The Trouble with Freire

May 7, 2010

CONALFA texts for the second year of the literacy program, Spanish and Q'eqchi'

In The Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paulo Freire includes a powerful example of how classroom dialogue can be not only inclusive but creative, generating new knowledge of the world. A group of Chilean workers were presented with a “generative image” of a drunken worker stumbling down the street: from the corner three teenagers watch with scorn. The drawing was meant to prompt a discussion on the consequences of alcoholism. Instead, the students defended the drunk. “He’s a poor worker like us,” they commented, “who works all week for his family but still doesn’t make enough to make ends meet and so drinks to forget.” The teenagers, they added, were simply lazy bums.

The very first unit in the CONALFA (state) “post-literacy” curriculum features a similar drawing. A man sits slumped at a table, his hand wrapped around a glass and a half empty bottle placed before him. His money is strewn on the table and has fallen on the floor. But the topic of the unit is not work, or wages, or masculinity, but rather the importance of maintaining a family budget: the image is juxtaposed with that of a “good” head of household, dutifully counting out the money allotted to his wife and children.

Emblematic of Latin America’s all-too-brief revolutionary moment, 40 years after its publication Pedagogy of the Oppressed has ceased to be radical. Rather, state institutions and their partner NGOs have adopted the methodology that Freire designed for social movements and community education projects. Freire himself participated in this process, working within the public education system in Sao Paolo in the 1980s. Depending on your political perspective (and how literally you like to interpret Freire), you can interpret this shift as a tremendous success or an outrageous act of co-optation.

But if the Freirean method really produces results- if it really empowers students to participate in the political process- such a debate might be a dead end. A more useful conversation, it seems to me, revolves around a related but distinct question, one I have asked before on this blog: Does Freire work? Does his methodology translate to different places, languages and contexts, and if so when, where and why does it work?

As part of my work for P, I completed an evaluation of last year’s literacy process that sought to answer this deceptively simple question. My deceptively simple answer? No, it doesn’t. Or at least it didn’t last year, in our 19 literacy groups spread across Guatemala. My initial analysis suggests that the reasons for this failure were more logistical than methodological, and I’m not ready to completely condemn the Freirean method. I’m moving to the Zona Reyna next week to work more closely with facilitators and students, and I think I’ll have clearer insight once I’m spending every day in literacy classes.

But my work on the evaluation did force me to confront some troublesome questions about the practical limitations of the Freirean approach when it is reduced to a primer. One would expect that if the methodology were successful- if it had really resulted in dialogue- both the facilitators and women would emphasize political and personal learning in their descriptions of the process. But one of the facilitators’ most common reactions to the “generative themes” was not the relevancy of the subject matter or the quality of the discussion, but rather the difficulty of teaching the words once they had been translated to the Mayan language. The students remarked that the process of forming new words out of “syllable families,” made learning more fun, but they hardly rhapsodized about the symbolic significance of the “whole word,” and many commented that writing even simple words was still difficult for them. And a significant number of participants interviewed said that learning to read was simply too hard for them, that perhaps their children could learn in a bilingual fashion, but that for them it was too late. Ensuring that the oppressed have the courage and confidence to claim their right to learn is the central goal of Freire: if the methodology can’t deliver on that, it simply isn’t achieving its objectives, and needs to be reformed.

(Another important point, which perhaps deserves its own blog entry, is the question of whether or not Freire is actually a good choice for bilingual educators, particularly when it comes to indigenous languages.)

Obviously, the implementation of the methodology was far from perfect. The Freirean methodology requires knowledgeable, confident teachers who know how to engage a class in dialogue. But our facilitators received limited training and support. Perhaps with better teaching and additional investment in childcare that might have enabled more women to attend regularly, it might have worked better.

Still, for all the trouble with Freire, I can’t help feel that a big part of the problem isn’t the idea of the methodology at all. The unintended consequence of Freire’s success- the institutionalization of his methodology across Latin America- is the codification of his complex vision of the classroom into just another set of workbooks, or, as this pointed brief argues, a “primer.” According to its authors at Action Aid, the Freirean approach has become exactly what Freire himself set out to reform, and in the process has lost something essential to his vision: a belief that true education consists in the reconsideration of one’s reality and the generation of new knowledge through dialogue. The Action Aid folks have hit on something important, including an interesting methodology I’m excited to tell you about it sometime soon.

So, you might ask, does Freire still matter? Yes, of course. He may not have provided us with a fool-proof methodology, but he does offer a set of guiding principles: he forces us to consider why we teach, what we teach and who we teach for. He asks us to take a hard look at our classrooms, to ensure that we are creating the kind of spaces that make true learning possible, and then to lift our eyes beyond them, asking what else our obligation to our students entails. Does the education we provide really serve our students? Does it challenge the order of things or confirm existing hierarchies?

The questions suggested by Freire are relevant not only in Latin America, but also  in the United States, where renewed interest in education reform has not led to a deeper debate about poverty.  In fact, such fervent interest in failing schools and bad teachers frequently obscures the complex relationship between public education and poverty. Education is universally presented as the solution to deeply entrenched racial and economic inequality. Yet surely our current “jobless recovery” makes it obvious that poverty is inevitable in a market system. Freire would challenge us to question these consequences, and to consider if education plays a role in justifying them, in excusing who “falls” to the bottom and who “climbs” to the top. We may no longer accept Freire’s Hegelian Marxism or his flawed methodology, but we should uphold his commitment to critique and his fervent belief in education as the practice of freedom.

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