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  • Writer's pictureCameron Flowers

Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed and Issues in Higher Education

Updated: Jun 21, 2021

“Any situation in which some men prevent others from engaging in the process of inquiry is one of violence;… to alienate humans from their own decision making is to change them into objects.” ― Paulo Freire

One of the most important figures influencing education in the 20th century was Paulo Freire (1921 – 1997). His progressive thinking on the politics of education, his desire to form critical pedagogies challenging asymmetrical power structures, and his emphasis on the importance of dialogue and humanization, have left indelible marks in education pedagogy around the world.

His most well known text, The Pedagogy of the Oppressed, is a gateway to a new dimension of thought, connecting the subjects of educational practice and liberation with an emphasis on the development of a critical consciousness. Freire takes a critical stance against education structures that merely serve to program the individual learner to a rigid conformity through a concept he refers to as the “banking concept” of education. He calls for a more active and “co-intentional” education between students and teachers that allow both to recognize their power and freedom to recreate their world.

I argue that this illuminating text provides a critical framework that can be used to analyze US higher education institutions. Using the pedagogy of the oppressed, one can challenge the asymmetrical power structures in education maintained by: hierarchal relationships between students, faculty, and administration; the strides toward business models and corporatization of the university; the lack of curricula gearing the development of a critical consciousness of freedom within the students at the university; and the lack of meaningful dialogue between all members of varying levels of power on the campus, as practices in higher education institutions that uphold the very same systems of oppression critiqued by Freire within the book.

Freire is a proponent of developing pedagogy that values experiential learning and developing educational processes that allow for active student participation. He forwards the claim that it is imperative for an individual to have an active and engaged role in his or her education, and maintains the assertion that “there is no such thing as a neutral educational process.” Rather to Freire, “Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate the integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity to it, or it becomes ‘the practice of freedom’, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.” Freire holds that the decision of how education will function is reflective of political power interests. In analyzing the socio-political and economic forces dominating the psychology of the oppressed peasants he studied in Brazil, he shows how cultures of oppression maintained through standard pedagogy, prevented the oppressed from developing a critical consciousness of freedom that would call for their liberation. Freire believes that a focus on experiential learning would allow the individual to build his or her consciousness of reality through reflection and praxis using the situations within their daily lives as learning experiences that they construct for themselves. This style of education encourages students to be active constructors of the world around them, and disembodies the standard in higher education institutions, that maintain systems devaluing the student’s intellectual autonomy and seek to have students conform to one mode of thought on reality that is stagnant and reflective of dominant socio-political culture and interest. Freire calls for pedagogy that perceives the reality of oppression not as a closed world from which there is no exit, but as a limiting situation, which the oppressed can transform.

It is necessary for universities to further develop the critical consciousness of and dialogue between their entire student body in order to avoid essentializing reality in a manner that only values the perception of the dominant (oppressive) group. Freire states that, “The pedagogy of the oppressed as a humanist and libertarian pedagogy has two distinct stages. In the first the oppressed unveil the world of oppression and through the praxis commit them selves to its transformation. In the second stage in which the reality of oppression has already been transformed this pedagogy ceases to belong to the oppressed and becomes pedagogy of all men in the process of permanent liberation.” In order to realize both goals of the pedagogy of the oppressed, an emphasis must be placed on dialogue and humanization. Indeed Freire highlights both of these principles in the book and challenges the processes that disallow for this emphasis.

Continuing to develop Freire’s style of critical pedagogy of the oppressed requires one to call into question the way asymmetrical socio-political power relationships are maintained in educational structures between students, teachers, and administrators. Freire attributes the lack of a critical consciousness of freedom in the oppressed, to the relationship they have in the academic space with their teachers and administration, which reaffirms rather than removes, oppressive practices. Freire highlights three sources contributing to this reaffirmation of oppression in academic spaces: the self depreciation of oppressed students, the implementation of what Freire refers to as the “banking concept of education,” and the avoidance of co-intentional education methods that pose the problems of humans in their relations with the world; a style of education which Freire labels as the “problem-posing” education. These practices contribute to making the academic space a hierarchy infused with the socio-political power relationships maintaining the subordinate condition of oppressed and marginalized masses.

On the concept of self-depreciation, Freire speaks about the internalization of the oppressor’s image on the oppressed and says, “At a certain point in their existential experience the oppressed feel an irresistible attraction towards the oppressor and his way of life. In their alienation, the oppressed want at any cost to resemble the oppressor, to imitate him, to follow him.“ There is a covetous valorization of the master’s condition in the slave, the power asymmetry privilege the master’s condition and culture. Self-depreciation is a result of this asymmetrical power structure, and while the oppressed are valorizing the image and dominant culture of their oppressor, they simultaneously devalue themselves and affirm their position of subordinance to the dominant class. They have a diffuse, magical belief in the invulnerability and power of the oppressor,” that gives the latter the power to control the word which Freire defines as, “the essence of dialogue.”

Freire continues speaking on this self-depreciation in the oppressed consciousness saying that this view leads these oppressed individuals to, “call themselves ignorant and say the professor is the one who has knowledge and to whom they should listen.” This gives significant amounts of power to the instructor that is simultaneously deprived from the oppressed student. Freire speaks heavily on this asymmetrical structure and the dependency the oppressed develop to the oppressor because of it. “Libertarian action must recognize this dependence as a weak point and must attempt through reflection and action to transform it into independence.” This transformation according to Freire is only correctly attained through dialogue. This view of the teacher as the only credited source of knowledge reflects the power asymmetry of educational institutions and allow socio-political influences valuing the dominant oppressive class to halt the academic revolution necessary for the liberation of the oppressed.

A manner in which this power asymmetry maintains itself in the classroom can be seen in what Freire refers to as “the banking concept of education.” This refers to the manner in which education has become an act of depositing, in which students are the depositories and the teacher is the depositor. Instead of communicating, the teacher issues communiqués and makes deposits, which the students patiently receive, memorize, and repeat. The narrative style of dialogue founded in the banking concept of education conceives of knowledge as “a gift bestowed by those who consider themselves knowledgeable upon those whom they consider to know nothing (xvi). This style of education vastly limits the academic freedom of the students who as Freire mentions are only allowed to go as far as “receiving, filing, and storing the deposits.”xvi This educational procedure limits the engagement of students and vastly detracts the revolutionary processes necessary for liberation. Indeed, Freire maintains that the banking concept of education is completely contrary to the style of pedagogy necessary for the development of a critical consciousness.

A Freirean concept of education places values on students’ creative power, and engagement in being active social constructors of their world, things devalued in the banking concept of education. Freire’s pedagogy of the oppressed seeks to be a humanizing pedagogy through which, revolutionary leadership establish a permanent relationship of dialogue with the oppressed and together, and they jointly criticize the control of dialogue by the oppressive regime. For Freire what is necessary cannot be found in the banking concept of education, and he emphasizes instead using the approaches of a “problem-posing education.” This liberating education creates a co-intentional education where teachers and students share and serve both academic roles simultaneously. A shared education such as this requires dialogicity. Freire states that dialogue is devalued in the banking concept of education. This shared responsibility for governing the functions of the classroom is liberating and removes the power structures inherent in the dichotomy rich, banking concept of education. “Education as the practice of freedom, as opposed to education as the practice of domination,” allows for the development of critical consciousness, the power “to perceive critically the way we exist in the world with which and in which we find our selves; seeing the world not as a static reality but as a reality in process in transformation.” Freire speaks on the necessity of dialogicity between the teacher and student in libertarian pedagogy. Freire believes in the importance of collaboration and equal participation stating that, “dialogue must not be a situation where some men name the world on behalf of others. It is an act of creation; it must not serve as a crafty instrument for the domination of one man by another.”

Building a critical awareness of reality and the need of liberation requires generating new modes of thought valuing our subjective consciousness. Freire cannot stress enough how important dialogue is to building a humanizing pedagogy, but also maintains that this dialogue needs to be one done with the oppressed as opposed to a dialogue done “for” them. Freire believes that “To exist, humanly, is to name the world, to change it.” There must be active student participation in the dialogue such that they have equal linguistic power in determining the academic space as the faculty and staff.

This collaborative, co-intentional approach to investigating reality needs to be used to forward the development of a critical consciousness of freedom in the students. Using the “problem-posing” method of education, the individual experience is the foundation and there is a focus on risk tasking and exploring the “thematic universe.” Freire defines risks as challenges perceived upon reflection and risk taking as the process of understanding the configuration of their world, which they can understand themselves better. It is important to understand each individual’s subjective consciousness in the present. Freire states that, “To investigate the generative theme is to investigate man’s thinking about reality and man’s action upon reality, which is his praxis.” Dialogue requires two individuals who have developed their consciousness and are attempting to become critically aware of the generative themes and more self aware. Freire states, “In contrast with the antidialogical and non-communicative “deposits” of the banking method of education, the program content of the problem-posing method—dialogical par excellence – is constituted and organized by the students’ view of the world, where their own generative themes are found.” Thematic investigation is a chance for individuals to strive toward awareness of reality and self-awareness in which the individual liberty and freedom to investigate is the root of the educational process. Freire believes it is of the utmost importance for libertarian pedagogy to increase conscientização, the deepening of the attitude of awareness characteristic of all emergence.” Education fueling the individual learner to pursue their curiosities and passions allow them to develop both the conscientização and self -confidence necessary for a liberating education. On this collaborative consciousness building through dialogue, Freire states that, “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.”

Noting Freire’s values in maintaining engagement and a humanistic approach to education, I believe that modern issues in higher education institutions ought to be considered through this Freirean lens of analysis. Brian Martin in his article, “Tied Knowledge: Power in Higher Education,” speaks on the domination of students in educational institutions saying that the domination over students by academic staff is a key power system within academia. Staff members determine, “the choice of material that is taught, the methods of teaching, the process of assessment and the awarding of credentials.”

Martin speaks on the limited participation of students. This comes from the drive to maintaining the hierarchal structures that have historically privileged staff members and devalued students. “The expansion of higher education has given more power to administrators, who run the system according to bureaucratic principles. The academic elites have greatest power over both students and junior academic staff,” he says. The staff controls the competition within the academic system by maintaining control over the credentials and adjudication procedures. The administration monopolizes the power to drive competition at both the student and staff level, which as Martin states, “serves to orient them to external rewards.” The decrease in academic integrity, and simultaneous increases in both student hostility, and competiveness are all fashioned by the negative and generally unsupportive environment valorizing self-promotion and mutual put-downs in the banking model of education. By controlling the socialization of the students, these higher education institutions maintain total control over students. They privilege those who conform to the academic culture. Martin states that this type of thinking disenfranchises creative students who do not conform. He says, “creativity is potentially dangerous to academics since it can threaten their control over knowledge. The academic culture in most Western societies is predominantly white, middle-class, male culture. The selection of students by their conformity to the academic culture is an effective way of excluding most members of the working class, ethnic minorities and women. In this way the academic culture is reproduced and staff power - tied to a particular class, ethic and gender base - is maintained.”

Martin continues, stating that the limitation of student participation allows for administration to control their behavior and benefit solely from the decision making process. He claims that, “Much of higher education is based on 'the banking concept of education'.” This banking concept of education attempts to transform students into passive depositories, a transformation that only benefits the oppressors who dehumanize the students by viewing them as expendable receptacles unworthy of dialogue or participation in governance. Some have called the shift towards more bureaucratic, business-modeled educational practices, the corporatization of the modern university. Higher education institutions are moving toward policies of Freire’s banking concept of education, and serious consequences have resulted such as: academic striving at both the student and staff levels, limitations on both academic freedom and student participation, as well as the maintenance of institutionalized academic oppression.

Ellen Shrecker in her article, “Academic Freedom in the Corporate University,” defines academic freedom as, “The right of scholars to inquire and speak freely, according to the standards of their profession, without interference or fear of retribution. Their ability to enjoy this right is, however, contingent on local norms and social practices that are vulnerable to political interference and competing interests.” Proponents of academic freedom would align themselves with a Freirean pedagogy valuing revolutionary praxis. The freedom is the one necessary for leaders who are attempting to break the mold and teach in a manner unorthodox to the dominant culture. Shrecker states, “Social harm is the classic rationale for censorship. Ideas can literally be revolutionary. They can undermine cherished beliefs and break the grip of tyrants. That is why provocative ideas need protection and why freedom of speech and conscience was such a revolutionary concept centuries back.“ It is imperative for libertarian pedagogy to break away from this banking concept of education. One manner of allowing for student engagement, critical reflection of reality, and active development of a critical consciousness in higher education can come through an acceptance of student movements for social justice and activist work on campuses. According to Robert Rhoads in the article, Learning from Students as Agents of Social Change: Toward an Emancipatory Vision of the University,

“Universities need to embrace forms of teaching and learning that promote increased awareness and understanding of the ways in which social forces act on people’s lives to produce and reproduce inequalities. Consciousness raising activities of many student movements offer insight into how pedagogical strategies might be used to raise important conversations about social justice.”

There is a need for change in educational institutions, and this change requires the same dialogue that Freire highlights in the text. In order to liberate those wronged by inequalities of power, false myths of opportunity, and internalized belief systems that devalue themselves, it is important to develop critical pedagogies that liberate those oppressed groups. It is important to engage the individual and allow them to attain a critical consciousness of their situation as the foundation for the libertarian praxis. Paulo Freire sees the use of educational styles valuing the banking concept of modern education, and the engagement of students into conformity with the inherent socio-political power dynamics as the source of the reproduction of oppression in educational systems. Freire’s emphasis on problem-posing education would suggest that he would be strongly opposed to the corporatization of the modern higher education institution which is turning to policies following the business concept of education. Indeed Freire would blame the lack of access to knowledge and modes of thought, the systems of academic oppression, and disenfranchisement of certain students through academic constraints, to an educational pedagogy designed “for” the oppressed by the oppressor to maintain power dynamics.

Freire calls for a libertarian pedagogy that is horizontal in nature and allows for a fluid instructional method that emphasizes experiential learning and social justice. This pedagogy of the oppressed allows for the consciousness shift necessary to have everyone implicated in the learning process critically understand their power in controlling the social structure they are apart of.

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