Pedagogy of the Oppressed

In 1968, the Brazilian Paulo Freire wrote the book Pedagogy of the Oppressed.  Within a few years, this book became the subject discussion by educators, students, policy makers, administrators, academics and community activists all over the world.  It was translated into many languages.  Although it was banned in a number of countries, there seemed always a way for the book to circulate clandestinely.  

What is it about Pedagogy of the Oppressed that aroused so much heated discussion and that caused it to be banned by governments.  First of all, this book is a critique of a certain educational method (known as the 'banking' method, which Paulo Freire acknowledged that he himself had previously unreflexively engaged in.  From Chapter 2 of Pedagogy of the Oppressed:

A careful analysis of the teacher-student relationship at any level, inside or outside the school, reveals its fundamentally narrative character. This relationship involves a narrating Subject (the teacher) and patient listening objects (the students). The contents, whether values or empirical dimensions of reality, tend in the process of being narrated to become lifeless and petrified. Education is suffering from narration sickness.

The teacher talks about reality as if it were motionless, static, compartmentalized, and predictable. Or else he expounds on a topic completely alien to the existential experience of the students. His task is to "fill" the students with the contents of his narration -- contents which are detached from reality, disconnected from the totality that engendered them and could give them significance. Words are emptied of their concreteness and become a hollow, alienated, and alienating verbosity.

The outstanding characteristic of this narrative education, then, is the sonority of words, not their transforming power. "Four times four is sixteen; the capital of Para is Belem." The student records, memorizes, and repeats these phrases without perceiving what four times four really means, or realizing the true significance of "capital" in the affirmation "the capital of Para is Belem," that is, what Belem means for Para and what Para means for Brazil.

Narration (with the teacher as narrator) leads the students to memorize mechanically the narrated account. Worse yet, it turns them into "containers," into "receptacles" to be "filled" by the teachers. The more completely she fills the receptacles, the better a teachers 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 communiqués and makes deposits which the students patiently receive, memorize, and repeat. This is the "banking' concept of education, in which the scope of action allowed to the students extends only as far as receiving, filing, and storing the deposits. They do, it is true, have the opportunity to become collectors or cataloguers of the things they store. But in the last analysis, it is the people themselves who are filed away through the lack of creativity, transformation, and knowledge in this (at best) misguided system. For apart from inquiry, apart from the praxis, individuals cannot be truly human. Knowledge emerges only through invention and re-invention, through the restless, impatient continuing, hopeful inquiry human beings pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other.

In the banking concept of education, knowledge is a gift bestowed by those who consider themselves knowledgeable upon those whom they consider to know nothing. Projecting an absolute ignorance onto others, a characteristic of the ideology of oppression, negates education and knowledge as processes of inquiry. The teacher presents himself to his students as their necessary opposite; by considering their ignorance absolute, he justifies his own existence. The students, alienated like the slave in the Hegelian dialectic, accept their ignorance as justifying the teachers existence -- but unlike the slave, they never discover that they educate the teacher.

The raison d'être of libertarian education, on the other hand, lies in its drive towards reconciliation. Education must begin with the solution of the teacher-student contradiction, by reconciling the poles of the contradiction so that both are simultaneously teachers and students.

This solution is not (nor can it be) found in the banking concept. On the contrary, banking education maintains and even stimulates the contradiction through the following attitudes and practices, which mirror oppressive society as a whole:

It is not surprising that the banking concept of education regards men as adaptable, manageable beings. The more students work at storing the deposits entrusted to them, the less they develop the critical consciousness which would result from their intervention in the world as transformers of that world. The more completely they accept the passive role imposed on them, the more they tend simply to adapt to the world as it is and to the fragmented view of reality deposited in them.

The capability of banking education to minimize or annul the student's creative power and to stimulate their credulity serves the interests of the oppressors, who care neither to have the world revealed nor to see it transformed. The oppressors use their "humanitarianism" to preserve a profitable situation. Thus they react almost instinctively against any experiment in education which stimulates the critical faculties and is not content with a partial view of reality always seeks out the ties which link one point to another and one problem to another.

Indeed, the interests of the oppressors lie in "changing the consciousness of the oppressed, not the situation which oppresses them," (1) for the more the oppressed can be led to adapt to that situation, the more easily they can be dominated. To achieve this the oppressors use the banking concept of education in conjunction with a paternalistic social action apparatus, within which the oppressed receive the euphemistic title of "welfare recipients." They are treated as individual cases, as marginal persons who deviate from the general configuration of a "good, organized and just" society. The oppressed are regarded as the pathology of the healthy society which must therefore adjust these "incompetent and lazy" folk to its own patterns by changing their mentality. These marginals need to be "integrated," "incorporated" into the healthy society that they have "forsaken."

What is to be done then?  Freire points to a Marxist idea, which is in fact free of any so-called communist or socialist values.  According to Marx, the motor force of history is not located with any supra-human agency, be it "Providence" or the "Objective Spirit."  Men make their own history.  In this follow-up book Pedagogy of the Heart, Paulo Freire wrote: "It is necessary that the weakness of the powerless is transformed into a force capable of announcing justice.  For this to happen, a total denouncement of fatalism is necessary.  We are transformative beings and not beings for accommodation."

We will now look at some survey data from the TGI Brasil study.  This is a survey of 10,624 persons between the ages of 12 to 64 years old interviewed during 2002 in the major metropoiltan areas of Brazil (Brasilia, Belo Horizonte, Curitiba, Fortaleza, Porto Alegre, Recife, Rio de Janeiro, Salvador, Sao Paulo as well as other smaller cities in Sao Paulo state and the south/southeast region.  The respondents are presented with the statement "There is little that I can do to change my life" and 13.9% of them said that they completely agree with it.  Another 19.4% said that they 'somewhat agreed' with it.

In the next chart, we show the incidences by age/sex groups.  The sense of helplessness is expected to be different according to the life stage.  When one is young, there is still the possibility of pursuing a completely different course of life.  For an elderly person, there are fewer degrees of freedom and less flexibility.

(Source: TGI Brasil)

In the next chart, we show the incidences in the nine major Brazilian cities.  There is a geographical logic underlying the distribution, with higher incidences in the poorer northeastern cities (Fortaleza, Salvador and Recife) and lower incidences in the richer southeastern cities (Belo Horizonte and Curitiba) and the capital (Brasilia).  Traditionally, commerce and industry are concentrated in the southeast, which became a magnet for migrants with lesser economic opportunities elsewhere.  In the northeast, the economic opportunities seem to revolve heavily around agriculture, mining and forestry, which are unfortunately tangled up with land rights.  As the article Landless, Jobless, But Not Hopeless: A Report From Brazil suggest, these problems are not necessarily intractable but it is necessary to start off with a sense of hope. 

(Source: TGI Brasil)

Paulo Freire's Pedagogy Of The Oppressed is about an educational method, so it behooves us to show learned helplessness by educational level.  In the next chart, we show the incidences by socio-economic level (which includes education as one of its components) and by educational level.  In both cases, the incidences increase as we move down the socio-economic/educational scale.

(Source: TGI Brasil)

One of the goals of institutionalized education is to convey a sense of its self-importance.  Those who have graduated from the system are presumed to have acquired valuable intellectual assets that qualify them for advanced positions and responsibilities.  Conversely , those who failed to move through the system are presumed to be unqualified, whether because they lack innate intelligence or they were never able to acquire those assets.  Such psychological perceptions are critical to the perpetuation of the existing system.  But this is not to say that an education is a total make-believe sham.  The smartest student will be the one who can recognize the system for what it is and play the system to his/her maximum advantage.  That is the most important lesson of institutionalized education.


(posted by Roland Soong on 04/01/2003)

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