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 Michael Galli (OISE/University of Toronto), 2004

In The Politics of Education, Paulo Freire assembles the writings that he produced over several years. This book still reads as a cohesive text because Freire’s philosophical and practical notions of literacy and education are cohesive and consistent throughout. However, because it is a compiled work, it does tend to repeat content and themes. This redundancy is only slightly problematic, however, because it also serves to add emphasis to Freire’s more important material.

In this book, Freire provides a number of perspectives on the elements of “culture, power and liberation”, the basis of which is the individual’s act of reading or studying. To read with critical awareness, he proposes, is to develop an attitude of curiosity toward the world. This is required in order to create and re-create ideas, not just to consume or “bank” them in a mechanical memorization of literal meaning. Freire insists that the reader is not an “object” in the dynamic of learning. Rather, he/she must be an active participant or a “subject” in the creation of knowledge.

Freire believed that the dominant conceptions of illiteracy are ‘naïve’ for considering it as a disease and not a manifestation of social inequity. If educators perceive illiteracy as an affliction that must be cured or eradicated, they are likely to adopt a mechanistic approach to teaching literacy and to use mechanistic texts. Teaching simple decoding skills, the teacher stifles the learners’ critical imaginations and does not nurture in them the ability to critically analyse what they read. This allows for simple comprehension of texts, but not for a deeper understanding of the concepts that require inferential insight. This creates a more domesticated consciousness, which does not invest the individual with the ability to use literacy skills to improve his/her world. Education, according to Freire, can never be neutral: it is either geared towards the liberation or the domestication of learners. Illiteracy is not the original obstacle for people, but a result of other social, economic and political problems. Thus, illiteracy must first be considered a political issue, and then one can approach it from methodological and pedagogical perspectives. Literacy should be taught to promote critical thinking so that learners can analyse and affect changes in their socio-political realities.

Based on these tenets, Freire suggests that the texts that educators write and select for use in literacy education be “generative”. They should generate themes and ‘problematize’ situations. Texts should engage learners in challenging the status quo, not in memorizing facts. This is a very practical approach in that it requires learners to engage, in real-world ways, with the content they are learning. By critically examining the context of the text, learners dialogue about issues that pertain to their own real-world realities.

Freire addresses the roles of the instructor and the evaluator as well as the social worker, establishing that these roles not be dogmatic and paternalistic. Instead, the individuals who engage in these roles should be open to the dialectical process of reviewing the development of their own learning experiences, and the problems that they have encountered. In other words, as with the idea of “problematizing” student learning, the educator and evaluator should themselves engage in such a process to discover better methods. Evaluation should not be related or equated to “inspection”. The educator and evaluator should be a team whose goal it is to argue towards a better understanding of their shared reality – the classroom literacy learning experiences of the learners. For their part, social workers should not be reactionary and try to disguise the “‘normalization’ of the ‘established order’” (p. 39). However, being within the system, and subject to the interests of the oppressive social order, the social worker must use caution when trying to effect positive change. Otherwise he/she may be alienated from either side.

In one part of the book, Freire examines “Cultural Action and Agrarian Reform” (pp. 29 – 34), and the need to commit to follow through with participative methods for change. Mechanistic approaches to reform are doomed to failure because the oppressed cannot be simply told how to alter their previous experiences with oppression. “Peasants…” Freire states, “must be able to create new human relationships and a new style of life radically opposed to the previous one”. (p. 31). This can only be achieved by engaging them in a dialectic process of discovery. The process of adult literacy requires teachers and learners to enter into a contract of authentic dialogue; they must become active subjects in this change. This “cultural action” begins with the thematic exploration of generative themes, and the facilitating of critical thinking processes. Human beings, unlike other animals, have the earthly task of “humanising” the world by transforming it through their objective will (p. 44). Through praxis (constant movement from thought to action, to thought, etc), humans construct their own reality, and learning is both directed by this, as well as needed to fulfill this reality construction of what Freire calls “thought-language”. Literacy cannot be a based on the notion that illiterate people are passive and hungry for words and reality, and must be “fed” and “filled” up with words. They must create their own understanding of words and thereby alter and change their perceptions of their socio-cultural reality. Freire makes the point that people do not chose to be marginalised by their illiteracy. Their state of illiteracy is perpetuated by society, which later tries to compensate by saving them (illiterates) from their misery by giving him “the gift of the word”; again salvation from the despondency of illiteracy.

Language and thought are inseparable, and therefore action is born of thought-language. Through literacy, people acquire a voice in society and in history, which ultimately allows them to alter the collective reality. The economic disparity in society is one such example of a reality that can be affected; people can learn to see that they have within them, as a collective, what it would take to alter the perpetuation of social inequity. Such disparity is not their fault and it is only maintained because of ignorance of how to dispel it. Learners must become cognisant of these attitudes that they have towards their cultural reality to see beneath the myths that keep this reality in place. In the field of critical discourse analysis, oracular reasoning[1] is identified as a strategy for rationalising situations such as these. When a dominant group, through the discourse they wield, control the interests of a majority group, then such perpetuation of inequity is bound to occur unless the learners’ are involved in critical analysis of their situation.

Freire explains the philosophical and methodological basis for his approach to literacy instruction. He provides very prescriptive methods for the kinds of (generative) words, the number and even type of syllables to consider when selecting words for use in instruction. The main point of importance, however, is that the learner be “concomitantly engaged in a critical analysis of the social framework in which men exist”. This pedagogy, he claims, is utopian because it seeks to instigate social change by denouncing the “dehumanizing situation”, and “announcing its transformation in the name of the liberation of man”. (p.57) This ‘conscientization’ of learners occurs simultaneously with the learning of reading and writing, as learners form within themselves, (through critical analysis of the words as they relate to their existential realities), more expanded understandings of the world around them and their place therein. Before this realisation occurs, illiterate people may exist within a culture of silence, where to think individualistically is an unknown concept. Orders provided from the ruling class remove this necessity and the oppressed are kept in silence, unaware of their true ability to actively participate in the shared reality.

In chapter seven, entitled ‘Cultural Action and Conscientization”, Freire offers his perspective on the philosophical and social context of his own thought, as well as the historical factors that have led the ‘masses’ to emerge in the political process. Freire explains how (wo)mankind resides both ‘with’ and ‘in’ the world; both as object and subject. As object, (wo)man lives ‘in’ the world in a very practical, unquestioning way. As such, he/she does not reflect upon his/her existence and affect this reality. He/she exists as other animals do, ignorant of the potential that is exclusive to humankind. If this were all that humankind could be, there would be no potential for liberation from subservience in a mundane existence. However, as a subject living ‘with’ the world (removed and aware of his/herself as an object within the world), he/she can question, discuss and transform this reality to effect social change. It is because of our ability to see ourselves from outside of ourselves that we can exist ‘with’ the world. This conscientization is possible because people have the potential to understand that they are conditioned by their social environments and can alter this conditioned state: we can imagine a reality that we have not yet created and see ourselves living within this reality. This is our creative consciousness offering us alternate perspectives of reality. We can elect to make these realities come true, and this is where praxis comes in. From thought or dialogue to action, to evaluation, which leads to further action, and so on, we engage in a relationship between thought and action to transform our reality. Men, unlike animals, do not simply adapt to the world, but modify their reality or world to exist with it. The historical relativity of (wo)man’s existence is also significant: we make our history and can re-tell it, as onlookers who can analyse their own existence. We exist within a temporal process that is evolving, as we evolve. In a dialectic manner, as we affect our world and social reality, we also affect our consciousness. This then allows our altered consciousness to further affect our new reality, and so on. Freire proposes that our continually conditioned consciousness realizes different levels, which operate within dialectical flux.

Freire provides a concise analysis of the ‘culture of silence’ and how this relates to issues of societal superstructure and infrastructure. The dominant society imposes directive economic, cultural, social and political manipulation over the dependent society, whose voice becomes simply an “echo” of the dominant society’s myth (i.e. that the dominant society for some reason belongs in its position of power, and the oppressed likewise deserve their lot). This conditioned state is what Freire calls the “Semi-Intransitive Consciousness” (p. 75). Not having objective distance from reality, and immersed in the concrete everyday realities of life (e.g. their hardships) they are unable to critically analyse their existence. Lacking “structural perception” (p.75), such people can only attribute their realities to something outside of themselves, which they cannot perceive or change (e.g. due to their own inabilities or to it being caused by a superior power). They don’t look to change their perceptions of reality, but simply to deal with their perceived inabilities or the superior power.

When the historical transition occurs, from the silent society being seen as something that must be changed, the stage of “Naïve Transitivity” is begun. This popular consciousness expands from seeing the physical everyday needs as reality, to seeing that the source of its societal existence is affected by the “objective conditions of society” (p. 77). While still naïve and prone to deep-set beliefs in former societal myths, this emergent popular consciousness becomes conscious of the power struggle between the elites and themselves. Likewise the elites discern that they have been “unmasked” (p. 78) by the masses and, in fear, but also to try to keep what they have, allow minor societal changes. However, broader social changes begin to occur as persons from all social classes start to explore the reasons for their societal contradictions.  A populist leadership that speaks for the masses arises and while this representation is necessary, it is still manipulative. Because it cannot yet affect the elites, populist leadership must manipulate the masses, who still operate within a naïve consciousness and are accustomed to being told what to do.

These transitions and manipulations all serve to prepare “the masses to become conscious of the independent state”. This is a pre-revolutionary consciousness, which is sometimes answered by a coup d’etat, the purpose of which is to restore, through military force by the elites, the unnatural balance of the dominated culture of silence.  Many difficulties arise for the newly developed popular consciousness, which develop in terms of cultural action and revolution.

Revolutionary leadership must clearly define its ideology. If it is utopian and denounces the right, then it must listen to the people and include them in the process of leadership and governance; elevating the masses in their transition to critical consciousness. Utopian revolutionary leadership must have a deep respect for the population, and must commune with them. If not, then revolutionary leadership is identified with the right, simply denouncing whoever denounces them, and fabricating new myths to re-establish the culture of silence. This anti-utopian perspective can only promote action to reinstate domination. As such, these two forms of revolutionary leadership are at extremes odds with one another. The utopian leads the people to discover the truths of the various realities they experience, and the right seeks to pre-fabricate this reality, which is simply the creation of more myth. Conscientization continues to be greatly important in many ways after the revolutionary reality is established. It is needed to guard against fanaticism and later “Massification” (p. 87), where irrational myth-making results from highly complex or technologized mass societies, and undermines the critical consciousness of the masses. Critical consciousness must be fostered and maintained as a primary need of a utopia-seeking society.

Describing “The Process of Political Literacy”, (ch. 8), Freire repeats much of his philosophy on literacy. Again he describes the process of knowing, where learners are subjects, not objects, in the literacy process and must learn to be critical readers. Only this way can they realise the nature of their existence and transform their individual realities. Educators may promote a domesticating (prescriptive) or liberating (dialogical) learning process. The former seeks to retain the status quo, along with its social hierarchy, while the latter’s efforts are towards social equity. Domesticated or politically illiterate individuals see history and their place therein, as fixed or pre-established, whereas liberated politically literate people see themselves as living within history and thus able to affect it. From a critical point of view, education should be focused on eradicating the barriers that obstruct learners from achieving political literacy. This requires that educators abstain from teaching practices that domesticate learners. In such liberating literacy practices, the conscientization of learners is paramount for making learners aware that they live in a dynamic world that their actions can change.

Humanistic education requires a non-neutral, critical approach to the realities that we learn and teach, which occur within the socio-historical context of our shared existence. Exploration and realisation of themes in our shared existence, and subsequently in our education practices, must be dialectical, and must be conceived of as a kind of “historical challenge” (p. 113) that we are compelled to act on. Freire contends that there is an interrelationship between dehumanization and humanistic realities; neither can exist without the other, and historical evolution is based on the interplay between these forces. Humanistic education presupposes that consciousness is reflexive intention; not just the ability to reflect and receive knowledge, but to transform that knowledge into new knowledge. The notion of praxis is again iterated here, and expanded to include societal implications. Dominant classes seek to obfuscate the dominated by obscuring their reality and dulling down their reflexive capacity. Freire equates this “mystification of reality” to propaganda that attempts to distort the popular conceptualisation of reality and generate the illusion that this altered reality is the true reality. Those who oppose this supposed one, true reality, are demonized as subversive or ‘bad citizens’ who exist on the fringes of reality. This soon becomes a systemic and totalitarian illusion; we all buy into it and it permeates every area of society. From top (dominant class) to the lowest rungs of the social ladder, people cling to this (falsified) reality because it is all they have, and they do not possess the critical skills to challenge it.

The education system, and the educator who seeks to fit the learner into this mould of society, is the first and most important mechanism for the proliferation of these falsifications of reality, and social control. A good student in this system is a rote learner, “who renounces critical thinking, …” (p.117). In our present time (2004), under U.S. President G.W. Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” education policies, which place heavy emphasis, and funding, on the rote learning of phonics, we have the perfect example of a dominating class seeking to subdue the critical literacy and therefore thinking of the dominated class. Freire’s perceptions are lucid; how can these underprivileged classes escape the chains of domination if they cannot even see that they are bound!

Freire argues that the roles that churches have played in education and liberation must be considered within a socio-historical context. Again he makes the point against neutrality in education, and the church, he maintains is no exception. There is no neutrality, and if one claims it through a passive viewpoint, then he/she inevitably sides with the oppressors because he/she is simply upholding the status quo. Only naïve-types can subscribe to the illusion that men’s critical consciousness can be transformed through passive acts, e.g. sermons, humanitarian efforts, etc. Radical social change does not occur through these mechanistic steps, but must occur as a result of the development of a critical consciousness. The dominant social powers understand this and encourage such slow and ineffectual endeavours. Freire uses the analogy of the Easter effect to explain how the naïve and the shrewd must die and resurrect on the side of oppressed people, in order to experience a shift in consciousness. This act, like all other learning, is dialectic. It is historical praxis. Conscientization must be an attempt to reveal reality and must be related to political liberation. It should not occur in a mythological sense, where negation leads to conformity. Conscientization must occur as true dialectic movement from action to reflection, back to action, and so on. As well, Education for Liberation, which is also political education, should not be reduced to a methodological equation that promotes domesticating consciousness.

The church, its leaders and followers must inevitably choose sides with the oppressed or the oppressors. In siding with the oppressed, they elect to embrace and struggle against the social realities that these dominated people live under. However, there are many within the church who cannot, due to fear, contravene the edicts of the dominant class. These individuals live a duplicitous existence, fearing change and the uncertainty of a future that could be transformed by their individual, historical actions. This church denies itself of its own real doctrine; it does not practice what it preaches, and simply seeks to maintain the status quo, imposed by and sustained by a history of imperialistic domination. Freire speaks of a “Theology of Liberation”, where modern theologians have become involved in the liberation of the oppressed. They understand the social incongruity involved in maintaining the oppressed in a perpetual state of submission to the dominant class, and that only the dominated can transform and liberate themselves through the process of praxis.

The role of the traditionalist church has been to provide a haven for the oppressed, who flock there because it fits their fatalistic notion of their oppressed condition; it is the natural order for them and part and parcel of the culture of silence. This church ministers to this mindset which believes that their prayers are the only way of speaking out against their oppressors; as if God were listening and would punish the oppressors. They vent at the unjust world and fail to see that it is really the social system that is set up to keep them in their present state. The modernizing church does not effect significant change towards the people’s liberation, but simply improves its bureaucracy to fall in line with a modernizing society. Again, like the traditional church, the modern or modernizing church sides with the elite oppressors, supporting structural reform rather than “the radical transformation of structures (p. 136). Education, from both modern and traditional churches, does not take the form of praxis, and so it focuses on the individual’s change of consciousness (filling up the learner with new knowledge). Only the “Prophetic Church” (p. 137), in following ideals of praxis and non-neutrality, appears to be committed to effecting radical, revolutionary change for the oppressed social classes. Freire states that this church must accept that it will have to abide by the same rules of reformation; it will need to be destroyed and rebuilt time and again, in order not to stagnate and become part of the status quo. Again, like the educator, the church must be in constant flux, never residing in a state of permanence for long, lest it become the oppressive regime. This new church promotes a theology of liberation in which “Education must be an instrument of transforming action, a political praxis at the service of permanent human liberation.” (p. 140) Freire follows this analysis of the role that the church plays in the liberation or oppression of the people, with a review of James Cone’s book, “In Praise of A Black Theology of Liberation” (1970). In this review, Freire praises Cone’s book for its analysis of Black versus White Theology ion America. This reinforces Freire’s previous analysis of the church, and the power struggle between the elite and the oppressed classes.

Chapter twelve is a transcript of a dialogue with Paulo Freire. This interview with “The Institute of Cultural Action” (Geneva 1973), basically constitutes a review of his theories, and comes in the context of criticisms and objections to his theories and actions. For example, he is criticised as being out of touch with the Latin American reality and of being idealistic (because of the so-called failure of his attempts at reform in Brazil from 1962 to 1964). To this Freire responds at length and provides philosophical arguments on the dialectical relation between the subjective and objective. He also responds to a number of other issues and criticisms, the content of most having been referred to in the text already, but also referring to very concrete historical examples as well.

Chapter thirteen, referred to as “An invitation to Conscientization and Deschooling”, is a review of Freire’s thoughts on “conscientization”. Proceeding through the stage of identification of an objective reality through to the actualisation of this reality, is what constitutes as “conscientization”. He expands on this point and provides a bit of self-criticism, referring to his prior theory that, when in the process of conscientization, a social reality becomes known; the ensuing transformation of this reality is inevitable. In other words, once a person realises a social reality, he/she will transform this understanding into action and thus create a new reality. Freire seems to accept that this is not a guaranteed outcome.

The final chapter is a transcribed dialogue between Freire and Donaldo Macedo, (who also translated the rest of this book). This is a simple interview in which Macedo questions Freire about his personal and professional background and beliefs; e.g. regarding the political consequences of his thinking and educational practices; the time he spent in prison and in exile, etc. This transcription is very lengthy and detailed and provides interesting insights into Freire’s motivations and experiences, taking the reader deeper into the subjective reality of the man, which assists in further deciphering the deeper meanings within his texts and thoughts.

The Politics of Education, as a compilation of short articles, reads in a somewhat repetitive manner, and a number of redundancies occur. However, this does not detract from the impact of Freire’s thoughts and at times serves to emphasize the key points. This provides the reader with confirmation of his/her assumptions. The text is not meant to be considered as a cohesive whole, but Freire’s philosophy of education and the liberation of the oppressed, rings throughout. This does serve to unite what might otherwise be a series of intelligent but disjointed articles. Put together as they are, the reader can glean numerous insights from each section, which are all highly theoretical and complex. These sections could be very difficult to comprehend, if not for the key concepts and terminology that permeate the book. To conclude, I would say that this text is a good addition to the reading of Freire’s other texts, and since the articles are all relatively short and could be read without prior knowledge of the context of the other sections, it can be read at any pace.  In short, this is a good piece of work and one that fulfills the task of filling a gap between Freire’s other works.

[1] Hugh Mehan, ‘Oracular reasoning in a psychiatric exam: the resolution of conflict in language’, Allen D. Grimshaw (ed.) Conflcit Talk: Sociolinguistic Investigations in Arguments in Conversation, Cambridge University Press, 160 – 77.


To cite this review:

Galli, Michael (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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