Interview with Huong Ngo

The following conversation took place between Huong Ngo (bio below) and Melanie Crean during June and July, 2010.

Melanie:  So to begin with, what changes do you think might need to take place to change the political environment of our nations school systems?

Huong Ngo: This is a big question. First, I think that the changes should happen on all levels, not just in the universities. It is a mistake to think that we can create real change if we neglect the time in our lives when we are most enculturated, which is when we are young. Second, I think that we need to abandon our notions of what we teach as being neutral. Everything that we do as educators is political–the materials we choose to show our students, assignments that we give, what we value in their work, how we interact with them in class, everything. Once we do that, we can see so-called “neutral” subjects in a new light. History is not just history, but is a narrative that favors the male body, Western European culture, capitalism, and normative sexuality. We will then see the language in which information is presented as also political. Take the obvious example of Texas’s new textbooks, which will be “corrected” to rename the slave trade to “Atlantic triangular trade,” claiming that the civil rights movement created “unrealistic expectations of equal outcomes” among black and white Americans, and many more linguistic slights of hand that erase histories that were already pretty hidden. Look at Arizona as another example of violence in the name of neutrality, where soon you won’t be able to teach in schools if you have an accent. Differences are erased, alternate histories are silenced, and teachers and students are coaxed into believing that what they are learning is neutral. Why aren’t students getting up and leaving their classrooms? Because teachers aren’t getting up and leaving to support their fellow teachers. As students, we need models for how to become politically active by seeing our teachers struggling with other teachers, attending community board meetings, being leaders, not just by being told to vote.I remember one history class in which I had an African-American teacher who was teaching us about the native tribes in North Carolina. Actually, we were just reading our books about the tribes and then answering some factual questions from the back of the book. Now when I read about them, the stories are horrific, but at the time, I had no way to connect to them. Here we were: me, a Vietnamese American, and African-American teacher, and the ghosts of Iroguoians and Algonquins sitting in this room with no conversation about our collective colonial pasts. Such a wasted teaching moment! I don’t blame my teacher (though I would have preferred a more active role model), but I do believe that educators must understand where they fit in the world socially and politically. This sometimes takes some research, discussion, soul-searching, and self-actualizing. It doesn’t mean that the entire class must be based around that, but an understanding of it will pervade your teaching, regardless of the subject taught. As teachers, we are recreating larger structures of the world in our classrooms. If unjust structures of the world are never challenged in our own minds, then they will merely be reproduced in those of our students.

MC: Some of the self actualizing you mention reminds me of the analytical thinking we had discussed  earlier in terms of John Dewey’s model of education.  Because Dewey was one of the founders of the New School for Social Research where we both teach, and where this project originates, I feel a very special relationship to it.  Can you describe Dewey’s model for education and how he saw art situated in that model?  Has that model influenced your teaching in any way?

HN: Dewey envisioned art at the center of education as a way to test out and reflect on our observations of the world. It rounded out his concept of a meaningful intellectual experience, the foundation of his ideas of education. He described art as a “device in experimentation, carried on for the sake of education.” Thus, art is merely a part of an experimental process with a goal of learning. Art is the process, not the end. This is fundamental shift from how we often define art in our society.  I am interested in how Dewey’s ideas are connected with Antonio Gramsci, Paulo Freire, and bell hooks through their respective philosophies of praxis. By placing art at the center, we give permission for education to be an aesthetic practice–something ongoing, messy, and forever incomplete. Since my work as an educator is also a learning practice, it is a perfect excuse for me to constantly experiment with different ways of leading discussions, configuring the architecture, encouraging collaboration and risk-taking, and challenging inherent powers structures within the classroom.

MC: It seems that Dewey was a pragmatist who saw art as a means to an end, a way to engage in a transformative experience that stimulates analysis & reflection.  The end it seemed; was democracy.  I find that triangulation quite telling: education, art and democracy.  You mention experimenting with variables that alter power structures in the class room.  How do you feel that different forms of education are related to democracy and the production of citizenry?

HN: It’s a bit of a paradox, because as citizens of the US, we are told to value our democracy, yet in most schools situations, we have little choice about what we do. Do you remember (in K-12) ever being given a choice about what you read in class, who your teacher would be, what your assignments were? I never remember a discussion about an important decision that the class would make as a whole, yet I was expected to be able to work with others, use diplomacy over force, favor reason over emotion. In the average school classroom, we can witness the teacher regulating what students do with their bodies, their speech, and their minds, yet we question why the citizens of our society so blindly follow figures of authority. This is not to say that students should be given free reign and make every decision in class, but that, with the guidance of the teacher, they should call out and question the status quo, systems of power, and even the teacher’s authority. Introducing critical engagement into the classroom thusly is risky for the teacher, but that is as it should be. As a society, we perceive teaching as a safe alternative to practicing the discipline which one teaches. This is an unhealthy perception that will in the end corrupt the discipline itself, its teachers, and thus its future leaders. All of the educators that I deeply respect have risked themselves and their positions of power in some way in order that we as students can become more active participants in our learning and thus in society.

MC: I would like to take this one step further then, to think about the connection between the cultivation of risk and democratic choice in the classroom, and the pursuit of freedom.  Not necessarily the recent American flavored brand of freedom that gets used in military slogans, but more along the lines of bell hooks’s concept of education as the practice of freedom.  Can you elaborate more on this concept?

HN: The concept of education as the practice of freedom, a quote from Paulo Freire whose philosophy has greatly influenced Hooks, is dichotomous to the “banking” system, which Freire sees as education as the practice of domination. In the “banking” system, the teacher deposits information to a docile student much like, of course, a bank. Education as the practice of freedom is based on the student being an essential part of a praxis that involves questions, dialogue, action, and reflection. It is a creative process that implicates the student in naming the world and in so doing, understanding it.Where the experiences of Freire and Hooks tend to differ is that Freire worked with groups of illiterate laborers in Latin America who are primarily of the same socio-economic bracket. They collectively understand themselves as the oppressed facing an outside oppressor (save for the teacher who must understand his potential for being an oppressor). Hooks bases much of her work on university classes which are comprised of unpredictable mixes of female and male students from different ethnicities and economic brackets. Oppressor and oppressed may exist in the classroom together. Thus, class dynamics that reproduce larger power structures must be acknowledged in order for a sense of equality to be defined and internalized.

MC: If you can be empowered by an educational setting, can you leverage this practice of freedom to more clearly articulate thought and speech? How do different models of education, then, relate to the politicization of speech?

HN: Critical, dialogic education has the enormous power to help us articulate ourselves and aid us in deconstructing speech delivered daily from different sources with different motives. This speaks to Freire’s idea of reading the world by reading the word. A speech, a sentence, a word are all windows in the consciousness of the speaker and her or his perception of the world. Even understanding that all speech is politicized is an important first step.

Huong Ngo was born in Hong Kong, grew up in North Carolina, and now lives in Brooklyn, NY. She has exhibited at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, the Aldrich Museum, Smack Mellon, the Soap Factory, the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, the National Gallery in Prague, the Neuberger Museum, and Conflux Festival and has received awards and residencies from the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs. She received her MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and currently teaches at Parsons the New School for Design and Pratt Institute. Ngo’s deepest desire is for radical aesthetics to invade the classroom, and education to resume its subversive role in the practice of freedom.Melanie Crean: By way of introduction, the Shape of Change project investigates the perception, structure and representation of political change in a world that has seemingly negated the term of late.  In the 2008 US presidential election the term ‘change’ meant whatever a particular political party wanted it to mean;  now two years later it appears to mean the opposite of whatever it had previously referred to.  The project also looks at the process of speech as a political act to testify to people’s beliefs, and how that speech functions in different contexts, whether it be online, in person, public, private, anonymous, in conversation with others etc.  The nature of information itself is investigated, transferred as an inevitable agent of power, emotion, corporate branding, nationalism, idealism, etc.To this end, I wanted to write to you about some of the work you are doing with Secret School and education, that questions how we transfer knowledge.  I know that sometimes there are not designated teachers in these sessions, and that they might take place in spaces that don’t promote students facing a ‘higher authority,’  You had mentioned that some of these alternative methods are being used in current school systems today, but that they are under utilized.