Exploring the Unknown

Exploring the Unknown
Representing the 99%!

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Thoughts on Consumption, Teaching and Learning By Peter Cohen

Paulo Freire (Pedagogy of the Oppressed)
Photo © Beatriz Esmer
I look back now on a career that began more than twenty years ago as a teacher at Seward Park High School in New York City which served mostly working class Dominican and Puerto Rican students. I arrived at Seward Park with a group of new teachers who were influenced by Paulo Freire whose best known work is Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Throughout this and subsequent books, Freire argues for a system of education that emphasizes learning as an act of culture and freedom.  He spoke of conscientization or the process in which men, not as recipients, but as knowing subjects achieve a deepening awareness both of the sociocultural reality that shapes their lives and of their capacity to transform that reality.

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Not all teachers, or for that matter administrators, were in favor of anything even mildly innovative. What I found striking however, was that the greatest resistance to conscientization came from the students themselves. To be sure, many students were engaged and interested, however, beyond school, fashion, jewelry or simply money were far more seductive and satisfying.  The ideas of equity and change were no match for the allure of consumption. Certainly it could be argued that coming from working class and/or immigrant homes an experience of deprivation colored their thinking.  I believe however, that these students were not the exception; they reveal a larger issue that cuts across class lines and poses a challenge to teachers today; that education, as a formal process by which society deliberately transmits its accumulated knowledge, skills, customs and values from one generation to another, has been neutralized and replaced by consumption in North America.

The Frankfurt School and Critical Theory are supportive in this regard.  The Frankfurt School, founded in 1923, included the key figures of Theodor Adorno (1903-1969), Max Horkheimer (1895-1973) and Herbert Marcuse (1898-1979). Also connected with the school were Walter BenjaminRobert Lowenthal and Erich Fromm. All Jewish, they fled Germany with the rise of the National Socialists. Not surprisingly, the themes and issues they explored most often focused on the power of fascism between 1930 and 1944.  Their collective experience resulted in an explicit pessimism. Critical Theory is the fruit of the Frankfurt School; it explores the quality and structure of social relations and how the expression of dominant interests systematically suppresses alternative meanings and perspective on everyday life through ideology and repression.

Photo © Ludilozezanje
The contemporary relevance of critical thought was expressed by Adorno and Horkheimer when they wrote:
"The ruthless unity in the culture industry is evidence of what will happen in politics. Marked differentiations such as those of A and B films, or of stories in magazines in different price ranges, depend not so much on subject matter as on classifying, organizing, and labeling consumers. Something is provided for all so that none may escape; the distinctions are emphasized and extended. The public is catered for with a hierarchical range of mass-produced products of varying quality, thus advancing the rule of complete quantification."  
Photo © The Guardian.com
Herbert Marcuse reinforced his colleagues’ thinking when he stated:
"We may distinguish both true and false needs. "False" are those which are superimposed upon the individual by particular social interests in his repression: the needs which perpetuate toil, aggressiveness, misery, and injustice. Their satisfaction might be most gratifying to the individual, but this happiness is not a condition which has to be maintained and protected if it serves to arrest the development of the ability (his own and others) to recognize the disease of the whole and grasp the chances of curing the disease. The result then is euphoria in unhappiness. Most of the prevailing needs to relax, to have fun, to behave and consume in accordance with the advertisements, to love and hate what others love and hate, belong to this category of false needs." 

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And the impact on North America? A cultural and political context that limits human potential and oppositional imagination in radical fashion. Consumption is hardly the lighthearted expression of a person’s will in the marketplace; it is the ideological antithesis of Freire’s notion of conscientization. Accelerating patterns of consumption and its bi-product entertainment have become the arbiters of daily experience in the post industrial economy.  The classroom then, is not sacred space nor the temple of the intellect; it is a zone of contention where even minimal conscientization clashes with and far too often loses in the face of an audience (students) who have been socialized from birth in an ever tightening Marcusean system.  Students thus reproduce and impose in the classroom what has been imposed on them--they have become the arbiters of what occurs in the classroom. Perhaps this explains the frustration of my colleagues with the passive-aggressive behaviours of students in the contemporary classroom; that there is a larger systemic issue to be confronted and individual student behaviours are symptoms of a greater malady.


Adorno, Theodore., Horkheimer, Max. (2007). Dialectic of Enlightenment. Stanford University Press.

Longhofer, Wesley., Winchester, Daniel. (2012). Social Theory Re-Wired: New Connections to Classical and Contemporary Perspectives. Routledge.

About The Author

Peter Cohen (B.A., M.A.) is presently teaching at Champlain College Lennoxville located in Quebec, Canada. Thoughts on Consumption, Teaching and Learning was originally written in 2012 as an independent paper.

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