Pedagogy of the Oppressor

For those of you puzzled about the abysmal state of education in America today, the explanation lies, as it always ultimately lies, in the philosophical ideas guiding the practice.

Read, if you will, this article by Sol Stern of City Magazine, which explains why the mainstream teaching establishment regards the indoctrination of politically correct social attitudes to be paramount, whereas instruction in reading, writing, arithmetic, science, history, civics is regarded as pernicious.

Some quotes from the article:

… When I met with a group of the fellows taking a required class at a school of education last summer, we began by discussing education reform, but the conversation soon took a turn, with many recounting one horror story after another from their rocky first year: chaotic classrooms, indifferent administrators, veteran teachers who rarely offered a helping hand. You might expect the required readings for these struggling rookies to contain good practical tips on classroom management, say, or sensible advice on teaching reading to disadvantaged students. Instead, the one book that the fellows had to read in full was Pedagogy of the Oppressed, by the Brazilian educator Paulo Freire.

For anyone familiar with American schools of education, the choice wasn’t surprising. Since the publication of the English edition in 1970, Pedagogy of the Oppressed has achieved near-iconic status in America’s teacher-training programs. In 2003, David Steiner and Susan Rozen published a study examining the curricula of 16 schools of education—14 of them among the top-ranked institutions in the country, according to U.S. News and World Report—and found that Pedagogy of the Oppressed was one of the most frequently assigned texts in their philosophy of education courses. These course assignments are undoubtedly part of the reason that, according to the publisher, almost 1 million copies have sold, a remarkable number for a book in the education field.

The odd thing is that Freire’s magnum opus isn’t, in the end, about education—certainly not the education of children. Pedagogy of the Oppressed mentions none of the issues that troubled education reformers throughout the twentieth century: testing, standards, curriculum, the role of parents, how to organize schools, what subjects should be taught in various grades, how best to train teachers, the most effective way of teaching disadvantaged students. This ed-school bestseller is, instead, a utopian political tract calling for the overthrow of capitalist hegemony and the creation of classless societies. Teachers who adopt its pernicious ideas risk harming their students—and ironically, their most disadvantaged students will suffer the most.

To get an idea of the book’s priorities, take a look at its footnotes. Freire isn’t interested in the Western tradition’s leading education thinkers—not Rousseau, not Piaget, not John Dewey, not Horace Mann, not Maria Montessori. He cites a rather different set of figures: Marx, Lenin, Mao, Che Guevara, and Fidel Castro, as well as the radical intellectuals Frantz Fanon, Régis Debray, Herbert Marcuse, Jean-Paul Sartre, Louis Althusser, and Georg Lukács. And no wonder, since Freire’s main idea is that the central contradiction of every society is between the “oppressors” and the “oppressed” and that revolution should resolve their conflict. The “oppressed” are, moreover, destined to develop a “pedagogy” that leads them to their own liberation. Here, in a key passage, is how Freire explains this emancipatory project:

The pedagogy of the oppressed [is] a pedagogy which must be forged with, not for, the oppressed (whether individuals or peoples) in the incessant struggle to regain their humanity. This pedagogy makes oppression and its causes objects of reflection by the oppressed, and from that reflection will come their necessary engagement in the struggle for their liberation. And in the struggle this pedagogy will be made and remade.


In one footnote, however, Freire does mention a society that has actually realized the “permanent liberation” he seeks: it “appears to be the fundamental aspect of Mao’s Cultural Revolution.” The millions of Chinese of all classes who suffered and died under the revolution’s brutal oppression might have disagreed. Freire also offers professorial advice to revolutionary leaders, who “must perceive the revolution, because of its creative and liberating nature, as an act of love.” Freire’s exemplar of this revolutionary love in action is none other than that poster child of 1960s armed rebellion, Che Guevara, who recognized that “the true revolutionary is guided by strong feelings of love.” Freire neglects to mention that Che was one of the most brutal enforcers of the Cuban Revolution, responsible for the execution of hundreds of political opponents.


In 1964, a military coup struck Brazil. Freire spent some time in jail and was then exiled to Chile, where—inspired by his work with the Brazilian peasants—he worked on Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Hence the book’s insistence that schooling is never a neutral process and that it always has a dynamic political purpose. And hence, too, one of the few truly pedagogical points in the book: its opposition to taxing students with any actual academic content, which Freire derides as “official knowledge” that serves to rationalize inequality within capitalist society. One of Freire’s most widely quoted metaphors dismisses teacher-directed instruction as a misguided “banking concept,” in which “the scope of action allowed to the students extends only as far as receiving, filing and storing the deposits.” Freire proposes instead that teachers partner with their coequals, the students, in a “dialogic” and “problem-solving” process until the roles of teacher and student merge into “teacher-students” and “student-teachers.”

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