I 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.