Note: After a several month hiatus, I am renewing this series on important books that have impacted me.
A Slow Impact
Probably more than any other book in this series, no book has redirected the course of my life like Pedagogy of the Oppressed, and no author has impacted me more than Paulo Freire. Even so, that impact was slow in coming. One of my great regrets is that while I first encountered the book in 1980, it was not until after Freire’s death in 1997 that I was fully gripped by Freire’s vision. Had I been able to make sense of it early on, I might have been able to attend the many presentations and dialogues he held throughout the U.S. and around the world.
Who was Paulo Freire
Paulo Freire was born and raised in northeastern Brazil and at age 25 in the mid-1940’s he was hired as the director of Education for SESI, an organization designed to serve the needs of workers and their families. In the course of his work, Freire came to see that the vast illiteracy that existed among the workers and the tenant farmers was due to structural inequalities. It was in the interest of the ruling elites of the country to keep the poor illiterate, because in order to vote a person had to read. Thus, keeping the population unable to read, kept them out of the political process and dependent on their employers and landowners.
In the process of his work, Freire developed a method of teaching people to read he later called “Reading the Word and Reading the World.” In simple terms this method involved learning about the daily lives of his students and taking words from their experience as a starting point for teaching them to read. Thus they were reading words common to their lives. From those basic words, other words could be constructed. However, at the same time, he would ask them questions about their daily activities (from which those words came). The questions were designed to help them think critically about the wider social and political context in which they lived and which kept them in a constant state suffering and poverty. By simply asking those questions, Freire challenged the fatalism that so often covered their lives
Freire trained graduate students in his method and in a short amount of time there were Freirean “culture circles” ( what he called them) all over Northeastern Brazil. Through this approach, Freire was able to teach an illiterate person how to read well enough to pass the voting test in forty days, and soon thousands of campesinos and workers were being added to the voting rolls.
Eventually, Freire was hired by the newly elected Socialist president of Brazil, Joao Goulart, to expand his literacy program all across Brazil. However, before his plan could be fully implemented, Goulart was overthrown in an American-supported coup de tat, and Freire was arrested for sedition and imprisoned. Later in 1964 he was exiled and was not allowed to return to Brazil for 16 years. Pedagogy of the Oppressed was written while he was in exile in Chile, published in Portuguese in 1968, and translated into English in 1970.
My Encounter with Freire
I first encountered Pedagogy of the Oppressed in 1980 during a course on Urban Christian Education. (I have found that most often Pedagogy of the Oppressed is listed in courses with either “Urban” or “Multicultural” in the title, suggesting that Freire is a marginal figure at best; not so, as I will show). I am not exactly sure why our instructor had us read the book, because we never discussed it. Even so, I found his insights profound. I tried to implement some of them with the youth in my Sunday School class, but without any guidance and mentorship, I soon got discouraged.
Fast forward to the year 2000 when I enrolled in a Doctor of Education (EdD) program in Adult Education and Leadership. In the second course on Adult Education Principles, I read a book in which Freire was referred to as “the most prominent philosopher of adult education in the radical tradition.” I was intrigued and went back to Pedagogy of the Oppressed, and began reading everything by and about him I could get my hands on. When it came to writing my dissertation, I proposed to write an overview of Freirean popular education in North America but was unable to find a faculty mentor to work with me on this project, so I chose another topic. However, in 2011 during a 6-month sabbatical, I traveled across the U.S. and Canada, interviewing popular educators and wrote a white paper entitled “Under the Radar: Popular Education in North America,” which I distributed on the internet. I have written several articles about Freire’s work, and in 2017 I co-authored Paulo Freire: His Faith, Spirituality and Theology with James Kirylo from the University of South Carolina. Even in retirement, I continue to read, study and write about Freire and his vision for education that liberates people to new and creative ways of thinking and acting for social justice.
A Brief Overview
In Pedagogy of the Oppressed Freire contends that he is putting forth a philosophy of teaching, and not a method. Thus, his ideas about teaching must be reshaped and reinvented in every context where it is read. This was my problem in applying and understanding it in 1980. I was trying to apply in an urban North American context what had been first been conceived in a Brazilian rural context. Thus to fully appreciate the power of what he writes about one must read and then apply in ways appropriate to their context.
The book consists of four parts or chapters, and space does not allow me to do justice to all that is in those chapters. But there are some key concepts that emerge that have significantly shaped not only my way of teaching but how I live my life.
First, is the idea that education should not be a process of simply “depositing knowledge in students’ brains (what Freire called the “banking model” of education), but rather should engage students in reflecting about and acting on circumstances in their immediate contexts. In other words, students should be challenged to apply what they learn in concrete ways. Freire called this a problem-posing approach to teaching. Today’s focus on problem-based learning is a clear derivative of this approach.
Second, closely related to this is the concept of praxis, which Freire called reflection-in-action and reflection-on-action. In other words, our teaching must challenge our students to develop the skill to learn from their experiences, from conversation, from books and presentations, but to do so with an eye toward critical thinking. One should chew on knowledge through reflection and test it through action, reflect on that action, and continue the process throughout their lives.
Third is the concept of conscientization, which is Freire’s most misunderstood and misapplied concept. In our individualistic, North American context people often think of conscientization as synonymous with consciousness-raising. Consciousness-raising is a process of gaining a greater sense of one’s intellectual and physical capacities. By contrast, conscientization does not occur in an individualistic context but a communal one. So in its purest form, conscientization is a process whereby a group of people, particularly oppressed people, gain a sense of their own ability to resist and transform the structures and circumstances that have marginalized and dehumanized them.
Fourth is the concept of humanization, which in its simplest sense means treating people as full human beings. Writing from the perspective of one who had been imprisoned and then exiled from his country, Freire knew what was to be treated like a nobody, a thing, an inert object. He believed personal and social liberation starts when people realize they are not objects but rather subjects of their own destiny; that despite how they are treated they can make a difference in the world. In the words of the founders of Black Lives Matter, humanization means their lives matter.
Finally, there is Freire’s commitment to dialogue as a way of teaching and a way of bringing about social justice in a community. As a committed Marxist, Freire realized that at times force and coercion, and perhaps even violence, might be needed to bring about change. But for him in all cases there needs to be an attempt at dialogue, because it is through communication and community with others, that people, communities, and nations become more democratic, more inclusive and more just.
A Launching Pad
These are just some of the ideas Freire introduces in Pedagogy of Oppressed, which are further developed in his later writings. Pedagogy of the Oppressed is not the easiest book to read and takes time to reflect on what he is saying. Actually, if I was going to introduce someone to the work of Freire, I probably would not recommend they start with this one. Nonetheless, if people know anything by Paulo Freire, it usually is Pedagogy of the Oppressed. It is worth the read, no matter how difficult it might be. Every time I have read it (10-12 times) I gain new insights and perspectives.
Most directly it has impacted the way I think about teaching and learning. I seek to use dialogue in my courses, and I am always looking for ways to relate complex ideas to the lived experiences of my students. I also value the insights and wisdom of my students, so that I often learn as much as they do in the course of a semester. However, Freire has also impacted the way I see the world, such that actions such as police brutality or caging refugees at the Southern border or denying a second chance to the incarcerated smacks of the dehumanization Freire talks about. Finally, in this highly polarized moment in our society I am committed to dialogue rather than debate, and working for a justice that treats all people as fully human and worthy of dignity.
Pedagogy of the Oppressed has been reprinted and translated in languages across the globe, and in 2018 a 50th Anniversary edition was published. So I am not alone in being influenced by this diminutive Brazilian educator. The book has been more than just a book I read; it has become a launching pad to the development of a new and continually emerging perspective of how to live humanely and justly in a divided, violent and oppressive world. I suspect that learning and launching will continue for some time to come; I certainly hope so.