Postformal Psychology and Critical Thinking: The Finale

This is the third and final installment of my series of blog posts on postformal psychology and critical thinking.  The first one was entitled “Sick and Tired of Your College Professor Lecturing at you everyday? Postformal Psychology May Just Be the Answer To Your Woes.”  The second one was very plainly entitled “Postformal Psychology Continued.”    

Etymology refers to the origin of culturally validated knowledge.  Where does it come from?  How is it formed?  How does it come to be commonly accepted as truth?  In the beginning of the movie, Eva has a tense exchange with Hilary Swank in which she reveals her deep hatred for white people.  She says, “It’s all about color.  It’s about people deciding what you deserve, about people wanting what they don’t deserve, about whites thinking they run this world no matter what.  You see I hate white people.  I saw white cops shoot my friend in the back for reaching into his pocket.  I saw white cops break into my house and arrest my father for no reason except because they feel like it, except because they can….and they can because they’re white.  So I hate white people on sight.”  Believe it or not, what Eva says in this quote is knowledge.  It is knowledge that is validated by her culture, knowledge that she herself has constructed and internalized based on her lived experience dealing with white people.  It is knowledge at the level of the doxa.  But if Hilary Swank were to dismiss this knowledge, to devalue it, to not recognize its significance would be amazingly irresponsible and I argue destructive.  In others words, it is radically important for teachers, in dialogue with their students, to dissect and critically analyze the etymology of culturally approved knowledge.  Joe Kincheloe, architect of post-formal educational psychology, explains that “Without an awareness and understanding of etymology, women and men are incapable of understanding why they hold particular opinions or specific values.  Without such appreciations, the ability for reflection and analysis is seriously undermined.”  Hilary Swank provides a learning environment in which this critical reflection and analysis can take place, where etymology becomes a subject of learning and a key aspect of how her students grow from the beginning to the end of the movie.  In the words of Paulo Freire, we see her “create the conditions under which knowledge at the level of the doxa is superseded by knowledge at the level of the logos.”

All this talk of reflection and critical analysis of knowledge brings us to the third key aspect of postformal psychology, that is pattern.  Pattern refers to the understanding of the, often hidden, connecting patterns and relationships that sustain our lived experience.  Getting off the subject of Freedom Writers for just a moment, I want to frame the concept of “Pattern” in respect to the Boston Bombings.  On April 23, just a week after the bombings took place, American-educated Yemeni Youth activist, Farea al-Muslimi, testified at the first public congressional hearing on President Obama’s secret drone war and targeted killing program. In his testimony, al-Muslimi provides a moving first-hand account of the untold suffering that this secret war has caused not only in his village but across the entire country.  Five people were killed in his home village of Wessab by a U.S. drone strike just a week before his testimony.  But the story of his villages suffering does not even begin to scrape the surface of how U.S. drone strikes have affected Yemen’s people.  To paraphrase Mr. Al-Muslimi, “it is more than just numbers, its more than just how many people died, who was a civilian and who was a terrorist.  These drone strikes are making people angry, and they are becoming America’s only face in Yemen.  For every unverified enemy that America is killing, it makes many more new enemies.”  Jeremy Scahill, National Security Correspondent for the Nation magazine and author of a newly published book detailing the Obama administration’s use of drones in the War on Terror, explains that the U.S. does not actually have any intelligence on the ground in Yemen.  America is conducting these pre-emptive strikes on people who “fit some kind of pattern of other people we believe to be terrorists.   Our government does not know the identities of the people we are killing.  We don’t know whether they are involved in terrorist activity, and yet the government is targeting them for who they may be or who they might become.”  For anyone who may claim, that America’s War on Terror is as simple as the good guys against the bad guys, as simple as “the Tsarnaev brothers hate our freedom, hate our American exceptionalism they hate our way of life and that’s why they murdered three people and wounded 170 others, remember Pattern.  We feel empathy and sympathy for the victims of these bombings and their families and I am not arguing that we shouldn’t but remember these types of events happen everyday in Iraq, they happen everyday in Afghanistan, in Pakistan, in Yemen.  Here in America, we are very adept at blaming individuals and individual groups for society’s systemic problems.  Poor people are lazy.  Muslims hate freedom.  Public school teachers are greedy union thugs.  Labor Unions are hurting our economy.  To reduce the complexity of life, to these simple phrases, I argue, is the biggest crime of all, because it serves to fragment knowledge into little bits and pieces when it is clear, that in order to solve the problems of the world, we must comprehend the systems as a whole.  If we honestly think that the problem of Islamic extremism can be eradicated by dropping indiscriminate bombs on people who may or may not be terrorists, well then I guess it’s not very hard to conclude that the problem of Islamic terror will never be solved.

This leads us to the fourth and final aspect of postformal psychology, what it means for teachers and students to process knowledge.  To put this concept in terms of what it is not,“processing” does NOT mean memorization and therefore it does Not mean teaching for memorization.  Joe Kincheloe, architect of post-formal educational psychology, defines “processing”  as “the cultivation of new ways of reading and researching the world that attempt to make sense of both ourselves and contemporary society”.  He says further that the post-formal thinking process “attempts to break the mold, to rethink thinking in a way that repositions men and women as active producers, not passive receivers of knowledge”.  Like I said before, Hilary Swank doesn’t just have her class read the Diary of Anne Frank for the sake of reading the Diary of Anne Frank.  Nor do I remember her ever testing students on their ability to recall the plot, symbols, themes, and various other literary devices of the book, which is what you typically do in a high school English class.  Instead, her choice of the Diary of Anne Frank as literature for the class derived directly from her research of her students, research which she obtained by having them keep reflective journals in which to document and interpret their experiences outside of class, research which she obtained by having her students engage in transformative in-class and out of class learning experiences such as paying tribute to friends who were victims of gang violence by speaking their names and raising enough funds to bring Miep Giles, the woman who sheltered Anne Frank from the Nazis, to their school as a guest speaker.  By researching the tumultuous lives of her students, she was able to choose content that challenged them to re-interpret and reformulate the progression of their own lives based on new perspectives about hatred, group loyalty, gang violence, bigotry, and race relations

The End Results: Eva rethinks her plan to lie during her testimony, and, at great personal risk, tells the truth about her boyfriend accidentally shooting Sindy’s boyfriend to death.  Towards the end of the movie you see the two become friends.  Marcus, who had previously been cycling in and out of Juvenile Hall after witnessing his friend accidentally shoot himself to death, goes back to live with his mother.  Each student’s life is transformed in remarkable ways.  Thus by researching the day-to-day reality of her student’s existence Swank was able to formulate a curriculum that afforded her class the opportunity to perform critical research into their own lives and ultimately lend true credence to the phrase “Knowledge is power”.

Works Cited

Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. 30th anniversary edition. New York City: 1970. Print.

Kincheloe, Joe, and Shirley Steinberg. Students As Researchers: Creating Classrooms That Matter. Bristol, PA: Falmer Press, Taylor & Francis, 1998. 9. eBook.


One thought on “Postformal Psychology and Critical Thinking: The Finale

  1. Hi Ephraim, I’m intrigued with your ideas about Postformal Psychology as there are different ways to characterise what this is. You have drawn heavily on Joe Kincheloe and Shirley Steinberg’s postformal educational work which is very close to my heart. I’m also working with postformal psychology from another angle. I’m drawing on the work of the many research psychologists over the last 40 years (mostly in the US) who have been identifying higher stages of cognitive functioning in mature adults. They call this “postformal reasoning” (i.e. a stage beyond Piaget’s “formal reasoning”). What I’m doing in my current book is trying to integrate this adult developmental psychology perspective, with Kincheloe’s more critical pedagogical perspective. I’ve published a bit of work on my theories, coming out of my research on educational and youth futures and more recently my PhD on “evolution of consciousness.”
    You can check my website and find links to most of my publications there.
    Keep up the reflective thinking. It’s the fundamental starting point for postformal reasoning (IMHO).
    Jennifer Gidley

I write to dialogue. So please, let's engage each other in some dialogue.

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