Wednesday, October 07, 2020

Reading :: Pedagogy of the Oppressed

Pedagogy of the Oppressed
By Paulo Freire

The link goes to a version of this famous book on Amazon, but (full disclosure) I downloaded a PDF of it recently. I read it late this summer, just before Matusov's Journey into Dialogic Pedagogy, which (you may recall) excoriated Freire for his later work in supporting totalitarian regimes. 

This isn't the first time I've read this book, of course. In fact, I read it as a PhD student in the mid 1990s in a class on radical pedagogy. Back then, I didn't approve of the book, but had a hard time articulating it. A quarter century later, I can articulate my problems with it, although I can also see past those problems to understand its contributions.

So let's talk about those contributions first. Freire is best known for two specific contributions to education theory. First is his critique of the "banking model of education," mainly in Chapter 2. In this model, 

Narration (with the teacher as narrator) leads the students to memorize mechanically the narrated content. Worse yet, it turns them into 'containers,' into 'receptacles' to be 'filled' by the teacher. The more completely she fills the receptacles, the better a teacher she is. The more meekly the receptacles permit themselves to be filled, the better students they are.

Education thus becomes an act of depositing, in which the students are the depositories and the teacher is the depositor. Instead of communicating, the teacher issues communiques and makes deposits which the students patiently receive, memorize, and repeat. This is the "banking" concept of education ... (pp.71-72) 

Freire roundly criticizes this model, which is both enslaving and incorrect. Learning just does not happen in this way, as any educational psychologist can tell you. But the banking model, he says, mirrors oppressive society as a whole -- implying a monopoly on truth, reinforcing an understanding of active leadership and passive followers (p.73). That is, the banking model becomes a model of citizenship; "the 'humanism' of the banking approach masks the effort to turn women and men into automatons—the very negation of their ontological vocation to be more fully human" (p.74). In dicohotomizing everything (p.80), he argues, the banking model removes the students' (and citizens') ability to know.

Second is his argument that education should be a dialogue. As he says early in the book, "The correct method [of education] lies in dialogue. The conviction of the oppressed that they must fight for their liberation is not a gift bestowed by the revolutionary leadership, but the result of their own conscientizacao" (p.67). This dialogue should not be a manipulation by teachers (revolutionary leadership) of the students—it must express the consciousness of the students themselves (p.69); in Bakhtin's sense, it can't be authoritative discourse, it must be internally persuasive. In dialogic education, in contrast to the banking model, "no one teachers another, nor is anyone self-taught (p.80). 

Now, let's talk about the issues I have with Freire. Freire was a central figure in inspiring liberation theology, a synthesis of Christian theology and socioeconomic analyses. Specifically, Freire (like many in the mid-20th century) based his socioeconomic analysis on the Marx-Engels-Lenin-Stalin (MELS) analysis that posed the most direct challenge to capitalism in the mid-20th century. The fingerprints of both MELS and Christianity are all over the place in this book. The problem, of course, is that neither really coexists with dialogue in the sense that Freire tries to encourage—both identify an absolute truth and a teleology in which all will eventually know the truth as the come to a day of reckoning (and here I am specifically referring to the Stalinist viewpoint). Both subscribe to a Manichean view in which good and evil (or oppressed and oppressors) exist and struggle until a day in which good wins and evil is abolished. 

So how do you square dialogic pedagogy with an absolute truth? Simple: You argue that if people are allowed to conduct dialogue, they will eventually come to the Truth. And this is essentially what Freire argues. The oppressed themselves, he says, will liberate both themselves and (eventually) their oppressors (p.44) from this dialectical contradiction between opposing social forces (p.46). As they discover that they are oppressed, the students discover the dialectical relationship they have with the oppressor, without which the oppressor cannot exist (p.49). This concrete contradiction is objectively verifiable and must be transformed to liberate both parties from the contradiction (p.50). This liberatory pedagogy cannot be developed or practiced by the oppressors themselves—it must spring from the oppressed, leading to a "process of permanent liberation" for all (p.54); "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). This dialectic yields "the appearance of the new man: neither oppressor nor oppressed, but man in the process of liberation" (p.56, my emphasis; notice that the Soviets and the New Testament both refer to the idea of a new man: see Ephesians 4:17-24). 

Shuttling between a Christian and a MELS vocabulary, Freire continues: "Conversion of the people requires a profound rebirth. ... Only through comradeship with the oppressed can the converts understand their characteristic ways of living and behaving, which in diverse moments reflect the structure of domination" (p.61). Diverse social ills are laid at the feet of the oppressor-oppressed dialectic: When the oppressed man beats his children or drinks too much, it's because of the oppressor (p.65). "It is only when the oppressed find the oppressor out and become involved in the organized struggle for their liberation that they begin to believe in themselves" (p.65). And that realization cannot be bestowed, it cannot be propagandized, it can only be realized through dialogue (p.67), which must express the consciousness of the students themselves (p.69). 

Later, Freire argues that this dialogue leads to unity: "This affirmation [that oppressors and oppressed transform each other] might appear to imply division, dichotomy, rupture of the revolutionary forces; in fact, it signifies exactly the opposite: their communion" (p.129). And a few pages later: "Unity and organization can enable [the oppressed] to change their weakness into a transforming force with which they can re-create the world and make it more human" (p.145). These terms—communion, unity, organization—suggest what Freire has explicitly told us elsewhere: When he says dialogue, he's talking about dialectic, leading to a more densely woven unity. Give people the room to talk and they will listen to something similar to what evangelicals characterize as the "still small voice"—they will come to the same truth.

We can see why Matusov was initially enchanted by this idea, but we can also see how Freire eventually became involved in developing propagandic programs for totalitarian regimes. If Truth exists and you expect people to find it, what happens if they don't? You have to give them hints. And if they don't take your hints—if their dialogue doesn't lead to your conclusions? Clearly they have not listened to the "still small voice" or they have consciously decided to side with the oppressor. Evangelicals understand this willful disobedience as taking sides against God, leading to Hell; Stalin characterized it as counterrevolutionary activity, leading to the Gulag. Freire, for his part, doesn't even seem to entertain the possibility that dialogue would lead to somewhere other than his conclusions! 

I've been a bit harsh in this review, and I expect my view is colored by my recent research in Soviet history as well as my evangelical upbringing. Certainly you should read this classic text as well and draw your own conclusions. In Bakhtin's terms, I invite you to enter this dialogue and see if it is internally persuasive for you.