What I’m Learning in Acupuncture School: Pedagogy of the Oppressed

If you happened to have known me since, oh 2006 or before, you’ve probably noted that I did not have much use for acupuncture education. I chafed at the whole idea. I was a big fan of Dr. Michael Smith’s summation, “Put the sharp end in the patient.” I did not want to make a 3-year acupuncture school; I wanted graduates that POCA could hire and I wanted them yesterday. As recently as this time last year, I was impatient with the Oregon Department of Education because they were insisting I read up on the needs of adult learners. I did not want to read books about education, thank you very much; I was still cranky that nobody wanted to make a school for us and we were going to have to do it ourselves.

If you had asked me, “what is the definition of ‘pedagogy’?” I would not have said, “Pedagogy is the discipline that deals with the theory and practice of education”; I would have snapped, “Who cares?”

As it turns out, I do. Thank you, Paolo Friere.

Friere, a Brazilian educator, published Pedagogy of the Oppressed in Portuguese in 1968. It is a foundational text of what is known as critical pedagogy, which is my new favorite thing. How I managed to live this long without it, I don’t know. Because it has everything, everything to do with community acupuncture.  Not just POCA Tech, community acupuncture itself. Let me tell you about that.

In the first chapter of Pedagogy of the Oppressed — which is dense and philosophical but trust me, you should read it anyway — Friere writes that it is everyone’s vocation to become more fully human.

Humanization is “thwarted by injustice, exploitation, oppression, and the violence of the oppressors; it is affirmed by the yearning of the oppressed for freedom and justice, and by their struggle to recover their lost humanity. Dehumanization, which marks not only those whose humanity has been stolen, but also (though in a different way) those who have stolen it, is a distortion of the vocation of becoming more fully human.”

“Because it is a distortion of being more fully human, sooner or later being less human leads the oppressed to struggle against those who have made them so. In order for this struggle to have meaning, the oppressed must not, in seeking to regain their humanity (which is a way to create it) become in turn oppressors of the oppressors, but rather restorers of the humanity of both. This, then, is the great humanistic and historical task of the oppressed: to liberate themselves and their oppressors as well. The oppressors, who oppress, exploit, and rape by virtue of their power, cannot find in this power the strength to liberate either the oppressed or themselves. Only power that springs from the weakness of the oppressed will be sufficiently strong to free both.”

The problem, Friere goes on to explain, is that the structure of our thought is conditioned by the situations that we have experienced.  We adapt to the structure of domination and become resigned to it; the oppressed are submerged in the reality of oppression. We believe that to be human is to be able to oppress. We identify with our oppressors and we want to be like them. We internalize oppression in various ways and so we become afraid to be free.

In our own minds, oppressed people are not subjects; we are objects.

To be is to be like, and to be like is to be like the oppressor. “The oppressed suffer from the duality which has established itself in their innermost being. They discover that without freedom they cannot exist authentically. Yet, although they desire authentic existence, they fear it…Liberation is thus a childbirth, and a painful one. The man or woman who emerges is a new person…the solution of this contradiction is born in the labor that brings into the world this new being: no longer oppressor nor longer oppressed, but human in the process of achieving freedom.”


The first time I went to acupuncture school, I was impatient with much of my education, but I also learned some important things, such as: my body is a subject and not an object. Up to that point I  — and other people — had treated it as an object, but regardless, my body had its own awareness, memories, and unique ways of knowing things. In fact, it had its own consciousness. Learning this was the second best thing that happened to me in acupuncture school (the best thing was meeting Skip). Mostly this learning happened outside of class, in the context of receiving treatments, but what I learned in class helped me frame it. Whereas before I had believed that my mind was separate from my body, located if anywhere only in my head, in acupuncture school I learned that my mind and my body were not separate: they were one thing, and aware. No information I had to memorize to pass the NCCAOM exam mattered as much as discovering that I was a subject — mind, body, bodymind — and not an object.

Basically, this is why a lot of people are attracted to acupuncture: the promise of connectedness. There are plenty of things in our society that can make us disconnected from our bodies, our feeling experiences, and our sense of ourselves as human beings. Mainstream, for-profit, biomedical healthcare is unfortunately one of those things. A lot of patients seek out acupuncture because conventional medicine left them feeling disempowered and dehumanized: an object rather than a subject.

However, too much of what we call natural or alternative medicine substitutes that kind of alienation for a different kind, and turns health into a type of consumerism. There’s a big overlap between the idea of “health” and the idea of “beauty” and it’s all about the individual.   For example, lots of acupuncturists are just thrilled that Gwyneth Paltrow is talking about getting acupuncture on her blog. If this paragraph hasn’t made any sense to you so far, go look at her blog.  Lots of acupuncturists would like to locate what we do within that context. That kind of “health” doesn’t look to me like becoming more human, more of a subject — it looks like being upgraded to a high-gloss object.

But let’s get back to Paolo Friere and Pedagogy of the Oppressed.

Friere writes that the problem with most education is that it follows a “banking” model, which mirrors oppressive society as a whole. Students memorize mechanically, which  “turns them into “containers” or “receptacles” to be “filled” by the teacher. Education becomes an act of depositing, in which the students are the depositories and the teacher is the depositor…the scope of action allowed to the students extends only as far as receiving, filing, and storing deposits…but in the last analysis, it is the people themselves who are filed away through the lack of creativity, transformation, and knowledge in this (at best) misguided system. For apart from inquiry, apart from praxis, individuals cannot be truly human. Knowledge emerges only through invention and re-invention, through the restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry human beings pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other.”

“In the banking concept of education, knowledge is a gift bestowed by those who consider themselves knowledgeable upon those whom they consider to know nothing. Projecting an absolute ignorance onto others, a characteristic of the ideology of oppression, negates education and knowledge as processes of inquiry. The teacher presents himself to his students as their necessary opposite; by considering their ignorance absolute, he justifies his own existence.”

The teacher is the subject and the students are objects, just like oppressors are subjects and oppressed are objects. But what we want is to be neither oppressor nor oppressed, but human in the process of achieving freedom. Education for liberation must begin with the reconciliation of the student-teacher contradiction so that both are simultaneously teachers and students. Obviously this is significant for POCA Tech. I’ll get back to that in a minute. But first, what about the other kind of acupuncture “education” that acupuncturists are always struggling with — patient education?

I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that most people who get acupuncture want to be free of something: pain, stress, symptoms that interfere with their ability to feel like human beings living a human life. However, a lot of acupuncturists think that our job is to use the banking model and bestow the gift of knowledge on ignorant patients who clearly know nothing, because if they did know anything they wouldn’t be sick. Don’t eat gluten, don’t drink soda, don’t sit like that, go read Healing with Whole Foods, I can’t help you if you won’t help yourself.

Prescribing herbs or supplements is quite literally an act of “depositing”, and this rather than acupuncture itself makes up the bulk of many acupuncturists’ practices. The reality is acupuncture just doesn’t work as well with the banking model, which is what most “healers” are comfortable with, and from here on out, I’m going to argue that this is because acupuncture is inherently liberatory. When acupuncture works, it works because people recover a sense of themselves as subjects. They say this to us all the time: “I feel like myself again.” “Acupuncture gave me my life back.”

Friere says that liberation is not a gift, not a self-achievement, but a mutual process. Nobody can do it for anybody else and nobody does it alone. We could say the same thing about healing: you can’t deposit it in somebody, it’s a participatory human process that connects you both to yourself and to other human beings. It’s no accident that acupuncture is such a bad fit with capitalism.

When I first started getting acupuncture, while I was in acupuncture school, nobody had to coach me into discovering myself as a subject rather than an object: I experienced it as a process, initiated by the needles. I have no idea how it works, but I’ve seen it happen over and over for other people in the 20 years that I’ve been a practitioner.

For POCA Tech, it’s not like we can remove the banking model entirely from our structure: if our students are going to pass the NCCAOM exam, they have to do a lot of memorizing. However, I think Pedagogy of the Oppressed helps us to articulate a foundational understanding: that acupuncture is a mystery that we are all investigating, all discovering — teachers, students, practitioners, patients. All of us are students, all of us are teachers, and nobody has all the answers.  Our knowledge will emerge only through invention and re-invention, through the restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry we pursue as human beings in the world, with the world, and with each other.

More to come…

Author: lisafer

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  1. It makes so much sense on so many levels, not the least of which might be the fractal. We talk about our clinics being “entities” that need certain things to exist, how could the acupuncture also not be an entity with an inherent quality that must be supported for it to survive, let alone thrive.

  2. !! wow, thanks so much for writing all that. As a prospective student, i was contemplating how to articulate in a post that nervousness I carry stepping back into a school setting after years of embarking on embodying my humanness, recovering from years of institutionalized/ objectifying education. It is not an easy thing to hold one’s integrity when working with structures and systems of oppression(i.e capitalism, exams to demonstrate fail or pass), and it comforts me to hear that those founding POCA tech value that form of integrity.

    The bit about liberation coming from the oppressed actualizing themselves and then in turn needing to exit the violent patterning and therefore supporting the oppressors liberation, is super interesting to me. When confronted with situations where being a women in a space is objectifying, sexualizing, dehumanizing, dangerous, etc, I have tried recently to call on those who in those situations have more privilege or safety then myself , to defend, protect, educate others. In this case it is someone who was maybe socialized to be the oppressor but has developed understanding and empathy for the oppressed and is therefore able to act as a bridge or healer. IN my earlier years whilst first swimming within the gender queer communities, it was made apparent to me that for the most part it was a burden for gender variants to explain their pronouns to folks who hadn’t considered the falsities of the gender binary. In this case, being socialized as a female and identifying as so(though minus the stereotypes,)I found myself in the place of Bridger and healer. I give these examples to speak of the place I was coming from in reading this. I dont think that there is truly one answer for halting violence and oppression. The thing I like about the model in PEDAGOGY OF THE OPPRESSED is the interrupting of the patterns of violence specifically at the eye for an eye stage. If the oppressed is able to be rehumanized to the point of empathy and is prepared to begin enacting a way of being nonviolent and can successfully feed a sense of trust and compassion to the oppressors then the cylce is halted. And if the oppressors continue to enact their old patternings? well………

    I question FIERRE’s idea that the oppressors are subjectifyed and the oppressed objectifyed. I would like to offer the idea that both the oppressors and the oppressed today are objects and that systems, corporations, social standards etc are subjectifyed and oppressing us all. I believe our biggest strength in subjectifying all life comes from the adopting of new ways, and changing the culture. I see POCA on this wave. IF to become a healer and to receive healing is locked behind golden gates, tare down the gates or make them out of recycled material so the cost to get in is more accessible 🙂 keep the stories alive of the culture we are divorcing, and sing songs of the dreams actualized when we decided not to do it the way we were told it had to be!

  3. OMG I need to read this book. His ideas resonate on such a deep level. Thank you Lisa for sharing this.

    This may sound like a childish image, but the idea that shot into my head while reading some of this was “Liver bullying the Spleen”. If the Spleen is weak the Liver will dominate, not because there is something wrong with the Liver but because the Spleen is weak. Strengthen the Spleen and the Liver will back off. The oppressed are the Spleen Qi and need to be stronger in order to have the Liver retract. This doesn’t harm the Liver and instead helps both the Liver and the Spleen.

    I love when ideas and knowledge all collide. Fun!

  4. hello again,
    I am so grateful for the post written here! I’ve spent alot of time reflecting on what I had read here, and what I posted in response. This lead to an awesome journey of exploring my values and perspectives. I returned to this post to see if there was something else I could glean, and feel I’ve come away with a clearer understanding of what was written.

    “liberation is not a gift, not a self-achievement, but a mutual process. Nobody can do it for anybody else and nobody does it alone.”
    An essential foundation of liberation being the reclamation of one’s wholeness and being and subjectivity.

    I feel strongly in support of these ideas and the ways they inform the intention of education, and healing going into POCA. I recognize that alot of the confusion I felt initially in reading this post was the use of the word freedom for which I have little understanding of. The dictionary tells me it’s a political right. That feels like a gift from oppressors, and that’s obviously not what’s being said here.
    I will continue my personal journey of embodying sense of subjectivity and wholeness, and in that find the true voice of my soul and its gifts to the universe, and perhaps there I’ll find what this word freedom means to me.
    Again, so grateful to feel trust towards lisafer in their intentions to support subjects and not objects in their healing and learning journeys.
    heart souring