Reading: Pedagogy of the Oppressed

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Paolo Freire

It will be evident from the title of this blog Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, first published in Portuguese in 1968 and then in English two years later, has already been an influence on my thinking. The book emerged from Freire’s own experiences of a chilhood in poverty in Brazil and later from teaching adult literacy classes. As well as being shaped by his personal and professional experiences Freire’s argument is heavily informed by post-colonial and neo-marxist theory. In terms of the former, evident is the influence of the writings of Frantz Fanon, who’s Wretched of the Earth published in 1961 has interesting parallels with Freire’s writing in the way it analyses the creation of colonial power and what it envisions as the perquisites for struggle and liberation. In terms of the latter the writings of Antonio Gramsci (discussed later) have also clearly been important.

Freire attempts to do several things in his book. For starters, he makes a compelling argument against the platitude that knowledge is in itself power, suggesting instead that the means by which knowledge arrives is at least as important. As a result of this education can prove to be a force for oppression, which reinforces the relationships between those with power and those without, as much as a tool of liberation. This re-entrenching of oppression happens via a form of mutual consent, even though this relationship is clearly in the interest of the former group and not the latter. Freire sees freedom as something which can never be simply bestowed on those without it by those in power, however well-intentioned the latter might be, but as something which must be proactively taken by those who lack it. Part of the route to doing this is praxis, essentially action informed by knowledge (or inversely knowledge made into action) which Freire sees as the product of successful education. As someone who has always felt uncomfortable with the idea of theory and practice as distinct arenas, Freire’s emphasis on praxis is exciting.

In the second chapter Freire seeks to define and critique a banking model of education, a narrative approach to education where the educator’s role is to store up or deposit information in the student for example through linear, didactic classes. Freire sees this (fairly traditional) model of teaching as problematic because of its top down nature, it’s tendency to stifle creativity and prevent students from actively participating in the process of learning or the ownership of knowledge. ‘Instead of communicating, the teacher issues communiques and makes deposits which the students patiently receive, memorize, and repeat’ (p.58). In my short experience this is often the model students seem most used to when we ‘inherit’ them from previous teachers and institutions, particularly secondary school, and it can be a difficult one for students to escape from when they have a strong sense that learning is an essentially passive experience. The question of how you break down this expectation where it has already taken hold is something I’m interested to explore more in the future.

A third idea Freire introduces is the idea of conscientizacao, meaning critical consciousness or consciousness building, as a core task of education. He argues that the role of a teacher is to enable students to reflect on their world critically, and by doing this to recognise those aspects of it they wish to challenge or change. This idea has some parallels with Antonio Gramsci’s ideas about power being rooted in ideology, and his suggestion that the means by which specific groups exercise power is through the transmutation of ideology, either into something which appears innate and unquestionable (and which therefore may not be challenged) or into something self-evidently artificial and therefore ripe to be torn down and replaced with something else. Freire’s conscientizacao suggests that we equip students with the critical skills to see through the world around them, identify those areas that are problematic to them and then tackle them in the way that seems appropriate to them. This again has definite resonance for the teaching of documentary photography, where a critical consciousness about events in the world and a willingness to ask questions which some might construe as so obvious as to be not worth asking can often lead to the production of the most engaging and original documentary work.

In short Friere’s context and students might be radically different from those of the English higher education system, but there are some interesting comparisons and similarities which might be pulled out of it. Teaching literacy for example bears some similarity to teaching photography, where such a large part of what we do is to teach visual literacy, something which is far harder, slower and ultimately more productive to acquire than knowledge of how a particular camera works. As mentioned at the start of this post, this is not my first encounter with Freire’s work and something I am interested to consider in the future is how his ideas relate to the radically different contexts in which I teach, including the use of online platforms. While e-learning is often touted as liberational in the way it potentially transcends many of the physical limitations of traditional face to face education, and as an almost transparent portal through which teaching continues as normal, critical theory suggests otherwise, and it would be an interesting question to think about the extent to which e-learning encourages or discourages the sort of active, critical learning that Friere is advocating.