I am writing a series of posts to guide people through reading Paulo Freire’s book Pedagogy of the Oppressed, a book which has been extremely influential in my life and which can help readers become more aware of the way in which oppression occurs in society. It can also help us recognize our own oppression or become an ally and co-laborer with those who are oppressed.
You can also read an online copy of Pedagogy of the Oppressed here.
In this post, I want to review some ideas in chapter 2, and then I will preview chapter 3, as well as offer some reading guide points for this chapter.
Reviewing Chapter Two
Chapter Two in Pedagogy of the Oppressed is ostensibly about education and educators. But please know that even if you are not an educator in an actual classroom of some sort, this chapter is still for you.
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Why? Well, because all of us are educated or we are educators in some way.
Here is what I mean. Adults find themselves in actual classrooms less and less as they age, but they are still being taught. Any time you receive information from some source telling you, implicitly or explicitly, what to do, you are being taught. For example, when a source tells you what to do, it communicates to you what you should think, how you should act, and the values you should possess. This is the process of education. So, anytime you listen to or watch advertisers, politicians, authority figures, religious leaders, podcasters, authors, or movies, you are being educated.
In addition, anytime you interact with anyone—child or adult—you are educating them in some way. That is because all our interactions with other people communicate to them, either explicitly or implicitly, what we think of them and human beings in general. We also communicate other ideas about their worth; their agency (i.e. their ability to do things in the world); their purpose; who they are in relationship to us; and their place in the world, just to name a few.
So, while chapter two in Pedagogy of the Oppressed focuses specifically on education in the classroom, the concepts and key ideas of the chapter pertain to all of us and the relationships we find ourselves in for our entire life.
What Can We Learn from Chapter Two?
Chapter Two builds on the themes of chapter one (again, you can read more about chapter one here) by explaining how the classroom (or any educative relationship) becomes a space for either dehumanization or humanization.
Remember that Freire tells us in chapter one that humanization is our vocation. When we pursue humanization, we honor our capacities as human beings to step back from the world; to reflect on it; to act on the problems we see in the world; and to transform the world to support greater humanization for everyone. Freire refers to these collective abilities as praxis, which we will see more fully in chapter three.
A fully humanized world supports praxis and the flourishing of all human capacities—our capacities like love, compassion, kindness, wisdom, creativity, reasoning, communication, caretaking, problem-solving, and our ability to transform the world, to name just a few.
Thus, when education is dehumanizing, it crushes people’s ability to engage in praxis or to pursue a world that supports human flourishing.
How does this happen? In chapter two, Freire tells us that one of the most common ways this happens is through the system of banking education. When educators practice banking education, they do not encourage their students to engage in praxis. Nor do they invite their students to help co-create a more humanized world with them.
Rather, educators who practice banking education, whether they realize it or not, treat their students as receptacles into which they (the educators) pour the truth or the right view of things. So, rather than allowing their students to observe the world themselves; notice problems in it; and pose solutions, banking educators tell students what the world is like; what its problems are; and how to solve them.
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Understanding Banking Education More Clearly
An example from Paulo Freire’s life illustrates the process of banking education well. The Brazil that Freire lived in was very hierarchical. The elites in Brazilian society were the descendants of Portuguese colonialists who had invaded Brazil, enslaved many of the indigenous people there, and used their slave labor to enrich themselves and their mother country Portugal.
And even after slavery was technically abolished, most of the power and wealth in Brazil was owned by a few powerful families, usually the descendants of Portuguese colonialists, and only the elite in Brazil could vote. (You can read more about this here.) The result of this was that even though the indigenous Brazilians were technically free, they were, in practice, slaves.
The wealth and resources in Brazil were owned by a small group of powerful elites. And this was such a problem that most indigenous Brazilians were barely able to survive. Many of them, because they had no other options, worked grueling jobs on coffee farms owned by the elite Brazilians, barely eking out menial living that kept them and their family at a continual level of near-starvation and impoverishment. Because of this harsh existence, many Brazilian farmers and their families were never able to attend school or to learn how to read. This further exacerbated their problems in life because literacy was a requirement for voting in Brazil.
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Thus, the elite in Brazil organized society in such a way that the people in power stayed in power, and the impoverished Brazilians (which was much of Brazil), had very little, if any, power to change conditions. One of the ways that the elite maintained their power in Brazil is that education was only provided primarily for the children of the elite. And this educational system consistently communicated that the Brazilian society was the way it was because the poor of Brazil were lazy, uneducated, stupid, had bad character, etc. You can read more about this here and in the introduction to Pedagogy of the Oppressed here. Thus, the education system in Brazil during Paulo Freire’s life is a prime example of banking education.
It is tempting to think that things surely could not have been this bad in Brazil. But the severity of the oppressive banking education situation becomes apparent when we learn that when Paulo Freire began a highly successful program teaching the Brazilian farmers how to read so that they could vote and improve their living conditions, the Brazilian government was so threatened that it exiled Freire from Brazil.
This is what banking educators do. They construct a view of the world, whether consciously or unconsciously, that benefits them in some way, and then they demand that other people accept this same view of the world. And, of course, banking educators don’t always realize they are doing this, although sometimes they do. Banking educators often truly believe that their view of the world is the correct one or most moral one or most Christian one or whatever.
However, they make this decision without consulting other people, especially other people who are very different from them. For example, in the case of Freire’s Brazil, the Brazilian elite developed a view of the world that enriched and empowered them. But they did not consult the poor, indigenous Brazilians to see how this view of the world affected them.
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If they had done so, with a loving, humble, and courageous intent to listen, they would have quickly realized that their view of the world and the social structure it created, was unjust, inhumane, and oppressive. Listening to the indigenous Brazilians would have required them to give up some or a lot of their power and to change in major ways. Thus, they didn’t listen, and thus they exiled Freire for teaching the Brazilian farmers to develop their own view of the word.
This Part May Make You Uncomfortable
I have bad news for you that may make you uncomfortable, but please stay with me. It is almost certain that you have both experienced banking education in some way, or you have inadvertently practiced banking education.
If you were educated in a school that taught one view of things—for example, the white view–you experienced banking education.
If your teachers or school did not allow you to question or explore alternate viewpoints, you experienced banking education.
(And by the way, I have been a teacher my entire professional life, and I can look back on my career and remember moments when I unwittingly practiced banking education, as well as moments I practiced humanizing education.)
In addition, if you believe that your view of the world is the right view of the world and that other people need to get with your program to solve the world problems, you likely practice banking education in some form or another.
And if you are unwilling to listen to and talk with people with different views than you—like different religious or political or economic views—and consider their views, you are probably practicing banking education in some way.
The bad news is that you are probably also contributing to dehumanization and oppression in some way.
That good news is that you can stop practicing banking education, and you can stop contributing to dehumanization and oppression. You can also become aware when you are being dehumanized and oppressed through banking education in any form.
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Freire gives us a good idea in chapter three how to do this, so I will now proceed to the reading guide for chapter three:
- My note: Human beings are creatures of dialogue. We talk to ourselves and to each other about the world.
- The most basic element of dialogue is the word.
- There are true words and false words. A true word is a word that contains both reflection and action.
- My Note: We can understand why Freire says that a true word contains both reflection and action if we consider that every time we try authentically to name (comprehend) something in our environment, it entails some type of corresponding action.
For instance, if we name someone a friend, this entails on our part act of friendliness and hospitality. If we name something a threat, it entails actions of defensiveness and wariness, possibly even fear, on our part.
On the other hand, when we name something inauthentically, for instance, we use our words to manipulate, it does not entail action. For instance, we could call someone a friend to manipulate him, but we don’t truly mean that the person is our friend. Accordingly, we may fail to act in a reasonable way towards them and treat them like lackeys or ignore them when they no longer serve our purpose. And if we call someone a threat, not because we mean it, but rather out of momentary petulance or in an attempt to get on the good side of another group of people, we would probably not act consistently either (or even at all)
The point is that a true word entails action. A false world leads to contradictory or lack of action.
- The purpose of the true word—grounded in both reflection and action—is to change the world.
- What is unique about humans is that they name the world, and their naming, when it is done truly, entails praxis—reflection and action.
- Humans cannot be silent about the world.
- Naming the world is not the right of one individual; it is the right of everyone.
- Therefore, since naming is the right of everyone, dialogue is an essential part of human existence.
- Dialogue is an existential necessity.
- We cannot dialogue with others if we do not allow them to speak their word and name the world.
- To deny people the right to name the world is dehumanizing and an act of aggression. (My Note: Freire is not suggesting that all praxis is humanizing. Clearly, there are people who have dehumanizing praxis–namely, those who engage in praxis aimed at silencing entire groups of people because to allow them to speak would mean to give up their power and control.)
- Those who have been denied their ability to name the world in dialogue with others must take back this right.
- If an instance of dialogue is merely about one person trying to deposit ideas in the other person’s head, or if the instance of dialogue is merely about people consuming ideas, then it is not authentic dialogue.
- The goal of dialogue is the “conquest” of the world through people dialoguing together in order to transform the world for greater humanization.
- Thus, true dialogue can only occur in the context of love: love for the world and for each other.
- Dialogue must be loving, and authentic dialogue is love itself.
- The opposite of love is domination.
- Love, which is the foundation of dialogue, is deeply committed to others and their liberation because we cannot speak a true word alone.
- So, we must be committed to liberating the oppressed, who have been denied their right to speak the word, so that they can dialogue with us about the world. This is the only way we can fully humanize the world.
- Liberating love must be both brave and humble.
- I cannot dialogue, and I cannot love, if I consider myself to be a part of the folks who “get it”, and this becomes my key identity.
- If I consider myself in this way, I will lack humility, and I will be unable to truly listen, love, dialogue, and transform the world with others.
- Dialogue also requires faith in humankind.
- Courageous people know that power can be used to dehumanization but that a true understanding of power can lead to the moment of rebirth and liberation. Faith in humankind is grounded in this.
- When dialogue is grounded in love, humility, and faith in humanity, which all true dialogue is, it creates an atmosphere of trust in which change can occur.
- False love, false faith, and false humility cannot create trust.
- Trust is grounded in authentic praxis.
- Authentic dialogue can also not exist without hope, which continually engages in struggle.
- True dialogue also cannot exist without critical thinking which recognizes, contra to naïve thinking, that reality is a process that is always created by our thought and actions.
- The naïve thinker normalizes today and views it as an inevitable, unchangeable given, rather than the process of human intervention in the world through thought and action.
- Naïve thinking fails to realize that today is just a moment in time in the process of becoming and that the goal is to become more human.
- Critical thinking can only occur in the context of dialogue—not in a context in which one person, like an educator, imposes his or her view on the students.
- True education can only exist in the context of dialogue.
- Education begins the moment an educator asks herself what she will dialogue with her students about.
- A true educator must educate according to what the students want to know, not about what he or she thinks is best for the students.
- Authentic education is carried out by an educator with her students.
- The truly humanizing and liberating educator will put herself in a position to be transformed with her students.
- The goal of the educator is always to fight alongside with people to recover their stolen humanity.
- The starting point of education and liberation must always be the actual concrete situation of the people and their lived experience.
- The people’s or student’s thematic universe must generate the content of education.
- A thematic universe consists of a the words, ideas, concepts, and issues most important to a particular people.
- Human beings can have thematic universes because they are historical. They are able to separate themselves from their existence, objectify it, notice the problems in it, and work to overcome these problems. The problems they notice and concerns they have over their existence at each point in time lead to generative themes and their thematic universe.
- Animals, on the other hand, do not have generative themes or thematic universes, because they are ahistorical. They have no past, present, and future. They only have the immediate now they are in, and they cannot gain any objectivity over and against the current moment.
- Animals are submerged in their world and cannot gain an objective or conscious view of it.
- Because animals are submerged in their world, they cannot “take on life” or transform their world, but humans can.
- The world does not challenge animals as a problem; it merely stimulates them in some way—like to eat, to rest, to fight, to flee, to procreate.
- Because humans are conscious, they can become aware of the limits on their freedom, Freire calls them limit-situations, which exist in the current world, and they can reflect upon how they could change those limit-situations through limit-acts in order to increase their freedom.
- Animals do not perceive limit-situations or limit-acts.
- A being can only have a world when it can create items that are not immediately a part of its physical body. These non-body, non-physical creations allow a being to see itself and its freedom in the world, and that is when it becomes conscious of the world and its separation from it, rather than being submerged in the world.
- Only being conscious of the world are historical and have praxis.
- The world of humans is marked by epochs which contain certain hopes, dreams, and aspirations driven by human beings engaging in limit-acts in order to overcome their limit-situations.
- The key themes in an epoch constitute the generative themes of a person (or people’s) universe, and generative themes always exist in context with their opposite.
- When the contradictions in a thematic universe become apparent, it is common for people to take different sides in the contradictions and to become caught up in a struggle against one another.
- Often the contradictory themes become mythologized and frozen, and people make the themes the focus, rather than realizing that freedom and humanization is the actual focus.
- The thematic universe of any given person or group of people can contain several concentric circles, each circle containing themes that are either more universal themes or themes particular to that person or group of people.
- When people have a submerged and dominated conscience, they do not understand the interconnectedness of all the different themes in their universe.
- In addition, they may experience their domination as epiphenomena in their universe, rather than as one of the limit-situations they can overcome with limit-acts.
- Educators can help people become more conscious of their world and the generative themes in it by helping them think critically about their thematic universe and the contradictions in it. Freire calls this educative process conscientizacao, or consciousness-raising.
- Educators can do this by starting with people’s concrete situation and noting the contradiction in it and then, when students are fully aware of these contradiction, relating them back to the thematic universe as a whole.
- It is important to note that the themes in a universe are intimately connected to people. They aren’t things in themselves divorced from people. They exist because of and in people.
- In addition, people exist because they find themselves in a world and universe—in a situation—which they both create and are created by.
The reading guide notes above go through pgs. 109 of the book, which is not quite to the end of chapter three. The rest of the chapter is Paulo Freire discussing how he worked as a liberatory educator with the oppressed in Brazil.
- In what ways do you engage in authentic praxis and dialogue the way Freire has described it?
- In what ways do you encourage others to do the same?
- In what ways do you discourage your own authentic praxis and dialogue?
- In what ways do you discourage other people’s authentic praxis and dialogue?
- What are the limit-situations you perceive in your world right now? What are some of the limit-acts you could take to transform the world for greater humanization?
- With whom do you need to dialogue about these limit-situations so that you can make sure you are engaging in praxis that is humanizing for everyone?
- Freire mentions several key virtues in chapter three: love, humility, faith in humanity, hope, critical thinking. Which of these virtues are you already practicing well in your life? Which of these virtues do you need to cultivate more of in your own life?
 In case you want to better understand how Freire uses his method in actual educational settings, you can read more about how Freire used his ideas to educate illiterate Brazilian farmers in his book Education for Critical Consciousness, an online copy of which you can find here. You can read his exact lessons in the Appendix.