The Ubiquitous Adoption of Paulo Freire: Critical Pedagogy and the Strength of Nonpartisan Ideas

Today's article is a guest submission by Micah J Fleck. While I have not read Pedagogy of the Oppressed, I found Micah's work to be compelling and well-researched. Most importantly, it illustrates for us how important it is to not write off someone's work or ideas based on us disagreeing with other ideas that they might have, as we will lose out on potentially valuable knowledge. 

In 1970, Brazilian educator Paulo Freire published The Pedagogy of the Oppressed, a text long credited as the brainchild for what is now referred to as the critical pedagogy movement. In the book (and subsequently the movement at large), students are urged to become autonomous, critical thinkers while the teacher is reimagined as an aid that will assist in breaking down, analyzing, and ultimately reconstructing the curriculum alongside his pupil.

            Through this ‘unlearning’ process, students are given no alternative but to examine the content of the information before them in a much more insightful way than they would otherwise in a traditional pedagogical setting. This process was called ‘conscientization’ – realizing one’s own consciousness. Freire argued that this was key in making sure fewer students fell through the cracks and also forced educators to rethink their approaches at how to present the curriculum in the first place. After all, is merely reciting blandly memorized information for a lecture any better than regurgitating that same information for a multiple-choice exam on the student’s side of things?

The result is ‘praxis,’ in which information is not merely observed but actively engaged with. This pedagogical approach is not just impressive theory and philosophizing; as it happens, research as recent as a little over a year ago has shown that, for all intents and purposes, Freire was correct. In a study conducted by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, biologist Scott Freeman and his team of researchers examined their own academic field, STEM, through metadata of 225 different classrooms and determined that active learning (a.k.a. Freire’s ‘praxis’) was much more effective than passive learning in a straight lecture, and even raised students’ scores on tests by half a letter grade.[1][2]

            Furthermore, since the book’s original release, Freire’s model has gained many followers from many different walks of life, classes, and political ideologies even outside of direct academia. The critical pedagogy movement itself has grown so large an entire educational institute has been named after him and founded on the raw principles of his work – which are stated by the Freire Institute as taking advantage of the “knowledge and life experience” of the individual learner himself.[3] And the movement as a whole pulls from many different political philosophies including anarchism and feminism.

            So why is all of this so important to the larger point this article is trying to make? Well it next becomes important to understand that, while someone who influenced all stripes of people, Freire on a personal level was a Marxist. And he wasn’t at all shy about using Marxist vernacular in order to make his points and analyses. The building blocks upon which Freire’s methodology and class observations were placed had been introduced by the likes of Karl Marx and Frantz Fanon, and yet, the new theories themselves that Freire developed had no clear political allegiance. They were merely borne out of objective observation and application of ideas that seemed to offer the best solutions.

The foreword to the book's newest edition explains that academic institutions and highbrow socialites ignored and disparaged the work as biased and overly theoretical. But the study cited earlier proves its strength in practice, even in as apolitical a field as STEM. The scientists who collected the data on those college lectures were not Marxists with an agenda to push; the everyday citizen who can benefit from a retooling of the standard, failing education system has no particular political or ideological allegiance; and even the critical pedagogical movement itself now houses many different outlooks – all in the common interest of realizing Freire’s core idea – that freeing one’s mind and casting off the limiting weight of one-size-fits-all education methods matters far more and before much else in a growing civilization.

            If only this ubiquitous embracing of an objectively good idea were as common elsewhere. In theory, the anarchists and the Marxists both present within critical pedagogy should be at each other’s throats, as they are arguably opposing political positions. And yet, when the former listened to the latter on this issue, the objectivity of the message was seemingly all it took to sway them. Why is this? Because facts are facts, and demonstrably good ideas stand apart from biases and personal proclivities. Because even if someone stands opposed to you on paper, that doesn’t mean he can’t inform you of something critical and true that should be heeded. Paulo Freire’s legacy is that he was able to start a mini-revolution in the world of education, and to this day there are people holding multiple personal philosophies who equally benefit from uniting under it.

            We are often too concerned with falling in line with a preconceived identity to benefit from our opposition’s equally valid knowledge. We aren’t obliged to adopt every facet of someone’s being just because we might want to listen to what he has to say on a given issue. Yet social norms and politically driven casuistries cloud the field of vision that might otherwise reveal a bridge of common causes – strong in build and intent. In some small way, the writings and mission of Paulo Freire cleared up that haze to reveal the bridge, and those fortunate enough to catch a glimpse bravely chose to cross it. If only a similar cause could do that once again on the large scale.






Erik Fogg

We do politics, but we don't do the thinking for you.