Pedagogy and revolution

April 4, 2012

In the name of "solving" the crisis in education, the so-called school "reformers" are pushing solutions that scapegoat teachers and vilify their unions.

The recently released Education and Capitalism: Struggles for Learning and Liberation, written by teacher activists, speaks to this assault on public schools, teachers and their students. In a chapter on "Pedagogy and Revolution: Reading Freire in Context," Adrienne Johnstone and Elizabeth Terzakis examine the legacy of educator and theorist Paulo Freire, and what it contributes to our struggles today.

LIKE THE demands for bilingual education that emerged from the Chicano Power movement and the insistence on equal access to educational resources that came out of the civil rights movement, Paulo Freire's prescriptions for critical pedagogy were informed by a broader battle for social justice. They were also, importantly, a product of his commitment not just to social reform but also to socialist revolution. Freire was a Marxist, and his conviction that the shortcomings of the educational system were inextricably tied to the inequality and injustices of the capitalist system is everywhere evident in Pedagogy of the Oppressed.

Unfortunately, and as has been noted in previous chapters, the gains of the movements of the sixties and seventies have been eroded, if not completely reversed, by forty years of neoliberal ideology and policy, and a lack of coordinated grassroots struggle. This is as true in the realms of criminal justice and welfare as it is in education. But the degree to which a lack of experience of struggle has allowed the neoliberal dictate of individual responsibility to pervade society is particularly apparent in the way that Freire's ideas have been stripped of both their historical context and their revolutionary theory. In the absence of collective struggle and without the underpinnings of Marxism, it is easy to see Pedagogy of the Oppressed as a set of principles and best practices for individual teachers--guidelines for a "revolution in one classroom."

This chapter aims to resituate and reclaim Pedagogy of the Oppressed as a specifically Marxist revolutionary text that requires educators to look beyond the classroom to achieve liberatory education. Such a rereading and representation of Freire is particularly important now, as the revolution-in-one-classroom understanding of Pedagogy is consistent with the neoliberal idea that the current crisis state of public education is caused by incompetent teachers and the corrupt unions that protect them. As social justice educators, we cannot afford to be pitted against each other, nor can we ignore our unions or allow them to be disbanded; we must use them to build the kind of collective action that makes truly liberatory pedagogy possible.


Paulo Freire was born in Recife, Brazil, in 1921. He worked briefly as a lawyer but soon turned to education, specifically to developing literacy programs for the Brazilian peasantry, which was widely disenfranchised due to a literacy requirement. When the reform government of João Goulart was ousted by a CIA-supported military coup in 1964, Freire, considered an "international subversive" trying to turn Brazil into a "Bolshevik country," was immediately arrested and imprisoned for seventy days. Before he could be imprisoned again, or worse, he began a sixteen-year, self-imposed exile.

During exile, he worked with the revolutionary nationalist leadership of Guinea-Bisseau and the World Council of Churches in Geneva, taught at Harvard, and built educational reform projects around the world. He returned to Brazil in 1980 and joined the Workers' Party, or PT (according to its initials in Portuguese), as a founding member with, among others, former Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. After the military dictatorship ended in 1984, the PT gained strength throughout Brazil. In 1989, the party's candidate won the mayoral race in São Paulo, and Freire was appointed secretary of education, a position from which he resigned in 1991. He is probably the best-known theorist of critical pedagogy in the world.

In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, his most widely read work, Freire presents a theory of education and social change, arguing that education is inseparable from the struggle for what he called the "ontological vocation of humanity"--the completion of ourselves as human beings. When the book was published in 1970, Freire believed that a complete transformation of society would be necessary in order for this vocation to be realized. Capitalism--which is not organized to provide for, let alone encourage and develop, the overwhelming majority of the planet's people--prevents humanization. Consequently, it must be replaced by a system that allows for, as Marx put it, "an association in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all."

Your Money and Your Life: Banking versus Problem-Posing Education

Pedagogy of the Oppressed includes an analysis of education under capitalism and a critique of what Freire describes as the "banking" concept of education. In banking education, teachers deposit knowledge in the empty vaults of student minds. The curriculum is either in the hands and mind of the teacher alone or determined at a distance from the classroom by administrators or school boards or some other organ of the state. Once the information has been deposited in the students' brains, the only thing left to do is to ascertain how well they have memorized it, which is easily done through standardized tests, since what is important for the students to know has already been determined and is easily measurable. The banking concept forces on students an almost total passivity and can easily render the teacher equally passive. Freire and Ira Shor speak at length in A Pedagogy for Liberation about how banking education works to produce glassy-eyed, checked-out students and droning, deadly boring instructors.

Underpinning Freire's characterization of schools is a Marxist understanding of the state--the structure of laws, institutions, armed bodies, and prisons--that orders our society. According to Marx, the state is not a neutral body evenhandedly mediating the relationship among the various social classes. Rather, it is a structure that is set up for the sole purpose of protecting and serving the interests of the ruling class. Chapter 1 describes in some detail the Marxist understanding of the dynamic relationship between the economic base and the political, social, and ideological superstructure that characterizes any class society, capitalism included. Freire's concept of banking education is generally consistent with this idea. Under capitalism--and Freire is quite clear about this--schools exist to socialize the next generation of workers in the values and interests of capital, and those of us committed to the liberation of ourselves and our students should never expect an initiative coming from the state to tend in any other direction.

Because they are structured to serve the interests of the ruling class, schools tend to hide or mystify conflict, injustice, inequality, poverty, suffering, and struggle. For example, in the 1970s, US society was characterized as a "melting pot," but nothing was said about the genocide of Native Americans or the sending of Native American children to schools in which their language and religious beliefs were denigrated and forbidden. More recently, US society has been described as a "mixed salad," but, for the most part, nothing is said about the struggles--like the Chicano Power movement--that have been necessary to keep the salad a salad and not gazpacho (that is, puréed and homogenized).

This mystification, perversely, occurs alongside a hyper-valuation of science and technology. Scientifically corroborated facts are not only measurably knowable but also more valuable to capitalism than critical thinking, which allows us to shatter the opaqueness of the dominant ideology and see the world for what it is--to point out, for instance, that science is historical, that it changes, too. The promotion of critical thinking is one of the key benefits of Freire's counter to banking education--the problem-posing, dialogical method of education.

In problem-posing education, as the name suggests, the world is not presented as a fact but as a problem, a living entity in a constant state of becoming. Because it is unfinished, it cannot simply be known; it must be interpreted. One of the jobs of the teacher is to figure out how to present the students' world to them as something to be solved. Dialogical education--also as the name suggests--consists of a dialogue or series of dialogues between teacher and students, students and the world, students with each other, teacher and the world, and so on. Unlike banking education, dialogical education does not assume that the teacher has all the funds and that the students' accounts are empty. Instead, it is taken for granted that the teacher will need to learn from the students in order to be able to teach them anything useful. Students cannot be passive; they must contribute and interpret. Rather than presuming a wide gap between students and teachers, Freire introduces the concepts of "teacher-students" and "student-teachers." On the table between the teacher-student and the student-teachers is an object of study drawn directly from their world. The object of study mediates their dialogue; both learn from it and from each other...

The Forest and the Trees: Organizing for Revolution and Critical Pedagogy

Despite Freire's firm grounding in Marxist thought, it is possible to strip away the political context of his writings and simply see his prescriptions as a set of classroom techniques. Taking a narrow view on Freire's theory might also lead one to believe that the ability to engage in progressive "educational projects" is the best we can hope for--the idea that the most we can do is effect change in our own classrooms and empower students, one at a time, primarily in terms of how we teach them. But to represent Freire in this way is to misrepresent him. In much of his writing, Freire emphasizes the importance of organizing outside the classroom. In Pedagogy of the City, the book of interviews conducted after Freire had led the Municipal Bureau of Education in São Paulo for two years, Freire insists that being a progressive educator "means to motivate the mobilization and organization not only of your own professional class but of workers in general as a fundamental condition for the democratic struggle leading up to the necessary and urgent transformation of Brazilian society." In A Pedagogy for Liberation, he is equally explicit: "Precisely because education is not the lever for the transformation of society, we are in danger of despair and cynicism if we limit our struggle to the classroom."

In 1987, when A Pedagogy for Liberation was published, Freire was dismissive of the idea of individual liberation, and critical of the term "empowerment" more generally, noting that while dialogical education may "develop in students a certain level of independence...this level of autonomy is not enough to transform them for making the necessary political and radical transformation of Brazilian society." That is, he thought that to talk about empowerment through teaching is to oversimplify an incredibly difficult task, much of which will happen outside the classroom. Freire and Shor also point out that social movements are necessary for social transformation and make transformative teaching more relevant and possible. A total transformation of the economic system and the removal of one ruling class and its temporary replacement by another until all classes are made obsolete will require a very big movement, involving all sectors of society--in other words, it will have to go far beyond the classroom. That Freire had in mind something like what Marx described as the "dictatorship of the proletariat" is implied throughout Pedagogy of the Oppressed, but stated most explicitly in a footnote on page 139 of the book: "Once a popular revolution has come to power, the fact that the new power has the ethical duty to repress any attempt to restore the old oppressive power by no means signifies that the revolution is contradicting its dialogical character. Dialogue between the former oppressors and the oppressed as antagonistic classes was not possible before the revolution; it continues to be impossible afterward."

Although Freire is clear about his desired ends and suggested means, when you look at the body of his work, there are points at which he opens himself up to the "revolution in one classroom" interpretation. In A Pedagogy for Liberation, for example, he emphasizes more than once his "respect" for teachers who wish only to work in the classroom. Given the lion's share of what he argues, this seems coy at best: Go ahead and just work in the classroom even though it will lead to your despair and make revolution impossible. I respect that, but it won't be what I'm doing.

The idea that he espoused a "revolution in one classroom" strategy could also be inferred from Freire's conflation of teachers and revolutionary leaders in Pedagogy of the Oppressed. At first, he places them side by side--"the truly humanist educator and the authentic revolutionary"--and then at one point in chapter 3 he drops "teachers" entirely and refers to revolutionary leaders exclusively, as he does through most of chapter 4, suggesting that the roles of teachers and revolutionary leaders are substantially the same. Up to a point, the analogy is accurate and useful. Teaching and revolutionary organizing are similar in many ways. Like teachers, revolutionaries have to meet the people with whom they wish to organize where they are. Those of us who are revolutionaries do this by grounding ourselves in Marxist theory and a study of the world around us, which includes listening and posing questions to the people with whom we are organizing, engaging in dialogue and critical thought with them, and coming to an understanding of the world and how it might be changed for the better.

However, seeing the roles of teachers and revolutionaries as interchangeable in all moments and situations can lead us away from effective political practice. As Freire points out in A Pedagogy for Liberation, in the classroom, teacher and students are never equal; the teacher has more training, more experience with critical thinking, and the authority of his or her position, which it is both impossible and foolish to hide. As a consequence, the teacher must often withhold his or her opinions at times so that the students have room to think rather than just absorb and repeat. This is partially because students are already trained in the banking mode of education--they are accustomed to being told what to think by teachers, and will often resist both being told what to think and being asked to think for themselves.

In his conflation of teachers and revolutionary leaders, Freire seems to posit the same unequal relationship between "revolutionary leaders" and "the people" as he does between teachers and students. Referring to revolutionary leaders, he writes: "Usually this leadership group is made up of men and women who in one way or another have belonged to the social strata of the dominators. At a certain point in their existential experience, under certain historical conditions, these leaders renounce the class to which they belong and join the oppressed in an act of true solidarity (or so one would hope). Whether or not this adherence results from a scientific analysis of society, it represents (when authentic) an act of love and true commitment." Throughout the book, he implies that both teachers and revolutionary leaders are necessarily coming to the oppressed class--the peasants or the working class in Freire's case, the working class in ours--from a middle-class or even ruling-class background, and that their identification with the oppressed is voluntary--a moral duty...

The Impact of Struggle--and Its Absence

While Freire's conflation of teachers and revolutionaries could certainly lead some educators to the idea that one's political activity may be confined to one's teaching methods, another explanation is that they either have never been won to the idea of social revolution or have abandoned it as a goal. Freire himself, because of his experience and the historic decline of the left, backs away from social revolution as a goal in later writings. In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, however, his commitment to social revolution is still fresh.

In later works, Freire's concept of utopian pedagogy becomes a more central feature of his writing while revolution recedes from view. Because Pedagogy of the Oppressed was, and continues to be, a self-consciously revolutionary document, the concept of utopia has no place in it. Pedagogy of the Oppressed is filled with the hopeful optimism of the left of the seventies, a left that was confident that imperialist chains would continue to be thrown aside, that revolutionary guerrilla movements were on the rise, and that Mao's China represented some progressive step forward for the oppressed of the world.

Merriam-Webster's dictionary defines utopia as "an imaginary and indefinitely remote place; a place of ideal perfection." Despite Freire's assertion that utopia is neither idealism nor mere optimism but "a historical commitment," the word itself is imbued with a sense of the unattainable. We cannot simply remake this word, re-create its definition, and attempt to sidestep its political content. Freirian theorists Henry Giroux and Peter McLaren have defined Freirian utopia as, "dynamic, harmonious, creative, reflexive and dialogical." But what Freire's utopia primarily communicates is a sense of eternal striving. This is not because Freire's dialecticism won't allow him to put an end point on history, but because for Freire, and the left more broadly, the goal has changed from revolution to striving for the best possible conditions under capitalism.

In Freire's Pedagogy of the City (1992), he writes, "My utopian dream has to do with a society that is less unjust, less cruel, more democratic, less discriminatory, less racist, less sexist." This is a goal of any revolutionary to be sure. But another goal, without which there will be no true human liberation, is the elimination of the capitalist system that reproduces injustice, racism, sexism, and discrimination on a daily basis, to divide and weaken the working class. Only then will we be able to discover and create a true education in which all the racist, sexist, homophobic ideas that pollute our world can be systematically confronted and eliminated.

This shift in Freire's thinking can be understood as both a product of his political ideas and of the overall decline of left-wing politics in the 1980s. Freire accepted the popular Guevarist conception of revolution and with it a belief in the voluntarist role of the party and the inherent, revolutionary spontaneity of "the people." According to this belief, the will of the revolutionary leadership could galvanize the people and ignite the revolutionary process regardless of the state of working-class organization. From this conception of revolution--which is idealist, not materialist--it is understandable that the world of the 1960s and 1970s appeared to be on the brink of revolution. Nationalist guerrilla movements in Latin America, Africa, and Asia had toppled governments. The student uprising of 1968 in France prominently raised the question of revolution. But despite this, and despite a wave of militant working-class strikes that helped bring an end to the Brazilian dictatorship in 1984, the global left, and revolutionary politics more broadly, entered into a long decline in the 1980s...

Many in the classroom today came to teaching in a period of reaction against the widespread radical left ideas of the sixties and early seventies. Radical educators confronted the assault on so-called politically correct speech and behavior, an assault that was essentially a cover for belittling left-wing critiques of culture and politics. Affirmative action was rolled back, and segregation in schools reasserted itself with a vengeance. All this unfolded in the context of an increasingly standardized and deskilled teaching climate. Both the AFT and the NEA have proved ill-equipped to stave off attacks on educators and unwilling to lead on broader questions of social justice and oppression. This has left the current generation of radical teachers in the United States with neither the experience nor a collective memory of working-class struggle, providing fertile ground for the blossoming of postmodern ideas that reject the centrality of class in general, and of the working class in particular. College courses examining the myriad intersecting oppressions are plentiful. But they lack any sense that this state of affairs could be challenged beyond ideology. The poisonous notion that education is neutral was replaced with the equally poisonous idea that "discourse" and "micropolitics" are the limits of educative practice. Thankfully, Paulo Freire did not go as far as the majority of postmodern theorists of the 1980s and 1990s. He did not reject the "totalizing" notion that global capitalism was the root cause of continued suffering and oppression. But he did make a sort of peace with "progressive postmodernism."

In 1993, Freire wrote, "Instead of decreeing a new History, without social classes, ideology, struggle, utopia, dreams--which day-to-day living throughout the world bruisingly negates--what we need to do is reinsert into the center of our preoccupations and efforts that very human being who acts, thinks, speaks, dreams, loves, hates, creates and recreates, knows and ignores, affirms and denies, constructs and destroys, and who has both inherited and acquired traits. In this way, we restore the profound significance of radicalism." This is a far more individualized notion of radicalism than the one Freire presented in Pedagogy of the Oppressed, which consistently placed both teacher and student as subjects in a history that they could potentially transform--and be transformed by--through collective action and organization. There is little significance in individual radicalism unless it is aimed at finding and uniting with others who can go beyond individual acts to organize resistance and struggle...

Furthermore, authors who have done much to counter misreadings of Freire, but who also hold to anti-party, Lenin-led-to-Stalin dogma undermine the building of desperately needed left-wing organizations by insisting that revolutionary parties are inherently evil, and that the best we can fight for is a kinder, gentler capitalism. Stanley Aronowitz, who writes otherwise excellent books on labor and education, is hostile to revolutionary politics in general and to socialists in the tradition of Lenin and Trotsky in particular. Ironically, he seems not to realize that he identifies the need for exactly the kind of political organization that both Trotsky and Lenin built when he writes, "It is evident that the crucial educational issue is how to address the political hegemonies, how to bring the practical and theoretical consciousness of the most 'advanced' political actors together. In short, beyond the 'masses,' how to overcome the power of common sense among those who are charged with political leadership within the great social movements." The answer to the issue Aronowitz posed is the concept of the vanguard party as articulated by Lenin--not a body that stands above and dictates to the revolutionary movement, but one in which the most organized sections of the movement cohere and attempt to lead ever-larger layers of revolutionaries. Yet Lenin and Leninism are heaped with scorn.

While it is possible to adhere to Freire and reject Leninism, to do so is neither necessary nor beneficial. If Freire were alive today, we would argue with him that the voluntarist approach to politics espoused in Pedagogy of the Oppressed--on the one hand, "the people" are always right and can't be argued with directly, and on the other, well-meaning and morally committed middle-class activists must incite change from the outside--is not only contradictory but also will never produce the scale of change required for a truly liberated society. To achieve the kind of social transformation consistently called for by Freire, explicitly revolutionary organization of the working class is necessary.

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