Issue 56 (June 2014) saw Tara O’Sullivan discussing a revolutionary approach to education and social change.
In 1845, as he was working out a way of seeing things which would revolutionise the world, Karl Marx noted that some materialists see people as utterly dictated by their education and circumstances, a view which forgets “that circumstances are changed by people and that the educator must himself be educated”. At the end of the day, education, education, education is at the heart of what socialists seek to do. This is not just a question of what goes on in school classrooms —crucial as that is—but how people learn to understand and shape their world, and how socialist ideas get presented and accepted. The idea that the way knowledge is shared is at the heart of social change, and that social change is at the heart of the way knowledge is shared, formed the foundation for the work of Paulo Freire.
Freire was born in Brazil in 1921 into a comfortable middle-class family. But the economic depression of the following decade took a toll on his family’s fortunes and, although they later recovered their position, the uncertainty of this period may well have helped to shape Freire’s outlook. He became a teacher, eventually working on literacy programmes among the country’s poor. They were so successful that he was forced into exile when a military clique seized control of the country, but he continued his work in Chile. He published Pedagogy of the Oppressed in 1968, expounding the philosophy behind his educational practice.
He characterises the conventional model of education bitterly:
This relationship involves a narrating Subject (the teacher) and patient, listening objects (the students).… Education thus becomes an act of depositing, in which the students are the depositors and the teacher is the depositor. Instead of communicating, the teacher issues communiqués and ‘makes deposits’ which the students patiently receive, memorize and repeat. This is the ‘banking’ concept of education…
While lip service is nowadays officially paid to a more mutual interaction between teacher and students, this is more appearance than reality. Even banks themselves have replaced the officious managers of old with a supposedly more customer-friendly open door, while still playing the same role in perpetuating inequality. Likewise, education is still premised on lodging information in students’ heads to be regurgitated as required for the sake of exams, points, qualifications. Even with the best will on the part of teachers, the imperative to allocate people to roles in the capitalist economy ultimately shapes how they are taught.
Real education works very differently, insists Freire:
Knowledge emerges only through invention and re-invention, through the restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry men pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other.… Liberating education consists in acts of cognition, not transferrals of information. …there are neither utter ignoramuses nor perfect sages; there are only men who are attempting, together, to learn more than they now know.
(The book constantly refers to the thoughts and actions of “men”, with women not getting a look in. While this terminological failure could be partly put down to the over-gendered language of the times, Freire’s failure to even mention the specific nature of how women experience the world is a more fundamental one.)
As against ‘banking’ education, which takes for granted the world as it is, “problem-posing education involves a constant unveiling of reality… not as a static reality, but as a reality in process, in transformation”. The educator’s “efforts must coincide with those of the students to engage in critical thinking”, meaning that “both are simultaneously teachers and students”.
the problem-posing educator constantly re-forms his reflections in the reflection of the students. The students—no longer docile listeners—are now critical co-investigators in dialogue with the teacher. The teacher presents the material to the students for their consideration, and re-examines his earlier considerations as the students express their own. …the organized, systematized, and developed ‘re-presentation’ to individuals of the things about which they want to know more.
Such education is unapologetically revolutionary, challenging the existing order of things and working towards a different, human society. Struggle for such social transformation is needed for emancipatory education to work, but the critical thinking entailed in such education is just as necessary to achieve that transformation:
It is only when the oppressed find the oppressor out and become involved in the organized struggle for their liberation that they begin to believe in themselves. This discovery cannot be purely intellectual but must involve action; nor can it be limited to mere activism, but must include serious reflection… it would be a false premise to believe that activism (which is not true action) is the road to revolution. Men will be truly critical if they live the plenitude of the praxis, that is, if their action encompasses a critical reflection…
“Freedom is acquired by conquest, not by gift.” The humanitarian approach to education essentially reproduces the ‘banking’ concept. While it is concerned with the well-being of the poor, and often sincerely, it still sees itself holding the keys to knowledge, allowing the oppressed judicious doses of cut-and-dried facts to be learned. Even if the avowed aim is to help them live better lives, “not even the best-intentioned leadership can bestow independence as a gift”.
Here and throughout the book, Freire is not just discussing the activity of educationalists as such, but of all who aim to bring people a greater awareness of the world. The lines between classroom education and the political education of a revolutionary movement aiming to change consciousness and the world are deliberately blurred —or rather, their basic identity is affirmed, “the eminently pedagogical character of the revolution”.
So there is no room for the notion that a liberating pedagogy is something to be introduced ‘after the revolution’. First of all, this conception of revolution as a single point in time is mistaken: “the taking of power is only one moment—no matter how decisive—in the revolutionary process… there is no absolute ‘before’ or ‘after’, with the taking of power as the dividing line”. To postpone education based on dialogue and problem posing to an indefinite future means sticking with ‘banking’ education for the present. Even if the information to be deposited within passive learners is revolutionary in intent, this approach inherently contradicts the revolution:
they cannot use the methods of banking education in the pursuit of liberation, as they would only negate that pursuit itself. Nor may a revolutionary society inherit these methods from an oppressor society.… In the revolutionary process, the leaders cannot utilize the banking method as an interim measure, justified on grounds of expediency, with the intention of later behaving in a genuinely revolutionary fashion. They must be revolutionary—that is to say, dialogical—from the outset.
Revolutionary education is a means as well as an end, a method of bringing about change as well as its result. The same goes for the way revolutionaries organise: “organization only corresponds to its nature and objective if in itself it constitutes the practice of freedom”. Indeed, critical and creative dialogue through every phase “is one of the most effective instruments for keeping the revolution from becoming institutionalized and stratified in a counter-revolutionary bureaucracy”.
However, “for the Leftist sectarian, ‘tomorrow’ is decreed beforehand, is inexorably pre-ordained”. He treats people “as objects which must be saved from a burning building” rather than as subjects of the revolutionary process. He “feels alarm at each step they take, each doubt they express, and each suggestion they offer”, considering himself “the proprietor of revolutionary wisdom—which must then be given to (or imposed upon) the people” by “monologue, slogans and communiqués”.
As against that, “Scientific revolutionary humanism cannot, in the name of revolution, treat the oppressed as objects to be analysed and (based on that analysis) presented with prescriptions for behaviour… cannot designate its leaders as its thinkers and the oppressed as mere doers”. Their objective is
not to ‘win the people over’ to their side. Such a phrase does not belong in the vocabulary of revolutionary leaders, but in that of the oppressor. The revolutionary’s role is to liberate, and be liberated, with the people—not to win them over.
From the word go, revolutionaries must learn while they teach: they
do not go to the people in order to bring them a message of ‘salvation’, but in order to come to know through dialogue with them both their objective situation and their awareness of that situation… Although they may legitimately recognize themselves as having, due to their revolutionary consciousness, a level of revolutionary knowledge different from the level of empirical knowledge held by the people, they cannot impose themselves and their knowledge on the people. They cannot sloganize the people, but must enter into dialogue with them, so that the people’s empirical knowledge of reality, nourished by the leaders’ critical knowledge, gradually becomes transformed into knowledge of the causes of reality.
But this does not mean stopping short at the views currently held by the people: “Neither invasion by the leaders of the people’s world view not mere adaptation by the leaders to the (often naïve) aspirations of the people is acceptable.” Freire gives the example of a grassroots demand for wage increases. It would be wrong to limit political action to such a demand, but equally wrong to “overrule this popular demand” in favour of immediate abolition of the wages system. A synthesis is needed which supports the demand while posing it as just one aspect of a wider problem whose solution necessarily goes far further than higher wages.
There are flaws in Freire’s analysis. He speaks of dialogue between “leaders” and “the people” throughout. “Usually this leadership group is made up of men who in one way or another have belonged to the social strata of the dominators”, he writes. Although he constantly stresses that they can’t be true revolutionaries until they leave behind them all traces of their old class outlook towards the poor, these leaders are an external force who “go to the people”. The vagueness, and even ambiguity, of an undifferentiated “people” is problematic, ignoring very important class distinctions and their political implications. But above all, there is no understanding that revolutionary consciousness can emerge from within the oppressed themselves, that in struggle they can bring forth their own leaders. In fact, Freire concludes that the people cannot work out their own salvation unaided: “Only in the encounter of the people with the revolutionary leaders—in their communion, in their praxis—can this theory be built.”
This is largely due to the influence of the Cuban and Chinese revolutions, whose politics are often uncritically referenced by Freire. His mistake lies in not going far enough in his insistence that liberation can only come from the people themselves. Just as teachers and students merge into one in his educational model, leaders and workers must merge into one in revolution, their functions becoming complementary and undivided aspects of a unified praxis. But it is entirely in the spirit of Freire’s own revolutionary pedagogy that we should question and hope to deepen his ideas, in the hope of better fitting them for the work of human liberation which inspired him.