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August 14, 2017 | by  | in Features | [ssba]

To Name the World

Pedagogy of the Oppressed was Paolo Freire’s creative response to the suffering of those around him. In this small book (which packs a punch) he discusses those “whose humanity has been stolen” through an unjust social order and how they may reclaim their humanity through education. Freire spent his life educating and transforming the lives of those who could not read. Central to his pedagogy was the attainment of critical literacy, or the ability to actively analyse and critique through the written word. He believed that incorporating the learner’s socio-cultural realities into the learning process led to empowerment and the challenging of social processes. He approached learning through the lens of reflection, collaboration, and the re-creation of knowledge. Despite being first published in Portuguese in 1968 (with the English translation published in 1970), Pedagogy of the Oppressed remains relevant today, in a world of rapid population growth, technological change, and increasing inequality caused by economic and climate volatility.

For Freire, the education system “functions as an instrument to facilitate the integration of the younger generation into the logic of the current system and bring about conformity to it”; or it becomes “the practise of freedom” encouraging and equipping people to creatively know and transform the practicalities of their world. In other words, one educational system teaches students to conform to the “status quo” or the world as it is now, and the other facilitates a worldview of constant critical thinking which enables the person to unpack and unveil the reality of their own circumstances. By truly and intimately knowing the realities of the world that they live in, this enables them to “better” transform the world for the future. Further, Freire argues that it is important not to confuse freedom with a continuance of the status quo, so that if the status quo is called into question through critical consciousness, it is not seen as a threat to freedom itself. Freedom is “the power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants,” and it could be argued that an education system that teaches and encourages people to know their world and act, speak, or think accordingly, is also “teaching” the practise of freedom.

In 1964 Freire was jailed for 70 days after the democratically elected president of Brazil was overthrown. He reflected on this in his 1985 book The Politics of Education: “Of course, I was jailed precisely because of the political nature of education.” Freire’s methodology of teaching people to question through the acquisition of the written word in their communities was threatening, and in The Politics of Education Freire argued that “there are no neutral educators. What we educators need to know is the type of political philosophy we subscribe to and for whose interests we work.” Perhaps the inherent political nature of education and educational institutions is an idea that, even today, we should still be discussing.

Perhaps the most profound influence on Freire’s life was his first hand experience of what it was to be dehumanised by poverty. Born in Recife, Brazil, Freire saw the effects of poverty in the community around him. In 1929, Freire’s middle class family experienced suffering first hand when their circumstances (alongside many of the middle class) deteriorated during the Great Depression. Freire’s family could no longer afford to feed him. For Freire, the pangs of hunger created a listlessness and inability to learn, which began to affect him at school. This experience at such a young age led him to dedicate his life to “the struggle against hunger” so that other children would not have to suffer as he and many millions of others have and continue to.

Despite being worlds apart from 1930s Brazil, there are still children in our schools who are struggling from listlessness and an inability to learn. Nearly 300,000 children live below the poverty-line in New Zealand. According to research conducted by Massey University for KidsCan, the adverse health effects of food insecurity on children “include fatigue, more frequent illness including stomach- and head-aches and colds, as well as long-term disease and illness.” We have people and communities who have dedicated their lives to the struggle against hunger. Organisations like KidsCan, EatMyLunch, and Kai for Kids exist because there is a need for them. I believe we can do better than to inflict unnecessary suffering on children by not providing them food at school if they are hungry. If someone as intellectually brilliant as Freire had his learning affected by hunger, this highlights that hunger as a bodily feeling is one that children can’t just ignore, or work through while trying to learn.

Freire responded to his early experience of poverty through his study in the education field. His work was influenced by those such as Erich Fromm, Martin Luther King, and Che Guevara. According to the 2006 UNESCO Education for All Global Monitoring Report, Freire’s teaching methodology brought “the learner’s socio-cultural realities into the learning process itself” and used this to challenge social processes: “Central to his pedagogy is the notion of ‘critical literacy’, a goal to be attained in part through engaging with books and other written texts, but, more profoundly, through ‘reading’ (i.e. interpreting, reflecting on, interrogating, theorising, investigating, exploring, probing and questioning) and ‘writing’ (acting on and dialogically transforming) the social world.”

Through his work, Freire observed the ignorance and lethargy, the “culture of silence”, of oppressed peoples, coming to the conclusion that this was a direct outcome of their paternalistic economic, social, and political oppression. In other words, those who have internalised the dehumanisation of their own being may “fatalistically accept their exploitation.” Their perception of themselves and their inherent power and ability to change their circumstances and outcomes have been “impaired by their submersion in the reality of oppression.”

Even in societies where there may be many challenges to freedom, Freire strongly believed that a culture of silence can be overcome. He had a conviction “that every human being, no matter how ‘ignorant’ or submerged in the ‘culture of silence’ he or she may be, is capable of looking critically at the world.” In other words, a person can gradually, through their interactions with others, become conscious of their own perception of personal and social reality. More often than not, this transformation of consciousness is facilitated by other students or our peers, rather than the traditional teacher-student relationships we see modelled in the education system.

In my own experience, the majority of my learning has been from other children, students, parents, aunties, uncles, and elders. People telling theirs and their families’ stories has the ability to connect to the consciousness of others, allowing them to, in turn, relate these back to their own experiences, perceptions, and worldview. These learning experiences can happen at any moment. Recently I spent a weekend in Northland with my auntie attending our hapū strategic planning hui. She took this time as a golden opportunity to tell her favourite niece (I wish) a number of stories about my nanny, other whānau members, and our whakapapa — she kept me up until midnight. One story that really stuck with me was the one about my nanny chasing two gang members down the streets of West Auckland who had been following my aunties home from school. The more I listened, the more I was inspired by how tough she learned to be to be protect the ones she loved. Learning in this intimate and personal environment taught me important aspects of life, lessons that I don’t get elsewhere; other than getting a headache from my auntie talking so much, this was a very special example of a learning space outside of the traditional education system.

Only a small percentage of my learning has been the result of teacher-student relationships, including my studies at university. The teacher-student relationships that have been the most beneficial for me personally have been the ones that eventually evolved into real friendship, partnership, and collaboration, where the hierarchy of teacher and pupil is upset and we both ended up learning from each other. I would say I’ve learned more from my sister and my friends than I ever did from my teachers at school. If you look at your own life you may see that this holds true for you as well.

Freire believed that while technological innovations may provide the resources for an increase in consciousness, we need young people today to take back their right “to say his or her own word, to name the world.” One of the key ways in which the consciousness of humanity can be increased is through the use of media. The new media and youth-led/student-to-student media movements like Salient possess the ability to “open the way to acute awareness of this new bondage” and the realisation that the educational system today, if it is a system of conformity to the current system, is their enemy.

Freire saw time and time again illiterate peasants who participated in an educational experience come to an awareness of a new sense of self and hope. As more and more people use the power of thought to “negate accepted limits and open the way to a new future,” then they will come to realise that they too can create, and that all work can be creative. It is through this creative work that Freire believed that they will change the world.

“And as those who have been completely marginalised are so radically transformed, they are no longer willing to be mere objects, responding to changes occurring around them; they are more likely to decide to take upon themselves the struggle to change the structures of society, which until now have served to oppress them.” (Pedagogy of the Oppressed)


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