Saturday, May 2, 2015

Metaphors We Teach By, Part One: Cultivating Student Empowerment - The Rhetoric of Debt vs. the Rhetoric of Emancipation

I’ve been wanting to do a series of posts on some of the books I’ve read recently that have had great influence on how I think as an educator – most of them being related to pedagogy in some way or another. The least obvious of the bunch (in this regard) is the highly original study, Debt: The First 5,000 Years, by activist and anthropologist, David Graeber.

I wanted to reflect on a specific chapter from Graeber’s study: “The Moral Grounds of Economic Relations” – focusing more specifically on a certain passage which begins with a question:

What, then, is debt?
               Debt is a very specific thing, and it arises from very specific situations. It first requires a relationship between two people who do not consider each other fundamentally different sorts of beings, who are at least potential equals, who are equals in those ways that are really important, and who are not currently in a state of equality – but for whom there is some way to set matters straight. (120)

Debt only makes sense if two people are equals - you and the person to whom you are indebted are of equal status for such exchange to make sense, but what happens to this relationship of equality when the debt becomes unpayable? Graeber writes, “During the time that the debt remains unpaid, the logic of hierarchy takes hold. There is no reciprocity” (121). Debt has a powerful impact upon how we view relationships of power between people and it even impacts (whether we are aware of it or not) our moral assessment of each other’s position in the dynamic of power relations: “This is what makes situations of effectively unpayable debt so difficult and so painful. Since creditor and debtor are ultimately equals, if the debtor cannot do what it takes to restore herself to equality, there is obviously something wrong with her; it must be her fault” (121).  Debt complicates the relationships between equals, warping reciprocity in terms of power and moral recognition. Graeber even traces the etymology of the word “debt” to terms like “fault,” “sin,” and “guilt,” but he also points out a consideration that rarely gets brought up: the moral responsibility of the keeper of debts.  If a debt – practically speaking – becomes unpayable then by definition what bonds the relationship between the two “unequal equals” is not debt at all. Instead, the debtor is in a relationship of hierarchy where she pays “tribute” (not an installment) to “a lord” (as opposed to a lender). Equality disappears and moral scrutiny is directed towards the debtor alone.

Debt can destroy communities of equals, especially when the function of debt is extended to all human interactions (and especially when it becomes unpayable). “All human interactions are not forms of exchange,” Graeber writes. “Only some are. Exchange encourages a particular way of conceiving human relations” (122).  What happens when we employ the logic of exchange and the language of debt to spheres of human interaction that cannot be reduced to the metaphor of market exchange? Education, for instance, is a form of human interaction, and that got me thinking: we as teachers often use metaphors and practice language games which derive their rhetorical force from the moral implications of our society’s view of debt. “Freddy, you owe me a paper on last week’s reading assignment.” When we use these metaphors and language games of debt & obligation, especially when Freddy gets overwhelmingly behind, what does it do to a student’s self-perception and sense of worth?

I want my classroom to be a social space of equals interacting with each other freely, creatively, and joyfully. All students and teachers are equals, but defining student/teacher exchanges in terms of indebtedness disrupts this harmony. I think of Jacques Ranciere’s courageous claim: All men have equal intelligence. Ranciere, who I will write more on later, claims that by getting students to recognize their equal capacity to learn anything, the teacher emancipates the student to motivate her own learning process.  I want my classroom to be a place where equals learn and discover together, but too often I rely on the rhetoric of indebtedness to get compliance when I should use a rhetoric of emancipation to ignite motivation. I think such reflections are important to revisit as we near the end of the school year and strive to keep students motivated so they finish the year strong.

I end with a question: what kind of language should we employ to encourage the student who falls behind? How can we use words other than owing work for credit, for instance? How can we keep student empowerment at the center of our concerns even when conversations must be difficult?