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Classic book: Pedagogy of the Oppressed

Nadim Mirshak looks back at Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1968), by Paulo Freire

February 1, 2016
5 min read

pedagogyOriginally published in Portuguese in 1968 and in English in 1970, Pedagogy of the Oppressed is considered a foundational text of the critical pedagogy movement. Reviewing it as a ‘classic’ does not solely originate from its continuing influence over educationalists and activists alike, but also from its lasting relevance to questions surrounding revolutionary social change and liberation from oppression. Authored by Paulo Freire, whose experiences with poverty made him take a vow to dedicate his life to the service of the poor, Pedagogy of the Oppressed encourages us to rethink our views about education, revolution and liberation.  

Considered as a ‘threat to the established order’ due to his illiteracy eradication work with poor peasants, Freire was forced to flee Brazil shortly after the military coup of 1964. Nonetheless, through organising and working on illiteracy eradication projects in Chile, Freire was able to gather his educational ideas into books, one of which eventually became the Pedagogy of the Oppressed. I read it for the first time shortly after the January 2011 uprising in Egypt. For me, as an Egyptian living through such a turbulent experience, Freire’s arguments about critical education being a political (and a liberation) act in itself could not have resonated more.

The book is divided into four chapters. The first is concerned with justifying the need for a pedagogy of the oppressed, in which Freire argues that we should not view liberation as a gift bestowed upon us, but rather as a mutual process that involves the ‘revolutionaries’ and the oppressed working with each other. This liberation thus depends on a pedagogy that is developed with the people themselves, and not for them. Furthermore, working towards liberation requires the oppressed to stop fearing their freedom and their oppressors, while in order to ‘regain their humanity’, they must not turn into their own oppressors once they take power.  

In the second chapter, Freire distinguishes between ‘banking’ education and ‘problem-posing’ or ‘dialogical’ education. Banking education views students as mere vessels that are to be ‘filled in’ (like bank accounts) with facts and concepts that do not bear much resemblance to their everyday experiences. Freire argues that such education should be considered as an instrument of oppression that helps the oppressed to adapt to the status quo and hence to existing inequalities, rather than inciting them to resist and change it. In short, it reaffirms the people’s fatalistic acceptance of their reality and encourages a hierarchy between those who ‘know’ and those who do not.  

To challenge this, revolutionaries must encourage a ‘problem-posing’ education that acknowledges that people are constantly in a process of developing themselves and making their own history. By taking people’s everyday experiences and their own views of the world as its starting point, problem-posing education aims to help the oppressed ‘unveil’ and critically examine their oppressive conditions. This process of unveiling encourages people to become capable of perceiving the contradictions and inequalities in their social, economic and political lives, and accordingly take action against such inequalities. It is through the mutual dialogue, respect and trust between the oppressed and the revolutionaries that such education could bear the hopes of potential liberation: ‘They talk about the people, but they do not trust them; and trusting the people is the indispensable precondition for revolutionary change. A real humanist can be identified more by his trust in the people . . . than by a thousand actions . . . without that trust.’ 

The third chapter, arguably the most methodological of the four, contains recollections of Freire’s experiences working with illiterate peasants and the methods of problem-posing education. Freire emphasises the need for ‘revolutionary’ leaders to engage in dialogue with the oppressed, and to approach them in ways that correspond to their views of the world (and by using their language). Furthermore, critical thinking should not be something imposed on others; rather it should be built on people’s own independent educational pursuits.  

The final chapter mainly reiterates Freire’s main arguments. Additionally it differentiates between what he describes as ‘anti-dialogical’ and ‘dialogical’ actions. The former constitutes actions that deny people’s humanity and liberation, while the latter consists of actions encouraging the cooperation, unity, and organisation of the people.

An extremely readable book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed is unlikely to lose its influence and relevance anytime soon. Freire’s enticement for us to view revolution and education as ‘acts of love, solidarity and mutual respect’ is a well-needed reminder (especially under the current political circumstances in the Middle East and elsewhere) of what revolution and liberation should be about.

Through my own research speaking to educationalists and activists in Egypt, there is an almost overwhelming agreement about the importance of Freire and his insights for the current ‘transition’. However, whether his ideas could be adopted properly under the current circumstances is something we will have to wait and hope for.

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