Education as the Vehicle for Oppression
Any critique of “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” must begin with the author Paulo Reglus Neves Freire (1921–1997) who grew up in Brazil as a member of a middle-class family. Because Freire was raised in Brazil, he was exposed to poverty and hunger resulting from both the Great Depression of the 1930s as well as the pervasive and widespread social oppression of people who were former slaves (Freire, 1996). Brazil is perhaps the greatest backdrop to Freire’s philosophy because of the way the country has been molded by oppression.
Freire, while growing up in Brazil, was exposed to the stark poverty caused by slavery and classism which he would eventually incorporate into his philosophy referring to it as the power balance of the colonizer and colonized. The tremendous poverty and oppression Freire saw would eventually be exposed. Brazil was the last nation to abolition slavery in 1888, and after the abolition of slavery in Brazil, the impact would permanently alter Brazilian society and culture. The ending of slavery in many ways did not benefit most of the former slaves in Brazil. Millions of former slaves were left “uneducated, landless, homeless, illiterate and directionless (“The Economist”, 2000). Currently, most of Brazil’s poverty is a direct result of the former slaves being left to fend for themselves. In northeastern Brazil, decedents of slaves live in sprawling cardboard box ghettos just outside metropolitan areas that these individuals live near to follow industrial trends and migrate with businesses. These areas are poverty stricken and high in crime (“The Economist,” 2000).
The impact of slavery in Brazil was significant due to the enormous population of slaves that existed prior to emancipation. Millions of uneducated and untrained people were forced into poverty and these individuals became the lowest class of people in society. Many today are still illiterate and suffer disease and illness from homelessness and starvation. Slavery practice made Brazil the South American country with the highest level of poverty (“The Economist,” 2000). Freire would have been exposed to the struggles of first and second generation former slaves and this is most likely the greatest influence on his understanding of oppression.
Freire expresses a unique concept of the Oppressed. His characterizations of these individuals is based on assumptions of understanding freedom and seeking it as a completion to humanization. This concept is steeped in an almost virtue like the ideology of oppressed peoples:
This, then, is the great humanistic and historical task of the oppressed: to liberate themselves and their oppressors as well. The oppressors, who oppress, exploit, and rape by virtue of their power, cannot find in this power the strength to liberate either the oppressed or themselves (Freire, 1970).
Freire describes this relationship between the oppressed and oppressors in terms of a mutual process taking place between the parties and that this relationship is necessary in order for both parties to attain true freedom which is earned rather than given. This concept is referred to as “oppressors–oppressed distinction”. This idea appears to be a derivation of the Market plight in which classes struggle and through constant revolution they attain equality. Freire adopts a similar idea in which the colonizer and the colonized carry on a power struggle which centers on the concept of freedom. This is a large difference between Marxism which is based on historical materialism. Historical materialism is the theory that history can only be viewed through the lens of material conditions in which a society produces and reproduces and how this production relates to society (Ball & Dagger, 1991). Marxists believe that society is conceived and organized through these means. In contrast, Freire views society through the lens of freedom.
While a noble view of freedom, Freire’s concept of the oppressed appears to be trapped in a state of ideology or conceptualization with no practical means of asserting itself in reality. Freire asserts concept such as:
(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 (Freire, 1970).Who are better prepared than the oppressed to understand the terrible significance of an oppressive society? Who suffer the effects of oppression more than the oppressed? Who can better understand the necessity of liberation? (Freire, 1970)
Freire qualifies these beliefs with the concept that freedom must be earned and won in order to be understood, “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 that becomes myth. It is rather the indispensable condition for the quest for human completion”. But these ideas seem to have no practical place in history when examined critically. Much like Marxism, there is no revolution that has resulted in a communist state that achieved true equality and freedom. Similarly, people of oppression have historically not done well having earned their freedom. Even in South Africa where decades of effort resulted in the end of Apartheid, the idea of freedom has not rooted itself in the manner which Freire would have hoped,
Government corruption is an endemic problem. Violent crime has not been tamed. The HIV/AIDS rates are among the highest in the world. Squatter communities just keep expanding, and millions of poor blacks have seen little or no improvement in their lives (Freire, 1970).
While Freire’s concepts of freedom are noble and positive, they do not seem to have a rational basis beyond generalization. It is more likely that people who are oppressed are going to be less likely to handle and understand the intricacies of freedom and power in a positive manner. This issue is understandable due to the relationship that oppressed individuals have with education and its institutions.
Banking and Education
Freire makes a compelling argument as to how education becomes a vehicle for oppression. This occurs because the student-teacher relationship is based on an oppressive structure in which students are receptacles for knowledge being imparted by the teacher and the actual knowledge itself is disconnected and lacks context. Freire describes this relationship as:
(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 (Freire, 1970).
There is a great deal of merit to the banking idea of education in which students are merely provided knowledge and teachers are nothing more than a means of professing the information that is expected to be learned. When one looks at history there is evidence that this model of teaching has failed. Prior to WWII, teaching in Germany was highly conservative and conformist in nature (Hirschberg & Hirschberg, 2009). According to Casar Hagner (a teacher before and after WWII), “teachers failed their professions”, he is referring to the teachers during the Third Reich whom adopted the Nazi philosophy and then indoctrinated their students with this ideology (Hirschberg & Hirschberg, 2009). This failure of teaching was a lack of critical thought and concern that teachers exhibited towards the curriculum. Because teachers were merely dispensing knowledge without context, they did not recognize what was taking place as the academia was being censored and Nazi propaganda began infiltrating the learning materials and curriculum (Hirschberg & Hirschberg, 2009).
Freire refers to this shaping of human character and society as conscientization (Freire, 1970). According to Freire, this process dehumanizes the student and the teacher because it is an attempt to control or oppress the person’s individuality and uniqueness. This concept resonates strongly with historical comparisons as all oppressive regimes have and still attempt to control individuals through education and curriculum.
While the idea or relationship of the oppressed and oppressors may not have a strong practical application, Freire’s concepts of the “education bank” provide a stark realistic view of who education can dehumanize the individuals involved in the process. Throughout history, oppressive regimes have controlled people through education and this process of conscientization can be seen in countless cultures. In Afghanistan, under Taliban occupation, women were not allowed to receive education and what they did receive was limited to specific religious concepts. The natural manner in which the education bank seems to occur is troublesome because it is often shrouded in cultural identity and perceived as something which is a choice. Freire’s philosophy raises many issues and may inadvertently create more questions than answers with regard to the ethics attached to education and oppression.
Ball, T., & Dagger, R. (1991). Political ideologies and the democratic ideal. New York, NY: HarperCollins.
Freire, P. (1970). PEDAGOGY of the OPPRESSED New York, NY: Routledge
Freire, P. (1996). Letters to Cristina: reflections on my life and work. New York, NY: Routledge
Hirschberg, S., & Hirschberg, T. (2009). The millenium reader. (5 ed., p. 191). Upper Saddle River, NJ: McGraw Hill Company.
The Economist, Brazil’s Unfinished Battle For Racial Democracy, (April 20, 2000) Retrieved from http://www.economist.com/node/303745