Pedagogy of the Oppressed is an important, and pointlessly inscrutable, text


Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed is a frustrating text. It contains ideas which are at once profound and commonsensical: for example, the contrast between the “banking” model of education vs. the “problem-posing” model. But Freire insists on camouflaging these ideas in a wall of Marxist verbiage so thick that even Leftist fellow-travelers will have a hard time hacking through it.

First, the ideas. Freire assumes a hard-Left lens of analysis, in which education is a theater of inter-class conflict. His entities are not rational individuals but power-seeking classes, which have been created by historical-economic conditions.

For Freire, education is one method by which cultural values proliferate, and the dominant/submissive relationship that exists between teachers/students is simply another manifestation of the basic schema of our society. Teachers (like oppressors everywhere) model domination by controlling and directing students; students (like the oppressed everywhere) strive to become teachers and thereby dominate other students, rather than trying to replace the schema of dominance/submission with a more equitable balance of power. In other words, the students internalize their teacher’s example:

But almost always, during the initial stage of the struggle, the oppressed, instead of striving for liberation, tend themselves to become oppressors, or “sub-oppressors.” The very structure of their thought has been conditioned…Their ideal is to be men; but for them, to be men is to be oppressors. This is their model of humanity. (p. 45)

Because the students/oppressed have bought into the teacher/oppressor’s model of success, they tend not to notice that they are part of a larger class. Instead, they think of themselves in individual terms. They ask “How can I get to the top?” rather than “Why are we at the bottom?”:

Because of [the oppressed’s] identification with the oppressor, they have no consciousness of themselves as persons or as members of an oppressed class. It is not to become free that they want agrarian reform, but in order to acquire land and thus become landowners—or, more precisely, bosses over other workers. (p. 46)

So one immediate casualty of Freire’s analysis is the individualist lens unthinkingly adopted by many tutors. The manner in which we tutor is a political choice; because all tutoring is modelling a kind of social relationship, there is no apolitical way to tutor, just as there is no apolitical way to vote or consume. When we treat students exclusively as individuals, and define our role in terms of helping them climb the existing ladder of social relations (through improved grades, stronger application essays, etc.), we are choosing to perpetuate (and to encourage them to perpetuate) dominant/submissive social relations. Whether tutors conceive of their work in these terms is irrelevant; when we objectively model dominance, we are objectively sowing the seeds for more of it.

But what exactly is meant by “dominant/submissive” social relations? Freire draws two models of the teacher/student relationship. The dominant/submissive one he calls the “banking” model. Here, the teacher is a ‘banker’ of knowledge, and the students are passive recipients of deposits from that banker. “[The teacher’s] task is to ‘fill’ the students with the contents of his narration,” thus turning the students “into ‘containers’ to be ‘filled’ by the teacher. The more completely she fills the receptacles, the better a teacher she is. The more meekly the receptacles permit themselves to be filled, the better students they are.” (p. 71-72)

A false, and functionally important, assumption made by the banking model is that reality is static and given, rather than dynamic and open to transformation. And since reality is static and given, there’s no reason for students to try to change it:

The more students work at storing the deposits entrusted to them, the less they develop the critical consciousness which would result from their intervention in the world as transformers of that world. The more completely they accept the passive role imposed on them, the more they tend simply to adapt to the world as it is and to the fragmented view of reality deposited in them. (p. 73)

So the banking model of education is fundamentally about fitting the student into their existing situation, about helping them to become a better reciter of Presidents’ names, a better listener, a better employee, a better follower. Student agency is not a priority for the banking model; indeed, student agency is implicitly a problem, since it can conflict with the educator’s prime directive of filling the student with the right knowledge and eliciting from the student the right behavior. Just as Christians cannot serve both God and Mammon, so tutors cannot (always) serve both efficiency and agency.

In contrast to the oppressive banking model, Freire offers the liberatory “problem-posing” model of education. It abandons “the educational goal of deposit-making and replace[s] it with the posing of the problems of human beings in their relations with the world…Liberating education consists in acts of cognition, not transferrals of information.” (p. 79) Following Socrates, the teacher’s role in the problem-posing model of education is not to disseminate pre-existing Truth, but rather to ask questions and present statements which goad the student into trying to answer relevant problems themselves. In the problem-posing model, communication is a two-way street between the student and the teacher, and their lesson is not a downloading of data from the ‘one who knows’ to the ‘one who is ignorant’, but rather a co-investigation:

Through dialogue, the teacher-of-the-students and the students-of-the-teacher cease to exist and a new term emerges: teacher-student with student-teacher. The teacher is no longer merely the-one-who-teaches, but one who is himself taught in dialogue with the students, who in turn while being taught also teach. They become jointly responsible for a process in which all grow…Here, no one teaches another, nor is anyone self-taught. People teach each other, mediated by the world, by the cognizable objects which in banking education are ‘owned’ by the teacher. (p. 80)

It’s important to note that facts and logical relationships do not devolve into mere matters of opinion within the problem-posing model. Rather, those facts and relationships are accepted or rejected on the basis of demonstrability, not simply on the teacher’s authority. Whether water’s boiling temperature falls with air pressure, or George Washington cut down his father’s cherry tree as a child, or the circumference of any circle is equal to its diameter multiplied by pi, are investigable questions, and the problem-posing method treats them as such.

At the center of the problem-posing method lies a conversation, a dialogue, through which reality is known and named. Facts may be objective, but the way we see and organize them is socially constructed. Problem-posing education makes that seeing and organizing process one that is negotiated between equal parties, not imposed by an authority figure. Because student-teachers (and teacher-students) are able to decide how to organize their schema of reality, their story of the world, they become more able to imagine how it could be different. Suddenly, the world becomes dynamic and transformable; suddenly, radical change becomes literally conceivable.

This is the great advantage and danger of the problem-posing model of education: it relinquishes control over sight and creation. When student-teachers get a say in which questions are posed, suddenly a myriad of dangerous questions (dangerous to the status quo, that is—e.g. ‘Is the status quo reasonable and just?’) become fair game. And it is in this sense that the problem-posing model is revolutionary: it implicitly advocates for a social world where arbitrary hierarchy is obliterated and authority is based in the consent of participants. It pushes its student-teachers to imitate (and thus do) collaborative self-determination, to constantly question not just what they’ve been told but who has been telling them, and to conceive of the world as something they participate in creating. In other words, the problem-posing model of education models and creates the principles of equality and self-governance that our society is ostensibly founded on (though actually antithetical to).

One way of describing this model is to say that it ‘teaches students not just what to think, but how to think.’ But that description (popular among so-called ‘critical thinkers’) is indistinguishable from brainwashing. A better way to say it would be that this model supports students in learning how to think for themselves. The crucial difference between these two descriptions is agency: the former has nothing whatever to say about student agency, and just wants to turn students into more sophisticated trainees. The latter makes student agency crucial to its definition of success; the student’s thought must not only develop, but develop in a direction the student wants.

I hope that I’ve sufficiently laid-out what’s at stake in banking education vs. problem-posing education. The difference between the two isn’t any more academic or hypothetical than the effects of an abusive relationship on its participants. Especially in the context of a capitalist economy, where resource scarcity is a given and efficiency is the rule of survival, it’s easy for educators to dispense with ‘lofty’ questions of student agency and concentrate on simply ‘getting the job done.’ The essential question, though, is ‘Which job?’ The job of building more subservient students/workers/followers, or of empowering students to choose their own fates? If the existence of this tradeoff is accepted, then it seems obvious to me that we, as tutors, have a strong ethical obligation to value and encourage our students’ agency at least as much as their development as number-crunchers and word-spewers. So as tutors, when we’re sitting down with a student, we should ask ourselves not just how to assist them but what we are assisting them in doing. If we find ourselves merely telling them what to write and how to write it, we appear to have embraced the banking model. If we find ourselves (really) asking questions (“What do you want to get out of this assignment? What is your goal for us to accomplish during this session? Is what I’m doing right now helpful to you?”) and taking their answers seriously, then we are posing problems, co-investigating, and engaging in agency-fostering dialogue.

(A crucial distinction must be made between student agency qua whatever students happen to want [or say they want] vs. student agency qua students’ ability to have thoughtful preferences and make thoughtful choices in the first place. I’m advocating primarily for the latter, since brainwashing [most obviously in the form of ad media] is so commonplace. In other words, I think agency is something that has to be developed; it’s not just a given. ‘The customer is always right’ is not the model for liberatory education.)

Having described Freire’s ideas and why I think they’re important, I’ll conclude with a note on the pointless difficulty of his prose. Anyone with even a passing familiarity with 19th and 20th century Marxist thought is well aware of the breathtakingly obscure style that seems to have been popular among its adherents. I’m not sure why their writing, in general, came to be so inscrutable. Probably it was because of a variety of reasons: the arcane elaborateness of Hegelian analysis, on which Marx and Marxists based or purported to base their methods; the ‘doublespeak’ of Soviet propaganda, in which even the speaker wasn’t always sure what they were saying; inter-intellectual jockeying for authority, in which obscurity could sometimes pass for profundity; etc. Stupidly and pointlessly, Freire continues this tradition of politico-babble, habitually wandering between metaphysics, politics, and concrete pedagogical strategy like a drunk at a microphone. For example, he constantly shoehorns relationships into the one-size-fits-all Marxist lens of “contradictions”:

The principal contradiction of dual societies is the relationship of dependency between them and the metropolitan society. Once the contradiction has been superseded, the transformation hitherto effected through “aid,” which has primarily benefited the metropolitan society, becomes true development, which benefits the “being for itself.” (p. 162)

Here’s my attempt at deciphering the above thought-vomit into common language:

‘Development’ requires some direction in which to develop; whether a pumpkin seed ‘develops’ into a pumpkin or a baked snack depends on what the pumpkin seed is for. One way of thinking about ‘developing’ countries or societies is to look at how similar or dissimilar they are to the society which is dominating them. For example, when Japan was forcibly opened to foreigners at the turn of the 20th century, Americans thought of Japanese development in terms of how quickly the Japanese were ‘catching up’ to their own social conventions. A similar dynamic is at work in contemporary foreign ‘aid’: rich countries assist poor countries at becoming more like the rich countries. But notice who’s defining ‘development’ here: the rich countries. A more worthy version of ‘development’ is one in which the people who are developing get to define what ‘development’ means—get to decide ‘where’ they’re going.

PotO is full of passages like the first one above. This is frustrating and disappointing: the ideas Freire advances really are tools for the empowerment of the oppressed he claims to be advocating for, but their presentation is so wrapped in Hegel-speak that it’s implausible to suppose that those oppressed (who mostly haven’t completed advanced philosophy courses) will be able to follow his train of thought.

For our purposes at the SCCC Writing Center, I recommend assigning the second chapter of PotO as a tutor training text. It’s only 15 pages, is comparatively light of arcane verbiage, and can largely stand on its own, at least as a point of departure for considering dialogue in tutoring and tutoring in society.


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