Paulo Freire: Teacher of the Oppressed

Paulo Freire, Brazilian educator

Paulo Freire, Brazilian educator (Public Domain)

In the second book of his famous treatise on education, Rousseau says that “if children understood reason they would not need education.” Paulo Freire might have added that if people were properly educated, none would be oppressed.

For Brazil’s revolutionary educator — born on this day in 1921 — self-liberation was the main goal of education. By having educators learn with their students instead of teaching them, Freire hoped his pedagogy of the oppressed — also the title of his own 1968 thesis on education — would allow students to develop the tools to think critically about their positions in time and space and actively throw off the oppression which kept them from living full human lives.

A son of Recife, in the politically and economically neglected Northeast Region of Brazil, Freire once reflected on his inability to focus on his education in the midst of such poverty and despair:

I wanted very much to study, but I couldn’t, as our economic condition didn’t allow me to. I tried to read or pay attention in the classroom, but I didn’t understand anything because of my hunger. I wasn’t dumb. It wasn’t lack of interest. My social condition didn’t allow me to have an education.

After receiving a law degree from the University of Recife, Freire went on to become the educational and cultural director in his home state, and later the director of cultural extension at his alma mater and a visiting professor at Harvard — all the while developing and implementing the concept of endowing the oppressed with the kind of critical thinking that will allow them to liberate themselves.

Like Rousseau, Dewey and other theorists before him, Freire rejected the traditional view of pedagogy as the process of simply filling a blank slate (the child’s mind) and instead sought to present education as an active relationship between the teacher and the student, the student and history, and the student and the world. Education should be as social as it is personal.

Borrowing from Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, he also looked to place pedagogy in the context of the historical oppression especially ubiquitous in Latin America. Freire distrusted the ability of a system controlled by the oppressor to properly educate the oppressed masses, writing that “the oppressors, who oppress, exploit, and rape by virtue of their power, cannot find in this power the strength to liberate either the oppressed or themselves. … How can the oppressed, as divided unauthentic beings, participate in the pedagogy of their liberation?”

Elsewhere in the text Freire writes:

No pedagogy which is truly liberating can remain distant from the oppressed by treating them as unfortunates and by presenting for their emulation models from among the oppressors. The oppressed must be their own example in the struggle for their redemption.

The pedagogy of the oppressed, animated by authentic, humanist (not humanitarian) generosity, presents itself as a pedagogy of humankind. Pedagogy which begins with the egoistic interests of the oppressors (an egoism cloaked in the false generosity of paternalism) and makes the oppressed the objects of its humanitarianism, itself maintains and embodies oppression. It is an instrument of dehumanization. This is why … the pedagogy of the oppressed cannot be developed or practiced by the oppressors. It would be a contradiction in terms if the oppressors not only defended but actually implemented a liberating education.

Paulo Freire died in São Paulo in 1997 at the age of 75.

Remembering Freire — and practicing new, liberating ways of thinking — is how we celebrate our heritage.

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