The first book on my fall 2012 reading plan, Perspectives on the Edge, was Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paolo Freire. This book appears on the reading lists of many American education programs, as detailed by Steiner and Rozen in a 2003 book chapter. The problem is not what Freire wrote. His work differs little from other left-wing revolutionaries. It sounds tempting, the intermixing of freedom of authority, but has this terrible practical result of revolutionaries becoming the new oppressors. Luxuries and power seduce most. For instance, Freire looks fondly upon Cuba.
The problem arises when academics see the word Pedagogy and decide that Freire’s ideas apply to K-12 education in 2012 America. They do not. Sol Stern of the Kapitalist Fundamentalist Manhattan Institute provides one critique. Mine differs, because I don’t believe that markets can solve all problems. Instead, I want to talk about Freire’s experience. He wrote in the late 1960s based on his life in Brazil. Back then, roughly 40% of Brazilian adults were illiterate. Even though Brazil now has mandatory voting, with some enforcement, back then Brazilian illiterates could not vote. Reading and writing literally meant power. He worked with adults, trying to ensure what almost all Americans today – even the Kapitalists – would call a right. We might also recall that many US states had literacy examinations, including this 1958 Georgia version. Southern states enacted alternative methods for white illiterates; not until 1965 did the Voting Rights Act eliminate the tests.
Strongest evidence of change appears on page 39 of the 20th anniversary edition. Freire writes that the oppressed “did not eat, had no clothes or shoes, neither studied nor traveled, much less listened to Beethoven.” I can’t listen to Beethoven right now. Since I don’t own any Beethoven recordings, instead I’m listening to Bach. Am I oppressed? Joking aside, almost all Americans meet those standards. That’s a wonderful development. Brazil has also markedly improved, with the sixth largest world economy, though their adult illiteracy rate remains 10%. The remaining illiterates can vote now, by the way.
Freire also had a very different political situation. In 1964, Brazil’s generals had deposed a popular socialist President. The USA supported the generals, including sending an aircraft carrier just in case they needed one. The generals put him into jail for 70 days. Rather sensibly, he left the country. He didn’t come back for 15 years. The military dictatorship continued for 5 more, until 1985. I see his perspective. I see its origin. I understand that. There is no large scale American citizen situation remotely like Paulo Freire. To claim otherwise, that schools resemble 1960s Brazil, insults his actions and the Brazilians during that era. Under Freire’s standard, we Americans are almost all oppressors.
Academics point to criticism about the banking concept of education, such as pages 53-54. “In the banking concept of education, knowledge is a gift bestowed by those who consider themselves knowledgeable upon those who they consider to know nothing.” Interestingly, sometimes peasants in educational projects defer to the teacher. Freire considers them trapped in the current system. Instead, praxis of reflection and action must prevail. People must become Subjects, co-investigators, not Objects. They become owners of their own labor (p. 164). Dialogue replaces Domination. “Only through communication can human life hold meaning.” (p. 58) Instead of banking, education proceeds through problem posing.
Freire had two advantages that do not appear in much of education: verbal ability and intrinsic motivation. Adults speak better than six year olds, just from development. It would be very challenging to implement this approach with young children. On the other side, young children generally like school. Older pupils frequently do not. Mandatory schooling makes students Objects, having structure imposed. That’s not Freirean revolution.
I can see why guiding fully engaged learners into social change appeals to academics. It sounds exciting and rewarding. Perhaps those people in comfortable, well-paid jobs with permanent employment could move to developing places, where those conditions exist. It’s certainly not true in Cambridge or Athens Georgia or Madison.