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Review: Pedagogy of the Oppressed
by Gar Allen
Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed (New York Herder and Herder, 1970) is a critical book for all those who are seeking alternative lifestyles in the teaching of science life styles which are grounded in and have bearing on the social, political and economic reality of the contemporary world. It is a book for those who would make science truly of value for the people. It is not, however, a book about the teaching of science per se, but therein lies its true value. It is concerned with a method of perceiving reality which emphasizes the interaction among people as a means of developing their perceptual and analytical powers. True education, according to Freire, leads to liberation and thus to the degree it stifles or encourages freedom, the process of education is powerful political tool. This book forges a vital link between education and politics which those of us who profess to have radical views and want to help in one form or another of radical political organizing should take to heart.
Born in Brazil in 1921, Freire became a Marxist early in his life, largely out of the extreme conditions of poverty amidst which he and his family lived. At the age of 38 he received his doctorate from the University of Recife and remained there as professor of history and philosophy of education for several years. As a part of his work, he began developing conceptions (first) and methods (later) for teaching illiterates (mostly adults) in Recife. So successful was his approach, not only in teaching skills but also in helping peasants recognize that they had the innate ability to learn and perceive reality on their own, that Freire was jailed immediately after the 1964 coup in Brazil. Freed some months later, he was exiled and spent several years (each) in Chile, the United States and Switzerland. Most recently he has returned to Chile as an educational advisor to Salvador Allende’s Marxist government.
The importance of Freire’s book is that he considers education a process—a process of perception, analysis and discovery. This approach is in itself not new—the reforms in science teaching in the United States during the past ten or fifteen years have largely been based on the idea that students should learn to think through and analyze problems on their own, rather than memorizing what someone else calls “facts”. However, Freire’s ideas go much further than this and, among other things, help explain why the movement to reform science teaching in this country has achieved only a very limited success. Although by no means limited to the arena of science teaching, Freire’s philosophy is particularly applicable here because science (and the teaching of science) has been one of the areas of modern education where authoritarianism, elitism and mystification have run most rampant.
Freire characterizes traditional education as based on a “banking conception,” where the so-called facts of the subject are “deposited” by a teacher into the minds (considered empty like vaults) of the students. With this metaphor goes the idea that the depositor is the active agent, the receiver the passive. The depositor, the teacher, knows all (is rich), the student knows little or nothing (is poor). The process is one-way and, in Freire’s view, morbid because it is static—the information is not questioned and the receivers do not actively participate in organizing and rearranging it. Such a process mirrors well the oppressive societies which have given birth to the style of education practiced in western countries. It builds a rigid class distinction (the teacher-student barrier) with one group the “haves” and the other the “have-nots.” Even more oppressive, it supports the idea that the most appropriate form of behavior for a have-not is silence, passivity, and a feeling of inferiority. Those who have some ambition are channelled into becoming “haves”—depositors who can then dictate to and control the lives of other “have-nots.” How many budding graduate students are following this latter course?
Freire’s concept of education is a totally different one based on socialist principles of equality between teacher and student, the dialectical method, and the notion that our ideas about reality are not fixed and final, but necessarily change and evolve over time. It is central to Freire’s ideas that there is no ultimate answer to any problem, only answers with varying degrees of correspondence to reality. The purpose of education is to learn a process of comprehending that reality, rather than to learn what someone else (an authority ) believes that reality to be. The goal for each individual is the development of what Freire calls conscientizacao, the overt awareness not only of a process of analysis, but also of the liberating, humanizing effects of using such a process to better understand the world. The method by which people develop conscientizacao is through two-way dialog in which students and teachers together determine what questions or problems (what Freire calls “generative themes”) they wish to understand, and exactly how they should go about trying to investigate them. Teaching literacy for example, Freire and a group of peasants or workers would focus at the outset not only on the skills of reading and writing, but especially on why the particular people in the group wanted to become literate. From the peasant group some themes eventually emerged. These might be to get better jobs, to keep from being swindled by their employer or the rich merchants, or to give their children a better life. Investigating these themes raised other, deeper themes, which came back to the underlying reality of people’s lives. Why do some people get good jobs and others bad jobs? Why do some get to go to school and others not? Why do the rich act as though they are smarter than the poor? Why do the poor spend so much of their time drinking or fighting among themselves? Attempting to answer such questions, questions which arose out of their own reality, peasants could begin to separate the fabrications from the fabric of reality. Learning to read and write was a tool which helped in that process, but by itself was not the main goal of Freire’s educational plan. That goal is ultimate freedom, for by answering such questions the individual gains not only a deeper understanding of the concrete and material conditions of the world in which he or she is living, but also a confidence in his or her own ability to understand that reality. Such confidence is a crucial and necessary step toward freedom from oppression. It is not a step anyone can take for anyone else—and thus it cannot be taught by one person to another. Together, people can discover the process by exchanging ideas and experiences about the world. A true conception of reality does not consist of a set of rules or facts about the world so much as a viewpoint, a perspective which is consistent with the experience of many people. Only by common experiences and understanding can a whole people be free; otherwise there is freedom only for some, and oppression for the rest.
Freire’s point should not be misconstrued to indicate that no differences exist between teacher and student. Not only are they different individuals with different experiences, but their experiences are often of quite different kinds. Students have much to learn from older and/or more experienced people around them; but Freire goes on to point out that this does not preclude, and in fact actually necessitates, the process going in the other direction as well. Teachers must know what is meaningful to students—must in Freire’s terms determine the generative themes that grow out of and are thus applicable to both their own and the students’ lives. Only by developing a process of dialog can this two-way street become a reality. As soon as the teacher thinks that he or she knows more of everything, and has little to learn from the student, the process of education becomes nothing more than ban- king with ideas. It reverts to a class-structured society with a dominant and a dominated, an oppressor and an oppressed. It is no longer education but subjugation. It is the enemy of freedom.
What is important about Freire’s approach is that he links the style of traditional education closely and inextricably with the oppressive nature of capitalist society. It is not by accident that he terms traditional education the “banking conception”, for it is based upon a concept of human relations and human development which is a central part of (but perhaps not limited to) capitalist psychology. That relationship is characterized first and foremost by dominance and subjugation. The teacher decides what is to be taught, how it is to be taught, and how the students should go about learning the material. The essence of this practice is one of the most important aspects of capitalistic mentality; the psychological need to control. In the banking conception the teacher controls the educative process. In benevolent moods he or she may consult the students about their wishes, but in the last analysis all decisions belong to the teacher. The traditional teacher-student relationship is also characterized by an exaggerated sense of human worth based on personal possession. The teacher is considered a superior human being by virtue of possessing something—knowledge in this case. The student is considered inferior by virtue of not possessing that knowledge. It is in some ways the private property ethic, so dear to capitalism, extended to the realm of ideas. The student becomes more superior by obtaining knowledge, which is often represented categorically a.s a grade or credit “earned”. Freire would not for a moment deny that people grow and improve through learning — that is after all what education is about. But he does point out that knowledge comes in many different forms, and that even the young or the “uneducated” have had experiences and formed perceptions that may help the older and the “educated” see the world more realistically. In Freire’s work the illiterate peasant had much to teach the educators, based on a set of experiences rich in emotion, perception, and all too frequently, in suffering. By the dialogical process this exchange of experiences, through analysis, leads to heightened perceptions of the true nature of reality. If practiced in full, Freire’s educational process becomes subversive because it leads people to recognize the true oppressors in society, and eventually to throw off the yoke of oppression.
Freire’s concept of freedom is not anarchy, nor should it be misinterpreted in our current jargon of “doing your own thing.” It is not license for libertine radicalism or the other modes of reaction to contemporary capitalist society which we have all seen in the United States (drugs, the youth culture, religious mysticism). To Freire, true communism and collective activity is only possible when individuals are internally free, able to think critically and independently and form true conclusions on their own. When people begin to see reality in a common way, bonds are built between them that can lead to collective action. Thus, Pedagogy of the Oppressed is a primer not for heightened individualism but for heightened communalism. It is both a political and a psychological treatise in the end. It recognizes that people cannot be free to join with others in a meaningful and perceptive way until they have the confidence and independence internally that allows them to see realistically themselves and those with whom they come into contact. This confidence and perception can only be developed by a pedagogy that treats people as human beings and encourages the learning of a process rather than a body of facts chosen and doled out by experts.
If Freire’s book has any major faults, it is in the occasional high level of abstraction to which it climbs. I for one found some of it, particularly parts of Chapter 3 where he relates his views to existential philosophy, difficult to follow. He employs on occasion a terminology that mystifies rather than clarifies. For example in describing the work of a young Chilean literacy worker Gabriel Bode, Freire says that initially, with a group of peasants who just learned to read and write, Bode “projects a very simple codification of an existential situation.” This means, translated, that Bode showed the peasants a picture of some type of activity, for example some men drinking wine together. Freire goes on to write: Bode “terms his first codification ‘essential’; it represents the basic nucleus and opens up into a thematic fan extending to ‘auxiliary’ codifications”. This means that Bode showed the peasants pictures of other situations which might or might not appear overtly to be related to the first, but which in some way grew out of it. Jargon and abstract writing is not a characteristic of Freire’s writing style in general, but it does appear on occasions, making some of the reading slow and tedious.
It is obvious why many of us want to bring science to the people should take Freire’s philosophy and politics seriously, for he speaks to aspects of our everyday lifestyles (especially as teachers)—indeed our psyches—that need re-examination. How many of us teach by lecturing? How many of us teach large courses with hundreds of students, dispensing established ideas of a field rather than encouraging students to develop perceptions and ideas of their own. How many of us view students with disdain, or lay our heavy lines (political or otherwise) on them rather than determining the “generative themes” which might be meaningful starting places for a dialog? How many of us hide our ignorance behind a rigid authoritarianism, and think that because we own more information on a specialized subject, we must own more about every subject? How many of us continue to learn for ourselves, continue sharpening our perceptions of the world, continue to modify our picture of reality? One can teach the most radical politics, for example, in a banking way—one reason why the reforms in science teaching over the past decade have fallen short of their marks. They have emphasized methods and thought processes, but the teachers remained largely bankers, so that the active engagement of students’ minds was kept at a minimum. Freire’s book tries to emphasize how education for freedom must begin internally, with the consciousness of those who would act as the teachers. If we are serious in our stated aims to organize within the scientific, engineering and university communities, to work with people in those communities in a common task of throwing off oppression (and that means first capitalism), then we must grow to recognize the oppressors within ourselves. Freire’s book is a very important step toward that goal.