Growing up in the South Bronx in the 1950s, Ira Shor was bored and mischievous in school, but curious and engaged outside of class. “We were being treated like morons and turned into robots,” he later wrote of himself and his fellow students, “and I rebelled against the stupidity.” He became an eleven-year-old leader of student resistance, starting a school newspaper that his principal soon banned.
But Shor was intellectually gifted, so his teachers wooed him, telling him he was smarter than his peers. One of his teachers called his mother, who took a day off from work to come in and discuss her son’s behavior. She explained that he was bored in school, but when the teacher responded that the alternative was private school, she backed down, ashamed of being working-class. Eventually, with his mother’s encouragement, Shor became a star student, and even a teacher’s pet. That is, until the upheaval of the 1960s, when he got swept up in protest culture and rediscovered his taste for challenging authority.
When Shor began working as a professor at the City University of New York in 1971, he was eager to provide his working-class students with a different kind of education. He stayed on at CUNY until his retirement earlier this year. Over the course of that half-century span, Shor became a leading practitioner of critical pedagogy. Most famously popularized by Paolo Freire in the landmark book Pedagogy of the Oppressed, this approach to teaching is rooted in the belief that all education is inherently political. It empowers students to pose and solve problems in their own lives, engage in critical conversations about the systems of power that hold them down, and liberate themselves and others in order to transform the world.
Dr. Shor was a disciple and colleague of Freire, and the two co-authored A Pedagogy for Liberation: Dialogues on Transforming Education in 1987. Shor has also written and edited other books, including Empowering Education: Critical Teaching for Social Change.
Shor spoke with me via Zoom from his home in Montclair, New Jersey, where he has lived since 2003. His study was cluttered with books and papers. (He’d made no apparent attempt to curate a “credibility bookcase.”) We talked about what he learned from his students, how he would approach remote learning, and how to understand our current moment of crisis.
—DJ Cashmere for Guernica
Guernica: Education in America looks very different now than it did when you and I first started talking about doing this interview. As you observe this moment of education amidst the coronavirus, what has surprised you?
Ira Shor: The whole society has been made unnecessarily vulnerable. The nation’s politicians and industrial managers had all the resources at their disposal to manage this crisis as successfully as Denmark or Korea. We’re richer, and we have far more resources than they do. But we turn out to be at the bottom. I think we’re all being victimized by a government and a system that’s hostile to our success and our health and our families. And that’s shocking.
The other thing that’s shocking is the way it’s revealed the cost of the last forty or forty-five years. When CUNY was crushed in the 1970s, it was one of the first major casualties of this wave of neoliberalism, the conservative counterattack following the mass movements of the 1960s. We had our salaries frozen; we had our benefits cut; free tuition was ended. Since then, New York is almost like a laboratory: an experiment to see how to spread this economic terrorism to the rest of the country. And we can count the damage.
We can see, for example, that the poorer you are, the more likely you are to get infected, the less likely you are to get health care, and the more likely you are to die from the disease. The poor include a disproportionate number of Black and brown folks, so we know that Americans of color are being disproportionately victimized.
And it turns out that a lot of kids in urban areas don’t have Internet access. We’ve known this all along, but there’s never been a serious attempt to provide the lowest-income families with the bandwidth and hardware they need. Now we see the price of that.
I’m shocked by this, but not surprised. I’ve been watching the cuts to public hospitals, public parks, public transit, public housing, public schools. More and more, you have to be in a family with a high-enough income so that family affluence fills in the gaps that neoliberalism has created in public goods.
Guernica: You’ve written about how, under more normal circumstances, uncooperative or unproductive students are often mislabeled as “mediocre.” But actually, they’re not mediocre, they’re on a “performance strike.” Which is to say, they are refusing to engage in a curriculum that doesn’t serve their needs. You’ve said this strike is usually not organized or formal or even acknowledged, but you call it a “strike” nonetheless.
Shor: In 1971, I was teaching working-class students at Staten Island Community College. They’d begun as kids asking a million questions like all young kids do. But over time, they’d been marginalized by an inadequate and teacher-centered school system.
I called the process of mass education “endullment.” This was a way of just getting them used to putting up with authority and preparing for their slot, accommodating themselves to their lesser slots in society. They were not encouraged to imagine themselves as civic actors in a world where they took responsibility for what happened to society. They were C students in high school. Very mediocre students. The society created them as C students.
But when I would finally strike upon a unit or an activity that would engage them, or a theme that really mattered to them, they came to life. They wrote and read. They contributed a lot. So, I said, “Alright. Here they are. They’re ready to perform under these conditions. And sometimes they won’t perform, because I can’t get it right….They’re on strike! They’re on strike against an institution which has subordinated them, underestimated them, and undereducated them.”
They were on strike. They didn’t want to use their intelligence under such conditions. And they were sick of being endulled. So now I had to train myself in a process that positioned them as smart, capable, and on the road to responsibilities. That became the dialogic pedagogy that I began to write about and practice more.
But that school system that promotes endullment and encourages a performance strike continues.
Guernica: In A Pedagogy for Liberation, you describe students who “are very clever in hiding from the teacher.” You write that “people from dominated groups speak several idioms, depending on their situation. When authorities are around, they use a defensive language full of artificial ploys and constructions to ‘get by.’” This hit home for me, because I taught for eight years in Chicago, but I don’t think I really started having consistently authentic conversations with my students until the seventh year. And of course, I also didn’t know, for the first six years, that I was having inauthentic conversations!
So how can teachers, especially early-career teachers, know whether or not their students are “hiding from” them?
Shor: There are several ways to hide. One is the official teacherly discourse that students mimic to get the teacher to leave them alone.
Students also wrestle the teacher for control of time in the classroom by, for example, asking teachers to repeat something they already understand. Because if you get the teacher to repeat something you already understand, that limits anything new the teacher can say. And it shortens the content of the class, so you’re responsible for less. You also demonstrate to the teacher that you’re paying attention and eager to learn more. When I began to notice this, I would point to a student and say, “OK, you repeat what I said and explain it to that guy over there.”
I don’t have an angelic view of students as “the oppressed.” They’re very muscular! They’re muscular participants in a hostile environment who figure out how to deal with it. I have to try to neutralize those muscular confrontations.
Some of that involves humor. The other thing is content: the subject matter has to feel urgent and close to the students, so that as many of them as possible feel, “Well, maybe in this class, we’re talking about something that makes sense, or makes a difference.”
Guernica: Elsewhere in A Pedagogy for Liberation, you write about the “symbolic violence” imposed on students by rules, testing, punishment, and an insistence on standard English. But in Empowering Education, you judge the success of your own remedial writing class at CUNY, in part, by how many students pass their writing exam. Which brings up this very real tension that a lot of educators feel, and I know I felt in the classroom, between the desire to resist mandates and the very real responsibility to prepare students for what the world expects of them.
Shor: I told the students that I spoke against the test in every faculty meeting I could and wrote against the test when I published in journals. But I didn’t have the power to get them out of the test. These are the limits of pedagogy.
A few weeks before the writing test, we went into a drill. I was trying to quarantine this bad curriculum into a three-week spot, so that the other twelve weeks, I could pursue a pedagogy that was dialogic, democratic, and authentic.
To end that test, the students and I had to leave the classroom and go out and organize mass movements of students and professors and parents to force the university and the state education department to change the curriculum.
When I go outside the classroom, the pedagogy is one of mass movement and political opposition to the status quo. When I’m in the classroom, the pedagogy also includes opposition to the status quo, but it takes a different shape. It has to do with a syllabus and activities and lessons and so on.
If we don’t have a powerful mass movement outside the classroom to defend the inside of the classroom, there’s a limit on what we can do in our teaching.
Guernica: You are newly retired after nearly half a century of service. How are you spending your time?
Shor: You don’t realize how much pressure working puts on you until you stop working!
Guernica: I can’t imagine.
Shor: You really can’t imagine. When it stops, it’s so quiet and relaxing. I’m a little overwhelmed by the enjoyment of a lack of anxiety and pressure, and that’s really very pleasant.
Paleontology and archeology have always been hobbies of mine. So, I’ve been carefully reading books on how inequality evolved in human society—like when foraging and hunter-gathering groups turned into agrarian villages, and there was this very long period where hierarchy began to overthrow equality.
Guernica: I understand that you are no longer teaching, but just as a thought experiment, let’s say that you had one semester left, and it happened to be starting next week. Would your critical pedagogy look any different over Zoom than it did in your physical classroom?
Shor: Instead of online lecture, we should be posing provocative problems that are meaningful and legible to the students. I’d pose a problem, provide background reading on the problem, and ask the students to write about and discuss the problem.
Then I might say, “OK, look, we’ll be back tomorrow. Whoever you’re living with right now, talk to them about this problem tonight.” That’s how I would begin.
Guernica: One more question: what should parents, students, and teachers be on the lookout for in the months ahead when it comes to coronavirus and education?
Shor: There is likely to be a strong push to institutionalize more extensive online classes and instruction. All of us have been forced to do it, and the high-tech industry has an enormous profit to be made by increasing this activity in the public schools.
This would be a terrible mistake. There is no substitute for the face-to-face, in-person contact that creative teachers can manage with students in the classroom.