"The whole movement of life is learning" (Krishnamurti). "To be an act of knowing, then, the adult literacy process must engage the learners in the constant problematizing of their existential situations" (Freire). "Once you learn to read, you will be forever free" (Douglass). "I can learn anything I have the desire to learn" (White, S.G.).

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Exile: the space between?

The alternate title for this post is "Ignorance is bliss."  Are there things I  don't want to know?  I don't want to know what the kitchen of my favorite restaurant looks like, and I don't want to know exactly what my teenager says about me to his friends.  Once I know these things, I can't go back to my state of ignorant bliss.  I flew first class from Tokyo to Dulles one time; I will never be happy in coach class again!    There is a big price for learning certain things, at least for me.  OK, restaurants and air travel are trivial, but my teenager's true thoughts would be another matter.  I choose not to learn that information because I'm afraid of the price I'd pay.  Of course, I know ahead of time there is a price, and I have a choice in the matter.  I choose ignorance (I'm a coward).

On the other hand, what if I didn't know what price education might extract?  Perhaps I would listen to the teacher who coaxes out my stifled, inner voice.  Maybe I would take a risk and allow myself to learn.  I recently read Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez,  an autobiographical account of the author's journey to find his public, English-speaking voice in middle-class 1960s-70s America.  When he was 8, Rodriguez's Mexican born parents put him in private school to learn English and receive a good education.  The theme of Rodriguez's learning journey is the huge price he and his family "paid" for education: loss of  Spanish, private family connections, inner (ignorant?) home voice.  When I look at this story using a sociocultural lens, I see how Rodriguez's education moved him out of his inner (cultural) circle into public, gringo (social) domain.  Furthermore, once "there," he could not "go back home" as he put it.  His life was changed by education.  He is forever part of the public, and the price was loss of family bonds and innocence.  He accepts this, he chose this, and his eloquent account of education's "price" is worth a read. 

Are we adult literacy educators--elite do-gooders-- really helping our learners when we show them the way out of their inner culture to the larger social without some kind of warning of what's ahead?  (Actually, I think they already have an intuition about this.  My question shows ignorance on my part.).  Ultimately, it's a personal decision to learn.  It's a freedom to assume the "cost"  and take the risk of learning.  It's a freedom to decline it, too, as long as you realize what path you are choosing.  There I go again, elite do-gooder, making assumptions for others. 

I see the cost of education as being a kind of Freirian exile between the inner and outer, private and public
At times in one's fight for justice, one neglects seeking a more rigorous knowledge of human beings.  One may underestimate the power of the dominant, ignore the deep-seated presence of the oppressor in the oppressed, and end up in exile.  Exile is a space-time dimension that one has not chosen, and where one arrives marked by rage, fears, suffering, early longing, love, broken hope, and also by a certain shy hope one that signals return  There is also the wish and the need to remake oneself remake one's broken dream  (Freire, Pedagogy of the Heart, p. 66).

I'm looking ahead to Fiore and Elsasser's (Elsa Auerbach's, my own program's) generative literacy curricula and wonder what form of exile we may be imposing on learners.  There I go again.  It's not my (our) decision to make; students make their decisions when they walk into the classrooms.   Still,  I don't know if I wish this exile on anyone; it's lonely out here.


  1. Incredibly important post Susan. Wonderfully gets at the key idea that ALL EDUCATION IS IDEOLOGICAL. Conversely, no literacy is neutral. We did not get a chance to talk about burn out last week, but the truth is, our field is exceptionally demanding one. There are no moral measuring sticks to guage the benefits and losses of transformation. I hope when we get to Hilary Janks, we can return to these deep issues concering literacy, language, identity, diversity and power (and our roles as adult educators and change agents). :)

  2. I enjoyed your post Susan. I too, do not want to know what that restaurant kitchen looks like! Your post also made me think of the book Push. I finished reading it this weekend and have very mixed feelings for Precious. Her education was a great reward, but it also cost her a great deal. I'm still thinking about the end of the book and debating about her wins and loses. Thanks.

  3. Susan - I really appreciated the struggle you present here, as I've felt the same more than once since entering this field a mere year ago. I learn every day. But I also hear sweeping generalizations about learners, and about teachers to be honest, that get at my gut every time. Your term "elite do-gooders" made me really think about this in my experience.

    You've been in this field a long time. I am curious to know if you've seen a shift in why people come in to the field, and perhaps in why people stay in the field over time? Is 'elite do-gooders' harsh or reality that needs to be faced?

    1. Hi Joanne - Welcome to the blog! Yes, my use of the term "elite do-gooders" is harsh and most likely conveys frustration and burnout on my part. To some degree that is true. In addition, I hear colleagues and administrators speak of "them" and what we need to teach "them" when referring to adult literacy learners. My harsh use of "elite do-gooders" was a swipe at this attitude and belief that somehow we educators know best. Alas, I'm getting a little too edgy with my blogging these days. Thanks for checking in with me!

  4. Susan:

    I don't think of ignorance as cowardice. Is making an informed choice always a good thing? Would we make some of the same decisions we felt were right if we didn't know too much about something? I agree that all teaching is ideological. I am fortunate in that the literacy I teach requires some academic literacy, and the literacy I teach allows a student to grow in other areas of literacy. I know I'm using that word a lot here, but it has become such a large word in my thoughts now.

    Joyce M.


Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts on this post. Diverse opinions are welcomed.