At the Intersection of Questions and Complications

Louise Bourgeois “What is the Shape of This Problem?” detail (1999)

Relating to its linguistic core, the word quest by definition declares an investigation or pursuit, and thus directs an enquirer onto a path that may lead toward an outcome of sorts or satisfactory apprehension. This “point of arrival” can simply be interpreted as an answer. The act of questioning can suggest a presence of doubt that can consequently put into motion a continuous and laborious search for answers. Philosophical methodology frequently refers to questioning as a process that will inevitably unveil problems that indicate a need for solutions. In the field of education, the act of questioning is affiliated with learning and problem solving, as it aids in the pursuance of knowledge and is therefore strongly linked to achievement. In contrast, the act of questioning can also be associated with resistance in disciplined school environments and has the potential to give rise to a voice of dissent that can further complicate problems and seek complexities, in order to rethink structures in society that are accepted and deemed normative due to authoritative status.

The motives behind questioning authority can thus suggest a need for change or a diversion from the current status quo. As previously mentioned, one of the most predominant critical texts that inherently shares this sentiment is The Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire. There is a notable thread that runs throughout Freire’s writing that interrogates various power dynamics inherent in educational institutions and teacher-student relationships. His position reflects an attempt to balance binary power structures in order to achieve equilibrium in spaces where learning is expected (1970, 73). Freire’s critique of authoritarian systems prevalent in education is frequently implemented, due to its adaptation of teaching methodology. However, his approach can lead to the notion that the binary opposite of a problem will lead to a solution. Friere’s method is therefore not merely idealistic, but the wholehearted acceptance of his particular critical framework into mainstream practice in educational settings may limit the intention of his philosophical “Problem Posing” paradigm.

I would like to imagine that Freire’s “Problem Posing” education needs further exploration and questioning. Perhaps the act of questioning can offer an approach that complicates this solution offered by Freire and can thus reflect on his “Problem Posing” objective. It may prove productive to ask: “Whose Problems?” “What problems are being posed? ” in order to attempt an understanding of the complexity of a problem by questioning its origins instead of naming solutions that are often temporary and unproductive. A similar approach can be seen in the theory of intersectionality.

Kimberlé Crenshaw addresses the need for a multi-faceted approach to presupposed problems and solutions in her theory of intersectionality ( a term she coined in the 1980’s) that in its ideology, exposes the fact that individuals are affected by various oppressions and privileges that overlap and influence one another (Crenshaw 1991,1242). Crenshaw’s work addresses the ways in which race, gender and class intersect in order to construct complex identities in society. As an African American woman, she felt it necessary to point out that her experiences of specific prejudices are complex and cannot be classified or framed within broader umbrella terms such as ‘racism’ or ‘feminism'(Crenshaw 1991,1242). She argues that approaches to problems require a multidimensional awareness in order to avoid the “easy way out” or oversimplification of issues. Crenshaw’s position discloses the reality that a one-dimensional solution cannot possibly satisfy the needs and desires of largely diverse groups. The following statement reiterates this sentiment:

“The problem is, in part, a framing problem. Without frames that are capacious enough to address all the ways that disadvantages and burdens play out for all members of a particular group, the efforts to mobilise resources to address a social problem will be partial and exclusionary.” (Crenshaw 2016, 1)

Adopting an intersectional lens can help navigate the treacherous problem areas that develop when confronted with the challenge of restructuring the education system in order to achieve pedagogical inclusivism. It is, therefore, imperative to make a connection between intersectionality as a disciplinary subject, and the implementation of the ideas that arise from its theoretical concepts, into practice. In an article named “Toward a field of Intersectionality: Theory, Applications and Praxis.” (2013) this needful link between theory and practice is discussed in relation to the understanding of intersectionality as a concept that should be implemented in order to gain a well-rounded understanding of its effectiveness and scope:

“ […] scholars and activists illustrate how practice necessarily informs theory, and how theory ideally should inform best practices and community organising. These concerns reflect the normative and political dimensions of intersectionality and thus embody a motivation to go beyond the mere comprehension of intersectional dynamics to transform them.” ( Cho et al 2013, 3)

Achieving a broader understanding of intersectionality, through educational practice in South Africa, can potentially offer a variety of approaches to the methodology that may better identify the needs of individuals who so often slip through the cracks of a “one size fits all” educational system, meant to meet the needs of a very diverse population. Reaching a “middle ground” in educational practice where the needs of all individuals are met is indeed an ambitious and seemingly impossible task to accomplish successfully. However, an attempt to achieve this democratic ideal can uncover that there may be previously overlooked material/options/approaches within reach that could be utilised to enrich the current conceptions of problematised areas in education.

A contemporary application of this process with a focus on the close examination of current tertiary institutional structures can be seen in WITS academic, Angelo Fick’s work, as he questions the current state of the curriculum offered at universities in South Africa, with particular reference to changes needed at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. In an online article entitled: “Decolonising The Curriculum: The Politics Of Change In And Through Education” ( 2016), Fick reflects on his thoughts in the following exert, regarding the subject at hand: the possibility of decolonizing the curriculum at a tertiary level in university spaces in South Africa. He mentions that the current structure needs to be understood as a multifaceted and complex operation that is afforded its functionality from key elements that are often overlooked:

“The methods and forms of instruction, as well as the control of access to sites of instruction and the gatekeeping around who is afforded such access are structural components of any curriculum.” (Fick 2016,1)

Fick proposes to look critically at di guarded elements often lost in the development of a fixed “black and white” curriculum that serves as an umbrella term and is seldomly challenged due to its institutionalised authority. By examining these overlooked elements closely, issues in and around access and the need to dismantle imperialist power structures are brought to the foreground, thus revealing various options or approaches to problems. It may prove useful to consider Walter Mignolo’s statement that de-coloniality can be seen as an“option amongst many options” (Gaztimbide-Fernandez 2014, 1) and therefore suggests “a way out” of circular power dynamics that perpetuate a discriminatory and often hostile nature of institutionalised culture. Perhaps this “option” as pointed out by Mignolo and described by Fick does not seek legitimacy in academic “prestige” nor does it require a framework consisting of socio-economic levels of efficiency but rather sets the stage for questioning to take place without restraint.

( see the full text in Gateway: Entering into a Process of Questioning Pedagogical Practice in South African Education. )



  • Cho, Sumi, Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, and Leslie McCall. “Toward a field of Intersectionality Studies: Theory, Applications, and Praxis.“Signs.38, no. 4 (2013): 785-810.
  • Crenshaw, Kimberlé. 2016. “The Urgency Of Intersectionality: Kimberlé Crenshaw Speaks At Tedwomen 2016”. Tedblog.
  • Freire, Paulo. “Pedagogy of the Oppressed”. Continuum. New York, 1970
  • Gaztambide-Fernández, Rubén. “Decolonial Options and Artistic/Aesthetic Entanglements: An interview with Walter Mignolo. Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society3, no. 1 (2014).
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