Reconsidering Paulo Freire’s “Pedagogy of the Oppressed”

Paulo Freire,
Paulo Freire,

Pedagogy of the Oppressed
By Paulo Freire,
The Continuum Publishing Company,
1970.

When Paulo Freire wrote Pedagogy of the Oppressed, the world was in the middle of a fierce ideological war. The iron curtain was firmly shut, and the fire of anti-colonial struggle was burning wildly in the countries of Africa and Latin America. Nine years earlier, the Americans had invaded the Bay of Pigs, and Frantz Fanon had published The Wretched of the Earth, shortly before his death. It is therefore a telling commentary on the enduring nature of the work carried out that Pedagogy of the Oppressed continues to gain resonance and relevance today, especially outside its (apparent) immediate constituency of political philosophy and activism, to the world of the theory and practice of education.

The book itself is organised into four chapters. In the first chapter, the author explores the nature of the historical struggle between the oppressed and the oppressor, making the case for a pedagogy of the oppressed. In chapter two, he analyses what he calls the “banking model” of education, which is cast as the favourite method of the oppressor, by which they seek to “deposit” knowledge, define the reality of the oppressed and contain their ambition for freedom. This is contrasted with the “problem-posing model”, in which both the teacher and the student are recognised as co-creators of knowledge. The next chapter then explores in greater detail the “dialogic” method used in “problem-posing” education, and the various stages of investigation. In the final chapter four, Freire examines at length the struggle between mutually opposing dialogic and anti-dialogic model; the former an instrument of liberation, the latter an instrument of oppression.

Freire sets out the fundamental principle that “concern for humanisation leads at once to the recognition of dehumanisation, not only as an ontological possibility but as an historical reality”. Both humanisation and dehumanisation are real alternatives for people, the latter being a negation of the former. In a classical collision of opposites, dehumanisation affirms and validates humanisation by negating it. Dehumanisation is therefore a “distortion of the vocation of being more fully human”. In the noble struggle to regain their humanity, the oppressed cannot afford to become like the oppressor, but rather the liberator of both the oppressor and the oppressed. The oppressor is himself “dehumanised because he dehumanises others”, but it is only the oppressed, and not the oppressor, that is capable of liberating himself and others. This, then, is the historical task to which the oppressed must commit.

Turning his attention now to the Teacher-Student relationship, Freire says that the prevailing model of education is one in which the teacher is cast in the role of the narrator in an act akin to depositing in a bank. The student, on the other hand is cast as “container” and “receptacle”, uncritically absorbing, and then regurgitating, the teacher’s deposit of knowledge.

To succeed in this task, the oppressed need a critical pedagogy, by which they can objectify the oppressor and the world of oppression in order to transform them. This praxis – this combination of critical reflection and action – must begin with a process of self-discovery, first as members of the oppressed class, but also as bearers of the “image of the oppressor” which they have internalised as a model of being. For it is this duality which makes the oppressed yearn for freedom, yet fear it. It is this internal contradiction that summons the oppressed to liberty, yet tempts them to become like their oppressors. The conflict for the oppressed, says Freire, “lies in the choice between being wholly themselves or being divided; between ejecting the oppressor within or not ejecting them; between human solidarity or alienation; between following prescriptions or having choices; between being spectators or actors; between acting or having the illusion of acting through the action of the oppressors; between speaking out or being silent, castrated in their power to create and re-create, in their power to transform the world.”

Given that the task of transforming the situation of oppression involves struggle and resistance, is violence inevitable? To this Freire offered that violence has already begun with the establishment of “the relationship of oppression”. Even when it is sweetened by false generosity, “any situation in which “A” objectively exploits ‘B’ or hinders his or her pursuit of self-affirmation as a responsible person is one of oppression, and in itself constitutes violence”. For good measure, “any situation in which some individuals prevent others from engaging in the process of inquiry is one of violence”. Violence as such “is initiated by those who oppress, who exploit, who fail to recognise others as persons—not by those who are oppressed, exploited, and unrecognised. It is not the unloved who initiate disaffection, but those who cannot love because they love only them- selves…”
Pedagogy of the Oppressed
Turning his attention now to the Teacher-Student relationship, Freire says that the prevailing model of education is one in which the teacher is cast in the role of the narrator in an act akin to depositing in a bank. The student, on the other hand is cast as “container” and “receptacle”, uncritically absorbing, and then regurgitating, the teacher’s deposit of knowledge. In this model, “the teacher presents himself to his students as their necessary opposite; by considering their ignorance absolute, he justifies his own existence”. The students, submerged in this reality, calmly accept their fate as justifiers of the teacher’s existence. This type of “education” is therefore an instrument of the oppressor to make the oppressed accept and adapt to the situation of oppression.

Admittedly, this is an introductory, exploratory book, but there will be ongoing debates about whether or not “problem-posing” education can accommodate some “banking” elements, especially in the initial stages, say with respect to summative assessment of students.

Problem posing education is entirely opposite. In this model, both the teacher and the student are seen as co-creators of knowledge, learned as well as learning. Here, “the teacher’s thinking is authenticated by the authenticity of students’ thinking”. The student is therefore not merely subordinated to the teacher, but both the teacher and the student are jointly responsible for the process of learning and creating knowledge. While the teacher may have attained a higher level of consciousness of themselves and of the world, they can only help raise the consciousness of others in an ongoing process of dialogue, not by “depositing” knowledge in the student.

This dialogic process is in clear contradiction to the anti-dialogical method of the “banking” model. The one entails a practice of freedom; the other, of domination. “Banking education resists dialogue; problem-posing education regards dialogue as in-dispensable to the act of cognition which unveils reality. Banking education treats students as objects of assistance; problem-posing education makes them critical thinkers. Banking education inhibits creativity and domesticates (although it cannot completely destroy) the intentionality of consciousness by isolating consciousness from the world, thereby denying people their ontological and historical vocation of becoming more fully human.” In the dialogic process of problem-posing education there are “neither utter ignoramuses nor perfect sages. Only learners.

Paulo Freire says nothing in this book about which methods of assessment and examination is suitable for the “problem-posing” model, or indeed about how the dialogic method can justify the role of the examiner. Moreover, what is the place of authority and discipline in the student-teacher relationship? It is a curious thing, in this respect, that communist countries like China seem to discourage challenge to authority, emphasising instead discipline and memorisation, compared with the apparently more liberal approach of western countries. Admittedly, this is an introductory, exploratory book, but there will be ongoing debates about whether or not “problem-posing” education can accommodate some “banking” elements, especially in the initial stages, say with respect to summative assessment of students. Nevertheless his central thesis is highly stimulating and thought-provoking, even if it is, in many respects, a re-invention of the ancient method of Socratic dialectics.

Seun Kolade is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Centre for African Entrepreneurship and Leadership, University of Wolverhampton, UK.

Image credit (Paulo Freire): Writingcities.com.


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  • olutade

    The dialectic of knowledge is that it liberates as well as restrains.