The Pedagogy of the Oppressed

In January, I read CLR James’ The Black Jacobins – Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution, the definitive account of the uprising of the slaves of San Domingo (now Haiti) that led to the eventual abolition of slavery all over the world. I couldn’t put it down – stayed glued to to it for two days straight. Intense experience. Obviously, I need to re-read it, this time in a calmer frame of mind.

In February, I read the first three chapters of Paulo Freire’s The Pedagogy of the Oppressed. I couldn’t read the last chapter because it’s not available online, so I’m at the mercy of a friend who has his own copy and has promised to photocopy the last chapter for me (the most resourceful book people in Lahore haven’t been able to find a single copy for sale anywhere, though we did find out that an Urdu translation had been published but is now out of print). As I was telling a friend afterwards, this book answers all my questions about teaching methodology and quite a few also about communicating across boundaries of class and culture.

As I read through it, I had those ecstatic moments of recognition, of connection coming upon a line that linked me to a conversation with one or the other friend. I thought it’d be an interesting idea to record here some of the forwards I made out of the bits I cited:

1. To the doctor with the most eclectic taste in music ever: “reading this, listening to Explosions in the the Sky… it becomes possible to hope.”

2. To the human rights worker who despises communism and generally favours property rights, who’s gradually going cynical in the face of the horrors she sees:

But almost always, during the initial stage of the struggle, the oppressed, instead of striving for liberation, tend themselves to become oppressors, or “sub-oppressors.” The very structure of their thought has been conditioned by the contradictions of the concrete, existential situation by which they were shaped. Their ideal is to be men; but for them, to be men is to be oppressors. This is their model of humanity. This phenomenon derives from the fact that the oppressed, at a certain moment of their existential experience, adopt an attitude of “adhesion” to the oppressor. Under these circumstances they cannot “consider” him sufficiently clearly to objectivize him — to discover him “outside” themselves. This does not necessarily mean that the oppressed are unaware that they are downtrodden. But their perception of themselves as oppressed is impaired by their submersion in the reality of oppression. At this level, their perception of themselves as opposites of the oppressor does not yet signify engagement in a struggle to overcome the contradiction;[2] the one pole aspires not to liberation, but to identification with its opposite pole.

In this situation the oppressed do not see the “new man as the person to be born from the resolution of this contradiction, as oppression gives way to liberation. For them, the new man or woman themselves become oppressors. Their vision of the new man or woman is individualistic; because of their identification with the oppressor they have no consciousness of themselves as persons or as members of an oppressed class. It is not to become free that they want agrarian reform, but in order to acquire land and thus become landowners — or; more precisely, bosses over other workers. It is a rare peasant who, once “promoted” to overseer, does not become more of a tyrant towards his former comrades than the owner himself. This is because the context of the peasant’s situation, that is, oppression, remains unchanged. In this example, the overseer, in order to make sure of his job, must be as tough as the owner — and more so. Thus is illustrated our previous assertion that during the initial stage of their struggle the oppressed find in the oppressor their model of “manhood.”

Even revolution, which transforms a concrete situation of oppression by establishing the process of liberation, must confront thus phenomenon. Many of the oppressed who directly or indirectly participate in revolution intend — conditioned by the myths of the old order — to make it their private revolution. The shadow of their former oppressor is still cast over them.

3. To some of my activist friends:

Freedom is acquired by conquest, not by gift. It must be pursued constantly and responsibly. Freedom is not an ideal located outside of man; nor is it an idea which becomes myth. It is rather the indispensable condition for the quest for human completion.

[…]

However, the oppressed, who have adapted to the structure of domination in which they are immersed, and have become resigned to it, are inhibited from waging the struggle for freedom so long as they feel incapable of running the risks it requires. Moreover, their struggle for freedom threatens not only the oppressor, but also their own oppressed comrades who are fearful of still greater repression. When they discover within themselves the yearning to be free, they perceive that this yearning can be transformed into reality only when the same yearning is aroused in their comrades. But while dominated by the fear of freedom they refuse to appeal to others, or to listen to the appeals of others, or even to the appeals of their own conscience. They prefer gregariousness to authentic comradeship; they prefer the security of conformity with their state of unfreedom to the creative communion produced by freedom and even the very pursuit of freedom.

azadi, azadi, azadi… nov 07 to may 08*… over and over again, we returned to the theme of freedom… instinctively, passionately, devotedly, in guilt even, in despair, back again with hope, over and over and over again.

* just the period of my active participation in protests

4. To a young telecommunications professor at a recently privatised university, who’d recently been telling me about his travails dealing with the after-effects of three years of incompetence in his department:

Reading the opening paragraph of Chapter 2 reminded me of your upcoming workshop:

A careful analysis of the teacher-student relationship at any level inside or outside the school, reveals its fundamentally narrative character This relationship involves a narrating Subject (the teacher) and patient, listening objects (the students). The contents, whether values or empirical dimensions of reality, tend in the process of being narrated to become lifeless and petrified. Education is suffering from narration sickness.

The teacher talks about reality as if it were motionless, static, compartmentalized, and predictable. Or else he expounds on a topic completely alien to the existential experience of the students. His task is to “fill” the students with the contents of his narration — contents which are detached from reality, disconnected from the totality that engendered them and could give them significance. Words are emptied of their concreteness and become a hollow, alienated, and alienating verbosity.

The outstanding characteristic of this narrative education, then, is the sonority of words, not their transforming power. “Four times four is sixteen; the capital of Para is Belem.” The student records, memorizes, and repeats these phrases without perceiving what four times four really means, or realizing the true significance of “capital” in the affirmation “the capital of Para is Belem,” that is, what Belem means for Para and what Para means for Brazil.

5. To an ex-colleague, enraged at our complicity in the “War on Terror”, at our pusillanimous acquiescence to all American demands, at our oh-so-fashionable buying into Sufism with its pacific message:

and these lines reminded me of you: “The educated individual is the adapted person, because she or he is a better “fit” for the world. Translated into practice, this concept is well suited to the purposes of the oppressors, whose tranquility rests on how well people fit the world the oppressors have created, and how little they question it.”

6. To the great Pink Floyd fan:

It’s as if “The Wall” were just a transcription in another medium of Friere’s ideas:

This solution is not (nor can it be) found in the banking* concept. On the contrary, banking education maintains and even stimulates the contradiction through the following attitudes and practices, which mirror oppressive society as a whole:

(a) the teacher teaches and the students are taught;
(b) the teacher knows everything and the students know nothing;
(c) the teacher thinks and the students are thought about;
(d) the teacher talks and the students listen — meekly;
(e) the teacher disciplines and the students are disciplined;
(f) the teacher chooses and enforces his choice, and the students comply;
(g) the teacher acts and the students have the illusion of acting through the action of the teacher;
(h) the teacher chooses the program content, and the students (who were not consulted) adapt to it;
(i) the teacher confuses the authority of knowledge with his or her own professional authority, which she and he sets in opposition to the freedom of the students;
(j) the teacher is the Subject of the learning process, while the pupils are mere objects.

* He takes “banking education” to mean the kind in which the teacher merely deposits ideas and concepts in the minds of the students.

7. To an old friend who used to teach English and direct the school plays:
Also reminded me of your play Translations [an Anglo-Irish play about the cultural genocide practised by the English colonists in Ireland]

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