Paulo Freire’s classic on the nature of oppression throughout society

Empowering Weak & Oppressed

Zawahir Siddique

Safar 11, 1425 2004-04-01

Book Review

by Zawahir Siddique (Book Review, Crescent International Vol. 33, No. 2, Safar, 1425)

Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire (30th anniversary edition). Pub: Continuum International, New York, 2003. Pp: 183. Pbk: $15.95.

Oppression has been a reality in human relations since Cain and Abel took against each other. In the modern world the tools of oppression come in marketable packages: democracy, globalization and peace are just a few in the ‘free trade market’. Terms such as "smart bombs", "ethnic cleansing" and "collateral damage" are being floated as euphemisms to replace the realities described by the phrases "genocide", "cultural invasion" and "oppression", for instance.

Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed gives us an opportunity to gain access to critical discourses that enable their readers to deconstruct the colonial and hegemonic paradigms of oppression. This book offers hope for those committed to imagining and making a world that is more beautiful, less discriminatory, more autonomous and less dependent, more democratic, less dehumanizing and more humane, than the one we have now.

Inspired by a combination of his education and his experiences in combating illiteracy in Latin American countries, Paulo Freire, a Brazilian intellectual and educator, wrote this book three decades ago while he was a visiting professor at Harvard. This work provides a theoretical framework for education that criticises traditional educational models as models that reinforce existing socio-economic power-structures. It also offers an alternative model that enables oppressed citizens to gain more control over their lives. Despite its focus mainly on transformative education in developing nations, the principles and methodology in this work are invaluable contributions to the field of constructive education in any society.

Pedagogy of the Oppressed is comprised of four chapters. The work is a carefully crafted set of principles that are at times hierarchically organised and presented, but more often resemble an organic whole composed of interrelated concepts of equal importance. The first chapter establishes the nature of the dichotomous distinction between the "oppressors" and the "oppressed" in society. Essentially oppressors are those who deny the personal and collective autonomy of others by imposing a worldview onto the oppressed that denies them (the oppressed) the power and opportunity to direct their own lives and affairs. By convincing the general public (the oppressed) that their circumstances are unalterable except by the intervention of a ruling class, the oppressors stifle any possibility of action by the oppressed that runs counter to this paradigm. This serves the oppressors’ interests by maintaining and perpetuating the status quo. Throughout this book Freire draws a parallel between an individual and the grammatical subject or object of a sentence; the powerless learner is likened to an "object" being acted upon, in contrast to the empowered learner who is a "subject" who can act upon the world (or at any rate upon that part of it which constitutes his physical, social, intellectual and emotional environment). One grows from being an object to becoming a subject by a process that gives legitimacy to the knowledge of all people, and to their ability to use that existing knowledge to define the world and their place and role in it.

The first chapter is a justification for a pedagogy of the oppressed, defining and explaining the constant contradiction between the oppressed and the oppressor or oppressors. Freedom is acquired by conquest, not by gift. It is not an ideal located outside of man; nor is it an idea that becomes a myth. It is rather the indispensable condition for the quest for human completion. The author puts it emphatically: "Liberation is thus childbirth, and a painful one. The man or woman who emerges is a new person, viable only as the oppressor-oppressed contradiction is superseded by the humanization of all people." That is the great humanistic and historical task facing the oppressed: to liberate themselves and their oppressors. As the oppressed, fighting to be human, take away the oppressors’ power to dominate and suppress, they restore to the oppressors the humanity they lost in the exercise of oppression. However, Freire is careful to warn the oppressed of the peril of their becoming oppressors themselves as they assume the burden and responsibility of power.

In the second chapter Freire argues in favour of "problem-posing education" (in which students and teachers interact with each other and engage in a process of transformation), and calls for the abolition of "banking education" (in which the students merely receive, memorize and repeat their teachers’ deposits). Paulo Freire’s vigorous and invigorating critique of the dominant "banking model of education" leads to his proposals for a "problem-posing model of education", in which "men and women develop their power to perceive critically the way they exist in the world with which and in which they find themselves; they come to see the world not as a static reality but as a reality in the process of transformation." Freire insists that the "banking education", which serves the interests of oppression, is "necrophilic". "While banking education anesthetizes and inhibits creative power, problem-posing education involves a constant unveiling of reality. The former attempts to maintain the submersion of consciousness; the latter strives for the emergence of consciousness and intervention in reality."

In the third chapter Freire discusses the reconstruction of the human being by the processes of conscientisation and dialogue. To humanise the world, Freire suggests the notion of dialogue, and that it is only through dialogue that both the oppressed and the oppressors can rediscover their humanity and the world. Dialogue ought to be based on the principles of equality, humility, hope and mutual respect, and it poses the dialectical potential of creating and re-creating new realities. Dialogue cannot exist, argues the author, in the absence of a profound love for the world and for the people. "Love is at the same time the foundation of dialogue and dialogue itself." No matter where the oppressed are found, the act of love is the commitment to the cause of liberation. This commitment, stresses Freire, motivated by love, is "dialogical". As an act of bravery, love cannot be sentimental; as an act of freedom, it must not serve as a pretext for manipulation. The author emphasises the fact that only by abolishing the situation of oppression is it truly possible to restore the love that that situation made impossible.

In the fourth and last chapter, the theories of cultural action that develop from dialogical and anti-dialogical matrices are analysed: the former as an instrument of oppression and the latter as an instrument of liberation. Various dogmatic and deterministic cultural trends of oppressing societies are highlighted, and the role of the oppressor in creating such circumstances is unveiled. Freire examines the nature of anti-dialogical processes and their outcomes: conquest, divide and rule, manipulation and cultural invasion. He also proposes the fruits of dialogical interaction among people that can lead to liberation: cooperation, unity, organization and cultural synthesis.

In this masterpiece, Freire teaches the world and its people what it means to be an intellectual who fights against the temptation to become a populist intellectual. He explores the avenues of a profound commitment to fight social injustices in the struggle to recapture the dignity that is being stolen from humanity on a daily basis. Pedagogy of the Oppressed has its roots in Paulo Freire’s own lived experiences and observations. The experience of hunger as a child in a middle class family, and his involvement with the peasant class, all led him inevitably and invariably to reject utterly a class-based society.

Three decades after the first publication of Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Freire’s message of liberation and social transformation remains relevant; indeed is more relevant than ever. Translated into many languages, and having sold more than seven hundred thousand copies worldwide, Pedagogy of the Oppressed continues to be read, debated and discussed all over the world by progressive educators and others who want to try to embrace Freire’s radical pedagogy. Freire’s conception of a highly politicised education, the unification of action and analysis, the centrality of dialogue in the process of learning, and the significance of critical awareness in social transformation, all continues to guide and challenge progressive educators all over the world. The only peril for readers, if any, in Freire’s work is the Marxist orientation of his thoughts. Freire argues consistently that a thorough understanding of oppression must always take a detour through some form of class analysis. Although some strands of postmodernism would dismiss Freire’s detailed class analysis in Pedagogy of the Oppressed, it would be an enormous mistake, as well as academic dishonesty, to pretend that we now live in a classless world.

For Muslims in the Islamic movement, this book is potentially very useful for the insights it offers into how the modern and secular world imposes its dictat largely without its victims being properly aware of what is happening to them and to their environment, or how. Nor is Freire’s analysis of power-abuse and powerlessness irrelevant to other arenas, such as the family (both extended and nuclear), and the societies that are comprised of families that are distinct and yet alike enough for their cumulative tyranny to be rather more than the sum of its parts.

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