge from one brain to another. This seems like a harmless belief but it can lead to institutions and structures, policies and curriculums which are developed around the idea that content and facts are all a person needs to bring about change in the world. But who chooses what content and facts are relevant and for whom?

In more oppressive situations, the content and facts that are chosen for our consumption can be limited to entrench a particular world view and a particular power structure, for example the Bantu education system in South Africa was designed to keep black people oppressed and in the position of labourer and worker for the apartheid state (Prinsloo, 2003). The white education system was equally oppressive and was designed to breed obedience, a fear for authority and an acceptance that white and male superiority was the norm. I remember quite clearly, as a child, seeing the boys being taken to the rugby field to march like small soldiers while we, the girls, were taught how to make fondue for our future husbands. We were also taught how to change a tire for when ’our husband’s were away in the army’ and we were left alone to fend for ourselves. There were regular bomb drills at school to prepare us for the possible attack of the terrorists who were depicted as evil, blood thirsty people that would attack innocent children at a drop of a hat.

My final interest is in how knowledge is generated, shared and activated. I’m sure it is already clear that if we believe in the ’banking model’ of education and learning then there is a necessary split in society between the people who know and generate knowledge about the world and those who don’t know and are just consumers of this knowledge. One of the most oppressive acts is when the process of meaning making and of knowing is seen as owned by an elite group. Foucault’s life work was revealing how discourse – the way in which we articulate knowledge – is a powerful form of control. In order to understand the power of discourse we only need to look back to the 9th of August – women’s day in South Africa. It is a day to celebrate the contribution and sacrifice women made to bring about the end of apartheid. It particulary celebrates an event in 1956 when over 20 000 women from all over South Africa marched on the Union Buildings to protest the pass law (all black people needed to carry a pass which maintained population segregation and controlled migrant labour). They sang a song that day ’Wathint’Abafazi Wathint’imbokodo!’(Now you have touched the women, you have struck a rock.) and yet how is women’s day celebrated in South Africa today? – with free pedicures for all women going to an Eastern Cape University, discount prices on facials, a fashion award, pink cupcakes and pink champaign. The women that are the rocks have been reduced to a fluffy, giggly pink discourse that sees women as only concerned with getting dressed up and pretty for their men. It reminds me of when I was 14 and learning to make chocolate fondue for entertaining my future husband’s business partners while the young boys of my class marched in the midday sun with guns on their shoulders.

This is an example of how a discourse is perpetuated. What has changed about societies view of women since I was 14? How is this knowledge of women generated, shared and activated in society over and over again?

If we view knowledge as existing outside the networks of social interaction and being then we also ignore that knowledge is generated, shared and activiated in many different contextual settings and in many different ways Visavanathan (2005) calls our attention to the cognitive injustice of development programmes and how they don’t acknowledge the powerful and inventive knowledge creation of all people within their own contexts. This is what Freire was meaning when he said we enter into dialogue with people and we can only do this if we understand that the person or people standing in front of us is as able to generate knowledge, to make meaning of their world as we are. This is one of my favourite Freire quotes:

”Dialogue, as an encounter of men/women addressed to the common task of learning and action, is broken if the parties lack humility. How can I enter into dialogue if I always project ignorance onto others and never perceive my own? How can I enter into dialogue if I regard myself as a case apart from other men/women. . . ? How can I enter into dialogue if I consider myself a member of the in- group of pure men/women, the owners of truth and knowledge, for whom all non-members are ’these people’ or ’the great unwashed’? If I start from the premise that naming the world is the takes of an elite and that the presence of the people in history is a sign of deterioration which is to be avoided, how can I hold a dialogue?. . . men/women who lack humility (or have lost it) cannot come to the people, cannot be their partners in naming the world. Some one who cannot acknowledge himself to be as mortal as everyone else still has a long way to go before he can reach the point of encounter. At the point of encounter there are neither utter ignoramus or perfect sages, there are only men/women who are attempting, together, to learn more than they now know.” (Freire, 2000)

We can’t learn from people if we don’t listen and dialogue and this means not only listening to words but to context, culture,identity, motivations and positions. Consider this: On the way up Moholoholo mountain I was interviewing the same man that made the statement about the mountain being like a dog full of ticks. I was asking him about a course we are running called ’Changing Practice’ which he is attending. He was explaining why the course was different from other courses he has attended. He compared it to a programme that he is part of which is exploring indigenous knowledge where ’we meet for dialogues, not training’ he said. ’Your course is very similar to this one.’ he said, ’We are not trained like dogs. We are educated.’


Freire, P. (2000). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Penguin Books: London

Jarvis, P. (2009).  Learning to be a person in society: learning to be me. In Contemporary theories of learning edited by Illeris, K.  Routledge: London

Prinsloo, J. (2003). Schooled inequalities: A comparison of the language syllabuses for English, Afrikaans and Bantu Languages of the 1970s. Journal of Education, 30, 58-79.

Visvanathan, 2009. Knowledge, justice and democracy.

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