Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, and a Revolutionary Praxis for Education, Part II

Check out Part I of “Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, and a Revolutionary Praxis for Education”

By Kevin Gannon

Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed was a powerful, indeed revolutionary, reformulation of the very idea and purpose of schooling. It boldly and insistently criticized the functionalist, instrumental approach to education that characterized the dominant pedagogies of the era.

It was (and remains) common practice to talk about education as a set of practices which expands a student’s range of opportunities and degree of freedom. Yet, Freire and other critical reformers of the late 1960s saw this ideal honored solely in the breach when it came to state-sponsored schooling. Rather than merely the transfer of “knowledge,” which aimed to make students functional more than thoughtful, education ought to be a practice of liberation, Freire argued. Yet, for Freire, much of the pedagogical status quo was anathema to this (or any) vision of critically emancipatory education. “Education,” he argued, had become “an act of depositing, in which the students are the depositories and the teacher is the depositor. Instead of communicating, the teacher issues communiques and makes deposits which the students patiently receive, memorize, and repeat.” [1] Freire derided this approach to education, where students are merely empty vessels into which content is deposited only to be subsequently withdrawn and spent on examinations or recitations, as “the banking concept.” The problems inherent in this pedagogical schema went far beyond listless teachers and bored students; they were the very bedrock of socio-political oppression. The worldview expressed in the “banking model” was an insidious denial of the poor majority’s humanity: “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 banking concept of education regards men as adaptable, manageable beings.” The damage to learners from this approach is incalculable. Rather than see themselves as potential producers of knowledge, as participants in intellectual and creative conversations, students in the “banking model” are told they are unworthy—indeed, fundamentally incapable—of such agency. “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.”[2] Like cancer, this “fragmented,” constrained set of perceptions metastasizes until it renders students into docile, defeated adults. And thus the cycle of oppression and denial of human agency continues for another generation.

Freire’s scathing critique was not the only one in these years that indicted educational systems and practices in these terms, but its passionate condemnation based upon years of lived experience in the global south meant it possessed both the credibility and moral authority that other works lacked. But what really set Pedagogy of the Oppressed apart, and ensured it would be a profoundly influential work was its ultimate hopefulness, even in the midst of searing critique. Thus, Freire accomplished two tasks of signal importance: first, he exposed the dehumanization and denial of agency inherent in the western world’s dominant mode of schooling; and second, he offered a compelling, achievable alternative vision. For Freire, a truly revolutionary and emancipatory model of education must first involve “problem-posing,” which is “a humanist and liberating praxis” based not on didacticism but dialogue. Freire insisted that “dialogical” educational practice was the only way to ensure that students retained the agency necessary for pedagogy to be an instrument of liberation, as opposed to oppression: “banking theory and practice, as immobilizing and fixating forces, fail to acknowledge men and women as historical beings; problem-posing practice take the people’s historicity as their starting point…problem-posing education is revolutionary futurity.” [3] By recognizing that students and teachers occupied spaces on the same continuum, that people were in the process of becoming rather than having arrived at some fixed epistemological point, Freire conceived of pedagogy as a critical and dynamic process, and thus decisively repudiated the dominant educational ideologies of his day. His radical dismantling of the hierarchies inherent in the traditional approaches to pedagogy, of the static conception of knowledge assumed by consensus ideologies, was a revolutionary reconception of the very nature of humanity’s abilities and desire to learn.

Mural of Paulo Freire surrounded by books and students.
Mural of Paulo Freire at the Center for Training, Technology and Educational Research (CEFORTEPE) of the Municipal Secretary of Education of Campinas, São Paulo

This re-visioning of pedagogy, of the complex web of interactions among and between students and teachers, promised to shape far more than merely classroom transactions—a fact recognized by both adherents and critics of the Freirean approach. If schools were an essential part of what Louis Althusser called Ideological State Apparatuses, then a Freirean pedagogy meant these tools would now be deployed for far different purposes than what the dominant classes desired. Because of this, Pedagogy of the Oppressed was a fundamentally revolutionary and subversive work. In Freire’s native Brazil, the book was clandestinely published, and its dissemination was actively suppressed by the military regime. In South Africa, the book was banned by the white government because it was an important influence on black anti-apartheid activists’ program, and a lively underground circulation of smuggled translations occurred. Even in “first-world” countries like the United States, the book was a powerful influence on the emerging critical pedagogy movement, exemplified by thinkers like Henry Giroux, Ira Shor, and Michael Appel.

The historical and philosophical impact of Pedagogy of the Oppressed has been so thoroughgoing as to veer dangerously close to becoming cliché status in the hands of unskillful interpreters. A regular assignment in educational theory courses, the book often finds its way into the hands of pre-service teachers-in-training as a curious relic of “radical theory” more than an actual programmatic resource and philosophical guide. In other cases, Freire’s ideas have been, in the words of Donaldo Macedo and Freire’s widow Ana Freire, victimized by “the North American fetish for method,” reducing the ethos of Pedagogy of the Oppressed into a mere “mechanistic method.” “Paulo Freire’s work is more than a method for literacy education,” Macedo and Freire insist, “it is a broad and deep understanding of education that has its political nature at the core of its concerns.” [emphasis added] [4]. Indeed, this neutering in some education courses should not obscure how Freire’s work—Pedagogy of the Oppressed, as well as the rest of his extensive corpus—crystallized a particular revolutionary moment. Its willful disregard of what its critics saw as the essential touchstones of “western” education (there is nary a reference to Rousseau or Dewey in Pedagogy of the Oppressed) was a deliberate attempt to de-center the oppressor’s canon in favor of ideas that emanated from the oppressed. Freire’s explicit avowal of education’s inherently political nature named and embraced the ideological stakes involved in pedagogy. Freire’s insistence on the essential humanity of the student—the favela residents groaning under the sway of a military dictatorship or the rural peasants bound in peonage by hegemonic landlords—was a simple yet profoundly revolutionary stance. One simply could not recognize this humanity, this agency, and continue in the traditional pedagogical approach—for that approach was the ideological apparatus of agents of oppression.

For educators in the present-day context of a neoliberal assault on the very idea of schooling as a public good, Freire’s opus resonates even more keenly. When faux-reformers see curricula as “deliverables” and student learning as a “product,” when schools themselves are reduced to commodities like different brands of consumer goods, Freire’s repudiation of instrumentalist logic assumes a fierce new relevance. In an era where elites seem to view the basic humanity of so many of the world’s residents as a proposition open to debate, to assert the agency and worth of all of our students can be an act of revolutionary praxis for educators. Perhaps the best evidence of the revolutionary nature of Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed is in how much it still has to teach us.

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 Follow him on Twitter @thetattooedprof.


[1] Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, transl. Myra Bergman Ramos. 30th Anniversary ed. (New York: Continuum Publishing International, 2011), 72.

[2] Ibid., 72-73.

[3] Ibid., 84.

[4] Donaldo Macedo and Ana Maria Araújo Freire, “Foreword,” in Paulo Freire, Teachers as Cultural Workers: Letters to Those Who Dare Teach. Expanded ed. (Boulder, Co: Westview Press, 2005), x-xiv.

4 thoughts on “Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, and a Revolutionary Praxis for Education, Part II

  1. Thank you Kevin for bringing Freire’s insights into current dialogue. I agree, his writing is not a “curious relic of “radical theory””, it is more critical as a core focus for eduction now than ever. Learner agency should be a defining feature of modern education. Philip


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