You might be asking yourself why I decided to review a book that is more than 50 years old. Pedagogy of the Oppressed, by Brazilian author Paulo Freire, is a classic in educational literature, but I have an ulterior motive for writing this review. At E3D News we are writing about education because we want to understand how kids learn and to discover the best way to educate them. That is what this book attempts to do. I read The Pedagogy of the Oppressed in college and recently I am seeing it referenced all over, including in an article on EdSurge and in a rant by screenwriter David Bowles on Twitter where he points out little we still understand classroom pedagogy.
I decided to review it because it speaks so much to what we are trying to do here at E3D News, to understand why there are cracks forming in our educational system and we are trying to help everyone think about the best ways to change education. Because changes are coming.
First published in Portuguese in 1968, Pedagogy of the Oppressed was published in English in 1970. Luckily, because it is an older book, we can offer a link to the full text online.
Paulo Freire originally was studying to be a lawyer in 1940’s Brazil but got sidetracked into education. At that time in Brazil, literacy was a requirement for voting in presidential elections, which was an effective barrier to lower classes achieving political power. But in 1946, Freire was appointed director of the Pernambuco Department of Education and Culture and he began a program to teach the poor to read. His program was very successful, but it was seen as threatening by the government because it could destabilize the power structure, so Freire was imprisoned, then expelled from Brazil and later from Chile because of the ideas he was espousing. This led him to write Pedagogy of the Oppressed, which is a combination of his philosophical, political, and educational theories.
These ideas are still debated and are seen as revolutionary even today, especially within the minds of the hard right that supported the recently ousted Bolsonaro. This book was even banned in the Tucson School District in Arizona in 2012.
While oppressive regimes called Freire’s ideas radical, some modern leftists find him too soft and idealistic. The key with Freire is that he tries to point out that the oppressors and the oppressed must work together. This is broadly against the modern leftist ethos, and it is easy to see why. Oppressors can come to the table with more knowledge and understanding of systems, so even when billionaires start charities they consciously or subconsciously ensure that their own power is never threatened (see Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World by Anand Giridharadas).
But history has a lot of evidence of “oppressors” joining with the oppressed to change the system. Lenin was born as a member of the upper class, the Founding Fathers were wealthy (and slave owning) landowners, and Zhou Enlai proudly identified himself as a “class traitor” for helping to start the PRC. These revolutions don’t bring in every member of the “oppressors”, but they bring in some. And in the end, almost everyone benefits, including members of the “oppressor” class. Mad Men may make the 1960’s look glamorous, but I suspect even the white men in 2023 are happier than white men were then.
While it may be a little “soft”, it is also beautiful that Freire dreams of an educational system which views students as humans who deserve compassion and empowerment and love. Anyone who teaches children can relate.
This book should be required reading for middle and high school teachers. In a world where “CRT” is under attack for the possibility that it will make white students feel uncomfortable, a book that shows how all people are harmed by the system we live in, shows the importance of learning the darker truths of American history.
One of Freire’s core theories is his so-called “banking model of education”. The banking model is very closely linked with oppression because it dehumanizes the student, encouraging them to accept what is thrust upon them and assume it is correct. Trained to be passive listeners, students taught this way will never learn to think for themselves.
To identify the banking model of education Freire lists these signs:
- The teacher teaches and the students are taught;
- The teacher knows everything and the students know nothing;
- The teacher thinks and the students are thought about;
- The teacher talks and the students listen – meekly;
- The teacher disciplines and the students are disciplined;
- The teacher chooses and enforces the choice, and the students comply;
- The teacher acts and the students have the illusion of acting, through the action of the teacher;
- The teacher chooses the program content, and the students (who were not consulted) adapt to it;
- The teacher confuses the authority of knowledge with his or her own professional authority, which he or she sets in opposition to the freedom of the students;
- The teacher is the subject of the learning process, while the pupils are mere objects
This lack of freedom highlights the difference between the banking model of education and oppression. Freire urges the adoption of a “problem-posing model” which encourages a discussion between teacher and student. It fades the line between the two as everyone learns alongside each other, creating equality and the lack of oppression.
In the US, teachers are forced to spend so much time on standardized testing and coaching kids to value education only for grades and future job prospects. We forget to use learning as a tool for improving the world and uplifting marginalized voices. The best way to reach students and make them excited about learning is to ask questions and find out what interests them.
This book was one of the first that introduced me to the concept of student led learning and, after having children of my own go through our present educational system, I realized that no child is getting a fair shake, even those getting A’s. All learners deserve respect and learning should be a two-way street, but our present system, as outlined in this book, visualizes students’ empty minds which teachers fill with knowledge. That, of course, could not be further from the truth. Teachers don’t know everything even about the subjects they are teaching and students are not empty vessels to be filled. In today’s world we are so locked down into our own ideas that the simple concept of finding answers through communication and that students might already have some of the answers, can be revolutionary.
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