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pedagogy of the oppressed continues to be relevant and revolutionary

In his forward to Paulo Freire’s classic Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Richard Shaul writes, “There is no such thing as a neutral educational process” (emphasis in the original). I take this as a given, and it is important to make this assumption explicit and to call attention to it in a time that is seeing increased emphasis on the “outcomes” of education, as well as increased calls for standardization of those outcomes. Standardized goals for students and schools imply a neutral standard and process that applies to every student, every teacher, every administrator, and every school or college. I maintain that such standardization is illogical and ill-considered. Further, standardized outcomes are ethically wrong, because they perpetuate the inequities and injustices of our already unequal educational system and society. Racism, sexism, classism, and other systems of oppression continue to be strong forces in our government, in our schools, in our jobs, in our doctor’s offices, on the streets—indeed, in every aspect of our lives. This does not mean that we should have no standards at all; nor does it mean that we should hold different people to different standards—that is yet another form of injustice. It does mean that we should understand our standards as situated within an unjust system and that we should work together with our students and the people in our lives to create standards that make sense in each situation and time. One standard does not apply in all situations.

Published in 1970, Freire’s book of political, philosophical, and, pedagogical thought is (unfortunately) still seen as revolutionary—and it should be, because, if taken seriously and incorporated into our educational system, Freire’s ideas would help dismantle the inequities and systems of oppression that underpin our society. The book is a complex and at times dense read, but mostly because it is so firmly rooted in the context of his time and place. Freire was born in 1921 in Brazil to middle-class parents who were greatly affected by the 1929 world depression. Thus, the young Freire learned first-hand about poverty and injustice. Right after World War II he began to espouse a form of liberation theology and became involved in adult literacy education, partly because being able to read was a condition for permission to vote. He continued the work into the early 1960s, but in 1964 a military coup forced him to leave Brazil and he did not return until 1980. So, even though Pedagogy of the Oppressed was published (in Spanish and English) while Freire was in the U.S., its spirit, its philosophy, and all its examples are of Brazil and his work there.

I will not attempt to summarize his arguments here, but I want to bring out, and hopefully clarify, one important point of misconception about Freire’s dialogical method and about Critical Pedagogy, which is greatly influenced by Freire and his work. In addition, I briefly want to discuss Freire’s attempt to synthesize theory and practice.

The misconception about Freirean thought I hear most often seems to be about the difference between an approach or philosophy of teaching and a method of teaching. By my reading, Freirean pedagogy is definitely an approach, not a method. What he discusses and advocates for is a way of engaging students and teachers in a process by which they problematize and grapple with the world in which they live. How that is done is not proscribed—only that it is done. Naturally, engaging with our world and with each other often involves discussion—dialog—but Freire does not preclude lecturing or any other teaching style. He asks only that any teaching method be in the service of the goal of helping students and teachers to process and name their world, thereby creating and understanding that world more fully for themselves.

When people suggest that Critical Pedagogy is only about students teaching themselves and others, is only about group work, is only about discussion and never about lecture, they are limiting Freire’s “dialogical” process to literal dialog only. That is, they are focusing on dialog as a method, rather than as an approach or philosophy. There are no magic pills that will make every classroom great and every teacher perfect. There is no one way to help all students learn and succeed; to look for one is folly. Freire knew that and so does every teacher who is honest with himself or herself. Instead, Freire tries to provide a philosophy that will promote the success of every teacher and every student everywhere, because it provides a framework for each classroom to define itself and its relationship to the world and to the subject it approaches.

Having talked to a lot of teachers, I feel safe in saying that most teachers do not have a consciously developed philosophy of teaching or careful theory of dialogical or democratic pedagogy (if you disagree, I’d love to hear about it). This is true even for the many teachers who practice Critical Pedagogy or variations of it. For Freire, this is a form of “activism”—“action for action’s sake,” to the “detriment of reflection.” The opposite extreme is “verbalism” or talking and reflection “deprived of its dimension of action”; verbalism turns words into “idle chatter . . . into an alienated and alienating ‘blah.’” For Freire, neither end of the spectrum is adequate or even good at all without the other end; true education, real liberation, and genuine revolution is the synthesis of theory and practice. Only “reflection and action” or “praxis” can truly transform reality; praxis is the “source of knowledge and creation.”

Thus, Freire argues for the necessity of theory, that we put that theory into practice, and that we then reflect on our experience to modify the theory and/or form new theory. Those of us who practice our teaching without a coherent, explicit philosophy, take note.

As the book’s title suggests, oppression and how we might combat it is a central theme in the book:

This, then is the great humanistic and historical task of the oppressed: to liberate themselves and their oppressors as well. . . . Only power that springs from the weakness of the oppressed will be sufficiently strong to free both. Any attempt to “soften” the power of the oppressor in deference to the weakness of the oppressed almost always manifests itself in the form of false generosity.

The oppressors do not perceive their monopoly on having more as a privilege which dehumanizes others and themselves. They cannot see that, in the egoistic pursuit of having as a possessing class, they suffocate in their own possessions and no longer are; they merely have. For them, having more is an inalienable right, a right they acquired through their own “effort,” with their “courage to take risks.” If others do not have more, it is because they are incompetent and lazy, and worst of all is their unjustifiable ingratitude towards the “generous gestures” of the dominant class. Precisely because they are “ungrateful” and “envious,” the oppressed are regarded as potential enemies who must be watched (emphasis in the original).

[T]he pedagogy of the oppressed . . . must be forged with, not for, the oppressed (emphasis in the original).

These are important words to remember. They are also remarkably relevant today and in the United States. I see the truth of these words in the privilege and power I possess, in the values that our consumer culture espouses, in the continued oppression of women, people of color, and of all people who vary from the normative “ideal” in whatever way. I see it also in our foreign policy, as our government continues to treat most other countries—especially those populated primarily by non-whites—as potential cheap labor sources, natural resource wells, markets in which to sell our products, and/or potential threats to our possession-based culture. The rhetoric has literally been “they want what we have” and we must protect ourselves from that “threat.”

It is a sad fact that Pedagogy of the Oppressed continues to be relevant and revolutionary. At the same time, I take inspiration from its message of hope and possibility. I try to make my teaching a part of the solution for our community and our world.

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