Freire’s Purpose: Humanization

Pedagogy of the Oppressed (Pgs 72-86) Paulo Freire (1968) | Francis  O'Leary's Working Title

A few years ago, I wrote a blog post about my first time reading Paulo Freire’s classic 1968 educational tract, Pedagogy of the Oppressed.  This is surely one of the most influential books ever written about education, and Freire himself has been more influential on modern education than any other single figure since John Dewey.  At the very least, it’s a text every educator should read and come to terms with.  

And yet, as you can see from the blog post linked above, the first time I read Freire, I was left scratching my head at his popularity and eminence.  I was put off by the crude Marxist binary that he jams all of humanity into, by the the revolutionary tone, by the quasi-communist politics, by the hyperbolic-but-vague language, by Donald Macedo’s defensive introduction, and especially by the fact that the book doesn’t seem like it’s focused on education at all, but about training students to enact Freire’s preferred political outcomes.  It wasn’t for me.

I had to re-read the famous second chapter again last year for a grad school class, and this time I really tried to keep an open mind.  Say what you want about Freire, but the man was a serious thinker.  But still . . .  a repeat exposure didn’t do much to convert me.


Recently, I happened to purchase my own copy of Freire’s famous book; my previous readings had been done with library books.  I’m a bibliophile, a man who loves the idea of having a personal library, especially one encompassing all the most important books in my professional field.  And surely, as much as I can’t seem to grasp the reasons why, Pedagogy of the Oppressed is important.  So when the new copy came, I resolve to spend some time with it, reading it again, and this time trying to really understand it even more carefully.  I’d originally planned to write about Freire’s actually teaching methodology, but I’d hardly made it past the opening line of the book before I had a deeper and more fundamental question in mind. 

That is:  What is Freire’s main purpose, anyway?


The Problem of the First Few Lines

In my view, the most important question to ask about any thinker is, “What is his ultimate goal?” The answer for Freire lies in the mysterious first line of his book: 

“While the problem of humanization has always, from an axiological point of view, been humankind’s central problem, it now takes on the character of an inescapable concern.” 

That line is something else.  It’s a grand claim (“human kind’s central problem”), a call to action (“inescapable concern”) and a hanging question (what does he mean by “humanization,” and why is it a “problem”?).

What’s striking is that Freire hooks you in with that momentous first line but then does not follow up on it whatsoever in the next few pages.  In the first chapter there are teasing references:  he calls humanization “the people’s vocation” and describes a person as “an uncompleted being” who possesses “the vocation of becoming more fully human.” He also calls humanization the “ontological vocation to be more fully human” (74), “the struggle to be more fully human,” to enjoy a “fuller humanity.” This seems to involve greater “freedom” or “liberation”; Freire repeats some variety of these last few words and phrases many times for the rest of the book, and he constantly makes reference to the Hegelian dialectic he sets up between humanization and dehumanization.  This leads to a number of invocations of “humanity denied” and even of the “necrophillia” of the oppressor class. 

By the second chapter, Freire is again leaving clues, writing, “apart from inquiry, apart from the praxis, individuals cannot be truly human” (72). He also refers a few times to the “ontological vocation [which] is humanization” (75) and to “authentic liberation – the process of humanization” (79).  

He comes closest to defining what he means by humanization right at the end of Chapter 2, when he contrasts the banking concept of education with his favored problem-posing education.  The former – because it strips people of the understanding that their own consciousness exists in the world (not apart from the world) denies “people their ontological and historical vocation of becoming more fully human” (84).  Again, there’s the same repeated phrase, just as frustratingly vague, but this time, he follows by suggesting that problem-posing education supports humanization because it stimulates “action upon reality” (praxis, as he calls it) which thus responds “to the vocation of persons as beings who are authentic only when engaged in inquiry and creative transformation” (84).  This seems to link to his earlier statements about humans as uncomplete, and in the process of *becoming” more fully human.  He writes that human beings are beings “in the process of becoming” who know that they are incomplete.  But they must be allowed to enjoy their own “decision-making” and “inquiry” and to have influence over the world (85).  

By the third chapter, Freire writes, “To exist, humanly, is to name the world, to transform the world” (88).  Freire – somewhat obscurely, I think – seems to equate the practice of dialogue with the practice of transforming the world.  He writes, “ . . . it is in speaking their word that people, by naming the world, transform it . . . [and] achieve significance as human beings” (88).  

The rest of the book is more of the same. 


So as best I can tell, what Freire means by achieving “humanization” seems to be the ability to participate in praxis, which he famously defines as, “”reflection and action upon the world order to transform it.” 

This means that human beings must reflect on the world, particularly in the sense of being able to understand that reality is dynamic rather than static (and that it is the product largely of human intentions) – and that human beings can influence and shape – and to act on that reflection.  This last part is crucial:  It’s not enough just to understand that one is a “being in the world,” but (and here Marx’s famous dictum from his “Theses on Feuerbach” comes to mind) one must change the world.  That’s the praxis, and that is how, as best I can tell, true humanization is achieved for Freire.  

Man must be able to understand himself as being in a dialectical relationship with the world (shaped by it and shaper of it), and most critically he must be able to shape it in turn himself, to be in some sense liberated to be master of his own destiny.  As Freire writes at the end of Chapter 2, “The world – no longer something to be described with deceptive words – becomes the object of that transforming action by men and women which results in their humanization” (86).

Freire also sees humans in dialectical tension with factors that limit their ability to transform the world (what he calls “limit situations”) and the need to overcome these obstacles in order to be able to act on the world (what Freire calls “limit-acts”).  Freire also uses the term “subjects” to describe beings who are in control of their own destiny (achieving fuller humanity) compared to “objects” – those who are not free to write their own fate.  All of this happens in the context of history: the limit-situations that arise in one era are historically determined and are different from those in a different era.  These limits seem to be both materialist and idealistic, and understanding them is a consistent challenge for human beings, and primarily an educational one, to be undertaken with other people through the process of dialogue.

The major key to understand in the end, I think, is that for Freire, while limit-situations are products of history, they are not inherent realities, rooted in nature, but man-made creations subject entirely to change by human beings.  Freire’s problem-posing education, then, is a way of getting the oppressed to view themselves as actually having agency in shaping their lives; their challenges are not  the result of unchangeable forces, but represent concrete problems to be solved and fixed by solutions that Freire calls, in a wonderfully dry phrase, “untested feasibilities.”


Looking to Another Source

Just to make sure I was understanding Freire’s vision of what it means to be fully human, I consulted a secondary source: a journal article from 2001 called  “On Paulo Freire’s Philosophy of Praxis and the Foundations of Liberation Education” by Ronald David Glass.  Glass seems to support my own interpretation of what Freire means by “humanization.” For Glass, it’s – just as I thought – essentially praxis:

“Freire’s theory was based on an ontological argument that posited praxis as a central defining feature of human life and necessary condition of freedom. Freire contended that human nature is expressed through intentional, reflective, meaningful activity situated within dynamic historical and cultural contexts that shape and set limits on that activity.

“Freire argued that the struggle to be free, to be human, to make history and culture from the given situation, is an inherent possibility in the human condition. The struggle is necessary because the situation contains not only this possibility for humanization, but also for dehumanization. Dehumanization makes people objects of history and culture, and denies their capacity to also be self-defining subjects creating history.”

Glass agrees that humanization for Freire – the apparent goal of his pedagogy – is praxis: being able to affect change in the world based on action and reflection in combination with others.

Glass also offers a useful contrast of Dewey and Freire.  For Dewey, humans are fairly connected to animals in that they attempt to adapt to their environments, relying on their intelligence and deliberative processes.  Glass writes a succinct summary of Dewey’s vision of the ideal society and the view of humans from which this belief ascends:

“Dewey argued that the same conditions that maximize this evolutionary adaptive potential are precisely those linked to the formation of the ideal society: full participation, open communication with minimal barriers, critical experimental practice  aimed at overcoming problems, and close attention to the consequences of actions. These conditions explain both the power of science, which refines them to produce soundly warranted knowledge, and the strength of democracy, which emphasizes their implementation in politics.”

On the contrary, Freire focuses less on humans’ continuity with animals, and more on our differences: our ability to shape our own world and our own history.  Glass writes:  “Freire’s humanistic view reverses the emphasis and attempts to integrate deliberative and communicative actions in their particular and distinctive role in producing culture and history.” 

I think the difference can be boiled down to this: Dewey sees humans more as adapters to new and unforeseen circumstances – planners and experimentalists in the face of new and challenging situations – while Freire sees humans more as decisive shapers of history.  Hence why for Dewey scientific experimentalism and collaborative deliberation seem like ends in themselves (both educationally and practically), while for Freire, deliberation and action only matter in so far as they produce a kind of revolutionary political change, one that does not only better adapt humans to reality but almost cows reality to human desires, particularly to those of the oppressed.  Hence Dewey’s politics are progressive, while Freire’s are revolutionary.  


There is a further wrinkle in Freire’s concept of humanization – and I had to go hunting in a different book of his, 1985’s The Politics of Education, to find it, and it seems critical.  Here Freire draws a further distinction between humanizing the world and humanization itself. “For men,” he writes, “as beings of praxis, to transform the world is to humanize it, even if making the world human may not yet signify the humanization of men . . . [This] process . . . can lead to his humanization as well as his dehumanization . . . “ (70).

This distinction seems especially confounding, given that Freire seems to be splitting hairs, and seems to undercut many of the apparent definitions of “humanization” given in Pedagogy.  Furthermore, in the passage before and after the quote given above, Freire goes no further in defining just what he means by “humanization.”   

So humanization is not just acting on the world in order to remake it.  After all, when the oppressors exert their will on the world, Freire does not consider that humanization, but “dehumanization.” This seems inconsistent with all his writing about inquiry and transforming the world, and raises other problems, considered below.

Some Interpretations

So what to make of all this?

At the very least, I feel I have hit upon Freire’s main goal; I do believe that the end point of his educational program is the synthesizing of the oppressor-oppressed binary in order to achieve “humanization” for all human beings . . .  whatever that is.  So this is certainly the central core of Freire’s mission.

But it’s hard not to come away from this thinking that Freire’s definition of “humanization” is an obscure one.  It is certainly not intuitive; Freire does not define humanization as either the shaping of nature by human beings, nor does he mean living more in tune with some kind of essential human nature.  Instead, he seems to mean that humanization is the living up to of some kind of innate potential for what humans can be.  In this sense, his vision of “humanization” is an aspiration.  Because humans are incomplete beings in history, they have the potential to move toward greater humanization, or to move toward dehumanization.  Humanization is an aspiration, possibly one that can never be brought to full completion.

Freire’s claims about the primacy of his goal of humanization can also feel misleading.  He seems to present humanization as ontological – a goal that comes from the nature of their being itself.  Yet in reality, when you look closely, Freire’s argument is really a normative or moral one about the goal we *should* be pursuing axiological, as he put it in the first line of the book.  And far from being something self evident in the nature of man, Freire’s reasoning for buying into his preferred vision is questionable.  A good example is his splitting hairs over what “humanziation” means: it’s not the actions of the oppressors, but only the actions of the oppressed, participating in praxis.  Glass raises this problem:

“From the point of view of the logic of ontology and historicity, persons who dominate or oppress others are nonetheless still human and expressing some primordial aspects of existence.”  Glass raises the prospect of Nietzsche’s Super Man, who transforms the world through his own actions, but whose amoral, even unethical behavior Freire would clearly reject as oppressive and dehumanizing.

According to Glass, this demonstrates the flaw in Freire’s argument.  Freire can only object to this alternative vision on ethical or political grounds, not on ontological ones.  Sure, one can argue that the Super Man is the wrong vision to endorse because it’s immoral, but that’s a moral argument.  Freire seems to be trying to make an ontological argument – to say that somehow his preferred vision – call him the Liberatory Man – is somehow the most “human.” 

It’s important to remember tha Freire attempts to argue his point by teasing out (however obliquely) man’s essential core of being, and holding this up as the apparent ideal.  He does this by comparing humans with animals, making the somewhat Marxist argument that only humans can shape their world through both actions *and* reflection (aka praxis).  

But this apparently objective observation (an “is” argument) in no way favors the Liberatory Man over the Super Man.  Because of course, the Super Man can deliberate before wreaking havoc.  Instead, Freire claims that the Liberatory Man is the true embodiment of what human beings *are* because he alone ensures the humanization of other human beings.  He alone works toward the collective liberation of humanity.  The Super Man, because he oppresses others, is warped in his nature by this pursuit and therefore not the true embodiment of what human beings “are*.

Freire writes:

“The pursuit of full humanity, however, cannot be carried out in isolation or individualism, but only in fellowship and solidarity; therefore it cannot unfold in the antagonistic relations between oppressors and oppressed. No one can be authentically human while he prevents others from being so” (emphasis mine).

That is a striking argument, and one that feels central to what Freire is up to.  In my view, behind all of Freire’s theorizing, behind all of his dialectical reasoning, behind all of his methodology, lies this fascinating claim about what it means to be human.  To be “authentically human,” for Freire, means not only being able to shape the world yourself, but not keeping anyone else from doing so either.

I find this claim misleading.  It’s one thing to say that one cannot be a *good* human being if one oppresses others.  But to say that one cannot be a “authentically human” because one imposes one’s will on others is a particularly misleading claim in my view.  At its best, it’s the insight of the Hegelian Master-Slave dialectic, in which the fact that one is the “master” over another makes him less human.  And yet, it’s hard not to think that there’s something innately human – if dark – about the desire to impose one’s will.  Taken as a moral statement, it’s hard to disagree that we should treat others as ends, not means; as subjects, not objects.  But I can’t accept that somehow treating others well somehow makes one more fundamentally human; that encouraging and fostering the conditions that allow others to live well somehow makes one more authentically human.  One doesn’t follow from the other; that argument seems like a non sequitur to me.  

Instead of saying that the goal is “humanization,” say that the goal is to become a better, less oppressive human.  I’m fine with that.  There are surely a lot of questions that can be asked about that, but it’s certainly a worthy goal.  But I get the strong sense that Freire is trying to make his argument seem more fundamental and important.

So being able to “transform the world,” in Freire’s view – as best I understand it – means something akin to changing the world in conjunction with others via the praxis, in such a way that he is not oppressing anyone else, even inadvertently.

Freire’s “humanization” requires a specific kind of reality-shaping; after all, Freire’s desired political outcome is expressed as a Hegelian dialectical synthesis: from oppressor-oppressed to what he calls the “new man or woman” who presumably has moved past these natural human impulses that would often call us to behave in ways that intentionally or perhaps unintentionally oppress others.

In this sense, true “humanization” is expressed as a kind of overcoming of human nature.  Freire is not explicit about this – largely because he is never explicit about what human nature is (or whether it exists), but I strongly believe one can infer the answers to these questions quite clearly in his work.  

I believe that Freire implies that the whole enterprise of synthesis is a kind of overcoming of humans’ natural impulses to oppress each other.  I say this because he writes over and over again that the oppressed will want to become the oppressors themselves once they gain power.  Freire repeatedly warns evolutionary leaders (who often seem like the real audience toward whom he is directing the book!) of this over and over again, to the point where he surely believes this will-to-power is some kind of innate driver of human beings.  Therefore his “humanization” represents a call to overcome or transcend our natural impulses.  Instead of persecuting his former oppressors, the “new man” will presumably feel a higher calling toward his fellow men, a kind of new moral commitment to being a better person than his one-time-oppressors – a kind of Christian love of one’s former captor, and a kind of Christian desire to convert these former foes – all of which somehow rechannels man’s natural need to shape the world in his own favor into a need to sculpt a more benevolent world.  The new man will always be thinking about how to act in ways that “liberate” all other members of society to be able to put their own spin on the world.  In this sense, Freire’s “humanization” requires a kind of moral commitment or moral awakening – achieved via a kind of simple dialogical pedagogy – toward being a better person than human beings normally are.


Conclusion:  Freire is Still Not for Me

If Freire’s political goal was that all humans should be able to act upon the world as they see fit, without harming everyone, and the government should give them the freedom to do so – but that the government should be open-eyed as to the realities of the way humans tend to act, and prepared to check or at least channel those darker impulses in productive ways – then I’d be in complete agreement.  

If he started by saying that human nature is a divided one: that we’re capable of great moral sacrifice and fellow-feeling . . .  but we’re also just as capable of bitter infighting and the pursuit of naked self-interest . . .  and thus we should try to erect a society that encourages the former rather than the latter (but which channels the latter as best it can), then sign me up.  That would seem to me a realistic optimization of being fully human.  But as it is, Freire’s vision of what it means to be fully human seems to rest on a kind of fantastical potential for altruism that I don’t think humans are capable of.

The problem to me is that Freire is not interested in managing the innate challenges of human nature, but in transcending them.  To me, this belief in humans’ ability to transcend their natures – to “humanize” – seems not only fantastical, vague, naive, and utopian, but ultimately very, very dangerous.

The notion that human beings can fundamentally change their natures – whether it’s by communing together with other people in praxis, or by being called to moral attention by a charismatic leader, or by the invocation of a religious or a political ideal – always seems misguided at best and dangerous at worst.  This is where left-wing utopias traditionally run into trouble: you institute a revolution that’s predicated on the idea that you’ll build a more just society because human nature, entirely malleable, will be remade once a) oppression is lifted, b) better leaders are in place, and c) more inspiring ideals shape everyone’s conduct.  But then, once the new changes are put in place, humans keep acting pretty much the way humans have always acted . . . and the government, no longer harboring the illusion that humans can be trusted to maintain the new moral standing, breaks down, and someone, some strong military leader, must turn to force to ensure that they do.  Same old story, same as it ever was.

This is where Freire’s work starts to seem dubious.  Freire has a telling line in Chapter 1, where he seems to justify the use of counterrevolutionary measures against the former oppressors:

“ . . . [T]he restraints imposed by the former oppressed on their oppressors, so that the latter cannot reassume their former position, do not constitute oppression. An act is oppressive only when it prevents people from being more fully human” (56).  

This sounds chilling to me.  One wonders just what these “restraints” are – and how they fit into his prescription for “liberating” the former oppressors.  It’s hard not to wince at Freire’s thinly-veiled rationalization of the use of force to silence political opponents.  The problem of course is that Freire’s definition of “more fully human” is so vague and questionable that it can be used to justify such a wide range of actions.  As if knowing that his case is weak, he continues rationalizing:

“Accordingly, these necessary restraints do not in themselves signify that yesterday’s oppressed have become today’s oppressors. Acts which prevent the restoration of the oppressive regime cannot be compared with those which create and maintain it, cannot be compared with those by which a few men and women deny the majority their right to be human.”

This all seems highly dubious: the “necessary restraints,” the quick retreat from the loftier earlier belief that the oppressed will liberate the oppressors back to the fairly commonplace and manipulable ends-justify-the-means logic and the classic utilitarian argument at the very end.  Freire has basically gone from arguing that love and peace will win out through a magical kind of dialogical education to making much more pedestrian arguments about how we need to excuse violence when it’s done to the minority on behalf of the majority.  Very, very questionable – and Freire’s eager associations with Mao’s China and Guevarra’s liberatory politics only make me more uncomfortable.


The final problem to me is that dialectical thinking, at least the way I read it in Freire, is susceptible to two basic issues.  The first is straw manning.  The weakness of his brand of dialectical thinking is a tendency to straw man the opposing argument, and in my view that he does repeatedly: certainly in his cynical, gapingly incomplete take on the “banking model of education,” and most crucially in his understanding of the “oppressor/oppressed” binary as a starting point for understanding social and political reality.  When you set things up that way, you just miss so much right from the beginning.

The second problem to me is that Freire’s kind of dialectical thinking always pushes toward a kind of magical Hegelian synthesis.  He’s not interested in managing the innate challenges of human nature, but in transcending them, in order to rise above to a kind of higher plane.  But I don’t believe that human beings can somehow become “new man or woman”; we’re stuck with the same old lasting restrictions, the same fundamental human nature and natural temptations.  The metaphor of “synthesizing” seems far less useful to me than the notion of “managing” or even “channeling.” There’s no escaping to a higher plane.  There’s only working the problem.

In the end, I’m afraid I’m back where I was the last two times I read Freire.  After doing my best to understand his ultimate goal of education – which I take to be “humanization” – I find it to be obscure, misleading, and poorly defined.  And even taken as a moral claim as to the correct goal of human conduct, I find Freire’s concept of humanization and its primacy unconvincing.  I find the political implications of his philosophy to be at best naive and at worst deeply unsettling.  

Many readers and scholars find Freire’s vision of liberatory pedagogy inspiring.  I find the process of education itself inspiring, and I find many other visions of liberation through education inspiring: Plato’s famous cave metaphor, for instance; Vygotsky’s vision of education — as I have written about several times; even John Dewey’s pragmatic vision of education as a liberating force to find meaning in one’s work.  It’s not that I can’t appreciate dialectical thinking – I love Dewey’s attempt to synthesize thinking and doing into a new kind of vocational education.  It’s just that when Freire does it, it’s anything but liberating.