Philosophy and Love, Politics and Love

A Guide to Reading Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed–Chapter One

If you have read my blog for a while or have looked at my author’s bio, you may know that the Brazilian philosopher and educator Paulo Freire has a great influence on my thought and writing. I wrote my dissertation on education and justice, and the last chapters focused primarily on Freire and his philosophy of liberation and education. Freire wrote primarily about how oppressed people–especially people oppressed by racism–can liberate both themselves and their oppressors in order to create a more just and humanizing world.

Paulo Freire

His work also provides a helpful philosophy for people who want to become an ally to oppressed people everywhere.

I often teach Freire’s most influential work, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, in my college ethics classes. I am always amazed at what happens when we read this book together in class.  (You can read about two such times here and here.)

Oppression Still Exists

Although it was written decades ago, Pedagogy of the Oppressed is still relevant today. We are currently witnessing oppressed people cry out for justice.

Many white people are beginning to realize that they don’t really understand oppression, racism, and injustice. They realize they need tools to understand these concepts better so that they can work with People of Color to end racism and violence.

I understand this. My life has been a long process of this white girl realizing these very same things. I am still working on understanding them. Reading and writing about Pedagogy of the Oppressed has really helped me, and I thought it might help you.

The great news is that the entire text of Pedagogy of the Oppressed. You can find it here.

Warning: Pedagogy of the Oppressed May Change Your Life

I will warn you that Pedagogy of the Oppressed can be very challenging. The ideas in it often sound strange and unusual to people. So, I have developed some resources over the years to help my students understand it more clearly.

I also want to warn you that reading Pedagogy of the Oppressed can make you uncomfortable because you may realize that you have unwittingly participated in oppression and that you must change your life. Please know that you are not alone in these painful feelings. I have had these same realizations and have experienced these same painful feelings.

This week, I thought I would share some of the study guides and research material I have written to help students study and understand the book. I am going to focus on the introduction and chapters 1-3 this week.

If you become really interested in Pedagogy of the Oppressed, you might decide to read it quickly, like in one or two weeks. Or you might decide you want to read it slowly, like over the course of several months. Either way is fine; you get to decide.

I am going to give you some assignments to guide you along the way, but of course you are the boss of whether you decide to read the book or not and of how quickly you decide to read it. And you may do every part of the assignment or one part. Any part of it you decide to do is an awesome step in the right direction.

Assignment #1: You are going to read some introductory material to Pedagogy of the Oppressed and then read the first chapter, and then I will give you some questions to think or write about. This assignment has five total steps which you will see in bold below.

Step One: Read this post about oppression, racism, and white privilege.

Step Two:  Read the essay below about the oppressed and oppressor relationship:

“The Oppressed and Oppressors: Understanding this Concept in Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed”

As you read Pedagogy of the Oppressed, you will notice that Paulo Freire uses the words oppressed and oppressor frequently There is a specific reason he did so. Paulo Freire writes in the existential philosophical tradition, a tradition that was greatly influenced by a philosopher named Hegel and a famous book he wrote called the Phenomenology of Spirit.  One of the most important and influential ideas in the book is a concept called the master and slave dialectic, and it is extremely helpful to understand this concept when you are reading Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed.

In the master-slave portion of the Phenomenology, Hegel takes a close look at what happens when human beings first became aware of their freedom. (Hegel may have in mind the time in human history in which humans broke away from their animal instincts and became aware of their existence). Hegel suggests that as humans become aware of their freedom and of other people’s freedom, it becomes a source of anxiety for them. While Hegel does not exactly say why this is so, he suggests that it is because human beings are not sure if they are free and how exactly they differ from rocks and trees. Furthermore, they are not sure if other people’s freedom is a threat to their own personal freedom.

This book is really weird, but I learned a great deal from it. I read it in grad school and did a presentation on the master and slave part of it.

Hegel suggests that because of this anxiety, human beings engage in a fight to the death with one another. It seems that initially, human beings believe they must prove and preserve their freedom by fighting with one another. Initially, human beings exercise their freedom through dominance. After this initial fight to the death, masters and slaves emerge. One human (or group of humans) win, and the other human or group of humans becomes slave. In this state, the master thinks that he has proven his freedom and that he is superior, more free, and more human than the slave.

The tables soon turn, however. In Hegel’s account, the master realizes that he is not superior to the slave. In fact, he realizes that he is dependent on the slave for his very existence—that without the slave, he would be nothing. He also finds out that he is not more free or more human than the slave. The master does no work, but the slave shows his freedom through his work. The slave decides that he will do his master’s bidding (he could choose to revolt), and as he works on the world around him, he transforms it.

Therefore, because the slave chooses to work and because he transforms the world, he demonstrates his freedom more clearly than the master. It takes the master a while to figure this out. Eventually the master and slave realize that they are equally human and free and must cooperate to understand and the transform the world together. When they do this, they no longer operate through dominance and submission. Rather, they develop a relationship of cooperation and recognition. (If my grad school and phi friends or professors are reading this, please excuse my over-simplification of this section.)

Hegel believed that society had moved past the dominance phase of the master-slave dialectic and had largely achieved cooperation and recognition. In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Freire suggests to us that we are often still stuck in patterns of dominance and that master and slave patterns appear again in situations of dehumanization. He invites us to consider how today we can move past domination into humanizing relationships.

Step Three: Read this post, and specifically you want to scroll down to the part that talks about Paulo Freire’s Life and Pedagogy of the Oppressed. This part is right at the beginning.

Paulo Freire was a Christian who suffered significant oppression early on in his life. He eventually escaped his oppression, and he devoted his life to working with and on behalf of the oppressed. He believed such work was an outgrowth of his Christian commitment. (I am a Christian who believes the very same thing.)

Step Four: Read chapter one and use the study guide below to help you.

In chapter one, you are going to encounter some unfamiliar language like vocation, humanization, dehumanization, praxis, and false generosity. All the points below help you work step-by-step through the text and helps you understand this unfamiliar terminology. Don’t worry if you feel like you don’t understand everything or even most things. Just focus on understanding a few things.

Chapter One

  1. Humanization has always been a concern throughout history, but now it is a major concern.
  2. Freire was writing during the sixties in which people protested dehumanizing elements of society such as the Vietnam War, racism, and inequality. When he says that humanization currently has taken on an “element of inescapable concern”, he means that the central concerns of society at that time were concerns of dehumanization. (These are still our concerns today).
  3. Humanization is not just a given. Dehumanization is also possible historically and now.
  4. Dehumanization is a process by which people steal other people’s humanity. This means that in some way, people deny the oppressed their ability to reflect, name, and transform their world. This prevents them from pursuing their purpose.
  5. Dehumanization is not our vocation or purpose. It is a problem of diseased or dysfunctional praxis. (Praxis is he combination of our reflection on and actions in the world.)
  6. Eventually dehumanization leads the oppressed to struggle against their oppressors.
  7. The historical task of the oppressed is to liberate themselves and their oppressors.
  8. Sometimes in order not to seem quite as bad, the oppressors offer generosity to the oppressed. This makes them look like good people, and it excuses their guilt in their mind. But this is a false generosity.
  9. True generosity always works to destroy false generosity and false charity.
  10. What is true generosity? “True generosity lies in striving so that these hands—whether of individuals or entire peoples—need be extended less and less…so that more and more they become human hands which work and, working, transform the world”.
  11. There is always a danger that members of the old oppressed class will turn into new members of an oppressing class if they are not aware and enlightened.
  12. The goal is for the oppressed to liberate themselves and everyone else—not just form a new class of oppressors.
  13. Often the oppressed have internalized the image of the oppressor. This means that they think of themselves in the way the oppressor thinks of them—as not fully human. Because of this, the oppressed are sometimes afraid of freedom.
  14. If the oppressed want to be fully free, they must reject the view of themselves that the oppressors have prescribed to them.
  15. Freedom is not something that we receive from someone else. It is something we must work to obtain. We do this by…
    1. Realizing the causes of oppression
    2. Working on transforming action that creates a new situation
    3. Create a new situation that allows for the fuller expression of humanity
  16. The oppressed both want freedom, but they also fear it because of the way the oppressors have prescribed to them.
  17. People who want to free the oppressed must create a pedagogy that is with the oppressed rather than for
  18. Liberation can be painful and scary.
  19. In order to be able to liberate themselves, the oppressed must realize that the world created by the oppressors is not a closed world. They need to realize they can change it.
  20. They also need to realize that they are the ones who have the power because without them, the oppressors could not actually exist.
  21. The oppressor’s power depends on the oppressed in order to exist.
  22. What the oppressed and oppressor must realize is that we exist with each other, and our existence is made possible by one another. So, it is not right for one group of people to oppress another.
  23. If we truly want to be “for the oppressed” and in solidarity with them, we must stop thinking of them in the abstract. We must realize that they are actual people who have suffered injustice, and we must take concrete steps with them to transform their situation.
  24. Our social reality does not just exist by chance. It is something we have made.
  25. It does not change by chance either. It takes purposeful action.
  26. In order to change reality, people must perceive it objectively and then act to transform it.
  27. However, the oppressor class knows (consciously or unconsciously) that a changed reality would not be to its advantage, so the oppressor class fights against it.
  28. Part of the job of the liberating teacher is to help the oppressed realize that they are actors who can think and transform their world.
  29. Educators must educate with the oppressed, and it must treat them as equals.
  30. It cannot be done for them and, and educators must not treat the oppressed as “poor unfortunates”.
Demonstration for the civil rights in Montgomery, police repression, 1965, United States, New York, Schomburg Center. (Photo by Photo12/UIG/Getty Images)

Step Five: Reflect on these questions or discuss them with someone else:

One: Reflect on Freire’s definition of dehumanization, false generosity and false charity.

What are some instances of dehumanization you see around you?

What are some instances of false generosity and  false charity you see around you?

Two: Reflect on Freire’s description about what people must do in order to act as a true ally to the oppressed.

What is one thing you could do to act in this way? If you would like some ideas, you can read this list.

You can read the next post in this series here.

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