Front of the House: A Photo Essay
While management science and organisational behaviour generally study the worker within the workplace, a critique of educational systems, while certainly related, views the worker at an earlier stage in life. In Pedagogy of the Oppressed Freire famously offers the latter, and that is the focus of this essay, which considers Freire’s claim that social inequalities are perpetuated through “banking” education systems (so-named by him.) This essay also includes some personal observations from this author’s recent summer work experience, revisited now in the context of Freire’s well-known article.
Paulo Freire was a Brazilian educator and philosopher, and his is one of the best-known names in education, particularly in Latin America. Numerous scholarships and academic projects are named for him at institutions around the world, including the Paulo Freire Institute based at UCLA. His body of work advances the premise that while education is the greatest potential force for effecting social change, it is often used, oppositely, to resist change and maintain the status quo. He called his own ideas “revolutionary”, and observers have agreed, many linking his work (for better or worse) to the writings of Karl Marx and others (Rugut & Osman 26).
While widely cited in the United States and Europe, Freire’s work may enjoy even greater acceptance in lesser-developed regions, including Africa (Rugut & Osman 23). That is, where social inequalities are more pronounced, his writings are perhaps studied with greater urgency, underscoring his claim that a traditional education system “serves the interests of the oppressors, who care neither to have the world revealed nor to see it transformed” (Freire 54).
But there is social injustice everywhere, even in the more developed nations, which in any case have growing immigrant populations and a growing education gap exacerbated by access to new technologies or lack thereof (Warschauer & Lepeintre). In other words, Freire’s work has relevance today even in the wealthier West, to critics and adherents alike.
A banking education system, according to Freire, is one in which an oppressive establishment “deposits” information in “ignorant” students of the underclasses without any attempt to teach critical thinking or analytical skills. The information “taught” is biased in favour of the establishment. The result (intended or not) is simply a reinforcement of the status quo. “The more completely they accept the passive role imposed on them” said Freire, speaking of the disadvantaged “the more they tend simply to adapt to the world as it is” (Freire 54). In other words, a banking education is little better than no education at all; in neither case can the oppressed escape their life-long plight. From one generation to the next they are swept along as non-participants, their collective consciousness submerged within a system designed to keep them in their places (Freire 62).
Condemning banking education as a tool of oppression, then, Freire called for social change through a “liberating education” based on instruction in problem-solving and critical thinking. Only through such meaningful teaching will the poor ultimately achieve “a critical intervention in their own reality” (Freire 62). And underlying it all, according to Freire, is a moral obligation to right past wrongs. “The raison d’etre of libertarian education lies in its drive towards reconciliation (Freire 53).
Photographs and Commentary
“Front of the house” is a term I heard for the first time during my recent summer job at a hotel, together with its complement, “back of the house.” I quickly realized that every hotel, everywhere, uses the same terms and has a very well-defined barrier separating one from the other. On the one hand, hotel guests are not meant to pass through certain doors, as the very clean and very polished hotel image ends at those thresholds. That idea was clear enough, and made good business sense.
It struck me, though, that many employees where I worked (the majority) were never allowed to cross those same thresholds from the other direction. They can never be seen in the front of the house - it is strictly forbidden. Maids, kitchen staff and other back of the house workers start their long days by entering through a separate door at the rear of the property. They work their entire shifts, and then exit the same way they came in. These same rules apply to hotels everywhere, or so I was told.
Though I was new to the hotel business, this regime raised some questions in my mind, on a management level. Was this the best way to run a business? At the time, though, those questions were resolved quickly enough. Who was I to question management, or accepted industry practice?
As the days went by I found those questions coming back to me, but on a different level – today, I can call it a human level. Most of the kitchen staff, and all of the maids, were ethnic minorities. Was I the only one that noticed? Yet, every single person in that hotel – from the General Manager on down, and including the guests and those back of the house workers themselves– went about his or her business as if it were all perfectly normal.
If I missed the chance to explore those “human” questions further at the time, then I do so now, with the benefit of hindsight. And today, I am able to pose one more question to myself. Was that barrier, running through that hotel, nothing less than a real-life manifestation of the dichotomy claimed by Freire? Was it a difference in education that separated the front of the house from the back? I think that it was.
Figure One: The Front Desk
I can look back now and affirmatively say yes. Those back of the house workers are, in a very real sense, one and the same as Freire’s “banking” students - just at a later point in life. Their educations, as they were, are behind them now. This past summer, of course, I could not see them in exactly the way I can see them now. Like my front of the house colleagues, I knew they were all back there, silently doing their jobs. But I knew nothing else about them, nor was I inspired to inquire. The days and weeks went by. In the end, we all must do our jobs, and go about our own business, focusing on the tasks at hand, and the challenges of the day, the week, the month, and so on.
Freire spoke of a human “reality”, however, and today I can give deeper thought to the reality of what I was witnessing that summer. Demanding guests came and went through the main entrance, their needs attended to by front-line staff (including me) with varying degrees of education and training. Managers huddled in offices hidden behind the front desk, or up on the second floor next to the meeting rooms – if not roaming the floors with impunity. At the same time, rooms and kitchens were being cleaned, invisibly, by all of the less privileged workers who appeared and disappeared, magically, through the back door. Granted, I was not privy to any management directives, hiring practices, employee files or similar information. I had no data whatsoever, and my observations were only that, and nothing more. Still, it does not require a great leap to suppose a close link between the education levels of the various participants, and their roles within that working environment.
Now, my duties were important, though not extremely difficult, and I could say the same for all my front of the house colleagues. I interacted with the public, worked the hotel software, handled credit cards and cash, and in between assisted with some regulatory filings and paperwork and other administrative tasks. Supervisors had more responsibilities, naturally, up to the General Manager who was of course in charge of the property as a whole. All of us were college graduates or college students. The senior managers all had formal hospitality training, but even the lower-level clerks had some training as well as a well-defined opportunity for advancement.
I am quite certain that the back of the house workers had none of these social, administrative or otherwise “mental” tasks. They all performed manual labour of one kind or another. As critical as their work was to the operation, they themselves were clearly on a different “track,” with no chance of being promoted to or “crossing over” to front of the house jobs. And today, I would surmise that it was just as clearly because they all lacked good educations.
Perhaps the problem was the hotel itself, and by extension all hotels. Are they problematical by their nature, a hopelessly outdated business model that has somehow escaped change? Are they safe havens for old, discredited ways? I have observed plenty of other people at work, in other places. The schools and educational institutions I have known are, after all, the workplace for teachers, professors and administrators. I have seen my share of offices, and walked the halls of other businesses, and if I didn’t see it before I realize now that there are cleaning crews, kitchen workers and the like in all of those places too, working away behind the scenes. Still, having now worked in a hotel specifically, I do feel there is something different, unsettling and out of date about that particular environment. It must be that, for if not, is it just a harsh, unvarnished and yet accepted view of “reality?”
Recently (in doing this assignment) I have started finding some possible answers to that question. According to one article, “hotels are structured around a range of work roles that carry different expectations about gender, race, ethnicity and class,” and “[t]he hotel workforce comprises, for example, a high proportion of ethnic minority workers and migrant workers” (Adib and Guerrier 414, 419). Another writer suggests that minorities are kept away from customer service jobs and direct contact with the public: “[B]lack women may be under-represented in such work because they cannot be represented as sexually attractive to (white, male) customers in the way that white women can. Thus white faces and white bodies are on show whilst black faces and bodies are kept behind the scenes” (Adib and Guerrier 419, citing Adkins).
So I was not alone. Others had noticed, after all.
The Adib and Guerrier work included a study focusing on hotel receptionist work as contrasted to “chambermaid” work, noting that both jobs were normally handled by women. As to a receptionist “[t]he physical appearance and presentation of a woman on reception is important; she should be friendly, helpful and sexually attractive. If Adkins’ proposition is correct, this is not just women’s work but also white women’s work” (420). No such lofty (or sexual) standards appeared as to the maids’ work, however. “[T]here is no assumption that chambermaids should deliver emotional labour or present an attractive appearance: indeed the maid is expected instead to be invisible or a ‘non-person’ who goes about her work without disturbing the guest” (Adib and Guerrier 420). All of this, of course, was consistent with my own observations during that summer.
The hotel sponsored a good number of special functions like weddings, business and trade meetings, family reunions, etc. We called them “events”, and they were all organized by our Events Manager (an attractive white woman). We all worked overtime on the day of a big event, and there always was a lot of running around, bringing in more chairs and tables, last minute preparations, chaos in the kitchens, “putting on the finishing touches” and the like. Being under-staffed for an event just came with the territory. Looking back, I realize that we had plenty of extra hands available to help out, the whole time – they were right there on the other side of the “barrier”. Not once, though, did I see any of them at a function, or even in its preparatory stages. That would have meant a crossing of the line.
A Marriott Story
Even when hotel ownership or management claims to be “doing something good” for workers (and even if they really believe it), there may be another, thinly-veiled side to it all. In its 2015 review of “The 100 Best Companies to Work For” Marriott is not only among the most highly-rated, but also got glowing reviews in an article titled “Why employees love staying at Marriott.” Praising Marriott as a kind of benign master, the article cites “pre-shift dance sessions for housekeepers” as an example of how to build up morale (Gallagher). The article heaps further praise: “Marriott employs many Haitian Americans at its South Florida locations” and that Bill Marriott himself “spends every January at the Fort Lauderdale Marriott Harbor Beach and has come to know these employees personally” (Gallagher). The article admits that most Marriott workers do difficult manual labor. “But talk to Marriott employees—or associates, as they’re called—and you’ll hear the word ‘family’ with unusual frequency. They rave about their workplace and their colleagues. And they stick around.” The proof? General Managers average more than 20 years with the company, according to the article. But no data was provided on how long other employee groups “stick around” (Gallagher).
One presumes that a lot of planning and thinking went into that article before it was published in a special issue of Fortune. Yet, there it was. Perhaps my fears were justified. Perhaps a hotel is just a harsh, unvarnished and yet accepted view of “reality.”
I should add that I did not notice any suggestion of hiring discrimination, or harassment, or labour violations, or any other improper practices towards the employees where I worked. As far as I could see, everyone there was quite happy to have his or her job, and in fact the turnover rate was very low. By all accounts, and my own observations, the hotel was run by a very decent group of people who tried to treat everyone with fairness and respect, and whose only possible offense was “going along” too easily with an old and established system of entrenched biases. As an outsider, I was seeing what others were not. The world at large is surely full of discrimination, or harassment or other such problems, which are addressed in different ways in different countries (and by much of the literature). My personal experience included no such things, which are happily beyond the scope of this essay.
Figure Two: Administrative Work
Selves at Work
While I had limited interactions with the back of the house staff, I do recall certain things about them. I remember in particular their very quiet and humble nature in general, in my presence, at least. While I was a mere summer clerk, they treated me with respect and even a kind of deference. I thought little of it at the time, but I can see it in a different light now.
While Freire focused on education and did not directly address the working futures of his subjects, Collinson (in Identities and Insecurities: Selves at Work) made workplace observations which may be relevant to my own here. In fact, Collinson (in places) seems to be speaking of the same exact people as Freire – again, just further along in their lives. Like Freire, Collinson recognizes our fragmented societies as a starting point. From there he argues that “the specialized division of labour in industrialized societies intensified social fragmentation.” Applying that idea to my own experience, then, the already-disadvantaged back of the house workers I was meeting were falling further down the social ladder, as a result of increased “specialization” in their jobs. They got off to a bad start in life, took whatever job they could, and then lost even more status (and presumably opportunity) as a result of that job. This is consistent with my observation that no back of the house workers were ever promoted or crossed over to front of the house positions (Collinson 530-531).
Regarding the same underprivileged workers in the workplace, Collinson also provides clues as to their educational backgrounds. “If respect and dignity in so-called meritocratic societies are to be conferred only upon those who do middle class mental work, how do those who are trapped in low-status manual jobs construct a positive meaning for their lives?” (Collinson 531).
In other words, a weak education translates not only to a lack of business skills, but also to deficiencies in social and interpersonal skills. This presents another set of formidable obstacles to an individual’s progressing within society.
Finally, Collinson observed that these same workers are likely to suffer anxiety about job security. “Job insecurity can create material and symbolic anxieties for workers. The fear of losing one’s economic independence can be interwoven with more symbolic anxieties. To lose one’s job or even to feel compelled to conform to others’ demands because of the fear of job loss can erode one’s sense of autonomy and self-respect” (532).
Collinson’s observations were also very remindful of my own. He was describing the same people, our back of the house workers, and Freire’s “banking” students.
Figure 3: A Function
Conclusion: Insights on the Human Factor in Management
While Freire’s writings focus on education, opportunity and social progress, again, he does not actually follow his subjects from the classroom and into their working lives (at least he does not attempt to do so in Pedagogy). What would he say, then, about that hotel, or another hotel, or another workplace? What obligations exist in a business to effect social change? We are speaking now not of government-owned or government-sponsored schools, but the world of private business. Staff workers and even most management workers have little or no say over company policies. I certainly had none. To the extent a senior manager or business owner does have such influence, what burden exists to recognize and effect social change while operating in a competitive business environment?
There are many aspects to management science and organisational behaviour. Among them all, the human factor is the most important, and here much progress has been made over the years. These are organisational changes, however. Freire’s writings, relevant as they are to the business world, speak not to business organisations themselves, but to society, in its role as educator and preparer of its students for their future working lives.
My answer, based in part on my summer experience, is that the burden to effect social change cannot rightfully be placed on a business owner, and especially not on a small business owner. Following basic notions of fairness and respect is one thing (and that includes following all applicable laws and regulations, of course); but the greater problems, and their solutions, must be addressed at a governmental and societal level. A private business can certainly participate actively in worthwhile social causes, through civic and organizations or public-private partnerships. A business can contribute money to charities. A business can be a leader in community organizations, or sponsor good causes. Large corporation can do all of these things on a much larger scale (and some large corporations surely do a lot more than that, to their credit.) Marriott itself, one of the world’s largest hotel companies, is apparently trying – but even Marriott is apparently not as good a social changer as it wants us to believe.
But in the end, a business is a business, and exists for reasons of its own. They are legitimate reasons, engrained in our culture and evolved over the centuries. And under the age-old rules of business, or any more modern versions thereof, the managers of the business are charged, first and foremost, with fulfilling the company’s mission to make a profit, for the benefit of ownership and other stakeholders. Freire’s important work brings a powerful message about our schools, and society’s obligation to educate its people. But those obligations and calls for change exist as to the schools, not the workplace.
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