Take and Read: Pedagogy of the Oppressed

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by Thomas Groome

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Editor's note: "Take and Read" is NCRonline's newest blog series. It will feature each week a contributor's reflections on a specific book that changed their lives. Good books, as blog co-editors Congregation of St. Agnes Sr. Dianne Bergant and Michael Daley say, "can inspire, affirm, challenge, change, even disturb."

"Take and Read" will be published every Monday at http://ncronline.org/feature-series/take-and-read.

Pedagogy of the Oppressed
by Paulo Freire

(Herder & Herder, 1970)

Liberation: In the Beginning . . .

I grew up in a traditional Irish home, yet one where I often heard the rhetoric of liberation and freedom associated with living our Catholic faith. By today's categories, my father could be described as a socialist, though he would eschew the label. For his politics, he was simply following the logic of his Christian faith. A local politician elected many times to public office, his invariable platform was care for the poor and downtrodden, decent housing, medical care, good education for all, and the rights of workers to a fair wage. He constantly critiqued the colonizing influence that England had had on Ireland. He took an active part in the Irish War of Independence from British rule that began in 1916 (he was 18 at the time) -- and drags on to this day in Northern Ireland. So his life-work was a struggle for Irish freedom -- to be enjoyed by all its people.

In the broader Irish society, too, the language of liberation was fairly commonplace. The great Daniel O'Connell (1775-1847), whose philosophy of peaceful resistance influenced Gandhi and Martin Luther King, was hailed in Ireland as "The Liberator." O'Connell's work that culminated in religious freedom for Catholics in 1829 was termed "Catholic emancipation." To one of us nine kids who balked at going to Sunday Mass, my mother would remind that this was what the Liberator had won for us with "emancipation." So instead of a duty, Sunday Mass was an act of freedom.

It was to my great amazement -- and delight -- then, that upon beginning my doctoral studies at Union Theological Seminary and Columbia University in 1973, I discovered an emerging world of "liberation theology." My first encounter was with Gustavo Gutierrez's A Theology of Liberation; upon finishing it, I wrote home to say, "Dad, you've been right all along." I was also introduced to the emerging feminist theology literature; Bev Harrison was my major advisor at Union. However, the most significant "homecoming" was when I discovered a liberating pedagogy. I first read Paulo Freire's Pedagogy of the Oppressed in 1973 (published in English in 1970) with heart throbbing excitement. My life has never been the same since. Given when I read it, no book has influenced me more than Pedagogy of the Oppressed.

My Friend Paulo

I presume on first name familiarity here because I had the blessing of becoming a friend of Paulo's. I met him when he visited Union Theological during my time there and at other places along the way. However, it was when I had the privilege to host and co-teach with him in a course at Boston College's Summer Institute that cemented our friendship. I was honored when he had my book Christian Religious Education (Harper and Row, 1980) translated into Portuguese and wrote the Preface for the Brazilian edition.

I also became friends with his dear spouse, Elza, during their two summers at Boston College. People should know that Elza was the trained educator of the two; Paulo's degree was in law. It was Elza who often gave him the pedagogical language to say what he wanted to say. She was also a catalyst to his feminist consciousness -- which emerged after his writing of Pedagogy of the Oppressed. The day after Elza went home to God, I felt honored when Paulo called me to share his grief, and just to reminisce for a while about her, knowing that she was also my friend.

What I Learned from Paulo

Meanwhile, what did I learn from Paulo Freire that has shaped my own work at the interface of theology and education ever since? Without being exhaustive, I can think of the following cumulative points.

  1. First, education is always a "political activity," deeply influencing the quality of people's lives in the world and likewise their socio-cultural-political context. Education's politics must be for humanization and the liberation of all; nothing less is worthy of our human vocation. Teachers inevitably have political power within every teaching and learning event; they can choose to use this power to control and limit or to empower and enable people toward humanization.
  2. To be humanizing and liberating, the pedagogy employed must be one that conscientizes its participants. Conscientization is a process of becoming aware of one's place in the world and its forms of oppression and then of committing to act as a historical agent of social liberation. Reaching beyond "awareness," conscientization is only achieved when it acts with imagination and commitment to change oppressive social structures.
  3. A pedagogy of conscientization and liberation must begin by enabling people to name their own realidad -- to express in their own words what they perceive as their socio-cultural-political context. They must speak their own word and name their own reality rather than having the educator name it for them. Thus, emancipatory pedagogy is one of dialogue -- what he calls a "dialogic action" -- rather than a monologue by the educator. "Dialogue is the encounter between people, mediated by the world, in order to name the world," he wrote. He was convinced that enabling oppressed people to speak their own word was already an act of social transformation: "To speak a true word is to transform the world."
  4. I once heard him refer to himself as a "vagabond of the obvious." What he meant was that much of what people think they "see" is what they have been told to see through the codification of their socio-political context. The challenge then is to pose the kinds of questioning and reflective activities that encourage people to "decodify" their reality, to see and name for themselves what is obvious about it. This amounts to seeing beyond what "they say" to what is truly there -- often "staring in the face" and yet ignored. As people come to see for themselves, they can imagine what ought to be so as to act toward freedom.
  5. A key to implementing Paulo's pedagogy was to engage people with "generative themes" by which he meant real life issues that pertain to their quest to live humanly and with dignity. To begin with such generative themes and have people name and reflect critically upon them through dialogue is the opposite of what he famously named "banking education" -- the process of depositing information in passive receptacles. It is through dialogical education around their own generative themes that people can move from dependency to agency for their liberation, to act as "subjects" (not "objects") to change their realidad.
  6. Within dialogic education, Paulo saw all participants as co-teachers and co-learners together; all are to learn from each other. Yet, such egalitarian and dialogical education does not rob educators of their word or exclude them as resources to their co-learners. Indeed, he recognized that sometimes the educator needs to "occupy the vertex of the triangle in contradiction to the oppressors and to the oppressed." Also, as Freire said at Boston College in 1983, "Not all lecturing is banking education; it depends on the content and the dynamism of the presentation, whether I tell people what to think or invite them to think for themselves."
  7. For Paulo, education should always be a "utopian activity," full of trust in people and confidence in their potential to be agents of their own liberation. This perhaps was his conviction that amazed me most, given that much of his work was with poor illiterate peasants. A phrase he repeated often in our teaching together, especially when people seemed overwhelmed by what he was proposing, was, "The best way to accomplish those things that are impossible today is to do whatever is possible." As in the parable of God's reign being like a mustard seed or pinch of leaven (Luke 13), so in the struggle for liberation and justice, he was confident that even small efforts can bring results beyond proportion.

All of these features I've tried to adopt in my work of educating-in-faith across the years, often adjusting to another time and cultural reality (as Paulo would encourage). However, it is likely his turn to a praxis epistemology that has been most influential on my own pedagogy and that which I recommend to religious educators. As he advised, "Liberation is a praxis: the action and reflection of people upon their world in order to transform it." By giving priority to historical praxis, Paulo was rejecting the one-way "theory to practice" assumption that marks so much of education. Instead, he wanted the knowing process to begin with people's critical reflection upon their own lives in the world. However, while he favored beginning with people's own historical praxis (as Dewey might say, their own "experience"), his intent was to honor the three ways of knowing outlined by Aristotle as theoria, praxis, and poiesis.

In other words, though beginning with people's historical praxis, for Paulo this is to lead them into the "theory" of whatever discipline is being taught and to engage participants' imaginations to craft (poiesis) what should be done. Echo here my own favored approach to educating-in-faith that I named "shared Christian praxis." It engages people's reflection on life, in the light of Christian faith, within a community of conversation, toward lived faith that is liberating for all.

For this essay I returned and re-read Pedagogy of the Oppressed for the umpteenth time. Now I have some more critiques than I had at first blush in 1973. For example, his notion that the oppressed have responsibility to liberate their oppressors is true to an extent, but could be unfair or even destructive in some contexts, for example in situations of domestic violence. Then I favor conversation as a more engaging term than dialogue. Also, I wonder if his political analysis, even of his Brazilian context, is now well dated. And the gender exclusivity of the text reads as more irritating than ever. With the years, too, I've come to realize that for our first world context, Paulo's pedagogy is as much for oppressors as it is for the oppressed.

And yet, anyone familiar with my own work in religious education and practical theology across the years will readily recognize why I say Pedagogy of the Oppressed was the most influential book I ever read and especially for when I read it -- at the beginning of my scholarly vocation.

[Thomas Groome is professor of theology and religious education at Boston College.]

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