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Feminist-profeminist philosophy for adult education

A term paper for Philosophy of Education submitted to Dr. Cecile Pasino

Alvin Concha, MD
MA Applied Social Research
Ateneo de Davao University

Background
The hegemonic social construction of education constitutes a teacher giving instruction to
students in a class. The class lessons would be something prepared by the teacher way
before the class sessions. The method would usually be a lecture. The terminal
competencies would, almost always, be measured with the use of an examination.

In many other instances of learning, such as when the learners are not in a formal
classroom, the structures are different, but the process of learning is at least as intense – if
not more intense – than when they are inside a classroom. Learning in these instances
typically takes on a variety of methodologies and achieves a variety of outcomes which
are otherwise difficult to obtain in the classroom. The student-teacher divide is loose. The
more important determinant of the direction of knowledge is the power between agents of
education (Bourdieu, 1991). The content of knowledge – the “truth” – engendered in the
process is therefore a construction that is shaped by such power.

In this paper, I intend to 1) present instances of learning opportunities outside of the


formal classroom, 2) expose power-charged relationships that abound within such
opportunities, and 3) position the feminist-profeminist ideology as the basis for a
philosophy of education that is cognizant of and responsive to the existence of power
among the agents of education. I am a male, a Family Physician by profession, and a
consultant for research and Evidence-Based Medicine in two tertiary hospitals. I am
aware that my sex and my medical training could well influence the ideas that I articulate
through this paper.

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Presenting scenario 1
Unfamiliar style

In a strategic planning conference just before the start of the school year,
seven professors in a private university were tasked to handle three new
subject offerings in the College of Arts and Sciences. All three subjects
were sub-disciplines of gender studies. The professors felt that they had
enough theoretical and experiential background for the course. They all
either had a masteral course in gender studies or had undergone short
courses in gender. However, all of them, except one, were not quite
familiar with the prescribed methodology for the three courses: small-
group learning. At any rate, they had been used to handling large classes
of 25 to 30 college students for the past three years or so that they have
been teaching in the university, and they feel unprepared to handle
smaller classes of eight to ten students, utilizing a methodology that is
new to them. The professor who had two years’ experience in small
group learning while teaching in graduate school signified willingness to
teach her six fellow professors.

Presenting scenario 2
Almost a father

One of my younger male cousins, in his early twenties, got his girlfriend
pregnant. Upon the suggestion of his dorm mate, and after
contemplating that he could not financially afford to have a family early
in his life, he talked his girlfriend to taking an abortifacient pill. A few
hours after the intake of the pill, he rushed his girlfriend to the hospital
for an excruciating abdominal pain. Although the fetus was eventually
aborted days after they went to the hospital, it was clear from my talk
with my cousin that he was not well-composed after the incident. He
told me that he could not understand his feelings and he felt that he had
taken a wrong move that he is going to feel very guilty about for quite
sometime. To top it all, he discovered a few months after the incident
that his girlfriend is dating with another man.

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Presenting scenario 3
Need for evidence

Surgery residents-in-training have always been complaining about the


administration of pain relievers to patients with suspected acute
appendicitis who are referred to them by Internal Medicine or Family
Medicine residents-in-training. Surgeons argued that taking away the
initial abdominal pain would prevent the patients from locating the pain
during the series of physical examinations for monitoring. This would,
in turn, obscure or delay subsequent diagnosis of acute appendicitis and
contribute to the patient’s morbidity. Internists and family physicians
stressed that such is not the case, and were determined to find evidence
that diagnostic accuracy does not change despite administration of pain
relievers.

The foregoing scenarios all present as opportunities for learning. In the first presenting
scenario, all the professors needed to learn a psychomotor skill, that of executing small
group learning methodologies for college students. Even if one of them had two years’
experience in the methodology, she will still have to refine her skills, considering that
college students have quite different learning styles compared to graduate students. In the
second presenting scenario, my cousin’s emotionally-laden experience presents as an
opportunity for affective learning. As a young adult, my cousin could learn how to deal
with difficult decisions and relationship problems from his experience. The third
presenting scenario calls for learning that is mostly cognitive in nature. Part of residency
training for doctors is the acquisition of knowledge on evidence-based diagnostic and
therapeutic approaches to patient care.

Pervasive power
What is yet another attribute common in all three presenting scenarios is somewhat
discreet. Power – the determination of an event or others’ behavior in accordance with
one’s own end (Davis, 1942) – is rife among the relationships of actors in all the learning
opportunities that the scenarios engender.

Among the professors in the first presenting scenario, becoming skillful at conducting
small group learning can be influenced by the more senior by age within the group, or by
those who took a masteral course in gender, or by the professor who have had two years’
experience with the methodology among graduate students. Their “qualifications” (age,
educational background or past experiences) can actually be translated into respected
credentials and expressed as the power to determine what the group is going to learn.

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Similarly, in the second presenting scenario, my cousin may regard my being an older,
married relative with medical knowledge of abortion – on account of my being a doctor –
as my natural power to determine for him the lessons he is about to learn out of the
situation that he experienced. Then again, my cousin’s being a male is very much telling
of the (potential) power he can exert towards his girlfriend, while going through the
process of learning how to cope with difficult personal battles.

In the third presenting scenario, what surgeons, internists and family physicians would
learn as the best and most acceptable diagnostic and therapeutic approach to patients
suspected of having acute appendicitis depends to a great extent on the socially
constructed power of some doctors over the others. There is the power of the attending
physician (surgeon) over the referring physician (internist or family physician), or the
power of the “first touch” physician (internist or family physician) over the “second
touch” physician (surgeon), or the power of the senior resident over the junior resident, or
the power of those with evidence of effective management over those without. There is
also the power of consultants to determine the residents’ approach to management by
merely – if unconsciously – invoking their seniority over the residents.

In any case, the process of education is an activity loaded with power. The power gradient
between agents of education propels knowledge. A teacher is able to pass on a unit of
knowledge regarded as truth by students because the teacher speaks from a position of
power. Otherwise, if a student (consciously or unconsciously) refuses to recognize that
power, the unit of knowledge does not get passed from teacher to student in a manner
desired by the teacher. In worst cases, knowledge will not be transmitted at all. The
power between the student and the teacher, which is actually an arbitrary social
construction, is misrecognized as natural or essential (Thompson, 1991). Bourdieu (1991)
calls this a “symbolic power”. It is the power that makes one achieve, through utterances,
the equivalent of what is achieved through force.

Based on the foregoing discussion, there is an apparent need for a philosophy of


education that exposes the power structures within the teaching-learning process and
deals with these power structures to achieve learning and advance egalitarian relations.

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Why a feminist philosophy
Feminist theorizing has developed a pedagogy that is particularly sensitive of the power
structures within the process of education. Much of the principles in feminist pedagogy
stem from the constant and conscious reference to the long history of privileging of men
and of subjugation of women in many aspects of life, including – and especially in –
education (Peczon-Fernandez, 1996; Sobritchea, 1996). Corollary to this is the
suppression of female epistemology. Dominant knowledge that developed over history
put women at a disadvantage by denying them of epistemic authority, demeaning
“feminine” styles of thinking, coming up with theories that render women invisible or
that portray them as inferior and significant only as far as they help uphold male interest
and producing knowledge that fortify injustices between males and females (Anderson,
2004).

That being considered, it is important to point out that there is a parallelism between
man-woman relationship and teacher-student relationship. Man and teacher are the
oppressors, and women and students are the oppressed. A feminist pedagogy is therefore
a pedagogy of the oppressed.

The most important feature of feminist pedagogy is the egalitarian relationship of the
students and the teacher (Welch, 2004). This is a therapeutic structure that intends to
undermine the symbolic power of the teacher and, at the same time, empower the student.
It also presupposes that the students’ experiences, which can be shared to the class during
the learning process, are as important a contribution to the construction of knowledge as
those of the teacher. On the whole, feminist pedagogy seeks to dismantle hierarchy in the
class as much as the many feminisms aim to achieve gender justice.

The methodologies of education employed in feminist pedagogy are therefore


democratic, participatory and empowering (Flood, 2001). Feminist pedagogy
appropriates value in knowledge gained experientially. Suitable learning methods
therefore include small group discussions of personal experiences, diaries or journals, and
any of the several teaching-learning strategies that regard student experiences as
important learning resources.

Feminist pedagogy also regards the process of education as part of women’s political
agenda of gender justice. Consciousness-raising to expose power relations cannot be
separated from the teaching-learning process. The personal is political. Feminist
pedagogy therefore acknowledges that “education is the practice of freedom, the place for
liberatory pedagogy” (Watkins, n.d.). It is a “constant, and constantly politicizing,
reminder that women have been, until relatively recently, largely excluded from the
academic curriculum both as subjects and as agents" (Evans, 1997).

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Why a profeminist philosophy
Feminisms are philosophies generated by the dominated or oppressed. There has to be a
dominator-generated philosophy, which is based on a pro-active intention to undermine
the power of the dominator for egalitarian ends. A profeminist pedagogy offers this
philosophy.

The profeminist movement was sparked off by second-wave feminism, and has
ever since espoused socio-economic and political parity between men
and women (Kulkarni, 2001). The practice of profeminism is clear. It advocates a
movement where “men [work] as allies with women in a struggle to
transform hegemonic masculinity and patriarchal relations of
dominance” (Pease, 1996; Flood, 2001) to create “friendships and communities that
embody an alternative men’s culture, and that are not at the expense of women” (Flood,
1995). Included in these efforts is the struggle to eliminate expressions of sexism like
rape, pornography and homophobia (Kulkarni, 2001).

Profeminism in practice is clearly a positive response to feminism. Apart from upholding


the philosophy and practice of the feminist pedagogy, profeminism adds a philosophy of
humility by pro-actively working to undermine one’s own position of power and being
willing to forge negotiated partnerships. Profeminism also advocates a philosophy of
respect by creating a culture that is not at the expense of others, a philosophy of
accountability by stressing that a person is always responsible for his actions, and a
philosophy of lifetime learning by tolerating a process that may not be perfect but one
which is constantly remodeled somehow to always strive to achieve preset goals (Flood,
1995). All such principles have the general intention of promoting egalitarian
relationships.

Profeminist pedagogy is therefore concerned with education methodologies which allow


for negotiation for appropriate course content, teaching-learning methodologies and
evaluation. It also espouses a methodology wherein there is constant and rigorous
feedback with constructive criticisms from teacher and co-learners, which allow for
reinforcement of positive actions and rectification of past mistakes.

I will now describe how the presenting scenarios at the start of this paper were resolved
utilizing the pedagogical principles of feminism and profeminism.

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Resolution of Presenting Scenario 1
Unfamiliar style
The seven concerned professors met separately after the strategic
planning conference. They found out that they had three weeks before
the start of the school year to prepare for their classes. They have agreed
that all of them should read about principles of small group learning for
the next five days. The week after their initial meeting, they gathered to
process what each of them has read. They decided that this second
meeting should be a simulation of a class that learns by small group
learning principles. The professor who has handled graduate students for
two years assumed the role of the facilitator. One professor volunteered
to be the note-taker and another volunteered to be the process observer.
The rest were the participants.

For two hours, the group shared what they have read and deliberated on
what should comprise as minimum set of strategies for handling their
classes. They have decided that apart from the standard quantitative
evaluation required by the university at the end of the semester, no other
methodologies will be made standard and the methodologies should be
collectively and continually crafted by the students and the teachers
within the classes. The note-taker encoded important points in the
discussion on her laptop computer. The process observer was given 15
minutes at the end of the session to comment on the conduct of the
session and on how the learners, including himself, fared in the
discussion. He also elicited from everyone else ways by which they can
be better participants in the subsequent sessions they are going to make.

During their third meeting barely a week before the opening of the
school year, the professors decided to simulate the first meeting of the
teacher and the students undergoing small group learning. A different
professor acted as facilitator this time. The note-taker and process
observer were also different. During the next 1.5 hours, they were able
to come up with a scheme of cross-checking each other’s manners of
handling their own classes, such that there will be constant feedback
throughout the school year by each of them for each of the classes that
the others handle. This way, their process of learning how to handle
small group learning will be an ongoing one, which is sustained even
while they are actually executing the principles.

All seven professors carried out what they had planned and they went
through a semester of learning how to handle the methodology by
executing, receiving feedback and modifying their techniques according
to feedback. In the end, all the professors contributed to each other’s

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own personal growth alongside the learning that they have gained from
interacting with their own students.

Resolution of Presenting Scenario 2


Almost a father
I learned from a fellow doctor that my cousin’s girlfriend was admitted
in a hospital for incomplete abortion. My immediate response was to
instruct my fellow doctor to scold my cousin. I was going to realize later
that it was a wrong move, but my fellow doctor gave my cousin a
lengthy preaching anyway, enough to make my cousin feel guilty about
what he did. My cousin was going to tell me much later too, that the
scolding did not really do much good to him. If anything, the scolding
made him very dissatisfied of the hospital services and caused him to
stereotype doctors as individuals who are very insensitive of people’s
emotions.

My cousin talked to me, just the same, after the hospital incident. I
wanted to make amends for collaborating with my fellow doctor to make
him feel guilty, so I invited him and my fellow doctor to a karaoke bar to
unwind over beer and singing. Nothing about the hospitalization incident
was brought up, except a mere mention that his girlfriend eventually had
a completed abortion a few days after the hospital admission and was
now recuperating. My cousin looked distant and generally unhappy,
however, but the songs and the drinking made us all forget about
personal issues.

It was only a few months later, when my cousin came to my house for
some reason that he opened up the issue again. He told me that he was
coping well after the incident. Yes, he felt guilty and he blamed himself
for talking his girlfriend to aborting the pregnancy even before they went
to the hospital. My fellow doctor’s preaching and rundown of medical
evidence of possible morbidities after induced abortion did not help. But
the karaoke night out and other instances when he was with friends did
give him the affection and affirmation that he needed during those
difficult times.

It was also during this meeting that I learned from him that his girlfriend
was dating with another man. I could feel his resentment over the recent
incident so I just allowed him to talk about anything for the next half an
hour or so. In counseling, before a counselee gains insight (the part
wherein the counselee generates realizations and “learning points” from
an emotionally-laden experience), catharsis must first happen. Catharsis
is characterized by emotional outpour by verbal means or by crying.

Then, there was a point in our talk when he told me that the greatest
thing he learned from the experience was to be responsible for every

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little action that he makes. It was all that I wanted to hear to assure me
that, indeed, the experience taught him a very important lesson in life. I,
for myself, learned that a prejudiced approach to persons undergoing
personal crises is not a helpful move.

Resolution of Presenting Scenario 3


Need for evidence

One Family Medicine resident-in-training picked up from an awkward


incident of altercation between him and a Surgery resident-in-training
over the issue of pain reliever administration to patients suspected of
having acute appendicitis. The surgeon allegedly nearly missed a
diagnosis of acute appendicitis – that needed emergency operation –
after the referring family physician “masked the abdominal pain” of the
referred patient with a shot of an unnecessary pain reliever.

As per usual learning procedure of family physicians in that hospital, a


clinical scenario that brings about a question that cannot be immediately
resolved warrants a cognitive learning process called the evidence-based
approach. The approach basically involves the use of current best
evidence to back up any medical practice.

Out of the scenario, the Family Medicine resident formulated an


answerable question. Out of the answerable question, the resident sought
for published journal articles that could best answer the question by
doing an electronic search. She was able to come up with one article that
reported a rigorously performed clinical trial on the use of pain relievers
among patients suspected of having acute appendicitis.

With the use of some universally accepted criteria, the resident appraised
the article for validity, accuracy and applicability to the local setting.
The article turned out to be of superior quality based on the universally
accepted criteria. She then proceeded at abstracting the conclusion from
the results of the article. In essence, the article reported that the accuracy
of the diagnosis of acute appendicitis is not affected by the
administration of even the most potent pain reliever available in the
market.

Armed with the evidence, the resident presented the case scenario,
evidence and proposed resolution of the scenario in an interdepartmental
conference attended by the Surgery and Internal Medicine Departments.
Representative consultants from various clinical departments were also
present in the conference. Apart from the presented evidence, the
consultants and some of the resident participants shared narratives of
diagnostic success despite administration of pain relievers to acute

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appendicitis suspect patients based on their experiences. The dilemma
was thus resolved, and pain relievers started to become the mainstay in
the management of patients with similar presentations as the one
discussed.

Underlying principles of feminist-profeminist education


The resolutions of the three scenarios are all illustrative of the philosophy of education
that I am currently proposing.

Negotiated power. Power relations were glaring in all scenarios, as in the power of the
experienced professor over the inexperienced ones, my power over my cousin, or the
power of surgeons (attending physicians) over family physicians (referring physicians),
to name a few. Yet it can be noticed that such powers were hardly exercised. If anything,
they were consciously kept at bay in the interest of allowing for a learning that emanates
from the learners’ own experiences. In short, power is recognized but is consciously
undermined by the one who holds it to maintain egalitarian relations in the teaching-
learning process.

Collaborative learning. The learning processes illustrated in the scenarios are also
characteristically collaborative. All the professors participated in their own learning. My
cousin was able to come up with his own “lesson in life” with my and some of his
friends’ help. The doctors in the third scenario were able to come up with a consensus
after considering current best evidence and narratives.

Knowledge without truth. In all three scenarios, the units of knowledge, or what was
appropriated as “truth”, that was exchanged among teachers-learners was illustrated to be
a social construction rather than a piece of knowledge that is some absolute truth
somewhere out there, waiting to be plucked and distributed. It could have been a different
version of the small group learning methodology or a different attitudinal lesson learned
by my cousin or a different resolution of the pain reliever dilemma if the persons
(teachers-learners) or the processes of education were different. Then again, who is to say
that the different units of knowledge engendered in different situations are incorrect
knowledge?

Just-in-time information. Experiential information constituted the “inputs” in the


education process illustrated in the scenarios. The use of external data, as in the first and
third scenarios, was applied in a manner that is responsive to the emerging need. External
data therefore turned out to be timely, appropriate, and never extraneous.

Self-reflexivity. Allowances for mistakes and rectification of errors were particularly


illustrated in the second and third scenarios. Genuine learning takes off from a humble
acknowledgement of mistakes and with a commitment to never let past mistakes happen
again. Alongside these should be the willingness to take criticisms. Only within the

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practice of self-reflexivity can teachers-learners constantly keep an eye on the unfolding
educational process and remodel structures within the process when deemed necessary in
working towards a liberating and empowering education.

Conclusion
Life is an endless string of opportunities at education: opportunities to teach,
opportunities to learn, opportunities to influence and be influenced by others and
opportunities to politically resist detrimental powers. Through this paper, I have
illustrated that education happens everywhere, and education outside of the formal
classroom is no less complex, no less dynamic and no less challenging than that inside. I
have also exposed the power relationships that we oftentimes refuse to acknowledge
within the structure of education, and from there, proposed what I believe would be an
appropriate philosophy of education for the educational structure in question. A feminist-
profeminist philosophy of education espouses a negotiated power within the structure,
collaborative learning, knowledge without truth, just-in-time information and self-
reflexivity.

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