Reflection on Chapter 1 of Paolo Freire’s Peadagogy of the Oppressed
Key Concepts: The Oppressed and the Oppressor; Dialogue; Humanist and Libertarian Pedagogy
Paulo Freire (1921-1997) was a leading advocate of critical pedagogy. Born in Brazil he was one of the most influential thinkers about education in the late 20th century. He has been particularly popular with informal educators with his emphasis on dialogue and his concern for the oppressed. His most well known book Pedagogy of the Oppressed was first published in Portugues in
As I re-read Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed after many years, I wanted to see how I could relate his thinking to today’s world and in particular to my PhD research on Development Education and Global Citizenship which I am currently working on. I believe, like Freire, that education must be relevant and applied to my real world in order of it to be transformative and relevant.
The following is a short version of my personal reflections. The full review can be found at:
In chapter 1 Freire outlines the relations which exist between oppressor and oppressed. His particular concern is with the state of consciousness of the oppressed class. Being human leads the oppressed to struggle against those who are oppressing them. He places great emphasis on the necessity for the oppressed to lead the struggle so that a fuller humanity can happen for all.
I agree with his contention that the oppressed must not turn into the oppressors and we have seen this all over the world where the revolutionary victor has become the oppressor himself. I do feel however the Freire puts perhaps too much emphasis on the responsibility of the oppressed. Not only must they overcome oppression and ensure that they don’t become the oppressor but they must also take responsibility for “humanising” both the oppressed and the oppressor I feel more comfortable with the perspective that the pedagogy of the oppressed is one which must be made with and not for the oppressed in their struggle to regain their humanity. I feel that we must take collective responsibility.
For example people need to be informed and enabled if they are to fully embrace being agents of their own transformation. I am reminded of a recent situation where people with disabilities were asked questions which they did not fully understand but the interviewer believed she had “consulted” them. We have a collective responsibility to ensure that true enabling does happen. As Freire does say, the oppressor truly helps the oppressed only when he stops viewing them as an abstract category and sees them as unique persons who have been unjustly dealt with.
Dialogue is important. “To substitute monologue, slogans, and communiques for dialogue is to attempt to liberate the oppressed with the instruments of domestication.” This is the “populist pitfall”–transforming them into masses which can be manipulated. People can only be liberated with their reflective participation in the act of liberation. We have all witnessed politicians and activists of all persuasions, Left and Right, who take the attitude “you are with me”, “on my side” or “you are wrong”. We have also seen from for instance the GLBTI community in Ireland that a big part of reaching one’s goal involves engaging in dialogue with those you want to persuade. The Irish people voted Yes to Equal Marriage because of the power of dialogue.
I am interested too in this point:
“Pedagogy which begins with the egoistic interests of the oppressors (an egoism cloaked in the false generosity of paternalism) and makes of the oppressed the objects of its humanitarianism, itself maintains and embodies oppression. It is an instrument of dehumanization. This is why, as we affirmed earlier, the pedagogy of the oppressed cannot be developed or practiced by the oppressors. It would be a contradiction in terms if the oppressors not only defended but actually implemented a liberating education.”
As a social justice advoate, and in my academic study, I often question myself about my own paternalism and egoism. Indeed I believe those of who “do” social justice work must constantly self-reflect all the time. I have often felt in both my work and my studies that “I am holding all the cards”. In my PhD for instance I am the person interested in finding out how those who suffer social injustice can have their voice heard in my research process. I decided who was “suffering injustice or social exclusion”, I decided which voices to bring into the process, I have access to the venues and other resources. Freire challenges this and reading his work has challenged me to change my research approach.
I have also asked myself what Freire also asks here: “ if the implementation of a liberating education requires political power and the oppressed have none, how then is it possible to carry out the pedagogy of the oppressed prior to the revolution”? We can substitute “revolution” with phrases such as “achieving human rights and dignity” or “critical social change”
One aspect of his own reply is to be found in the distinction between systematic education, which can only be changed by political power, and educational projects, which should be carried out with the oppressed in the process of organizing them.” I can see how with one group I work with locally, while the system of education in Ireland is impossible to penetrate for them, the project work we do together can I hope eventually lead the group to see this for themselves and demand change.
The Pedagogy of the Oppressed as a Humanist and Libertarian Pedagogy
This has two distinct stages.
In the first, the oppressed unveil the world of oppression and through the praxis commit themselves to its transformation.
In the second stage, in which the reality of oppression has already been transformed, this pedagogy ceases to belong to the oppressed and becomes a pedagogy of all people in the process of permanent liberation.
Freire believes that it is only the oppressed who, by freeing themselves, can free their oppressors. The latter, as an oppressive class, can free neither others nor themselves. If the goal of the oppressed is to become fully human, they will not achieve their goal by merely reversing the terms of the contradiction, by simply changing poles. Again I am not sure if I fully agree with this. It puts all of the burden on the oppressed whereas the oppressors I believe also have a responsibility to change.
I do think at certain times mediators are necessary. Sometimes people do need information and ways of negotiating their way through a society where they do not have language, social capital or knowledge and where they are treated badly. It is not that they are ignorant, but that they have been systematically excluded from society. The system itself (eg education provision) must be challenged alongside the process of empowerment.
Self-depreciation is another characteristic of the oppressed, which derives from their internalization of the opinion the oppressors hold of them. So often do they hear that they are good for nothing, know nothing and are incapable of learning anything—that they are sick, lazy, and unproductive—that in the end they become convinced of their own unfitness.
Over the years I have learned what Freire is referring to here. Almost never do they realize that they, too, “know things” they have learned in their relations with the world and with other women and men. Given the circumstances which have produced their duality, it is only natural that they distrust themselves. This is one of the core questions I want to explore in my PhD research which involves bringing a diverse range of people together in an educational experience. I am interested in how we can truly value other “ways of being” in the world, which may be very different and even repulsive to our own? Society doesn’t value certain ways of being or “knowing”. One example here is my experience of working in the recent past with people with intellectual and physical disabilities. As a “worker” I was paid to be with these individuals. As a “person” there is no doubt but I gained far more than I gave and I was painfully aware of society’s inability to truly value the uniqueness of their contribution to the rest of us. Only in slowly breaking down those barriers can we begin to move towards a more Freirian approach to education.
To achieve this praxis, it is necessary to trust in the oppressed and in their ability to reason. Whoever lacks this trust will fail to initiate (or will abandon) dialogue, reflection, and communication, and will fall into using slogans, communiques, monologues, and instructions. Superficial conversions to the cause of liberation carry this danger.
Political action on the side of the oppressed must be pedagogical action in the authentic sense of the word, and, therefore, action with the oppressed. Those who work for liberation must not take advantage of the emotional dependence of the oppressed— dependence that is the fruit of the concrete situation of domination which surrounds them and which engendered their unauthentic view of the world. Using their dependence to create still greater dependence is an oppressor tactic. Libertarian action must recognize the emotional dependence of the oppressed as a weak point and must attempt through reflection and action to transform it into independence.
The correct method lies in dialogue. The conviction of the oppressed that they must fight for their liberation is not a gift bestowed by the revolutionary leadership, but the result of their own conscientização.