Rethinking contemporary educational challenges with Paulo Freire
He would have been 100 years old in 2021! The Brazilian educator Paulo Freire is still regarded as a reference among teachers and his thinking sheds light on many issues in the field of education and adult training.
Paulo Freire is a leading figure of twentieth-century pedagogy (1921-1997). His approach to education as a tool to serve social transformation is unique. He has set the fundamentals for an education empowering the oppressed, a popular system of education contributing to emancipation and social justice.
His hundredth birthday is an opportunity to revisit his legacy. What are the founding principles of his approach? Why do his theories keep raising adverse reactions from some groups or governments? How could we use his ideas to rethink education today?
How did pedagogy come to care for the oppressed?
It is indeed quite surprising! Teaching theories are usually regarded as a reflexion on how to educate children, which sounds quite remote from issues such as social justice, domination or emancipation. Quite the contrary with Freire: educating is highly political. The way education is envisioned and implemented plays a major role in perpetuating oppression mechanisms. The Brazilian educator rejects the ‘banking’ vision of education which considers knowledge as a ‘deposit’ which teachers deliver to students, as if dealing with capital transfers.
The energy required to store and memorize these ‘deposits’ puts learners off any criticism, any creativity. It stifles any desire to transform the world. On the contrary, Freire promotes an education which relies on and considers everyone’s experience. He also insists that relationships between knowledge and power ought to be analysed.
Key notions to understand and fight against domination
Freire’s educational vision relies on a number of key notions. Their originality and productivity provide the critical equipment to analyse current educational and training contexts. They are also tools for social transformation. This is demonstrated by Inés Barbosa de Oliveira and Jane Paiva in a text developing an approach based on the Epistemologies of the South. This notion, developed by the Portuguese sociologist Boaventura de Sousa, refers to the necessary recognition of the knowledge and culture of the populations or social groups from the Southern hemisphere who have endured or are still suffering from inequality or discrimination generated by capitalism or colonialism.
The notions of cognitive justice, social justice, and emancipation prove extremely valuable to deconstruct a number of ‘taken for granted’ opinions. It is therefore possible to critically reconsider the origin of Northern superiority by demonstrating, for example, how this so-called superiority relies on a strategy of discrediting the experience and knowledge of dominated groups. Other notions such as banking education, conscientization or critical consciousness and repository education are being revisited from specific contexts. Émilie Dubois, Gabriela Ahlers Vergara and Laurent Lescouarch use these notions in their study of the unique scheme of Jardín Sobre Ruedas, a Chilean travelling kindergarten, to highlight current educational strains.
It shows how difficult it is to set up co- educational practices in a horizontal process including parents, teachers, and educators. This is particularly the case when this approach comes up against the traditional idea of the division of educational work which parents find quite comfortable. The concept of conscientization is also used to demonstrate how producing a piece of work may contribute to fuel a dynamic of emancipation.
The situation studied by Nathalie Meurie Corceiro and Dominique Broussal is that of the “Compagnons du Devoir et du Tour de France” training. Crafting a piece of work (metalwork, woodwork, etc.) enables apprentices to get involved in a personal creative process. T, the mere concrete presence of the ongoing piece of work, the opportunity to exchange about what it reveals about oneself, each of these contributes to developing one’s awareness.
Advocating co-sharing teaching practices as opposed to technicist usage
Although Freire has always asserted the transformative perspective of his pedagogical reflexion, Irène Pereira insists on how he repeatedly warned teachers against any technicist use of his theory. His is an ‘anti-method’ approach, the very opposite of the way education drifted over the 20th century and complied with the diktats of instrumental rationality. One may therefore conclude that Freire’s pedagogy is an action-oriented ethics relying on three main virtues: coherence, love, and patience. This action-driven pedagogy relies on the necessary determination to promote human relationships based on solidarity and respect.
Freire considers education as the means for women and men to gain collective emancipation and build a fairer society. It therefore rejects any market-oriented approach, as well as the idea according to which education should serve as a tool for competition between countries. Humberto Tommasino, Delia Bianchi, and Ayelen Gandolfo illustrate Freire’s vision in the context of Latin America state universities by demonstrating that the integration of critical education has developed a horizontal process of knowledge-sharing including academics and non-academics so as to build a fairer, more equal and more united society in which oppression and domination mechanisms might disappear.
Similarly, the current connection Jean-François Marcel has established between Freire’s thinking and his own approach to intervention research, a definitely participatory approach, reveals and emphasizes the unique status Freire grants oppressors. He does not see them as enemies to be knocked down, but as partners in the emancipation process. This dialog revisits five major concepts: incompletion, praxis, emancipation, dialogic action, and literacy.
Paulo Freire: conservatives’ worst nightmare
Because of the life he lived and because of the world recognition he gained, Paulo Freire has remained an iconic figure for all those who identify with a similar conception of popular education in favour of the oppressed, for all those who are committed to fighting all forms of domination. It is well-known that Freire was jailed for his so-called ‘subversive’ commitment. He was forced into exile in Chile before gaining recognition in his own country. But one did not really expect him to be the target of relentless attacks from conservative groups twenty years after his death.
In the text “Figure(s), structure et rupture(s) dans le débat éducatif dans le Brésil de l’après-impeachment”, Oussama Naouar analyses the intense debates about educational issues which took place in the months following the deposition of President Dilma Roussef in 2016. A number of clichés concerning school violence, teachers’ authority, or basic skills came up again. This is happening everywhere, including in France.
We may think of the recurring dispute between ‘pedagogists’(reformers) and ‘republicans’(conservative) and its excessive verbal outbreaks. But what Oussama Naouar highlights is the growing polarisation around the figure of Freire, triggering associations and arguments devoid of any theoretical foundation or basic logic.
Let us consider the way Freire is blamed for rejecting encyclopedism on the sole pretext that he over-emphasizes learners’ experience. His attackers start their demonstration by asserting that Brazilian education has been shaped for several decades along the Freirean doctrine. This first argument is questionable as one knows how easily an original educational thought can be distorted and wrongly implemented within the classroom (let us think of Freinet).
The second argument consists in considering that Freire’s school has only produced lazy and semi-literate individuals unable to participate into national progress. This « so-called argument » simplistically implies that the problem would be solved by just wiping out all marks of Freire’s thinking from schools.
Revisiting Freire’s legacy and discovering some of his key notions may bring his readers to think about it and decide which type of education should be promoted and for which social and political project
Illustration by Adèle Huguet for Mondes Sociaux: all rights reserved Adèle Huguet.
Image credits in CC : Flaticon mikan 933, amonrat rungreangfangsai, juicy_fish, Freepik, photo3idea_studio
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