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The Ecology of Teaching

More Than a Gesture: Toward a Pedagogy of Community


Hector J. Vila is an Assistant Professor in Writing at Middlebury College in Vermont. He has been teaching writing in urban and rural environments since 1985. Hector is the author of
Life-Affirming Acts: Education as Transformation in the Writing Classroom. Throughout his career he has always worked, in one way or another, with K-12 partners. Hector is a regular essayist for Community Works Journal, taking a deeper look at current events, ideas, and trends. He feels that it is clear that we–Americans–are being challenged to examine ourselves, re-assess our principles, values, and ideals; to challenge our pre-conceived notions of ourselves; to then perhaps move towards a fresher perspective.

It's inescapable that when we speak about education we speak about pedagogy. And when we speak about pedagogy, we actually never speak about pedagogy at all—that is to say, never in meaningful and significant ways. Instead, the language around the method and practice of teaching is rife with utopian aspirations, anxiety and discontent.

Thus is pedagogy's paradox. Or to state it another way: pedagogy is a form and in this form there are at least three postulates that create its meaning, and our confusion and uneasiness, even displeasure, with education writ large.

First, pedagogy is foremost a secret; it secludes its true function. It must be obscure to function effectively; it must always be unknown. Its true significance is concealed. Second, its undisclosed objective is to serve the ruling ideology, which mandates a blurring of the distinctions between the State and the individual, the State and global capitalism, the corporation and the individual; and that the true aim of pedagogy is to discipline and separate according to capital's insistence on a strict hierarchy. The ruling ideology, and its disciplining mechanisms (high stakes testing; tutors and consultants and test-prep courses for those that can afford these; admission processes; school brands that promise socio-economic status; specialized codes: the pursuit of excellence, success and so on...), effectively communicates the social structure through pedagogy. Third, pedagogy behaves as a signifier for a collective discontent with its most perplexing bind: the utopian notion that material success is achievable—later, at some point in the unforeseen future—by marrying knowledge and skills with a hyperindividualism we define as aspiration, and the subtle, rigid and robust reordering of culture along power and class lines that genuflect to the ruling ideology's voracious needs, not least of which must be that all aspiration is mediated and of single purpose—the accumulation of wealth by a few.

Pedagogy thus separates rather than unites; it is hierarchical in nature while promoting democratic vistas; it punishes and rewards; it represses and moves one away from the self, which, in turn, must aspire to a higher purpose—materialist dreams.

Pedagogy is a dream allegory.

Pedagogy is a gesture; it is therefore of course empty. It points in one direction towards an unachievable future that is romanticized by capitalism, while paradoxically negating the very existence of that possible outcome. Rather pedagogy signifies allegiance; it suggests one's place, one's position in the hierarchy. We embrace the promise inherent in its nomenclature of hope and possibility through materialism—the unachievable—yet knowingly acquiesce to the notion that nothing will change. Utopia, by its very definition, requires a crisis, as Slavoj Žižek, argues. Utopia is not a dream of a romanticized future, rather it comes about because there is no future present, because there is a crisis of being and tomorrow has to be created desperately so—in desperation. But pedagogy's insistence is that there is no need for a Utopia. Pedagogy simply promises more of the same because things are fine as they are. Pedagogy, then, removes its own promise of possibility; it calls attention to it, and conceals it too. The paradox. The first function of pedagogy as a secret begins here when what it means is simply that I want to belong; it's a calling card, not a method or a procedure.


Pedagogy's evolution is not surprising since our uses of language are callous—and focused on a means of exchange. Pedagogy conforms to methods of conditioning presupposed by commodity culture. Pedagogy is a quid pro quo: you do this for that. The consequence is that language suffers; we toss around words much too quickly, without much thought, and usually just to fit into a conversation—or to gain something, a self-serving advantage, guided by the exchange mechanisms of commodity culture. Schooling is therefore consistent with our means of exchange. Schooling compels us to move on, forward, towards unachievable Utopian materialist dreams so we don't stop to examine the socio-cultural-historical implications of terms - we just can't. In the end, truth is we just want to be in the dominant group, hip, with it; we want to be seen—and heard—just enough to be thought of as oh, s/he's with us, s/he belongs. We go along, quietly. Pedagogy, here, signifies how easily we are willing to be silent practitioners of the way things are. There is a cost to belonging—a surplus value. We don't want to be on the margins—or marginalized—so we accept the sham.

"At a time when critical thought has been flattened," argues Henry A. Giroux in America's Education Deficit and the War on Youth, "it becomes imperative to develop a discourse of critique and possibility - one that recognizes that without an informed citizenry, collective struggle, and dynamic social movements, hope for a viable democratic future will slip out of reach...If left unchecked, then tomorrow's concern will be less a persistent democratic deficit than the rise of a new authoritarianism."

As early as 1838, at the dawn of a nation, in his Divinity School Address, delivered before the Senior Class at Harvard (of course), on Sunday evening, July 15, Ralph Waldo Emerson already saw the flattening of critical thinking Giroux speaks about depressing pedagogy:

The spirit only can teach. Not any profane man, not any sensual, not any liar, not any slave can teach, but only he can give, who has; he only can create, who is. The man on whom the soul descends, through whom the soul speaks, alone can teach. Courage, piety, love, wisdom, can teach; and every man can open his door to these angels, and they shall bring him the gift of tongues. But the man who aims to speak as books enable, as synods use, as the fashion guides, and as interest commands, babbles. Let him hush.

Pedagogy, in 1838, is about imitation and following predetermined conditions—strict guidelines molded by an elite forging a culture around its influence and power; it's going along. But, Emerson continues, "Imitation cannot go above its model. The imitator dooms himself to hopeless mediocrity. The inventor did it, because it was natural to him, and so in him it has a charm. In the imitator, something else is natural, and he bereaves himself of his own beauty, to come short of another man's."

In Teaching to Transgress bell hooks asks the following of us:

To educate as a practice of freedom is a way of teaching that anyone can learn. That learning process comes easiest to those of us who teach and who also believe that there is an aspect of our vocation that is sacred; who believe that our work is not merely to share information but to share in the intellectual and spiritual growth of our students. To teach in a manner that respects and cares for the souls of our students is essential if we are to provide the necessary conditions where learning can most deeply and intimately begin.

Here, hooks is channeling Emerson: teaching—method and practice—is communing; it is intellectual and spiritual, and physical as well since we're reaching for something sacred. Emerson saw the students of Harvard's Divinity School moving away from their sacredness because they were being asked to follow and to pay homage to the noble books—and ideals—that came before them, leaving their spirits aside, leaving their dreams and ambitions. They were moving towards a spiritual and intellectual incarceration—which is where Giroux says we're moving. Emerson saw that this pedagogical model was asking students to repress their longings and enter into an intellectual assembly line. It's what we do today, too.

Sharing is key in hooks. Sharing is key to the method and practice of pedagogy; yet when we talk about pedagogy, we're talking about delivery systems, technologies, assessment; we're talking, not about sharing, but rather about imparting. But to share means, as Emerson says, "to have" and "who is." He who gives, and has, according to Emerson—and hooks—is s/he who understands that any method and practice must begin with a privileging of respect; that is to say, that the teacher must work very hard—and be vulnerable—in her attempt to acknowledge each individual voice in a given classroom. This is, as hooks says, only a beginning—but it's a beginning that demonstrates to students that this teacher is; that this teacher is present, inside an intimacy that exists—and must be acknowledged - between the student and the teacher.

Intimacy is the revolutionary apparatus missing from pedagogy.

When we talk about pedagogy—and we do—we never speak about intimacy, about sharing and the faith this requires that students will reciprocate; when we talk about pedagogy, we never talk about how teaching must be, at some level, a critique of all pedagogies that reside inside the pedagogy of the moment because, when uttered, all variants of conditioning that commodity culture postulates inform it; and when we talk about pedagogy, as we push its significance to suggest that what we're doing is trying to make students more valuable, which is how we commodify - and how we too are simply nodes on the production line helping the system along, be as it is - we never talk about how teaching, as a practice for freedom, must embolden individuals to redefine themselves and challenge preconceived notions pertaining to the spaces we reside in our culture. Which is to say, that pedagogy must separate the learning from the commodification of being.

The practice of freedom requires questioning, which brings us full-circle to hooks' mentor, Paulo Freire. Education takes place when there are two learners who occupy somewhat different spaces in an ongoing dialogue; and that the objective of this space is to foster reflection of the self as an actor—as makers of culture and meaning. A pedagogy that does not question itself and its practitioners, like this, is no pedagogy at all.

When we talk about education, and we talk about pedagogy, we have to begin with pedagogy's weighty history, unpack it, describe how we feel, dialog, and re-design the institution in ways that move us, with students, towards a freedom that appears to be vaporizing before our very eyes. The practice of freedom—from Emerson to Freire to hooks to us—means the hard work of creating the spaces we need to develop our voices, individually and collectively. Only then can we feel for someone else. When we talk about education, we need to address, says Giroux, "how the public is educated (what I call public pedagogy) ... Issues of identity, desire, and agency must be considered as part of an energized struggle to reclaim the promise of a substantive global democracy."

When we speak about pedagogy, we never acknowledge our complicity in moving us—all of us—away from "the promise of a substantive global democracy"; we never speak about how, instead, we've allowed "public pedagogy" to be absconded by neoliberalism's false promise of a brighter future—Utopia—through privatization, bigger corporate tax breaks, income and wealth inequality, and the ongoing merger of financial and military spheres that diminish our authority. This is pedagogy's secret—how it's gotten us here; how we abide; and how willingly we accept pedagogy's truest function—the bringing about of "the symbolic order."

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