Paulo Freire and Political Education

Introductory Note

PAULO FREIRE was a Brazilian philosopher whose fundamental concern was to conceptualize education as the development of human freedom. In 1964, after a right-wing coup deposed President João Goulart, Freire was exiled for his literacy efforts with Brazilian fieldworkers. While in exile, Freire published Pedagogy of the Oppressed, wherein he provided a class analysis that places education at the center of revolutionary praxis.

Freire on Political Education

In Pedagogy, Freire notes the tendency for struggles against oppressors to re-create structures of oppression, simply replacing the old oppressors with new, and argues that a critical pedagogy will be required to overcome this tendency. If pedagogy is to play a role in the project of liberation, it cannot apply what he calls the “banking model” of education. In this model, there are teachers, those who have knowledge, and students, who do not have knowledge; and it’s the role of teachers to give their knowledge to students (to “deposit” it in them). However informative that knowledge may be, this model doesn’t lead students to think critically about or take responsibility for that knowledge. Application of the banking model debilitates rational capacity across all disciplines, but it’s especially damning in the political sphere. Because “politics” essentially refers to our shared life, if we can’t think critically about or take responsibility for it, then we aren’t practically free.

Instead, Freire advocates what he calls “problem-posing” education. Whereas the banking model presupposes passivity on the part of students—and is therefore antithetical to activating their ability to transform the world—revolutionary pedagogy must generate knowledge through dialogue:

Liberating education consists in acts of cognition, not transferrals of information. … Accordingly, the practice of problem-posing education entails at the outset that the teacher–student contradiction be resolved. … Through dialogue, the teacher-of-the-students and the students-of-the-teacher cease to exist and a new term emerges: teacher-student with students-teachers. The teacher is no longer merely the-one-who-teaches, but one who is himself taught in dialogue with the students, who in turn while being taught also teach. They become jointly responsible for a process in which all grow.

POSED AS PROBLEMS are “limit-situations,” political situations that limit one’s thought, which students don’t necessarily recognize precisely because their thinking is stuck within these situations. To pose a limit-situation as a problem is to call it into question; and in order to call it into question, it must be articulated. By default, once a limit-situation is articulated, it can be thought about; it is no longer a limit to thought, and it can be overcome. Nevertheless, posing limit-situations as problems doesn’t guarantee their overcoming; it simply engages students’ capacity for critique. Calling these situations into question, teachers aren’t telling students that they must be overcome but opening them to the need for justification.

During these investigations, “generative themes” are revealed. These are descriptions of how particular people in particular social contexts perceive their relationship with the world. Capitalism is a theme of our time, which also names a limit-situation. Furthermore, themes are nested within each other, shifting from the more general to the more particular. Nested within capitalism might be prosperity and innovation, and within those perhaps technology, jobs, and so on. These themes describe the actual psycho-social nexus of associations made by individuals and institutions, which may therefore vary across concrete situations and material conditions. Of course, people don’t necessarily understand the dynamic amongst these themes. Freire says that limit-situations are “coded,” thematically dense; and thus to understand limit-situations, they must be “decoded,” untangled, clarified.

The object of education isn’t the student per se, but the decoding of themes. Significantly, both the student and the teacher learn about themes through the educational process, because they interrogate the dynamic amongst them together. The teacher may have knowledge the student doesn’t have, but the student has knowledge the teacher doesn’t as well. Moreover, the process of education can itself transform the dynamic amongst themes, meaning that education is never finished once and for all.

FREIRE BELIEVED that teachers have to start with their own grasp of themes to explore. They must then determine “codifications,” ways of expressing a limit-situation, with which to pose the problem and initiate the process of decoding. It’s crucial for these codifications to be somehow familiar to students so they can recognize the themes drawn out of them as their own (in Freire’s examples with illiterate peasants, the codifications were pictures from their villages or countryside). Codifications must also leave decoding possibilities relatively open so students can recognize themselves as navigating those possibilities (which can be facilitated by pictures or multimedia, even outside the context of illiteracy). If codifications are taken to be too explicit or prescriptive, leaving little room to navigate, then it will function as propaganda, as something the students can’t take responsibility for. Similarly, if the codification is taken to be too enigmatic or unfamiliar, then it will function as a puzzle, as potentially intriguing but ultimately irrelevant to the students.

Throughout the decoding process, if successful, students build conscientização, critical consciousness of their situation. This is distinct from consciousness-raising, insofar as that implies mere awareness of one’s situation. Rather, conscientização is built through transformative praxis, which Freire defines as the unity of reflection and action. There can be no theory that doesn’t inform practice, and vice versa. While distinguishable, the two must be inseparable, two sides of the same coin:

[H]uman beings are praxis—the praxis that, as the reflection and action that truly transform reality, is the source of knowledge and creation. … It is as transforming and creative beings that humans, in their permanent relations with reality, produce not only material goods—tangible objects—but also social institutions, ideas, and concepts. Through their continuing praxis, men and women simultaneously create history and become historical-social beings.

For every limit-situation, “limit-acts” can be determined to “test” them. Education—whose object is the decoding process that builds conscientização through this transformative praxis—therefore cannot take place only in the classroom but must be intrinsically linked to the home, the workplace, and all other sites of human activity. If, as suggested above, “politics” essentially refers to our shared life, all education is political education. Finally, if the “ontological vocation” of humanity, as Freire elsewhere puts it, is to be fully human—to freely participate in the creation of history and each other as historical beings—then education is indeed nothing less than the development of human freedom.

—Gray Maddrey
Charlotte Metro DSA

Further Reading

The Freire Institute, “Concepts Used by Paulo Freire”

This website features a short video of Freire talking about his work. It is also an example of Freire’s lasting influence outside of explicitly socialist organizations.

Rodrigo Nunes, “Pedagogy of the Occupied”

Nunes elaborates Freire’s perspective on the teacher–student contradiction in the context of revolutionary leadership.

Michael Lebowitz, “What is Socialism for the 21st Century?”:

Lebowitz’s concepts of “protagonism” and the “second product” directly express the relationship between Freire’s and Marx’s thought.

bell hooks, Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom

In this collection of essays and reflections, including a dialogue between her and herself about Freire’s impact on her teaching, hooks explores the notion of education as the development of human freedom. (After reading the book, Freire described himself as “once again struck by bell hooks’ never-ending, unquiet intellectual energy, an energy that makes her radical and loving.”)