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Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed : Book Summary

He has been called “the Rousseau of the 20th century” (Bhattacharya 2008: 101), “the John Dewey of the present era” (Kanpol 1997: 13) and “the most important educator” (Carnoy 2004: 7) of the second half of the 20th century”.[1] His book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, termed a “classic” and “a seminal work”, has been translated into numerous languages and has sold over 1 million copies; and as per a study of 16 top schools of education in the US, was one of the most frequently assigned texts in their philosophy of education courses.[2] “His thinking” it has been claimed, “continues to be rediscovered by generations of teachers, scholars, community activists and cultural workers in Europe and the Americas”, and his books “continues to be read, debated and discussed all over the world by progressive educators”. And a media article recently asserted that “Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed is timeless – as pertinent to the revolution in the Middle East now as to those in South America decades ago.”

paulo freire_pedagogy_of_the_oppressed
Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed

Considering the significant popularity and influence of Freire’s works, I have presented below a summary and review of Pedagogy of the Oppressed – arguably, his most famous book. As critical pedagogy is based on the tenets of critical theory, I’ll start with a brief discussion on the latter. Freire believed that any attempt to construct a theory of action with the oppressed must involve a serious and sincere attempt to understand the realities of their daily lives, therefore, in next section I will turn to some of the things that often characterize the oppressed and the oppressor consciousness. Having surveyed these, in section three we will look at Freire’s model for the liberation of the oppressed: some of the key elements of his pedagogy, content and methods; expectations from a teacher-student etc. And in the fourth section, I will discuss some of the criticisms of his pedagogical model and conclude.

1. Critical Theory and Critical Pedagogy
Though the roots of critical theory go back much further and lie in various fields of study, Max Horkheimer, a German philosopher-sociologist and member of the ‘Frankfurt School’ of social research, is often credited for first ‘defining’ critical theory (1937). He envisaged it to be “a new interdisciplinary theoretical activity which supplemented and transformed the dialectical philosophy of Hegel and Marx.”5

Any truly critical theory of society, he said, “has as its object human beings as producers of their own historical form of life” (Horkheimer 1993, 21) and stressed that ‘critical’ theory differed from ‘traditional’ theory in its focus “to liberate human beings from the circumstances that enslave them” (Horkheimer 1982, 244)7. And this central concern for human emancipation led the critical theorists to reject the separation of philosophy (dealing with normative claims of justice, morality etc.) and (empirical and interpretative) social science and to claim that a critical theory should attempt, at the same time, to be critical (what is wrong with the prevalent social conditions), be normative (establish viable goals as well as norms for criticism) and practical (identify agents to bring about the change and answer how best it can be brought about).6

Critical pedagogy, among other things, borrows its ‘critical lens’ from the critical theory. It views society as divided and hierarchical (i.e. based on power relations); and education as a tool used by dominant groups to legitimise the iniquitous arrangement. By enabling the oppressed to look at the oppressor’s ideologies critically, it believes, education can assist them in ridding themselves of their ‘false consciousness’ – an important step, as we will see later, in their struggle for liberation. As is apparent, contrary to traditional claims of the ‘neutrality’ of education, “critical pedagogy views all education theory as intimately linked to ideologies shaped by power, politics, history and culture.” (Darder 1991, p. 77) And the primary function of the critical pedagogue is thus “to empower the powerless and transform those conditions which perpetuate human injustice and inequity.” (McLaren, 1988) – a concern that it shares with critical theory.8

2. The Oppressor and The Oppressed
The pedagogy of the oppressed, as Freire saw it, has two stages. In the first stage, “the oppressed unveil the world of oppression and through the praxis commit themselves to its transformation” (p. 54). And in the second stage, which comes after the oppression has been transformed, people commit themselves to the “the expulsion of the myths created and developed in the old order” (p. 55) which may still be threatening the nascent structure.

Central to the formulation of pedagogy of the oppressed, for Freire, thus, was the problem of the “oppressed consciousness” and the “oppressor consciousness” – the way they looked at the world and at themselves – their beliefs, ethics, fears and motives; for these, in turn, drove their behaviour.

So let us begin with a discussion of some key characteristics of the oppressors and some of the tools used by them for perpetuating the oppression.

A. The Oppressor Consciousness

(i) To Be is to Have: The Necessity of Conquest
The oppressor consciousness, Freire pointed out, equates its ‘being’ with ‘having’ – and being in the class of the ‘haves’. It craves to possess and dominate – things, people – indeed, the entire world. And in this unrestrained voracity to have more, it ends us reducing life – plants, animals and even humans – to ‘objects’ that exist for his profit and plunder.

This “necrophilic passion to possess” blinds him to the fact that if indeed ‘having’ and ‘being’ are the same then those plundered and dispossessed are reduced to non-beings. Any questioning of what he considers his inalienable right (profit at all costs) – even just demands by those he has reduced to inanimate ‘things’ – is construed as a threat to his ‘being’; which tends to make him both fearful and aggressive.

However, since he is fearful of a direct confrontation and desirous of a peaceful life (for himself), he designs elaborates methods to keep the exploited under control; one of the primary ones of which is the creation of ‘myths’ through which he attempts to present the (oppressive) world to the oppressed as a given – a fixed (even desirable) entity that they must passively accept and adapt to.

(ii) In Their Division Lies our Possession
Since the oppressors are almost always in minority it also becomes important for them to keep the oppressed isolated; and to not allow them to see the issues that afflicts them in ‘totality’ but only in ‘fragments’. They may, for instance, ‘promote’ a leader from among the oppressed – but this being with dual loyalties soon becomes a stranger in his own community, leading to further divisions among the oppressed.

(iii) Manipulation
If the oppressed happen to see through the elaborate myths, and can no longer be totally ‘suppressed’, the oppressors turn to new ways of ‘manipulation’ to keep them in control. One such important tactic, says Freire, is to present themselves as a model to the oppressed, for the possibility of their ‘progress’; thus ‘inoculating’ them “with the bourgeois appetite for personal success” (p. 149). Another tactic is that of ‘welfare programs’ which distract the oppressed from the real causes and solutions of their problems.

(iv) Cultural Invasion
And finally, another powerful method that the oppressors use to insidiously keep their domination is that of ‘cultural invasion’. They utilize, what in essence is a temporary state of subjugation, to convince the oppressed of their inherent inferiority; and position themselves as the ‘superiors’ whose values and culture the oppressed must now ‘learn’ if they are to have any hope of (even marginally) ‘developing’.

The invaded thus come to look at their existence and the world from the lens that the invaders have imposed on them; and begin to adopt their beliefs and behaviour. And in doing so, they stop thinking independently and being ‘their own person’, and thus (unknowingly) help strengthen the oppressor’s grip on their lives.

B. The Oppressed Consciousness
In his long experience of interacting and working with the oppressed, Freire had come to see that years of subjugation, exploitation and manipulation had scarred the very ‘consciousness’ – the way of thinking and looking at themselves, others and the world – of the oppressed.9 He thus discusses a number of characterizes of the oppressed, the understanding of which (as with the consciousness and methods of the oppressors) he saw as essential for the design of the pedagogy of the oppressed.

(i) Duality of the Oppressed
The oppressed are often characterized by a ‘duality’ which “establishes itself in the innermost being” (p. 48). One the one hand, despite the immense weight of oppression, their soul still militates against the un-freedom that they find themselves caged in; on the other hand, under years (sometimes generations) of subjugation they ‘internalise’ the image of the oppressor. The oppressors, thus, ironically, become the models of humanity for them. And they are torn between their inherent need for liberation and their desire to mould themselves (their way of thinking, their belief system, and their ethics) in the cast crafted by the oppressors; and thus, to identify with them.

(ii) Immersion in their Environment
One of the greatest obstacles that the oppressed face in their struggle for liberation is the ‘submersion’ of their consciousness in their oppressive reality. There are often engulfed in and entrapped by their immediate context – the here and the now; and thus find it difficult to see their existence in the totality of time and space (socio-cultural-historical context) or to perceive the larger ‘order’ put in place by the oppressors to keep them entrapped.

Thus they tend to perceive their condition as a given and unchangeable reality – from which there is no escape; and their oppressors as magical, invincible beings. And this, in turn, leads to rationalization, submission and fatalism (in the guise of destiny, fate, fortune and God).

(iii) Self-depreciation and the Fear of Freedom and Risk
The others effects of the above are not hard to deduce. Living constantly in the dehumanized state, the oppressed begin to doubt all their abilities – their very humanity. With their freedom snatched, rights curbed and culture invaded, the oppressor’s reiterations that they are ‘good for nothing’, becomes their own belief about themselves. And this feeds their fatalism.

There is another important characteristic to note about the oppressed consciousness: its fear of freedom and risks. While on the one hand the oppressed may recognise the injustice of their condition, they may become so inured to a ‘prescriptive’ life, that the thought of autonomy and responsibility may even terrify them (initially). They (may) come to see their yoke as their crutch and thus fear their own liberation.

3. Liberation of the Oppressed Consciousness
Having discussed some of the important characteristics of the oppressed and the oppressor consciousness, let us now turn to what Freire considered to be some key elements in (understanding) the pedagogy of the oppressed. It is worth noting here that all the elements described below stem from his central belief that, “the oppressed must be their own example in the struggle for their redemption (p. 54).”

Pedagogy of the Oppressed: Some Key Elements

(i) The Importance of Dialogue
In the prevalent system, Paulo believed, education is viewed as ‘act of depositing’ piecemeal information which is divorced from reality and disconnected from each other. The role of the student, thus, is limited to “receiving, filing and storing the deposits” (p. 72). This “banking concept” of education which consists of monologues and communiqués, he argued, is designed to make the students passive receptors prone to a fragmented view of reality, and to make them adapt and ‘fit into’ the existing (oppressive) reality.

For any effort to transform the condition of oppression (as opposed to adapting to it), he contended that it is essential to see the learners not merely as ‘spectators’ but as ‘re-creators’ of the world. And this implies that the monologues be replaced by dialogues and the communiqués by communication; and that the student-teacher and teacher-student, together, attempt to unveil reality and co-create new knowledge. Any attempt to ‘liberate’ the oppressed through monologic education, slogans, etc. will merely shift the locus of their dependency and leave them prone to further manipulation. For authentic liberation, then, they must be actuated by their own ‘conscientizacao’10 and be an active ‘subject’ of their own liberation and not an ‘object’ to be liberated. And this makes the capacity and willingness to dialogue not a choice but an imperative for liberation.11

(ii) Objectifying The Reality
As discussed above, the submersion of their consciousness and their internalization of the oppressor, act as major hurdles to liberation, for the oppressed. An important initial step for them thus, is their discovery of the oppressor within themselves and their learning to ‘consider’ him ‘outside’ of themselves. Similarly, they must also learn to separate their ‘beings’ from their immediate context (and thus to ‘objectify’ the world) and to separate themselves from their activity (and thus, discover the seat of their decisions within themselves, p. 98). This helps them in considering their oppressors and their context ‘objectively’ and they now begin to more clearly see the anthropological nature of culture and to locate themselves in the larger socio-historical space.

(iii) Critical View and Problem-posing
Being able to consider the world objectively, however, is just a means towards a larger goal. Having rejected the bourgeoisie-given lens, they may now look at their ‘models of humanity’ and their situation with a critical eye, and see them for what they are: oppressors and limiting conditions (that act as fetters and prevent their humanization), respectively. In this new perspective, the artefacts of oppression which had previously remained unperceived become starkly visible and the oppressed, begin to single them out for their consideration and cognition (p. 82).

As they increase their power to perceive critically, they understand that they do not merely exist in the world but with it; and come to view their own situation not as an unchangeable given reality (as earlier), but a reality that can be transformed. Their pedagogy now is the opposite of the ‘banking model’: the ‘problem posing’ model – in which they face their situations not as narratives but as problems. 12

And faced with these problems – which they now understand are not ‘fated’ but ‘constructed’ – and armed with a more critical understanding of their causes, they now feel obliged and (relatively more) confident to respond with what have been called “limit-acts” – acts directing at dismantling the limiting conditions (p. 81).

(iv) Praxis: Reflection And Action, Together
Freire saw the oppressed’s perception of their limiting conditions and the causes of their problems, as a necessary but insufficient condition for liberation. Liberation, he believed, can only be achieved if the perception motivates the oppressed to struggle. In fact, true perception, he pointed out, is impossible without action: “[D]iscovery cannot be purely intellectual but must involve action; nor can it be limited to mere activism, but must include serious reflection: only then will it be a praxis”.

To Freire, thus, ‘true reflection’ automatically led to ‘action’ and any dichotomy between the two was false. And this praxis, which he defined as, “reflection and action upon the world in order to transform it” would then become the ‘raison d’etre’ of the oppressed (p. 133).

Pedagogy of the Oppressed
In the last section we considered some of the key concepts of Freire’s pedagogy of the oppressed; let us now turn briefly to some of the more granular elements of his model and methods.

Expectations from the Teacher-Student

(i) Co-creators of knowledge
As touched upon in 4.1.1 (The Importance of Dialogue) above, arguably the most critical aspect of this pedagogy is that it must be ‘co-created’ with the oppressed and not for them. Unlike the banking model, the teacher in this model is not “the one who teaches” but someone who learns with the students and from them – in dialogue with them; even as they are learning from him (p. 80). This necessitates the resolution of the teacher-student dichotomy, as also the dichotomy of his activity – he cannot be ‘cognitive’ and ‘dialogical’ at different points in time – but must be both, together.

The reason for this insistence is not hard to grasp. The aim of the pedagogy of the oppressed is their liberation and (re)humanization. And this liberation – as discussed earlier – can neither be imposed on them nor be given as a gift (which will merely shift their locus of dependency from the oppressor to the ‘leader/teacher’). It must be achieved by them through praxis.13

(ii) Basis for Dialogue
Considering the central role of dialogue between teacher-student (or leadership-people) in this model, it would be apt to highlight some of the conditions that Freire views as necessary for authentic dialogue to take place.

Freire considers it essential for the teacher/leader to have “profound love for the world and for people”; and also, a deep sense of humility – for, he asks, “How can I dialogue if I am closed to—and even offended by—the contribution of others?” He further considers faith in people to be an ‘a priori’ requirement for true dialogue; and hope – which he sees as a “search for completion” that can be carried only with others – as something without which dialogue is impossible. And finally, dialogue entails the ability to reflect critically – to view reality as a ‘process’, and to reject the dichotomies of reflection and action or of people and the world (p. 89-92).

(iii) The Content
The content of this pedagogical model is as radically different as its approach – for it doesn’t comprise of disconnected pieces of information – but an “organized, systemized and developed re-presentation” (p. 91) of things that people know something about and wish to know more about. The teacher-student, thus, is not expected to go with external knowledge that will ‘salvage’ the oppressed from their situation, nor with his own views about the world to impose on them – but to only ‘dialogue’ with the ‘student-teachers’ on the views and concerns of both. And this confluence of ideas and views would lead to the ‘co-creation’ of content and new knowledge (for both).

(iv) The Steps
Let us now briefly consider what an education program that uses the Freire’s model of pedagogy will look like (i.e. the steps involved).

A. The first consideration is that the programme must be rooted in “present, existential, concrete situation, reflecting the aspirations of the people” (p. 95). The contradictions present in the present situation, are to be posed to the people as problems – requiring (action-based) solutions. The objective is to discover ‘generative themes’ – with the people and thus to increase the awareness of both about these (often latent) themes.14

B. If these themes are too deeply ‘hidden’ for people to detect them easily, they may be presented with “coded existential situation” (sketch, photograph etc. which abstracts the concrete reality). Its decoding then helps them critically perceive their existential situation and discover the generative themes. Once the generative themes have been co-discovered, the task of the teacher-student is to then ‘re-present’ the ‘thematic universe’ of the people to them – not as a narrative, but as a set of problems.

C. The important thing to note here, is that, “[T]he themes both contain and are contained in (the existing contradictions in the society) and the limit-situations” (p 102). Co-unearthing of the themes from the swamp of their ‘immediate context’ not only helps them consider them objectively and critically, but also encourages them to view themselves as “masters of their thinking”. And true critical reflection, in turn, leads naturally to the required limit-acts.

The Theory of Action of the Oppressed
In the section ‘The Oppressor Consciousness’ we touched upon how the oppressor consciousness acts on a ‘theory of oppressive action’ to keep the oppressed under their domination. To liberate themselves, Freire argues (based on the points discussed above), that the oppressed too should have a ‘theory of action’. This, he suggests, could consist of four key elements.

The first of these elements is cooperation, which stems from communion (of the people and the leader/teacher), and which, in turn, is based on dialogue and communication (as opposed to the monologues and propaganda of the ‘conquerors’). The second element is ‘unity for liberation’ (as opposed to divisiveness of the invaders) and the third, organization (as opposed to manipulation) – which is made possible by authority that people vest in the leader (“through delegation or sympathetic adherence”) in their striving for liberation. And the final element is cultural synthesis – in which the actors and the people become co-authors of the actions to transform their reality.

4. Critiques
Paulo’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed has been considered a seminal work; however, as is perhaps true for any work of significance, it has not escaped criticism. Here, I present a brief survey of some of its main criticisms.

One, despite his emphasis on dialogue and co-creation of knowledge, it is argued, Freire does not consider “who the oppressors and oppressed are” as an open question that people might disagree on; he takes it as a given (Jay and Graff, 1995)15. Another related criticism is that even though people are encouraged to come up with their own ‘generative themes’, the process of labeling these themes is ‘leading’ (the teacher-student “presumes to place a label on their generative themes without recognizing that people might not choose to label these themes in the same way” Currie, 1972).16 Similarly, despite its alleged reliance on people, the ‘problem-posing’ method (in the hands of a mal-intentioned instructor/leader), lends itself quite easily to the sneaking in of biased values and ideas.

Some also find the assumption that education does not have an ‘intrinsic worth’ and is valuable only as a means of achieving ‘social transformation’ to be contentious (Searle, 1990). Finally, even though Freire stresses on non-formal, dialogic form of teaching-learning; the critics say, he still offers a curriculum-based approach with a pre-decided set of concerns and activities in a structured environment – i.e. “the educational encounters he explores remain formal.” (Torres 1993: 127)

For a more detailed critique, see this link.

Whether it’s the iron hands of a dictatorship, the manipulative ways of a capitalist structure, the cruelty of racism or the tyranny of sexism, they all have one thing in common: they are oppressive. One of the strongest points of critical pedagogy in general and Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, in particular, is that by attempting to unveil and strike at the root cause of oppression – the consciousness of the oppressors and the oppressed – it offers a model that can, arguably, be used to fight multiple (all?) forms of oppressions.

By deftly penetrating the ‘way of thinking’ of both the oppressed as well as the oppressor, Freire manages to reveal the dangers inherent in the call for maintaining the status-quo (the oppressors agenda, as it suits him well) on the one hand, and ‘activism’ (action divorced from critical reflection) on the other. His insistence that only the oppressed can liberate themselves and his stress on ‘dialogue’ and ‘praxis’ as the tools of liberation is something that any ‘teacher-student’ with an interest in social justice and transformation must take note of. A discerning reader can also easily see that almost every single idea/tool/ method discussed in the book – indeed the book itself – is a product of Freire’s own praxis: a product of his reflections and actions upon the world in order to transform it.

One of the key questions that educators often face is, “If one wishes to help stop the reproduction of social inequality what (concrete) steps can I possibly take?” This is of course an issue with far greater dimensions and ramifications than one could hope to explore in its entirety, in a short essay. However, engaging with Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, which offers one of the more clearly delineated critical-pedagogical models, can be helpful in reflecting critically on such questions and in beginning to answer them. Even more importantly, as Freire cautions, “A mere perception of reality…will not lead to a transformation of objective reality—precisely because it is not a true perception” (p. 52). The complete answers to these questions, thus, can perhaps never be found in books; or in the dichotomy of (prior stage) reflection and (later stage) action – if one wishes an authentic answer, one must find a way of engaging in praxis.

The book is highly recommended – you can pick up here or here.

References and Additional Notes
[1] [2] Kanpol B. 1999. Critical pedagogy: An Introduction. pp. 28, Praeger: Connecticut
[3] Freire P. 2000. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Continuum: London
[4] Braa D. and Callero P. 2006. Critical Pedagogy and Classroom Praxis. Teaching Sociology, Vol. 34, No. 4 (Oct., 2006), pp. 357-369
[5] The fields include (but are not limited to): psychology (Freud), sociology (Marx and Weber), philosophy (analytic philosophy, also pragmatic traditions). Five “Frankfurt School” theorists are generally credited with establishing critical theory as a strand of thought: Herbert Marcuse, Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, Walter Benjamin, and Jürgen Habermas. (Reference: Brookfield S. 2004. The power of critical theory for adult learning and teaching. Jossey-Bass)
[7] “Unlike ‘traditional theory’ (mathematics, formal logic, natural science etc.) critical theory was reflective, or inherently self-aware – reflecting on the social context that gave rise to it, on its own function within that society, and on the purposes and interest of its practitioners etc. and such reflections were built into the theory.”
[8] Christine E. Sleeter, Peter McLaren. 1995. Multicultural education, critical pedagogy, and the politics of difference. SUNY Press.
[9] It is interesting to note the similarities between Vygotskian cultural-historical-psychology and critical pedagogy. An interesting study on the subject: Lima E. S. 1995. Culture Revisited: Vygotsky’s Ideas in Brazil. Anthropology & Education Quarterly, Vol. 26, No. 4, Vygotsky’s Cultural-Historical Theory of Human Development: An International Perspective (Dec., 1995), pp. 443-457
[10]Portuguese: Critical consciousness
[11] This also means, as we will see in the next section the dismantling of the teacher-student dichotomy
[12] Their critical eye now helps them see the inter-meshed nature of these problems and to locate the real ‘causes’ (as opposed to their fragmentary view earlier). In the words of Pierre Furter: “The goal will no longer be to eliminate the risks of temporality by clutching to guaranteed space, but rather to temporalize space . . . The universe is revealed to me not as space, imposing a massive presence to which I can but adapt, but as a scope, a domain which takes shape as I act upon it”.
[13] As Freire puts it, in this model of pedagogy, “the cognizable object (far from being the end of the cognitive act) intermediates the cognitive actors—teacher on the one hand and students on the other”. Freire proposes that this be done using the “methodology of conscientizagdo” and the technique of problem-posing. The sub-aims of these efforts, then, are to, one, assist them ‘authentically perceive’ their own perception i.e. to be ‘critically aware’ of their conditions and the world, and to reflect on them, and two, having located the ‘decision maker’ within themselves, to use the ‘intentionality’ of their consciousness to design their own ‘course of critical intervention’ (with the intention of transforming their limiting conditions).
[14] : “An (historical) epoch is characterized by a complex of ideas, concepts, hopes, doubts, values, and challenges in dialectical interaction with their opposites, striving towards plenitude. The concrete representations of many of these ideas, values, concepts, and hopes, as well as the obstacles which impede the people’s full humanization, constitute the themes of that epoch. [T]he complex of interacting themes of an epoch constitutes its “thematic universe.” Confronted by this “universe of themes” in dialectical contradiction, persons take equally contradictory positions: some work to maintain the structures, others to change them. I have termed these themes “generative” because (however they are comprehended and whatever action they may evoke) they contain the possibility of unfolding into again as many themes, which in their turn call for new tasks to be fulfilled.
[15] Jay, Gregory and Gerald Graff. A Critique of Critical Pedagogy. Higher Education Under Fire: Politics, Economics, and the Crisis of the Humanities, eds. Michael Bérubé and Cory Nelson. New York: Routledge, 1995.
[16] Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire. Review by: Robert J. Currie. Peabody Journal of Education, Vol. 49, No. 2 (Jan., 1972), pp. 161-16

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