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Education for a new knowledge underclass

While the original focus of Paulo Friere’s educational philosophy in Pedagogy of the Oppressed, written some thirty-seven years ago, was the underclass within the two-thirds world, much of his approach is acutely relevant to what appears to be a new underclass in the affluent West in 2013.

This underclass can be referred to as the ‘knowledge underclass’ within western democracies. This new ‘knowledge underclass’ is primarily affluent middle-class apathetic consumers, who have been taught not to think about the world in which they live or the major issues confronting its future. Instead they focus on (predominantly) mindless consumerism and materialism.

This middle-class is primarily educated through a banking model of education in which the scope of action allowed to the students extends only as far as receiving, filing, and storing the deposits made by the teacher or the expert. Critical inquiry is mooted in favor of reciting and learning information with a focus on compliance with the system and neo-liberal self-interest. This ‘education’ continues through adulthood via media ‘information’ and ‘infotainment’ (as distinct from knowledge) that recite the same messages over and over to ensure the ‘masses’ are opiated by their own self-interest.

In order for society to have the capacity to act – rather than remain half asleep or inert and frozen in a sea of ignorance and self-interest – knowledge is of central importance. If democracy is to really work then knowledgeable individuals – given the freedom to choose governments and affect society’s capacity to act – need to morph into knowledgeable democracies that act positively to address the major challenges the world currently faces.

The problem however remains clear. Undoubtedly the type of information we receive in the western world affects our assumption that we are ‘knowledgeable’. The problem is evident when consumption of ‘information’ collected to support a particular worldview is taken as ‘knowledge’ without ever waking up to its particular interests and political commitments. Billboards, televisions, news reports (that are more or less with a few exceptions really just ‘infotainment’), tabloids, advertisements – the list goes on – constantly bombard us with ‘information’ that many then take as ‘knowledge’.

But as Friere argues, knowledge emerges only through invention and re-invention, through the restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry human beings pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other.

‘Knowledge’ requires a wakefulness that takes people from half asleep, unconscious receivers of information, to a more critically reflective state of consciousness that requires the deliberate act of thinking and reflecting on the information we receive, and developing a clear set of building blocks for a worldview. This requires a space and a place for education – or ‘consciousness raising’ that leads to ‘knowledge’ that in turn leads to awareness (not apathetic disinterest) of the world around us and what is taking place within it.

We need education that questions why things are the way they are and whose interest it serves. Education for change is required from the earliest years of life’s experience and should be continued as part of a life-long learning process.

In the face of the ‘grand challenges’ of the future (ranging from climate change to ageing societies, financial crisis, poverty, social exclusion, migration, the seeking of asylum and social conflicts) it appears more urgent than ever for new streams of ‘knowledge’ to be distributed as widely as possible. This will help to shake people in the Western world awake, and encourage a critical awareness that provides society with the capacity to act for the common good.


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