Sunday, May 10, 2009

"Pedagogy of the Oppressed" - Paulo Freire

"This is truly revolutionary pedagogy", states the 1970's book edition subtitle.

Paulo Freire (1929-1997) taught history and philosophy of education at the University of Recife, in Brazil. His experiments on teaching illiterates in Recife led him to develop a pedagogical method, widely used by the Catholic Church and other groups in literacy campaigns throughout the North East of Brazil. In 1964, a military coup in Brazil put an end to the Freire-inspired literacy campaigns, and imprisoned the philosopher for 70 days as a traitor.

Upon release, Freire was encouraged to leave his country. He moved briefly to Bolivia, then to Chile, where in 1967 he published his first book, Education as the Practice of Freedom. In 1969 he published Pedagogy of the Oppressed, which was translated to English in 1970 as a best seller.

Harvard University invited Freire as a Visiting Professor in 1969, and a year later Freire moved to Geneva, Switzerland, as a special education adviser to the World Council of Churches. Freire was unable to publish his work in his native country for a long while - not until 1974, when a gradual democratization process began in the country under President Ernesto Geisel. Freire was able to return to Brazil in 1980, where in 1988 he was appointed Secretary of Education for Sao Paulo.

Reading Freire's magnum opus, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, is an interesting experience. Freire's political views are intertwined with his philosophy of education. If one wonders which came to model the other, his political theory or his theory of education - the answer is found in the way material is ordered within the text. Freire's book starts in the 1st Chapter with a discussion of the class struggle ideology, then moving on in Chapter 2 to a philosophical dissection of pedagogy.

But what formed Freire's view of the class struggle in the 1960's Brazil? What specific examples of oppression did he see? Were them so obvious that they could go unmentioned to his readers? For there is no testimony to oppression acts in the text, and we are left to assume oppression as an axiom. Oppressed peasants may have been illiterate. But if someone in Freire's position as a theoretician of revolution does not describe the oppression acts, they might well be lost to history. We are left to assume a split-class Brazilian society without social bonds and mechanisms serving as glue to hold itself together, without enough levers of freedom to balance the imposition of the haves over the have nots.

Freire's view is that pedagogy should foremost heal oppression.

The central problem is this
, he writes: How can the oppressed, as divided, unauthentic beings, participate in developing the pedagogy of their liberation? Only as they discover themselves to be "hosts" of the oppressor can they contribute to the midwifery of their liberating pedagogy. As long as they live in the duality in which to be is to be like, and to be like is to be like the oppressor, this contribution is impossible. The pedagogy of the oppressed is an instrument for their critical discovery that both they and their oppressors are manifestations of dehumanization [p. 33].

Are the illiterate peasants and slum city dwellers better served by a general education for literacy - which lets them draw their own conclusion about class emancipation? Or should their teacher take the automatic next steps for them? The paradigm of pedagogy is that it imparts knowledge, which brings equality, and equality brings emancipation, and emancipation is a political instrument. Freire sees pedagogy directly as emancipation.

As a consequence, more important than the contents of what is taught in class - in Freire's view - is how content is taught. If teachers impart knowledge, "filling" the students with the contents of their narration, then they become oppressors to the students. To Freire it is more important that students learn to free themselves from coercion, even at the expense of learning less material. This is where Freire in effect stands in the line of the older pedagogical philosophies of the pragmatist John Dewey and of the romantic Jean-Jacques Rouseeau.

One could reply to Freire that, as a matter of pedagogy, even coercion itself has less to do with the teaching style and more with the content matter. The most perfectly open and interactive class can still be a venue for political indoctrination - think of history classes which attend to national myths rather than to historic facts.

But the narrator-teacher, to Freire, is the purveyor of a banking system pedagogy, where the teacher deposits knowledge in the student, with the expectation that the student will be able cash it out unchanged. This is a very black-and-white view of the teacher-student relation. Let's go through the list of the narrator-teacher practices, as listed by Freire, which in his view mirror oppressive society as a whole: [p. 59]

a. The teacher teaches and the students are taught. Nothing controversial here.

b. The teacher knows everything and the students know nothing. This is a false antithesis. The students build on earlier knowledge. The teacher may know everything about the subject being taught that very day, but may need to glean from the students what is the most effective way to convey it - that is, in effect, what the teacher needs to learn from the student.

c. The teacher thinks and the students are thought about. The teacher, instead, teaches students how to think.

d. The teacher talks and the students listen - meekly. That is unless of course students are asked to talk and the teacher listens.

e. The teacher disciplines and the students are disciplined. True, but the subtlety lies in how the students are disciplined.

f. The teacher chooses and enforces his choice, and the students comply. The teacher knows the destination of the conversation, even if multiple paths may lead there.

g. The teacher acts and the students have the illusion of acting through the action of the teacher. It remains unexplained what is meant by the teacher's act. But the implication is that the teacher is acting fake.

h. The teacher chooses the program content, and the students (who were not consulted) adapt to it. In fact, the school, or the education department choose the curriculum content. The students are not yet qualified to be consulted on this point.

i. The teacher confuses the authority of knowledge with his own professional authority, which he sets in opposition to the freedom of the students. But freedom without reflection is freedom of poor quality. True freedom, in Hegelian sense, comes from the integration of the individual within social institutions, and that integration requires knowledge.

j. The teacher is the Subject of the learning process, while the pupils are mere objects. Students are the subject, teaching is about them not about the teacher.

In a reflection of old philosophical debates about the primacy of the world of things over the world of ideas, Freire writes [p. 63]:

Yet only through communication can human life hold meaning. The teacher's thinking is authenticated only by the authenticity of the student's thinking. The teacher cannot think for his students, nor can he impose his thought on them. Authentic thinking, thinking that is concerned about reality, does not take place in ivory tower isolation, but only in communication. If it is true that thought has meaning only when generated by action upon the world, the subordination of students to teachers becomes impossible.

In other words, Freire takes the position that abstract ideas cannot be taught. He does not clarify whether he actually believes abstract ideas really to exist; he would clearly make interesting conversation to Socrates, to whom the unseen ivory-tower ideas were the only immutable truths, opposed to the touchable but changeable things which surround us.

There is a funny paragraph about a group of intellectuals discussing the anthropological concept of culture [p. 69]:

In the midst of the discussion, a peasant who by banking standards was completely ignorant said: "Now I see that without man there is no world." When the educator responded: "Let's say, for the sake of argument, that all the men on earth were to die, but that earth itself remained, together with trees, birds, animals, rivers, seas, the stars... wouldn't all this be a world?" "Oh, no," the peasant replied emphatically. "There would be no one to say: 'This is a world'."

In other words, in absence of consciousness, the world does not exist. That is the ivory-tower idea which the peasant got across, and in doing so he gently proved to Freire that abstract ideas can be taught.