Thoughts while reading Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed


by Heather Pang -

“A real humanist can be identified more by his trust in the people, which engaged him in their struggle, than by a thousand actions in their favor without trust.” (Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, page 60)





The banking model sounds to me like a definition of not just bad teaching, but the worst possible teaching. At the same time, it seems to me that at this point, and perhaps even when this was written, the banking model is both a brilliant summary of the worst of education and at the same time a straw man, easy to take down for its soul crushing industrial qualities? That is, the industrial image of education, and the banking model is a better description, but it amounts to the same thing, was a perfect metaphor for 19th century public education, and in some ways becomes more perfect as a descriptor of some parts of the high-stakes testing, NCLB world of public education in the US. But for those of us who teach as schools that are no way near the extreme version of the banking model as Freire sets it out, what are we left with to take away and reflect on our own practice, our own privilege in the system, and our own possible role as oppressors or at least colluding with the oppressors?   The description (begging of chapter 2) of the banking concept of education, strikes me as a characterization of the very worst in American education, the version no one wants, and many of us do not have to live, as students or as teachers.  While this very worst version does exist, and perhaps parts of it exist in almost every school, and in these versions it is a soul-crushing, anti-democratic, anti-revolutionary, dehumanizing experience, there are many better educational situations (for example good progressive schools), and many educational systems (private and public) that strive to blend some of the content cramming with more dialectical models (although they would never use that word), but these better versions are not sufficiently revolutionary and dialectic to lead to liberation.  So as the teacher at one of these places, doing good work, focused on content and critical thinking, working to provide students authentic educational experiences that make them aware, compassionate, and engaged, where am I to put the theoretical analysis? As a reader who knows of these better places, teaches in them, loves them, and believes that the inquiry, habits of mind, and critical thinking that come from these places alongside the good SAT scores and the college admissions letters, are of real human value, can I too easily dismiss this argument?  I know that my classroom and my teaching, and the classrooms and teaching of so many good teachers, do not match the banking model as described, but I am  left with a nagging suspicion that I am deluding myself.



As I read chapter 2, I wondered, as we so often do in faculty meetings and hall-way discussions, about the importance of particular subject area content, and the balance between authentic, project-based (and problem-based) learning opportunities and the need for students to know what the Constitution says and were in history the idea of liberty comes from in our modern world.



And I finally found that reference to content I was looking for, but it left me no closer to any sense of ease in my troubled thinking about radical humanist educational practice.



“The students – no longer docile listeners – are now critical co-investigators in dialogue with the teacher. The teacher presents the material to the students for their consideration, and re-considers her earlier considerations as the students express their own.” (page 81)



So in the context of a dialectical educational approach, there it is, “the material” hanging in the middle of the sentence without any more explanation of what that might be, or how it could be arrived at in a way consistent with radical notion of a new relationship between student and teacher.



How can the teacher, who is not above her students, who trusts them as she trusts humanity, and who does not set herself up as superior, but only as the one in the room with experience in a particular skill, such as using software to create 3D models, or performing algebraic functions, asking questions of a historic document, or congregating Latin verbs, teach, without setting herself up for being criticized for using her power for oppression?



The list of characteristics of the banking model on page 73 plays into this problem of the reader from a good school, trying hard, and recognizing at every corner the types of compromises made in the school day. If I am sure that my teaching does not fit into the list of things from a to j that characterize the banking model, then am I off the hook? I don’t think so. The challenge of the radical critique is blunted by this straw man. So where does that leave us?



I don’t have an answer. I want to teach how to think, not what to think.



But I do have another question about how to fit the idea of a revolutionary pedagogy into a world where the influences that set opinions for people increasingly come from outside the home and the school.



To what extent today does the indoctrination of the ruling class, the mental part of the oppression, today happen in popular culture rather than education? That is to say, can revolutionary educational practice be enough to make up for the impressions formed by advertising, TV, movies, etc.? The rude critical tone of comments on YouTube, the endless fascination with entertainment options that distract and never challenge, and the constant division of even news sources into avenues to confirm pre-existing beliefs, rather than challenge them, all serve, perhaps more powerfully than education ever could have, to indoctrinate people into a numbing belief in the inability of anything to change.



In this world of 6 second cat videos, where is the place for revolutionary education? Freire says, “Problem-posing education bases itself on creativity and stimulates true reflection and action upon reality, thereby responding to the vocation of persons as beings who are authentic only wen engaged in inquiry and creative transformation.” (page 84)



If we get there, and that is  a big if, will it all be undone by 6 seconds of a cat falling off a table? I don’t want to be that cynical, but sometime I feel that way. When I do, I go back into the classroom and think about how to do my job better, rather than all the forces that are acting against us.



Lindsay Jordan's picture

Hi Heather - thanks for your post. I'm currently studying for a professional doctorate while teaching university teachers, and have just finished the first quarter of Pedagogy of the Oppressed. I was struggling with the dichotomy of oppressed-oppressor as - like you I think - I see myself as being kind of in the middle; on one hand an object of oppression but in other ways in a position of immunity to it and also colluding with it. I'm loving the book, and finding lots of connections with other writers - not only others who draw on Marxist philosophy (David Held's Introduction to Critical Theory is the other one I'm reading at the moment). But I do need to figure out my own position and role in regards to these ideas. So anothing that brings them back to the context of the developed world in 2014 is useful! Cheers,