Eating the Apple, Core and All: Review of But She Said by Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza

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What is it about the core of the apple that we choose to throw away? It’s just as edible as the rest. And don’t worry, the seeds won’t grow in your belly! Perhaps it’s our nature to discard something ugly we can’t bear to look at. The truth functions that way, and knowledge and the production of knowledge–at its core–is often a difficult thing to swallow.

That’s why our colleague Ben started reading But She Said by Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza. A self-proclaimed recovering Catholic, Ben was skeptical at first about reading a text on biblical interpretation; however the heart of the text is more secular. The book lays out the groundwork for an intersectional discourse which the author names as the Kyriarchy. Ben sought to understand this framework to develop their eventual dissertation proposal on how housing agencies across the globe function as kyriarchal systems. What they read, however, uncovered some deep truths about education and how we are spoon-fed master-servant dynamics.

In her critique of Kyriarchy and Patriarchy, Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza confronts Higher Education. While her primary focus is the politic of biblical interpretation, her critical review of Kyriarchy in Higher Ed is noteworthy. She proposes Kyriarchy as the extension of European/American White male androcentrism into perpetuating systems of oppression as intersections of race, class, militant colonialism, heterosexism, religion, and education. She reviews the Athenian Patriarchical Democracy that has become the basis of all major power structure that perpetuates oppression. She notes this was the basis of European and American Democracies that actively justified slavery, subjugated women and “nonpersons”, and xenophobia. As she adroitly puts it, “…we are strangers in a land whose language, constitution, history, religion, and culture we did not create.” (Fiorenza, 185) Because, as she proposes, this is the foundation of power structures, she deconstructs how this is seen in Higher Ed spaces.

She initiates the discussion by debunking the Academy’s “…claim to be socially neutral, objective, and value-free and have shown that in reality, it expresses the subjective values of elite male Eurocentric ethos.” (Fiorenza, 170) She continues to say how this has led to historical silencing and othering of women and racial minorities within the academy. Success for marginalized groups comes from adopting the language and academic tools of the oppressor while internalizing kyriarchal practices. The oppressor, therefore, teaches us the tools on how to oppress ourselves. This is because, as Fiorenza puts it, “virtually every academic discipline operates on the unexamined assumption of academic discourse that equates male reality with human reality.” (Fiorenza, 173) Further she, rather pithily, identifies how “The recourse to biological determinism and gender differences is still frequent today in scientific debates that seek to defend the androcentric framework of academic disciplines as ‘objective and scholarly.'” (Fiorenza, 174)

In her discussion of studying theology, she makes claims we can apply more broadly to Higher Ed, in particular, pedagogies of liberation. We have to decenter neutrality and objectivity, which, as she points out, are impossible to have in an exploitative, oppressive system. Rather we must center the patterns, processes, and standards of exclusion and domination embedded in the process. Who are we taught to be the fathers and grandfathers of scientific understandings? What agendas and baggage do they bring into their conceptualizations? Who do these bedrock theories serve? We can choose to center emancipatory practices and those developed by oppressed communities. Further, we must center questioning the composition of Higher Ed and how that continues to marginalize, other, and oppress nonwhite, nonmale, and non-colonized voices. In doing all of this, she notes, the “White Lady” must tread lightly due to her socio-political location and the tendency of white women to fall back on the authority of whiteness. The “White Lady” must resist tokenism in the academy and ally with other marginalized groups to call out systems of oppression. Part of this calling out is naming how, as Fiorenza quotes Elizabeth Kamark Minnich, “Other knowledges in turn are ‘relegated to subcategories, or if brought into the ‘mainstream’ category, are improperly judged because they are placed against standards, closed within contexts and discourses, that not only did not include them in the first place but were founded by people who thought they ought to be excluded.'” (Fiorenza, 190)

As opposed to the tradition of lecture-based, Socratic tutorials, and the well-intentioned course catalog, she proposes a need to make educational theory and practice more focused on “articulation and analysis of experience, critical thinking, interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary learning, cooperative work and antihierarchical, Democratic leadership.” (Fiorenza, 170) Seminars are also kept out of this in the sense that they foster adversarial debate that, through combative competition, works to police thoughts and have one idea to master all others. Moreover, it’s important to interrogate who controls the questions being posed in the seminar.  We need to look at our pedagogies and actively interrogate how are they anti-oppressive or if they perpetuate oppression.

“Naming is an act of creation, knowledge a source of vision.” (Fiorenza, 196) We need to name what we see. By doing so we are then able to critically pick it apart. Additionally, quoting Paula Gunn Allen, “The root of oppression is loss of memory.” (Fiorenza, 193) We need to remember the friction and resist moving with it. Her words are almost 30 years old, and yet they still hold water. There have been major headways in moving democratic pedagogies forward, but they still exist within our notion of the Greek Patriarchal Democracy. Education attainment and college success will be realized when we name the processes in place that reduce and marginalize those with recent entrance into the academy. We need to reflect on that stolen material that makes up the ivory in the tower and on whose backs it was built.

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