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Need for and Practice of Student Liberation

(A why for and how to guide)

The modern middle-class First World school and university systems are violently repressive [1]. These institutions are designed for replication and obedience training and rob the student of her natural thrust for independent inquiry, free expression, natural influence, and zeal for life [2].

Using the pretext that technical training requires “discipline” (read: mindless repetition) and “standardization” (read: demonstration of loyalty to imposed doctrine) the institutions of “higher learning” impose a regime of obedience training followed by professional and graduate school indoctrination [3].

The obedience training and whole-person neutralization is accomplished by strict and artificial disciplinal divisions, an authoritative classroom structure, an imposed unnaturally partitioned time use, unreasonable and repeatedly sequenced production deadlines (for assignments, tests, reports, examinations, etc.) that do not allow time to think, rank ordering of students to produce competition, a continuous administration of punishment and reward via grading and accreditation steps, isolation of the student where collaboration is cast as “cheating”, normalization of behaviour and opinion via imposed group think value judgments, liberal applications of double speak, and a myriad of other such methods–all constantly adjusted to the evolving cultural and local conditions.

After the student is broken down by the obedience training, she is ready for the high level indoctrination of graduate and professional schools. This is achieved by the sophisticated process described by Jeff Schmidt [3]. The professional worker must accept, make hers and project the doctrine of her “chosen” profession, in order to participate in the management of the First World Empire.

The repression of the student is real and is violent. The school and university institutions are the greatest forces in the student’s life. The outcome determines the economic and societal status of the graduate and this status in turn is the single most relevant (statistical) indicator of life expectancy and personal health.

The violence is seen in student suicides and assaults, in the widespread use of prescription psycho-pharmaceuticals and their trafficking, in widespread apathy and cynicism, in isolationism and escapism, in the modern array of self-destructive behaviours, and in the apparent relative inability to bond and form community. The root of the violence is maybe best explained by Paulo Freire [2]:

  • “Any situation in which “A” objectively exploits “B” or hinders his and her pursuit of self-affirmation as a responsible person is one of oppression. Such a situation in itself constitutes violence even when sweetened by false generosity; because it interferes with the individual’s ontological and historical vocation to be more fully human. With the establishment of a relationship of oppression, violence has already begun.”

  • “If people, as historical beings necessarily engaged with other people in a movement of inquiry, did not control that movement, it would be (and is) a violation of their humanity. Any situation in which some individuals prevent others from engaging in the process of inquiry is one of violence. The means used are not important; to alienate human beings from their own decision-making is to change them into objects.”

There is therefore a need for student liberation.

But the first barrier, as explained by Freire [2], is that the slave does not recognize that she is a slave. “We need the master because he organizes the work, feeds us, protects us…” (see also [1]).

Activist students prefer to fight for reduced tuition fees to ensure access to the oppression and its rewards. The slave should not have to pay with her future life (student debt) for the privilege of serving the master–fair enough. Slaves want to be oppressed fairly. I have known many activist students to leave demonstrations, actions, and teach ins, in order to hand in assignments for deadlines and to obediently return to an oppressive classroom on Monday morning after a weekend of “solidarity action”.

What can the student do to liberate herself?

Following Freire, I have come to believe that the answer is praxis, the “praxis” of Freire [2]. Only such action fighting one’s own oppression, in a cycle of repeated action and reflection informed by the oppressor’s backlash, leads to both a deepening understanding of the oppression and an exhilarating liberation. True solidarity in battle then arises from the coalescence of these individual revolts and builds the culture of resistance essential to any societal liberation.

At the heart of this praxis lies “authentic rebellion”. In what is perhaps the most profound statement ever made about education and learning in a hierarchical society, Freire puts it this way [2]:

  • “If children reared in an atmosphere of lovelessness and oppression, children whose potency has been frustrated, do not manage during their youth to take the path of authentic rebellion, they will either drift into total indifference, alienated from reality by the authorities and the myths the latter have used to ‘shape’ them; or they may engage in forms of destructive action.”

How does this look in practice? How does praxis start and develop?

Students already resist a lot. Resistance is widespread and takes many forms. “Work to rule” is common, to the dismay of baffled teachers. Most students refuse to adopt an artificial interest in the horse shit that is downloaded on them in the guise of intellectual discourse and that will be “on the exam”. Students know when they are being spoken to rather than engaged with. And what would it mean to engage when the other side has a gun to your head?

Students turn off and regurgitate on command to appease the oppressor. Teachers see the result but must grade satisfactorily (with an emphasis on factory) rather than confront the system’s generalized failure and their part in it. Actually, we must conclude that this universal outcome is a desired feature of the school factory [4]. It ensures apathy and compliance and guaranties suppression of participation.

In addition, students secretly (among themselves) ridicule and criticize the professor, in a healthy expression of sanity-preserving resistance. Only at the higher levels of indoctrination, when the student emulates the teacher as role model, does this behaviour subside to be replaced with ass kissing adulation.

Students also make heroic attempts to sabotage the obedience training by challenging the deadlines, workloads, grading schemes, work conditions, and atomization. They individually and collectively negotiate for extended deadlines, reduced production, mitigated punishments, etc. They challenge the isolation and imposed competition by forming workgroups and by sharing output–they find ways to cooperate at the risk of being banished via the system’s ultimate charge of “academic fraud”. In the words of David F. Noble “When did cooperation become cheating?”

More frightening are the students who are able to feign interest and to self-indoctrinate and who aggressively defend the system by punishing dissidence in their colleagues. These students want their special efforts to be recognized, rewarded, and not questioned by alternative behaviours. They want to “excel” and aspire to joining the club.

All forms of resistance are healthy and preserving if the resister sees herself as resisting and acts in defiance of the oppressor rather than succumbing to negative self-talk and negative self-image along the lines of the oppressor’s imposed ideology. Authentic rebellion is where it’s at.

More direct and satisfying forms of rebellion, that have greater potential to empower the resister, might include the following: Speaking out in class to question aspects of imposed discipline, such as the deadlines, grading scheme, relevance of the material, imposed methods, disciplinal perspectives, etc.

Such direct interventions have the benefit that the teacher will react and thereby inform the class about real aspects of the system that it would be impossible to learn otherwise. Professors will show their true colours. The students will see them deflect, misinterpret, quash, impose, negotiate, etc.; a highly instructive experience.

Start small and see if you want to push it a little further. Ask to clarify the professor’s response. Maybe ask “Why not?” Maybe state that you do not understand the reasons given? See which colleagues side with you after class or express similar questions or opinions during class. Build on that support by developing ties with potential supporters and co-resisters.

Never accept overt intimidation or abuse from the professor. Stand your ground in such violent attempts to repress your agency in the classroom. Explain the nature of the unacceptable behaviour and request an apology. Do this either privately with a witness or publicly in the classroom. If the potential for escalation of the repression exists, consider using modern technology to voice record the encounter for your protection. Such recordings of conversations that you are party to can be done secretly and are not illegal. No one needs to know and you have the benefit of knowing that you have physical proof if you ever need it for protection.

Only you can decide how far to go and how much to risk. The main point is that the lesson NOT be that you are powerless and must be subservient. Find a way for the lesson to be that you have power and can defend yourself. Find a way to win. The victory is not necessarily a policy change but rather your liberation.

In finding a way to win consider that making things public and exposing the institution’s in-class behaviour is a powerful way to both exert influence and protect yourself from further reprisals. Consider a blog and speaking to the student media or distributing flyers, etc.

A formal complaint to hierarchical authorities can also be useful, in that it will allow you to press further, to expose mechanisms of institutional cover up, and will show that you are not to be messed with. Keep your head up high knowing that you are right, that the violence against you is illegitimate, and that you need not fear the thugs that enforce the slavery from which you seek liberation.

You can always come back into the fold and power will be relieved to take you back in. This can be a good way to rest, reflect, and regroup, as you plan your continued liberation.

Eventually, you may find allies that will allow you to practice “academic squatting” of an entire class [5]. I have found this practice to be highly rewarding, even life-changing [5].

If the professor is not an ally, groups of students can consider “academic hijacking” of credit courses in which a professor is told how it is going to be and that he can either stay and participate or leave.

Students with squatting and hijacking experience have what it takes to impose reforms on the curriculum. And liberated students are independent thinkers that do not practice immoral exploitations of others. They continue their liberation into the workplace.

Such a program of liberation activism is consistent with Paulo Freire’s much repeated mantra that one can ONLY fight one’s own oppression. Individuals that accept their own oppression cannot help liberate others. They only replicate, defend, and adjust the hierarchy of oppression that they inhabit.

I wish you a joyful and intense liberation full of self discovery and learning. Kick ass, don’t kiss it.


[1] “The student as nigger”–essay by Jerry Farber

[2] “Pedagogy of the oppressed”–book by Paulo Freire

[3] “Disciplined Minds”–book by Jeff Schmidt

[4] “Canadian education as an impetus towards fascism”–essay by Denis G. Rancourt

[5] “Academic squatting”–essay by Denis G. Rancourt


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