Sabbatical Notes From Underground: Pedagogy of the Oppressed

PedagogyI first read Paulo Freire 17 years ago in graduate school. What I remember was that Pedagogy was challenging and difficult to apply to an American context, but it also transformed how I saw my relationship to students and clarified the real purpose of literacy education for me. I didn’t think of teaching composition as teaching literacy back then, and it was an important shift in my thinking. Over the years, I’ve sort of lost track of that thread, and so I decided to begin my sabbatical by rereading Freire. It was a good decision.

Freire doesn’t use the word “literacy”? once in Pedagogy; instead he talks about “problem posing education”? in which people learn to “name their world.”? In this process, oppressed peoples in solidarity with teachers experience conscientization and begin to transform their world. Freire calls this combination of thought and action praxis. In the developing world, praxis amounts to revolution — people recognizing the value of their humanity and taking power back from oppressors. (Ideally, oppressors would be transformed as well, but Freire notes that this is unlikely as it would require them to relinquish power. Nobody wants to do that.)


In the context of teaching developmental writing and composition at an open enrollment institution like an American community college, there’s much to be learned from revisiting Freire. Freire worked with oppressed peoples in his native Brazil, and then Chile (after he was invited to leave Brazil by the Brazilian government). In the book, he also refers to Castro’s revolution in Cuba and Mao’s revolution in China. These are places where the contrast between the “oppressors”? and the “oppressed”? was profoundly violent in ways that Americans probably don’t fully appreciate. That said, many argue that the gap between rich and poor in America in 2008 is wider than we care to admit, and getting wider. Furthermore, the students that come to an open enrollment institution like Lake Superior College, where I teach, come predominately from the latter group.

What my colleagues and I typically think of ourselves as doing for our students is this: we equip them with tools they need to compete successfully in a world controlled by oppressors. Part of this sounds very noble – until we get to the part about who’s in control. Very few open enrollment students become oppressors, and clearly we fail our mission if they do. More likely, our successful students will join a working middle class, and essentially become tools of oppressors. Our unsuccessful students? Well, they’ll return to the netherworld from which they came. In either case, the world will remain largely unchanged.

What we’re not doing is what Freire suggests: changing our world. Along with our students, Freire suggests we examine our lives and the problems encountered there, and sifting through these problems we discover broader themes that help us understand ourselves and our world. Through this conscientization, we begin to take meaningful action — individually and collectively — to not just transform their personal situations, but transform their world.

This sounds like revolution because it is. In contrast to the violent revolutions of the last century, I’ll argue that in America, we can affect change from the grassroots level by peaceful means, but no such change will be possible without a broad base of enlightened folk, especially including the poor.

Subversive? Yes. Part of our college’s institutional stated mission is to work with business and industry leaders in our community to “train”? people to meet the needs of the local economy. I imagine folks invested significantly in that part of our mission will be alarmed by such talk. I’m nervous writing it, so that makes us even. I don’t think it’s the either/or situation of Freire’s experience where a finite amount of power meant that one group’s gain was another’s loss. I think that when the poor transform themselves through literacy, we all will benefit and no one loses.

I’ll admit that I cringe when Freire quotes Castro and Mao, and holds up their revolutions as examples of folks on the right track. My perception of their communism has been colored, for sure, by an American lens, and from a Recife ghetto, Havana probably looked like a beacon of hope in 1969, but I’m pretty sure both Cuba and China are failed and miserable experiments in utopia. Mao and Castro may have begun with good intentions, but the corruption of power won out in the end. Still, these poor examples don’t negate Freire’s basic principles for me.

In practical terms, I don’t know yet how this can shape my pedagogy as a teacher of developmental writing and freshman composition, but conversations about what a C means and who should be passed on to the next level make me tired. Reading Freire, on the other hand, inspires me.

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3 Responses to Sabbatical Notes From Underground: Pedagogy of the Oppressed

  1. David says:

    So, what’s this sabbatical you’re taking? Sounds intriguing.

    Fun to revisit Freire’s work, eh? I agree that we need affect revolution at the grassroots level in a non-violent manner. But there is much that has to change (mass media, government, economy, etc.). And I’m not sure it will without some mighty strong incentives, like more violence, or an apocalypse of some kind.

    The sociologist Anthony Campolo says to get a good understanding of the word “revolution,” substitute it with the phrase “F*** up.” So, “We need to f*** up our class system, or …whatever.” I like that because it gets the word out of the advertising realm (revolutionary new dish soap) and forces us to take it more seriously.

  2. Jocelyn says:

    I adore your second-to-last sentence. Knowing that will get me through many-a-future departmental meeting.

    You just took me back 17 years, to my own grad school experience. It’s good to reconnect with that, as theory seemingly has little place in our daily work. But under closer scrutiny, I guess it does.

    I would like to publish this for you. But first, let me start up an academic journal. I’ll get back to you on that.

  3. sarah says:

    Coming from the world of the oppressed, I have a “from below” viewpoint to contribute. Much as I liked the idea of being rescued, it wouldn’t have worked to be pulled out of my oppressive situations. For one, the familiar is very comfortable, no matter how uncomfortable it is, just because it is familiar. Also, I needed to “rescue” myself. This was necessary to empower myself to continue the rescue work when it got even tougher, and to know that I contained the ability to make myself free.

    All this is said to encourage your efforts to reflect for others their individual alien dignity. Those who saw me as more than my situations were the people who helped me the most because they challenged me to be more me.

    I’m not expressing this very well. Just by basing your actions on the belief that a person can have sovereignty over him or her self you give that person the idea that it’s possible. The message can be received even by the drones in the mechanism who sing the company song the loudest (I’m raising my hand).

    One more thing: it’s my belief that although the oppressors love their power, there is a deeper part in them that wishes for the revolution, to be freed from their own darkness. I haven’t seen that, I just choose to believe it.

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