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Liberating the Pedagogy

Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire Herder and Herder, 1971 translated from the original Portugese manuscript, 1968 paperback: $2.95

By Raymond A. Urban

It is said but gruesomely true that if a contest were held to determine the poorest, most exploited area of the world, the number and variety of legitimate entries would be staggering. Still, on undeniably strong contender is the northeastern region of Brazil, centered about Recife and dominated by its sugar and coffee plantations. This is where Paulo Freire grew up and came to know firsthand the listlessness, hopelessness, and pain of suffering hunger and oppression. Today he is living in the physically comfortable environs of Geneva, Switzerland and probably has not experienced hunger for some years. But he had not forgotten what it was like to share the life of the poor; and his life and his book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed are eloquent testimonies to that fact.

Had not the military coup occurred in Brazil in 1964, it is unlikely that this book would have ever been written. From the time his philosophy of education was first formally expressed in his doctoral dissertation at the University of Recife in 1959 until his "invitation" to leave Brazil, he was refining and applying his methods of teaching to the enormous problems of illiteracy, poverty, hunger, and oppression that were the everyday existence for the peasants of northeast Brazil. Emanuel de Kadt, in his books Catholic Radicals in Brazil, states that the Metodo Paulo Freire "...was still characterized by potential rather than actual achievements, by promise more than realization." Yet the concrete plans for 1964 were to reach 2 million illiterates. He continued his work with illiterates in Chile for 4 more years before there too the government felt that the people he was working with were moving too far and too fast and it "requested" that he leave. The Center for the Study of Development of Social Change, offices atop the Harvard Square Theater, had become interested in his work and invited him to Harvard. While here during the 1968-69 school year he taught at the Ed School and was prodded to write down the framework and ideas that had guided his work. The result was Pedagogy of the Oppressed.

A Pedagogy of the oppressed must have its roots in the existential reality a person is living in. Such a reality can be seen as a series of problems facing each person--obtaining sufficient food, fighting disease, keeping the rain off one's head--and therefore an education based on that reality must be problem-oriented. Freire found that the central problem underlying each of these individual problems is learning just what that reality is and where that reality is coming from. Is the reality of insufficient food the reality of an act of God of the person's own laziness, or of an exploitative landlord? This is the process of conscientizacan--gaining an awareness of the social, political, and economic dialectical relationships that are reality-defining. (Friere perceives all problems as occurring in dialectical pairs.) An absolutely fundamental dialectic is that of oppressor--oppressed, and here the educational task for both teachers and students is to become aware of the oppressor in the outside world and in one's own head. Such reflection leads to action to rid oneself of that oppressor--education as praxis--and praxis leads to liberation:"...the action and reflection of men upon their world in order to transform it."

Unless action is taken by the oppressed to define their own world, to speak their own word, no real education has taken place--only the passive filling of receptor-students that is most of Western education. Friere refers to this as banking education, education aimed at changing the consciousness of the oppressed to more passively receive their oppression rather than education to change the situation that oppresses them.

The role of the teacher in Freire's pedagogy is one and the same with the role of the revolutionary leader. The teacher must enter into a dialogue with the oppressed in order to learn the nature of their reality, to receive the problems that the people are experiencing. The teacher's task is to codify, synthesize, and develop a plan of action from the information gathered with the people and--in Mao Tse-Tung's words--the teacher"...must teach the masses clearly what we have received from them confusedly."

Freire goes on to elaborate this theoretical base more specifically in organizational terms: the methods of gathering information, the preparation of codified problems, the establishment of thematic investigation circles with the people, the role of social science specialists, the input of the teachers in suggesting neglected themes, and the use of various media for communication. Because Freire intends his book to be a practical use, a better organized and more detailed exposition of these organizational aspects would have been useful. Perhaps one specific case study should have been systematically included.

Throughout the book Freire contracts his methods and his theory with those of the oppressors. His use of cooperation vs. their use of conquest, the oppressor's need for unity vs. the oppressor's need for divisiveness, organization vs. manipulation, and cultural synthesis vs. cultural invasion. He sees oppressors as being anything but stupid and stresses the necessity for knowing their methods.

In essence his book is a handbook for radical educators. The heavy, often repetitive, Hegelian-Marxist style used in the larger theoretical portion of the book can lead one to forget that the principles spoken of were used, refined, and tested by over a decade of actual work in the fields and flavelas of Latin America. That most of the ideas expressed in Pedagogy of the Oppressed appear distinctively logical, right, and just is not only the consequence of the real-world testing of them, but also a reflection of the brilliant synthesis Paolo Freire has accomplished of many diverse theological, philosophical, political, and psychological viewpoints.

Paolo Freire is a Catholic educator and social activist. Two of the most important themes woven throughout his book and his life are the inherent goodness, beauty and dignity of man, and his prophetic vision of a just and free world brought about through praxis--the synthesis of reflection and action. Both are basic Christian and Catholic themes exemplified by the ministry of Jesus Christ and--in Latin America--practiced even by a significant portion of the established Church. Friere has read widely among theologians, and his combination of two of the most important theological influences on his thinking and action--Teilhard de Chardin and Reinhold Niebur--reflect his fundamental Christian outlook and his emphasis on praxis.

Teilhard de Chardin was a French Jesuit and paleontologist by profession, co-discoverer of the "Peking Man." He wrote extensively throughout his life and his theology is based on a vision of the cosmic evolution of man proceeding from the alpha point--base matter--to the omega point--the union of man and God in God's perfectness. Freire borrows this cosmic optimism for the future of man but tempers it with the political realism of Reinhold Niebur, an American Protestant theologian. Friere and Neibur feel that the cosmic evolution of man can become pathologically fixated at a certain point, and that to resume the hominization of man requires concrete political thinking and action. For Freire, this require a pedagogy of the oppressed.

Unfortunately, another result of Freire's Western. Judeo-Christian orientation is his dichotomizing of man from his world, his view of the natural world as a set of resources to be ruled over and manipulated by man for his enjoyment and satisfaction. Behaviorists as well as ecologists point out the danger of viewing the biosphere as a passive resource: in order to assure his survival, man must come to the realization that his life is governed by the same natural laws as all other events in the universe. Freire senses the oneness a peasant feels with the land that gives him life and the sensitive balance with nature that the peasant must live by in the face of a greedy oppressor. Rather than using this solidarity with the world in helping the peasant come to an understanding of the greediness and exploitation of human and natural resources by his oppressor. Freire tries to divorce the peasant from his union with his land and force him to adopt the Western perception of land, animals, and resources as things to be used for man, not with him.

Heavily influenced by Hegel and Marx, Freire sees social reality as a dialectical process. All people can be divided into two groups, the oppressors and the oppressed, each group essential for the other's existence. An ability to see all people and actions as being with one or against one, as wearing white or black hats with no shades of grey allowed, is a useful political tool in clearly defining the enemy that must be attacked. But it also denies the basic humanity that even the oppressors can process. Freire rejects liberal or progressive reforms initiated by seemingly well-meaning members of the ruling class as attempts to preserve the oppressor's power, "Let us carry out reforms before the people carry out a revolution." But people do not live their lives on polar ends of abstract dialectics, and to spit in the palm of an outstretched, helping hand in the name of the future revolution is to arrogantly assert one's own self-righteousness and to deny the existence of Daniel Ellsberg's. Freire's own experience shows some of the problems of always positing oneself in absolute contradiction to the ruling class: once a government agrees to let Freire establish his educational programs, those educational programs by definition are being used to preserve the ruling class's power, but without governmental support of any degree Freire finds himself sitting uncomfortably in an office of the World Council of Churches in Geneva.

Footnotes throughout the book display the beneficial diversity of political integration Freire has accomplished. Mao Tse-Tung and Che Guevara were particularly helpful to Freire by defining the role of the educator among peasant classes; Vladimir Lenin contributed to his theory of praxis, and Martin Luther King provided a recent model of real Christianity integral with social change. Because of his stress on basing any liberation movement on the existential reality of the people involved in it, Freire also turned to two thinkers who view man as a psychological as well as political being, Erich Fromm and Herbert Marcuse.

On the surface, the importance of Pedagogy of the Oppressed as a field-tested, revolutionary, and human guidebook for education is limited to illiterate, undeveloped nations. Fortunately for Western social activists the illiteracy and underdevelopment that Freire attacks through his pedagogy is present in all nations; the illiteracy of the understanding of our fellow men and women and underdevelopment of our humanity and our capacity to love. A few social thinkers already have been profoundly influenced by Paolo Freire's ideas. Ivan Illich, another educator working in Latin America, speaks of Freire as "the great man of Latin America": Illich's call to dismantle out entire present educational structure may be the direction Freire himself would move in if he became involved in children's education rather than the adult education he based his book on. Harvey Cox's move from a theology of technological salvation to a theology of people's religion has in significant part been due to Paolo Freire's influence. Because there is no such thing as a neutral educational process, the educational methodology and theory we choose for ourselves, others, and out society largely determine the reality we live, Paolo Freire's book has made a valuable contribution to the liberation of that pedagogy.

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