Pedagogy of the Oppressed 101

December 5, 2009

“This volume will probably arouse negative reactions in a number of readers. Some will regard my position vis-á-vis the problem of human liberation as purely idealistic, or may ever consider discussions of ontological vocation, love, dialogue, hope, humility, and sympathy as so much reactionary “blah.” Others will not (or will not wish to) accept my denunciation of a state of oppression that gratifies the oppressors. Accordingly, this admittedly tentative work is for radicals. I am certain that Christians and Marxists, though they may disagree with me in part or in whole, will continue reading to the end.”

– Freire Pedagogy of the Oppressed


“This, then, is the great humanistic and historical task of the oppressed: to liberate themselves and their oppressors as well.” So begins Pedagogy of the Oppressed, the Brazilian teacher and theorist Paulo Freire’s most famous work. Freire is the Che Guevara of education:  his writings capture the sense of desperate urgency and forceful idealism that defined a pivotal moment in recent Latin American history, a moment subsequently swept away by a wave of continental, counter-revolutionary violence. But Freire remains a giant of the Latin American left, one of the few who still guides the work of educators and activists. Indeed, his theories are more than a new model of education and revolutionized definition of teaching; Freire represents a critique of the social order, a vision of political change and a theory of individual development. Freire is also half the reason I’m in Guatemala.

Published first in Portuguese in 1968, Pedagogy of the Oppressed is best understood not as a precise pedagogy but rather as a set of guiding principles for educators derived from Freire’s own experience leading basic literacy classes for peasants in Brazil and Chile. These “guiding principles” are now referred to as “critical pedagogy” or “popular education. Critical pedagogy (as formulated by Freire) rests on a fundamental assumption about relations of power: the world can be divided between the oppressors and the oppressed, both of whom are dehumanized as they, in turn, wield and submit to power. Freire argues that neither is free, that the existing social system stunts the growth of both, preventing them from undertaking the “indispensable … quest for human completion.” However, it is the oppressed who suffer the most, as their identity is submerged in that of their oppressors, rendering them “objects” incapable of recognizing the reality of their own condition. As extensions of a dominant will, they are at once themselves and their oppressors: they both desire freedom and fear it. This “fear of freedom” is the force that enables the continuation of conditions of inequality. It follows that universal freedom will only be achieved when the oppressed seek to free themselves, recognizing their true identity as subjects as they “perceive the reality of oppression not as a closed world from which there is no exit, but as a limiting situation which they can transform.”

There is nothing original about the dialectic proposed by Freire (see Hegel, Marx, Gramsci, Cesaire, Fanon, pretty much every Black radical who was alive in the 1960s, so on and so forth.) But while Marx argued for the necessity of change in the material basis of production and Fanon saw violence as the key to ending the colonizer’s psychological control, Freire points to education. The solution, he writes, is for the oppressed subject to “objectify” her reality, developing the language necessary to name her oppressor.

Freire is at once a critique of radicals who “sloganize” and teachers who “bank.” In the “banking model,” Freire writes, “education thus becomes an act of depositing, in which the students are the depositories and the teacher is the depositor.” The teachers narrate their knowledge, which the students are expected to hear, memorize, and repeat. Like the oppressed, students become simple extensions of their teacher’s intellect: “words are emptied of their concreteness and become hollow, alienated and alienating verbosity.” This kind of education presents reality as static, something to be observed and preserved. Just as students mindlessly memorize and repeat narrated “knowledge,” so the banking model teaches that people do not make their world and that they are powerless to change it. Submerged in such a vision of reality, we perpetuate oppression.

Real knowledge, real humanity and real freedom are then linked. “Knowledge,” Freire argues, “emerges only through invention and reinvention, through the restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry human beings pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other.” Education must be carried out through dialogue, not narrative: teachers should not deposit and student should not be depositories. Rather, they must engage with each other’s experience of reality, questioning their assumptions, identifying the forces that restrict them, and re-envisioning the world. As they name their reality, both teachers and students emerge as free subjects, conscious of both how the social order shapes experience and how the social order is shaped. They no longer see themselves as powerless objects of power, but as actors capable of making change just as they make words and sentences. For Freire, education is the practice of freedom.

In the second part of Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Freire begins to lay out how such a practice should be carried out. It is essential that all educational programs begin from the student’s own experiences, a principle that somewhat explains Freire’s lack of specificity about the methodology of popular education. Educators, he explains, should work with members of the community in which they plan to work to choose curriculum content. He proposes a model of “culture circles,” consisting of stages of problem posing, discussion and investigation. The teaching of literacy should begin with whole words, so that students always understand the link between the word and the world, the meanings of language and our understanding of reality.

These words should evoke generative themes words chosen to provoke discussion and to force both students and teachers to articulate their understanding of reality. In Brazil, Freire used pictures of favelas, or slums, and the world “favela” itself, in his “culture circles.” In Chile, he mentions drawings of an alcoholic man returning home past young man on a street corner, which Freire refers to as a “codifications.” Participants commented that “the only one there who is productive and useful to his country is the souse who is returning home after working all day for low wages and who is worried about his family because he can’t take care of their needs. He is the only worker. He is a decent worker and a souse like us.” “There are two important aspects to these declarations,” Freire continues. “On the one hand, they verbalize the connection between earning low wages, feeling exploited, and getting drunk- getting drunk as a flight from reality, as an attempt to overcome the frustration of inaction, as an ultimately self-destructive solution. On the other hand, they manifest the need to rate the drunkard highly. He is the “only one useful to his country, because he works, while the others only gab.” After praising the drunkard, the participants then identify themselves with him, as workers who also drink- “decent workers.”

The final chapter of Pedagogy of the Oppressed links education with broader social movements, emphasizing the necessity of working from within oppressed communities. Critical pedagogy, Freire argues, must serve as the model for all revolutionary action. But this extrapolation of the practice of the classroom to the political arena is where the gaps and ambiguities in Freire’s theories begin to show. What exactly is the expected outcome of a program of popular education? He argues forcefully against materialism, asserting that psychological liberation and human action is essential to social change, yet also hints at the necessity of organization and even fleetingly defends political violence. He insists on the necessity of mutual reflection in educational exchange, as both teacher and student reconsider their understanding of reality, yet clearly believes that Marxism is the best analytical framework for explaining reality. Freire is both a liberal and a Marxist, and as such illustrates the challenge of reconciling the two philosophies.

Freire, then, leaves us with both a compelling vision of liberatory education and a long list of open questions, some theoretical, some political, some practical. How is Freire applicable to the work of teachers: those who consider themselves radical but are neither guerillas nor organizers, who work within the confines of a classroom and the limits of present politics? How should it be used to guide daily decisions made about teaching, and how does it translate into classroom practice? How can educators borrow from Freire to address themes like race, gender and culture, themes Freire might not have disregarded but certainly would not have prioritized over class? These are the questions I proposed to explore in my Fulbright application, and that I return to continually as I begin my work in Guatemala.

* If you are interested in learning more about Freire (you should be) but don’t want to wade through 150 pages of pseudo-Hegelianism, I would highly recommend We Make the Road by Walking, a book-length interview of Freire and Myles Horton, the founder of the legendary Highlander Folk School. When Freire goes off on an extended tangent, Horton will usually come in with some kind of dry, funny anecdote about dirt farmers, which usually say everything Freire was trying to say, except in a paragraph or less. (I am naming my first-born son Myles Horton. I’m completely serious.)

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