Dec 11, 2015
Welcome to Mere Rhetoric, the podcast for beginners and insiders about the ideas, people and movements who have shaped rhetorical history. I’m Mary Hedengren, we have Samantha and Morgan in the booth and today we get to talk about one of the most influencial figures in the so-called “social turn” of composition.
Paulo Freire was born into a middle-class family, but the Depression hit them hard, and soon he was familiar enough with the very worst of poverty. He noted, later in life, that his poverty, his hunger impacted the way that he learned: "I didn't understand anything because of my hunger. I wasn't dumb. It wasn't lack of interest. My social condition didn't allow me to have an education. Experience showed me once again the relationship between social class and knowledge" (Freire as quoted in Stevens, 2002). Eventually, things got better: the Freire’s got money, got food and young Paulo got a good education, eventually becoming a state director of the department of education. In this position, though, he didn’t forget the lessons of his hungry childhood—the relationship between education and poverty haunted him. His political work taught hundreds of people to read and became the basis of one of Brasil’s successful education programs.
But it wasn’t all sunshine and lollipops for Freire—nope, the governemental tides shifted and Freire was exiled, living in Boliva and Chile. And if the examples of Cicero, Ovid and Machiavelli have taught us anything, it’s that there’s nothing like a sudden collapse of political position and forced vacation to inspire great minds to produce great works. So Freire, the ultimate doer, mover and shaker became a writer and thinker. He wrote Education as a Practice of Freedom and then his most famous work Pedagogy of the Oppressed, published in 1968. The book is dedicated to “the oppressed, and to those who suffer with them and fight at their side.” Strong stuff.
The book itself is strongly influenced by Marx—of course— as well as Hegel, Gramsci and Sartre. The key idea, according to Richard Schaull, is that “Man’s ontological vocation […] is to be a Subject who acts upon and transforms his world” (Shaull, Forward 32).
This would be a good time to describe Freire’s definition of “subject.” By this, he doesn’t mean like “subject to the king” but rather “subject of the sentence,” the thing that is making the action, not being acted on. Only human beings “exist”—are deeply involved in becoming (98), and it’s the goal of the educator to maintain that dignity.
Another key term from Pedagogy of the Oppressed is “praxis” which Freire here defines as an application through action: the action, reflection and the word. “Reflection,” says Freire, “is essential to action” (53).
Okay, but getting back to Pedagogy of the Oppressed-- what is all of this in opposition to? In a phrase, the banking principle of teaching. This idea, elaborated in the second chapter of PEdaogy of the Oppreessed, is the traditional way of teaching: you “deposit” information with your students, have them carry it around and bit and then you demand it parroted back to you in the form of tests or essays. You can see how this is directly against the agency of the student. Instead, the education should always be mutual, a process Freire calls—get ready for another term-- conscientization, A type of political consciousness, conscientization has also been translated as raising critical consciousness. How does one do this? Well, there’s two parts:
The goal of the educator, the politician, the social worker is two fold: 1- unveil the world of oppression and, through the praxis, the thoughtful action, to “commit to its transformation” And when the reality is transformed, is the work done? No, then “this pedagogy ceases to belong to the oppressed and becomes a pedagogy of all people in the process of permanent liberation,” and educators “expulse[e] the mtyhs created and developed in the old order, which like spectors haunt the new structor emerging from the revolutionary transformation” (54-5).
Methods to do this include educators who must present the problem to the people through photographs or drawings and questions to “develop their power to perceive critically the way they exist in the world with which and in which they find themselves” (83-4). There must be a showing of the oppression, an “unveiling” as Freire put it. But the most important method of pedagogy of the oppressed isn’t what you do with one or another lesson plan, but the way that you live. Remember Freire’s dedication at the beginning of Pedagogy of the Oppressed? To the oppresses and to those who suffer with them and fight at their side. For Freire, it’s crucial that these liberators live with the people, to suffer with them if they are to fight with them. Because, as he put it, “to carry out the revolution for the people” is “equivalent to carrying out a revolution without the people” (127).
Teachers of any sort must be united with those they teach. “The role of revolutionary leadership […] is to consider seriously […] the reasons for any attitude of mistrust on the part of the people and to seek out true avenues of communion with them” (166).
Only in this way can the teachers Freire proposes truly help their students” to over come the situations which limit them: the limit situations” (99).This term is actually borrowed by Viera Pinto, his fellow Brasillian intellectual exile. Consciousness of these limits leads to acts of rebellion, or “limit acts” which only human beings are able to do, real, empowered human beings.
As a sidebar, this might seem a little confusing: “limit siutations”=bad “limit acts”= good. Some of Frere’s terms kind of do this. For example when someone “lives” that’s just the basic biological state while the ideal is to finally “exist” to enjoy the deep teological process of becoming something significant.Also, activism isn’t necessarily a positive term here: Freiere defines activism as a sacrifice of reflection while sacrifice of action = verbalism (87.) I imagine that some of the confusion here comes from the translation from the Portuguese, but also, this is philosophy of rhetoric, so definitions of words are whatever we want them to be, right? Let’s celebrate that freedom.
The work of Freire became very popular in the world of composition in the 1980s. Everyone wanted a bit of Freire and some scholars like Donaldo Macedo, bell hooks, Peter McLaren and Henry Giroux were especially inspired. They were the leaders of this new “critical pedagogy” as it developed in the United States. The anti-apratheid protests of the 70s and 80s fueled the pedagogy and Freier’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed was banned in South Africa. Of course, that didn’t keep the revolutionary types of distributing photocopies of it illegally.
But although the text was championed by many Marxist thinkers and progressive educators, some critics responded with a little more hesitancy. Gregory Jay and Gerald Graff were concerned that educators always have the potential to be colonizers and, the text implies that “we know from the outset the identity of the ‘oppressed’ and their ‘oppressors.’ Who the oppressors and the oppressed are is conceived not as an open question teachers and students might disagree about, but as a given of Freirean pedagogy” (A criteque of critical pedaogy”). This is a legitimate concern: when an outsider comes in to liberate, how can they prevent themselves from being oppressors themselves? In a related sense, when is someone just one thing? In her 1988 article “Why doesn’t this feel empowering?” Elizabeth Ellsworth points out that everyone has multiple identities and someone who may be oppressed in one sense (for example as a woman) may be privileged in another (for example as a white woman.)
But whatever people thought of critical pedagogy, they had to engage with it. all of this attention to Friere’s work helped gain support for him. He was a professor and advisor at Harvard, for the World Council of Churches, and finally in 1979 he was able to return to Brasil and continue his work with adult literacy. In 1988, with a change in Brazil’s political structure, Freier was appointed Secretary of Education. The remarkable ups and downs of his life had shown Feeire the very real consequences of poverty and oppression as well as given him the education and opportunity to reach out and help others around him, others who have been just like him.