By Kevin Gannon
Educational theory and practice has always been a contested terrain, even if many of the practitioners in these fields deny that controversies bubble beneath their work’s placid surface. In the mid-twentieth-century United States, much of the pedagogical approach and institutional structure of secondary and higher education was shaped by Cold War culture, by the imperatives of consensus ideology, and its emphasis on a pragmatic and utilitarian approach to educational outcomes. Much of the curriculum in which students and teachers operate today is a legacy of this era, perhaps best exemplified by the standard Western Civilization survey that is the bedrock of many a college history department’s course offerings. The demands of US political culture profoundly shaped (and indeed continue to shape) education and educational policy. White resistance to integration and the maintenance of white supremacy, an overweening emphasis on STEM education in the escalating arms and space races with the Soviet Union, and a culture of schooling that privileges conformity and corporatist ideals all combined to create an educational environment driven by the imperatives of “workforce development.” What passed for educational theory in the years prior to the late 1960s was a set of practically-oriented prescriptions for specific classroom techniques drawing upon the Pragmatist thought of earlier educational thinkers like John Dewey. Derided by later critics as “instrumental reasoning,” this pedagogical program embraced discrete, measurable outcomes and a mission of social conditioning—“preparation” for its subjects to enter the so-called “real world” of neoliberal capitalist work, with all the internalization of imperatives and norms that came with it.
This “consensus culture” of schooling came under significant fire, along with so much of the orthodox establishment in the US, during the socio-political upheavals of the 1960s. The “rights revolutions” of this period combined with the slowly, but significantly increasing diversity of the college student population to produce a notable ferment in educational thought and practice. As was the case with other movements, an international conversation both stimulated and shaped the emergence of a strand of educational thought possessing truly revolutionary implications. A resurgence of interest in Critical Theory of the Frankfurt School stripe, prompted by the soaring popularity of the New Left’s intellectual bard, Herbert Marcuse, found an amenable complement in the anti-colonial, Marxist-humanist discourse emanating from several areas of the Global South. These intellectual strains merged into an exhilaratingly radical discourse in areas of Latin America that combined elements of Frantz Fanon’s excoriation of Euro-American colonialism and calls for indigenous resistance, a humanistic interpretation of Marx’s theory of class struggle, radical Christianity and Liberation Theology, and Antonio Gramsci’s perceptive analyses of authoritarian political projects. Standing at the confluence of these strands of thought was a Brazilian educator whose ideological lenses were ground by teaching literacy to impoverished residents of the favelas in northeastern Brazil, and his subsequent work with educating groups of peasants while exiled in Chile. What emerged from this set of experiences was a fiercely ideological and political tract that had a seismic effect on not only the theory and practice of education, but on the larger debates about subaltern peoples and revolutionary praxis.
Paulo Freire was university-educated and trained as a lawyer, but he never went into legal practice. Instead, he became a secondary school teacher in the Brazilian state of Pernambuco, where he taught Portuguese, an avocation which resonated with some of his undergraduate work in the philosophy of language. In 1946, Freire became director of the Department of Education and Culture, a position within the social services division of Pernambuco’s government. Here, he worked with mostly poor and illiterate clients. Literacy was a requirement for the franchise in Brazilian politics, hence Freire’s work necessarily involved political education and empowerment for some of the most marginalized peoples in Brazilian society. While conducting this literacy education work, Freire developed the foundations of what would become his revolutionary approaches to pedagogy and the philosophy of education. In 1961, Freire had the opportunity to expand and refine these approaches when he took a position as the head of extension services at Recife University. Now possessed of the wherewithal to apply his theoretical approach and disseminate the results, Freire implemented literacy education in one of the most impoverished and disadvantaged communities in the region: sugarcane workers. Based upon a model he called “cultural circles,” Freire implemented a dialogue-based, democratic pedagogy that dismantled much of the power imbalance inherent in the traditional model of schooling. The results were stunning: the first cohort of Freire’s cultural circles project achieved functional literacy in under two months. Freire now had data to vindicate his theoretical hunches, and he received funding to expand his cultural circles. But the trajectory of Freire’s work was abruptly and violently altered three years later, when a military coup put Brazil under the administration of an authoritarian regime that was ill-disposed towards his literacy work and the politically active peasantry it spawned. Freire was jailed for nearly three months, and subsequently forced into exile. He spent the next five years in Chile, pursuing similar literacy work among the rural peasantry, and then spent a year at Harvard University. He would also reside in Geneva, and serve as an educational advisor in several African states that had once been Portuguese colonies, before returning to Brazil in 1980, as that nation’s government had undertaken a gradual process of liberalization beginning in the mid-1970s.
It was during his tenure at Harvard that Freire’s most enduring text, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, on which he’d been working for years, was published. Ironically, the book would not be published in his native Brazil until 1974, and even then its dissemination was somewhat clandestine due to the repressive political environment and the regime’s characterization of Freire as a Marxist subversive. Pedagogy of the Oppressed made no bones about its Marxist influences; any text that both unpacked unequal power dynamics and championed subaltern agency as it did could not help but draw upon Marxist discourse. Freire did not hesitate to ascribe agency to the dispossessed peoples who stood at the center of his pedagogical manifesto. This meant he waded into the troubled dynamics of education and agency, tackling a perennially thorny issue for critical theorists: how and why the lower classes buy into systems of oppression that so clearly disadvantage them. The orthodox Marxist answer to this question was to point to “false consciousness,” the idea that capitalism’s hegemony was so complete as to dupe the masses into subscribing to its moral imperatives. For Freire, however, this denial of subordinate people’s agency rankled. Pedagogy of the Oppressed turned to Frankfurt School critical theory to explain how those who occupied the lowest rungs of the socioeconomic ladder did not cede their own agency, but rather had it ripped from them. Citing Erich Fromm’s concept of necrophilic behavior, Freire argued that systemic oppression led inexorably to life-denying behavior on the part of its objects. Significantly, he illustrated this point by quoting a peasant he had interviewed in his literacy work: “The peasant is a dependent; he can’t say what he wants,” the interviewee observed about himself and his comrades. “Before he discovers his dependence, he suffers,” and as a result, everyone around him also suffers. The only way out of this dilemma, Freire believed, was an intentionally participatory liberation. Dialogue, not monologues or empty sloganeering, offered the only chance for the oppressed to become truly free, which for Freire meant to enter fully into their vocation as humans. In a trenchant (and prescient) passage, Freire argued that “attempting to liberate the oppressed without their effective participation in the act of liberation is to treat them as objects…to lead them into the populist pitfall and transform them into masses which can be manipulated.”  For Freire, agency was the sine qua non for any practice aiming at liberation. Without it, the structures of inequality enveloping the peasants and slum-dwellers with whom Freire worked would simply reproduce themselves ad infinitum, fastening the bonds of oppression even tighter and closing the door on liberation. Like Louis Althusser (who was writing his own famous study of ideology around this same time), Freire saw education in general, and schools in particular, as key sites of ideological struggle. 
Pedagogy of the Oppressed was his attempt to develop a pedagogy that could leverage this crucial ideological location to allow teachers and students to collectively fashion a set of tools with which they could break the cycle of capitalist and imperialist oppression that bore so heavily upon them. In the second part of this essay, we’ll look at Pedagogy of the Oppressed and its global impact to see how successful this attempt of Freire’s was.
Kevin M. Gannon is Director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning and Professor of History at Grand View University. His current book projects are A Continental History of the Civil War Era and Radical Hope: A Teaching Manifesto. He blogs at thetattooedprof.com. Follow him on Twitter @thetattooedprof.
 Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, transl. Myra Bergman Ramos. 30th Anniversary ed. (New York: Continuum Publishing International, 2011), 65.
 Louis Althusser, “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (Notes towards an Investigation),” in “Lenin and Philosophy”, and Other Essays (London: New Left Books, 1977). According to Althusser, this essay was written in 1969-70.