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).

Freire, Paulo (1998/1970). Pedagogy of the Oppressed, translated by Myra Bergman Ramos. New York: Continuum.

Review by Sarah Hendriks (OISE/UT), 2002

 A prodigious and ubiquitous phenomenon, globalization maintains an undisputed presence in both personal and political realms. It is indiscriminately accepted as the new norm which dominates national markets, states and our understanding of civil society, community and democracy. We have acknowledged and constructed a language and discourse of globalization as a natural, inevitable and irreversible process that advances outside of human agency. Globalization seems to exist beyond the realm of polemical discontent which leaves little room for questions, controversy or argument. However, the reality of environmental degradation, escalating world-wide poverty, the de-humanizing effects of structural adjustment policies, and the monopoly of wealth and power in the hands of global multi-national corporations demands a critical analysis of current global and local structures which the homogenizing discourse of globalization does not permit. This discourse would have us believe that the demands of spreading national and global markets are both natural and unalterable, thereby enforcing acceptance and/or disregard of the oppressive and destructive effects of this system.

Over twenty years ago Paulo Freire articulated a powerful message of opposition to such discourses of seemingly irreversible oppression. Freire reminded the world of the potential of human agency in the process of social change. In his most celebrated book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Freire espoused a discourse of liberation based on a belief in the possibility of personal and political transformation. Freire voraciously asserted that a structure, system, or institution of oppression must not be perceived as "...a closed world from which there is no exit, but as a limiting situation which [the oppressed] can transform" (31). In essence, Freire declared that critical consciousness of reality is imperative to human action and social transformation. However, in later works Freire problematized this emphasis and maintained that a critical understanding of oppression will not succeed in and of itself in achieving liberation. In other words, critical perception is both indispensable and insufficient. Nonetheless, Freire's message of critical awareness, based on a conception of the dialectical relationship between the world and human consciousness, has placed Pedagogy of the Oppressed in the canon of radical educational pedagogy.

Dialectical constructs are apparent throughout Freire's pedagogical analysis. For example, the relationship of the oppressor and the oppressed is presented in typical Hegelian dialectics. Freire reminds us that the status, power and domination of the oppressor is not possible without the existence of the oppressed. Freire takes our understanding of this relationship one step further in his conception of both the oppressor and the oppressed as manifestations of dehumanization (30). The oppressor is dehumanized by the act of oppression while the oppressed are dehumanized by the existential reality of oppression and the internalization of the image of the oppressor. Consequently, the oppressed sustain an existential dual identity being " one and the same time themselves and the oppressor whose consciousness they have internalized" (30). Thus, the goal for a pedagogy of the oppressed is to restore lost humanity and thereby liberate both the oppressed and the oppressor: "As the oppressed, fighting to be human, take away the oppressors' power to dominate and suppress, they restore to the oppressors the humanity they had lost in the exercise of oppression" (38).

The goal of liberation is mediated by another dialectical relationship, namely that of the world and human consciousness. The concept of conscientization or critical awareness is foundational to Freire's radical pedagogy. Critical awareness is made possible through praxis which Freire defines as "...reflection and action upon the world in order to transform it" (33). Freire connects reflection and action together as part of the process in the recognition and transformation of social, economic and political contradictions. Freire's involvement in literacy campaigns during the 1960s reveals his conception of a concomitant reading of the word and a reading of the world. Not only did Freire establish an effective and efficient method of literacy education among the peasantry of Angicos Brazil, he demonstrated a methodology and philosophy of education that was distinctly political. Indeed, this politically-motivated literacy work later resulted in Freire's four and a half year exile to Chile (1964-1969) which served as a "profound learning process" (1994: 41) that became the foundation for the formulation of his critical pedagogy.

Freire contrasts this liberatory model of education with an authoritarian educational system that he creatively terms "banking education". Based on a mechanized view of consciousness, banking education isolates the learner from the content and process of education. It assumes that the teacher knows everything; the students know nothing. The teacher narrates, prescribes and deposits information which the student then must mechanically receive, memorize and repeat. This transfer of information becomes an emblem and an instrument of oppression that inhibits inquiry, creativity and dialogue. Freire makes it clear that banking education dichotomizes consciousness and the world, thereby domesticating reality. While the teacher acts as Subject, this static and naturalistic conception of consciousness "...transforms students into receiving objects" (58). Consequently, the students are integrated into the world of the oppressor--a world that is based on the dehumanization of the oppressed.

In contrast, Freire promotes a libertarian education, or what he terms 'problem-posing education', that is based upon a democratic relationship between teacher and student. Freire proposes a "partnership" (56) in which both are simultaneously teachers and students. The democratization of the content and method of teaching incites inquiry, creativity and critical thinking which impels the emergence of consciousness and the "constant unveiling of reality" (62). This is an education that begins with the present existential reality of the people's lives (76). The focus is on the 'here and now' in which people's daily existence and local realities are evident. Problem-posing education seeks to transform structures of oppression by enabling people to "...develop their power to perceive critically the way they exist in the world with which and in which they find themselves..." (64). Freire highlights the significance of critical awareness in education that is essential to the act of being and knowing; integral to both ontology and epistemology.

The act of cognition and the understanding of reality are only possible in conjunction with dialogue. Freire insists that dialogue is imperative to the resolution of the teacher-student contradiction. Through dialogue and communication, students assume responsibility for their own learning process and thus become "...critical co-investigators in dialogue with the teacher" (62). Furthermore, Freire asserts that dialogics are essential to the process of conscientization. Freire highlights the vast potential of dialogue and passionately defends the power of language as a tool that is capable of cultivating either dominance or freedom. Indeed, dialogue enables people to name the world and, therefore, to impel social transformation and liberation. In Freire's words: "To exist, humanly, is to name the world, to change it" (69).

Moreover, Freire unabashedly upholds values like love as the essence of dialogue: "If I do not love the world--if I do not love life--if I do not love people", Freire declares, "I cannot enter into dialogue (71). According to Freire, the requirements for effective and liberatory dialogue include love, humility, faith, trust, hope, and critical thinking (71-74). Freire defends a model of progressive education that is not severed from morality or emotion. Indeed, Freire's passionately persuades his readers that dialogue is "radically necessary" (109) to the successful process of conscientization, humanization and transformation.

However, this dialogical and anti-authoritarian model of education became a subject of contentious debate shortly after the English publication of Pedagogy of the Oppressed was released in 1970. Freire's radical pedagogy was accused of being an idealized, inconsistent, localized, exclusive and paternalistic analysis. For example, Freire's language--the manner in which he chose to convey his message--has been repeatedly criticized for being pompous, inaccessible, elitist, and portentous. It does seem that Freire's writing seems to contradict the very essence of his pedagogy. While Freire asserts that "...changing language is part of the process of changing the world" (1994: 68), he does not leave room for the inclusion of popular discourse within the text of his own pedagogy, thereby limiting his text to a specific, academically-oriented audience.

A related issue of language emerged in the 1970s as many Western feminists raged against Freire's utilization of sexist and discriminatory language which, they decried, was incompatible with his message of liberation. Although some feminists remain critical towards Pedagogy of the Oppressed, in spite of the inclusive Twentieth Anniversary Edition, I believe it is important to differentiate between his message of liberation and the language which he employed to transmit this message. We must remember that Freire's critical pedagogy has been instrumental in the emergence of a global feminist popular education movement. This influence demonstrates the ways in which some feminists have utilized Freire's insights in spite of the sexist language evident in Pedagogy of the Oppressed.

A related argument contends that Freire has placed too much emphasis on the class struggle, thereby limiting his portrayal of oppression within the confines of classism. Critics such as Diana Coben maintain that Freire's model of oppression is "...just too simple and indiscriminate to accommodate the multi-faceted and contradictory nature of differential power relationships in terms of gender, class or any other social category". Certainly, Pedagogy of the Oppressed does not specifically address issues of gender and racial oppression. While Freire's recognition of these interconnected relationships are somewhat superficial and vague, I believe Freire is correct in defending class as the apex to the understanding of all other forms of oppression and encouraging anti-racism and anti-sexist movements to integrate a conception of class differentiation within their analysis of oppression and domination.

Ironically, Freire's absorption with the class struggle neglects to provide a specific or precise characterization of 'the oppressed'. Freire universalizes the identity of the oppressed and does not acknowledge the reality of oppression within social groups. The simplified and dualistic definition of 'the oppressed' does not incorporate a complex analysis of power and domination or recognize the simultaneous and interconnected identities of the oppressed and the oppressor. Furthermore, this simplistic definition does not specify where the liberator is situated. It seems that Freire's generalized and homogenized conception of oppression does not address the complexities of liberatory dialogue or authentic leadership.

Furthermore, various critics assert that the people are victims of cultural invasion and therefore "..cannot become leaders in their own right and cannot themselves construct a theory of liberating action...". Freire does not deny that his methodology contains social and political purposes which, if misused, are potentially manipulative. Indeed, the methodology of Freire's pedagogy could easily be co-opted and utilized to perpetuate systems of domination. In response, Freire asserts that true respect for popular knowledge, enacted with humility, consistency and tolerance will necessarily imply respect for the cultural context of the educands.

While Freire repeatedly valorizes popular knowledge, his portrayal of the oppressed assumes that people do not critically reflect on their lives of their own volition, but are dependent upon an externally created learning environment. This is a dangerous assumption which results in the de-valuation of people's collective and individual knowledge and perspectives. According to Dei (1998):

    There is a disturbing failure to recognize that local peoples do theorize in their communities as part of community life, that they not only articulate but also interpret their experiences.
While Freire's pedagogy advocates for a supportive learning environment conducive to critical consciousness, it is wrong to assume that this is the only arena in which people engage in active reflection upon their lived experience. Furthermore, this view dichotomizes popular knowledge with the external knowledge of 'experts' and consequently de-values the existence of many different forms of knowledge. Reducing knowledge to two categories challenges the validity and practicality of Freire's proposed egalitarian learning environment. Moreover, this reductionary tendency excludes the dynamics of social difference, the significance of different value systems, and the complexity of personal experience.

Twenty-five years after the first publication of Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Freire's message of liberation and social transformation remains relevant today. Translated into numerous languages, and having sold more than five hundred thousand copies world-wide, Pedagogy of the Oppressed continues to be read, debated and discussed all over the world by progressive educators and others who seek to embrace Freire's radical pedagogy. The universal appeal of Freire's works is not limited to the arena of education, but also maintains considerable influence in other disciplines such as political science, anthropology, post-colonial theory, liberation theology, international development studies, urban planning, feminism, and sociology. Freire's central thematic concerns espoused in Pedagogy of the Oppressed maintain on-going relevance to these fields of learning and teaching. Freire's conception of a highly politicized education, the unification of action and analysis, the centrality of dialogue in the process of learning, and the significance of critical awareness in social transformation continue to guide and challenge progressive educators throughout the world.

Additionally, Freire's personal and life-long commitment to unite theory with practice remains a lasting challenge to the field of critical adult education. Freire encourages us to continually evaluate the consistency of our words and actions as educators: "Those who authentically commit themselves to the people must re-examine themselves constantly" (42). By exemplifying a search for knowledge, consistency and transparency in his own life, Freire then invites other progressive educators to do the same. Freire reminds us that critical education is part of a process in which we become more fully human; that praxis is incomplete unless it is placed in history; and that education has subversive potential for social transformation when it is not politically neutral. Pedagogy of the Oppressed is a powerful book with a message of critical radicalism relevant to the post-modern world of the 1990s and beyond. Indeed, Paulo Freire's belief in the potential for social transformation through the process of critical awareness and action is a message that we who perceive globalization to be an unalterable system would do well to remember.


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