Paulo Freire’s writings represent a powerful force in a radicalism that sees education as the means towards liberation. As one who returned to school later in life, I know that education is a tool that anyone can and should use. Freire sees education as essential to liberation, that and a critical curiosity. In my education both in and out of school, I’ve learned a similar lesson.
Paulo Freire believes that the oppressed can be restored to a state of empowerment by an application of critical dialectic with the oppressor. Only when oppressor and oppressed finally speak within the full creative sphere of equality can the bonds of oppression be broken. The concept of Buddhist compassion comes to mind as I ponder Freire’s insistence on critical understanding. Freire envisions integration and acceptance when the two sides of oppression work towards a creative, and even loving, conjunction. This affirming vision inspires me.
For Freire, radicalism is a positive term suggesting action towards his utopian—what I might call spiritual—goal of liberation. He states, “Radicalism, nourished by a critical spirit, is always creative” (Freire, Pedagogy, 1993, p. 37). Freire means the embracing creative act of understanding. Oppressor and oppressed can come together only through critical understanding. As he also writes, “Radicalism criticizes and thereby liberates” (Freire, Pedagogy, 1993, p. 37). Rather than a sniping diminishment of a question or problem, Freire’s sense of criticism here is the balanced assessment of that question or problem. I see in this radicalism a process, a continuing act.
This process of change that Freire advocates requires exceptional sensitivity as well as courage. It also demands constant rigor. Freire believes that the responsibility for change remains in the hands of the oppressed. “This, then, is the great humanistic and historical task of the oppressed: to liberate themselves and their oppressors as well” (Freire, Pedagogy, 1993, p. 44). Difficulty lies in how the oppressed have “been conditioned by the contradictions of the concrete, existential situation by which they were shaped” (Freire, Pedagogy, 1993, p. 45). They “adopt an attitude of ‘adhesion’ to the oppressor” (Freire, Pedagogy, 1993, p. 45). How, then, to break that adhesion?The last lines of a poem by the English poet William Blake can usefully be quoted here. The poem, “The Grey Monk”, springs from the poverty and injustice that Blake saw and lived in nineteenth century London. Those social conditions, which much influenced Charles Dickens as well, resonate with the conditions in which Freire himself lived in twentieth century Recife. Here is the powerful final couplet of Blake’s poem:
The hand of vengeance found the Bed To which the Purple Tyrant fled The iron hand crushed the Tyrants head And became a Tyrant in his stead (Blake, 1968, p. 481).
The danger is that the oppressor will just be replaced by the oppressed. Think of the Reign of Terror following the French Revolution, among so many examples. To counter that possibility, Freire offers the benefits of critical discovery. “The pedagogy of the oppressed is an instrument for their [the oppressed’s] critical discovery that both they and their oppressors are manifestations of dehumanization” (Freire, Pedagogy, 1993, p. 48). The oppressed must swerve from the possibility of becoming another iron hand.
Gerald Graff asks “how can teachers bring their political commitments into class without reproducing the pedagogical authoritarianism and bullying they want to overcome?” (Graff, 2000, p. 26.). Practically speaking, this is an extremely difficult row to hoe, for at bottom a firm and lasting commitment to ideals is needed. I mean, as I read Freire’s letters to his niece (Freire, Cristina, 1996), I wonder at all the committees and programs in which Freire participated. It seems possible for these committees and programs to turn into an inert bureaucratic mechanism, and for the participants to be overwhelmed by the machine that they’ve created. Both integrity and humility are needed to keep the critical praxis alive.
I do not find Freire himself losing his critical acumen. His work is not merely descriptive, it is active. Cornel West writes that Freire “adds new meaning to Marx’s famous eleventh thesis on Feuerbach, ‘the philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point however is to change it.’” (West, 1993, Preface). How practical of Freire! He chooses literacy as the point of contact; improving literacy is the battleground he chooses. The word contact connotes richly here: Freire’s writing shows admirable human warmth. His words are not covered in book dust, but soil from the very earth.
I believe critically understood communication is key to our broader human understanding. I believe that literature, that poetry, improve the world, because reader and writer both actively make the world. It is made by what both reader and writer put into the conversation that occurs. The conversation is made with an analytical yet embracing understanding.
The French poet Charles Baudelaire wrote a short prose piece called, in the translation that I have, “Bash the Poor”. In it, the sight of an elderly beggar brings Baudelaire to an epiphany: “A man is only equal to another man if he can prove it, and he only deserves liberty who can win it for himself.” (Baudelaire, 1989, p. 197). Baudelaire forthwith attacks the poor man. The reader must bear in mind the image of Baudelaire that he himself fostered, of an effete, world-weary dandy. This direct action on Baudelaire’s part is thus nothing but hilarious, especially as the elderly beggar eventually gets the better of the poet. At that point, Baudelaire concedes the fight and lauds the beggar for understanding Baudelaire’s newfound theory of social action.
Of course, I do not offer Baudelaire’s piece as an exacting instance of Freire’s social theory, but it does energetically portray, however comically, a sense of the positive dialectic that Freire posits. Embedded in Freire’s sense of dialectic, which is conversation imbued with creative curiosity, are two ideas: reflection and action. Both must be present for positive growth to occur.
Freire advocates an educational change away from what he calls “the banking concept of education” (Freire, Pedagogy, 1993, p. 72). The metaphor is of the student as an empty vessel into which the teacher deposits learning. I think information can indeed be deposited that way. To make use of that information, in whatever field, however, demands a critical praxis. This praxis is the energy of attention. This is learning in its most positive and enduring sense. This is education.
When people speak of holistic medicine, they mean that the human body should be regarded as a whole system consisting of many interconnected elements. Society likewise is a system of interconnected elements. The poor, the disenfranchised, the marginalized cannot be removed from the system, cannot be ignored, except through violence and subjugation. I see Freire as giving equal atomic weight to the poor and illiterate as to the oppressor. Dialectic connects the elements. Dialectic and communication make the system a whole.
Speaking of oppressor and oppressed, Freire writes: “Only the power that springs from the weakness of the oppressed will be sufficiently strong to free both” (Freire, Oppressed, 1993). This is one of the most beautiful sentences in Pedagogy of the Oppressed. The oppressor always has a weakness, for the oppressor is always dehumanized. It is our humanity, at its most active, curious, and embracing, that can break the bonds of injustice. I must quote “The Grey Monk" once more:
But vain the Sword & vain the Bow They never can work Wars overthrow The Hermits prayer & the Widows tear Alone can free the world from fear For a Tear is an intellectual thing And a Sigh is a sword of an Angel King And the bitter groan of the Martyrs woe Is an Arrow from the Almighties bow (Blake, 1968, p. 481).
I see Blake and Freire routing the tyrant with compassionate energy. Their compassion is one that sees ignorance and poverty as curable. Furthermore, they see that the tools for this cure are in hand. The beauty of Freire’s thesis lies in the very challenge he puts forward. He shows the illiterate and oppressed a means by which the world can be made, can be constantly remade. He shows a living, ever-regenerating process. The tools needed for liberation are available to all. The discrepancies of an unjust, dehumanized society can be met with a compassionate resistance of that dehumanization. Then, maybe, the hungry shall hunger no more.