Rereading Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed

Educators and students in the United States often misunderstand Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Students – insofar as they are exposed at all to this classic – usually read only the second chapter of the book with its brilliant discussion of “banking” and “problem-posing” education. The second chapter seems largely self-contained, allowing readers to consider Freire independently of Hegel’s master-slave dialectic, critical theory or Brazilian politics. Reading this chapter in isolation makes Freire far less radical – as less inspiring to those who wish to transform society and less alarming to those who affirm the status quo. This entails the risk of missing the central purpose of Freire’s book, as well as overlooking the obstacles to an emancipatory education.
In the banking model, teachers treat students as “receptacles” to be “filled” with information from their lectures. Teachers usually see themselves as imparting important information for students’ success and helping students eventual acquire the ability to reason critically. Their own political convictions may be liberal or even radical. Nonetheless, when analyzing teaching, we should not separate the content from how it is taught. Teachers in the banking model of education treat students as objects – receptacles to be filled. This promotes passivity and credulity among learners and socializes students to consider themselves as unable to learn without a teacher. Worse, it can oppress, rewarding students who internalize the status quo and stigmatizing those who resist as deviant or stupid. Success in a banking system of education often comes with the consequence of abandoning the impulse to question and criticize and to seek prestige and power in the existing system.
The banking model, at least on a superficial level, can be understood largely independently of Pedagogy of the Oppressed’s social and intellectual contexts and of Freire’s broader goal of liberation. It also raises a question: if we give up on “banking,” what alternatives for education are available? Freire proposes “Problem-Posing Education” in which “through dialogue, the teacher-of-the-students and the students-of-the-teacher cease to exist and a new term emerges: teacher-student with students-teachers.” (80) Freire writes:
           Problem-posing education, as a humanist and liberating praxis, posits as fundamental that men subjected to domination must fight for their emancipation. To that end, it enables teachers and students to become Subjects of the educational process by overcoming authoritarianism and an alienating intellectualism; it also enables men to overcome their false perception of reality (74).
Freire’s central question is how oppressed people can come to understand the social structures that oppress them and to liberate themselves. Changing position in the social hierarchy does not lead to liberation: “It is a rare peasant who, once ‘promoted’ to overseer, does not become more of a tyrant towards his former comrades than the owner himself. That is because the context of the peasant’s situation, that is, oppression, remains unchanged.” (46) Nor does Freire believe that others – intellectuals or experts, for instance – can liberate the people. Genuine liberation must to come from the people themselves: they must understand their situation and overcome it. He is also acutely conscious of how revolutionaries often become oppressors.
Hegel’s master-slave struggle from the Phenomenology of Spiritis central to Freire’s project. The Phenomenology of Spirit is an account of the development of self-consciousness. Hegel recognized that self-consciousness depends on the recognition of others. We come to know ourselves through how others see us. We learn who we are – avaricious, generous, kind, cruel, joyful, sad, courageous or timid – through our interactions with other people.
In the section on “Lordship and Bondage,” Hegel introduces us to two consciousnesses. In Hegel’s myth, they engage in a struggle to the death in which each demands recognition from the other. One consciousness fears for its life and submits, agreeing to serve the other as its slave or bondsman. The triumphant consciousness becomes the master, convinced that it has achieved freedom by defeating the other consciousness. The triumph is short-lived. The master reduces the other consciousness to a slave, transforming it into an object to be used. But an object cannot supply the recognition demanded. The master, by enslaving the other consciousness, dehumanizes himself and forfeits its own liberty, ultimately transforming itself into an object. Freire writes:
           If what characterizes the oppressed is their subordination to the consciousness of the master, as Hegel affirms, true solidarity with the oppressed means fighting at their side to transform the objective reality which has made them these ‘beings for another’.” (49)
How, then, can we transform society and not merely exchange roles? The people need to come to understand that they are oppressed and to liberate themselves. This liberation cannot come from the outside – people cannot become free unless they knowingly participate in their liberation. What, then, is the role of teacher-students? The answer is that people are unlikely to liberate themselves on their own: something (or somebody) needs to awaken them to come to understand their circumstances, to realize that the world can be different, and to act to transform reality into something better. This puts Freire in a paradoxical position: liberation appears to need experts, but it is impossible for experts to impart their expertise. In fact, “experts” who come to liberate the people are ignorant and arrogant – they do not in fact possess the necessary local knowledge.
Problem-posing education is Freire’s response to this paradox. Liberation is something that is not granted, but achieved. Knowledge is acquired through communal inquiry. Education is a process of liberation through mutual recognition and dialogue. This results in education becoming extraordinarily demanding – educators must remake themselves as collaborators, not authorities. Moreover, education ceases to be something accomplished within a classroom, but something carried out in life by transforming the world.

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