Machiavelli, Freire, and Motivation


School learning usually requires engagement and often considerable effort on the part of the learner. That takes motivation. Educators have long recognized that there are at least two kinds of motivation. Students have intrinsic motivation when they want to learn because they are interested in a topic the way some people are interested Civil War history or chess. The reward comes from the learning itself. Students have extrinsic motivation when they want to learn because they want passing grades or go to a good college (or in the Traditional Era to avoid corporal punishment); but otherwise, they’re not that interested. The reward comes from outside the learning itself. Nearly everyone agrees that intrinsic motivation is preferable, but extrinsic motivation is much more common and it is quite effective particularly with middle-class and more affluent students. Motivation plays an interesting role in working-class schools. Most teachers in these schools do not think much about intrinsic motivation (except, perhaps, to wish the students had it), but they talk a lot about extrinsic motivation (and also wish the students had it). They repeatedly refer to learning things because they will be on the test. When they find outstanding students they encourage them with the promise of going to college and by inference joining the middle class. These are, of course, potential border crossers, students who are willing, perhaps eager, to adopt middle-class values, attitudes, behaviors, beliefs, and ways of communicating and more or less abandon their own. After the social upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s a third kind of motivation was suggested —Machiavellian motivation. Take students who go to an overcrowded high school where fewer than half the teachers are fully certified and where barely half the students graduate and who live in a part of town where unemployment is double the regional average, where housing is substandard and nearly everyone is without health insurance, where they paved the school playground for a teachers parking lot. Such students are probably not going to be motivated to read Macbeth or learn algebra because they are interesting or even to get more than a passing grade, but they might be motivated to become better educated in order fight to get themselves and their families a better deal to become a union member or organizer or teacher or lawyer with a passion for social justice. That’s Machiavellian motivation. However, the kind of motivation described here has more to do with Freire than with Machiavelli. Freire called it conscientization. I prefer to call it Freirean motivation. However, I do like the attitude that Machiavellian Motivation invokes. Working-class students with Freirean motivation may learn middle-class values, attitudes, behaviors, beliefs, and language, but not to replace their own. Instead, they learn to operate in middle-class or even executive elite cultures in order to beat the middle-class and executive elite at its own game and thereby address the inequities and injustices suffered by their own communities, the way organized labor and the old Democratic Party once did in order to effect government policy and to stand up to corporations and big money interests. In the 1960's and 70's Paulo Freire saw that literacy campaigns in his native Brazil had failed and were bound to fail as long as the "students" viewed literacy as part of a culture that was alien to them. He understood that, if they thought about it, the illiterate third world poor would have concluded that any effort they put into adopting the culture of the rich, including literacy, would be in vain, since they would not be accepted among the rich and would not get the benefits that literacy gave the rich. The only result would be that they would become alienated from their own families and communities.


I say, "If they thought about it." because Freire understood a fundamental fact about the lives of the illiterate third world poor: they don't think about it. They are so submerged in their daily lives that they have little or no awareness of the possibility for change, much less what they might do to bring about change. They view their condition as natural, the will of God, or determined by fate. Freire referred to Brazil's illiterate poor as a "culture of silence." In initiating a literacy campaign in an area, he found people to whom others turned for help. He invited them to become the first members of his class, which he referred to as a “culture circle.” The first meetings concentrated on a process he called conscientization. He showed participants pictures (line drawings), which he called codifications, and led a discussion about them, an activity he referred to as decoding. The first picture was of a farmyard with animals and a well. There is a man and woman holding a book. They are apparently taking. Freire asked, "Who made the well?” “Why?” “What material did he use?" "Who made the tree?" "How is the tree different from the well?" "Who made the pigs, the bird, the man?" "Who made the house, the hoe, and the book?” This and further codifications elicited discussion of the following ideas: 1. People can make culture; animals cannot. Proper communication between people is dialogue between equals. People can communicate both orally and graphically. 2. In the participants’ culture a father teaches his son to make a bow and arrow and to hunt with it through direct experience—teaching by showing. In the owners’ culture father also teaches his son how to hunt with a gun, but there is a lot of explicit language involved. A gun is so complex that the technology for making it must be written down. The more advanced a people's technology is, the greater the power they have. Education, technology, and power are closely related. 3. Both cats and men are hunters, but cats cannot make tools (cannot make culture) or modify their hunting activities. Men can do both. These observations lead to a discussion of instinct, intelligence, liberty, and education. 4. The participants are able to make clay pots. They can decorate the pots with representations of flowers and meaningful symbols. These are graphic representations that stand for something else. If they can “read” these representations, they can learn to read printed texts. 5. The participants’ culture is their own. They create it. They engage it in. They can modify it. They can step back and think about it and how they create it and engage in it. Freire did not believe he was teaching the participants things they did not already know. The discussion was designed to encourage the participants to talk about these things, something that in their submerged state they rarely did, something, in fact, that their culture did not encourage. The first words the coordinator taught the participants to recognize were “generative words” such as work and slum. They generated discussions of the social and political realities of the lives of the people in the district. Work would prompt a discussion of people's value in relation to their work, and the relationship between manual, technological, and mental work. Slum prompted a discussion of housing, health, and education in the slums —problems that needed solutions rather than conditions that must be silently accepted. Under these circumstances it doesn't matter so much what "method" you use to teach reading and writing. What matters is that the participants want what the teacher has, and so they cooperate and work in exchange for the teacher's knowledge. That’s the real school paradigm as opposed to the make believe school paradigm where students offer so much resistance that the teacher asks less and less of them until they cooperate enough to make it appear they are “doing school.” The latter is too often what is found in American working -class classrooms.


Freire was not interested in helping border crossers make it over safely. He was interested in helping the poor recognize the social and economic interests which bind them together as a class, to have pride and take strength from their class identity, and to struggle as a class to further their interests through democratic means, and to recognize that they confront, not individuals outside their class, but other classes whose interests were often antagonistic to theirs. Freire's vision was one of class struggle. It was about empowering the powerless as a class so they can stand up for themselves and demand their rights as citizens. The motivation discussed here is aptly called Machiavellian motivation when it appears in American schools because of the stealth associated with Machiavelli. This is a motivation that “dare not speak its name” in a society that denies the existence of social class, or if it does, it insists that we are a well-functioning meritocracy.


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