My next several posts will focus on Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed. I intend to take it a chapter at a time and present some of the important points from each. I don’t have much of a chance of doing this book justice, even approaching it one chapter at a time, and I strongly encourage you to read it for yourself; it’s a foundational, probably the foundational text of critical pedagogy, and much scholarly writing on education and social justice draws on the concepts it presents.
Freire’s first chapter lays out a theoretical basis for a pedagogy of the oppressed, explaining why such a pedagogy is necessary and what its aims must be. Later chapters will present the methods of this pedagogy in more detail, but this first one is dedicated largely to describing the situation of the oppressed that renders such an approach necessary. It should be acknowledged right off the bat that this is a book about pedagogy in the interest of changing the world and social order according to the needs of people, and that from this perspective education in the traditional sense means shaping people according to the desires of an oppressor class. It should also be acknowledged from the outset that Freire is writing with a particular historical context in mind, and that applications of his work should take into account that we’re not living in 1970 Brasil (and Freire himself would probably be the first person to point this out).
Freire begins the chapter by describing the dichotomy humanization/dehumanization: “Within history, in concrete, objective contexts, both humanization and dehumanization are possibilities for a person as an uncompleted being conscious of their incompletion” (43). That is, as conscious, historical beings, humans face the task of humanizing themselves and others; as Freire will demonstrate, this is the particular burden of the oppressed class, since those who do the oppressing are not able to give freedom and humanization to themselves or others. Freire comes closest to concretely defining the work of humanization when he writes:
But while both humanization and dehumanization are real alternatives, only the first is the people’s vocation. This vocation is constantly negated, yet it is affirmed by that very negation. It is thwarted by injustice, exploitation, oppression, and the violence of the oppressors: it is affirmed by the yearning of the oppressed for freedom and justice, and by their struggle to recover their lost humanity. (44)
Humanization is the struggle to be recognized as human, and the educator who would contribute to social justice must start by recognizing his students as humans. Another distinction Freire makes early in the chapter is useful here, that between true generosity and false generosity (charity):
False charity constrains the fearful and subdued, the “rejects of life,” to extend their trembling hands. True generosity lies in striving so that these hands–whether of individuals or entire peoples–need be extended less and less in supplication, so that more and more they become human hands which work, and working, transform the world. (45)
A pedagogy of the oppressed must be truly generous, and not merely charitable. The problem with charity being, of course, that it does nothing to address the situation of dependence or larger social order responsible for the inequalities it ostensibly ameliorates. See the excellent RSA Animate video with Slavoj Zizek describing the problem with charity:
One facet of this true generosity is that the educator working for freedom and humanization must work with students, with confidence in their own critical consciousness. The oppressed cannot be liberated by slogans, by propaganda passed down to them from a well-meaning elite; these forms of discourse are themselves only means of oppression. They must be partners in doing the work of liberation themselves.
Pedagogy which begins with the egoistic interests of the oppressors (an egoism cloaked in the false generosity of paternalism) and makes of the oppressed the objects of its humanitarianism, itself maintains and embodies oppression. It is an instrument of dehumanization. (54)
The educator who would serve the cause of humanization encounters a problem here, however, because the oppressed who must be his partners suffer from a kind of split-consciousness, having internalized the perspectives of the oppressors. Much of the first chapter is given to describing this split, dualistic state of the oppressed: “They are at one and the same time themselves and the oppressor whose consciousness they have internalized” (48). For this reason, the oppressed may not desire to change the social order to eliminate oppression so much as to assume the position of the oppressors themselves, since this is the image of humanity with which they have been presented: “Their ideal is to be men; but for them, to be men is to be oppressors” (45). (As a side note, I think there’s an opening for gender criticism concerned with the construction of masculinity here, and I’m sure good work has already been done on this, but I haven’t done the research to see what’s in the field; I’d welcome recommendations for reading on this topic). The function of critical pedagogy as Freire sees it is to assist the oppressed in perceiving this internalization of the oppressor’s perspective:
The central problem is this: How can the oppressed, as divided, unauthentic beings, participate in developing the pedagogy of their liberation? Only as they discover themselves to be “hosts” of the oppressor can they contribute to the midwifery of their liberating pedagogy. As long as they live in the duality in which to be is to be like, and to be like is to be like the oppressor, this contribution is impossible. The pedagogy of the oppressed is an instrument for their critical discovery that both they and their oppressors are manifestations of dehumanization. (48)
The key to perceiving and overcoming this divided consciousness, as well as the reason why liberating action must have a pedagogical character, is praxis. As Freire uses it, praxis means a combination of action and reflection that manifests the critical consciousness necessary for humanization:
One of the greatest obstacles to the achievement of liberation is that oppressive reality absorbs those within it and thereby acts to submerge human beings’ consciousness. Functionally, oppression is domesticating. To no longer be prey to its force, one must emerge from it and turn upon it. This can be done only by means of the praxis: reflection and action upon the world in order to transform it. (51)
Praxis consists of an ongoing dialectic between action and reflection, each informing the other. Reflection alone, he cautions, creates a false image of the world and changes nothing, while action alone without critical consciousness would fail to address the roots of oppression:
To surmount the situation of oppression, people must first critically recognize its causes, so that through transforming action they can create a new situation, one which makes possible the pursuit of a fuller humanity. (47)
Here again is the problem with charity, or mere activism: ostensibly liberating action that does not address the causes of dehumanization only facilitates the perpetuation of oppression. Likewise, a “liberating” education that consists of an educated elite handing down slogans and propaganda to the oppressed, and which does not engage the oppressed in the struggle for their own humanization, will fail to result in freedom or humanization:
Freedom is acquired by conquest, not by gift. It must be pursued constantly and responsibly. Freedom is not an ideal located outside of man; nor is it an idea which becomes myth. It is rather the indispensable condition for the quest for human completion. (47)
I want to linger on that last part, which says that freedom is “the indispensable condition for the quest for human completion.” In Freire’s work, freedom is not an end unto itself, but the necessary condition of possibility for the work of becoming human. This is why we can recognize the struggle for humanization in the demands of the oppressed for justice, for rights, for recognition. They demand the freedom to become human, challenging the system that treats them as a means-to-an-end for an oppressor class.
In his next chapter, Freire will outline the methods of such a pedagogy in more detail. For an attempt to put these principles into practice in an American context, I recommend Ellen Cushman’s essay “The Rhetorician as an Agent of Social Change,” which I wrote about in a previous post.