Reviews of Paulo Freire's Books

This website, dedicated to Brazilian educator Paulo Freire (1921-1997), consists of a collection of reviews of his books and links to other pages on Freire. The books are listed in chronological order. When the book has been translated into English, the first date refers to the original publication. 

The website was created by Daniel Schugurensky, Department of Adult Education and Counselling Psychology, The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto (OISE/UT).

Freire, Paulo (1985). The Politics of Education: Culture, Power and Liberation. translated by Donaldo Macedo. Massachusetts: Bergin & Garvey Publishers, Inc.

Review by Angela S. Lytle (OISE/UT)

Sitting down to write this review in November 2004, just weeks after the second U.S. presidential victory of George W. Bush, (or first, depending on your point of view) it is still difficult to shake off the sense of despair felt widely within the circles of those who are attempting to navigate towards the realisation of a more just society. This despair is not only a product of the election results, but also comes from the seeming widespread resignation to the current state of affairs as being "just how things are;" and the continuing normalization of neo-liberal and conservative-reactionary paradigms both within the media and much of public discourse. This climate, combined with the dire forecasts of what would happen should Bush be re-elected hanging in the air like unassailable spectres, has served to create a gloom hanging over the heads of what Freire calls 'the left'. At this moment of seeming crisis, we must not allow ourselves to be paralysed but rather must commit ourselves again to devising plans of action and move our transformative project forward in community.

There is no better way to start than by turning to the writings of Freire, to immerse ourselves in what he calls a 'utopian pedagogy'. In this volume Freire reminds us that 'to be utopian is not to be merely idealistic or impractical but to engage in denunciation and annunciation.' (p.57) This denunciation, born of Freiran dialogical praxis through which teachers and learners analyze and critique the 'dehumanizing reality' of the world, combined with the annunciation of a theory of action, one which is not mere rhetoric but 'an historic commitment' to change, offers not only a basis for action, but the crucial sense of hope needed to impel that action. Henry Giroux, in the introduction to this work, characterizes Freire's pedagogy as a combination "of hope, critical reflection, and collective struggle." (p. xviii) The articles in this volume, which expand upon his earlier work and which also show the progression of Freire's own understanding, provide a box of tools towards the building of a creative, transformative vision. As articulated by Giroux, "…Freire fashions a powerful theoretical antidote to the cynicism and despair of many left radical critics." (p. xvii) This hope in the possibility of social change, the allowance for expression of belief in a utopia as something more than mere naiveté, is one of the most important contributions of Freire, and as crucial to us now as ever. Freire reminds us, it is by continuing to believe in humanity, and in the possibility of our dreams, that we will have the strength to continue to work for transformation.

The book is a collection of thirteen articles and interviews centred around various themes of Freire's work. The overlap and repetition of themes found in some of the chapters, due to being written independently of each other, is useful for the reader to do what Freire constantly exhorts us to do: to read and re-read every idea, every text, to engage with it critically, for "to study is not to consume ideas, but to create and re-create them." (p. 4) Published in 1985, the articles in this book reveal the ongoing unfolding of Freire's understanding of the world, enriched by experience. Freire engages in these essays not only with his own thought, but also with critiques levelled against his work. The first seven chapters focus on various elements of his approach to emancipatory literacy education, and the latter set touch on a variety of core and developing themes in his work, including conscientisation, the relevance of his pedagogy to contexts outside of the 'third world,' issues of identity and his understanding of liberation theology.

The continuity found in the volume relates to Freire's ongoing discussion of a series of dialogical relationships crucial to his work:

'Man' as both Subject and Object of History 

One of the central themes of Freire's work, discussed throughout this volume, is the consideration of human beings' location as both subjects and objects of history. For Freire, the goal of an emancipatory educational project is, through the process of conscientisation and praxis--the dialectic of critical thought and action--to move people from seeing themselves solely in the passive 'object' role, into the position of being active agents of social change. Freire asserts that culture and history are human creations that then 'turn against' and condition human beings in such a way that their sense of involvement in the process is lost (p. 30). In the first several chapters of this book, Freire is highly critical of literacy primers that use contents unrelated to the daily lives of the adults studying with them. This, he asserts, not only prevents the acquisition of functional literacy, but also serves to reinforce participants' sense that they are ignorant and unknowledgable about the world. He instead advocates the use of generative themes originating from the lives of the participants, which then creates a space for a critical deconstruction of the reality of their lives. Freire tells of a Chilean peasant who came, through this approach, to understand his role as a subject of history: "Now I know that I'm a cultured man…(b)ecause through work and by working I change the world." (p. 15) Through a critical approach to literacy, learners learn to read words while simultaneously 'learning to read the world.' Although humans clearly do remain an object of historical forces, by understanding that everyday they participate in the construction of the world, culture and history, it is then possible to claim their agency and participate in a re-construction of the world, culture, history-and their own lives. Freire closes this book with the following words:

History has no power. 

As Marx has said, history does not command us, history is made by us. History makes us while we make it…. We need to be subjects of history, even if we cannot totally stop being objects of history. And to be subjects, we need unquestionably to claim history critically. As active participants and real subjects, we can make history only when we are continually critical of our very lives. (p. 199)

In chapter seven, Freire revisits his theory of conscientisation in order to consider its social context and philosophical basis. Stressing again the role of humans as subjects, he asserts that we must critically understand "man (sic) as a being who exists in and with the world." (p. 68) Conscientisation is the process by which humans become fully aware of this fact, and are thus able to develop an objective distance from reality, to conduct a critical analysis of that reality, thus creating the conditions for them to act upon and transform that reality. Conscientisation, then, can also be a process of humanization. Freire does not say that gaining critical awareness necessarily leads to positive social action, but at least it is a necessary prerequisite for making that movement; the final aspect of his definition of conscientisation implies action towards the transformation of reality (p. 169) as people use their critical awareness to choose: "Humanization is their utopia, which they announce in denouncing dehumanizing processes." (p. 70).

Conscientisation is not a static state that can be attained, then, but rather the continual process of critical reflection and action, ever unfolding through revolutionary action:

Because men (sic) are historical beings, incomplete and conscious of being incomplete, revolution is as natural and permanent a human dimension as is education. Only a mechanistic mentality holds that education can cease at a certain point, or that revolution can be halted when it attains power. To be authentic, revolution must be a continuous event. (p. 89)

Teachers and Learners 

One relationship that Freire writes about extensively is that of the 'teacher' and the 'learner.' Freire, in this volume as in all his writing, emphasizes the political nature of education, and criticizes a purportedly neutral 'banking style' or 'nutritionist view' of education in which the learner is merely the passive receptacle for the teacher's knowledge. If the teacher, then, is not 'the expert,' what is the nature of the teacher-learner relationship? For Freire, knowledge production occurs in the space between the teacher and the learner, through their dialogical relationship. In this type of relationship, the teacher is learner as much as is the student: "We can learn a great deal from the very students we teach. For this to happen it is necessary that we transcend the monotonous, arrogant and elitist traditionalism where the teacher knows all and the student does not know anything" (p. 177). This is not to say that the teacher and student are equal; there are necessarily differences, including, of course, a difference in power. And a teacher must have something to offer students beyond what they already know. But this relationship should be one based on joint critical investigation of the world, and should be based on principles of democracy rather than authoritarianism. Freire refers to these two types of education as 'domesticating' and 'liberating' educational practice. "Education for domestication is an act of transferring "knowledge," whereas education for freedom is an act of knowledge and a process of transforming action that should be exercised on reality." (p. 102) In his chapter on 'The Process of Political Literacy,' Freire asserts that in order for an educator to undertake education for freedom, the educator must "live the profound meaning of Easter," (p. 105) that is, to die to his or her previous way of being. This 'death' must also occur in the learner, so that they die as the exclusive learners of teachers and the two thus become, in relationship, self-educators and self-learners. (p. 105) It is only in this type of relationship that the movement towards the development of a critical consciousness can occur.

Similarly, Freire advocates this type of relationship not only between teacher and learner, but also with any agents who attempt to engage with oppressed peoples for change. In this book, he includes agronomists, agriculturalists, social workers, public health officials, cooperative administrators, church officials, and literacy educators as people who must not come with a 'welfare approach', nor take a mechanistic view of social change, but rather must stimulate the decision-making power of the people. Teachers, and anyone who approaches the people in an attempt to create reform or change must also know the political nature of their actions, and indeed must make a political commitment "for whom and on whose behalf they are working" (p. 180).

'First World' and 'Third World' 

Another issue Freire addresses in this volume is the so-called dichotomy between the 'first world' and the 'third world'. In response to critics who have posited that Freire's analysis is only pertinent to third world contexts, Freire discusses the wider implications of his work. While he does make an effort in several chapters of this book to shed light on the particular historical context in which his thought has developed (Ch. 7 contextualises the process of conscientisation in Brazil/Latin America,) he also discusses the international contexts in which he himself has worked-including the 'first world' country of the United States. Freire responds that this dichotomy is not a clear one, as he witnessed what he refers to as the 'third world' within the 'first world' in the ghettoes of the US. At least, Freire states, his theories could be easily applied in this context. In every location, then, there is a first world-third world dialogical relationship, characterized by oppression of many forms. In the US, as well as class oppression, Freire refers to racism and linguistic chauvinism. Freire also relates how through discovery of the third world in the first, he became aware of the first world of the elite that exists within the third world. This so-called dichotomy, then, does not reflect the reality of whole nations for Freire, but the term 'third world' has more to do with the location of oppression than geography (p. 188). These issues are not 'third world' issues, but universal ones. Freire asserts: "I would like simply to emphasize that since it is a human phenomenon, conscientisation is not merely a Third World privilege" (p. 172).

Class and Identity 

One aspect of Freire's writing that shows a definite broadening of his theories is his consideration of multiple modes of oppression in this text. Whereas Pedagogy of the Oppressed is based primarily on class exploitation, a situation in which there is a clear oppressor and oppressed, with the development of new social movements, and his work in Africa, the United States and elsewhere, strains of analysis of oppression based on race, colonialism and, to some degree, gender, are apparent throughout the work. In several chapters and the interviews in this book, Freire considers his involvement with the freedom and anti-colonization movements in Guinea-Bissau, and Cape Verde, as well as working with blacks in inner city New York. In the final dialogue of the book, Freire states that he feels social movements and subjectivity are extremely politically relevant to the end of the twentieth century. While some on the left were very critical of these identity or cause-based movements, Freire feels that they, as much as a class-based discourse, "amplify the objectives and language of liberation" (p. 194). That said, he warns against these movements stopping at personal and individual liberation, suggesting that a dialogue between these movements and the traditional left offers mutual growth and potential for sparking change. Freire asserts that the parties of the left, "need to approach social movements without attempting to overpower them. In approaching these movements, the leftist parties will, in a sense, enhance and complete themselves."

However, it is clear that Freire's discourse is one that has further to develop, and which does develop more in his later writings, particularly in reference to gender. Throughout this volume, as is apparent from the quotes included here, Freire maintains the use of sexist/masculine forms of language. In the one paragraph where he discusses the women's movement in this book, he indicates his 'sympathy' for the struggle, but he does not engage in any way with the ideas of the movement. While it is true, as Freire asserts, "women's liberation is their struggle," (p. 186, italics mine) Freire is also a worthy ally and much of his thought was also taken up by feminist educators. His dialogue with the women's movement comes into fruition, however, later in his career, beyond the scope of the book under review.

There is much more to this volume-Freire develops more streams of thought than could be considered in this space. While this book is probably not the best starting point for a reader unfamiliar with Freiran thought, as he is building on theories he has articulated previously, it is an excellent volume for the reader who wants to revisit and broaden their understanding of crucial elements of his philosophy. As well as learning more about Freiran thought, the reader is also able to learn more about Freire himself, through the personal reflection that is built into his re-assessment of his own thought, and the more personal moments of the interviews in the book. While learning about the context for his thought on conscientisation, the reader also learns of Freire's love for food, his belief in the centrality of joy in the process of learning, and the way in which liberation theology and a humanistic Christian faith underpins much of his view on the world. Freire also gives insight into how he lives in the world, exhorting readers never to let the child within die, asserting that is the only way to stay alive, alert and be true philosophers.

In sum, the strengths of this volume are a filling-in and expansion of earlier writings, hints of what is just developing in his thought, and the central message of the value of humanity, the crucial need for critique, hope, and praxis. This message is as current now as when Freire engaged in the creation of this book.

To cite this review:

Lytle, Angela (2004). Review of The Politics of Education:  Culture, Power and Liberation, by Paulo Freire (1985), In D. Schugurensky (ed), Reviews of Paulo Freire's Books. Available at Internet URL: <> (Access date).

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