Paulo Freire's Pedagogy of the Oppressed

Paulo Freire: education as the practice of freedom.

In the late sixties, the great Brazilian educator and thinker Paulo Freire, published Pedagogy of the Oppressed, one of the most insightful and compelling critiques of education in the 20th century.

Paulo Freire's education as the practice of freedom.

Similar in scope and tone to Franz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, the book is a penetrating insight into the dehumanising effects of economic, social and political conditions under capitalism. Against the ways in which traditional education reinforced the social situation of the poor in Brazil, Freire offers a rehumanising pedagogy capable of developing in them critical and transformative modes of consciousness. Pedagogy of the Oppressed argues that only a fundamental change in the teacher-student relation can free the oppressed for ‘reflection and action upon the world’ (Freire, p. 32)1 in order to change it. The book is a call to education to realise its vocation to make us more fully human in our relations with each other. 

Education as the practice of domination.

Freire’s critique is aimed at what he calls the ‘banking’ system of education, an uncritical mode of knowledge transmission ‘by those who consider themselves knowledgeable upon those whom they consider to know nothing’. Not only is this ‘a characteristic of the ideology of oppression’, it is the practice of domination which ‘negates education and knowledge as processes of inquiry’ (53). Despite the six decades that have passed since he wrote the book we can still find powerful resonances in its most famous description of the experience of ‘banking’ education: 

A careful analysis of the teacher-student relationship at any level, inside or outside the school, reveals its fundamentally narrative character. This relationship involves a narrating Subject (the teacher) and patient, listening objects (the students). The contents, whether values or empirical dimensions of reality, tend in the process of being narrated to become lifeless and petrified. Education is suffering from narration sickness.

The teacher talks about reality as if it were motionless, static, compartmentalized, and predictable. Or else he expounds on a topic completely alien to the existential experience of the students. His task is to “fill” the students with the contents of his narration— contents which are detached from reality, disconnected from the totality that engendered them and could give them significance. Words are emptied of their concreteness and become a hollow, alienated, and alienating verbosity.

Narration (with the teacher as narrator) leads the students to memorize mechanically the narrated content. Worse yet, it turns them into “containers,” into “receptacles” to be “filled” by the teacher. The more completely she fills the receptacles, the better a teacher she is. The more meekly the receptacles permit themselves to be filled, the better students they are.

Education thus becomes 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. This is the “banking” concept of education, in which the scope of action allowed to the students extends only as far as receiving, filing, and storing the deposits.

They do, it is true, have the opportunity to become collectors or cataloguers of the things they store. But in the last analysis, it is the people themselves who are filed away through the lack of creativity, transformation, and knowledge in this (at best) misguided system. For apart from inquiry, apart from the praxis, individuals cannot be truly human. Knowledge emerges only through invention and re-invention, through the restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry human beings pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other (52-53).

Paulo Freire on Teachers and Students

Freire is clear, however, that teachers are not to blame here, even if his tone is somewhat accusing, for ‘there are innumerable well-intentioned bank-clerk teachers who do not realise that they are serving only to de-humanise’ (56). Teachers and students have been conditioned by the contradictions of the social situation within which they find themselves. But those who are truly committed to changing the world, he writes, must not accept ‘the mechanistic concept of consciousness as an empty vessel to be filled, nor the use of banking methods of domination’ (60).

Education as the practice of freedom.

His alternative vision is ‘problem-posing’ education, which reconciles the contradiction between teachers and students such that each is able to learn with the other in solidarity. Problem-posing education which ‘breaks with the vertical patterns of banking education’, takes place instead through ‘dialogue’, whereby: 

‘the teacher-of-the-students and the students-of-the-teachers cease to exist and a new term emerges; teacher-student with students-teachers. The teacher is no longer merely the-one-who-teaches, but one who is himself taught in dialogue with the students, who in turn while being taught also teach. They become jointly responsible for a process in which all grow. In this process, arguments based on “authority” are no longer valid; in order to function authority must be on the side of freedom, not against it’ (61). 

What’s more, as the relation between teachers and students changes, so too do the objects of knowledge which are no longer the private property of the teacher but shared objects of reflection, whereby ‘the students – no longer docile listeners – are now critical co-investigators in dialogue with the teacher’ (62). Such a fundamental change in education is nothing less than ‘the practice of freedom’ as opposed to the ‘practice of domination’ (62) because teachers and students together are able to think reality critically and so re-create that reality ‘through common reflection and action’ (51). For Freire, changing the world through education starts here.

Rebekah Howes

  1. Freire, P. (1996) Pedagogy of the Oppressed, London: Penguin Books ↩︎