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"The Pedagogy of the Oppressed"

Studious animals

[Notes from my journal.] I'm reading Paulo Freire’s famous little book The Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1970), which is apparently required reading for leftist intellectuals. It’s overrated. Repetitive, derivative (of Hegel, the early Marx, Sartre, Erich Fromm, etc.), and full of verbiage, albeit inspiring and enlivening verbiage. It consists of little more than eloquent and verbose elaborations (and semi-philosophical justifications) of humanistic common sense about what is entailed in a good education. It’s useful, though, in vividly driving home—through repetitiveness—humanistic conceptions of what it is to be a good teacher. The obsessive emphasis on the participation of students, on the need for dialogue, on the necessity to break down the hierarchy, or “contradiction,” between teacher and student, on the importance of taking into account students’ interests and backgrounds in designing (or collaboratively designing, with them) a course, on the constant imperative to facilitate students’ creativity and critical thinking—all of this in the service of furthering the subversive, liberating thoughts and practices that can bring about a social revolution—helpfully focuses an educator’s energies.

Along the way, Freire introduces pretentious technical concepts like “limit-situations, “limit-acts,” “generative themes,” and “decoding,” concepts that give intellectuals something to play with and write articles about. (Ironically, in light of Freire’s educative purposes, these concepts of his are quite elitist, in demanding a specialized vocabulary inaccessible to the ordinary people he wants to empower. Moreover, they’re unnecessary and don’t really aid understanding.) More useful is his (unoriginal) classification of educational styles into two categories: the usual banking model, involving the “depositing of files” and storing of static information in the student’s passive mind, and the problem-posing model, which is more interactive, directed toward solving problems of life and understanding that confront the student. This latter model is reminiscent of the way I decided a while ago I’d like to organize the history courses I teach: namely, spend the first week or so discussing where society is in the present, how the political economy is structured (and relating this to the students’ own experiences), and then spending the rest of the semester discussing how we got to this point—and, ideally, what lessons history tells us about how to move forward in a constructive way. If you want to get across to most people, you have to relate a course’s subject-matter to their own interests and backgrounds. Very, very few teachers or professors do this.

Much of what Freire says, especially in the penultimate chapter, relates to teaching illiterate peasants in Latin America and is of no direct relevance to educators in the U.S. But his methods of teaching peasants are interesting. I suppose his abstruse concepts could be helpful guides in interacting with these people, in deciphering their views and facilitating dialogue.

This whole participatory model of education, by the way, can easily degenerate into flaky political correctness—listening to and respecting all viewpoints in the classroom, insisting that every opinion has value, being ultra-careful not to offend anyone, letting students’ subjective preferences and neurotic sensitivities guide the direction of the course. In small groups it could degenerate into a sort of group therapy. No one with his head screwed on could deny that in modern urban education the teacher should be the clear authority, should be the one to determine the content of the course (while soliciting students’ input and considering their backgrounds, etc.). It isn’t the authority principle—the teacher/student “contradiction”—that is the main thing to be remedied; it’s the fact that most teachers are conventional spouters of conventional doctrines who don’t challenge students’ conventional understandings. Presenting alternative, and true, left-wing perspectives in an engaging way, while simultaneously providing opportunities for students to participate and to create, is the formula for success.

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