I re-read Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire recently, which is maybe one of my favourite books ever. I wanted to write down what I thought were the main tenets of the book because writing helps me clarify my own understanding. I also wanted to share my thoughts here because Freire has been probably my number one influence informing the way I approach activism or conversations about social and economic justice. I hope you find these reflections helpful in rethinking the ways we learn, transmit knowledge, and transform society.
“Pedagogy” refers to the “method and practice of teaching”, and the term itself implies this pursuit has been relegated to academia. But I think, and Freire would also argue, that pedagogy is important for everyone to think about. We all have to go through the process of teaching ourselves – our education does not lie solely in the hands of others, but is a synthesis of our experiences, where we take on roles of both teacher and student, often simultaneously, throughout our lifetimes.
So it follows, according to Freire, that to make any radical changes to society, you must address the present material conditions, and to understand them you have to be in dialogue with others. Academic knowledge and theory can be helpful, but can also run the risk of overlaying someone’s personal experience, or a group’s cultural history, with a wooden narrative – the goal is to enhance one’s understanding of their circumstances, not erase them. We must learn how be both teacher and student with each other, exchanging information and synthesizing new knowledge together. Only through this process can we come up with new ways of organizing ourselves in relationships and communities that affirm each other’s full humanity.
“Dehumanization” is a big academic word I first learned in an English class, but the concept is fairly simple, and a central theme in Pedagogy of the Oppressed. It essentially is the process of treating individuals as subhuman, or incapable of making their own decisions, who therefore must be dominated and guided by more liberated or enlightened individuals. This shows up frequently in various forms of media, where stereotypes flatten out human experiences. We participate in dehumanizing others by internalizing these stereotypes and ascribing trite narratives to someone based on a few facts (ie. someone who is poor or disabled or Indigenous etc – our minds can easily flood with these incomplete narratives that reduce the individual to a trope). Once someone is dehumanized in this way, it can be easy to then prescribe particular solutions for their ailments, or force upon them particular social order that is meant to be ‘for their own good.’ This can be seen in the way an author treats a particular character, the way those in authority treat individuals in real life, and, unfortunately, often the way teachers treat students.
Humanization is the process of acknowledging the full humanity of individuals – and that is trusting them to know and identify their situation and their needs, and recognizing that no one else can do the work of liberation for them but themselves. It is through this process of liberating themselves that they then liberate others. Again, to come back to media, this is why the ‘oppressed’ must be able to create and tell their own stories – it is the work of humanization and liberation. To deny someone the opportunity to tell their own stories is to deny them the process of humanization.
Through the process of self-liberation we also liberate others, for we allow them to see the full complexity of the human experience and use it to further their own knowledge about themselves and their situation. This is why consciousness-raising is a common form of learning in radical circles – sharing personal experiences to form a common and more complex understanding of ourselves and each other.
The common model of learning we have – what Freire calls the ‘banking model’ – does not affirm each other’s humanity and overlays stiff ideologies and dogmas overtop of people’s lived experiences – the ideologies and dogmas that best suit those in power, or the ‘oppressors.’ This banking model also sees knowledge as a commodity, meaning one can use knowledge for profit and domination, instead of a means for transformation.
The banking model imparts narratives that humans must then try to squeeze themselves into to be recognized as human – think of white supremacist standards of beauty or capitalist narratives of a “hard worker” or “contributor,” or patriarchal notions of acceptable femininity, and so on. If you cannot adequately fit your existence into these boxes, you become dehumanized, and your ongoing subjugation is justified.
And, finally, according to Freire, the ‘oppressors’ dehumanize themselves by asserting dominance, or supremacy, over other individuals. This, too, is a false narrative. Think models of masculinity, where ‘real men’ only partner with cis women, where authority warrants inflicting violence as ‘discipline’ over others, or that in order to be successful in your career you must achieve domination over others. Freire refers to an educational process that frees both the oppressed and the oppressor. Through recognizing the full humanity of oneself and of others, one can give up their need for domination and take up the mantle of the oppressed to continue the work of liberation. Who can see others as fully human and also see the need to subjugate them?
I have found this book particularly helpful to return to periodically as I think about what organizing should look like, and what conversations within activist spaces should look like as well.
In online spaces, for example, we are constantly sharing personal experiences and knowledge. How can we utilize this sharing in a transformative way, that allows us to break down the alienating status quo, and discover new ways of being, interacting and organizing?
We can find new ways of being, new ways of organizing ourselves outside of colonial capitalism, but only when we rethink our relationship to knowledge and learning. We must do this work for ourselves and for each other.