- Miami University
- Indiana Audubon Society




An understanding of oppression is critical to the educational discourse due to it relevance to the “isms” of our nation. Racism, sexism, classism…are all niches of oppression that require further understanding of specific interactions of one particular manifestation of oppression as exercised by the dominant social agent. By defining the concept of oppression, the term may be utilized to represent more than one specific form of oppression and the underlying theme of oppression and its insidious effects can be recognized.

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A through description of oppression and it effects is provided by Freire in his text Pedagogy of the Oppressed (2002). A collection of his passages on the effects of oppression serves as a viable mechanism for defining the term. He writes that oppression:

• “prevents people from being more fully human…
• Oppressors refer to themselves in human terms, oppressed are seen as things…
• Oppressors have a right to live in peace while the oppressed are entitled to live because the oppressors need them…
• Their [the oppressed] perception of themselves as oppressed is impaired by their submersion in the reality of oppression.” (Freire, 2002, p. 45)
• “The oppressor consciousness tends to transform everything surrounding it into an object of its domination. The earth, property, production, the creations of people, peoples themselves, time – everything is reduced to the status of objects at its disposal.” (Freire, 2002, p. 58)

Freire (2002) states that the sinister impact of oppression is sometimes so complete that those being oppressed do not recognize they are oppressed even though they may act out within their oppressed group in violent frustration to their oppression. The oppressed may come to view liberation as a threat to their oppressed way of life and therefore view freedom of oppression as a feared prospect. Potential freedom would require them to venture into an unknown realm that is uncertain and unknown. The recognized life as an oppressed group or individual may provide more security than that of life in an unknown dimension.

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A key element of Freire’s analysis of oppression is the emancipatory effect that freedom of oppression provides to the oppressors themselves. The oppressors must enact upon themselves certain oppressive behaviors in order to maintain their status as an oppressor. Thus, Freire maintains that the “great humanistic and historical task of the oppressed [is] to liberate themselves and their oppressors as well.” (Freire, 2002, p. 44)

An analysis of class oppression in France is presented by Bourdieu. (1984) He describes the manner in which the upper social classes enforce their status and the efforts that the lower classes go through to transcend classes. This results in class mimicry by the lower classes while they are unintentionally reinforcing the elite nature of the upper classes. This exacts an economic and social cost on both classes. The oppressive nature of the elite class upon the lower classes retains an exploitative and dominant position by one group upon another.

Oppression is clearly manifested in issues of race relations in the United States. The multifaceted manifestations of racial oppression are interpreted by Cornel West in his text The Cornel West Reader. (1999) West eloquently describes contemporary racial oppression through the lenses of several different political paradigms in his book. Due to limitations on space however, I would like to summarize his original classification of racial oppression. West finds that racial oppression must be located in the historical context of white oppression in the Western cultures. In the United States there is a long history of slavery and the development of attitudes that accompanied this practice. These attitudes can remain in spite of the legal termination of the practice of slavery. He finds it essential to study the remaining “microinstitutional” racial oppression that is present in the daily lives of those oppressed. This represents media portrayals and other subliminal or overt representations of peoples’ locations as racialized beings. Tony Morrison’s novel, The Bluest Eye (1994), and bell hooks (1997) captures this rampant form of oppression in America. Morrison’s African American characters are immersed in a white world that demeans and belittles their inherent beauty to the point where they end up despising themselves due to the oppressive white Sausserian signifiers that dominate society. The generation of educational materials which feature white society exclusively, reveals a tremendous insensitivity to the cultural and individual needs of non-white audiences who are forced to utilize such materials in educational settings. bell hooks also represents this oppressed positioning in her analysis of the marketing racist and sexist marketing of African American women in various forms of media. (bell hooks, 1997) African American women are represented as exotic seductresses that conform to standards of “white” beauty although they have different skin tones. While oppression is frequently recognized in the categories discussed so far, there is also a discourse in oppressive practices in content specific areas. It is to this discussion that I will now focus in the content area of science education.

Analysis of the oppressive teaching of science reveals the tradition of positivist practices that dis-empowers learners. Geary (2002) discusses the evolutionary psychology of learning with a focus on science. He discusses the processes that involve human evolution that resulted in the survival of the species on the social level. He concludes that there had to have been a genetic predisposition for the species that fostered social behaviors enabling the organization of groups to interact and depend on one another. This predisposition however, is very basic in its intellectual capabilities and is rooted in what he terms “folk knowledge” (p. 327). He states that,

“The gist of the premises is that folk knowledge and inferential and attributional biases are not sufficient for academic learning in modern society, but, at the same time, are the foundations from which many academic competencies are likely to be built.” (p. 328)

He claims that educational practices require the securing of new experiences and learning to the individual’s folk knowledge in order for new constructs to be internalized within the individual. The “goal of schools will be to narrow this gap” between the individual’s experience and the educational objectives incorporated by the teachers in the classrooms (p. 330). Failure in pedagogy to close the gap to a position from which the learner can successfully step from one level of understanding to another, destines the learner to befuddlement and potentially to estrangement. When an educational program fails to recognize this position, Geary posits that the educational process ceases in a productive manner. Others have documented this occurrence in their research within science education.

Barton (1998) and Roth & Barton (2004) have discussed the alienating experiences students of science have experienced in science classrooms. The failure of teachers to “narrow the gap” between the folk knowledge and educational objectives has caused students to learn that science is irrelevant to their lives and too difficult to study. These students articulate (du Gay, 1997) their experiences by identifying themselves as intellectually incapable of learning science (Barton, 1998). I see this as a discriminatory and oppressive practice towards students. This is analogous to oppressive practices towards gender, race, class, ethnicity and others. By failing to recognize the biological need to work with the folk knowledge of the individuals, and to advance preconceived educational objectives in the form of codified standards, educators are denying the educational experience to their clientele based on individual’s inherited folk knowledge…an aspect of their lives that is just as unfaultafiable as their skin color, gender, etc.

West demands that we must look at the institutionalized racial oppression in the forms of our governments, bureaucracies, and social classes. When I reflect on the growth of my sensitivity to the oppressive walls found in our society when these parameters are considered, I intuit that as a white male, I am just beginning to recognize the size of the oppression positioned in America today. This interpretation is integral to a cultural studies analysis as would be advocated by du Gay (1997). Cultural Studies serves as a valuable tool to analyze and link the various forms of oppression woven throughout American culture.

This analysis of oppression causes me to reflect on the role society plays in the reproduction and maintenance of culturally oppressive practices as portrayed by du Gay. (1997) Barbazon (2005) posits that “the main question to ask is with regard to consciousness: how does such popular culture provide knowledge about the self? Music, film and television do not offer moments of resistance: they frequently reinforce disempowerment or discouragement.” I ask how the educational structures currently positioned for our society are being undercut by the ideals of capitalism and consumerism. These forces promote such blatant oppression towards children, as well as the adults, that are formulating our nation’s future. The educational reforms necessary in the future must develop sensitivity to these insipient forms of oppression as well as the more blatant forms. A progressive educational agenda must strive to liberate all persons from the various forms of oppression.