Pedagogy of the Oppressed

I’ve been reading Paulo Freire’s 1970 classic concurrently with about 10 other books, so it took a while to finish.

I think the core of Freire’s thought could be summarized in a few sentences, though forming that summary takes reading the entire book.

In a nutshell, Freire says that real communication only takes place through dialogue. In education, this means the teacher works with the students to determine what needs to be learned, rather than dictating the content, which is oppressive and constitutes a ‘banking model’ of education, where content is deposited in passive students.

Furthermore, the sole purpose of this radical, dialogical model of education is emancipation from oppression. Education, in other words, should create free beings that can help each other to be free from oppression – to become ‘subjects’ that are human and can simultaniously reflect and act on reality, rather than ‘objects’ that have been reduced to passivity or tragic oppressors that have lost their humanity by oppressing others.

Very, very Marxist, in other words. The emphasis on critical dialogue and the trashing of rhetoric (Friere calls it propaganda) reminds me of Plato, though of course he, as an Athenian aristocrat who wrote the Republic, would have no truck with this class nonsense and talk of emancipation. Friere comes off to me as sort of an inverted Gorgian Sophist, allowing individualistic political power to the masses but effecting this transformation from dialectic, rather than a no-holds-barred rhetoric.

It’s sort of a shame that all I’ve got from him in classes so far is snippets of Chapter 2, where the banking metaphor is presented. If I come to teach a practicum on composition, I think I might assign the entire book as a reading, or at least extract more highlights.

Our students, of course, are not illiterate Brazilian peasants circa the late 1960’s. But his philosophy of an education stripped of institutional authority and based chiefly on meditated dialogue and individual empowerment still feels… well, revolutionary. The entire concept of a syllabus written by the teacher before they even meet the students, for example, is utterly inconsistent with Friere.

I’ve been musing about writing a very broad piece – well, actually, I’ve been writing it – that argues that all rhetoric/communication is by nature aggressive and dialectic is an imperfect attempt to fix this state of affairs. When Friere talks about oppression, and I see that even my supposedly liberal-minded composition classes would fit under his definition of oppression then I think we might be on the same page, though I’m thinking more along the lines of rhetoric forcing a yes/no decision about the aggressor’s possession of truth rather than an automatic reaction. Friere seems to think oppression is almost impossible to resist without exposure to a dialogic education, which would put to question whether he is really engaging in a true dialogue with students, unless the mission to free people through critical thinking coming forth from dialogue is exempt from the charge of oppression (I think he’s saying it is, given careful self-policing).

Friere is apparently unfamiliar with much of Western rhetorical theory in this book. This doesn’t stop him, of course. I’ll have to read his other pedagogical books and see if he ever updates his terminology past Marx, Lenin, etc.

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