Guest Post by Bilkalpa Chakraborty: A Student’s View on Oppression in Education

I am honored to present this wise essay written by my student, Bilkalpa Chakraborty. She writes that “Humans are known for their brains. When the education system does not respect the human brain, it is dehumanizing the students.” Read her full essay below.—Jennifer Hurley

The meaning of the word “oppression” varies from person to person. The general meaning of oppression is trying to control others with prolonged cruel and unjust treatment. Oppression can be found in society in many forms: racism, the teaching process in academic models, power display of hierarchical groups, dos and don’ts lists, politics, social norms, etc. From the dawn of civilization, human beings learned to oppress others to fulfill their requirements and necessities. First, they oppressed other living beings who were less powerful than them. Gradually, they created society and formed a hierarchical system where the top rows were reserved for society’s influential people. They displayed their power in the form of oppression. For example, the British ruled over the world and showed their power in the form of oppression. We passed that era, but the oppression had been deeply rooted in our society. With time the application of oppression has been changed, but we still follow the hierarchical system. In the education system as well, we can find oppression. The upper management of the academic model generates the process, and other members follow them unquestioningly. Explaining the education system with the word “oppression” is legitimate as oppression is deeply rooted in our society, affecting the education system with poorly structured processes and rules. 

The conventional way of teaching demands students to follow pre-determined rules, and that limits their creativity. In the current educational structure, teachers oppress the students intentionally or unintentionally and neglect their abilities. They treat students as objects to fill with knowledge and ideas, but a classroom needs to be mutually dependent on both the teachers and the students. Teachers should give students a chance to decode the messages in their own way and question the teacher. Students can agree and disagree or come up with new ideas. Teachers also need to learn from students and add new ideas to their existing knowledge. Otherwise, education cannot form a complete human being with all the necessary skills, values, and principles. Education is there to help students understand their inner selves and help them to make their own decisions. The system constructed teachers’ mentality to oppress students, but the teachers are also being oppressed by following and trusting the system blindly.

The education system is still following the old conventional academic model. Sir Ken Robinson, in his TED Talk “Changing Education Paradigms,” discussed the current education system’s problem and mentioned that “They are trying to meet the future by doing what they did in the past and on the way, they are alienating millions of kids who don’t see any purpose in going to school.” We are in the 21st century but trying to solve problems in the way we did in the 18th century. The world has changed a lot over the years. With new inventions and technology, peoples’ lifestyles, food habits, thinking process, perspectives on different things, society’s rules, and norms, everything has changed and modified. How can we rely on the old version of teaching in this new world? There are more distractions here for students. They easily get distracted by electronic gadgets and fancy things. They have more options to pursue and build their careers. Students in the 18th century did not experience these; they did not have the opportunity to browse the world sitting in their homes. They constructed ideas depending on what others were saying without questioning. Now students question on the reliability of today’s education system, and they feel alienated. Students in the 18th century or later might not find this system oppressive as they did not have other options to explore. They followed what was offered to them. This was the primary structure of the education model and was tailored to the needs of that era. But in the 21st century, with the vast change of the world, we need to change the education system and reform it as per the demands of this age.

By following the old model, the education system is oppressing students. Students play passive roles in the learning process. Paulo Freire said in his book Pedagogy of the Oppressed, “The teacher talks about reality as if it were motionless, static, compartmentalized, and predictable.” The teachers narrate the values of lives, reality, ethics, and other education contents. This process makes the contents lifeless and irrelevant to the students. Teachers try to convey their knowledge to the students by providing information about the world and reality, which seems expected, stable, and unchanged. They create a misconception about what is real: “The contents, whether values or empirical dimensions of reality, tend in the process of being narrated to become lifeless and petrified. Education is suffering from narration sickness” (Freire). Teachers tend to pass on the same knowledge they have learned and experienced but do not let students experience this independently. Students see the world through someone else’s eyes. Students need to understand the world on their own through proper education, which can help them understand a human being’s value. Reading books and listening to teachers’ speeches do not allow children to form values and principles and correctly develop thinking processes. 

Sir Ken Robinson said that when this education system was formed, students were taught to follow a conception where they study hard and earn degrees, they would get a job. We are trying to build our future by relying on old data and ignoring the current situation. With time everything changes, and students need to realize the reality to understand their worth.  For example, having a degree in the past could guarantee a job, but nowadays, in the age of vast and challenging competition, a degree is good to have but not an assurance of a job. Many of our students of this age find having a degree unnecessary and trying to quit the conventional education model. Unfortunately, the education system is isolating and ignoring them. Instead of that, there is a need to figure out their interests and know-how education can attract students. There is a need to create mutual understanding between the students and the education curriculum and process. Many students are more interested in extracurricular activities like sports, music, dancing, and drawing than textbook studies. The education system needs to provide different education models. Every student is important and should be valued in an education system. If someone is unique and does not follow the same old conventional rules, that does not mean that the person does not have potential. All we need to do is look for their interests and keep them on the right track. 

How can the education system oppress the students? In the current education system, we try to make students follow the conventional model and discourage them from thinking differently. We are kind of programming them as robots to follow instructions and not use their creativity. It is like we are anesthetizing students to obey the predefined rules that cause decreased curiosity and interest in education. They get distracted easily. Instead, the education system should help students to discover their hidden talent and understand their inner selves. Understanding oneself and raising self-awareness is much more important than just following the textbook and scoring well in class. To develop their values and principles, they need to understand who they are and what is inside them. Each student is a different person, so how can a system expect them to behave in the same way? We should encourage students to be different, but sadly we often discourage and expel students who fail to follow conventional learning methods. Students become subdued and try to hold back their ideas. They should share their ideas and thoughts to improve; we need new ideas for contemporary society. I have seen many students, including me, who are hesitant to share opinions that are different from others. They should be appreciated for sharing their thoughts, not be afraid. 

Friere writes, “The relationship involves a narrating Subject (the teacher) and patient listening objects (the students).” When it comes to a teacher-student relationship, a teacher is the only active member who acts as the subject, and the student is in the passive position. The student only receives messages and information from the teacher but does not contribute to the learning process. This academic structure often fails to serve the primary purpose of education and makes the student a puppet who follows the teacher. Reality is being sacrificed; all messages and information become lifeless, which means that the education process devalues the educational content’s quality. I think this is a real problem that the whole world is facing. More or less, every educational institution follows the rules of active teachers and passive students. This dramatically affects the student’s ability to learn and think creatively. From kindergarten to university, students learn to follow teachers and gradually lose the ability to analyze and think creatively. Ironically when these students become teachers, they follow what they learned, and the trend of oppressor-oppressed relationships in the education system continues for years after years.

Racism, grading system, favoritism, economic inequality – all of them can play the role of oppressors in our society. Being raised as a girl in a collective society, I have faced a lot of gender discrimination. I have been taught to stay quiet in arguments even if I was right just because I am a girl; I faced physical attacks for protesting Eve-teasing. In our society, males get the title of useless if they do not get a job by a certain age, and females get the title of spoiled girl if they do not want to marry by a certain age. Society tries to determine every move of a child’s life since his/her birth. The color choice, talking habit, behavior, attitude, dressing style, job options, age of marriage, age of joining a job, etc., literally everything they want to control. I consider these acts as oppression too. Anything that wrongly limits a person’s self-affirmation and freedom is oppression for me. As oppression is almost everywhere in our society, having it in the education system is possible and expected. Now the question is, how are we surviving in this oppressed society? We can endure because we get habituated to the situation and start believing this structure as the ultimate one. I am used to my culture, and others are in their own. For some people, my society is the worst, and for some, it is a lot better than theirs. I have a friend from Bihar, India, and in their culture, family members disown their children and sometimes even murder them for marrying their own choice. In his view, my society is liberal. On the contrary, my friend, who is from Seattle, WA, thinks it is tough to sustain my culture. So, the point is how we see oppression and how we are dealing with it depends on our mindset, but oppression is in every culture and every society but in different forms. 

In this oppressive society, students are thought of as silent, inactive, uninformed but disciplined objects. They become robots of flesh and blood by following their teachers and pre-determined rules. They train their brains to think the way others do to be a good student. Can someone be a good student by doing this? The answer is NO because a person can only be good when he/she can use their brain to identify, examine, analyze, and evaluate things on his/her own. Reality needs to be experienced, not heard and believed. When India was under British rule, the citizens had rare self-improvements as they ought to follow the British. Now, the country’s people think independently and make their own decisions, thus improving the whole country. Similarly, the teachers should help students think independently instead of making them oppressed. The students should have the freedom to apply their ideas and perspectives to their overall improvement. The oppressors of society want to control the consciousness instead of changing and improving the situation for the oppressed. They want students to adopt the situation as they can dominate them easily. Using the banking concept of education, oppressors impose restrictions on freedom of thought and oppress students.

In my opinion, the grading system also plays a role in oppressing students. Students face immense pressure from their parents and school authorities to fulfill the set expectations in the grading system. I consider the grading system a form of oppression as it tries to control students’ consciousness and make them follow the system unquestioningly. It prompts competition and increases favoritism in the classroom environment. When I was in school, some students ranked first, second, and third each year. Unfortunately, it did not help them learn much, but it made them Proud, and they began to think of themselves as the most talented students in the class. They got a chance to sit in the front rows because they ranked in class. I felt this was one type of discrimination. Everyone could not afford private tutoring, and everyone was not privileged enough to get their parents as home tutors. The school was everything for them. They went there to learn, but the teachers were often obsessed with the first ten students according to their ranks. Students did not want to help others and tried to compete with each other.

When I was in my fifth grade in India, I first realized how much a grading system could affect friendship. I was not good at math, but my best friend was. She scored very well in all her math classes. Teachers liked and appreciated her more. I used to feel alienated in the classroom. We used to sit side by side, but teachers’ behavior was different for each of us. They spoke to my best friend in a softer and more welcoming tone and spoke to me in a relatively harsh and ignored manner. It affected our friendship. I started to feel uncomfortable sitting with her, and she teased me for getting low grades in math. We stopped talking and sitting next to each other. We were in fifth grade, and it would have been impossible to create inferior complications without someone creating that environment. All the rank holder students got a chance to monitor the class, write on board, and sit near the teachers. I never got a chance to sit in the first row, and the students in this row never tried to be friends with other students. They felt superior in the class as they ranked good each year, thus creating inequality in our class environment. From my personal experience, I think the grading system serves to discriminate against students. Many students who were consistently ranked in class did not do well in their board exams (tenth and twelfth). When they met better students in college, many failed to hold ranks and became frustrated. The grading system and getting good grades every time had made them overconfident, and thus they have not been able to handle the changes in their grades. They lost confidence and started questioning their abilities. After joining college in the United States, I started enjoying the learning process. I do not need to think about ranking. I can help my classmates and also get support from them. Everyone here values their education but never tries to demean others. I think the ranking system in schools can affect students’ friendships, make them emotionally competitive and be more interested in position and recognition than their knowledge and education.

 My classmate wrote that grades could motivate students and in the long run, students cannot stay encouraged without the grading system. Many people can argue that the grading system can motivate students to earn grades on their transcripts but cannot motivate them to learn. However, it has been said that grades can influence students to memorize materials but memorizing and understanding are two different things. Although some people can feel motivated by the grading system, still it cannot help them in the long run. Students’ learnings cannot be explained by a single letter. In the grading system, a student’s actual progress or deterioration is portrayed by a single letter like A, B, or C, etc. Providing constructive feedback to students rather than just labeling them with some letters can reinforce the learning experiences. Observing students, identifying their good works and mistakes, asking questions to encourage them to think, and giving advice and recommendations can make the school environment much healthier and more comfortable. The grading system can be seen as a form of oppression, as in this system, students cannot explore the different topics; they are limited in specific goals to earn scores. 

Many teachers cannot avoid the grading system and the banking concept because they are mandated to do so. This is how the education system is built, and it oppresses both the teachers and the students. The conventional education system wants teachers to reflect on their students’ learning but not let the students do it by themselves. They want teachers not to worry about the students’ engagement as grading will categorize, reward, and punish students accordingly. They teach students to memorize but to analyze. Parents do not feel the need to observe students’ learning as they can judge it based on the grades obtained. The system’s hierarchies—administrators, policymakers, and politicians—need spread-sheet-based data but do not need to know the details. Because of this system, people now prioritize student scores over their skills and abilities. I’ve seen many people who aren’t academically perfect and don’t have any degrees, but they’re still good at their work, passionate about what they’re doing. Talent does not need a good score; it needs guidance to develop it.

Replacing grading with constructive feedback and adding real-life tasks, letting students learn in their own way, and encouraging them to see things from their perspectives and interests allows them to see each other as friends rather than competition. This learning process seems to be the exact opposite of oppression in the education system. In this system, students pursue their hearts and help teachers guide them through—the relationship of oppressor-oppressed changes to the teacher-learner relationship. Many teachers cannot avoid the grading system because they are mandated to follow it. This is how the education system is built. The conventional education system wants teachers to reflect on their students’ learning but not let the students do it by themselves. They want teachers not to worry about the students’ engagement as grading will categorize, reward, and punish students accordingly. Parents do not feel the need to observe students’ learning as they can judge based on the grades obtained. The system’s hierarchies—administrators, policymakers, and politicians need ‘spread-sheet-based data’ but do not need to know the details. Because of this system, people now prioritize student scores over their skills and abilities. I’ve seen many people who aren’t academically perfect and don’t have any degrees, but they’re still good at their work, passionate about what they’re doing. Talent does not need a good score; it needs guidance to develop it. 

I would conclude that, in this education system, teachers do not realize that they are serving to dehumanize students. Having a face and body like a human is not humanization. Humans are known for their brains. When the education system does not respect the human brain, it is dehumanizing the students. The stimuli humans receive through observations and listening, the brain processes and gives them meaning. Humans differ from other living creatures on earth by their intelligence, thinking capacity, and invention power. To invent anything else, people must first discover themselves. Self-innovation is an essential element of being human. Evaluating one’s own mistakes and actions gives one the power to judge the world. This education system cannot help them discover their inner self because it prevents them from thinking critically and valuing things independently. They realize the reality in the words of the teachers.  The education system oppresses students by determining rules for them and alienates them for not following those rules. The word oppression is not a strong word to describe the current education system. We can hope that the teaching approach and the education system’s structure would be changed with time. It would be more student-oriented rather than books and syllabus-oriented.

Work Cited

Pedagogy of the Oppressed, by Paulo Freire et al., The Continuum International Publishing Group Ltd., 1993.

RSA Animate. (2010). Changing Education Paradigms. TedTalk.

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