Reflection on Chapter 3 of Paolo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed
Key concepts: The Word, Dialogue; Generative Themes; Critical Consciousness
In Chapter 3 of Pedagogy of the Oppressed Freire talks about The Word, which he says has two dimensions, reflection and action. To exist humanly is to name the world truthfully with a view to transforming it. He calls this transformation a praxis. The right to name the word is not the right of just a privileged few is a right which belongs to everyone. Dialogue is the encounter between men, mediated by the world, in order to name the world. Therefore it cannot happen between those who want to name the word and those who are denying them the right to do so. People who have been denied the right to speak must first reclaim their right.
This reading has again informed my choice of PhD topic where I am seeking to bring diverse voices together to co-create an educational experience in the third level classroom. Coming from different ethnic, socio-economic, age, sexual orientation and religious backgrounds there is no doubt as to the richness of such an educational encounter. However there are some realities to be considered. For instance our task is one which involves education at university level. That immediately poses a number of barriers. There is no reason why anyone should not be part of a class of students who are co creating education. This can only be a good thing. But good for who? The question is how do you really not pay lip service? You have on the one hand people with a long career in academia joining this group, highly educated, articulate and politically aware in relation to social justice and development issues. You also have people who have lived out their humanity in difficult circumstances and who have not had educational opportunity in a manner which enables a parity in terms of academic discourse. So the question arises, is an academic environment the place to do this? And if not why not? We do want students who are making their way in the world to be exposed to thinking about social justice issues in a really meaningful way. It will be very challenging to find a way of truly listening and listening by everyone to everyone else. We must strive to ensure that no lip service is paid, that there is parity of power in the discussion and that we do not set people up for failure. We want it to be meaningful for all participants. Freire’s writings in Pedagogy of the Oppressed do offer ways into approaching this educational opportunity.
Dialogue and Anti-Dialogical
Freire’s idea here is that individuals learn to understand and transform reality. To do so the teacher and the student must enter into a dialogue. People do not create themselves in silence, but through words, actions and reflection. The use of dialogue, therefore, is the key element in learning. The dialogue established between the two helps to increase reciprocal kindness, something that is an act of bravery, not cowardice. He is not talking about a naïve act, but about the kind of dialogue that kindness between people creates.
“For the anti-dialogical banking educator, the question of content simply concerns the program about which he will discourse to his students; and he answers his own questions, by organizing his own program. For the dialogical, problem-posing teacher-student, the program content of education is neither a gift nor an imposition–bits of information to be deposited in the students–but rather the organized, systematized, and developed ‘re-presentation’ to the individuals of the things about which they want to know more”
Dialogue is a give and take of ideas, a sharing. You cannot dialogue and attempt to impose your own ideas on another. You can dialogue about their ideas and yours.
Some people believe themselves to be leaders and go to the masses to establish a dialogue with them. But it is their own interests and not the interests of the community that are pursued. They encourage people to adapt to a new way a life without attending to their historical demands. They fall into the naïve thinking that one should adapt to existing conditions, rather than construct the new and appropriate conditions required by critical thought – the kind of thought that builds spaces and opportunities for liberation and the overturning of oppression through conscious action.
It is important to establish dialogue with a community. Through cooperation, dialogic Subjects are able to “focus their attention on the reality which mediates them and which–posed as a problem–challenges them. The response to that challenge is the action of dialogical Subjects upon reality in order to transform it”.
Since this means using language and examples which are familiar to people, the educator has to immerse themselves into the day to day life of the individual and community. The educator can understand the language, practice and thought of the particular community. Later through the use of problematising education these elements comet together to create knowledge. Learning topics can be found in peoples’ day to day lives. He calls these topics “generative themes”.
Freire goes on in Chapter 3 to outline his educational programmes with the rural poor in South America. While the work had the intent of being led by grassroots, I cannot but feel that there is something patronising about the way in which the work was carried out. The programmes used political content about critical awareness which Freire used having observed everyday life of the average person. He describes the programmes in some detail. Freire’s colleagues and the local leaders gathered materials using audio-visual equipment. Preliminary research raised certain themes in the political and social life of the people. He refers to these ate “generative” themes. Each time in history and each local area has its own “generative” themes, key political themes within the community. According to Paulo Freire, an epoch “is characterized by a complex of ideas, concepts, hopes, doubts, values and challenges in dialectical interaction with their opposites striving towards their fulfilment”. The concrete representation of these constitute the themes of the epoch. For example, we may say that in our society some of these themes would include the power of bureaucratic control or the social exclusion of the elderly and disabled. In social analysis these themes may be discovered in a concrete representation in which the opposite theme is also revealed (i.e., each theme interacts with its opposite)
Once the material is investigated the team made a selection and this information was then codified. Then “thematic investigative circles” were set up with the “peasants” and decoded. The discussions were recorded by a psychologist and a sociologist. Insights from these meetings was given too university academics where it was codified again and this along with contributions of the academics, was taken back to groups of rural poor and formed the content for “culture group” discussions. Peasants then decoded and encoded the key social and political dilemmas they faced. They also listened to recordings made by specialists. The decoding is the key process which leads to insight, so encodings had to be done sensitively. What we have is an act of creation, in fact an act of creation not an instrument for the domination of one person by another.
Perhaps one should not look back on a time and place in history and say “this sounds patronising”, especially when these were programmes which worked and which were intentional efforts to create a political consciousness. Yet when I read it it does come across as “we are the experts”, “we are going to analyse your lives”, “we are going to go back to you to make sure you understand the analysis”. Perhaps it sounds more anachronistic today than it might have in the early 1970s. On reading it I have a sense that there is an effort to teach “peasants” to respect academia, with its departments and subject specialisms. I find myself asking if the poor were being asked to substitute their “respect” for the landowner for “respect” of the left-wing academic. Without this part of the programme there was no link between Freire’s academic life and the daily life of the peasant. Freire himself said that “revolutionary leaders” are likely to come from the middle-classes. In this case the academics went to the people in solidarity. What he has here is a revolution with a theory without which the praxis he speaks of (reflection and action) would break down. I would like to read more about the reaction of the people to the academics and I will return to this topic. The whole framework of academic disciplines such as psychology and sociology must have been alien to the people, something linked to power and probably artificial compared to everyday lived reality of survival, feeding their children and getting through each week. It does feel a little like Freire trying to justify the existence of academia.
Having reflected on all of the above I now find myself asking, is this not we are all still doing in academia? Especially those of us in humanities and social sciences? What is more, my own PhD research is in fact very similar to what Freire did. I am bringing together voices of people who have experienced some form of oppression, with university students or people with a strong analytical ability in order to find ways in which we can forge and co create an educational experience which is truly authentic. It is in fact not too far removed from the Freirian model. My intent however is not for the academics or students to “codify” the “other”. My intent is more to turn this on its head and say to the student/academic that the real learning is the other way around. And this is where I feel Freire’s notions of humility and love are in fact more pertinent and in my view more interesting than the experts coming along (as academia still likes to do) and saying “we have codified your problems and this is the analysis and this is how we think you will understand it when we explain it to you”.
In addition this notion of “generative themes” seems like a complicated way of saying the issues of the day. Of course each time in history and each local area has a set of key political themes with a set of values, hopes, doubts and aspirations. As we have also seen in our own recent past (the marriage equality referendum) the more libertarian sections of society have been in battle with the more conservative sections and there has been a sense of the breaking down of the “old guard”. I fail to see what is so unique about Freire’s contribution here. Society has always been aware of its “generative themes” and again I can’t but feel that Freire is self-indulgently using complicated language to describe the obvious.
Generative themes and the awakening of critical consciousness
I am more drawn to Freire’s argument that problem-posing education works best when it is situated in an individual’s contextual reality, the analysis of which will make it possible for that person to recognize the interaction of the various components. This is a core concept in community development work. A group will have far more success if they start at where they are at and not where an academic or facilitator wants them to be or thinks they should be. This has been my experience working with communities over many years.
“A critical analysis of a significant existential dimension makes possible a new, critical attitude towards the limit-situations. The perception and comprehension of reality are rectified and acquire new depth”. This is the kind of language that I find unnecessary in academia. What he is basically saying is if people can name their reality and learn how to analyse the issues, problems and challenges of their reality change can take place. He calls the methodology conscientização where people investigate the issue through crucial thinking about their world. Investigating peoples’ thinking about reality and their action on reality is the praxis, it is when real change takes place. Thus he talks about the people as co-investigators. The educator may not present a programme to the people or show the path to a solution but they must communicate about the common experience of reality. He repeats that the investigation of thematics involves the investigation of the people’s thinking—thinking which occurs only in and among people together seeking out reality. I cannot think for others or without others, nor can others think for me. Producing and acting upon their own ideas—not consuming those of others—must constitute that process.
Freire’s insistence on situating educational activity in the lived experience of participants has opened up a series of possibilities for the way informal educators can approach practice. The core idea of Freire’s attention to naming the world and building of a “pedagogy of the oppressed” or a pedagogy of hope, has of course been highly influencial. However, I still find his approach reads like “them” and “us”. His ‘consciousness raising’ comes across as a project of academics directed at a lower-class population. Reading it in today’s context there is a sense of superiority where “those people’s” existence is codified, analysed, recodified and reanalysed by the more intelligent beings. One can’t but wonder if these academics might also be codified and decodified to make sure they undersstand about topics such as the local flora and fauna, climate and soil conditions, trades and manual labour. Freire seems to have a transcendent view of reality through which individuals come to see what is authentic and real. There is no discussion on the complexities of the different views of reality that happen in the real world of such dialogue and engagement. Sometimes I feel like there is a religious leader here talking about transcendency combined with a scientist who is carrying out a social revolution and casting social reality in very black and white terms. There isn’t enough discussion on the messiness and the painful struggles that happen between people with widely different views of reality.
Additionally it must be said that there are teachers and students in Freire’s notion of Conscientization. I cannot believe that the group of academics who came upon communities came entirely neutrally with no a blank sheet and with no ideas of the ideas and theories they wanted people to understand. I can’t but ask if his liberatory practice may, on close inspection, be closer to the banking model than we might think. Were these academics really trying to impose their own ideas and values under the pretext of problem-posing and problem-solving?