Pedagogy and Oppression

The following is a partial response to readings in Pedagogy of the Oppressed and Teaching to Transgress done for a seminar class on pedagogy …

Investigating “the people’s ‘thematic universe’—the complex of their ‘generative themes’” through dialogic means seems to me a really smart place to start thinking about teaching (96). Whether it’s teaching to a group of peasants, potential revolutionary leaders, or a class at a public school in the Midwestern U.S., an investigation of the group’s guiding generative themes will help the teacher learn about the context of the class and adjust accordingly. I think most teachers (at least most teachers in our department) do this unconsciously, or perhaps just without explicitly talking about it. I know I’ve done it, without realizing it, in past classes that I’ve taught. After all, it’s hard to work at disturbing entrenched ideologies in, say, a critical inquiry class unless you first have taken the time to “investigate people’s thinking about reality and people’s action upon reality” (106). The difficult part of this process, I think, is to remember to involve the students—explicitly—in uncovering the generative themes of a group. If we forget to involve the students, and instead just study them IRB-style, as we have been conditioned to do, we are engaging not in Freire’s problem-posing pedagogy, but in an antidialogical model that perpetuates the teacher’s domination of the students. This requirement for student participation has always seemed to me to be the weak link in Freire’s ideal pedagogy. What is a revolutionary leader to do if the oppressed simply don’t want to be liberated? I suspect Freire believes he answers this question in his final chapter when he says that the oppressed must be awakened to their own position as victims of conquest, division, manipulation, and cultural invasion. He says that, “the leaders go to the people in a spontaneously dialogical manner. There is an almost immediate empathy between the people and the revolutionary leaders: their mutual commitment is almost instantly sealed” (164). I don’t buy this, even a little. Maybe the problem here actually is transference to an institutional classroom in the U.S., but I’ve never experienced this phenomenon as a teacher or as a student.

Though I love most of this book, and I can fully get behind the general attitude it espouses, I do encounter a number of difficulties like this in putting it to use. Perhaps what I’m feeling is a dissonance between the kind of open education Freire is actually theorizing and the institutionalized education system here in the U.S. It seems that there are just too many problems with picking up the “pedagogy of the oppressed” from the countryside of Brazil and plopping it down in the middle of Illinois. Are my students here really oppressed? But maybe this dissonance is the result of my subject position as a middle-class, apparently white, heterosexual person of privilege. bell hooks doesn’t seem to encounter the same problems that I do with this transferance, “Because the colonizing forces are so powerful in this white supremacist capitalist patriarchy (in the U.S.)” (47).

In an effort to make some meaning from Freire’s work that is relevant to my own teaching context, I’ve been searching out works that showcase the usage of his pedagogy of the oppressed in classrooms in the States. In doing so, I found myself relying also on hooks’s interpretation of Freire, largely because her words on his work—especially her thinking about “a generous spirit, a quality of open-mindedess that I feel is often missing from intellectual and academic arenas in U.S. society” (54) and her point that “ … notwithstanding that there is so much that remains liberatory … Freire’s own model of critical pedagogy invites a critical interrogation” (49)— have been so influential in my own understanding of it.

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