The core lessons of a liberating education—an education for citizenship, participation, engagement, and democracy—are these: each human being is unique and of incalculable value, and we each have a mind of our own; we are all works-in-progress swimming through a dynamic history in-the-making toward an uncertain and indeterminate shore; we can choose to join with others and act on our own judgments and in our own freedom; human enlightenment and liberation are always the result of thoughtful action.
On the side of a liberating and humanizing education is a pedagogy of questioning, an approach that opens rather than closes spaces of curiosity, perspective, dialogue, and imagination. It demands something upending from students and teachers alike: repudiate your place in the pecking order, it urges, remove that distorted, congenial mask of compliance. You must change.
Occasions for teaching that tries to get to the root of things, teaching that is more than a kind of trivial pursuit of the obvious, happen all the time. Practically anything, from the lofty to the mundane, can be the object of serious inquiry and provide, then, opportunities for teachers and students to enact a curriculum of democracy and freedom. I recently read, for example, that in Arkansas—where Governor Huckabee is the poster boy of dramatic weight loss and a leader in the national campaign against obesity—school report cards must now include each child’s B.M.I., his or her body mass index. Obesity is indeed a massive public health problem and its dimensions have been growing for decades: obesity is the number one killer-disease in the US, and today’s children will be the first generation in history to fail to outlive their parent generation, chiefly because of fat. But rather than dully accept that the B.M.I. notation will make students and parents more aware of the scale of the thing, we might hold the initiative up to scrutiny and interrogation.
In the interest of historicizing everything, we might ask:
· What is the history of obesity as a health problem in the US and elsewhere? Is it considered an “eating disorder,” and if so how is it like/unlike other “eating disorders”? What part of the problem is genetic predisposition, what part habit or education, what part access?
· What is the history of engaging schools to solve broader social problems? What’s been the result of mandating alcohol and drug awareness programs, for example, or suicide prevention and abstinence programs?
In the spirit of politicizing everything, we can go further:
· Who decided to mandate the inclusion of the B.M.I.? Was there broad participation and dialogue by parents, students, teachers, or the broader community?
· What industries suffer because of obesity, and which ones benefit? What’s the relationship of fat and sugar to the problem? What public and economic policies impact the sugar industry, for example?
· Is obesity correlated in any way to income, class, race, or gender? How?
· Are exercise facilities available equally across communities regardless of income or property values? Are parks equitably distributed?
· Are fruits and vegetables accessible equitably regardless of community income?
In the spirit of active inquiry close to home, again more questions:
· How much time is allotted to recess and physical education?
· Are all students equally encouraged or even required to participate in sports and games?
· What is a typical school lunch?
· Does the school sell soda, candy, or fatty foods from vending machines? Does it sell fast food or junk food? Fruits and vegetables? Why?
· Do clubs or teams sell candy or cookies to raise funds?
While many of us long for teaching as something transcendent and powerful, we find ourselves too-often locked in situations that reduce teaching to a kind of glorified clerking, passing along a curriculum of received wisdom and predigested bits of information. A fundamental choice and challenge for teachers, then, is this: to acquiesce to the machinery of control, or to take a stand with our students in a search for meaning and a journey of transformation. To teach obedience and conformity, or to teach its polar opposite: initiative and imagination, curiosity and questioning, the capacity to name the world, to identify the obstacles to your full humanity, and the courage to act upon whatever the known demands. A pedagogy of questioning can begin to open those doors.