Red Dawn

On Paulo Freire and “Pedagogy of the Oppressed”

Pedagogy of the Oppressed, by Paulo Freire (New York: Bloomsbury, 1970/2000).

An extraordinary, if difficult and troubling, book. The late Paulo Freire was a Brazilian Marxist and educator whose summational life work was the construction of this abstract, weighty, and heavily theoretical framework for a radical re-imagining of education, first published in English in 1970. For Freire, the “banking model” of pedagogy, in which a superior figure (the teacher) makes “deposits” of knowledge into a passive recipient (the student) is profoundly oppressive, based as it is on an explicitly reactionary dynamic intended to foster obedience and passivity. “Any situation,” Freire writes, “in which some individuals prevent others from engaging in the process of inquiry is one of violence.” In doing so, it treats students as objects (rather than subjects) and denies them their ontological vocation, which is to become human.

In place of the “banking model” of education, Freire proposes a dialogic “problem-solving” model, wherein the student and the teacher are peers, or near-peers, in a dialectical pursuit of “generative themes” — open-ended truths that grow organically from the community. “Authentic education,” he writes, “is not carried on by A for B, but by A with B, mediated with the world.” The result is the inculcation of genuine critical thinking skills — what he calls a co-intentional education.

The foregoing, of course, is an extremely crude precis of Freire’s book, which is, if nothing else, a work of exceptional subtlety and deep philosophical import. A layperson like me is quite out of his depth among talk of limit-situations, limit-acts, “object”-societies, and existential decodifications; nonetheless, a sense of theoretical rigor and intellectual energy pervades the reading experience. It is accompanied in me, however, by a small, nagging voice asking how on earth this pedagogy, as genuinely sophisticated and liberating as it is, could ever be implemented on any kind of practical scale these days, especially given the ever-narrowing exigencies of contemporary education. That voice may well be the last, vestigial voice of my inner centrist, top-down, Ivy League elitist; or it could be the admission of an incomplete understanding. Either way, Pedagogy of the Oppressed is an essential, if demanding, piece of writing and thinking. The translation is by Myra Bergman Ramos.