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Categories Essays

Educating for Freedom: in praise of Freire

The teacher is of course an artist, but being an artist does not mean that he or she can make the profile, can shape the students. What the educator does in teaching is to make it possible for the students to become themselves.

Paulo Freire

Paulo Freire (1921-1997) was an emancipatory Brazilian philosopher and pedagogue who through Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1968) and Pedagogy of Hope (1992) constructed a philosophy of education that established the foundations of critical pedagogy.

Freire’s work was born alongside the movement of Liberation Theology  which gained prominence in Latin America in the 1950’s and 60’s as a way to focus concern on those most disadvantaged in society. The approach gained traction beyond South America to groups working in Palestine, and to black communities in the United States. By redefining the relationship between religion and the political it aimed at raising ‘critical consciousness’ to empower autonomy and agency.

Freire brought together a Christian theology paired with Marxist insight. His perspective on dialogue and emancipation spelled the end of modern attempts at sustaining the myth of an inherent separation between the religious and the secular. His work encouraged a synthesis of Christianity and Marxist socio-economic analysis enabling religion to enter the political sphere. Peter McLaren and Petar Jandrić, two prominent critical pedagogues, believe this intervention could return ‘the Church to the people’ and create ‘conditions of possibility for consciousness raising amongst society’s most vulnerable and disenfranchised’.

Freire’s emancipatory outlook asserts that knowledge is not static, neutral or impartial, but is the product of our socio-historical conditioning and is constructed through the interaction of individuals with each other and the world. As such, knowledge for Freire is unattached from the dominant power relations of the past, present and future and is reproduced through ongoing human interaction and dialogue. Freire makes a clear distinction between the everyday use of dialogue and his own. Dialogic practice extends beyond conversation, it is ‘not simply a heuristic [and pedagogical] technique for acquiring monologic knowledge and skills, but the definition of the very essence and sense of learned and creatively formulated concepts (the concept is dialogic in terms of its logical nature and in terms of its psychological—for the consciousness—givenness)’.

Dialogue is crucial within the process of ‘learning and knowing’ but ‘must not serve as a crafty instrument for the domination of one person by another’. Dialogue is not simply the transmission of knowledge as rhetoric, but of culture as knowledge. Culture is not simply acquired in order to achieve an immediate goal but learned over time and through people, establishing a mutual and communicational relationship between individuals and institutions.

Different forms of cultural dialogue can exist and coexist with one another in tandem with a learning environment, and within an overarching contemporary culture. As such the dialogic model of student and teacher can extend beyond the school and can be applied to the world beyond the classroom. Cultures of dialogue can be applied in other contexts too, and when the school acts as a microcosm of society, dialogue can be a powerful force beyond the school gates.

Successful partnerships between schools, families and communities demand a dialogic decision-making process. Schools recognise the need for parents to engage with education as meaningful educational partners. Broader dialogic praxis between parents, caretakers and schools can develop understanding and community while giving power to those who might otherwise go unheard. Freire tells us that the dialogic process of people working in tandem is an essential part of developing community and forming social capital which can be a tool for emancipation. Feelings of community dialogue are therefore essential in achieving a sense of collective agency.

For this sense of dialogue to be implemented, a ‘race conscious approach to transformation’ must be present, and this requires a recognition of the prevailing racism and inequality within societal structures. And in order to combat this, actions which counter the unequal material and social ramifications, are needed. Often Freire’s notion of dialogue is misunderstood within pedagogical settings. Dialogue is an individual’s encounter with the world, a way to understand its intricacies. Dialogue cannot occur between those who deny others their right to a voice, and in Freire’s thinking, ongoing dialogue is a right which must be reclaimed.

Freire’s drive for systemic change is necessary because historical conditions oppress the most vulnerable in society leaving them with little power to create change. But change can not come from action alone. Freire believed that liberating education consists ‘in acts of cognition, not transferrals of information’. The interaction between reflection and action, and the interplay between theory and action, realise a praxis that transform society. Through the dialectical dimensions of faith and action individuals are transformed ‘from a life of self-centredness to a life of serving others.’. Additionally those facing oppression develop a critical consciousness that reveals the inequalities they face. Education becomes the practice of freedom and ‘denies that man is abstract, isolated, independent, and unattached to the world’ but rather reflects on the world in ‘their relations with the world [and] in these reflections consciousness and world are simultaneous’. Freed from the dominant power relations of the past, present and future knowledge is now reproduced through interaction and dialogue between the social world and individual experience.

Pedagogy of Hope (1992) synthesised the ongoing struggles of the Third World and Latin America. Freire’s notion of hope was of a human need essential to being, an ontological need. ‘Hopelessness is but hope which has lost its bearings, and become a distortion of that ontological need’. Freire cites the significance of revolutionary action in order to transform societal structures, yet he argues for praxis over verbalism or activism as it directs and reflects action at the structures which need transformation. If action is emphasised over reflection to the latter’s detriment, then the word is converted to activism, and when the action exists for action’s sake it ‘negates true praxis and makes dialogue impossible’. Praxis is the collaboration of reflection and action to transform the structures within society which perpetuate inequality. Society needs ‘critical hope’ in the ‘the way a fish needs unpolluted water’. The difficulty is that family and school are ‘completely subjected to the greater context of global society’ so can do ‘nothing but reproduce the authoritarian ideology’. For Freire, dialogic praxis is a knowledge-based relationship which must be understood as a social process of learning, not individualistic in its nature. As such, it is framed upon knowledge and understanding in order to achieve effective dialogue between cultures. Dialogue is essential for understanding the experiences of others as more than ‘mono-logic knowledge’. A dialogue of cultures with an ongoing interplay and interaction of voice between the pupil and teacher helps in the development of creative thinking and therefore offers resistance to the dominant ideology.

Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1970) is grounded in the notion of lived experience. The idea is powerful precisely because it legitimises each experiential voice. The relation between voice and conscientization is paramount – by voicing the world consciousness develops, and ‘is understood to have the power to transform reality’. A dialogic method to research is essential, because ‘the exploration and transformation of existing discursive sites needs to be partnered with the construction of new opportunities for dialogic encounter’. In this work the voice of participants must be retained as much as possible through faithful transcription to allow for ‘the possibility that the oppressed will produce a ‘countersentence’ that can suggest a new historical narrative’. By voicing their experience, vulnerable, marginalised and precarious social groups can develop a deeper sense of ways to enact change. Effective research which is dialogic in its approach can give participants a voice in their lives which can be used for encouraging social change and policy development. Equally important is that the research itself doesn’t become oppressive. Linda Alcoff (1991-2) warns against speaking on behalf of others within the structures of discursive practice, and that this structure needs alteration in order to allow for the participant to have a voice within the research and provide narrative built upon their own opinion and experience. ‘[O]nly with dialogue, dialectic and criticism will collaborators in research come to a new understanding, both more sophisticated and more informed, about the circumstances of their lives’.

By ‘demanding realities of dialogic encounter’ students can be radical agents of change, and as such, education becomes a shared achievement and responsibility. Voice becomes formative of a positive and inclusive educational society. Dialogic encounters reveal to us what our communities feel like. They expose issues of ‘power and authority’, ‘freedom and equality’ alongside the values of ‘democratic living’. Without this, democracy itself becomes merely a managerial mechanism as opposed to a process of emancipation.

Freire depicts dialogue as ongoing, as a right, as something which must be reclaimed by those most vulnerable and disenfranchised. Progressive educators have a significant responsibility in unveiling the possibilities and opportunities for hope regardless of the barriers we may face.


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