Education for Liberation: A Short Review of Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed

The discipline of critical pedagogy has two aims: PedagogyOfTheOppressedfirst, to expose how educational practices produce, justify, and reinforce systems of oppression, and second, to transform these practices to foster a “liberatory consciousness” in students. Brazilian educator Paulo Freire is known as the father of critical pedagogy and his book Pedagogy of the Oppressed has sold over 1 million copies worldwide. While some of Freire’s critiques of what he calls the “banking model” of education are reasonable, his work as a whole is deeply rooted in his Marxist beliefs. Thus, teachers who try to turn his ideology into a mere technique are fundamentally misreading his goals. If you want to understand why and how critical theory and the ideology of Social Justice is influencing modern education, this book is a good place to start.

Education as Oppression

Like the Neo-Marxist thinker Antonio Gramsci and later contemporary critical theorists, Freire believes that oppression is not only maintained by force, but also by ideologies that dominant groups impose on society to justify their own power: “One of the gravest obstacles to the achievement of liberation is that oppressive reality absorbs those within it and thereby acts to submerge human beings’ consciousness” (p. 51). Freire also believes that education is one of the main tools for indoctrinating the oppressed into these systems:

It is necessary for the oppressors to approach the people in order, via subjugation, to keep them passive… by the oppressors’ depositing myths indispensable to the preservation of the status quo: for examples, the myth that the oppressive order is a ‘free society’; the myth that all persons are free to work where they wish… the myth that this order respects human rights and is therefore worthy of esteem… the myth that rebellion is a sin against God; the myth of private property as fundamental to personal human development (p. 139-140.

When marginalized people adopt the narratives and values of their oppressors, they experience “internalized oppression”: “The oppressed, having internalized the image of the oppressor and adopted his guidelines, are fearful of freedom” (p. 47) and “[The oppressed] are at one and the same time themselves and the oppressor whose consciousness they have internalized” (p. 48).

In particular, Freire is critical of what he calls the “banking model” of education in which the students are viewed as empty receptacles which teachers fill with information. According to Freire, the banking model treats students as objects to be acted upon rather than as subjects with their own agency: “In their political activity, the dominant elites utilize the banking concept to encourage passivity in the oppressed, and take advantage of that passivity to ‘fill’ that consciousness with slogans which create even more fear of freedom” (p. 95)

Education for Critical Consciousness

In contrast and in opposition to the “banking model” of education, Freire seeks a “dialogical model” which encourages the oppressed to recognize their own personhood with the goal of challenging the oppressive expectations and values of the oppressors, eventually leading to revolution. And, to be clear, “revolution” is not being used metaphorically here. Though Freire was apparently committed to non-violence, he very much envisioned a genuine Marxist revolution and transformation of society. His positive references to Mao Zedong (p. 93, 94), Che Guevara (p. 89, 170-1), and Fidel Castro (p. 164) leaves little doubt about his sympathies.

Consistent with his emphasis on the agency and personhood of the oppressed, Freire insists that oppressed people alone have the ability and authority to lead the revolution: “the oppressor, who is himself dehumanized because he dehumanizes others, is unable to lead this struggle [for a fuller humanity]” (p. 47). And “It is only the oppressed who, by freeing themselves, can free their oppressors. The latter, as an oppressive class, can free neither others nor themselves” (p. 56).

But before they are ready or willing to lead, the oppressed must first achieve a “critical consciousness” [conscientização], which can be fostered by critical pedagogy and dialogue:

The pedagogy of the oppressed, which is the pedagogy of people engaged in the fight for their own liberation, has its roots here [in the need for the critical intervention of the people in reality]… the pedagogy of the oppressed cannot be developed or practiced by the oppressors. It would be a contradiction in terms if the oppressors not only defended but actually implemented a liberating education (p. 54).

Critical Pedagogy and Teaching

Given that most teachers in the U.S. are not Marxists, it’s puzzling to me that Pedagogy of the Oppressed is as popular as it is. Possibly, educators have abstracted some of Freire’s ideas about “dialogue” and “mutuality” from his ideological framework and have sought to implement them in their classrooms. However, for those who are merely looking to Freire for teaching tips, I have to wonder if there is much of value in his work. For example, he characterizes the “banking approach” to teaching in the following terms:

Narration (with the teacher as narrator) leads the students to memorize mechanically the narrated content. Worse yet, it turns them into ‘containers,’ into ‘receptacles’ to be ‘filled’ by the teacher. The more completely she fills the receptacles, the better a teacher she is. The more meekly the receptacles permit themselves to be filled, the better students they are. Education thus becomes an act of depositing, in which the students are the depositories and the teacher is the depositor…. This is the ‘banking’ concept of education… In the banking concept of education, knowledge is a gift bestowed by those who consider themselves knowledgeable upon those whom they consider to know nothing. Projecting an absolute ignorance onto others, a characteristic of the ideology of oppression, negates education and knowledge as processed of inquiry… Education must begin with the solution of the teacher-student contradiction, by reconciling the poles of the contradiction so that both are simultaneously teachers and students (p. 72)

I’d argue that Freire’s objection here is based on a fundamental mistake about the supposedly dehumanizing effects of the “banking method” (indeed, I question whether Freire’s description is a remotely fair characterization of most teachers’ attitude). When I taught my children to read, add, and brush their teeth, I was not depriving them of agency and reducing them to objects. Filling children up with knowledge can be just as life-giving and empowering as filling them up with food, affection, and praise. And that points to a deeper disconnect between Freire’s philosophical assumptions and a Christian worldview.

Critical Pedagogy and Christianity

Elsewhere in critiquing the “banking model” Freire writes:

banking education maintains and even stimulates the contradiction [between teacher and student] through the following attitudes and practices, which mirror oppressive society as a whole: (a) the teacher teaches and the student are taught… (d) the teacher talks and the students listen–meekly…(e) the teacher disciplines and the students are disciplined…(h) the teacher chooses the program content, and the students (who were not consulted) adapt to it (p. 73).

Yet, relative to God, Christians would see all of these characteristics as entirely appropriate. In comparison to God, human beings are indeed ignorant. The appropriate posture is for us to listen meekly, accept discipline, and be open to God’s instruction.

Of course, Freire isn’t thinking of God when he penned this critique. But what we think about our relationship to God (or whether we think about God at all) will affect how we think about human relationships too. The book of Proverbs is full of admonitions for children to listen to, learn from, and heed both the wisdom of God and the instruction of their parents. In contrast, in the words of one of his commentators, Freire’s praxis is “grounded in a fully developed philosophical anthropology, that is, a theory of human nature, one might say a secular liberation theology” (p. 25). This is the reason that he sees a dichotomy between a teaching hierarchy and love. Yet Christians should reject such a dichotomy.

We don’t have to believe that students and teachers co-create knowledge in order to reject authoritarianism. Both classical education and Christian discipleship offer an educational model in which the student is not merely filled by the teacher but imitates and grows into the likeness of the teacher. While Freire would likely view these models as just as paternalistic and oppressive as the banking model, they certainly don’t qualify as mechanistic. Moreover, although some educational practices can be used to disguise and justify oppression (Native American boarding schools and -ironically- educational propaganda under Communist regimes come to mind), we don’t have to assume that all do.  

At the heart of this disagreement is a debate over the nature of reality. Freire insists that reality is a problem to be solved not a “given” to be accepted. In contrast, Christianity insists that God’s existence is the ultimate “given” which must transform us. For Freire, what humanizes us is primarily our ability to act on the universe and take control of our lives. For Christians, our humanity is found in our status as God’s creatures and our creation in his image. From these two radically different starting points flow radically different views about our purpose, our fundamental problem, and the solution to that problem. Disagreements over educational models are very far downstream from the real conflict.

Additional quotes:

“The young perceive that their right to say their own word has been stolen from them [and] that the educational system today –from kindergarten to university– is their enemy. There is no such thing as a neutral educational process. Education either functions as an instrument that is used to facilitate the integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity to it, or it becomes ‘the practice of freedom,’ the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world” (p. 34).

“Any situation in which ‘A’ objectively exploits ‘B’ or hinders his and her pursuit of self-affirmation as a responsible person is one of oppression. Such a situation in itself constitutes violence, even when sweetened by false generosity, because it interferes with the individual’s ontological and historical vocation to be more fully human. With the establishment of a relationship of oppression, violence has already begun. Never in history has violence been initiated by the oppressed. How could they be the intitiators, if they themselves are the result of violence?” (p. 55).

“Through dialogue, the teacher-of-the-students and the students-of-the-teacher cease to exist and a new term emerges: teacher-student with students-teachers. The teacher is no longer merely the-one-who-teaches, but one who is himself taught in dialogue with the students… In this process, arguments based on ‘authority’ are no longer valid; in order to function, authority must be on the side of freedom, not against it. Here, no one teaches another, nor is anyone self-taught. People teach each other, mediated by the world” (p. 80).

“Any situation in which some individuals prevent others from engaging in the process of inquiry is one of violence. The means used are not important; to alienate human beings from their own decision-making is to change them into objects” (p. 85).

“Dialogue cannot exist, however, in the absence of a profound love for the world and for people” (p. 89)

“How can I dialogue if I consider myself a member of the in-group of ‘pure’ men, the owners of truth and knowledge, for whom all non-members are ‘these people’ or ‘the great unwashed’?…At the point of encounter there are neither utter ignoramuses nor perfect sages; there are only people who are attempting, together, to learn more than they now know.” (p. 90).

“For the truly humanist educator and the authentic revolutionary, the object of action is the reality to be transformed by them together with other people — not other men and women themselves. The oppressors are the ones who act upon the people to indoctrinate them and adjust them to a reality which must remain untouched” (p. 94).

“the task of the humanists is to see that the oppressed become aware of the fact that as dual beings, ‘housing’ the oppressors without themselves, they cannot be truly human” (p. 95).

“It is not our role to speak to the people about our own view of the world, nor to attempt to impose that view on them, but rather to dialogue with the people about their view and ours” (p. 96).

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