Paulo Freire: Pedagogy of the Oppressed

By Richard McCance

A seminal work in the theory of Critical Pedagogies, Paulo Freire’s “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” is essential reading for anyone interested in Critical Theory and those concerned with Social Justice, Radical Democratic Humanism and the transformation of our current social constraints.

Part 1: A Justification

In Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1968/1972) Paulo Freire offers a theory of social order as well as an approach towards new possibilities, both individually and collectively.  This approach concerns what Freire identifies as humankind’s central problem, the axiological question of what it means to be human. Freire outlines what he sees as a contradiction in humanity, that of the oppressive and dehumanizing division of society into opposing social forces. He also offers solutions for a fuller humanity and greater humanization of society through what he refers to as a praxis of critical engagement within his specific approach to pedagogy.

Towards the goal of transformation of society with regards to greater humanization, Freire makes reference to the specific context of his time and the preoccupation with the ‘what’ and ‘how’ of being human. His approach to humanization views an oppressed class of society as subjects of decision making as opposed to the objects of decisions made on their behalf. Building on this idea, Freire calls for a conscious engagement with humanizing and de-humanizing forces of society. This struggle to affirm humanity becomes what he refers to as humanity’s “ontological vocation,” our approach to the struggle against exploitation, injustice, oppression, and alienation. For Freire, these dehumanizing forces are historical facts but do not need to determine our destiny. While individually we may not readily identify with our own oppressed nature nor that of any oppressors, we all must recognize distortions in our society that dehumanize us and we must stand in solidarity with those who are oppressed. It is only through this realization and a praxis of active and critical engagement in overcoming the contradictions of divided humanity, that a new model can be created.

While the immediate goal is to overcome oppression, we must also be weary of oppressing the oppressors. The ultimate goal in this sense becomes the liberation of all, including those who oppress. We must address, for example, the fear of losing the power of oppression that many in positions of oppression may hold. However, the liberation of the oppressed can only come through the power of the oppressed themselves, as they extend true generosity to those who would oppress them. For this we must understand how the oppressed often come to identify with their oppressors, falling back into individualistic and selfish modes of behaviour. Recognizing the prescribed nature of relationship of oppressor and oppressed is important, as “every prescription represents the imposition of one man’s choice upon another, transforming the consciousness of the man prescribed to into one that conforms with the prescriber’s consciousness.” (p. 30). In this sense, the oppressed can begin to fear their own freedom, to deny their own humanity, and to lose sight of possible alternatives to our current situation.

Communion and comradery with others oppressed is necessary. Overcoming the security of conformity and alienation from solidarity is essential. The oppressed must recognize that they cannot authentically exist without freedom and so must overcome their fear in order to be more fully human, to have choices, to act, to speak, to create and to transform. It is through education that Freire sees the strength for this liberation stemming. It is this approach to pedagogy continually developed and redeveloped directly with the oppressed themselves, as opposed to for the oppressed by others, which will provide liberation and reclamation of true humanity.

How then can the oppressed as fearful, unauthentic and divided beings effectively engage in this pedagogy of their own liberation? Firstly, they must recognize that this pedagogy situates their oppression and the causes of this oppression as the object of critique and reflection. It is through this reflection that the required engagement in the struggle for liberation will become evident, as each new struggle presents itself.

Secondly, the oppressed can only be critically engaged through their identification of themselves as objects of oppression and with the realization that their identity relates to their oppressors’ dehumanizing manifestation of their oppressed selves. This critical discovery may be painful but it is essential for the humanization of all and is necessary to oppose the contradiction of a supposedly free yet divided society. As the ultimate goal is liberation for all humanity, this perception of reality must move beyond a view of fixed limitations of oppression to a viable alternative transformation of freedom for all. Indeed, the perception of reality as this viable alternative freedom must be the motivating drive for transformation.

Individuals in positions of oppression must also acknowledge their role. However, recognition does not equate to solidarity. Some element of radicalization may be necessary in order for the individual oppressor to see the oppressed not as some abstract grouping but as those who have been deprived of justice and humanity. This acknowledgement necessitates more than sentimentality. It requires love beyond individualistic acts as existential practice, objectively verifiable and transformative in the immediate situation.

Here the question of objective/subjective dichotomy must be explored. In fact, Freire argues that there is no dichotomy at all in the sense that one cannot exist without the other. In reality these two positions are in continual dialectical relationship (p. 35). The author references Marx and Engles’ work La Sagrada Famila y otros Escritos (Mexico, 1962), in terms of making “real oppression more oppressive still by adding to it the realization of oppression” (p. 37). It is only in this dialectical, subjective/objective relationship that authentic praxis is possible as it requires the oppressed subject to confront their oppressive reality in a critical and objective manner, with the goal of active transformation. False perceptions and defensive rationalizations also arise when such a critical view of reality would challenge the interests (either individually or at the class level) of the perceiver. As with Freire’s reference to Lukács (1965), the solution rests on a critical intervention in both reflection and dialogue as they relate to praxis. Through the experience of reflection and dialogue, a critical consciousness awakens as the oppressed become their own models in the struggle for redemption.

As the practice of liberation must be developed by the oppressed themselves, the issue of the lack political power needs to be addressed in terms of the role of the oppressed in developing an approach to pedagogy. A distinction here needs to be made between ‘systematic education’ which only political power can change, and an ‘educational project’ which should directly involve the oppressed in the process of its organization. It is the extension of love and generosity from the oppressed back to their oppressors on which these projects must focus. For Freire, this is not only the ultimate response to the violence of oppression but the truest expression of the character of humanity. Ensuring that those within the oppressor class accept this generosity and love as liberation from the generational and systematic structures of oppression is vital if the monopoly of oppression is to end.

Knowledge of self and the conditions which influence us, both as oppressed and as oppressors, is the beginning of such critical engagement with the contradictory social setting as is necessary to overcome the structures of oppression. It is this awakening that both recognizes and promotes further humanization. Discovery alone, however, is insufficient. Action beyond humanitarian activism is necessary as is continual reflection and struggle as a dialogical and deliberate act of transformation. This is the essence of that praxis to which Freire refers. As this praxis must be of the oppressed, not for them, revolutionary leadership of those who stand in solidarity with the oppressed must trust in the ability of the oppressed to reason. This reason, as with this struggle and this dialogue are at the heart of Freire’s approach to a humanizing pedagogy of the oppressed.

Freire, P.  Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1968/1972). New York: Herder and Herder.


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Filed under Criticism of theories, General, History of education

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