Paulo Freire: Pedagogy in the Grand Style
Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed remains an inspiring work. The banking model of education he set himself against is now being replaced by an online shopping model of education (learning as the active, personal acquisition of disposable stuff you can find online), but what really inspires in Freire’s pedagogy has as much to say about the latter as Freire himself had to say about the former.
Freire’s is pedagogy in the grand style. It is a pedagogy with a mission – one appealing to teachers who have the profoundest sense of their vocation – of their calling, not just as teachers of a single subject, but as historical agents – the sort of people who, as he describes them, want to live and work with “wretched of the earth” (as opposed to just tweeting about them) (p133). The pedagogy has nothing to say to those whose main concern is the most efficient processing of data, and the most efficient acquisition of technique, nor does it have anything to say to teachers wanting to see their students leveraging their cultural capital.
It is saddening that educational thought has narrowed so much since, narrowing itself down to little more than methodology. It is especially saddening to see methodologists claiming an affinity with Freire as if Freire himself did nothing more than advocate a student-centred model of problem-solving, active learning.
In one respect, what Freire says about inquiry-based, active learning is the weakest part of his pedagogy. He assumed that there was something revolutionary about this (an assumption shared by some of the edtech advocates of machine-assisted, software-directed learning). He assumed the whole architecture of oppression would collapse if learners were allowed to take an active role in their education. This rested on another assumption about links between oppression, the passivity of the oppressed, and the preservation of a static social order. He didn’t appreciate the extent to which society was already organising itself around the value of creative destruction, with a culture not just encouraging but demanding people become active stake-holders willing to take initiatives. Society organised itself around a religion of progress, spread through a culture of personal success, obliging every individual never to be satisfied with what they have for more than twice the time it takes to get the wrapper off; the result being the perfect alignment of the most positive personal energies with the systemic needs of an essentially negative social order.
If Freire’s pedagogy had been limited to this narrow (and mistakenly personalised) methodology, his pedagogy of the oppressed would now have to be renamed Pedagogy of the Oppressors, given that problem-solving, active learning is being used to teach all of us to enjoy becoming pro-active co-creators of an upgraded but still oppressive system. Fortunately, his pedagogy speaks forcefully against the narrow concern with methodology, and against the trend towards a lying personalisation.
Freire frames education as a historical mission. If there is any progress visible in history, it is a progress achieved through education, understood in its broadest sense. Education is not a means towards the end of progress; it is historical progress itself. If one epoch is an advance on the previous one, it is, to a great extent, because something vital has been understood, and that understanding has become a generalised feature of the prevailing culture. The whole of human history is one great learning project. History is a process of self-directed learning.
To personalise education in the manner currently in vogue is inevitably to frame education as a way of adjusting the individual to the prevailing order, helping them succeed, which in practice means helping them find a position in the prevailing division of labour which will be less miserable than many of the others.
Freire does not ignore the claims of the person. Instead, he has a far higher view of the potential of the person than the contemporary personalisers do. He has a faith in the students’ ability eventually to see beyond the narrow horizons of personal success that the current approach limits them to.
This way of framing education as a historical project raises the bar very high both for teachers and for students. In a sense, pedagogy on the grand scale described by Freire requires that teachers have a philosophy of history – a grand narrative describing, perhaps, the vicious cycle we as teachers have a historical mission to help break. The teacher as historical agent needs some understanding (however provisional) of what the historical task is.
The same applies to the students. Freire emphasised the need for humility and the need for teachers to begin from the interests and perceptions and opinions of the students, but he insists that these need to change; the students need to change as people so that they cease being pawns in the game of oppression, seeing beyond that dog-eat-dog struggle towards a sense of a historical mission. Hence, Freire’s reference to the “new man” (p56) he hoped the new education would help emerge – someone engaged by the task of ending oppression.
The online shopping model of education implies that learners getting access to the goods in the information warehouse remain fundamentally unchanged. That might be learning of a sort, but it is not education in the normative sense that Freire uses. Education is a process of personal change, not simply of access, acquisition and disposal.
Freire saw that many of the oppressed dreamed of becoming oppressors. Applying a simplistic, naive model of self-directed learning in such a case would unwittingly aid the perpetuation of oppression. Freire’s pedagogy has nothing to do with teaching methodologies designed to assist the social climbing of the disadvantaged. No, his pedagogy aims to challenge the dreams of the oppressed and to lead them, ever so humbly, to see the need to turn away from the ladder they previously wanted to climb – a ladder whose rungs are made from the limbs of those less fortunate.
It is a mistake to think that what Freire was advocating was the now popular image of the teacher as a guide at the side. The latter seems to be fitting quite nicely with a rigidly organised, top-down system of education planned mainly by software developers. Freire’s pedagogy requires the full autonomy of teachers to set the curriculum and choose content in collaboration with their students. These are teachers Freire ranks among the leaders of a revolution (p66) – and what Freire has in mind when he talks of revolution has nothing in common with the hype about a learning revolution delivered from the TED stage. There is a historical task here that the students may well be unaware of, and the teachers need to find ways of creating that awareness and of cultivating the kind of sensibility and character able to do something with it. Education is a complicated task that needs to be organised by teachers prepared to lead.
Freire came closest to putting his finger on the change teachers need to effect in students when he talked about cultural immersion (p117). His pedagogy of the oppressed could have been entitled: Pedagogy of the Submerged. The need for education on a personal level is a function of the degree to which people are immersed in the unreflective life of the world into which they have been born. Oppressive cultures have ways of perpetuating themselves. The oppressors’ very informal and massively effective pedagogy of the oppressed teaches the latter to love that which negates them. An unreflective immersion in that culture will almost inevitably mean participating in the perpetuation of it. One of Freire’s examples is the supervisors at work, promoted from the lower ranks of the labour hierarchy, who often prove to be the most oppressive. Freire’s assumption is that the best hope for our breaking out of this vicious cycle is education – an education aiming at developing a deeper, critical understanding of the world to which we belong, and the antagonisms being perpetuated.
There is a parallel here with something Pericles said in his famous funeral oration. In describing Athenian education he mentioned how young people were encouraged to reflect again and again on the glories of Athens until a deep love of the city was inculcated within them. What Freire is suggesting is that students reflect long enough, and in a sufficiently engaged way, on the antagonisms of the age and the society to which they belong so that these very political issues become matters of personal concern. The difference is that whereas Pericles was describing the absorption of individuals into the prevailing power structure, Freire is envisaging their alienation from it.
Although contemporary society is hideously alienating, the way forward is through further alienation. Mainstream education tends to leave students unreflectively immersed in their culture of alienation, encouraged to identify with an alienating (because atomising) culture of achievement and success. Such students need to be alienated from their alienation, in the humblest possible way, of course.
To reflect upon something is to objectify it, to hold it at an intellectual distance – to alienate it, in a sense (a sense that is positive). The hope is that through that intellectual distancing, students stop seeing their culture simply as a field of opportunities for personal gain, and begin seeing it as something fraught with tensions that demand we have a go at thinking through how they might be resolved – a resolution that involves looking beyond the unacceptable given towards a better order of things that is not yet.
One implication of this is that education needs to put cultural studies at the core of the curriculum (p123). As we have mentioned repeatedly, education needs to become less technical and more Delphic, recalling the injunction inscribed at Delphi to know ourselves. The young need to acquire the richest possible culture first, and then reflect more on the society to which that culture belongs, its values, the things it considers sacred, its history, its legitimation, its antagonisms, the strange intertwining of progress and regress, etc., etc. Although Freire only touches on this in passing, it is vital that students be exposed to cultures very different from the one they are familiar with, partly because this can aid a better grasp of what our culture lacks, but also because it is only through the comparison of cultures that students come to get a grasp of culture as such.
A Delphic education of the sort Freire hints at would take at its starting point the disturbing way in which the information age is also the age of maximal confusion – a confusion so painful that escapism becomes essential even for those aware of its untruth.
One of the learning experiences Freire recounts with particular enthusiasm is that of some peasants beginning to grasp how we as conscious beings construct the world we live in (p82). Although Freire doesn’t develop the idea, he implies that the revolution he is envisaging will require a much more sophisticated and generalised understanding of the phenomenon of the world and the human condition – a much better understanding of what we are as human beings, and the problems we have created through previous misunderstandings. Freire does not assume that there is a tidy theory somewhere to be transmitted to students, and his own borrowings from people like Sartre are rather unconvincing, but his main point remains valid: We need to put the interrogation of what we are and how we are living at the centre of the curriculum.
And it goes without saying that this approach to education is committed to cultivating the deepest possible concern for the fate of the “wretched of the earth”, and for everything else that implicitly or explicitly challenges the abuses we help perpetuate in our everyday lives. There is no question of teachers being obliged to remain neutral with some fake respect for the autonomy of the students to develop their own value systems. Freire’s pedagogy thankfully maintains a strong sense of truth – a truth about values, and a truth without which the concern for history collapses into either confusion and despair or into a cynical opportunism.
To sum up: If Ken Robinson’s nasty self-help pamphlets suggested that discovering your passion changes everything, Freire’s refreshingly grander pedagogy points out that what will really change things will be a rediscovery of history as our most vital concern – a concern shared by both teachers and students. The guiding question that all education needs to lead up to is: Where should that history be heading?