Reviews of Paulo Freire's Books

This website, dedicated to Brazilian educator Paulo Freire (1921-1997), consists of a collection of reviews of his books and links to other pages on Freire. The books are listed in chronological order. When the book has been translated into English, the first date refers to the original publication. 

The website was created by Daniel Schugurensky, Department of Adult Education, Community Development and Counselling Psychology, The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto (OISE/UT).

Paulo Freire (1973). Education as the Practice of Freedom in Education for Critical Consciousness. New York: Continuum.

Review by Alison Kreider (UCLA), 1998

As the transition to the new millennium approaches and globalization disrupts modernist "understandings" of work, citizenship, nationality, and identity, material and discursive practices upon which societies critically hinge are beginning to buckle from the weight of uncertainty. Change, one of few proverbial contemporary certainties, occurs rapidly and without pause. Yet, how change is understood, struggled over, and indeed initiated by people in the world at any drastically uncertain historic juncture becomes a crucial site of consideration for educators and cultural workers alike--a question upon which Paulo Freire bases his first work, Education as the Practice of Freedom. The goal of this book review in light of Freire's inceptive theoretical project is to offer readers interested in Freire's work with the central arguments found in Education as the Practice of Freedom, as well as provide an overview of perhaps the most valuable contribution Education as the Practice of Freedom offers to the body of Freire's life work--a detailed discussion of the central components of his literacy model. In the spirit of questioning Freire so aptly modeled throughout his life, both as an educator and theorist, the summation of this piece will pose textually based problematics to spur further thought.

Marked by the ability to both interact and reflect upon actions, humans occupy a unique space of agency and reflexivity among sentient beings according to Freire. He argues that reflection itself separates humans from animals and complements the human capacity for temporal consciousness, or the ability to distinguish the passage of time. In other words, human beings are gifted by the ability to act consciously, and as such, are not passive but active beings who can mediate between self and reality in order to change the world. This critical capacity to become transformers of reality marks what Freire calls human integration with one's world and context. As an integrated being, in contrast to an adaptive being who merely adjusts to reality, humans are people as Subjects who concurrently shape and reflect on their world (pp. 3-4).

To say that the human capacity to act as Subjects in and with the world, as well as with each other, occurs outside of significant socio-cultural features and constructs that actually thwart such capacities would be an oversight in Freire's view. Specifically, Freire considers the impact of historical epochal shifts on the consciousness and agency of human Subjects. This notion of epochal shifts acts as the metaphorical backbone for the central theses of Education as the Practice of Freedom. I will first delineate Freire's notion of historical epochs and then discuss their relation to human consciousness in Freire's view.

According to Freire, as people begin to adapt to their space and make sense of their context as Subjects, they offer meaning to their actions within geographical space by creating culture. In a continual effort to create and recreate--to define--historical epochs begin to take shape around themes which emerge via specific representations of hopes, problems, and values, as well as the tasks that must be carried out to actualize such concerns. How people grasp these themes and act on them will determine their humanization or dehumanization--their action as Subjects. In Freire's view, if people cannot grasp the themes of their epoch, they can not become social agents, and will instead be carried along by social change enacted by human beings with such capacity, regardless of intent. This is especially true during shifts from one epoch to another because at such a time an "especially flexible, critical spirit" is necessary for agency. Only by creating a permanently critical attitude can people become truly integrated with their time (pp. 5-7).

As historical epochs shift drastically, various indicators take form: themes lose their substance and meaning; significant new themes emerge; human beings rapidly search for new themes; historical-cultural "tidal waves" emerge and grow; and contradictions between yesterday (which is less relevant) and tomorrow (which has increasing meaning) become vexing and often divisive concerns for human agency and critical consciousness. Such times, Freire argues, are frequently marked by such dehumanizing practices as myth-making, massification, and imported solutions for problems. Specifically, myths are created by powerful social forces and systematically destroy the people by virtue of their manipulative qualities. Operating as social and cultural charlatans, myths distort reality and obscure the peoples' ability to determine the themes of their time. Myths take form in such popular constructs as magazines, newspapers, television, and advertising (pp. 6, 34). By virtue of the operation of myths within a society in flux, massification emerges and furthers dehumanization. "A massified society is one which the people, after entering the historical process, have been manipulated by the elite into an unthinking, manageable agglomeration. This process is termed 'massification.' It stands in contrast to conscientizcao, which is the process of achieving a critical consciousness" (p. 8). Massification occurs in the masses' inability to participate in societal decision making. It also takes shape within the confines of mass production which reduces human labor to a mechanical project, making the worker passive, naive, and fearful in Freire's view (p. 34). The diminished agency of human Subjects in massified, alienated societies encourages the people's incapacity to solve contextually-specific social problems. Instead, solutions to problems are imported from outside cultures and consistently prove inoperative and unfruitful. Freire stresses that the failures emerging from imported band-aid approaches to problems exacerbates hopelessness and dehumanization among the people and furthers societal alienation.

It is important to note that Freire distinguishes, though with varying degrees of clarity, between the power of "the elite" and the potential power or agency of "the masses." The elite are the creators of myths and the primary forces behind epochal shifts. The elite are responsible for massification and the importation of solutions to problems. The elite dominate, destroy, crush, and place fear in the minds of the people. In contrast the people or the masses are consistently dehumanized by such practices during epochal transitions and engender varying degrees of transitive consciousness delineated by Freire as naive transitivity, critical transitivity, and fanaticized consciousness. According to Freire, the emergence of critical transitive consciousness is a central component for generating a notion of collective agency among the masses to circumvent the top down power of the elite.

Transitive consciousness emerges as the people begin to perceive and respond to the themes and myths which characterize their world. Naive transitivity, Freire argues, is the initial stage of transitive consciousness and is marked by gross simplifications and generalizations of problems; frail arguments and lack of interest in critical investigation; polemics rather than dialogue; and magical, emotional explanations for problems (p. 18). It is the goal of the critical educator to move this naive consciousness--which teeters on the edge of awareness--toward critical consciousness. Critical consciousness involves the substitution of causal principles for magical explanations; testing ones findings and revision; avoidance of distortion when perceiving problems; refusal of transferring responsibility; and sound argumentation through the practice of dialogue (p. 18). Critical consciousness marks the ideal outcome of a critical, liberatory pedagogy. Freire asserts that such a pedagogy is crucial in the climate of massification, because if a person does not shift from naive to critical consciousness, he or she will fall within the realm of fanaticized consciousness. Fanaticized consciousness is more disengaged from reality; acts more on the basis of emotionality than reason; cannot result in commitment; and tragically leads to irrationality, defeat, objectification, passivity, fear of freedom, and the loss of reflective action among the people (p. 19-20)

Related to notions of transitive consciousness, responses by the people to massification and dehumanization which emerges during historically transitive periods frequently take on the form of radicalization and sectarianism. Freire's description of these two forms of human agency is worth citing at length:

    Radicalization involves increased commitment to the position one has chosen. It is predominantly critical, loving, humble, and communicative, and therefore a positive stance. The man who has made a radical option does not deny another man's right to choose, nor does he try to impose his own choice. He can discuss their respective positions. He is convinced he is right , but respects another man's prerogative to judge himself correct. The radical does, however, have the duty, imposed by love itself, to react against the violence of those who try to silence him--of those who, in the name of freedom, kill his freedom and their own. To be radical does not imply self-flagellation. Radicals cannot passively accept a situation in which the excessive power of a few leads to the dehumanization of all....The radical...rejects activism and submits his actions to reflection. (Freire p. 10-11)

    Sectarianism is predominantly emotional and uncritical. It is arrogant, anti-dialogical and thus anti-communicative. It is a reactionary stance, whether on the part of a rightist (whom I consider a "born" sectarian") or a leftist. The sectarian creates nothing because he cannot love. Disrespecting the choices of others, he tries to impose his own choice on everyone else. herein lies the inclination of the sectarian to activism: action without the vigilance of reflection; herein his taste for sloganizing, which generally remains at the level of myth and half-truths and attributes absolute value to the purely relative. (Freire p. 11)

In light of Freire's notions regarding transitive consciousness, radicalization, and sectarianism, a discussion on the role of education and critical educators becomes both necessary and relevant. In chapter three of Education as the Practice of Freedom, Freire discusses at length his beliefs regarding the relevance of education, especially during moments of social upheaval and epochal shifts. Historical epochal shifts actually emerge as productive sites for fostering critical consciousness specifically because they often correlate with the emergence of naive consciousness among the people. The role of the educator in such a situation is to recognize naive consciousness among the people and then move them towards critical consciousness through a dialogical approach to pedagogy that is horizontal, non-hierarchical, and inherently driven by acts of love. Freire states, "Education is an act of love, and thus an act of courage. It cannot fear the analysis of reality or, under pain of revealing itself as a farce, avoid creative discussion" (p. 38). Education as an act of love, as a critical dialogical process, ultimately fosters conscientizac‹o, or the development of the awakening of critical awareness, and is born in the culture circle--the primary site of Freire's revolutionary literacy method (p.19).

Freire's work as the Coordinator of the Adult Education Project of the Movement of Popular Culture in Recife led to the development of critical literacy projects and reconceptualization of the enactment of pedagogy. A central component of these projects were culture circles--what Freire refers to as a "new institution of popular culture" (p. 42). Culture circles enact a radical form of pedagogy in that they refuse to succumb to passive forms of education central to traditional schooling. Rather, the culture circle incorporates multiple categories which seek to shift power and agency to foster the problem-solving abilities of the people--enabling them to return to humanized space as Subjects and to once again act on their world as reflective agents of social change. To insure this outcome, the culture circle rejects the role of teacher and substitutes a "coordinator" or "educator-educatee." Students or pupils become group participants or "educatee-educators." Pre-packaged syllabi and curricula are rejected and replaced with participatory generation of subject matter for study through dialogue. Lectures based on a "banking model of education" are similarly transformed into dialogue which exists as a horizontal relationship between persons engaged in communication and intercommunication. It is loving, humble, hopeful, trusting and critical (p. 45). In the following two sections, I will specify the key components of the culture circles and of Freire's literacy method.

Focus of Culture Circles

1. Distinguishing and naming culture which involves the development of understanding of the distinction between nature and culture, as well as the human capacity to act as a subject in the world.

2. Recognition that humans are makers of culture to legitimize human ability to act in the world.

3. The concept of culture is broken down into fundamental aspects and codified using drawings. The drawings are discussed in the making of meaning in relation to the existential reality of the participants.

4. Participants discuss culture in relation to systematic acquisition of human experience--and in a lettered culture such transmission is not limited to speaking but also inhabits the world of graphic signs representing words and sentences. This leads to a realization of the importance of literacy and develops of a desire to acquire literacy.

5. All of the discussions are critical, stimulating, and highly motivating. The illiterate understands that to read and write is to become a social agent in the world.

6. Literacy takes on an attitude of creation and re-creation and generates a sense of intervention in one's world.

7. The coordinator's role is to engage in dialogue with the people about their concrete lives and to offer tools and instruments so that the people can teach themselves how to read and write.

The literacy program developed by Paulo Freire is elaborated in several phases:

Phase One--Researching the VOCABULARY of groups during informal encounters with people of the area. Vocabulary is selected based on political or existential relevance as well as on typical sayings or words linked to the experience of the people of the group. The words are linked to longings, frustrations, hopes and are recorded by the coordinator for the purposes of selecting generative words for literacy instruction.

Phase Two--Selection of GENERATIVE WORDS based on

a) their phonemic richness

b) phonetic difficulty

c) pragmatic tone--engagement of word in political cultural reality

Phase Three--Creation of CODIFICATIONS which represent the typical existential situations of the group with which one is working. Codifications are coded situations or problems that are to be decoded by the group in a culture circle. This problem solving and de-codification will lead to critical consciousness.

Phase Four--The elaboration of AGENDAS as aids to coordinators but not rigid schedules

Phase Five--Preparation of DISCOVERY CARDS with the breakdown of phonemic families. This process is crucial in that it ensures a central goal of Freire's literacy method: that the people will develop the tools to teach themselves how to read.

Note: These phases are clearly described, and accompanied by pictoral "situations" used in culture circles in the appendix to Education as the Practice for Freedom (pp. 63-84).

I leave this discussion with some questions for further contemplation and action on the part of critical educators. While this offering of questions is hardly dialogical, perhaps it can begin discussion among criticalists in a "virtual culture circle."

First, given the notion posed by some critical educators and theorists that pedagogy and teacher student relationships are always impacted by uneven relations of power to the benefit of teachers, is it truly possible to engage a horizontal relationship in culture circles? I we take this to be the case, does this inherently disable a critical education?

Second, while Freire's notion of "the people" as oppressed and "the elite" as oppressor emerges clearly in this text, how might we consider the rather slippery distinction between this bipolar opposition. How do the oppressed in fact occupy the space of oppressor at different moments? Do they? Does a critical education insure the dissolution of oppressions? Does critical consciousness ensure social action? (This issue has been discussed at length within feminist theory, with the understanding that oppressions take multiple forms and are not limited to material or distributive inequities).

Third, how might Freire's conceptualization of historical epochal shifts apply to our current age of globalization? Is it adequate to argue that "the elite" are solely responsible for such transitions? What is the role of "the masses" in such transitions and is it possible to so cleanly distinguish them from "the elite?" In what context, based on what types of relations, is it merely a binary?

Without question, the life and work of Paulo Freire has contributed in immeasurable ways to contemporary understandings of the meaning of pedagogy, literacy, and social action. In my estimation, Education as the Practice of Freedom offers critical, feminist, radical, liberatory, and also traditional educators with a rich site for examining and building upon their notions of praxis, most notably through Freire's significant and clearly mapped out description of culture circles enacted. While I agree with Freire's critique of band-aid solutions to problems and imported prescriptive methodology-based discussions of pedagogy, I nonetheless find Education as the Practice of Freedom a useful starting point for conceptualizing an education for critical consciousness within my own context. I would encourage any educator interested in understanding Freire's approach to literacy with greater depth to read and work with this book in a similarly reflective manner--and to utilize the outcomes of such dialogical struggles towards critical, emancipatory projects.


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