(v) Freire and Pedagogy of the Oppressed

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This coming Thursday, a classmate and I will be presenting on Chapter Two of Paulo Freire’s 1968 publication ‘Pedagogy of the Oppressed’ for my Philosophy of Education course on the MSc Education programme. This is the same course that I produced my 500 coursework blog on the purpose of education for and I’ll be posting that on here once the piece has been graded. As standard for any work I do, I’ve sought to provide some historical context and background to both Freire and to the book as the opening to our presentation. The text has been pretty fundamental in shaping the Community Learning and Development field worldwide, with particular relevance for Adult Education programmes. I’m planning to write regularly about Paulo Freire, Nita Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed and other Frerian works, as well as on the lasting legacy and wider impact of their work, but for now I’ll offer a short insight into Freire’s life and to the key concepts considered his most famous work.

Born into a Middle Class life in Recife (Brazil), Paulo Freire’s family entered into poverty during the economic recession of the 1930s – something Paulo later came to understand as having had a detrimental impact on his experience of education (the inability to focus on learning when you’re struggling with hunger). In adulthood, upon completing a law degree at the University of Recife, Freire undertook a State Director position with the Department of Education in Pernambuco – the seventh most populous Brazilian state. Freire credited those years his family spent in economic hardship as fundamental in shaping his approach to education.

During his time as Director, Paulo worked primarily on improving adult literacy, which at the time was a prerequisite for during national elections. In 1962, he began working for the Department of Cultural Extension at the University of Recife. Despite success in his adult education programmes, political upheaval saw Freire imprisoned for seventy (70) days, before being forced into exile. Freire spent time spent in both Bolivia and Chile, producing ‘Education as a Practice of Freedom’ (1967) which offered insight into his teachings, yet it was this second work ‘Pedagogy of the Oppressed’ (published in Brazilian Portuguese in 1968, and in English in 1972) that became known as his greatest work. Freire dedicated the book to not just ‘The Oppressed’, but also to those, like himself, ‘who suffer with them and fight by their side’.

Many, quite rightly, state that Pedagogy of the Oppressed is difficult to engage with,noting that the language at times borders on inaccessible. Perhaps we can take comfort from this, in that the book is therefore an accurately translated work – equally difficult to consider in both languages. Freire seemed to understand this, and his later works such as ‘Pedagogy in Process: The Letters to Guniea-Bisseau’ (1978), ‘The Politics of Education: Culture, Power and Liberation’ (1985), and ‘Pedagogy of Hope: Reviving Pedagogy of the Oppressed’ (1995), are, for the most part, easier to engage with.

Key terms within Pedagogy of the Oppressed are often offered alongside Freire’s own definitions, e.g. Praxis (‘application through action’) – somewhat similar to Pedagogy and the way that we teach or engage in the learning process – meaning that if considered gradually, we can work through the text. However, Freire frequently negates this, offering no definitions for terms such as ‘sonority’ (the relative volume or loudness of speech). A further challenging term Freire adopts would be conscientization (conscientização) which we can understand to mean the ‘unveiling the world of oppression through […] thoughtful action’ with the purpose of encouraging fuller societal participation in the ‘process of transformation’. Other terms might include ‘biophily’ (deep connection to life),‘necrophily’ (education without live experience to shape understanding), and ‘automaton’ (self-operating, mindless machines).

Though the book primarily advocates for a shift from ‘banking’ models of education (a one-way from of knowledge from educator to learner), towards a problem-posing model in which the educator and the learner engaging in a continuous form of dialogue so as to achieve a deeper understanding – one rooted in the participants lived experience. A key idea within the book is that ‘to carry out a revolution for the people is the equivalent to carrying out a revolution without the people’, in essence, that educators must themselves be united with and within their communities, living amongst those who seek ‘liberation’. Rather than a very paternalistic approach of coming into the community to tell communities what to do (often the way politicians are seen as providing solutions for deprived communities without truly knowing them), Freire advocates that those in power should consult with and be led by those communities in seeking solutions to the problems faced by those communities.

In shifting back to my MSc programme at the University, Freire’s work is reflected in and has been further developed / built upon by many academics whose work we study not just in the Philosophy of Education course, but also in Policy where Jim Crowther’s really useful knowledge critiques what’s constitutes ‘Really Useful Knowledge’ (in ‘’Really Useful Knowledge’ or ‘Merely Useful’ Lifelong Learning?’ [2004]), in Nature of Enquiry through Henry Giroux’s approach to postmodernist pedagogy and popular education (‘Postmodern/Modern Divide: Towards a Pedagogy of Democratization’ [2004]), and in next semester’s Ethics and Epistemology course’s ‘Teachers as Cultural Workers: Letters to Those Who Dare Teach’ (1998). It also relates to the arguments over the purpose of education and educational institutions covered by Andrew Davis & Christopher Winch’s ‘Educational Assessment on Trial’ (2015), Gert Biesta’s ‘Good Education in an Age of Measurement: On the Need to Reconnect with the Question of Purpose in Education’ (2009), and James MacAllister’s ‘What should Educational Institutions be For?’ (2016), as well as to points covered regarding how we situate learning (John Dewey’s ‘Democracy and Education’ [1916]), and to Dianne Gereluk regarding who should dictate what a student (child) learns (see ‘Should parents have a say in their children’s schooling?’ [2010]).

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