Last Updated September 28, 2023.
The Pedagogy of the Oppressed, written by Brazilian educator Paulo Freire, was first published in Spanish in 1968. An English translation followed in 1970 and its Portuguese counterpart in 1972. Drawing from his extensive experience as an adult educator for urban and rural peasants in Chile, Freire imagines a critical pedagogy (method of teaching) in which teachers and students engage in a dialogical partnership with the explicit aim of humanization and liberation. With more than 750,000 copies sold worldwide, the book is considered foundational in the field of educational studies.
In the preface, Freire introduces the concept of conscientização, a critical consciousness aimed at taking action against oppressive social, political, and economic structures. In his experiences of trying to cultivate conscientização as an adult educator, he frequently encountered the “fear of freedom” from training course participants. This fear led participants to believe victims of oppression should remain unaware of their unfair conditions. However, Freire maintains that the pedagogy of the oppressed is for true radicals—those who recognize that the world can be unveiled and transformed through praxis (by being into action rather than held as theory).
In chapter one, Freire defines the pedagogy of the oppressed: It is the people’s vocation to become more fully human. Thwarted by dehumanizing forces such as oppression, exploitation, and violence, this task of humanization liberates and restores the humanity of the oppressed. Freire outlines obstacles to this liberation, the most prominent of which is the “ambiguity” or “duality” of the oppressed. Having internalized the very social values that infringe on their humanity, the oppressed house a “sub-oppressor” within themselves.
This sub-oppressor inspires behavior unproductive to the cause of the oppressed, such as aspiring to become the oppressor, striking out against their fellow oppressed (“horizontal” violence), and holding a fixed, fatalistic view of the world. The pedagogy of the oppressed, therefore, must inspire teachers and students (or revolutionary leadership and the people) to unveil oppressive structures and, in doing so, reveal the hollowness of sub-oppressive ideas. But this effort requires constant dialogue—and must inspire not just thought but also action.
Freire contrasts types of education in chapter two, comparing “banking” education with “problem-posing” education—the latter of which is characteristic of the pedagogy of the oppressed. The banking method treats students as mere receptacles to be filled with information and content, while problem-posing education is concerned with cultivating a critical consciousness. Through banking, education becomes a process of domination that reduces students to passive spectators of the world. In contrast, problem-posing education inspires creativity and reflection, challenging students to regard the world as full of possibility. But this is achieved through consistent dialogue, in which both teachers and students co-investigate reality. One of the most important aspects of problem-posing education is that all parties are simultaneously teachers and students.
Continuing with the concept of problem-posing education, chapter three dives into its essential characteristic—dialogue. Authentic dialogue names and transforms the world requires love, humility, faith, hope, and critical thinking. It must also include both reflection and action—the elements constituting praxis. In dialogical education, the teacher does not impose a predetermined itinerary; rather, they work in partnership with students to develop a syllabus that addresses people’s present situation. This begins with an investigation of their “generative themes,” the prominent values, hopes, and doubts of a specific time. Themes range from broad to specific. Indeed, Freire, speaking of the twentieth century, asserts that its fundamental theme is domination; therefore, the opposite theme of liberation must be achieved.
Chapter four analyzes the various anti-dialogical tools the oppressor wields to establish and maintain their status as the...
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dominant class. It also addresses those dialogical counterparts that are essential to the pedagogy of the oppressed and, by extension, the revolutionary process. Conquest—the primary characteristic of oppressive anti-dialogical action—is carried out through the tools of divide and rule, manipulation, and cultural invasion. By mythicizing reality, isolating the oppressed from one another, and institutionalizing models of oppression, the oppressor class can impose their self-interests on the oppressed and make them their possessions. In contrast, the true revolutionary process must be carried out through dialogical action such as cooperation, unity for liberation, organization, and cultural synthesis. Humanist educators and revolutionary leadership must always bear in mind that the oppressor’s tools and tactics can never be used for an authentic liberation of the people.