The Canon: Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire

September 30, 2010

"Problem-posing education is revolutionary futurity. Hence it is prophetic (and, as such, hopeful)." So wrote Brazilian educator Paulo Freire in Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1968), one of the 20th century's most provocative statements on the violence of cultural oppression and the role of education in struggling against it. The book was a response to situated circumstances: Freire's childhood encounters with poverty in post-Depression Brazil, his work in popular literacy campaigns, and reflections during his subsequent exile. But his assertion that education can be a hopeful, even revolutionary practice of liberation - and the incisive explanation of why it generally is not - puts this book at the heart of universal debates about what is taught to whom in a society, how it's taught, and why.

Like many, I discovered Pedagogy by force of circumstance - first during the 1990s in coming to consciousness about the oppressive politics of neocolonial education in post-Soviet societies, and in learning to teach anew, humbled and from scratch. I am re-reading it to help me theorise the divisive, dehumanising and elitist conceptions of education now in ascendance, and to articulate practical alternatives. I incorporate feminist and post-structuralist critiques of Freire's early readings of Georg Hegel, Karl Marx, Erich Fromm and liberation theology, study the philosophy in application, and consider Freire's revisions of himself. But there is something that draws me back to Pedagogy: I think it is the radical hope.

Freire begins with the argument that the vocation of human beings is to become progressively more human by acting on the world to open new horizons of "untested feasibility". Against this are the status-quo processes of dehumanisation through which we learn to adapt or even aspire to our social limitations. According to Freire, most education serves the latter purpose by mimicking the mechanistic procedures of "banking": students are taught to master knowledge and skills "deposited" by authoritative teachers, and then "withdraw" them to bankroll a smooth integration into the existing social system. The alternative is a dialogical education of critical consciousness that enables people to formulate questions about this system, understand the complex causes of their oppression, and produce knowledge that helps them challenge these limitations. This is no politically impartial "student-centred learning". It is "futurity", because its outcomes are unpredictable; "revolutionary" pedagogy because its origin, purpose and open-endedness necessarily transform the status quo.

By all standards, Pedagogy of the Oppressed is a landmark text. Its translation from Portuguese into English in 1970 was considered "something of an event", and it has sold more than a million copies in many languages. It informs literacy campaigns, social movements and a now burgeoning field of scholarship in critical and public pedagogy; it is regularly co-opted into mainstream education. Invoked recently in debates about House Bill 2281 (prohibiting the teaching of "ethnic studies" in schools in Arizona), it is enduringly provocative. And, as British education careers literally into a banking model, it is bizarrely contemporary. But canons are closures, in the Freirean spirit. Better to read it and decide.

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