Lots of people have asked me why I re-named my blog (ok, actually it was one person – my wife Sarah – I’m not sure – DARTS?*). Partially it was because I’m writing much more about history teaching on www.onedamnthing.org.uk, but also it was because I’ve been (at long last you might say) coming to terms with the way I see the world, and the way that this world view affects the way I deal with it, and the people who make it up. I re-named the blog, because I wanted to be more precise about praxis.
Long before I became, or even thought about becoming, a teacher, I have had a fascination with the word ‘praxis’. As part of my essentially centre-left upbringing, the unspoken word ‘praxis’, the effort to use rational thought to change the world, was part of the unconscious kit that I used to frame the world I saw, heard and read about around me. As a youth I would weep at the results of elections in which ‘irrational’ greed won over ‘rational’ altruism, and saw the returning (with an inflated majority) of a Conservative government hell bent on cutting taxes and dismantling society as evidence of the failure of people to think. I couldn’t believe that there were rational views other than my own, and that such views must therefore be based on greed, fear, ignorance or other, animalistic instincts.
Praxis then became a slogan for me, a brash declaration that I was going to change the world through my understanding. I was still using the word in an ‘enlightenment’ way. Then, whilst studying AA820 with the Open University my mind was opened to the possibility that the world was not merely as measured by others, but that I was creating it for myself. I read extracts from Rousseau, White and Jenkins and the fantastic, angry counterblasts from Marwick on post-modernism and the possibility of objective historical study. For a while I was lost in a post-this-post-that universe in which all that was solid melted into air. With the help of that hugely challenging and enjoyable course from the OU (now defunct sadly) I was able to come to a new understanding, one which has been forming and changing ever since.
This understanding is actually quite hard to put into words, but here goes. Precise objectivity in the empirical enlightenment sense is impossible. Human perception and communication means that an exact communication of meaning is also impossible (Which is Sassure’s idea). It is not possible to write a definitive history about anything, because the past is, to a massive extent, gone.
However, the past is not totally gone. Human communication is not without purpose (or indeed effect). Borrowing from the philosophy of science, no theory is final, but instead all views of science are temporary, conditional and awaiting modification. This does not mean that all theories are valid. Some theories are more valid than others, and it is in the testing and modification of theories, about the causes of the First World War as much as those about the causes of the Universe, that human understanding grows. This is how my second understanding of Praxis began to form.
Now, picking up a copy of Pedagogy of the Oppressed I found a much more humane version of praxis which chimes deeply with this second form of praxis that I find growing in my own mind. Freire’s philosophy is based on a faith in human desires and on their ‘ontological and historical vocation to be more human’ (p.37);
“Dehumanization, though an historical fact, is not mankind’s historical vocation”.
Freire conflates human existence with constructive and iterative attempts to understand the world.
“To exist, humanely, is to name the world, to change it. Once named, the world in its turn reappears to the namers as a problem and requires of them a new naming. Human beings are not built in silence, but in word, in work, in action-reflection” (p.69).
For Freire therefore learning and teaching is ‘dialogical’ – literally it arises from interaction and conversation between human beings. Further, for Freire this conversation, to be effective, requires faith in the ability of students to change:
“dialogue further requires an intense faith in humankind, faith in their power to make and remake, to create and re-create” (p.71).
This faith is not blind;
“‘dialogical man’ is critical and knows that, although it is within the power of humans to create and transform, in a concrete situation of alienation individuals may be impaired in the use of that power. Far from destroying his faith in the people, however, this possibility strikes him as a challenge to which he must respond”. (p72).
So, though the belief in the power to change is not naïve, it must not either be fatalistic.
Though I did not know it when I started history teaching, I became a history teacher to help humanize them, to help students to recognise that as humans they are part of the world, and that they are part of the praxis of the world. Indeed, I became a teacher to humanise myself, but I didn’t know it at the time.
Doubt comes into my growing sense of praxis, indeed doubt informs it. As Freire puts it;
“because dialogue is an encounter among men and women who name the world, it must not be a situation in which some name on behalf of others” (p.70),
“How can I dialogue if I am closed to – and even offended by – the contribution of others?” (p71)
That’s why doubt it such a powerful tool – to permanently suspend judgment means that we are admitting the praxis, the processes at the heart of human interaction with the world and with other human beings. To come to an unalterable judgment is to be oppressed, or to oppress.
*Sheffield University Newspaper was called ‘DARTS’, which was supposed to stand for ‘Does Anyone Read This Shit?’.