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Having survived a childhood of extreme poverty, Paulo Freire was intimately aware of the dehumanization that deprivation creates. At a young age, he vowed to dedicate his life to the “struggle against hunger,” and as an adult, he kept that vow by undertaking the education of thousands of illiterate Brazilian...

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Having survived a childhood of extreme poverty, Paulo Freire was intimately aware of the dehumanization that deprivation creates. At a young age, he vowed to dedicate his life to the “struggle against hunger,” and as an adult, he kept that vow by undertaking the education of thousands of illiterate Brazilian and Chilean peasants who were the victims of paternalism, indigence, and disenfranchisement. His views on education and the struggle for liberty are captured in Pedagogy of the Oppressed, the first of his writings to be translated and published in the United States and, therefore, the work that introduced his research and methodology to the American academic world and general public. Some critics found the work vague, redundant, and needlessly complex, however, the greatest objections were caused by its content. Some felt the work advocated revolution and others criticized the work for its liberal use of quotes and concepts from socialist and communist leaders Vladimir Lenin, Karl Marx, Mao Zedong, and others. It was obvious, however, that Freire had developed a unique educational method that worked within the parameters of his environment.

Literacy and Liberty

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During the twentieth century, South America was a region marked by political unrest and turmoil. Although a democratic election policy was in place in Brazil, the population consisted largely of peasants whose illiteracy made them legally unqualified to vote. In an effort to remedy this problem, the University of Recife in Brazil created the Cultural Extension Service, which undertook the literacy training of thousands. Freire was named the first director of this organization.

When he began the education process, Freire was appalled at the curriculum and texts that were then in use. The curriculum was structured in accordance with what he labeled the “banking system of education,” wherein the teacher speaks and the students listen, memorize, and recite. The textbooks were compiled using a sophisticated vocabulary and imbued in middle-and upper-class values. Freire felt this information would be of little use to a primarily agrarian, impoverished population. Therefore, he devised a workable system based on the milieu of the people, employing their day-to-day language and concepts and encouraging dialogue and critical thinking. He felt that true education could not be accomplished until the teacher and student realized that each simultaneously plays both roles. Additionally, he believed peasants should be empowered through the educational process, so he undertook their political, sociological, and historical training.

He was intimately aware of the “culture of silence” surrounding the peasant population of his native South America and felt that the economic, social, and political isolation of these people, as well as the paternalism of social institutions including the educational system, kept them enslaved to the status quo. Further, it was his thesis that the world is not a reality to be accepted or adjusted to but a problem to be worked out and solved. This ultimate solution was to be found through literacy training; as people discovered the written word, they would unleash their creativity.

Humanization and Freedom

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Freire posited that this process could be achieved through humanization. He held that humankind’s “vocation” was the struggle to recover its lost humanity. Humanization can be achieved only when people realize they have been subjected to dehumanization through injustice, exploitation, oppression, and violence. Furthermore, the oppressed must recover from the fear of freedom by refusing to conform to the ideas of others and thereby breaking the cycle of repression and violence. He observed that when a person is elevated from slave to overseer, the theories of the oppressor persist, and violence worsens to appease the owner. When the prevalent order has not been altered, the oppressed take on the values of the oppressor, and the cycle of violence continues.

Freedom requires autonomy and responsibility, and Freire compares liberation to childbirth in that the oppressed individual emerges as a new person. The educational model, or pedagogy, for this liberation is created in two stages: First, the oppressed sees the world as it is and commits himself or herself to its transformation; second, that vision of the world becomes shared by everyone as the old myths are expulsed and permanent liberation begins. This utopian view frees the oppressed from being objects or things with no purpose other than that prescribed for them by their oppressors. Furthermore, it eliminates public assistance systems, which were considered the pathology of an otherwise healthy society.

In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Freire calls himself a humanist who engages in the struggle rather than merely supplies gifts to ease the struggle. He asserted that one cannot support a cause while considering those involved in that cause to be totally ignorant. When people are told repeatedly that they are ignorant, they begin to accept it as true. This self-deprecation causes them to develop an emotional dependence on their oppressor or, if students, to defer to the instructor’s point of view because he or she is the one with knowledge. Freire affirmed that the avenue leading away from this route was conscientization, the introduction of critical thinking and acknowledgment of the students’ intelligence through dialogue in which the teacher and students simultaneously learn from and educate one another.


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In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Freire critiques what he labels the “banking system of education,” wherein the teacher narrates and the students listen, memorize words and concepts of little relevance to their lives, and regurgitate the information in order to excel on an examination. In this process, the student is viewed as a container, an object, to be filled by the all-knowing instructor, and Freire states emphatically that education is suffering from “narration sickness.” Bankers, he feels, are against any form of critical thinking because it jeopardizes the status quo; by considering student ignorance as absolute, teachers can justify their own existence. On the other hand, conscientization teaches transformation of the social order to allow the oppressed to become “beings for themselves” rather than to merely adapt to the prevailing order. This view was considered radical, subversive, and dangerous by many who observed Freire or read his work.

Freire believed this transformation could be achieved through dialogical education, “problem posing” carried out via conversations that constantly unveiled reality. Dialogue must include both action and reflection and requires faith, humility, hope, and critical inquiry from all involved. It creates communication, and communication creates true education. Communication could be fostered only through a common language; rather than attempting to raise the students’ language to the level of the instructors, educators must communicate in the language of the people. Freire accomplished this and the burgeoning of literacy by allowing students to learn written language through generative words, or words familiar to them and part of their everyday lives, including shanty, well, work, plow, and slum. Subsequently, these words led to themes such as housing, clothing, and health. Moving from the particular to the general allowed the peasants to create a thematic universe with interacting historical themes, to decode their world, and to communicate in ways previously unavailable to them.

Old Myths

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Pedagogy of the Oppressed concludes with a discussion of cultural revolutions, and an in-depth discussion of the oppressor. Freire deduces that society is impeded by old myths, such as humanity is free, jobs are available if one seeks them, entrepreneurism is always possible, all people are equal, and the elite are inherently good because of their charitable contributions. Further, he insists that these myths must be replaced by a new order before humanity can be fully liberated.

Oppressors, according to Freire, have their own set of myths that encode as behaviors. The most prevalent myth is messianism, wherein they see themselves as saviors of the people, which logically leads to paternalism. Others include the belief that it is best to force others to adapt to the status quo, which engenders cultural invasion, and the practice of dividing and ruling, which translates into manipulation.

Education and the Route to Freedom

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Many of Freire’s ideas, as expressed in Pedagogy of the Oppressed, were utopian although some were socialistic. Whatever his political viewpoint, Freire serves as a universal model for the ability to use education to forward liberty, and he must be credited for fearlessly taking on the system to offer freedom to the oppressed of the Third World. In 1964, Freire’s beliefs were considered a threat to the political regime in Brazil, and he was imprisoned, stripped of his citizenship, and exiled. A man of passionate optimism in spite of adverse circumstances, he successfully continued his work in Chile and later imported his methods to the United States, Europe, Asia, and Africa.

Freire believed that although education is the true route to freedom, antiquated systems often reinforce the old order and become a major source of oppression. He believed that the memorization and recitation mode of learning was passé and needed to be replaced. Subsequent educational research supported Freire’s idea that students learn more completely through discussion, projects, and hands-on activity than through memorization. In this respect, Freire resembles educators such as John Dewey, Ivan Illich, and Socrates, who were considered radical in their time, and his efforts with literary training and consciousness-raising can be compared to movements for equality for African Americans, women, and the poor in the United States.

Freire’s theory of eduation must be given high marks for its student-centered emphasis. Students cannot learn what they do not understand, and they cannot communicate in a language that is unfamiliar to them. Arguments similar to Freire’s surfaced in the battle over ebonics and multilingual education that erupted in the 1980’s and 1990’s. An educator who consistently speaks “over the heads” of students may discover that he or she is not communicating because the students tend to stop listening to what they cannot comprehend. Freire’s implicit assumption that the prevailing order must ultimately be changed to create lasting freedom is generally considered valid. Freire did not believe in integrating minority cultures or groups into the majority but in creating a society in which all cultures, value systems, and people were held in equal regard. In this lies the crux of his humanism and also, perhaps, his lasting value as a philosopher.


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Additional Reading

Collins, Denis. Paulo Freire: His Life, Works, and Thought. New York: Paulist Press, 1997. This book, written by a Jesuit educator, provides biographical information and an overview of Freire’s educational and sociological theories.

Elias, John L. Conscientization and Deschooling. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1976. The work compares and contrasts the educational and theological theories of Paulo Freire and Ivan Illich. It contains some biographical information and illustrates the effect religion had on Freire’s educational philosophy and content. An extensive bibliography for both Freire and Illich is included.

Elias, John L. Paulo Freire: Pedagogue of Liberation. Malabar, Fla.: Kreiger Press, 1994. The text analyzes the historical background of Freire’s work and the concepts included in his theories of education. It also examines the influences on his work, from existentialism to Catholic theology to Marxism, and explores the impact of Vladimir Lenin, Karl Marx, Mao Zedong, and others on his beliefs.

Horton, Myles, and Paulo Freire. We Make the Road by Walking: Conversations on Education and Social Change. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990. One of two works that Freire created in collaboration, the book is written in interview format and features a dialogue that compares Freire’s teaching methods to liberal educational programs in the United States and elsewhere.

MacLaren, Peter, and Peter Leonard. Paulo Freire: A Critical Encounter. London: Routledge Press, 1993. A collection of essays by imminent scholars and educators reflecting their assessments of Freire’s life, theories, and methods.

Shor, Ira. Freire for the Classroom: A Sourcebook for Liberatory Teaching. Portsmouth, N.H.: Boynton/Cook, 1987. Designed for use by educators, the book demonstrates various ways in which Freire’s pedagogical approaches can be adapted to a variety of classrooms. Noneducators will find the work understandable.

Shor, Ira, and Paulo Freire. A Pedagogy for Liberation: Dialogues on Transforming Education. South Hadley, Mass.: Bergin and Garvey, 1987. This work, written in interview format, contains a definition of the dialogical method employed by Freire, discussion of the fears and risks associated with transformation, and a design for overcoming language difficulties with students. The focus of the work is on classroom activities and makes this work of particular interest to educators.

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