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Is Education Oppressive?

Student, Bruno Mallett written piece: Education, whilst being a motivational icon of inspiring change, knowledge and liberation amongst people and policy makers, it is the policy makers that arguably manipulate the divine concept of such moralist ideals to oppress.

Is Education Oppressive

Education, whilst being a motivational icon of inspiring change, knowledge and liberation amongst people and policy makers, it is the policy makers that arguably manipulate the divine concept of such moralist ideals to oppress. Oppress not just the learners, but the society in which they reside. In fact, many founding principles of education were based arguably upon the stifling of the creativity and curious spirit within human beings as outlined by Alexander Inglis’ (1918) account of American education. In parallel, such fears of originally providing compulsory education in the UK (yet also in wider contexts) would be providing the masses with conscientização, or a higher pedagogical understanding of the oppression they have largely been accustomed to and effectively revolt the authoritarian controls on the societal order and general consciousness (Gillard, 1998). For such revolt to take place requires a deeper, philosophical understanding of the Plato-esque cave that we are arguably share a captive within (Plato, 1943). However, it is Paulo Freire (1970; 2000) who argues, and to whom this essay will closely refer, ‘the situation of oppression is a dehumanized and dehumanizing totality affecting both the oppressors and those whom they oppress’. Therefore, in a liberatory education system, not only must the oppressed be liberated, but the oppressor in turn as well. Oppression within education, as Freire suggests, is therefore a system in which we all contribute, and all have a collective responsibility to shape and deconstruct. This therefore inspires a globalist mindset. Whilst the UK arguably has an oppressive system of its own, two case studies explored in this essay are China’s Dabancheng ‘Re-education’ facilities and what I shall call here the University of North Africa (Sudworth, 2018). These examples aim draw parallels of educative systems that have become arguably manipulated to enforce direct oppression upon people. How can this system be reversed towards an education system that can serve as both a ‘great equaliser’ and a fundamentally liberatory institution (Mann, 1848; Freire, 1975)?

The ways in which schools have enforced greater levels of security over time argues the oppressive nature this presents to its students, not as educational environments, but rather ‘cold prison houses’ (Hughes, 2011). The enforcement of strict security measures takes a toll upon its inhabitants (Perumean-Chaney & Sutton, 2012; Schreck & Miller, 2008). Such reflections and parallels shared between school and prison systems regarding security and structure, beg the pedagogical issue faced amongst education critics on how to disassociate the role of student from the role of a suspicious criminal. As Willard Waller (1932) argued, the role of authority within school largely fuels stigmatised opinions of students and their roles, an environment that is ‘a despotism in a state of perilous equilibrium’. This argues that the role of state authority is not an absolute fixed power, but one that is vulnerable to ‘conflict and resistance … lying in wait’, between the state administered and enforced binary teacher-student relationship (Pace & Hemmings, 2007). To illuminate Waller’s theory, Freire argues that the teacher-student relationship must be recalibrated to one that relies not on teachers having a divine set of powers and knowledge, and the students the reverse, but of a ‘profound trust’ amongst students for their curious and ‘creative power.’ These degrees of trust must ensure that students are treated as inquisitive, curious beings and not as suspicious, disinterested and unmotivated vessels in the process of receiving centralised and largely unreflective ‘real-life’ knowledge.

Repeated calls and measures of safety are often used to justify building walls, fences and limiting visitors. This is reflected in recent government legislation to advance the apparatus of security within schools (DfE, 2012, 2018). Despite these strict apparatuses, a frequent and clique scene from a horror movie would argue, it is not what you lock yourself out of, but what you lock yourself into that is the scary part. Security pressures within schools have only been advanced over time, highlighted by frequent school shootings within America (Hogg & Hogg, 2018). Such US/UK relations with regard to policy have caused chain reaction approaches with regard to home and foreign policy, despite the issue of violent school attacks not translating as prevalently in a British context (Jones & Newburn, 2002). This is evident that despite much stricter gun control measures and a severely low number of life-threatening attacks since Dunblane (1997), similar security apparatuses have been replicated, including mass instalments of security cameras within schools, especially at secondary level (Nemorin, 2017; Big Brother Watch, 2012). The frequency of new legislation argues that this issue has been consumed by a contemporary ‘common-sense’ political discourse. This collective conscience is challenging to countering established, contemporary discourse. This frequency makes it difficult for counter arguments to take place against the run of political play with the current established narrative often agreed upon by policy makers alone. The implications of this reinforces such oppressive cycles of security within schools as agreeable, expected and accepted in society. Conclusively, these structures pose wider philosophical concerns over the ways our free will is restricted. Though such enforced security may be a limitation upon our free will, Aristotle (2008) would argue that all free will is to some degree pre-determined, explaining that our authentic character is ‘voluntarily; but having become so, it is no longer possible’ to remain. We establish a character that is free in will, yet by doing so we become accustomed to predictability from the very conception of being that we have produced. This said, a root conflict between a liberatory and oppressive educational system is not only within the oppressor’s grip upon the oppressed but by the oppressed within themselves to (un)learn the largely predictable mannerisms that are manageable and correctional by oppressive forces and structures (Malinowski, 1947). Whilst the fictional, Orwellian (1949) ideas of mass control through surveillance poses strict definitions between the oppressor and oppressed, it arguable that the oppressive struggle as internal as it is external. As Freire would expand upon in an educative perspective, conscientização is both an external and internal process, ‘in the search for self-affirmation’ (Freire, 2000). Therefore, although similarities shared between both school and prison is challenging from an education perspective, overthrowing these physical icons and references will not immediately result in a more liberatory education system.

Such degrees of surveillance are dangerous for productive and liberating pedagogies. This is arguably the archetypal case at the University of North Africa, a campus with a strong anti-establishment counter-culture that is integral among the consciousness and identity of students. This is allegedly and most profoundly observed through frequent clashes with police and political protest, resulting in many arrests and even deaths amongst students based upon such campus conflict (MEE, 2014; Euspring, 2013; Ben-Meir et al., 2016). The physical efforts of police and state violence are undeniably oppressive, especially when systematic cases of corruption and abuses of power have occurred through such ranks (Amnesty International, 2015). A learning environment shrouded in a violent and damaging discourse whereby the oppressed and oppressor are simultaneously suspicious of one another argues a crucial argument in Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, of liberation, and its opposite, to fundamentally effect the experience of learning. Whilst the oppressor lacks ‘the strength to liberate either the oppressed or themselves,’ the oppressed must find, he argues, the strength not only to liberate themselves but the oppressed who through the struggle of their own oppression will be ‘sufficiently strong to free both’. Therefore, to dissemble the suspicion and conflict between student and state forces within the University of North Africa would be a struggle that extends beyond the students themselves. The clashes and frequent protests are problem-posing education, whereby the problem lies in the intervention and state control of the pedagogical system (during this writing process there has been a hunger strike on campus into its twelfth day). These are, in effect, beyond the uses of direct force. Student led efforts are neither ignored nor only responded to by the state in physical form, who, as well the direct response of police, have erected phone towers and security surveillance cameras in disguise as palm trees surrounding the entire circumference of the campus. Examples also seen more frequently in America (Clark & McCutcheon, 2015; Stromberg, 2015).

"Fez Medina cellphone tower and eyesore (Clark & McCutcheon, 2013)" and "A wall displaying solidarity"

"Fez Medina cellphone tower and eyesore (Clark & McCutcheon, 2013)" and "A wall displaying solidarity"

Over Fez, and across all of Morocco, frequent displays of the monarch King Mohammed VI situate themselves in many shop windows and houses. Whilst there is such a reverent display of loyalty towards the status-quo in many parts of Morocco, contrary discourses must face greater degrees of persecution because of this. At the University of North Africa, such images, if any at all, are hard to locate. In return, walls adorned with hammer and sickles, liberational quotes and flags of other nation states, the latter more commonly found than Moroccan flags. The damaging response to such counter culture is the high usage of surveillance cameras and state suspicion. The panopticon effect of these levels of surveillance is harmful for the educational experience of learners. These disguised palm-trees do not symbolically ‘project an absolute ignorance onto’ students as Freire would argue, however, the effects are arguably more damaging (Freire, 1970). Administering suspicion upon students, highlighting and separating the dangerous from the harmless and the students from the activists centralises power from that of an authentic, liberatory education to one dominated by authoritarian, prison-aligned structures (Foucault, 1977). Whilst cases of alleged physical police brutality are examples of direct oppression amongst students, the reverse and metaphysical degrees of oppression through surveillance is arguably more damaging. This is highlighted by modern advances in surveillance technology. Such advances in both China and the USA include camera facial recognition and information through the medium of being observed by such cameras, exposing negative effects for namely activists whom have found it ‘impossible to continue to function’ (Klein, 2008). Whilst this is damaging to the lives in which the panoptic surveillance captures, it is also encouraging a different model of student; a student who is subversive to the powers of the state, thereby the powers of an intrinsically oppressive education system.

This is illuminated by the prevent strategy within the U.K (Counter-Terrorism and Security Act, 2015). A panoptic vision that demanded the public to act upon the authority of prison guards, reporting ‘suspicious’, ‘terrorist’ behaviour amongst people in regard to characteristics wide ranging enough that they commonly revert to internalised prejudices amongst educators and wider populations (DfE, 2015). In Foucault’s Discipline & Power (1977), ‘rulers dreamt of the state of plague. Underlying disciplinary projects the image of the plague stands for all forms of confusion and disorder’. Similarly, to the plague, the reality and manipulation of terrorism, a gripping word within itself, helps to authenticate suspicion and paranoia amongst one another, although especially ‘the other’, commonly black and Muslim students in education. This is realised in the effects of the prevent agenda in education, that is shown to disproportionately target students of Muslim faith, alongside black and minority ethnic students (HO, 2016; Students not Suspects, 2016). These effects are through intercepting speech, political opinion, clothing, culture and every small detail within certain targeted students’ lives. Thus, centralising learning away from the individual, to the ‘responsibility’ of the state, to ensure that the individual is not a rogue learner, but a confined one.

Dabancheng’s internment camp arguably provide a key example of education at its most evidently oppressive. The very philosophical approach from these camps poses that not just education, but knowledge is the responsibility for the state, not individual. Re-education is a concept that suggests an overthrow of a previous education. Indeed, this argues that all that is previously known and learnt is irrelevant and incorrect and the students were under the guise of false, brainwashed style pedagogies. In Plato’s ‘Allegory of the Cave’ (1943), such examples were applied, arguing that everything that is known is only fractional, with the truth to be revealed only once freed by the oppressor. The process of re-educating students in Dabancheng includes high security models, including walls, watchtowers and guards. It is a structural oppression of people highlighted by its inhabitants: Chinese Uyghurs historically oppressed by grounds of religion, economics, culture and beyond. The minoritized group is one that is both a ‘stranger in their own land’ and abroad (Klimeš, 2012; Debeta & Tian, 2011). Their historical land, the ruralised and economically disadvantaged region of Xinjiang, is a key political and philosophical challenge to the centralised Chinese communist authority. Such ideas both home and foreign policy rely upon a ‘One China Principle’, a theoretical assimilation and unification of people (Wei, 1999). Such discourses have set worrying trends within the education and internment camps to be established, home to nearly two million inhabitants. The theoretical basis behind Dabancheng is reflective of the ‘One China Principle,’ an uncompromising de-establishment of values, beliefs and knowledge for reasons of being a state posing problem amongst conformist China. The nature of such internment camps however, where many Uyghur people have been sent reportedly against their will, have worrying parallels to similar forms of direct oppression over the course of history based upon ‘non-traditional’ identities (Chin, 2018). This is theoretically supported by the illusion of equality. Notions that manipulate ideals of equality especially within education were the philosophical background behind the Supreme Court ruling of Plessy vs Ferguson (1896). Yet in the context of China, equality (a commonly agreeable term to summarise many political discourses) has been effectively manipulated to associate itself with the concepts of authoritarian control, segregation and assimilation by deceiving means of administering equality (The Times, 2018). Dabancheng arguably has many oppressive cycles that oppress its inhabitants emotionally, physically and pedagogically and further. 

An applicable argument within Pedagogy of the Oppressed, is that those who are oppressed ‘are not “marginals”, are not people living “outside” society. They have always been “inside”’ (Friere, 1970). Therefore, if education is oppressive, it ought to marginalise. If the Uyghurs are a marginalised group, they cannot become “less marginalised”, for the nature of marginalisation is a continual and rigid construct of oppression.  They have always lived within China, therefore the liberation must only come mutually between the oppressor and oppressed cycle, highlighted in Dabancheng’s internment camps. The ‘re-education’ camps are fundamentally based upon a divisive us vs them discourse. Through this, physical and pedagogical segregation arguably fuels internalised oppression amongst the Uyghur people, limiting a liberating social mobility towards equality amongst all people. Yet an us vs them divide and conquer discourse forms the basis of an oppressive and racially segregated educative system, as the Uyghur people ‘cannot permit itself the luxury of tolerating the unification of the people’ (Cikara et al., 2017; Chiao & Mathur, 2010; Freire, 2000). Cultural practices within the camps include forcing its inhabitants to eat pork, drink alcohol and dress ‘Westernised’ (Shih & Kang, 2018). These advances in the differences between people are largely constructed by a dominant class and order, thereby dividing people, especially in education, into hierarchical orders. Whilst Marx contemplated the class aspect of such divisive education systems, Dabancheng’s camps accelerate this argument to include not just struggle between the proletariat from the bourgeois but the ‘terrorists’ from the ‘civil obedient’ (Marx, 1996; Gerin, 2016). Common discourses within media and wider political opinion not only limit internal pressure within China to challenge the treatment of Uyghur’s, but across the wider Western hemisphere. The oppressive and integrated structure of xenophobia and racism has helped to fuel the apathetic and even supportive opinion on the ways in which the Dabancheng internment camps operate.

Whilst education can provide people with an authentic, spiritual, holistic pedagogies that both inspires and harvests the human creative spirit, it is education that is arguably a principle, extracted and manipulated from its virtuous ideal to oppress both the learners and society in return. As Paulo Freire concedes, education is too often enforced into banking methods, used to ‘minimise or annul the students’ creative power and to stimulate their credulity serves the interests of the oppressors’. These very banking systems of education are arguably universal, especially through the subscription and competition over international league tables (Andrews et al., 2014). This monopolisation approach towards education, whereby grades are often more important than pedagogical outcome, begs the age-old demand “I’m a name not a number!” Countering these discourses within education, for example an abolishment of formalised grading systems, is unfortunately tarnished with notions of ‘radical’ and even ‘anarchic’, such notions that Freire would evaluate as the “fear of freedom” (Barnes, 2018). Yet whilst education serves universally as an arguable motive of oppression through means of pedagogy, both Dabancheng and the University of North Africa serve as exemplary examples of education as directly oppressive: through means of forceful and aggressive control. The ways in which state structures can manipulate learning not as a pedagogical struggle, but a physical one illuminates the concerns raised in Pedagogy of the Oppressed, as the oppressor-oppressed conflict, one that is in practice universally, is polarised to an extent that causes violence, and in both cases, torture (Meixler, 2018). This therefore stresses the importance of these juxtaposing constructs to be understood and ultimately abolished. Education, to serve all people with an undeniable passion for knowledge, creativity and learning, has been fought over effortlessly both internationally and locally throughout the world in its furthest reaching corners (GCfE, 2018; Rawles, 2016). These efforts present the power than underlines education from a philosophical perspective as truly liberating. However, its reverse qualities to be oppressive as previously outlined reinforce this very important educative struggle to continue.

Author: Bruno Mallett


I would like to extend my solidarity to all students at the University of North Africa in their ongoing hunger strike, as well as Othman, my friend who alongside others, continues to struggle for a more liberating and emancipatory education on campus. My thanks too to Adam Abdalla for introducing me to the campus grounds and its radical context. Fnally, to all the Uyghur people struggling under abhorrent Chinese oppression within Dabancheng’s internment camps as well as the Xinxiang region. May liberation unite us all.


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