Icon of Liberation

    Knowing Freire by Peter McLaren

Courtesy to “EDucate

“On May 2, 1997, Paulo Freire died of heart failure. His death unveiled the hidden ideology that informs the conservative corporate empirical focus that shapes the Harvard Graduate School of Education, which reasserted itself when the school concealed the seminar on liberation pedagogy. Rather than affirming Freire's ideas and allowing the seminar to continue, Freire's death suggests that the Harvard Graduate School of Education's interest in his ideas and work was purely a matter of public relations. In other words, it is acceptable to embrace Freire as an icon for one semester to legitimize the Harvard Graduate School of Education's claim of openness, diversity, and democracy, but it is not acceptable to allow his ideas to become a part of general course offerings.”

Donaldo Macedo

With a "calm semblance, long gray hair and beard, medium height, slender body, eyes the color of honey" and a "strong, compassionate, profound communicating gaze and his always expressive gestures", Paulo Freire appeared the archetypical philosopher and eminence grise of academic letters - sensitive, erudite and exuding a quaint other-worldliness. Generally considered the inaugural protagonist of what has come to be known throughout education and humanities as 'critical pedagogy', Freire was able to effectively recast on a global basis the link between education and a radical politics of historical struggles, a mission that he expanded into a lifetime project. Long before his fatal heart attack on May 2, 1997, at the Albert Einstein Hospital in Sao Paulo, Freire had acquired a mythical stature among progressive educators, social workers, and theologians - as well as scholars and researchers from numerous disciplinary traditions - for fomenting interest in and dedication to the way that education can serve as a vehicle for social and economic transformation. What is now termed as 'a politics of liberation' is a topic of pivotal significance among educational activists throughout the globe, and one to which Freire has made important and pioneering contributions...To a great extent than any other educator of this century, Freire was able to develop a pedagogy of resistance to oppression. More than this, he lived what he taught. His life is the story of courage, hardship, perseverance, and an unyielding belief in the power of love.

Freire's revolutionary pedagogical theory has influenced educational and social movements throughout the world. Freire began his literacy work in Brazil, but was forced into exile in 1964. During this time he lived in Chile (where he wrote his most important work, Pedagogy of the Oppressed), the United States, and Switzerland; he also coordinated literacy projects in Tanzania, Guinea-Bissau, Angola, Mozambique, Sao Tome and Principe. In 1980 he returned to Brazil to teach and later to serve as Secretary of Education of Sao Paulo. Freire’s conception of education as a deeply political project oriented toward the transformation of society has been crucial to emerging traditions of critical pedagogy, popular and multicultural education.

Freire's revolutionary pedagogy starts from a deep love for, and humility before poor and oppressed people, and a respect for their "common sense," which constitutes a knowledge no less important than the scientific knowledge of the professional. This humility makes possible a condition of reciprocal trust and communication between the educator, who also learns, and the student, who also teaches. Thus, education becomes a "communion" between participants in a mutually informing dialogue, rather than the unilateral action of one for the benefit of the other. Nevertheless, this does not amount to a celebration of the consciousness of the oppressed, in which the educator recedes into the background as a mere facilitator. Freire conceived of authentic teaching as enacting a clear authority, rather than being authoritarian. The teacher, in his conception, is not neutral, but intervenes in the educational situation in order to help the student to overcome those aspects of his or her world view that are paralyzing, and to learn to think critically.

Freire criticized prevailing forms of education as reducing students to the status of passive objects to be acted upon by the teacher. In this traditional form of education it is the job of the teacher to deposit in the minds of the students, considered to be empty in an absolute ignorance, the bits of information that constitute knowledge. Freire called this banking education. The goal of banking education is to immobilize the people within existing frameworks of power by conditioning them to accept that meaning and historical agency are the sole property of the oppressor. Within this system, the oppressed are characterized as marginal, pathological, and helpless. In the banking model, knowledge is taken to be a gift that is bestowed upon the student by the teacher. This false generosity on the part of the oppressor, which ostensibly aims to incorporate and improve the oppressed, is in fact a crucial means of domination.

Against the banking model, Freire proposed a dialogical problem-posing method of education. In this model, the teacher and student become co-investigators of knowledge and of the world. Instead of suggesting to students that their situation in society has been fixed by nature or reason, as the banking model does, Freire's problem-posing education invites the oppressed to explore their reality as a "problem" to be transformed. The content of this education cannot be determined in advance, through the expertise of the educator, but must instead arise from the lived reality of the students. It is not the task of the educator to provide the answer to the problems that these situations present, but to help students to achieve a form of critical thinking (or conscientization) that will make possible an awareness of society as mutable. Once they are able to see the world as a transformable limit situation, rather than an unthinkable and inescapable stasis, it becomes possible for students to imagine a new and different reality.

In order, however, to undertake this process, the oppressed must challenge their own internalization of the oppressor. The oppressed are accustomed to thinking of themselves as "less than." They have been conditioned to view as complete and human only the dominating practices of the oppressor, so that to fully become human means to simulate these practices. Against a "fear of freedom" which protects them from a cataclysmic re-organization of their being, the oppressed in dialogue engage in an existential process of dis-identifying with "the oppressor housed within." This dis-identification allows them to begin the process of imagining a new being and a new life as subjects of their own history.

The concrete basis for Freire's dialogical system of education is the culture circle, in which students and coordinator together discuss generative themes that have significance within the context of students' lives. These themes, which are related to nature, culture, work and relationships, are discovered through the cooperative research of educators and students. They express, in an open rather than propagandistic fashion, the principal contradictions that confront the students in their world. These themes are then represented in the form of codifications (usually visual representations) which are taken as the basis for dialogue within the circle. As students decode these representations, they recognize them as situations in which they themselves are involved as subjects. Learning to read the codifications in their situationality, rather than simply experiencing them, initiates the process of critical consciousness formation and makes possible the intervention by students in society. As the culture circle comes to recognize the need for print literacy, the visual codifications are accompanied by words to which they correspond. Students learn to read these words in the process of reading the aspects of the world with which they are linked.

While this system of codifications has been very successful in promoting print literacy among adult students, Freire always emphasized that it should not be approached mechanically, but rather as a process of creation and awakening of consciousness. For Freire, it is a mistake to speak of reading as solely the decoding of text. Rather, reading is a process of apprehending power and causality in society, and one’s location in it. Awareness of the historicity of social life makes it possible for students to imagine its re-creation. Literacy is thus a "self-transformation producing a stance of intervention." Literacy programs that appropriate parts of Freire's method while ignoring the essential politicization of the process of reading the world as a limit-situation to be overcome, distort and subvert the process of literacy education. For Freire, authentic education is always a "practice of freedom" rather than an alienating inculcation of skills.

Freire’s philosophy of education is not a simple method but rather an organic political consciousness. The domination of some by others must be overcome, in his view, so that the humanization of all can take place. Authoritarian forms of education, in serving to reinforce the oppressors' view of the world, and their material privilege in it, constitute an obstacle to the liberation of human beings. The means of this liberation is a praxis, or process of action and reflection, that simultaneously names reality and acts to change it. Freire criticized views that emphasized either the objective or subjective aspect of social transformation, and insisted that revolutionary change takes place precisely through the consistency of a critical commitment in both word and deed. This dialectical unity is expressed in his formulation, "To speak a true word is to transform the world."

Freire's educational project was conceived in solidarity with anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist movements throughout the world. It calls upon the more privileged educational and revolutionary leaders to commit "class suicide" and to struggle in partnership with the oppressed. Though this appeal is firmly grounded in a Marxist political analysis which calls for the reconfiguring of systems of production and distribution, Freire rejected elitist and sectarian versions of socialism in favor of a libertarian vision of revolution from "below", based on the work of autonomous popular organizations. Not only does Freire's project involve a material reorganization of society, but a cultural reorganization as well.

Given the history of European imperialism, an emancipatory education of the oppressed involves a dismantling of colonial structures and ideologies. The literacy projects he undertook in former Portuguese colonies in Africa included an emphasis on the re-affirmation of the people's indigenous cultures against their negation by the legacy of the metropolitan invaders.

The originality of Freire's thought consists in his synthesis of a number of philosophical and political traditions and his application of them to the pedagogical encounter. Thus, the Hegelian dialectic of master and slave informs his vision of liberation from authoritarian forms of education; the existentialism of Sartre and Buber make possible his description of the self-transformation of the oppressed into a space of radical intersubjectivity; the historical materialism of Marx influences his conception of the historicity of social relations; his emphasis on love as a necessary precondition of authentic education has an affinity with radical Christian theology; and the anti-imperialist revolutionism of Guevara and Fanon undergird his notion of the "oppressor housed within" as well as his commitment to a praxis of militant anti-colonialism.

Freire's pedagogy implies an important emphasis on the imagination, though this is not an aspect that has been enough emphasized in writings about him. The transformation of social conditions involves a rethinking of the world as a particular world, capable of being changed. But the reframing proposed here depends upon the power of the imagination to see outside, beyond, and against what is. More than a cognitive or emotional potential, the human imagination, in Freire's view, is capable of a radical and productive envisioning that exceeds the limits of the given. It is in this capacity that our humanity consists, and for this reason it can never be the gift of the teacher to the student. Rather, educator-student and student-educator work together to mobilize the imagination in the service of creating a vision of a new society.

Since its first enunciation, Freire's educational theory has been criticized from various quarters. Naturally, conservatives who are opposed to the political horizon of what is essentially a revolutionary project of emancipation, have been quick to condemn him as demagogic and utopian. Freire has faced critique from the left as well, however. Some Marxists have been suspicious of the Christian influences in his work, and have accused him of idealism in his view of popular consciousness. Freire has also been criticized by feminists and others for failing to take into account the radical differences between forms of oppression, as well as their complex and contradictory instantiation in subjects. It has been pointed out that Freire’s writing suffers from sexism in its language and from a patriarchal notion of revolution and subjecthood, as well as a lack of emphasis on domination based on race and ethnicity. Postmodernists have pointed to the contradiction between Freire’s sense of the historicity and contingency of social formations versus his vision of liberation as a universal human vocation.

Freire was always responsive to critique, and in his later work undertook a process of self-criticism in regard to his own sexism. He also sought to develop a more nuanced view of oppression and subjectivity as relational and discursively embedded. Freire's work continues to be indispensable for the project of conceiving a democratic and liberatory education, and the insights that it makes available will remain of tremendous value to all who are committed to the struggle against oppression and the creation of a just society.

1. Co-author, Noah De Lissovoy
2. Highlighted comments on Freire have been taken from Peter McLaren's
Guevara, Paulo Freire and

About Peter McLaren

Peter McLaren is Professor of Urban Schooling at University of California, Los Angeles. He began his teaching career in his hometown of Toronto, Canada, teaching in an inner-city school. McLaren completed his Ph.D at The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto, in 1983. In 1985 McLaren worked with Henry Giroux to create the Center for Education and Cultural Studies, at Miami University of Ohio, where he served as both Associate Director and Director. While at Miami he was awarded the title of Renowned Scholar in Residence, School of Education and Allied Professions. A Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts and Commerce, and Associate of Massey College, Professor McLaren is the author and editor of over 35 books. Professor McLaren lectures world wide and his work has been translated into 15 languages. His most recent books include Schooling as a Ritual Performance, "Critical Pedagogy and Predatory Culture", "Revolutionary Multiculturalism", and "Che Guevara, Paulo Freire, and the Pedagogy of Revolution".