You say you want a revolution

I originally posted this piece on a now defunct forum. I have reposted because someone has quoted Freire to me following my recent article on labour teachers. I have removed the links in the original.

Recently, I have been reading “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” by Paulo Freire. It is a hugely influential book. For instance, it is one of the most frequently assigned texts in philosophy of education courses in the US. Over one million copies have been sold, probably as a result of such assignments – an extraordinary number for a book about education. Google Scholar returns nearly 41,000 citations for the 2000 edition. If you are a teacher anywhere in the English-speaking world then I suggest that there is a good chance this book has directly or indirectly influenced your practice, whether you have heard of it or not. And it is the foundational text of a movement called Critical Pedagogy.

I had read previous reviews and felt that I therefore knew some of the basic concepts. Coming from the left of the political spectrum, I expected to feel sympathy towards a concept of education designed to help liberate the poor and disenfranchised. However, given my views on the effectiveness of explicit instruction, I also expected to find the suggested solutions to be misguided. Those were my preconceptions. What I actually discovered really blew me away.

The book is written mainly in the abstract and this makes it quite hard to apprehend. From the start, Freire sets-up a distinction between the ‘oppressors’ and the ‘oppressed’. There are few concrete examples of what this means. Via a quote, we see that the indigenous population of colonial North Africa would be an example of the oppressed. We should also consider South American peasants to be amongst their number. However, when relating this to modern, developed societies, it is hard to see where the dividing line lies. For instance, as a teacher I am a member of the Australian middle classes. What does that make me? Oppressed or oppressor? The phrase ‘middle class’ only appears in one footnote with the implication that the middle classes suffer from a ‘dominated consciousness’. So perhaps I am also oppressed. Or perhaps life is a bit more complicated than such a simple distinction suggests.

According to Freire, individuals have an ontological and historical vocation to become more fully human. A situation of oppression interferes with this. The oppressed become dehumanized and, in oppressing them, the oppressors are also dehumanized. The only ones who can fix this situation are the oppressed – the oppressors themselves are incapable. We are talking about revolution here; a rising-up of the masses (it is interesting to note that Freire is writing in 1968). However, this must not be action for action’s sake. Rather, such a rising needs to be reflective. The synthesis of action with reflection is known as ‘praxis’. Interestingly, although Freire and subsequent critical pedagogues have used the term in this way, the modern rehabilitation of the word ‘praxis’ was by Hannah Arendt as a criticism of philosophers who just think about things without engaging with the world. Arendt certainly does not share Freire’s views on education as is clear from her famous essay of 1954.

One of the big problems that every revolutionary leader finds with the masses, of course, is a disinclination to do all this rising up. This is where the pedagogy comes in. After the revolution, a new type of education will be needed and can be provided by the people, for the people. However, in the meantime, it is necessary to start raising the consciousness of the oppressed; enabling them to think critically about their situation. This is the pedagogy of the ‘first stage’ and it cannot be imposed upon the oppressed didactically but must be done by posing problems – more later. Once they are more fully conscious of their situation and that the limits that they find themselves in – Freire calls these ‘limit-situations’ – can be breached, the oppressed will all come to the correct conclusions and rise up against the oppressors in this action-plus-reflection way. You need to reach about 10 per cent of them in order to get them to do this.

Are you starting to feel a bit uncomfortable yet? Well this is where it gets even darker.

Again, we are mostly dealing with the abstract, but when I try to apply it to the real-world, I come to some unsettling conclusions. Consider this quote, for example:

“Resolution of the oppressor-oppressed contradiction indeed implies the disappearance of the oppressors as a dominant class. However, the restraints imposed by the former oppressed on their oppressors, so that the latter cannot reassume their former position, do not constitute oppression. An act is oppressive only when it prevents people from being more fully human. Accordingly, these necessary restraints do not in themselves signify that yesterday’s oppressed have become today’s oppressors. Acts which prevent the restoration of the oppressive regime cannot be compared with those which create and maintain it, cannot be compared with those by which a few men and women deny the majority their right to be human”

I wonder, are we talking about counter-revolutionary police here? Later, Freire returns to this point.

“Once a popular revolution has come to power, the fact that the new power has the ethical duty to repress any attempt to restore the old oppressive power by no means signifies that the revolution is contradicting its dialogical character. Dialogue between the former oppressors and the oppressed as antagonistic classes was not possible before the revolution; it continues to be impossible afterward.”

Again, this is in the abstract, so we can’t be sure that Freire really means things like the Red Guards or the NKVD or Che Guevara and his firing squad. However, there are some clues. For instance, Freire goes on to discuss ‘stage 2′; the stage after the revolution.

“In the second stage, in which the reality of oppression has already been transformed, this pedagogy ceases to belong to the oppressed and becomes a pedagogy of all people in the process of permanent liberation. In both stages, it is always through action in depth that the culture of domination is culturally confronted.”

In a footnote, he writes that this appears to be a feature of Mao’s cultural revolution.

Now, I don’t know about you but I tend to think of the cultural revolution as being rather a bad thing. It resulted in at least one million violent deaths and probably a great deal more. However, I concede that this is easier to write with the benefit of hindsight and at the time Freire was writing, it may have seemed reasonable enough to quote Chairman Mao as Freire does. But it should give pause for thought about the rest of Freire’s points. I will repeat the Mao quotes in the book because they cut straight to the heart of much of Freire’s argument:

“You know I’ve proclaimed for a long time: we must teach the masses clearly what we have received from them confusedly.” – Mao

“Our cultural workers must serve the people with great enthusiasm and devotion, and they must link themselves with the masses, not divorce themselves from the masses. In order to do so, they must act in accordance with the needs and wishes of the masses. All work done for the masses must start from their needs and not from the desire of any individual, however well-intentioned. It often happens that objectively the masses need a certain change, but subjectively they are not yet conscious of the need, not yet willing or determined to make the change. In such cases, we should wait patiently. We should not make the change until, through our work, most of the masses have become conscious of the need and are willing and determined to carry it out. Otherwise we shall isolate ourselves from the masses. . . . There are two principles here: one is the actual needs of the masses rather than what we fancy they need, and the other is the wishes of the masses, who must make up their own minds instead of our making up their minds for them.” – Mao

Until now, I had found it odd that in attempting to impose a set of revolutionary values upon people, critical pedagogy claims to be serving the ideals of democracy. The thinking involved in such an effort is now clearer: By listening to the people and reflecting back what you have received from them you are a democrat. Certainly, touchstone figures to whom Freire refers approvingly, figures such as Che Guevara or Chairman Mao, are not democrats in the conventional sense of the word – holding elections and the like – but perhaps they are a more ‘authentic’ kind of democrat.

By now, you’re probably a little puzzled as to why this book is assigned by schools of education. And well you might be. However, the key section for educators is probably Chapter 2 where Freire outlines ‘problem-posing’ education and contrasts it with the ‘banking concept of education’ where teachers ‘deposit’ knowledge in their students. I still don’t really understand the ‘problem-posing’ model. From what I can gather, it exists mainly as an antithesis. However, we can catch glimpses: Freire talks of showing peasants photographs and asking them what they think about them. He goes to great lengths to try to explain how themes and topics should be chosen; never by the teacher but in dialogue with the students and always relevant to the direct experience of the students. However, there’s some hand-wringing here because Freire has clear objectives as to where he wants all of this to go. There is also an element of farce about these middle class teachers – ‘teacher-students’ in Freire speak – going into villages of apathetic peasants and launching investigations ‘with’ them. It’s not paternalistic at all. No, not at all. Honest. Really.

However, ‘banking’ education receives a real bashing. “In the banking concept of education,” says Freire, “knowledge is a gift bestowed by those who consider themselves knowledgeable upon those whom they consider to know nothing.” Is it? Can we not consider our students to know plenty of stuff but just not the stuff that we need to teach them? No, apparently not because, “The teacher presents himself to his students as their necessary opposite; by considering their ignorance absolute, he justifies his own existence.”

So, according to Freire, I can choose between a model of education where I negotiate topics and themes with the students in a continual dialogue, focusing on critical reflection, or I can adopt the banking model in which I assume their absolute ignorance. But are there not other options? I think there are and so Freire is presenting us with a false choice.

He goes on to list some more features of banking education:

(a) the teacher teaches and the students are taught;
(b) the teacher knows everything and the students know nothing;
(c) the teacher thinks and the students are thought about;
(d) the teacher talks and the students listen—meekly;
(e) the teacher disciplines and the students are disciplined;
(f) the teacher chooses and enforces his choice, and the students comply;
(g) the teacher acts and the students have the illusion of acting through the action of the teacher;
(h) the teacher chooses the program content, and the students (who were not consulted) adapt to it;
(i) the teacher confuses the authority of knowledge with his or her own professional authority, which she and he sets in opposition to the freedom of the students;
(j) the teacher is the Subject of the learning process, while the pupils are mere objects.

We are presented with non sequiturs here. Many of these points simply do not follow from a banking model. For instance, can the students and the teacher both not think? Can the teacher not, for instance, talk and then ask questions so that the students also talk? Do the students not act? If not, what exactly are they doing?

In my view, a teacher needs to both have and exercise authority, at an intellectual and a disciplinary level. Freire mainly talks about adult education and so maybe the latter is not as pertinent to him. However, a lack of teacher authority poses two main problems. Firstly, misconceptions will develop; concepts that have been demonstrated to be false but which are traps that people fall into e.g. that the Sun orbits the Earth. These have to be corrected from an authority and cannot be co-constructed out of students’ experiences. Secondly, the absence of teacher authority does not lead to egalitarianism. If you have ever experienced a difficult inner-city classroom you will know that whatever authority a teacher relinquishes will be taken by another; perhaps a classroom bully. This does not lead to a safe environment in which to learn.

So, Feire presents us with a false choice between a caricature – the banking model – and his own problem-posing education. Yet, it is Friere who accuses proponents of the banking model of setting up dichotomies.

“Implicit in the banking concept is the assumption of a dichotomy between human beings and the world: a person is merely in the world, not with the world or with others; the individual is spectator, not re-creator. In this view, the person is not a conscious being (corpo consciente); he or she is rather the possessor of a consciousness: an empty “mind” passively open to the reception of deposits of reality from the world outside.”

Again, I don’t see why any of this has to be the case. It is, in fact, another one of Freire’s many assertions. And this leads us to the deep irony that underlies the whole book.

In reading Freire, we are effectively absorbing a one-way communication, full of questionable assertions, from a man who thinks he is an authority. He has a world view. He communicates it in the abstract. True, he cannot make it relevant to my own situation because he does not know me. However, he struggles to make it relevant at all; only occasionally peppering his monologue with real-world contexts. Freire’s book therefore represents the quintessence of what he is opposed to.

Freire’s focus is on developing critical thinking. However, the assumption is that once so developed, everyone will see the world as Freire does. I find this extremely implausible although this kind of thinking is a common fault of revolutionaries. Why else would dissidents in totalitarian regimes so frequently be sent for ‘re-education’?

Moving from the abstract, let’s think about one of Freire’s limit-situations; the situations that keep the oppressed down but that the oppressed may overcome; the ‘untested feasibility’. What might they be? Can we even agree? Is religion, for instance, a limit-situation used by the oppressors to dominate the oppressed or is it a key freedom that the oppressed exercise in ‘becoming more fully human’? Who is to say? Maybe it is neither of these things but rather it is an irrational product of our evolution? Is alcohol a limit-situation? Or is it a right?

I want to live in a world where people are disputatious and where ideas can be discussed and challenged; a world where weak assumptions and prejudices are exposed. Such a world is an educated world, where people learn objective facts, theories, stories and what others have said before; a world in which people are free to speak, write and dispute. Learning about something is the first essential step along the road of critiquing it.

The cultural revolution is quite the wrong model to follow.


22 thoughts on “You say you want a revolution

  1. Pingback: The false choice and the heart of Freire | Filling the pail

  2. Pingback: The false choice at the heart of Freire | Filling the pail

  3. Why do we give this book or this person any credence at all in 2015? The only people I’ve met, in person in an actual teaching context, who use Freire tend to be mental midgets that need to look smart. Thanks for an excellent deconstruction of a tome that I will never pick up. TL;DR at its finest!

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  9. I do not agree that the misconception that the sun orbits the earth can only be ‘corrected from an authority’. That the earth orbits the sun can certainly be established from terrestrial observation. Indeed, so far as I understand, that is how it was done.

    • This is certainly true. But I’m not convinced that this would be the optimal way of teaching the concept. I seem to recall that, historically, this was an issue of some dispute. For instance, the Ptolemaic Earth-centred system predicted the movements of the planets better than Copernicus’s system until Kepler introduced the concept of elliptical rather than circular orbits. This could take some time to deal with.

      • Hi Greg

        I realise that this is not a recent post and so especially appreciate your taking time to reply. It seems to me that if learners’ attention is drawn to

        1) the near uniformity of the more distant stars movement across the night sky


        2) the failure of the sun to comply with the pattern of the more distant stars

        then it is highly likely to occur to them that geocentrism may not be true. Moreover, if I am right about this, then it seems to me that the learners’ resulting understanding will be very much deeper than will be the case if they are simply told that the earth orbits the sun and not the other way around. I remember being taught the names (and, more tediously still, the order) of the planets in primary school. At no point was I invited to look up at the sky. I had reached my thirties before I was aware that several of the planets the names of which I had been required to memorise in school can be seen simply by looking up at night. I gravely worry about the mindset of my teachers, who seem to have seen no value in suggesting that I do this, preferring instead to simply tell me what the syllabus told them they should tell me.

      • This is a key hypothesis that people often propose. Unfortunately, I see little evidence to support it. In an earlier post, I refer to an experiment that tested this very idea:

        A key experiment by Klahr and Nigam tested this notion directly. They taught science students about the principle of controlling variables either explicitly or through the students performing their own investigations. As you might expect, far fewer in the latter group learnt the principle. But of those who did they were no better at later evaluating science fair posters. Their understanding was not superior

      • Thanks for the links. I really enjoyed your other post, though haven’t yet had time to read about the Klahr & Nigam experiment. I’d only remark at this point that the benefits of learners carrying out their own investigations are presumably not confined only to their enhanced ability to recall the results of those investigations. On the (unobjectionable?) assumption that the abilty to carry out investigations is like other human faculties in that it is improved through exercise then a further benefit to having learners carry out their own investigations is simply that it will enhance their ability to carry out their own investigations. The ability to carry out our own investigations, rather than relying on an authority, is beneficial for two main reasons.

        1. We sometimes find ourselves in situations in which there is no authority available


        2. Authorities are not always honest (indeed, typically are not, since self-interest and bias routinely trump fidelity to truth)

        Learners who are equipped to carry out their own investigations are more independent and less gullible. I don’t have research findings to substantiate this claim but it seems to me that it relies on only one, very modest, assumption. Certainly, it is unlikely that a single episode of probem solving style learning would produce a measurable difference in this increased independence and critical judgement.

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