Pedagogy of the Oppressed: Part I

It has been quite some time since I’ve written in this venue, and quite a lot has happened in the interval. Not least, the renewal of public debate over race and racism in the aftermath of many more unjust deaths of Black people in the United States.

I am glad that my history department at UC Riverside has created a forum for faculty, students, and staff to discuss race and racism in our department culture and curriculum. There is a lot of work to be done, but it has to start somewhere.

I recently purchased two books that I am reading in earnest: Paolo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed and bell hooks’ Teaching to Transgress. Taking Freire’s classic as my starting point, I hope to learn more about how to transform my own pedagogy. I am somewhat embarrassed to admit that I have not yet read Freire’s book until now, especially considering that I was the University Teaching Certificate Coordinator at UCR this past academic year. There is no better time than now. Below I write my basic reflections on the first two chapter’s I’ve read so far–my apologies for my mistimed urgency, especially since I am reading the 50th anniversary edition (the introduction by Donaldo Macedo is excellent)!

Chapter One first lays out the dichotomy between oppressors and the oppressed. In both groups, dehumanization has already occurred. In the latter because their humanity has been taken through violence; in the former because they have been led astray by a warped sense of humanity, one that has become materialized, itemized, objectified, and more importantly, has become the measure by which oppressors hold down the oppressed and deprive them of their own humanity. The oppressed have been domesticated into accepting the unquestioned superiority of the oppressors. Freire describes this worldview through the lens of materialism, and Marxism clearly shines through the work (especially when thinking of the process of liberation in phases). For Freire, oppression occurs through class distinctions (as opposed to racial or gendered ones), but one cannot help reflecting on these other categories when reading Pedagogy of the Oppressed. One of the most important aspects of the Pedagogy of the Oppressed is that the oppressed must liberate themselves–a stark warning to people of the oppressor class who seek to liberate the oppressed while speaking for them, “educating” them, and otherwise attempting to re-purpose the mechanisms of oppression for so-called liberation. The goal of the pedagogy of the oppressed is to aim for a praxis of liberation, one that is fundamentally dialogical with the oppressed so that they can liberate themselves.

Chapter Two dives specifically into the educational system that many will be familiar with, even if they have not recognized it as such. Freire characterizes traditional education as a “banking” system–teachers, instructors, and pedagogues act as the only fonts of knowledge and make deposits into the empty receptacles that are students. What he calls the “narration sickness” of education is the traditional method of lecturing. Not only are students in this system passive, but they are also perceived as incapable of actual learning and not worthy of trust. A remedy to this is “problem-posing education.” Practitioners of the Socratic Method will find some resonances here. In this system, the hierarchical distinction between teacher and student breaks down so that both parties can equally share in the creation and presentation of knowledge. It strives to remove the ego that instructors tend to have when “teaching.” What I liked most about this chapter was the emphasis on learners–they must play an active role in their own education and cannot simply be expected to regurgitate what the instructor says or believes, which ultimately reinforces the position of the oppressor.  It requires learners to reflect on their own prior knowledge and their position within their objective and subjective realities. To engage in the praxis of liberation, students/learners “must perceive their state not as fated and unalterable, but merely as limiting–and therefore challenging… Any situation in which some individuals prevent others from engaging in the process of inquiry is one of violence” (85).

I constantly think about how higher education can grapple with these ideas. Can higher education as we know it truly enact a pedagogy of the oppressed? I am not very optimistic.

Traditionally as an arm of oppressors, the institution of higher education, indeed most formalized education, has been at some point or another been used to reinforce white dominance and Eurocentrism. For so long, education in the United States has been concerned with “civics” and creating “good citizens,” which Freire would view as either the empowered oppressors and domesticated oppressed.

In my reading of pedagogical literature over the past year and a half, which has admittedly been mostly white authors, I get the sense that we as instructors can employ some of the methods espoused by Freire. Problem-based learning is en vogue, as is the general move toward active learning and shying away from traditional lectures. I think many allies of the oppressed would like to think of themselves as creating an environment for the liberation of their students, but I don’t think any one instructor, or even an army of them, could see this liberation through. That’s why system problems are so hard to tackle–it really does take a body in which the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. K-12 educational curriculum is fraught for many reasons, and by the time students enter higher education, many have already been domesticated. College then becomes a re-education of sorts, a deconstruction and (hopefully) a reformation. University curricula are also part of the problem that reinforces the status of the oppressors, namely the capitalist ones as Freire’s class-centered articulation would have it, but often also the male, white, cis-gendered, able-bodied, neuro-normative ones.

Again, none of Pedagogy of the Oppressed is new–in fact, Freire has published over a dozen books related to and expanding upon this theme. I hope to write some reflections on the rest of the book and others when I have time. I feel it is important to see contemporary events through the lens of important works such as this.

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