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 (1970). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Continuum Publishing Co.

Review by Sandra Tan (OISE/UT)

Pedagogy of the Oppressed has occupied a prominent place within the field of radical pedagogy. It is a handbook for those adult educators and students who look to a methodology and a philosophy of education that transcend the rigid order of the established "educational" framework. Freire's pedagogy is directed to the purpose of ending the struggles of ordinary people in the fringes of society by equipping people with the tools to confront and overcome their own struggles. The fact that the text has sold 500,000 copies worldwide and is still in print nearly thirty years after its first publication in 1970 is a testament to the substance and relevance of Freire's work even in contemporary times. In almost every course that I have taken at OISE, references to Freire and his work are evoked, making it impossible to resist the expectation that one should be acquainted with such a "celebrated" text. Indeed, not having read the Pedagogy risks placing one in an embarrassing position and soliciting disconcerting frowns when the question is posed. It was upon this uncanny backdrop that I found myself abashedly drawn to the text.

Pedagogy of the Oppressed found roots in Freire's observations and reflection during his years of political exile from Brazil. It underlines the basis of Freire's radical theory for the liberation of the underclass, or in Freire's trademark term, "the oppressed". Freire argues that the dominant education system is a "tool of submersion" (1970:12) which serves to maintain the interests of the status quo while suppressing the awareness of the masses of their wretched realities. This "culture of silence" (1970:12) breeds the "absence of doubt" (1970:21) which imprisons the mind so that one becomes blinded to the chains of one's oppression, and thus unconscious of the possibilities for transformation and liberation. For Freire, transformation and liberation come only through one's awareness of the social, political and economic relations in and out of which one's existence is negotiated, and taking action to challenge those structures and relations of oppression. This process of liberation necessitates the practice of praxis, the synthesis of "reflection and action upon the world in order to transform it" (1970:33).

As a text that advances a philosophy and theory of education for the liberation of peasants and the illiterate, Pedagogy of the Oppressed reflects a genuine effort to reconcile the links between practice and theory. The assertion that education is a "practice of freedom" (1970:62) is mirrored in the lucidity of the language that resembles the vernacular of common speech. This simplicity lends coherence and clarity to the discussion at hand and contributes to the appreciation of the text by a broader scope of readership.

The unassuming style that characterizes Freire's writing distinguishes it from the ostentatious lingua franca employed in the articulation of theoretical and scholarly productions, rendering them accessible only to a minority, privileged to enunciate the intricacies of the written word and to indulge in frivolous discourses of an esoteric nature. The significance of language is brought to the forefront in these lines:

    Often, educators and politicians speak and are not understood because their language is not attuned to the concrete situation of the people they address. Accordingly, their talk is just alienated and alienating rhetoric (Freire, 1970:77).
Freire's conviction that language is the key to communication is further modelled by the use of creative devices. Analogy, contrast, topos, and imaginary and literal dialogues all aid to elucidate complex ideas and critical concepts. Moreover, the incorporation of real-life examples from different localities and contexts representative of the realities of the oppressed, helps the reader to gain useful insights that illustrate the oppressor-oppressed dynamic and how praxis is exercised or negated, or for that matter, how theory is put into practice. This reader-friendly approach, no doubt, fosters considerable reader-response and I think, on this account, Freire has succeeded in bringing a written dialogue out of its fixity by synthesizing it with the force of orality. Hence, reading Freire imparts to one the feeling of being in conversation with the author, and participating in the author's realm of dialogic engagement. Undoubtedly, as a skilled orator, Freire persuades the reader well with logos, pathos and ethos, attesting to the wisdom of the ancient Quintilian who once said, "The good man is skilled in speech" (cited in Cluett and Kampeas, 1986: i).

As I have alluded, the strength of Freire's work comes from his ability to move beyond the domains of theory into the arena of practice. In Chapter 3, Freire explores codification as a method of inquiry. This methodology has remained a significant contribution to the field of popular education today. Central to this methodology, is the idea of context and the process of critical dialogue which Freire examines through the development of "generative themes or meaningful thematics" (1970:91). Though I confess that the explanation of this intricate methodology is not entirely clear, I must concede that some of the complexities are clarified to an extent when they were examined within the context of actual case studies which Freire presents well.

Despite the praiseworthy credit and deference given to this "landmark" book, Freire's theory evinces some fundamental shortcomings that cannot be overlooked. The major gap lies in its failure to incorporate and interrogate race and gender relations within the theme of oppression. This is particularly disheartening when we note that class struggles mounted in the name of the "oppressed" have historically and consistently displaced or subsumed the disparate struggles of women and people of colour beneath its homogenizing rhetoric. While I am conscious of Freire's defense that a text is a reflection of its historical moment and hence its incompleteness (1997:318-9), I am not convinced of his position given that other revolutionary thinkers have demonstrated such a vision. Notwithstanding the contradictions in their revolutionary actions, Mao and Castro's political thought, to name a couple, have not only challenged bourgeois ideology, but paved the way to the liberation of women in their respective locations and ruptured dominant practices of racial discrimination as in the case of Cuba.

My dispute with Freire is not isolated or novel, but has been voiced by scholars concerned with how pedagogies of liberation and equality have obliterated the multiple identities that people take within the dialogics of the oppressor and the oppressed. "Who are the "oppressed" in Freire's work?" they have asked (Sheth and Dei, 1997:143). In their chapter entitled, "Limiting the Academics of Possibilities: A Self-Reflective Exercise in Freirian Politics", Sheth and Dei (1997) extended this line of inquiry to question Freire on the limits of his pedagogy within a pedagogical institution such as OISE where Freirian teachers have continually underscored the need to name oppression while simultaneously refrained from engaging in the process of self-reflection or acknowledging their own practices of oppression as educators within the academy that privileges white heterosexual middle-class able-bodied men. To their challenges, Freire has responded almost egotistically, "I have to be reinvented and re-created according to the demands -- pedagogical and political demands – of the specific situation" (1997:309, emphasis added). But all is not lost in Freire's short-sightedness if truth is found in belief that every defeat and mistake is an opportunity for learning. Pedagogically speaking then, the erasure of race and gender from Freire's discourse of oppression serves as a poignant reminder of the normalizing effects of dominant ideologies on the sociocultural practices and thinking of a given time. This realization should hasten us to remember that even the most provocative thinker and politicized educator for social change is not immuned to indoctrination. The challenge ahead lies in the need to be vigilant against less perceptible forms of oppression and to engage in the practice of critical self-reflection.

While being mindful of Freire's reverence for the world of the oppressed ‘man' (and woman), I am disheartened by the flagrant anthropocentrism at the core of his thinking. Here, animals and the natural world occupy an inferior place relative to human subjects. In the Freirian universe, animals are diametrically positioned against humans to emphasize the superior cognitive abilities of the human race and to justify its existential value. Unlike humans, animals are "uncompleted beings" (1970:78) and as such, are incapable of reflecting upon the existential world. Existing in ahistorical space, animals "are not challenged by the configuration which confronts them; … they remain "beings-in-themselves," as animal-like there as in the zoo" (1970:77).

Given such a reductionistic imagination of the non-human world, Freire perceives only humans as possessing the right and holding the consciousness, intuition and awareness to name the world. He writes, "… of the uncompleted beings, man is the only one to treat not only his actions but his very self as the object of his reflection; this capacity distinguishes him from the animals, which are unable to separate themselves from their activity and thus are unable to reflect upon it" (1970:78). By arguing that animals are nothing more than passive objects to be acted upon and given meaning to by human agency, he has unconsciously reinscribed a hierarchical order of the world itself, and indirectly condoned the exploitation and subjugation of non-humans by the human race. This misguided view, in my opinion, is a fundamental contradiction in Freire's rhetoric of love and humility for it is painfully reminiscent of an ugly period in human history where similar worldviews have justified the dehumanization and enslavement of certain groups of people.

Despite the aforementioned weaknesses, Pedagogy of the Oppressed remains a thoughtful and provocative text. The gender inclusive language in this twentieth anniversary publication is a welcome change from the original form in all its androcentrism. Its vision expresses the universal hope for freedom from oppression and its courage a resolute reminder of the indefatigable human spirit to transcend the limits of their world.

References:

Cluett, Robert and Rina Kampeas (1986). Grossly Speaking. Toronto: Discourse Associates.

Dei, George and Anita Sheth (1997). "Limiting the Academics of Possibilities" in Mentoring the Mentor: A Critical Dialogue with Paulo Freire, Paulo Freire et al (eds), New York: Peter Lang, Pp. 143-173.

http://fcis.oise.utoronto.ca/~daniel_schugurensky

 

      Other reviews for this book    Back to Main Index 

     DS Home Page     Submit a review