pragmatic pedagogy

This week’s discussion question from 7064.  It raises some questions that I’d hoped to do in a post here, but may as well just copy-paste since the questions are at least somewhat similar to those I would have raised anyhoo.

Many of my peers have thus far drawn attention to the grander claims and questions that Miller raises regarding the value (or, perhaps, lack thereof) of doing humanities language and literacy work in an age where cataclysm, crisis, and callousness threaten the stability of many assumptions held by those doing such work–that democratic discourse is an absolute good, that literate practice can be liberatory, that education is a tempering and civilizing force for peace, justice, and good.  These are, of course, valuable and (as Miller emphasizes) timely questions, but I wonder if in our rush to answer these overwhelming questions we run the risk of overlooking smaller but equally compelling questions–which is one question I pose to our seminar.

It is a question that likewise informs my “real” discussion question, for, in many ways, both are about proportion, scale, and ambition.  My question above points to the scale of Miller’s larger project, in arguing for the humanities in light of an apocalyptic fervor that seems to be boiling beneath (and often through) global culture in these early post-millenial years–an argument that, quite frankly, I’m not sure Miller convincingly makes.  Likewise, my question (soon to follow!) tries to raise some questions about the scale and ambition of the “pragmatic pedagogy” for which Miller argues in “The Arts of Complicity.”

  Miller’s program contends that

in order for students to begin to imagine other ways of framing their experience of schooling and other ways of navigating the tiwsted path bureaucracies cut through the social sphere, students must first be given an opportunity to formulate more nuanced understandings of the social exercise of power.  And for this to happen, students must be provided with genuine opportunities to acquire the skills necessary to speak, read, and write persuasively across a wide rangle of social contexts.  …I am interested in promoting: (1) ways for students to acquire a fluency in the ways that the bureaucratic systems that regulate all our lives use words; (2) a familiarity with the logics, styles of argumentation, and repositories deployed by these organizational bodies; and (3) a fuller understanding of what can and cannot be gained through discursive exchanges, with a concomitant recalibration of the horizon of expectations that is delinated by our sense of what words can and cannot do in the public sphere.  (136)

While I am sympathetic to Miller’s measured critique of Freirean liberatory pedagogy, I am also left dissatisfied by his pragmatic goals.  Although, as Miller notes, the appeal of Freirean pedagogy is palpable and understandable (120, 124-5), I share Miller’s skepticism that it is either an effective political or pedagogical tool.  At the same time, however, the romantic allure of pedagogy and literate work is such that I balk when reading Miller’s pedagogy: Is this really what we’re meant to do–to train students to navigate bureaucracy?  Maybe we cannot liberate our students, but are “complicity, duplicity, and compromise” the limits of our ambition?  Is composition a zero-sum game: either liberation or acquiesence?


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