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Pedagogy of the Oppressed: A Re-Appraisal in the Age of Climate Change, Populism and Fake News

The fiftieth anniversary of the publication in English of Paulo Freire’s seminal text, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, offers the opportunity for a re-appraisal in the age of the climate emergency, populist nationalism and fake news. Born in 1921 in Recife, Brazil, Freire was a philosopher, educator and activist who worked with illiterate peasants using a revolutionary methodology that elevated education beyond the classroom to wider social and economic transformation. Forced to flee his native Brazil following a military coup in 1964, Freire wrote Pedagogy of the Oppressed in exile, and he remains a touchstone figure for social justice activists in the global North and South.

His influence is still hotly debated in Brazil. Having been posthumously made a Patron of Education in 2012, an ally of far-right president Bolsonaro, tried (and failed) to have the title stripped from Freire in 2018. Pedagogy of the Oppressed was banned in apartheid South Africa, parts of Latin America and, in 2010 in Tucson, Arizona by right-wing policy-makers who prohibited texts that ‘promote the overthrow of the US government’. So, the book remains a hotbed of debate half a century on from its publication.

Culture of silence

Freire’s direct experience of poverty in the aftermath of the 1929 global economic crisis brought with it a realisation that the ‘ignorance’ and ‘lethargy’ of the poor was in fact a ‘culture of silence’ created by their social, cultural and political domination. And he believed that a ‘narrative’ form of education was one of the main reasons for this cultural immersion. Freire’s response was a transformative methodology called praxis that combined action and reflection to support informed actions that could tackle social and economic problems. He argued that reflection without action descended into ‘idle chatter’ or verbalism, and action without reflection, converted into activism or ‘action for action’s sake’. Only reflection and action held the prospect of transformative change.

Research published nearly a decade ago found that ‘people in the UK understand and relate to global poverty no differently now than they did in the 1980s’ and suggested that NGO public engagement strategies amounted to the ‘cheap participation’ of clicktivism and making donations. A more recent NGO-sponsored ‘UK Study of Public Attitudes to Development’ similarly found that ‘The vast majority of UK adults don’t see global poverty as a pressing problem and want lower government spending on overseas aid’. Applying Freire’s praxis to NGO public engagement campaigns would suggest that they sought action without reflection leaving the public without the knowledge and critical thinking skills necessary to sustain their activism. This suggests that we need more development education practice to achieve meaningful social change.

Banking concept

Another central plank of Freire’s pedagogy is the banking concept which critiqued the ‘act of depositing, in which the students are the depositories and the teacher is the depositor’. Freire proposed the teacher and learner as co-investigators engaged in ‘acts of cognition, not transferral of information’. ‘The teacher is no longer the-one-who-teaches’, suggested Freire, ‘but one who is himself taught in dialogue with the students, who in turn while being taught also teach’. One suspects that Freire would have relished the role of today’s students educating the world on the urgent need for climate action. He would have admired the problem-posing approach adopted by Swedish activist Greta Thunberg and her speaking truth to power that has highlighted the critical importance of language and communication in either immersing learners in silence or empowering them through praxis. In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Freire reflects on ‘communiqués’ between elites and the masses, warning how the:

“the dominant elites utilise the banking concept to encourage passivity in the oppressed, corresponding with the latter’s ‘submerged’ state of consciousness and take advantage of that passivity to ‘fill’ that consciousness with slogans which create even more fear of freedom”.

Applying this warning to the growing number of nation first populists in power across the world makes one think of slogans such as ‘Make America Great Again’, ‘Let’s Get Brexit Done’, or Nigel Farage’s anti-migrant poster, ‘Breaking Point’, used during the UK referendum debate on membership of the European Union. They reflect the need for ‘critical consciousness’ and ‘critical reflection’ which move learners from ‘a naïve knowledge of reality to a higher level, one which enables them to perceive the causes of reality’. Development education is, therefore, an antidote to ‘fake news’ and the ’othering’ and scapegoating of migrants, refugees and asylum-seekers as the cause of economic inertia.

Freire warns us about the populist leader who ‘coincides causally with the emergence of the oppressed’, adding that:

“The populist leader who rises from this process is an ambiguous being, an ‘amphibian’ who lives in two elements. Shuttling back and forth between the people and the dominant oligarchs, he bears the mark of both groups”.

We don’t have to strain ourselves to find examples of the populist leader today using false communiqués to the masses to gain and retain their support.

Contemporary practice

It would always be a challenge to apply Freire’s radical pedagogy in a neoliberal context given the contracting spaces to debate development issues in formal and informal education and the reduced capacity to deliver DE in the decade following the 2008 global financial crisis. And, yet, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, has lost none of its power and relevance as an empowering text which has successfully attached the importance of education to the wider transformation of society. As Richard Schaull suggests, while Freire’s methodology with illiterate campesinos in Brazil is not to be imitated in our society, it does carry a parallel in the two scenarios:

“Our advanced technological society is rapidly making objects of most of us and subtly programming us into conformity to the logic of its system. To the degree that this happens, we are becoming submerged in a new ‘culture of silence’”.

Wherever the majority of people are disadvantaged, oppressed and submerged by an antagonistic elite, Pedagogy of the Oppressed will be invoked as a powerful riposte for the dignity and empowerment of the masses. It is already the third most cited book in social sciences which suggests that it continues to wield enormous influence on research and educational practice across the world.

Freire, Paulo (2017, [1970]) Pedagogy of the Oppressed, London and New York: Penguin Books.