Pedagogy of the Oppressed

I had never heard of Pedagogy of the Oppressed until a few years ago, when a teacher at a PD session recounted her seminal first reading of Paulo Freire’s famous 1968 book . . .  and everyone else was nodding except me. Since then I’ve done more reading in ed theory and paid more attention to ed reform trends.  Not surprisingly, I’ve been seeing Pedagogy popping up everywhere.  In ed circles, if there’s one patron saint, it’s either John Dewey or Freire.  Since I just spent a few months reading Dewey, I figured it was high time to read Freire.  This past month, I finally did.

Before I go further, let me admit that I went into this fully prepared for Freire to be . . .  not my cup of tea. Social reconstructionism is just not where I come from as a teacher. It played little role in my own educational background, didn’t factor much into my teacher prep, and, for much of my professional career, it was not the focus anywhere that I have worked.  Only recently, through my wider involvement in school reform, and perhaps through the general political era we’re living in now, have I come into more contact with Freire-inspired teaching and ideas.

Perhaps it is more accurate to say I was wary.  While everything I’d read about Dewey was intriguing and made me think that he was behind everything important we were doing in the classroom, Freire’s name usually seemed to be mentioned by people making radical critiques of education and society.  I knew he was associated with critical theory and critical pedagogy, both of which I’ve also become quite wary of. The Dewey people were always saying that school is boring; the Freire people were saying that schools enact violence. The Dewey people wanted learning by doing — farm schools, internships, academic credit for doing reiki, students learning math by building sheds.  The Freire people wanted to make sure that all math was taught via strict anti-racist methods, or that schools “promlematicize” certain “oppressive” topics, such as personal responsibility, voting for moderate Democrats, or listening to Lynyrd Skynyrd. The Dewey people were Hip. The Freire people were Woke. So I definitely approached Pedagogy of the Oppressed with a certain hesitance.

The Introduction:  Not a Good Sign

In the introduction, Donald Macedo, a former colleague of Freire, strikes an immediately defensive tone.  How dare a coworker of Macedo’s (who he says he respects because she is “politically aggressive”) make the mistake of suggesting that some readers might be “put off by” Freire’s “Marxist jargon”?  Macedo criticizes her and other “mainstream academics” for prizing clarity of language, basically labeling them all as classist, and, for good measure, citing several examples of poor, common people who apparently had no trouble understanding Freire.  At this point, I was a little concerned. Anytime you’ve got academics saying that your jargon level is too high, or anytime you’re taking shots at colleagues in the introduction and then claiming that the common people instinctively know what you’re talking about . . .  that’s not a good sign.

The First Thing That Stood Out:  The Rhetoric

The first thing that immediately turned me off to the book was the rhetoric.  It wasn’t even so much the Marxist jargon. It was that Freire writes in a style that is both highly dramatic, but also abstract.  That makes it, for me, overheated and also imprecise.

Freire bases the whole book on two classes of people: “the oppressors” and “the oppressed.” It’s all so dramatic.  The oppressors are these awful, horrible . . . things (“people” is probably too charitable) who do really, really bad stuff, like “dehumanize” others.  They use all the tools of oppression: “violence,” “force,” “hatred,” and sometimes “rape.” They are downright “colonizers who often perpetrate “cultural invasion” which is “always an act of violence against the persons of the invaded culture.” Their awful practices ensure that “humanity is denied.”

Just a few pages into the book, I was already pretty shocked at how familiar much of this rhetoric was to me.  I have heard it coming from the mouths or keyboards of modern censorship advocates — those who wish to radically curtail free speech rights on campuses or in the country.  They label the dangers of offensive speech with just the same type of rhetoric as Freire: it is “questioning” or even “denying” the “humanity” of historically marginalized peoples — or maybe even “enacting violence” toward them.  It was very surprising to see almost the exact same rhetoric . . . in a book from 1968. It makes me wonder just how much of this modern-day woke-left censorship justification rhetoric actually comes from Freire. This alone was fascinating to discover: the language of “oppression” in Freire (who was jailed by the government in Brazil for political subversion) shown up later to support increased governmental powers of censorship.

Here is Freire:  “Any situation in which some men prevent others from engaging in the process of inquiry is one of violence.” Sounds like a speech code waiting to happen!

It’s all so very extreme.  When Freire turns his attention toward the goal of education, he’s just as dramatic.  It’s all about “liberation” and “humanization.” We’re not talking about “liberation” in terms of “being liberated by a good teacher to understand there’s something more to life than just working in a gas station like your mother.”  We are talking about using education to incite a “revolution,” a “struggle” for the “oppressed” to “regain their humanity” while avoiding becoming “hosts of the oppressor” and sometimes having the unpleasant discovery that “both they and their oppressors are manifestations of dehumanization.” Teachers had better be all-in, too.  Freire writes that becoming a critical pedagogue is a “conversion . . . so radical as not to allow of ambiguous behavior.” Well then.

I believe that this dramatic rhetoric is a large part of the book’s appeal for many of the educators I know who venerate Freire.  You buy into this stuff and you must feel like you are on a noble quest. You’re not just some under-paid civil servant doing a middling job raising standardized test scores a few points and peeling delinquents off each other during recess duty.  You’re on a holy mission to liberate the oppressed! That’s so much more exciting!!  

Plus, Freire is so abstract that the “oppressors” can be anyone: Politicians!  An “inequitable system”! Your parents! White people who’ve never admitted their white privilege and / or vote for centrist Democrats!  It’s certainly a powerful position to teach from if you feel a sense of an enemy out there, a bad guy who you have to “liberate” students from.  That feeling of purpose . . . I think that’s a powerful thing for educators who read Freire.

It’s Hard to Know Who is “Oppressed”

This is part of a more general problem I had with this book — Freire is very abstract about who the “oppressed” are and who are the “oppressors.” Perhaps this was an easy distinction in Brazil in Freire’s time, but anywhere I’ve taught, it’s not so easy to know.  I can’t imagine being a teacher ed student, newly high on Freire, trying to understand how to fit the students before him into these two opposed categories. What about the middle class African American students in the D.C. suburbs who want a traditional, teacher-based education so that they can gain access to Ivy League colleges and the corridors of power?  Are they “oppressed”? Or are they “hosts of their oppressors” — possessing a false consciousness because in fact what they really need is a politically-driven, problem-based education . . . rather than what they actually want? What happens when they rebel at this notion? Do you just keep driving? Isn’t that . . . amazingly arrogant?

What about the white, rural poor?  It’s hard to call anyone living a hand-to-mouth existence in a decrepit trailer “oppressors.” But is that what you’re going to do?  Or perhaps they too are “oppressed”? Of course, if you call them “oppressed,” then who is doing the oppressing? Ask them and they might tell you it is the white, progressive elites who run the school systems, look down their noses at these people’s cultural and vocational aspirations, vote Sanders, and, well . . .  love Paulo Freire. (Well that’s awkward, now, isn’t it?)  

Forget students — what about teachers?  What about the exacting, Essentialist, Hirsch-ian teacher — who insists his minority students cram themselves full of facts about American government — lecturing them, quizzing them, and forcing them to memorize — but whose students matriculate to top colleges and influential jobs in law and politics?  Is he an “oppressor” perpetrating the status quo? Or someone — as Hirsch would recommend — teaching the students how to make change from within? What about the folksy, student-centered activist teacher who talks current events, brings students to political rallies, but ultimately teaches all his students very little in terms of actual vocabulary and content and history?  Is he a “liberator”?

There are Different Types of Oppression, Aren’t There?

I kept thinking about this question as I read Freire.  Isn’t the kind of “oppression” practiced by an authoritarian dictator quite different than that of a liberal democracy?  I have been reading Jonathan Kozol’s Savage Inequalities recently, and the horrifying conditions to be found in the schools he writes about seem to me the result not so much of deliberate oppression as of profound neglect.  You see this in Washington, D.C., too — the wonderful, well-funded schools in the northwest are so, so different than the poorer schools in the southeast. These are just miles apart, run by the same school system.  My first job in Vermont had me making nearly half of what I’d have made in a wealthier district. Is it “oppression” when South Burlington residents allow children in the Northeast Kingdom far lower funding?  

For better or for worse, we live in a market-based capitalistic economy, one in which competition is not only tolerated, but encouraged.  Many schools even include in their mission statements wording like, “help students compete in an increasingly global economy.” We Americans want equality . . .  but we also want our kids to compete because we recognize capitalism, for all its ingenuity, is competitive and heartless. Our child will be competing for a spot in college against other children.  These capitalistic goals vie with our desire for all students to have access to a quality education. Then, too, you have the forces of localism. We are a massive, diverse country, with a tradition of decentralized authority, especially in education.  South Burlington wants kids in other towns to do well enough, too . . . but they want a large percentage of their tax dollars to go to South Burlington, not to some other town miles away.

I am not saying this system is right or fair, just saying that there are inherent contradictions in the American system that make it considerably complex to understand who is the oppressed and who the oppressor, and what type of “oppression” is being done.

What is the Goal of Education, for Freire?

For Freire, it was pretty apparent to me that education has a distinctly political purpose.  I suppose it is possible to interpret all his talk about “revolution” as metaphorical, but I think that’s a stretch.  He claims at the outset that his book is addressed to “radicals” and he often writes as though he is addressing leaders of political rebellion.  He also explicitly cites Mao’s Cultural Revolution and several other revolutionary leaders. Freire’s goal for education is the political liberation of the “oppressed” and the apparent creation of a utopian, class-less society that allows all people to become fully “humanized.” I thought this was interesting — this is the first work written about education that I’ve read that has an explicitly political goal focused on direct, political action.  Certainly many other important ed books have political implications — going all the way back to Socrates’s questioning of Athenian conventions — but none ever seemed so designed to bring about explicit political outcomes.

It’s a big question:  Liberation from what, for whom?  When I was in college, I took a class devoted to the question, What is a liberal education for?  The classic, Greek idea that we studied was liberation from the conventions of one’s society — which is a Socratic education — to be replaced with an understanding of alternative ways of looking at the world, or perhaps of truth itself.  However, this does not necessarily mean liberation from particular political realities.  

Meanwhile, the classic American educational ideal is the use of education to liberate one from limited economic or social circumstances.  This is education as a tool for advancement. Again, there is no explicit political goal in this — if anything, the goal is individualistic.  

Then there is, in the writings of Dewey and many other American progressive educators, the idea of using education to liberate a student’s innate talents and natural curiosity (which has been stifled by traditional practices).  Dewey especially has a strong note of social reconstructionism in his work — the idea of using one’s talents to create a fairer, more democratic society — one in which people are collaborative, practicing socially-useful “occupations,” tolerant, and not letting the industrial economy close off people’s aspirations or shunt them into narrow, dead-end work.  That said, Dewey and the Progressives seem to me fundamentally interested in improving the existing society — making it live more up to its ideals — than starting a revolution to create a new society. And frankly I do not see any explicit calls for direct political action on the part of students or educators anywhere in Dewey’s writings.

I couldn’t help but think as I read Freire that his book is not really a book about education.  There’s nothing about curriculum, or assessment, or school conditions. It is not a book that really explores the existing school system at all in any detail.  It’s certainly not directed at educators. In fact, in the preface, he explicitly directs it toward “radicals.” That’s fitting — because it’s really a book about political involvement.  There’s a lot in here that’s sort of directed toward would-be revolutionaries or the actual leaders of political revolutions — sometimes he’s actually writing directly toward this sort of political figure.  It’s certainly strange, when you think about it, that this has become a book read by a majority of pre-service teachers in the United States.

Is Freire Interested More in Learning or Liberation?

Another issue I had with Freire is this: I wonder to what extent his goal is student learning.  Or is it a specific kind of leftist, Marxist political action? Yes, he makes a kind of constructivist argument — that the Banking Model does not allow students to think things through for themselves (and therefore have them stick) — but this is a small part of the book, and it seems to me that making things stick is not the point for him.

After all, surely the problem-based pedagogy could be used to make students become aware of the need for a wide variety of political actions — not just the kind that Freire seems to think is necessary.  Problem-based education does not necessarily result in progressive or left-wing political action resulting in somehow greater economic or social justice for everyone. In fact, it does not necessarily result in political action at all.  It is a method of learning, and that’s it.

Again, I think Freire’s end goal is political action outside the classroom.  Dewey’s was not. Dewey felt that just by employing a student-centered method — teachers not as authorities but as guides-on-the-side, students alongside each other, all working collaboratively to help one another — schools were practicing democracy.  This was an end in itself.  For Freire, the classroom is a start, but it’s not enough.

What is the Best Method of Education, for Freire?

That said, Freire does write — quite memorably — about teaching methods.  The best method of instruction, for Freire, is to get rid of the traditional model of education, which he famously calls the “Banking Model of Education,” and to replace it with what he calls “problem-posing education.” He envisions education being “acts of cognition” rather than “transferrals of information.” He wants teachers to be “critical co-investigators” who pose problems about “the world” and by doing so teach students — the oppressed, at least — to have confidence in themselves and to learn critical thinking, rather than the sort of passivity he believes the Banking Model engenders.

My first thought was, isn’t that just bread-and-butter American progressive ed thinking . . .  50 years later? I mean, John Dewey was making these same critiques of traditional approaches in the late 19th Century, right?  Freire’s critiques — that teacher-centered approaches “annul students’ creative power” or “stimulates their credulity” are pretty standard early 20th Century progressive fare.  It seemed to me that once you shuck Freire of all the revolutionary liberation talk, he’s basically just making a case for your classic student-centered, inquiry- or problem-based, guide-on-the-side progressive ed, a la Teachers College circa 1927.  He’s just doing it with a lot more dramatic, high-stakes rhetoric and with the end goal of explicit political action.

Where Freire also differs of course is that he insists the Banking Model “serves the interests of the oppressors” who want to “dominate” the “oppressed.” In other words, he appears to be making a Marxist critique that schools are not just sorting mechanisms but places that actually lock the masses into a lower status by keeping their critical thinking shackled.  

That said — and this was a major weakness of his argument, for me — since Freire never defines who “the oppressed” are, it’s hard to tell whose education, exactly, he is talking about.  He does not explain a key issue in many countries — whether education is different for the elites, whether the banking model serves them differently. There’s a well-known line of criticism in American education that says elite children receive very different, superior, more rigorous educations that encourage them to question, to learn actively, and to dream big dreams — while poor children receive rote, discipline-heavy instruction in poorly funded, segregated school districts.  But Freire does not even attempt to make this distinction, so it is hard to know if his quarrel is with teacher-centered education in general, or simply in its particular use on the “oppressed.” Is part of the problem that the “oppressed” go to segregated schools, away from the “oppressors”? Do the “oppressors” too require his problem-based education? What if this process causes them not to question the injustice of their own behavior, but the framework of the whole problem-based education itself?  What then? This has happened in many American districts — where wealthier parents question student-centered approaches, heterogeneous grouping, or a perceived lack of academic rigor.

It’s important to remember, I think, too, that Freire’s is just one — I believe, narrow — line of attack on traditional ed.  Many of the early criticisms in American education toward teacher-centered instruction have their roots in a kind of Romanticism — one that criticizes traditional, teacher-centered education for being boring, killing natural creativity and spontaneity . . .  but not because it’s part of some grand plan to oppress people. In fact, I can imagine that many of the people making these Romantic critiques were from the dominant social classes themselves — Ralph Waldo Emerson, Rousseau, or Dewey himself. They might certainly have felt that traditional ed was “oppressing” them — but not because it was part of some grand plan to depress their economic or political influence.  

Correlation does not equal causation.  Just because traditional ed is the dominant model in countries or districts that have deprivation does not mean that this model of education is employed for just that purpose, or is even the cause, or one of the main causes of that deprivation.

In the end, I just felt that Freire’s way of thinking seemed like a very narrow, even cynical way of criticizing something that, yes, I very much agree should be criticized.  I think it’s cynical to claim that this whole approach is just about the elites maintaining societal power and reconciling people to their social positions in life — all perpetrated by well-meaning teachers who have a false consciousness.  There are a lot of reasons to disagree with this. The first that comes to mind — since I have just been reading E.D. Hirsch — is that banking knowledge can be taken as a positive thing: the accumulation of cultural capital. This is the goal of Hirsch’s Core Knowledge program: to transmit important cultural capital into students’ bank accounts — just the sort that elite children get at home and poor children do not (and therefore need schools to give them).  I have to say, I have a lot more belief in what Hirsch says than in the Freireian ideal that we’re going to create a “revolution” that will lead to a radically more just society.

The other thing that bothers me about Freire’s approach — and this is something I remember Hirsch saying — is that you can’t get something from nothing.  You can’t just start from present day problems and magically learn important content. There has to be a way to reconcile this kind of student interest with subject matter — otherwise you’re falling into the same traps Dewey was always warning that the “new” Progressive educators were falling into — kids are learning to build stuff, or make stuff, or they’re having fun, or you know, becoming “conscious” and learning to participate in political revolutions . . .  but they’re not really learning to read or do math.

It’s helpful to remember here that Freire honed this “pedagogy of the oppressed” with adult peasants in Brazil.  He was not writing about teaching children — I think that’s a critical difference to keep in mind. The idea of teaching very young children to become politically conscious is problematic at best.  As a professional teacher of children, it’s hard not to have the sneaking suspicion that Freire’s teaching experience with actual young people was decidedly minimal, and that projections of his methods onto children are at best unsupported by any kind of research or even experience.

I also question how extreme Freire’s vision of teacher-centered learning is.  His traditional teacher is a dictator, forcing students to memorize inconsequential knowledge.  Therefore, we must go straight to the other side — all student- and problem-based learning. But I think here about John Hattie, probably the world’s foremost educational researcher — and his confident dismissal of problem- or inquiry-based teaching approaches — his years and years of meta-analyses had clearly shown him that more traditional means (“teacher as activator,” he called it) worked far better for student learning.  Putting aside the weaknesses of problem-based teaching, there’s a huge difference between teacher-as-tyrant and teacher-as-activator. But you don’t get any sense of that in Freire. The traditional teacher is simply the agent of an oppressive state, and that’s it.

Teacher as Dictator

Speaking of teacher-as-tyrant, here we get to what worries me the most about this.  There’s a danger inherent in explicitly political teaching that you replace one kind of teacher-centered education with another.  Instead of the oppressive content-centered pedagogue droning on at the front and perpetrating the oppressive status quo, you’re left with the self-styled leftist radical educator indoctrinating the students with her own political beliefs.  Freire believes the end of education is making, “oppression and its causes objects of reflection by the oppressed, and from that reflection will come their necessary engagement in the struggle for their liberation.” Will it, though? How can we be so sure?  And what, after all, is so “necessary”? According to whom?

This has become more and more of an issue, in my view, during the Trump era.  So many teachers realize there’s an issue — that much of what Donald Trump appears to stand for (bullying others, distrust of reason and evidence, avowed self-interest, racism and bigotry) is exactly counter to the lessons most teachers believe are important to teach students.  As a result, I believe that many educators now believe that schools must work harder to combat the dark forces of Trumpism. But at the same time — back to Freire — you have to be careful about having explicitly partisan goals — otherwise you are simply replacing one kind of teacher-centered model with another.

Is Education Liberating in Itself?

This is the other lasting question this book leaves me with.  To what extent is education itself liberating — or to what extent must teachers ensure that education leads to action?  Freire writes about having as his goal for students “praxis” — which he contrasts with mere reflection (which is absent action) and mere activism (which is absent reflection). I find it hard to read Pedagogy any other way: while education is a step to liberation, without political action, it is not true liberation.

For E.D. Hirsch on the other hand, liberation occurs when students can speak the cultural language well enough to participate fully as democratic citizens.  This liberates students from their localized cultures to be able to understand and to influence a broader, national culture. This also allows them to more effectively critique or improve society — as in the case of the Black Panthers that Hirsch cites — although it should be noted that in fact Hirsch thinks the best way to improve society is to teach all of its members to be culturally literate.  Therefore, I believe that for Hirsch, education itself is liberating.


For my own part, in the end, I disagree with Freire on most of the topics that he talks about, for the following reasons:

I believe that good education may lead to students taking actions to improve society, but that doing so is a far more complex goal for educators than I find recognition of in Freire.

I believe that while in some sense all education is political, teachers, given their immense authority, have a complex role to play in balancing the promulgation of their own individual thoughts and beliefs (or those of their community) with their job of teaching students to evaluate and question information in order to form their own beliefs.

I believe in a balance of teacher- and student-centered education, depending on a variety of purposes, situations, and goals; I do not believe that teacher-centered or student-centered education inherently embodies any political meaning.  Either one can be both “oppressive” or “liberating,” at the extremes.

I believe all education aims to strike a balance between the transmission of important cultural and historical information as well as the ability to critically examine and evaluate such information.  Aiming solely for the latter with the goal of forming a more perfect society is a sure path to misinterpreting societal ills or to repeating the mistakes of history.

I believe that while radical political action can sometimes be necessary, education in a liberal democracy — within a capitalistic, market-based economy — necessarily has a variety of additional purposes and goals.

In fact, I believe that one of the ends of education should be a respect for prudence and moderation and careful deliberation when called for, and for radical action when called for — all depending on judicious analysis of the situation and a regard for complexity.

I believe that there are a variety of causes of injustice, prejudice, and diminished opportunity, of which the educational system is just one; but I am wary of pining either too much or too little responsibility on it for causing such problems.  

I believe that there are a variety of solutions for injustice, prejudice, and diminished opportunity, of which the educational system is just one; I am wary of pining either too much or too little responsibility on it to remedy such problems.

I believe that while it’s important for educators to have a sense of purpose, it is also important for educators to be clear about what that purpose is and who it serves.  While it’s understandable and sometimes even desirable for educators to see themselves as “liberators” of students who are “oppressed,” it is important for educators to ask themselves honestly who they are liberating, from what, and for what purpose?

Lastly, I am very suspicious of anyone calling for a “revolution” in almost any context, but especially in the educational or political arenas.  I believe that in something as complex and fundamental as the American educational or political system, even small, incremental changes are hard and complex and have unforeseen consequences, sometimes dramatic ones.

It is now two days after I began this post — which has now swelled to almost 5,000 words.  Clearly reading this book inspired a great deal of thinking on my part. Even now I am not sure that I have given Freire his due or correctly interpreted what he had to say.  As I said, I came to him deeply skeptical, and I was turned off by his rhetoric almost immediately. Still, I have done my best to read and understand his ideas, and to contrast them with other thinkers, and with my own ideas.  He is deeply influential for modern educators, and I am glad I took the time to engage with him.  

As with any influential thinker, I am sure that he rewards rereading, and I intend to reread him again in the next few years, just to check to see whether I still feel the same or whether I have changed my understanding of his work or my own opinions about it.  I look forward to doing so.  

I’m also looking forward to reading my next educational “classic” sometime soon.  I have been going by Grant Wiggins’s list of his educational classics.  Right now I have “Teaching as a Subversive Activity” on the top of the stack, but I’m feeling a little burnt out on ed reading after this Freire push, so I may wait a bit on the next one.