On the “banking” and “problem-posing” concepts of education

This is my post for Week 1 of MOOC MOOC: Critical Pedagogy.

In Pedagogy of the Oppressed Paulo Freire defines and contrast two concepts of education, the “banking concept” and the “problem-posing concept.” The two cannot coexist. Moreover, it is the political situation which determines which is present. Democratic and revolutionary regimes uphold the problem-posing concept of education. Illiberal regimes, on the other hand, almost by definition insist on the banking concept, for a problem-posing education would cause the student to become aware of, and to question, the oppressive nature of the government.

Under which concept does the United States operate? Our fetish for standardized testing and for assessment puts us firmly in the realm of the banking concept. So too does our focus on education as a means of gaining job skills, rather than critical faculties. It seems to me that many people oppose standardized testing. Yet fewer are bothered by a focus on job skills, even while they would insist that educating the critical faculties is essential to education.

So a truly problem-posing concept of education, designed to promote those critical faculties, is something to be found only in rare cases. An example might be Shimer College. Yet the only reason I’m aware of Shimer is that it’s been in the news lately because it was ranked the worst college in America on a scale based on quantitative assessment.

In the United States, then, we strongly tend towards enacting a banking concept of education, even while pretending we follow a problem-posing concept. This dissonance is possible because our society’s deployment of the banking concept is far more sophisticated that that postulated by Freire. Remember that Freire was writing in the aftermath of the Brazilian military coup in 1964. Our country is not so undemocratic. Instead, minds are policed in more subtle ways. Consider Noam Chomsky’s observation on the role of the media and debate in neoliberal society:

The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum – even encourage the more critical and dissident views. That gives people the sense that there’s free thinking going on, while all the time the presuppositions of the system are being reinforced by the limits put on the range of the debate.

I’ll end by proposing that just as our media and our political establishment allow an appearance of critical inquiry but restrict it in practice to a narrow range of views, so too does our educational establishment allow a seemingly problem-posing education to conceal its true base as a banking concept of education. The difference is that instead of pouring facts into student’s heads (though some want to return to just that) we force them to meet predetermined learning outcomes.

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