Critical learning requires a degree of vulnerability from the learner and the teacher. But when the traumas of systemic oppression are unaddressed in the classroom, marginalized students aren’t given the chance they deserve to show their own vulnerability, and thus aren’t given the chance to engage in a wholly authentic and meaningful learning experience.


First, let’s make no mistake: Being vulnerable means being courageous. We often underestimate how courage translates in a classroom setting. Critically engaging with material requires putting ourselves in a state in which we’re open to potential failure. This is especially true in the arts and humanities which ask us to draw from our own lived human experience during the learning process. Although drastically understated, the daunting challenge of arts courses is being emotionally vulnerable. For students impacted by trauma, this vulnerability can be a difficult commitment to make, for any class. 


Educators should strive to cultivate a learning environment in which students tap into their own vulnerability in order to succeed. 


This means removing the punishment from education which manifests itself in the formal and hidden curriculum. Western Philosopher Louis Althusser in his piece Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses first describes the ways in which the punitive or repressive nature of educational institutions serves as a means to reproduce class inequality. He asserts that this repression and punishment shows up in both the “formal curriculum” which refers to the official courses, lessons and academic learning taught to the student — as well as in what educators call the “hidden curriculum” which refers to the transference of conventions, norms and beliefs in the classroom.


The formal curriculum’s punitive nature manifests itself in American schools by its design; strict yet often arbitrary and superficial grading systems cause students to focus on the completion of assignments rather than engagement in material. Mechanical memorization and rhythmic repetition establish an environment in which students are afraid to take risks and become what Paulo Freire describes in Pedagogy of Freedom as “slaves to the text.” In this current academic environment, largely attributable to what Freire refers to as the banking model of education, critical capacity, the curiosity of the learner and the autonomy of the learner are essentially non-existent. Students learn under coercion rather than out of a pure interest for knowledge about the wondrous world we live in. When the threat of a poor grade takes precedence over learning, the likelihood of cheating, dis-engagement, dropping out and other adverse behaviors in the classroom increases. 


The hidden curriculum’s punitive nature, on the other hand, manifests itself more subtly, yet still is just as disparaging. Colonized classroom management punishes students for tardiness and absenteeism (which fails to apply a holistic approach to the underlying reasons as to why students might be late or have to miss class) and punishes students for not following rules in class or misbehaving (rather than re-directing or seeking to understand the root cause of a student’s insubordination). Discipline disparities for Black students as well as students with disabilities persist before pre-K, and overall, Latinx, Black and Native/Indingenous students are given disciplinary punishment at disproportionate rates, contributing to the ongoing school-to-prison pipeline nexus that plagues our communities to this day. 


Additionally, Althusser’s notion of education serving as a reproduction of class inequality allows us to see how students of higher socio-economic status are able to be more vulnerable and take more risks in the classroom. With access to technology, tutoring, academic support, prep-courses and highly educated parents students at their disposal, wealthier students are put at a significant advantage before even stepping foot in the classroom. Couple this with the immense amount of opportunities that students of higher income are able to take advantage of. High school clubs such as Speech and Debate and Model United Nations, summer camps, private dance and vocal lessons, club sports and many other prominent, enriching opportunities all require money, time, access to transportation and resources. Many of us take for granted how these activities cultivate our intellect, and thus, allow us to achieve at high levels. All these activities require a degree of courage (and vulnerability) in order to participate which aids us in the long run. 


Outside of systemic barriers, marginalized students are grossly underrepresented in the classroom, which contributes to their inability to be emotionally vulnerable in learning spaces. An underwhelming 2% of educators are black males, whereas nearly 80% of the teaching workforce is comprised of white Christian women. 


Without representation, without an educator who can authentically understand your identity, and your struggle, and your oppression, the critical learning process cannot fully take place for anyone.


As an aspiring educator of color, gaining current experience in Crescendo Detroit, where I teach acting, establishing a pedagogy that empowers students to engage at a critical level in which they are able to be vulnerable is key. This entails preparing a curriculum that favors the autonomy of my student, cultivates their inner curiosity and draws on their own lived experience in an uplifting manner. 


Having a trauma-informed, intentional approach about who is being represented in the material, what themes and ideas the material discusses and how the material is accessed (especially in this virtual setting), are all necessary efforts in education.


While there’s a lot educators can do to allow students to be more vulnerable in classes, we as students should keep in mind the critical role we play in aiding our own learning. Learning is a lifelong, dynamic process. As the Leaders and Best, fortunate enough to receive a top-notch quality education at the No. 1 ranking public school in the nation, we should always strive to make the most of our academic journey, with the hopes that one day, a critical learning experience will be available to all.