Are your professors “banking” on you? By: Laura Winton

Many of our professors have read and taken to heart what Paolo Freire wrote about in Pedagogy of the Oppressed more than 30 years ago. It has become a classic text of how to teach and by extension, how not to teach. Freire said that education 30 years ago was “suffering from a narrative crisis” (71). By this, he meant that most teachers narrated and most students were “patient, listening objects” (71). This has led to the revolution, if you will, in active learning at all levels, in learning styles. Have you ever taken a test to find out if you learned better by listening, by reading, or by hands-on activities? Much of this kind of learning comes out of Paolo Freire’s ideas.

Among other things, Freire talked about the “banking system” of education, in which the teacher “deposits” knowledge into their students. The students do, Freire says, “have the opportunity to become collectors or cataloguers of the things they store” but “apart from inquiry, apart from the praxis, individuals cannot be truly human [except through] invention and reinvention, through the restless, impatient continuing hopeful inquiry human beings pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other” (73). Thus Freire rejects the idea of education which sees the teacher as all-knowing and the students as nothing-knowing.

Having taught, myself, Freire’s ideas for teaching are easily grasped but difficult to implement, no matter how well-intentioned you are. It is very easy to lead students to the answers you want them to give and so to look like you are empowering them rather than banking on them. You have a limited amount of time with your students and you need to make sure they understand what you, in your wisdom, are trying to impart to them, especially in these days of testing, when you just need your students to pass a test to graduate, to get into vocational school, college, graduate school, etc.

But with graduate school, eventually you may hit a point where your previously perfect Paolo Freirian teachers become the most ruthless of bankers. They change. Usually you hit this point around your thesis, or if you are in a doctoral program, at your dissertation. Suddenly, your supportive, exploratory faculty become more rigid at the point at which you want to go exploring. You picture yourself dancing carefree through libraries, through fields of books and ideas your hair flowing in the breeze. And your thesis director and your committee suddenly bring in a storm, a hurricane, and you must batten down the hatches, protect yourself from this looming storm, a storm that threatens to destroy your creativity, your exploration, and make you feel like you have been shipwrecked and now you just want to get through this ordeal and go home.

How does this happen? How does even the most seemingly Freirian professor change so suddenly?

For one thing, the thesis or dissertation advisor often is invested in what you are writing as a graduate student, as someone being trained to be a colleague of theirs.  And yes, burnishing, holding your feet to the fire, can be a good thing, if the flames don’t spread upward and consume you, obliterating your own ideas in favor of theirs. Yes, they know the field. They know what has been done before and what will likely be a new idea. They know where to look for much of the material. They know. And you don’t. Period. That Freire stuff was all fine and well for undergraduates, but now they have to make sure you get the material. Their reputations are riding on you. You have received “the transmission.” This is banking, as opposed to problem posing, and it may be the exact opposite of the way your teacher thinks education should be. But sometimes they practice it anyway.

You have to accept, too, that education has changed and is changing. And you either have to go with it, or try to transform it, possibly try to dial it back a few years, to when students had more time to meander through graduate school. Ever read those stories about people who spent 10 years on the dissertation? Not anymore. You need to be out the door within six years now in many doctoral programs, at most. They need to make room for yet another class of students and they don’t have time to waste on you. Get your thesis done and leave and make room for the next crop of hopeful graduate students who will probably go through the same thing you have gone through, only worse. This is the age of devolution, not evolution. Things seem to get worse, not better.

And the thing is, faculty are just as pressured by this situation as students are. They have to make tough choices. As much as they might like for you to meander through your thesis, this is the world that they face as well. Less and less funding for both graduate and undergraduate students, more and more student loan debt, and pressure to graduate more people more quickly with fewer faculty.

So, to those of you who have not gone off to the garage never to return, what do you do about this?

Stand your ground. This is your thesis. They have had their chance. You have a topic you want to write on. Certainly, you want to hear their thoughts on your research. You want to know if someone has written about the exact same thing. But when your thesis advisor wants you to completely change what you want to write about, not simply tweak it, or suggest more research, then it becomes up to you to stand up to them. I can’t tell you how many people – tenured faculty as well as graduate students – have related horror stories to me about what their committees did or tried to do to their research. It may be a difficult thing to do, and you might even have to step on toes. I know how hard that can be. We want our faculty to like us. We look up to them, we admire them, and we become fond of them. We don’t want to look back at them and say “so-and-so was a great professor . . . until it came time to do my thesis. Then (s)he turned into a nightmare.” We need to understand what they are up against too, while still remaining true to ourselves. As someone who is becoming more introverted the older I get, I understand not wanting to have the confrontations, but if you can’t have a confrontation over your own ideas, then your future as an intellectual is going to be challenged from the outset. Now is the time and the place to begin to stand up for your ideas.

Going back to Freire, he says that in banking education, among other things:

The teacher chooses and enforces his choice and the students comply.

The teacher confuses the authority of knowledge with his or her own professional authority, which she and he sets in opposition to the freedom of the students (73).

Have you ever had this experience with an instructor? Maybe you wanted to write one paper and the professor steered you to write something that you weren’t interested in? Maybe you have had someone shut down your ideas in class or move quickly and dismissively to the next student because you didn’t give the answer they wanted. Sometimes it’s hard for us to know what we don’t know – and what we do know. Sometimes we are just on the verge of a thought and class discussion can either open or shut the door to our discovery. Nowhere is this more the case than when you are writing a thesis or a dissertation.

Our faculty are under as much strain as we are. We need to see ourselves all in the same struggle for knowledge – not to store it miserly in banks, but to create and share it, which sometimes means giving us as students room to explore for ourselves.


Freire, Paolo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed: 30th Anniversary Edition. New York: Continuum Publishing, 2009.

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