A link to an online copy of Freire’s book: Pedagogy of the Oppressed (181 pages). [If for whatever reason the preceding link doesn’t work for you, you can try this one:cached version of “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” (use your browser’s zoom function to size the text to your reading preference).]
Whereto should a pedagogy of liberation lead? From what, exactly, am I and the oppressed of this world to be liberated? What in our world as it exists most oppresses most everyone? We look around us, and everywhere there is exploitation and want, even in the midst of plenty. What is the cause of this? In our society, who are the most needy and why? Why do our governments take us to war? Is it that we live in a world of scarcity, wherein real technical productive capacity tends to idle at less than half of what real output could be, that drives our governments to obliterate countries like Iraq or Libya or Yugoslavia? Or is it something else?
To my mind, an education that aims to raise awareness should have an understanding of what it is that is at the root of economic and political exclusion, of what it is that makes for widespread economic stagnation and recurrent crises, of what explains ‘unemployment,’ of the fact that people are always being squeezed by their employers, to always work harder for longer for less. Knowing the reasons for this logically leads to an understanding of what needs to change to stop the bleeding.
Freire is an important read, but he cannot really be understood outside the context of Marxist scholarship. His point, in so far as I am able to make him out, is this: capitalism must be euthanized; but it cannot be subdued unless the working class, which is oppressed and expropriated and exploited by means of wage labour, arises to an awareness of this ‘fact’ and then itself undertakes the task of overthrowing its capitalist oppressors. Freire is a bottom up revolutionary. He wants a revolution. But he wants it to be a revolution undertaken by ordinary people who are no longer unconscious about the roots of their economic, social, and political subjugation. And how he wants teachers and educators to bring the working class to the insight that he believes is the necessary prerequisite to move ourselves beyond the barbarism and insult of capital is to teach people, even as they learn to read and write, to ask and to try to explain to themselves why life deals them the hand that it does. Why, for example, does the landowner own so much land? Why does he live in opulence while the migrant workers and local share croppers, who do all the work, go begging? Is it because the landowner is smarter and better educated? Or might it be something else? And what might that be? Why can’t the peasants, who know all about raising and harvesting crops, not have land and fend for themselves rather than, as it is now, being denied access to land?
It is this kind of thing that Freire has in mind when under a climate of political repression in Brazil he is elaborating for the sake of Brazilian educators in the admittedly obscure and oblique language of phenomenology, to encrypt his message, so to speak, against his class enemies, his ideas of what the aims of a pedagogy intent upon the liberation of man should be. It isn’t just about an attitudinal equality in the classroom between teacher and student, though it is about that, too, so as to encourage among the working class a self-possessed attitude of defiance before authority figures, but also about getting ordinary people to wake up to the fact that their fate is not the result of their personal failings or congenital ineptitude, but that they are actively being ‘oppressed’ by an ‘oppressor’ that they can barely perceive on account of being constantly ‘brainwashed’ into subservience
Broadly speaking, this is what I take Freire to be about: capitalism rules; it oppresses the many; the many feel the sting of their oppression, but are confused about the cause of their burden because they have been indoctrinated into the dominant capitalist ideology, both in the classroom and at the level of the street; that indoctrination must be broken if the oppressed are to get off their knees and stand up for themselves; it is the ethical duty of ‘teachers’ to be on the side of the oppressed, whose indoctrination they must help to break by means of pedagogical strategies aiming precisely at this.
To my mind, then, teachers who are committed to a pedagogy of liberation in the manner of Freire are committed to having their students come around to an understanding of the systemic causes of social dislocation under capitalism.
I leave you with a quote from Donaldo Macedo’s “Introduction” to Freire’s “Pedagogy of the Oppressed,” from the PDF version to which I have linked above (the emphases are mine / see pp.13-15. of the PDF version):
“Freire never abandoned his position with respect to class analysis as theorized in Pedagogy of the Oppressed. However, as he continually did, he reconstituted his earlier position throughout the years, particularly in our co-authored book Ideology Matters. In it Freire argues that whereas, for example, “one cannot reduce the analysis of racism to social class, one cannot understand racism fully without a class analysis, for to do one at the expense of the other is to fall prey into a sectarianist position, which is as despicable as the racism that we need to reject.”8 In essence, Freire’s later works make it clear that what is important is to approach the analysis of oppression through a convergent theoretical framework where the object of oppression is cut across by such factors as race, class, gender, culture, language, and ethnicity. Thus, he would reject any theoretical analysis that would collapse the multiplicity of factors into a monolithic entity, including class.
“Although Freire was readily embraced in societies struggling against colonialism and other forms of totalitarianism, his acceptance in the so-called open and democratic societies, such as the United States and the nations of Western Europe, has been more problematic. Even though he has an international reputation and following, his work is, sadly, not central to the curricula of most schools of education whose major responsibility is to prepare the next generation of teachers. This relative marginality of Freire’s work in the school-of-education curricula is partly due to the fact that most of these schools are informed by the positivistic and management models that characterize the very culture of ideologies and practices to which Freire was in opposition all his life. [. . .]
[. . .]
“Whereas students in the Third World and other nations struggling with totalitarian regimes would risk their freedom, if not their lives, to read Paulo Freire, in our so-called open societies his work suffers from a more sophisticated form of censorship: omission. This “academic selective selection” of bodies of knowledge, which borders on censorship of critical educators, is partly to blame for the lack of knowledge of Paulo Freire’s significant contributions to the field of education. Even many liberals who have embraced his ideas and educational practices often reduce his theoretical work and leading philosophical ideas to a mechanical methodology. I am reminded of a panel that was convened to celebrate Freire’s life and work at Harvard after his death. In a large conference room filled to capacity and with people standing in hallways, a panelist who had obviously reduced Freire’s leading ideas to a mechanized dialogical practice passed a note to the moderator of the panel suggesting that she give everyone in the room twenty seconds to say something in keeping with the spirit of Freire. This was the way not to engage Freire’s belief in emancipation—unless one believes that his complex theory of oppression can be reduced to a twenty-second sound bite. Part of the problem with this mechanization of Freire’s leading philosophical and political ideas is that many pseudocritical educators, in the name of liberation pedagogy, often sloganize Freire by straitjacketing his revolutionary politics to an empty cliche of the dialogical method. Pseudo-Freirean educators not only strip him of the essence of his radical pedagogical proposals that go beyond the classroom boundaries and effect significant changes in the society as well: these educators also fail to understand the epistemological relationship of dialogue. According to Freire,
In order to understand the meaning of dialogical practice, we have to put aside the simplistic understanding of dialogue as a mere technique. Dialogue does not represent a somewhat false path that I attempt to elaborate on and realize in the sense of involving the ingenuity of the other. On the contrary, dialogue characterizes an epistemological relationship. Thus, in this sense, dialogue is a way of knowing and should never be viewed as a mere tactic to involve students in a particular task. We have to make this point very clear. I engage in dialogue not necessarily because I like the other person. I engage in dialogue because I recognize the social and not merely the individualistic character of the process of knowing. In this sense, dialogue presents itself as an indispensable component of the process of both learning and knowing.10