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Pedagogy Of The Oppressed: A Critique

The Oxford English Dictionary (1989) defines critique as “a detailed analysis and assessment of something, especially a literary, philosophical, or political theory”. As opposed to ‘criticism’, critique thus carries a connotation of ‘neutrality’, and therefore, a well-balanced critique would rightly be expected to present both sides (strengths as well as weaknesses), of the subject under consideration. In this paper however, I focus only on what I see as the weaknesses of arguments presented in Pedagogy of the Oppressed. For a detailed summary of the book as well as a discussion of some of its strengths, please see part one of this essay.

I will start with some of the internal contradictions in the arguments offered in the book. In the following section I will review one of Freire’s central assumptions – the dichotomy of the oppressed and oppressor consciousness, and the effect of this assumption on his pedagogy. Thereafter I will discuss the position of Pedagogy of the Oppressed with respect to violence and then look critically at the purported ‘openness’ of the model. The essay ends with a Conclusion in which I present some reflections on the topic.

1.Internal Contradictions

1.1 On Dialogue
One of the greatest strengths of Freire’s theory and pedagogy is the central role that it offers to dialogue. It is only through dialogues, he insists, that the leaders (or teachers) can critically investigate the world and ‘co-create’ knowledge, with the students, and thus raise the consciousness of both. Social transformation and liberation, in his view is thus impossible without authentic dialogue.

However, when it comes to dialogue between the two classes; his takes a completely contrary stance. Below, I present a comparison of some of his comments, to show the contrast between his two positions.

“Dialogue, as essential communication, must underlie any cooperation” (p. 168).
“Dialogue between the former oppressors and the oppressed…was not possible before the revolution; it continues to be impossible afterward” (p. 139).

“Revolutionary leaders who do not act dialogically in their relations with the people either have retained characteristics of the dominator or are not truly revolutionary. They may even reach power; but the validity of any revolution resulting from anti-dialogical action is thoroughly doubtful (p. 127). III Peace is experienced in solidary and loving acts. Hence, the messianic element of the theory of anti-dialogical action reinforces the first characteristic of anti-dialogical action is the necessity for conquest. (p. 138) III There is no oppressive reality which is not at the same time necessarily anti-dialogical” (p. 140).

“Once more, let me repeat that dialogical encounter cannot take place between antagonists.” (p. 129)

He sees “not acting dialogically” as a “characteristic of the dominator” and yet insists (to the ‘oppressed’) that a dialogue with the ‘oppressors’ is impossible (and hence, should not even be attempted). The reason for this contrary stance, as well as those described in the sections that follow, as we will see in a later section, is unsubstantiated.

1.2 Subject vs. Object of Liberation
Freire’s insistence on dialogue, it should be noted is based on a deft understanding of the characteristics of social transformation and liberation. Any attempt to ‘liberate’ through monologic education, slogans etc., he points out, will merely shift the locus of the dependency of the people and leave them prone to further manipulation. For authentic liberation, then, they must be actuated by their own ‘conscientizacao’ and be an active ‘subject’ of their own liberation and not an ‘object’ to be liberated. It must be achieved by them through praxis.

And now, let us consider some of the claims discussed in the book:

“We cannot say that in the process of revolution someone liberates someone else, nor yet that someone liberates himself, but rather that human beings in communion liberate each other.” (p. 133).

“The oppressors, who oppress, exploit, and rape by virtue of their power, cannot find in this power the strength to liberate either the oppressed or themselves. Only power that springs from the weakness of the oppressed will be sufficiently strong to free both” (p. 44)

“Men cannot save themselves (no matter how one understands “salvation”), either as individuals or as an oppressor class. Salvation can be achieved only with others” (p. 146)

“It is only the oppressed who, by freeing themselves, can free their oppressors.” (p. 56)

“I cannot think for others or without others, nor can others think for me. Even if the people’s thinking is superstitious or naive, it is only as they rethink their assumptions in action that they can change. Producing and acting upon their own ideas—not consuming those of others—must constitute that process. (p. 108)

“Although the situation of oppression is a dehumanized and dehumanizing totality affecting both the oppressors and those whom they oppress, it is the latter who must, from their stifled humanity, wage for both the struggle for a fuller humanity; the oppressor, who is himself dehumanized because he dehumanizes others, is unable to lead this struggle” (p. 47)

Consider the subtle understanding of where the ‘root-cause’ of oppression lies – in peoples’ consciousness, in their thoughts – which they must liberate themselves. And then consider how, surprisingly, by considering that one class cannot liberate itself, and by calling upon the second class to ‘liberate’ the first – the same error that others are warned against, is being committed.

The above would seem even more paradoxical, if one were to consider how, on the one hand, the attempts of the oppressors and the revolutionary ‘leaders’ to play the ‘messiah’ to the oppressed has been (rightly?) disparaged; and on the other hand, the oppressed are exhorted to bring ‘salvation’ to both the classes (i.e. the entire world). Here are some quotes which make the contradiction more explicit:

“The dominators try to present themselves as saviours of the women and men they dehumanize and divide. This messianism, however, cannot conceal their true intention: to save themselves.” (p. 145) A psychoanalysis of oppressive action might reveal the “false generosity” of the oppressor as a dimension of the latter’s sense of guilt” (p. 146).

“This, then, is the great humanistic and historical task of the oppressed: to liberate themselves and their oppressors as well” (p. 44).

“It means merely that the, leaders— in spite of their important, fundamental, and indispensable role—do not own the people and have no right to steer the people blindly towards their salvation. Such a salvation would be a mere gift from the leaders to the people—a breaking of the dialogical bond between them, and a reducing of the people from co-authors of liberating action into the objects of this action (p. 168)”

“As the oppressed…take away the oppressors power to dominate and suppress, they restore to the oppressors the humanity they had lost in the exercise of oppression” (p. 56).

1.3 The Effect of the External Conditioning on the Oppressed and Oppressor Consciousness
Let us now turn to the third and last set of internal contradictions – on the issue of how the external world shapes the consciousness of the oppressed and the oppressors; or more specifically, the role of the external conditioning of consciousness on the behaviour of the two classes.

Freire’s analysis of the effects of the external environment on human ‘consciousness’ i.e. (broadly) the way they think about the world and themselves – their beliefs, ethics, fears, motives and so on – is exemplary. Here are some excellent examples of his analysis:

“The parent-child relationship in the home usually reflects the objective cultural conditions of the surrounding social structure. If the conditions which penetrate the home are authoritarian, rigid, and dominating, the home will increase the climate of oppression. As these authoritarian relations between parents and children intensify, children in their infancy increasingly internalize the paternal authority. (p. 154)

“Submerged in reality, the oppressed cannot perceive clearly the “order” which serves the interests of the oppressors whose image they have internalized” (p. 62).

“Once a situation of violence and oppression has been established, it engenders an entire way of life and behaviour for those caught up in it—oppressors and oppressed alike. Both are submerged in this situation, and both bear the marks of oppression” (p. 58).

What is surprising, however, is that despite such keen insights into how human consciousness is conditioned by the environment that it exists in, Freire chooses to present the oppressor class as ‘subjects’ (deliberately and deviously) acting to keep others oppressed; and the oppressed class as sympathy-worthy ‘objects’ who are being easily manipulated and exploited.

He is, indeed, right in pointing out that both the manipulators and the manipulated exist in human societies; however, the class-based presentation above, ignores that just as the oppressed’s ‘dehumanized’ state is a product of the shaping of their consciousness by external factors; the oppressors ‘dehumanizing’ state too is a product of their consciousness which is equally prone to being shaped by external factors (a point which he himself raises and then ignores). To see one class as ‘puppets’, completely at the mercy of external factors; and the other as scheming, devious ‘puppeteers’ having complete control on their actions and thoughts, and (constantly) seeking to manipulate and control the puppets – is a gross exaggeration of reality.

For one, how many of the professional class (whom he considers to be oppressors, p. 156), for instance, could relate to this description of themselves? And more importantly, even if we were to consider only the bourgeoisie, is it right to view them as a ‘unitary body’ totally immune to environmental conditioning? Would it not be more accurate to see them as a social-class, as well; whose children and young are as prone to social-conditioning, as those of the oppressed class?

Freire does not seem to think so; he devotes a large part of the fourth chapter, for instance, in describing the deliberate, scheming (‘subjective’) ways of the oppressors – their elaborate plans for conquest (such as through creation of ‘myths’), their attempts to keep the oppressed ‘fragmented’, their ‘manipulative ways’ and their ‘cultural invasion’ of the oppressed – and fails to acknowledge the role of the conditioning of their consciousness by the environment in any of these activities (as contrasted to the characteristics of the ‘oppressed’ that he readily ascribes to their conditioning).

2.The Oppressor-Oppressed Dichotomy

So, why do these contradictions exist? Are they the result of a possible oversight? No. The answer seems to lie in one of the central assumptions of this work, which is, that humanity is clearly and cleanly divided in two groups: the ‘oppressed’ and the ‘oppressors’ – and that this division is based on the (economic) ‘class’ of people (traditionally termed the bourgeoisie and the proletariat). Given Freire’s support of the ‘dialectical materialism’ theory and its view that history is a product of class struggles, this is not surprising. However, this rather simplistic division and analysis of complex human societies, as discussed below, fails to account for the different forms of oppressions that exist in our societies; and also constrains Freire to make some unsubstantiated claims.

2.1 Oppressed as Oppressors
We should begin by noting two points. One, that Pedagogy of the Oppressed confines the definition of oppression to ‘class-based oppression’ and two; that it views these classes as demarcated by ‘water-tight’ boundaries – in this analysis, thus, one must be either an oppressed or an oppressor.

A detailed look at the issue, however, reveals that such ‘clean divisions’ are inadequate at best. Consider a farmer, for instance, who, on the one hand, has to deal with an ‘oppressive’ trader; and on the other hand, beats up his wife every other day and refuses to let his sixteen year old daughter to study or go out to work, because he thinks women are only meant to work at home and bear children. Which ‘class’ does he belong to? Or consider the case of large land-owners and wealthy Indians during the British rule – who had to pay unfairly high taxes to the British on one hand; and treated their own ‘subjects’ unjustly on the other. Should they be considered the oppressed or the oppressors?

Similarly, where do we place, what in many societies, is a large and growing middle-class of professionals, supervisors and managers? And how do we explain the various other forms of oppression such as sexism and racism?

And does such a clean division into the ‘oppressed’ and the ‘oppressor’ class, not assume/suggest that the oppressed are saint-like, who hardly ever do anything wrong; and that the oppressors are inveterate criminals who can never redeem themselves (p. 44) and who cannot even exist without wanting to ‘conquer’ others (p. 58)? It does, as we shall see the author claiming in the next section.

2.2 Misattribution of Common Human Weaknesses
The assumption of the ‘two-classes division’ and their dialectical relationship, forces the author to ascribe almost every single ‘weakness’ of the oppressed class discussed in the book – be it their unwillingness to join the ‘revolution’ (p. 47), their desire for personal wealth and possessions (p. 46), their desertion or ‘betrayal of the (revolutionary) cause’ (p. 169-170), their reluctance to give up power once they have obtained it (p. 159-160), even their drinking and wife-beating habits (!) (p. 65) – to their ‘internalization’ of the oppressors’ image. Here is an example:

“The internalization of the oppressor by the dominated consciousness of the peasants explains their fear and their inefficiency” (p. 167).

And this is (for instance), how he explains the possibility of the reappearance of an oppressive power structure in a newly liberated ‘revolutionary’ society:
“Through these cultural remnants the oppressor society continues to invade—this time invading the revolutionary society itself. This invasion is especially terrible because it is carried out…by those who have participated in the revolution. As men who “house” the oppressor, they resist as might the latter themselves the further basic steps which the revolution must take. And as dual beings they also accept power which becomes bureaucratized and which violently represses them. In turn, this violently repressive bureaucratic power can be explained by the reactivation of old elements in the new society each time special circumstances permit.” (p. 159-160)

Notice that the underlying suggestion (as also the assumption), in the above, is that if the revolutionary leaders and people had not internalized the oppressors’ image and their ways, and had been able to wrest the power – they would have acted with (perfect) magnanimity and intelligence.

It’s difficult to find the basis for such optimistic assumptions (about one specific class of people) in this, as well as the other claims listed above. A look at fields such as psychology and neuroscience indicates that (all) humans are a mix of inclinations and desires that are both good and bad (some more pronounced in some people, and other more muted).

There are three things to be considered here. One, while ‘mimicking’ people whom one considers to be their ‘role’ models (p. 45-47, p. 147) is, no doubt, a well-known behaviour among humans, there is no evidence to suggest that all human behaviours and desires are learnt only in this manner. For, if oppressors are born only by internalizing the acts of other oppressors – how do we account for the birth of the first oppressor-society/community?

Two; the desire for power and to oppress – if one were to take human history, sociology and anthropology as the guide – is not confined to modern times with their ‘class-divisions’ – they have existed, as far as we know, even in many of the earliest societies. Three, (as noted above) the book does not merely ascribe one or two weaknesses of the oppressed to their oppression – but all their weaknesses – including such inherent human traits such as fear for one’s safety, violence and desire for possessions.

Such presentation of one class on lines of ‘the noble oppressed’ and the blanket attribution of all its weaknesses/faults to the other class, seems to be either naïve or disingenuous; and ignores the fact that the oppressed and the oppressors are, first of all, humans.

2.3 Claims without sufficient justification
Accounting for the faults of the class that the book is championing, is not the only challenge produced by the acceptance of the assumption that the society is neatly divided in two classes. Since the two classes are also presumed to be locked in an (eternal) dialectical relationship – it does not allow the author to consider rapprochement or understanding between the two classes, as even a remote possibility.

2.3.1 The Unbridgeable Divide
And this leads us to the second central assumption of the book, one which is of prime importance to understand Freire’s theory: that the two classes can never resolve their differences or reach an agreement – indeed, (as we saw in some of the quotes above) they can never even enter a dialogue (and thus, the only alternative is a violent class struggle).

Considering that the book indicates no doubts about these claims, and goes on to present an elaborate pedagogy (with presumably far-reaching consequences) on their basis, one would expect them to be grounded in hard evidence. Surprisingly, however, no clear or substantial attempt is made to justify these claims. Below, I present the only instances where it seems to (even vaguely) offer an explanation or justification for this rather extreme position (on un-negotiable differences between the classes), in the order in which they appear in the book.

“Who are better prepared than the oppressed to understand the terrible significance of an oppressive society? Who suffer the effects of oppression more than the oppressed? Who can better understand the necessity of liberation?” (p. 45)

As Freire himself points out time and again (see p. 64, for instance), many of the oppressed feel no necessity of liberation (due to reasons such as the ‘immersion of their consciousness’). The key point, then, is that the significance of oppression and the importance of liberation is not realized because one is oppressed (or an oppressor), but because of one’s conscientization – which is a phenomenon common to all human beings/consciousness and not confined to one class.

Moreover, does the above argument give him sufficient ground to think that any option other than a violent revolution is impossible? It’s hard to see how.

Although the situation of oppression is a dehumanized and dehumanizing totality affecting both the oppressors and those whom they oppress, it is the latter who must, from their stifled humanity, wage for both the struggle for a fuller humanity; the oppressor, who is himself dehumanized because he dehumanizes others, is unable to lead this struggle. (p. 47)

Can this be considered a justification? If being ‘humanized’ is the criterion for leadership – are not the oppressed ‘dehumanized’, and thus unfit to lead, too? It seems little more than a restating of the original assumption, which, (it appears) is being presented as a ‘self-evident’ truth.

“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. It is therefore essential that the oppressed wage the struggle to resolve the contradiction in which they are caught.” (p. 56) III “Once more, let me repeat that (this) dialogical encounter cannot take place between antagonists.” (p. 129)

In both these instances, again, he assumes his claims to be self-evident (and then goes on to use them to build his second-level assumption that struggle/revolution by the oppressed is the only option). Let us consider his second claim in some detail: think of the thousands – nay – millions of antagonist parties – big and small (from individuals and groups to international ‘security’ blocks), around the world – and imagine if all of them were to assume the same stance. Would we have a human civilization left? Dialogue seems to be the very basis of our civilization (thus to dismiss it, without a logical or empirical justification, does not seem plausible).

“Those whose interests are served by that reality cannot carry out this transformation; it must be achieved by the tyrannized, with their leaders.” (p. 130) III “[Oppressors] preach an impossible harmony between themselves (who dehumanize) and the oppressed (who are dehumanized). Since oppressors and oppressed are antithetical, what serves the interests of one group disserves the interests of the others.” (p. 145)

Here we encounter, for the first time, an explanation for this position. However, note that the assumption underlying the (first) explanation is that the “interests” (and thus, the ‘consciousness’) of the oppressors are fixed and unchangeable – and that they lie in the exploitation of the ‘oppressed’ class.

When one considers the changes in the ways that ‘for-profit private companies’ (and their owners: the bourgeoisie) operate in the present time, as opposed to say the middle of the nineteenth century, one finds that such an assumption is not entirely true. The driving motive (profit) may have essentially remained the same but the concern for environment and sustainability, the attempts to work with and develop the community that they operate in, the willingness to allow more flexibility in work hours and so on – do indicate that what the very definition of ‘interests’ can and does change with time (and one hopes, with awareness). The same people who today think that plundering the environment for their profit is a good idea might come to see that it would be a terrible idea for the future of their grandchildren.

Secondly, if we assume that the claim is indeed true (that those who are served by a reality cannot transform it) – what gives us the ground to think that once the ‘oppressed’ have wrested power, they will not become the new oppressors themselves? Following the same logic, would not the new reality then (i.e. their hold on the power) make them incapable of renouncing it and working for a just and democratic society? How do we explain the extreme pessimism about the oppressor changing their ways, on the one hand; and the extreme optimism in the goodness and ability of the oppressed, on the other?

Similarly, the second explanation (since oppressors and oppressed are antithetical…others), assumes that the ‘oppressor class’ is one monolithic group whose members have no other identity then that of ‘oppressors’. It thus makes it seem that if the oppressors are ‘liberated’, the very existence of the people constituting the ‘oppressor class’ will be threatened. This is a caricature of reality and ignores (as the first explanation) that the so-called ‘oppressors’ are humans with multiple identities and roles, and, more importantly, that their consciousness is not a fixed unchanging consciousness bent on oppression – but one that can (and does) change.

Thus, if one attempts to unearth the evidence for one of the central assumptions of the book – that the two classes can never bridge their differences (of interests and opinions) and hence must necessarily involve in a violent class struggle – a claim which has profound effect on its pedagogy; one finds that they are based on rather tenuous grounds. It seems to present them as self-evident truths; but one finds neither an empirical nor substantial logical justification for them.

2.3.2 The Utopia
The last set of claims (that have been presented without sufficient justification), which we will discuss, are claims related to what will happen after the ‘oppressed’ have ‘taken control’.

If history be the guide, the record of revolutions has been far from unimpeachable. One of the most serious challenges that any revolution faces is the prevention of the regeneration (or the worsening) of the very conditions that it struggled to change (as had happened, for instance, in Russia). Freire is extremely aware of this significant but unavoidable challenge, when he notes (time and again):

In order for this struggle to have meaning, the oppressed must not, in seeking to regain their humanity, become in turn oppressors of the oppressors, but rather restorers of the humanity of both. (p. 44) “But almost always, during the initial stage of the struggle, the oppressed, instead of striving for liberation, tend themselves to become oppressors, or sub-oppressors.” (p. 45) “These necessary restraints do not in themselves signify that yesterdays oppressed have become today’s oppressors… However, the moment the new regime hardens into a dominating bureaucracy the humanist dimension of the struggle is lost and it is no longer possible to speak of liberation. (p. 57)

However, if the oppressed revolutionaries were to become oppressors themselves (as he fears), he seems sure of what the causes would be; one, the duality of the people caused by their ‘internalization’ of the oppressor: “Their existential duality may even facilitate the rise of a sectarian climate leading to the installation of bureaucracies which undermine the revolution. If the oppressed do not become aware of this ambiguity during the course of the revolutionary process, they may participate in that process with a spirit more revanchist than revolutionary. They may aspire to revolution as a means of domination, rather than as a road to liberation (p. 127)”

And two, the “cultural remnants” of the oppressive regime (as we saw above).
He refuses to acknowledge that the problem may lie with human ‘consciousness’ of the (former) oppressed or that a desire for conquest, power and authority may be common in many humans irrespective of their class – he would rather see their reprehensible new behaviour as caused by the ‘remnants of the oppressive culture’. And thus, he offers the following, rather simplistic, solution to prevent a replay of Orwell’s Animal Farm in the new society: “I interpret the revolutionary process as dialogical cultural action which is prolonged in “cultural revolution” once power is taken. In both stages a serious and profound effort at conscientização —by means of which the people, through a true praxis, leave behind the status of objects to assume the status of historical Subjects—is necessary.”

When the cause itself may be misattributed, it is perhaps futile to speak of the solution. Secondly, if the revolutionary leaders are unable to rid themselves of the shadows of the past (such as desire for power and control, p. 160), what gives us the hope that the people will not succumb to the “cultural remnants”? And if the cultural remnants remain alive in both of them; what would stop the society from slipping back into the same pattern? Alternatively, if the leaders themselves have fallen to the enticement of power, who will lead this new Cultural Revolution? The people? But what makes them so infallible? It’s not clear the book provides an answer, or sufficient grounds for the optimism that an “effort at conscientização” would be a sufficient deterrent for the new revolutionaries.

3.Pedagogy of Violence?
The Pedagogy of the Oppressed presents a pedagogy for (violent) revolution. A claim to this effect has not been made (explicitly) in the book, however, as one follows the chain of arguments presented, it becomes increasingly clear that despite the attempts to drape it in euphemisms such as ‘act of love’, ‘liberation of both the oppressed and the oppressor’, ‘restoration of humanity’ and so on, Freire’s pedagogy is a call to the ‘oppressed’ (and their supporters) for (violent) takeover of power from the ‘oppressors’. Let us look, one by one, at some of the claims and arguments discussed in the book.

Freire is categorically clear, as we saw above, that there is no possibility of dialogue with the oppressors (p. 129 and 139). He is also insistent that the oppressors cannot liberate themselves nor participate in their own liberation (p. 44, 47 and 56) and must, therefore, be ‘liberated’ by the oppressed (same pages). He further claims, that the “resolution of the oppressed-oppressor contradiction implies the disappearance of the oppressors as a dominant class (p. 56).”

Now, if the ‘oppressor class’ cannot be dialogued with, it follows, that they will not be a part of the conscientization. And therefore, they will continue to possess the ‘oppressor consciousness’, and to equate their ‘being’ with their ‘having’. However, they must be ‘liberated’. But how are they to be liberated; or, in other words – how is the ‘oppressor class’ to be made to ‘disappear’?

Freire provides no direct answer – after describing in detail the process through which the oppressed consciousness is to be ‘raised’; he jumps to “once a popular revolution has come to power, the fact…” (p. 139). Something important that he misses is to mention what (exactly) he expects to happen between the “conscientization” of the oppressed and their “coming of power”.

However, given the assumptions that the oppressors cannot be part of the dialogic process and that they will never give up their position of power voluntarily, it is clear that he is hinting at a violent wresting of power and privilege; and the ‘oppressors’ (i.e. the capitalist bourgeoisie class) being ‘wiped out’ or obliterated (and thus, their “disappearance”). This ‘goal’ of his pedagogy becomes clearer as one looks at some of the claims and explanations in the book.

“They (oppressed) will not gain this liberation by chance but through the praxis of their quest for it, through their recognition of the necessity to fight for it. And this fight, because of the purpose given it by the oppressed, will actually constitute an act of love opposing the lovelessness which lies at the heart of the oppressors’ violence.” (p. 45)

“Consciously or unconsciously, the act of rebellion by the oppressed (an act which is always, or nearly always, as violent as the initial violence of the oppressors) can initiate love. As the oppressors dehumanize others and violate their rights, they themselves also become dehumanized. As the oppressed, fighting to be human, take away the oppressors power to dominate and suppress, they restore to the oppressors the humanity they had lost in the exercise of oppression (p. 56).”

Does one not detect a condoning of, even a justification for, violence? Is not an “act of rebellion” a mere euphemism for a violent war (with ‘rebellion’ giving it a connotation of legitimacy)? And what does “take away the oppressors power to dominate and suppress” mean? That their ‘ill-gotten’ wealth will be confiscated and ‘redistributed’ among the ‘oppressed’ because it ‘rightfully belongs to them’? That their factories seized and homes plundered? And what exactly will be the new ‘restrains’ put on them? Who will decide what they ought to be; and whether they are appropriate? The new “oppressors”? On the ground of their new-found power?

What is surprising in the above quote, is that the author, on the one hand, says, “As the oppressors dehumanize others and violate their rights, they themselves also become dehumanized”, and on the other hand, fails to see that by violently wresting control the ‘saviours’ (i.e. the oppressed) will themselves be dehumanized.

The question of whether violence is ever justified is a larger question, which, admittedly, cannot be dealt with here. However, it’s difficult to see how the hope that a ‘noble’ end can be achieved through an ‘ignoble’ means is anything, but a fantasy. Leaders like Gandhi have clearly and repeatedly spoken against such beliefs. And the violent record of various revolutions – from the ancient times (Athenian and Spartan revolts of the oppressed classes, for instance) to the modern times (such as French and Russian); and the fact that none of these violent revolutions have resulted in the Utopia that their designers dreamt of – suggests that some scepticism for such optimistic claims about the revolutionary designs and the nobility of the revolutionary characters (that it would be an ‘act of love’ and not a human desire for revenge, or wealth and power) – is in order.

What is paradoxical is that (as shown below), Freire understands the impossibility of such as endeavour (searching for a just end through unjust means) quite well; and yet finds himself unable to avoid the trap. Consider, for instance, his ‘admonitions’ to the revolutionary leaders.

“It is essential for the oppressed to realize that when they accept the struggle for humanization they also accept, from that moment, their total responsibility for the struggle. This is a radical requirement. They cannot enter the struggle as objects in order later to become human beings.”

Some well-intentioned but misguided persons suppose that since the dialogical process is prolonged, they ought to carry out the revolution without communication…and that once the revolution is won, they will then develop a thoroughgoing educational effort. They further justify this procedure by saying that it is not possible to carry out education—liberating education—before taking power. [W]hen they deny the possibility that the leaders can behave in a critically educational fashion before taking power, they deny the revolutions educational quality as cultural action preparing to become cultural revolution. On the other hand, they confuse cultural action with the new education to be inaugurated once power is taken.

Were it not possible to dialogue with the people before power is taken, because they have no experience with dialogue, neither would it be possible for the people to come to power, for they are equally inexperienced in the use of power.

Now, cannot similar arguments (as above) be made for a non-violent approach? For instance: Were it not possible to create a just and equitable society without violence (which implies oppression), neither would it be possible for the people to keep the new society without violence (oppression) for they would be unequally inexperienced in a life without violence (oppression).

The book’s acceptance of violence as a given, can well be seen as a form of ‘fatalism’ – something, which it says characterises an oppressed consciousness submerged in its immediate context. (p. 61)

4.Uncompromising Position?
As we briefly touched upon above, some of the strongest and most distinctive features of Freire’s pedagogy are considered to be its stress on ‘dialogue’, open-mindedness when engaging in co-creation of knowledge, and an open, like-equals relationship between the leader and the people. However, as we discussed above, it appears that at least some of the claims in the book are presented as self-evident truths without substantial justification.

Does the book also take any of its claims to be the ‘only truth’? If yes, does it have sufficient grounds for it? In this section, let us turn our investigation to these questions.

Dialogue and Openness
Let us begin by considering some specific claims and assumptions. First, the book assumes, as we saw above, that any person who is not in the ‘oppressor class’ (and thus, according to its class analysis, must be an oppressed) will necessarily agree with and participate in the “revolutionary cause” that it espouses – and those who do not do so, have the ‘oppressor’ still hiding inside him/her. This seems to be not just simplistic, but also an arbitrary and dangerous position to take – for it allows for no deviation from the author’s analysis and (subsequent) plans.

It makes no mention, for instance, of how the author would explain (or deal with) a factory or farm worker who, knowing well that his ‘boss’ is making much more profit than him on account of his labour (and thus, he is being exploited) – is still quite happy with his relatively safe, settled and comfortable life; and may not wish the kind of violent ‘liberation’ that the author promises. This position, it seems likely, would force the author to arbitrarily dismiss such cases as cases of ‘internalization’ of the oppressor – which, evidently, is wrong; and can have dangerous implications.

Similarly, the book is (rightly) held up as a champion of the ‘dialogic model’ of education – and indeed, the pedagogy it presents is far more dialogical than many traditional methods. Yet, can a communication in which the end has been pre-decided by the person who initiates and controls (see here) the communication, really be called a ‘dialogue’? To put it differently, it rightly stresses on co-creation of knowledge and co-discovery of reality – but if one has already decided what the reality is (oppression) and what should be done about it (revolt), doesn’t the talk of ‘co-creation’ become rather patronising?

Similarly, given that the author has already decided that the final ‘outcome’ of the dialogic education will (should) be the ‘educated’ joining the ‘revolutionary cause’; can this be called an open position? Does it not make the pedagogy biased? Let us turn to these questions in the next sections.

5.Teaching Method
A detailed analysis of the teaching-methods presented in the book, would require more space than can be dedicated here, however, it is suffice to say at this point, that as one unpacks the pedagogy presented in the book; one finds it, as most other forms of pedagogy, to be inherently leading and pre-disposed towards the views of the teacher/leader/professional.

More specifically, the process of ‘coding’ and the ‘decoding’ of the themes, as well as the ‘thematic investigation’ in general, (which is central to this form of education) – must be led by ‘trained’ volunteers/professionals. It is they who would ‘interpret’ the discussions of the people for hidden themes, ‘encode’ these themes, and then help the people ‘discover’ it ‘for themselves’ (from the encoded situations which the leaders have designed p. 95-124). 13

Let us also consider here the author’s comments on cultural synthesis (which involves thematic investigation): “Cultural synthesis (precisely because it is a synthesis) does not mean that the objectives of revolutionary action should be limited by the aspirations expressed in the world view of the people. If this were to happen (in the guise of respect for that view), the revolutionary leaders would be passively bound to that vision. Neither invasion by the leaders of the people’s world view nor mere adaptation by the leaders to the (often naive) aspirations of the people is acceptable.”

This position (though it attempts to address a valid concern) poses a challenge to any model presenting itself as ‘non-elitist’: If a leader or teacher accepts this position (esp. that the people have ‘often naïve’ aspirations), and there happen to be conflicts in the views of the people and the leader/teacher, is it difficult to predict whose view will prevail? Is it possible to enter a true ‘dialogue’ with such assumptions?

And these issues lead us to an even more important question – about the aims of this form of pedagogy – which we will turn to next.

6.Pedagogy or Ideology?
Freire’s early life, describes Gerhardt, an author who has written on Freire’s theory and practice, had predisposed him towards certain political stance; he was influenced by the leftist ideology from a relatively young age. In his letter of acceptance for a position with the World Council of Churches, Freire wrote: ‘You must know that I have taken a decision. My case is the case of the wretched of the earth. You should know that I opted for revolution’ (Simpfendörfer, 1989, p. 153). Freire’s work, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Gerhardt continues, uses ‘social transformation’ synonymously with ‘revolution’ (and subversion, i.e. a radical political option and practice) and sees the process of ‘conscientization’ as a tool to prepare (incite?) people for class struggle (Gerhardt, 1993).14

Freire, thus, clearly sees education as a political tool and (in other books) is open about his attempts to spread his ideology through education. Indeed, in Pedagogy of the Oppressed, he sees little difference between a teacher and a revolutionary leader (p. 69) – a teacher, in his view, would not be a good teacher unless they are a good ‘revolutionary leader’, and an education would not be a good education unless it prepares the ‘oppressed’ for (violent) revolution.

Many people have found this position to be extremely contentious (for instance, see Searle 1990)15, as it appropriates the purpose of education and critical thinking, and insists that all educational endeavours should be weighed on one criterion: of whether it leads to ‘social transformation’ (i.e. a revolution) or not.

This position, thus, rejects that education can be worthwhile ‘in itself’ or that canonical works should be pursued for their “intellectual and artistic quality”. In fact, “how we read or define a canonical work”, followers of this tradition, such as Henry Giroux, have gone on to claim, “may not be as important as challenging the overall function and social uses the notion of the canon has served.”15.1 The notion of intellectual excellence is viewed as ‘elitist’, and even scientific (and presumably, philosophical) thoughts and efforts must follow the ‘social transformation’ diktat:16 “Technical and scientific training need not be inimical to humanistic education as long as science and technology in the revolutionary society are at the service of permanent liberation, of humanization” (p. 159)

Hidden behind this stance is also the implication that there is only one correct method of teaching or approaching reality, which is, in turn, an anti-dialogical – almost a dictatorial view.Thus, to believe that radicalism and ‘social transformation’ is the primary (if not the only) goal of education, presents a number of challenges which remain unresolved.


We started our discussion with a brief look at critical theory and critical pedagogy and a summary of Pedagogy of the Oppressed (see part one of this essay). Then, we discussed some of the internal contradictions in the claims and arguments presented in the book, under three headings: dialogue, subject vs. object of liberation, and the effect of external conditioning on the oppressed and oppressor consciousness. Next, we saw how the oppressed and oppressor dichotomy fails to explain the ‘oppressed as oppressor’ phenomenon, and surveyed some of the issues that it engenders, such as, misattribution of common human frailties (to class division); and insistence on the claim that the oppressed and oppressors must be necessarily (and forever) divided, and that once the oppressed have wrested power, all societal problems (oppressions) in the society would disappear. Next, we attempted to understand how the book looks at violence, and finally, whether the pedagogic model presented in the book is as open and dialogic as claimed.

The impression one gets is that the claims and arguments presented in the book stem from the authors beliefs/convictions rather than being grounded in empirical evidence or a rigorous theoretical framework – one finds (as discussed above) many of the claims to be poorly substantiated; and the evidence of the model’s successful implementation and evaluation on a substantial scale are hard to find.18 Some of the central philosophical assumptions of the book, such as the primacy (and supposed infallibility) of reason and ‘humanization’ being the mankind’s ‘central problem’ may also be found to be contentious by some.

Draped in the language of justice, education, liberation and humanization, (as shown above) is a condoning of, even incitement to violence. Consciousness-raising in this pedagogic model does not mean raising critical awareness – but raising awareness for the need (and inevitability) of a violent revolution. This stems from the author’s belief in the impossibility of a dialogue between the two classes; which, in turn, is based on the assumption of a devious, scheming, unchanging and monolithic, ‘oppressor consciousness’. This rather absolutist position, and the insistence that an entire group of men, women (and presumably, children) be looked upon through the mono-lens embossed with “oppressors” – fails to see anything good or right with an entire ‘class’ of people; indeed to even see them as humans and authors of cultural, scientific and other endeavours – and is inaccurate and fraught with danger of violence.

It also misses two very important and related points: (1) that by doing so, one would be paving the way for the same kind of society that the book bemoans and decries and (2) that the final goal is not liberation of one group – but that of humanity – not of the oppressed consciousness but that of human consciousness.

The above argument, perhaps, needs elaboration. Dividing the society into separate ‘classes’ based merely on who is oppressing whom ‘economically’ fails to notice (or acknowledge) that economic and related oppressions are merely a manifestation of the ‘love for oppression’ – which is not confined to members of one ‘economic’ class , but is dispersed throughout societies. It strenuously but misguidedly attempts to find the problem of oppression in the ‘oppressor’ (and oppressed) consciousness and is thus forced to ascribe the pervasive frailties on one class to the “internalization” of the other class. Not surprisingly, it also confuses the ‘removal of the economy/class based oppressors’ with the ‘removal of oppression’ from society – believing, that by the destruction of that one “class” (group of people) all will be well with the world.

As it fails to locate the root of oppression in the frailties of ‘human consciousness’, it is unable to see that the answer (perhaps) does not lie in “liberating the oppressed consciousness” (by which it means “making their oppression even more unbearable with the realization of oppression” p. 51) – but in acknowledging that the process of conscientização should involve all classes. That it is in a ‘reform’ of human consciousness rather than a violent (physical) revolution and seizure of (material-based) power, in which our best hope of a just, equal and sustainable society lies.

In view of this, the seclusion of the ‘oppressors’ from the dialogue and the process of liberation, appears to be ‘oppressive’ and a mistake. The middle class, with its understanding of and sympathies for both classes, instead of being forced to choose one or the other class – can play an important bridging role in making this possible17. Freire understood this only too well – though he speaks of professionals as the ‘oppressor class’, he openly acknowledges that his pedagogy is impossible without these very professionals playing a key role in it.

In sum, by rejecting the claims of dichotomized human consciousness, and that a just end can be achieved by unjust means; and by recognizing that the struggle is against a way of thinking that legitimises a “necroplilic passion to possess” and thus, to oppress; Freire’s model of pedagogy – which its stress on dialogue-based co-investigation of reality and co-creation of knowledge, problem-posing methods and conscientização – could become an even stronger tool for human liberation.

References and Additional Notes:

[1] Schugurensky, D. (2013). Paulo Freire. Continuum Intl Pub Group. (Back)

[2] Steiner, D. (2005). Skewed perspective. Education Next, 5(1) (Source) (Back)

[3] Freire, P., & Macedo, D. P. (1996). Letters to Cristina, reflections on my life and work. Psychology Press. (Back)

[4]Hendriks, S., Review of Pedagogy of the Oppressed, The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto. (Source) (Back)

[5] Barmania, S. (2011, October 26). Why Paulo Freire’s “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” is just as relevant today as ever. The Independent. (Back)

[6] Section 2.1 contains some excerpts originally used in the sociology term paper (by the same author) – this was done to avoid a rewrite on a topic which supports but is not central to the objective of this paper (critique of the book). All other sections are original to this paper. (Back)

[7] 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) (Back)
[8] “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.” (Reference) (Back)
[9] (Back)
[10] Christine E. Sleeter, Peter McLaren. 1995. Multicultural education, critical pedagogy, and the politics of difference. SUNY Press. (Back)
[11] Though there are no explicit/detailed call to violence, other than through the ‘logical conclusion’ of his arguments; one of the quotes he uses, too, seems to indicate that he did not think of the use of violence as wrong; in fact he perhaps saw it as an essential component of revolution: “Dr. Ortiz once told me: “The revolution involves three “P’s”: palavra, povo, pedlvora [word, people, and gunpowder]. The explosion of the gunpowder clears the people’s perception of their concrete situation, in pursuit, through action, of their liberation.” (Back)
[12] Given that it’s the oppressor class that holds most power currently, it will, likely, use all resources available at its disposal to prevent a change of power – in case it is (violently) threatened. The scale of violence, as one can imagine, will therefore not be something to be brushed aside. And when such violence is unleashed on the society, would it not be naively optimistic to hope that the so called “oppressor consciousness” (which, it appears, would have acquired the magnanimity and equanimity of a saint through ‘conscientization’) will still remain immune and not itself be heavily tainted by it? Will it not then just become the beginning of a newer oppression cycle? Two wrongs, as has been argued, do not make a right – use of violence to achieve any ‘grand’ purpose – especially the utopia that is hoped to be achieved – seems to be contradictory by design. (Back)
[13] A critical reading of the process of thematic investigation shows that it is essentially predisposed towards the views of the teacher/leader. Developing codification is an extremely interpretative process for which the teacher/leader is responsible; as also the deciding of thematic nucleus (which again has to be designed by the teacher based on what he thinks is the themes coming from the people. The ‘various decoding possibilities’ that Freire offers as a counter-balance must also be ‘selected’ by the teacher and then the group easily led towards one of them (p. 112-114 and 120). So, though the ‘pedagogy of the oppressed’ is imbued with the ‘dialogic’ language it does not quite seem to be completely free from ‘elitism’ or being directional. (Back) (To 7.1)

[14][18] Gerhardt, H. P. (1993). Paulo Freire. Prospects: the quarterly review of comparative education, XXIII(3/4), 439-58. (Available online) (Back) (Back to Conclusion)

[15][15.1] Searle, J. (1990, December 6). The storm over the university.The New York Review of Books. Also in Simon , R. L. (1994). Neutrality and the academic ethic. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. (Back)
[16] Considering that science, like philosophy, is (essentially) a search for truth (and therefore must be non-directional) – would loading it with the criterion of “the potential of humanization” not amount to restricting it? (Back)
[17] In fact, the leader having this empathy and understanding is what Paulo also hints at when he asks: “Who are better prepared than the oppressed to understand the terrible significance of an oppressive society? Who suffer the effects of oppression more than the oppressed? Who can better understand the necessity of liberation?” (p. 45) (Back)

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