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 (1968, 1970). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Seabury.

Review by Philip Leeman (UCLA)

What kind of response should we as educators have in an era when 1) here in the United States the construction of prisons, stimulated by one of the world's highest incarceration rates, is cheaper than that of schools and threatens to make the former a more cost-effective alternative to the latter; 2) the World Bank, whose policies have resurrected modernization theory and validated human capital theory, provides more funding for education in the world than any other institutional entity (about one fifth of the total amount); 3) corporations continue to invade the global social space to hawk their wares with brazenly contradictory-false-advertising (the motto of Sprint that "business runs on data" grafted onto the the idealized images of coffee production, the Honda slogan that "everybody deserves more space" spoken over the noise of traffic being shut out by the roomy interior of a luxury car boxed in by city buses); and 4) the division of labor has routine producers losing jobs, in-person servers maintaining a lowly status quo, and the relatively small number of symbolic analysts-those who"manipulate oral and visual symbols"-get larger and larger "compensation packages."1 Is it too naive to look towards rekindling and sustaining the kind of aspirations that have the synergistic goal of a social utopia? Can we maturely contemplate overcoming the oppressive realities that lead to dehumanization and instead base human relationships on the ideal of love?

In reply to those last two questions, there is at least one prominent educational thinker who said yes many years ago and was still saying yes until his death just last year. Paulo Freire is that person and he would have added that our skeptical attitude towards linking the ideal of love with the functioning of government is itself indicative of our own dehumanization. Over the course of his lifetime, Paulo Freire authored and co-authored a good number of books and articles always with his stated perspective of a teacher/student, not wanting to propagandize but to dialogue. If we are to accept this invitation by Freire to participate in the discussion of how we view the world and what action we should take, then I believe that a still propitious place to start is with Pedagogy of the Oppressed.

For Paulo Freire, a Brazilian educator raised in the northeastern state of Pernambuco, the topics of hunger, poverty and oppression were not academic to be (or not) thought about. As a child, his family slipped downwards out of the lower middle-class into poverty, and on many occasions Freire went hungry. Later as a teacher, he could identify with the plight of his students and relate that to others in similar oppressive situations. Freire began to search for a way to fashion education into a transformative tool for individuals and society. Freire's first two books2 caught the attention of social intellectuals throughout Latin America, but Pedagogy of the Oppressed, with a title and content that had a world wide resonance in an era of social struggle, has become his most popular book.3

Freire's premise for fighting oppression seems to be a synthesis of the Christian precept of "love thy enemy,"4 and the Marxist maxim of worker solidarity. He even affirms that, "I'm certain Christian and Marxist, though not in complete agreement, will read the whole book" (p.21). And for those readers who do continue on to the end of the book, Freire sums up this merging of Christian/Marxist perspectives in essence, liberation theology with a quote from a statement by the bishops of the Third World: "If the workers do not somehow come to be owners of their own labor, all the structural reforms will be ineffective . . . They [must] be owners, not sellers, of their labor . . . [For] any purchase or sale of labor is a type of slavery" (p. 185).

To Freire, since the oppressors have their "theory of action,"5 so the oppressed must have theirs in order to overcome the internal and external structures that oppress them and inhibit concientizacao . He counsels that the oppressed need to avoid seeing their predicament as unresolvable but rather recast it as a "limiting situation that they can transform" (p.33). This perception can then led to the realization the the oppressor cannot exist without the oppressed-a dialectical relationship. Yet this knowledge does not constitute liberation, just the necessary context for which a person or people will join the struggle to free themselves. He defines concientizacao as learning to perceive social, political, and economic contradictions, and to take action against the oppressive elements of reality. A basic element of concientizacao is another important term called praxis, defined as reflection and action upon the world in order to transform it.6 Thus, Freire describes a pedagogy of the oppressed as a pedagogy that "makes oppression and its causes objects of reflection by the oppressed, and from that reflection will come their necessary engagement in the struggle for their liberation. And in the struggle this pedagogy will be made and remade" (p.33).

Freire claims that the humanistic task of the oppressed is to liberate themselves and their oppressors: "Only power that springs from the weakness of the oppressed will be sufficiently strong enough to free both"(p.27). This notion may seem counter intuitive since it is the oppressors who are in the dominant position and would therefore possess the key for unlocking the chains of oppression. But according to Freire, when we analyze how they came to possess that key in the first place we get a more clear picture of why the oppressors generally cannot relinquish control. Since both humanization and dehumanization exist, but humanization is the only true vocation of humans and "dehumanization is a distortion of the vocation of becoming more fully human" (p.28), Freire makes the argument that those who oppress others dehumanize themselves and engender the process that blinds them from seeing how this behavior is self-destructive.7

In the context of this blindness, Freire poses that acts of charity and generosity cannot resolve situations of oppression, and are false because they do not attack the causes of oppression.8 But Freire sounds a warning: many times when the oppressed seek to liberate themselves, they become sub oppressors, identifying with the oppressor because "the oppressed find in their oppressor their model of 'humanhood'" (p30-31). This connective node in the relationship between oppressor and oppressed is prescription , or the internalization of the image of the oppressor achieved by cultural invasion. With this internalization comes a concomitant fear of freedom on the part of the unwitting host which can be characterized as self-depreciation:, an internalized stigma resulting from that existential duality of spirit that on the one hand is attracted to the oppressor's way of life and on the other hand is convinced of his or her unfitness. As Freire elaborates, "Given the circumstances which have produced their duality, it is only natural that they distrust themselves . . . As long as their ambiguity persists, the oppressed are reluctant to resist, and totally lack confidence in themselves"(p.49). Freedom means ejecting the image of the oppressor and embracing autonomy and responsibility, which for the oppressed can be a frightening act in the face of reprisal from the oppressors or censure from fellow oppressed who fear reprisals. Along with this kind of censure, Freire identifies horizontal violence -when the oppressed attack their kin; the oppressor exists within and they have lashed out indirectly against him-as another aspect of behavior that stymies transformative action. Accordingly, the oppressed are emotionally dependent, and before they discover this dependence they let off steam at home, drinking etc. Until this emotionally dependence is acknowledged and identified as oppression, can the person move towards liberatory action and true praxis. The existential duality of the oppressed, "contradictory, divided beings, shaped by and existing in a concrete situation of oppression and violence" (p.40), will always lead to fatalistic attitudes towards their condition "until they concretely 'discover' their oppressor and in turn their own consciousness." Therefore, when oppressed people participate authentically in their own liberating pedagogy, it becomes "an instrument for their critical discovery that both they and their oppressors are manifestations of dehumanization" (p.33). Freire then examines the question of whether the oppressor can change him or herself. The answer is a highly conditional yes, for in order to make this objective transformation of a concrete oppressive situation would require keeping subjectivity and objectivity in a constant dialectical relationship.9 Only in an interdependence between subjective and objective is praxis possible, and "[o]nly in this interdependence is an authentic praxis possible" (p.35). We learn together. No one knows the truth, but by sharing our subjective truths we can find objective truths. However, in light of the of the effort and commitment required to sustain an "authentic" praxis, Freire does not admit much chance for the oppressor to willingly change, asserting instead that it is necessary to fight oppression in order to restore humanity to the oppressor-"a gesture of love." And this is truly a courageous act of love given some of the heavy impediments to transformation the oppressors' consciousness, as the following examples show:

1) The historical dimension of situations of oppression started with an act of violence by those in power, and is passed along the generations. For Freire, the act of oppression is an act of violence, so the violence of the oppressed is an outcome or effect of this initial violence. Yet this retaliatory violence or resistance will usually be met by the self-righteous force of the oppressors who claim that they are restoring peace (or the rule of law).

2) Often when the oppressor/oppressed contradiction is resolved (i.e. revolution), the former oppressors do not feel liberated since their perceived right to live in peace (at any cost to others) must now accede to the right of the oppressed to be human beings. (For this reason, Freire says that laws that prevent the oppressors from ascending to their former positions of domination are not oppressive as long as they do not deny humanity to the former oppressors.) Freire attributes this virtual impasse to an "oppressor consciousness [that] tends to transform everything surrounding it into an object of its domination. The earth, property, production, the creations of men, men themselves, time-everything is reduced to the status of objects at its disposal." And without these objects, the oppressor consciousness would not exist because "it would lose contact with the world . . . The oppressors suffocate in their own possessions and no longer are; they merely have" (p.46).10

3) The oppressors often indulge in a self serving logic of absolutizing of ignorance : "Those who steal the words of others develop a deep doubt in the abilities of the others and consider them incompetent. Each time [the oppressors] say their word without hearing the word of those whom they have forbidden to speak, they grow more accustomed to power and acquire a taste for guiding, ordering, and commanding. They can no longer live without having someone to give orders to. Under these circumstances, dialogue is impossible" (p.129).

4) Even with the circumstances permitting, it is difficult to engage the oppressors in honest dialogue when they not deny a condition of oppression but rationalize its truths and thereby strip it of its objective base: " It ceases to be concrete and becomes a myth created in defense of the class of the perceiver" (p.36).11

In response to these forces that inhibit the transformation of an oppressive reality, Freire makes a very strong distinction between liberatory dialogue which seeks to transform the oppressed into their own agents for liberation and monologue, slogans and communiquŽs which seek "to liberate the oppressed with the instruments of domestication" (p52). The oppressed cannot enter the struggle as things, people destroyed by propaganda, management and manipulation, but must engage in a co-intentional pedagogy with their teachers to critically acquire knowledge of reality. Looking closely at dialogue, Freire defines its essence as the word whose constituent elements are reflection and action, yet a word spoken without action (or intent of action) is verbalism, and a word spoken without reflection is activism: "There is no true word that is not at the same time a praxis. Thus, to speak a true word is to transform the world." (p75)

Therefore, Freire asserts, when people can speak their own true words, then they can engage in the "existential necessity" of dialogue to transform and humanize the world. And because this dialogue has a creative goal it must be undertaken with the kind of love not perverted by fear or manipulation but with the committed kind of love that "generate other acts of freedom." But for dialogue to have a chance to succeed, there needs to be evidence of a strong connection between loving words and loving action on the part of those who wish to initiate dialogue: "faith in people is an a priori requirement for dialogue, trust is established by dialogue." (p76-78)

Yet, asks Freire, what dialogue can serve a creative purpose without hope? "The dehumanization resulting from an unjust order is not a cause for despair but for hope, leading to the incessant pursuit of the humanity denied by injustice. Hope, however, does not consist in crossing one's arms and waiting. As long as I fight, I am moved by hope; and if I fight with hope, then I can wait." (p80) In Freire's analysis, hopeful dialogue itself is revolutionary action; as the empirical knowledge of the people intersects with the leaders' (or teachers') critical knowledge, born is a knowledge of the causes of reality. Just as there should be no dichotomy between action and reflection, Freire makes the same claim for dialogue and revolutionary action. (Although he does not elaborate on this point very much, I understood this correlation to mean that dialogue is a reflective communion, and the action resulting from such critical reflection is necessarily revolutionary action.)

An overarching obstacle to the concientizacao of the oppressed, one that reinforces the dynamics of oppression, is what Freire terms as the banking model of education (p58-60). In banking education, the teacher is the Subject of the learning process, while the students are objects or containers that are filled by deposits of information. The more full the container, the better the teacher. Those students easiest to fill are the judged the better students, and those students who resist being filled are "problem" students. Banking education serves an oppressive society by:
mythologizing reality-"something to which people, as mere spectators, must adapt" (p. 135).
resisting dialogue
treating students as objects of assistance
inhibiting creativity
failing to acknowledge humans as historical beings
In opposition to banking education, Freire endorses a problem-posing education designed to help people "come to feel like masters of their thinking by discussing the thinking and views of the world explicitly or implicitly manifest in their own suggestions and those of their comrades. Because this view of education starts with the conviction that it cannot present its own program but must search for this program dialogically with the people, it serves to introduce the pedagogy of the oppressed, in the elaboration of which the oppressed must participate" (p110). Therefore this liberatory education:
sets itself the task of demythologizing, posing problems about reality
regards dialogue as indispensable to the act of cognition which unveils reality
motivates students to become critical thinkers
bases itself on creativity and stimulates true reflection and action upon reality
takes peoples' historicity as their starting point
In order to engage in a problem-posing educational program, and in order to fulfill their role as co-investigators and not bosses, Freire feels that teachers and researchers need to approach a community from the standpoint of first learning about the important themes that govern these people's lives. In later books Freire expands more satisfyingly on what he means by themes, but for the purpose of this book he is a bit inchoate, writing that, "An epoch is characterized by a complex of ideas, concepts, hopes, doubts, values, and challenges in dialectical interaction with their opposites, striving towards plenitude. The concrete representation of many of these ideas, values, concepts, and hopes, as well as the obstacles which impede peoples' full humanization, constitute the themes of that epoch" (p91).

When a thematic investigation has revealed a person or people's universe and the limit situations that sometimes mask them,12 the dialogical teacher "re presents" it as a problem, teasing out the inherent contradictions that are then codified into pictures or texts with various levels of interpretation so that it is not propaganda, but a "cognizable object" eliciting the critical reflection of a decoder. Knowledge of these themes enables the teacher(s), when a person or people perceive(s) reality as too incomprehensible, to foster dialectical thought with the presentation of a "coded" situation which shows some of the basic thematic elements of a concrete, existential situation.13 In the analysis of the coded situation decoding the person will ideally move from abstract to the concrete, a "supersedence of the abstraction by the critical perception of the concrete, which has already ceased to be a dense, impenetrable reality." The following quote is rather lengthy but I think it articulates nicely Freire's rationale of using a community's themes to attack the obstacles of an "existential duality of spirit":

    In the process of decoding, the participants externalize their thematics and thereby make explicit their "real consciousness" of the world. As they do this, they begin to see how they themselves acted while actually experiencing the situation they are now analyzing, and thus reach a "perception of their previous perception." By achieving this awareness, they come to perceive reality differently; by broadening the horizon of their perception, they discover more easily in their "background awareness" the dialectical relations between the two dimensions of reality.

    By stimulating " perception of a previous perception" and "knowledge of a previous knowledge," decoding stimulates the appearance of a new perception and the development of new knowledge. The new perception and knowledge are systematically continued with the inauguration of the educational plan, which transforms the untested feasibility into testing action, as potential consciousness superseded real consciousness. (p108).
Thus, to briefly restate Freire's pedagogy for the oppressed, he posits that a thematic investigation leads to awareness of reality, then self-awareness, then praxis and concientizacao ; in sum, a starting point for the educational process grounded in cultural action of a liberating character. Freire sees this progression as equally beneficial when applied in a micro or macro social realm. That is, just as an oppressed person can learn to be a Subject in his or her transformation of reality, so can Third World nations learn to overcome the oppressive bonds of economic dependency. Yet this belief may be too simplistic in an age when the boundaries of a nation state are being erased by the globalization of economic activity. As the state weakens, how does this affect the list of entitlements, rights and responsibilities that are a society's agreed upon elements for defining citizenship? Certainly the varied conceptions of citizenship all have the shared quality of informing the meaning of humanity. For a non-citizen, a persona non grata, there is little doubt, except in the case of the very wealthy, that this status will have an invidious impact on that person's humanity: where to live, how to earn a living, who to associate with, etc. On this question of humanity, Freire is not specific about what he envisions, other than to say that our ontological vocation is to become more human. But herein is one large question that Freire does not seem to answer clearly, but in so doing may leave us a way to redefine citizenship in the best interests of humanity. And for that matter, I would say that a Pedagogy of the Oppressed is in the best interests of humanity.


1 Prison construction expenditures from a personal communication with Shinya Yoshida, a graduate student in Architecture who related to me this fact from Greg Lynn, a UCLA professor of architecture. Highest rate of incarceration is from the PBS program "Crime and Punishment" that aired in February, 1998. The figures for the World Bank come from their own report on education in 1995. Invasion of social space by advertisers comes partly from "Nowhere to Hide: Ads Crop Up in Unlikely Places" by Carol Cropper in the New York Times on February 26, 1998. The division of labor descriptions come from Robert Reich in his book The Work of Nations: A Blueprint for the Future (London: Simon and Schuster, 1991), 208-24.

2 Education as a Practice of Freedom (1967), Cultural Action for Freedom (1968)

3 A Melvyl title word search for 'oppressed' turned up 251 listings. A refinement by date of publication broke the citations down by decades and whether a title dealt with contemporaneous issues.

--1950-59: one listing.
--1960-1969: four.
--1970-79: eighteen
--1980-89: eighteen
--1990-1997: nineteen (and still rising one could surmise).

4 King James Bible, Matthew 5:43 48

5 In Chapter Four Freire discusses how these oppressor theories of action lead to Conquest(p133), Divide and Rule (p137), Manipulation (p144), and Cultural Invasion (p150). He then discusses how a pedagogy of the oppressed will lead to theories of action that will need to include Cooperation (p.167), Unity for Liberation (p.172), Organization (p.176), and Cultural Synthesis (p180).

6 A further refinement of praxis which Freire makes later in the book p122 is that reflection and action should be simultaneous except when action is not immediately prudent. In this case critical reflection becomes a surrogate for an action which is understood.

7 As Freire has already stated, the ontological vocation of people is to be more human, but "No one can be authentically human while he prevents others from being so. Attempting to be more human, individualistically, leads to having more, egotistically: a form of dehumanization. Not that it is not fundamental to have in order to be human. Precisely because it is necessary, some men's having must not be allowed to constitutes an obstacle to other' having, must not consolidate the power of the former to crush the latter" (p73-74). See also the discussion on transformation of oppressor consciousness, especially number two on the topic of possessions.

8 This mistrust of charity on Freire's behalf does not mean that he rejected the need for charity in situations of desperation. He the used the rationale that hungry students cannot learn to defend his sponsorship of food charity in the public school system of S‹o Paulo during his tenure the as Commissioner of Education.

9 Subjectivity can be seen as agency (or in its extreme form voluntarism) where individuals have the power to transform the world (as much as they like), and objectivity can be seen as structural--social, political, cultural and economic--constraints of action.

10 As an item of reflection for Americans on just how far the oppressor consciousness may pervade this society, the Los Angeles Times published last year on November 23 an unusually meaningful article about a barely studied industry: self storage. Written by Jill Leovy, "Stashing a Mountain of Our Stuff" investigates the reasons for why the self storage industry is booming. Filled with anecdotal detail and bolstered by comments from academics, the article tries to solve why self-storage units are brimming at a time when Americans are moving less and living in ever-more spacious homes. By tracking the number of freight tons per capita moving around the country, researchers found that in the last 35 years the number has increased 40% while industrial needs have declined. The most plausible explanation? That personal accumulation of material goods has sped up, and scholars attribute this-as one says-to, "'A population without a home.' Serial monogamy and fragmenting families leave a trail that possession-loving Americans cling to even as we shed old lives." Robert Thompson, a Syracuse University professor of popular culture, sums up the article with the observation that,

    "We define ourselves by material goods, [b]ut it's hard for people to throw away what once defined them. . . . So the storage shed is just the perfect thing. You can get rid of stuff but still have the security it's still there. Such hoarding is born of people having little connection with ancestors, ancestral homes and traditions. . . . The genius of self-storage is giving people a place to put the stuff that may replace having a history, a community."

11 For example, the question of whether it is ethically hypocritical for the United States, which prohibits child labor, to import goods made in countries that use child labor can be rationally sidestepped with the culturally relativistic argument that those countries do not view child labor in a negative way.

12 Limit situations: "When the themes are concealed by the limit situations and thus not clearly perceived, the corresponding tasks people's responses in the form of historical action can nether be authentically nor critically fulfilled. In this situation people are unable to transcend the limit situations to discover that beyond these situations and in contradiction to them lies an untested feasibility."" (p92)

13 Freire qualifies the use of the expression 'dialectical thought as a "method [that] does not involve reducing the concrete to the abstract (which would signify the negation of its dialectical nature), but rather maintaining both elements as opposites which interrelate dialectically in the act of reflection" (p95).


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