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, Community Development and Counselling Psychology, The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto (OISE/UT).

Freire, Paulo (1998/1970). Pedagogy of the Oppressed, translated by Myra Bergman Ramos. New York: Continuum.

Review by Joseph Xavier (OISE/UT)

Inspired by a combination of his education and his experiences in combating illiteracy in Latin American countries, Brazilian intellectual and educator Paulo Freire wrote Pedagogy of the Oppressed in the 1960s while he was a Visiting Professor at Harvard. This work provides a theoretical framework for education that criticizes traditional educational models as models that reinforce existing socio-economic power structures and offers an alternative model that allows oppressed citizens to gain more control over their lives. Despite its focus on transformative education in developing nations, the principles and methodology contained in this work are invaluable contributions to the field of adult education in any society.

Pedagogy of the Oppressed is divided into four chapters. The work is a carefully crafted set of principles that are at times hierarchically organized and presented, but more often resemble an organic whole composed of interrelated concepts of equal importance. The first chapter establishes the nature of the dichotomous distinctions of the 'oppressors' and the 'oppressed' in society. Essentially oppressors are those who deny the personal autonomy of others by imposing a worldview paradigm onto the oppressed that denies them the power to direct their own lives. By convincing the general public (the oppressed) that their circumstances are unalterable except through the intervention of the ruling classes, the oppressors stifle any possibility of action by the oppressed that is in contradiction with this paradigm. This serves the interests of the oppressors by ensuring the maintenance of the status quo. Throughout this book, Freire draws a parallel between an individual and the grammatical subject or object of a sentence; the powerless learner is likened to an 'object' being acted upon as opposed to the empowered learner who is a 'subject' who can act upon the world. One moves from object to subject through a process that gives legitimacy to the knowledge of all people and their ability to use that existing knowledge to define the world and their place in it.

Freire then moves from this theoretical framework to a teaching methodology designed to replace the inequitable paradigm with a more equitable one. The proposed methodology is designed to empower learners by promoting critical thinking through direct engagement with the learning process and subject matter. He begins his proposal by establishing a parallel between traditional teaching methods and the methods used by oppressors to maintain their power. The traditional lecture, for example, can be viewed as the delivery of information represented as a set of absolutes to the learner. Freire makes a convincing argument that when the learner is 'given'information as 'truth' (quotes mine) without being involved in some sort of critical engagement with the material, a polarized relationship is established that reinforces hierarchical inequities between the provider of information and the recipient. The educator who uses this methodology thereby reinforces feelings of powerlessness in the learner and, by extension, reinforces the passive acceptance of oppression. Furthermore, if the learner only understands his/her place in the world in terms of these polar relationships, any sort of revolution defined by this paradigm that overthrows an oppressive regime would be replaced by another oppressive regime; the oppressed would become the new oppressor.

The solution to this dilemma lies in the alternative methodology Freire proposes. The relationship between learner and teacher must first become a less rigidly hierarchical one in which the learner is recognized as already having valuable knowledge and the ability to facilitate his/ her own learning. This is accomplished through what Freire refers to as 'dialogical relations' and 'problem-posing education' (60); the students and teacher explore issues as problems for investigation as opposed to facts for delivery by the instructor. In this scenario the instructor's role changes from that of the repository of knowledge to that of a guide and fellow learner. The subject matter is usually community related, which means not only that it is relevant and familiar to the learner, but also that the learner's existing knowledge is valuable, if not essential, to the learning process. In this context the students are teachers as well in that they know things about the community the instructor does not. This is an important step in the 'liberation' of the people. Their knowledge and ability to learn by helping each other learn through 'problem-posing' education gives them a sense of their own power and ability; the learners move from passive 'objects' being acted upon to participants in the learning process, 'subjects' who actively contribute to and thereby influences what is learned.

The learning takes on broader dimensions through the implementation of a technique Freire refers to as 'thematic investigation' (81). Essentially this means that an issue is explored first at the community level through a kind of participatory research conducted by the learners (who are members of the community or a nearby community). After the findings are collated and discussed, they are contextualized in relation to the larger community. This process is repeatedly expanded and spreads outwards from the community level until the participants are examining community issues in relation to the state and the world. This involves the introduction of much new material to the learning process. However, unlike a dry and abstract lecture on world history and geopolitics, the information is not meaningless data 'given' to the learners but is instead information gathered by the learners with the help of the instructor in their attempts to fully understand the issues that directly concern them. This larger understanding enables learners to act beyond what were previously thought of as boundaries of possibility or 'limit-situations' (80); learners who previously perceived themselves as passive victims of circumstance can now recognize themselves as oppressed individuals with the ability to resist that oppression. The rationale behind thematic investigation is that "when people lack a critical understanding of their reality, apprehending it in fragments which they do not perceive as interacting constituent elements of the whole, they cannot truly know that reality" (85). The final chapter ties the three previous chapters together by again defining, in a more structured framework, the nature of 'dialogical' and 'antidialogical' leadership. In this chapter Freire speaks directly to the revolutionary, warning against the ease with which one can slip into an oppressor role despite having the intention not to do so. The revolutionary is cautioned about the difference between 'adherence' with citizens, a unity maintained through constant open communication, and 'adhesion', a relationship in which citizens follow a leadership that "prescribes options to the former" (149). He also warns against the oppressor 'housed' in the oppressed, a reference to the conditioning of the citizen to the oppressor/oppressed paradigm that may turn comrades into enemies because they cannot break free of this conditioning (150) and must define themselves in terms of either one or the other.

These warnings come close to but do not directly address issues related to resistance from the power elite that both radical educators and oppressed citizens may encounter when attempting to implement this transformative education model. Despite the success of Freire's model in combating illiteracy in Brazil he was asked by his government to leave his country largely because his methods were viewed as a threat to the existing social structure. Freire's own example illustrates that in societies with oppressive governments those who choose to follow Freire's model may be doing so at considerable risk to themselves and to those whose liberation they are trying to effect.

Despite the potential difficulties in applying Freire's theory into practice, Pedagogy of the Oppressed is nothing short of inspirational from the perspective of the educator who wishes to promote critical thinking, the facilitator who wishes to enable transformative learning within a community, and any others who wish to counteract inequities that stem from the imbalance of power between the power elite and the rest of society. Unfortunately the book is written with such complexity that it is inaccessible to any who have not benefited from higher education. The ideas themselves are not beyond the understanding of the general public, but the terminology of the text is riddled with philosophical terms such as 'ontology', 'sectarianism', 'subjectivism', 'psychologism, 'radicalization', 'humanist', 'being' (in an existentialist sense), as well as related concepts such as 'naming the world', (semiotics/philosophy) and an assortment of terms Freire simply invents (which he does define although to a limited extent). The language is unnecessarily complex, the substance is highly redundant and both the theories and the methods could have been effectively conveyed in a much simpler format. Ironically, this makes the book inaccessible to the groups that it is intended to liberate. Nevertheless, for the instructor who does grasp the content, this work is an invaluable guide that explains a teaching methodology that can replace the hierarchical classroom environment with an interactive learner-empowering environment. One of the essential components of a democratic society is a population composed of critical citizens who believe in the power of all individuals to influence their circumstances. Freire's methodology provides a valuable tool to the field of pedagogy as a facilitator of this process and a major contributor to genuine democracy.

Freire's pedagogical approach enables a learner to maintain a critical approach to learning without the need of an educator or a formal educational setting. Traditional teaching methods are based partially on the premise that the skills learned in a formal educational setting are sufficient preparation for the needs of citizens throughout their lives. Today's societies, however, are rapidly changing and require adaptable citizens who can influence social development to ensure that the needs of the people remain a high priority. Freire's methodology can be used to help learners develop the cognitive and metacognitive skills necessary to adapt to this constant flux and, with a renewed sense of autonomy and empowerment, influence the way in which their societies develop.


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