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Still Thinking of you Paulo: Pedagogy of the Oppressed 50th anniversary edition

Freire’s writings have had a deep influence on both Rajesh Tandon and myself. His research approach which he called thematic investigation was one of the influences in our original coining of the concept of participatory research in the 1970s. This review of the 50th anniversary edition of Pedagogy of the Oppressed has been a wonderful opportunity to re-enter the world of Paulo’s thinking and living. Your own thoughts would be most welcome.

Paulo Freire. Bloomsbury Academic, New York and London, 2018, 232 pp. Translated by Myra Bergman Ramos. With a new introduction by Donald Macedo and an afterword by Ira Shor. ISBN 978-1-5013-1414-8 (hbk), ISBN 978-1-5013-1413-1 (pbk), ISBN 978-1-5013-1416-2 (ePDF), ISBN 978-1-5013-1415-5 (ePUB)

If you have not yet had a chance to read Pedagogy of the Oppressed, do so now. The ideas are as relevant to our battle for justice over demagoguery today as 50 years ago.

I think that it was in 1971. I was working at the Institute of Adult Education at the University of Dar es Salaam at the time. I had stopped by to drop something off at the home of Marjorie Mbilinyi, an Education Professor at the University. She held up a red-covered book, a Penguin edition of Pedagogy of the Oppressed and said, “You have to read this. It is the best book that I have ever seen on the radical potential of literacy and adult education!”

I am not sure how I got my copy, but I did. I read it. And the reading of Pedagogy was like being immersed in an intellectual north-eastern Brazilian tropical storm. For Marjorie and myself and the many others working in education in support of Mwalimu Julius K Nyerere’s vision of African socialism, Freire’s book was the first piece of writing that provided us with a theoretical underpinning to what we were trying to do. It was an empowering book. It was a book of validation. It was an intellectual tour de force about adult education and literacy, a field of educational discourse that was marginal and under-theorised.

The stories that Freire told brought together classic socialist thinkers such as Marx, Engels, Lenin and Lukacs with the existentialist thinking of Sartre and de Beauvoir, with the phenomenology of Husserl, the humanistic psychology of Fromm, the theological ideas of Niebuhr, the Global South revolutionary thinkers such as Fanon and Debray with the thoughts of peasants from north-eastern Brazil. No one had previously had the imagination to bring these thinkers together before.

But to my mind what makes Pedagogy so powerful is that the theoretical scaffolding which Freire created grew from his practice. Before the theories, before the sophisticated, even elegant, arguments, was the lived experience of Freire and the thousands of north-eastern Brazilian peasants who were part of the transformative literacy movement based on the creation of cultural circles, circles of dialogue. At the heart of what happened when literacy learners and teachers came together to learn reading and writing through discussions of their lives of poverty, oppression and subjugation was conscientisation. Freire told the world what many of us knew from our practices of teaching and learning that education is not neutral. That that process of learners being transformed from objects of theory into subjects of their own history was the heart of what education for radical social change should aspire to. His poetic ability to express his ideas such as the explanation that learners needed to move from “reading the word to reading the world” caught our imaginations. Those of us more broadly not only had a critical role to play in a transition to a more just and equitable world, we were in some ways a critical or foundational element in the historic project of socialism.

There is a list somewhere of the 25 most-cited social science works according to Google Scholar. Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed is listed as number 3 in this list. What is astounding is that Pedagogy is the only book out of the 25 featured which was written by someone outside of Europe and North America! His is the only book from the Global South, that term which we use to refer to 80 per cent of the world’s population. The fact that the majority of the world’s writers and thinkers are excluded from this list says a lot about the unequal distribution of knowledge in the world. But for the purposes of our reflections about Pedagogy in this review, the question is what is it about this book and this man that has allowed his work to be so well known. Some have said that he was the most influential educational thinker of the 20th century. Thus, the 50th anniversary edition of Pedagogy of the Oppressed is a most welcome celebratory publication.

The Introduction to the anniversary edition is by Donaldo Macedo. Macedo, one of the many fine critical educators who worked and published with Freire in the last years of his life, was in my opinion closest to Freire. I will return to why I think that Macedo’s introduction is the best piece that I have read on Pedagogy. Readers will also be interested to hear from Ira Shor, a good friend of Paulo’s and a great teacher. Shor provides the anniversary edition’s afterword. There are also brief thoughts from a list of others who have been associated with Freire’s work including Marina Aparicio Barberán, Noam Chomsky, Gustavo Fischman, Ramón Flecha, Ronald David Glass, Valerie Kinloch, Peter Mayo, Peter MacLaren and Margo Okazawa-Rey. One disappointing note is that this list of authoritative voices about the work of Freire does not include a single Brazilian, Latin American, African, Asian, Caribbean, Arabic or Indigenous voice. Why not?

Macedo’s introduction provides us with important insights into why Pedagogy the book has had the remarkable popularity it still retains. The publishers note that more than 1 million copies of Pedagogy have been sold. Macedo opens his introduction with the observation that “Leading intellectuals … have wisely and incessantly alerted people around the world of the dire consequences … of the far-right hegemony that, if left unchecked may potentially result in the end of humanity as we know it” (p. 1). Not only do we need to find an alternative political path, but central to this agenda must be the development of people’s critical awareness of how they are in the world and of the world.

According to Macedo, the central goal of Pedagogy is “to awaken in the oppressed the knowledge, creativity and critical reflective capacity necessary to unveil, demystify and understand power relations responsible for their oppressed marginalization” (p. 2). Macedo reminds us that Freire’s intention was not specifically to advocate for a method of teaching literacy as a way of addressing the oppressive nature of the “banking method”, but to introduce us to the powers of dialogue and reflection as the basis of conscientização or conscientisation as the “practice of freedom”. Macedo argues that Freire’s rage and insights into the nature of class-based oppression resulted from his family’s fall into poverty from middle-class status when he was young. When Freire’s family moved from their middle-class neighbourhood to Morro de Saude, a low-income part of Recife, he came face to face with the violence of poverty. I believe that Macedo is right about this. I also believe that the power of Pedagogy could not have been achieved without Freire’s deep involvement in the literacy movements linked with the theology of liberation and revolutionary organising in 1960s north-eastern Brazil. Conscientisation arose not from a study of classical thinkers but from the lives and thoughts of peasant farmers with whom he worked during these years. His genius was to learn from village intellectuals and transform their experience into a discourse which intellectuals, academics and well-educated revolutionaries could understand. Without praxis there would not have been a book called Pedagogy.

Ira Shor’s afterword does a lovely job articulating the pedagogical brilliance of Freire’s work. I always think of Ira as foremost a teacher, a facilitator of learning whose own explorations into how to use education as a process of liberation preceded his introduction to Freire’s work. Shor’s work is based in an ongoing praxis. His analysis supports Freire’s claim that Pedagogy “is rooted in concrete situations and describes the reactions of laborers … and of middle-class persons whom I have observed … during the course of my educative work (p. 37). Shor provides a list of reasons why Pedagogy has been so widely read, debated, used and even abused over these past 50 years. While all of his reasons bear reading in full, taken together, Pedagogy provides a pedagogical link to practices of social justice, a situated pedagogy adaptable to multiple educational settings, a set of practical tools for critical pedagogues to explore, and a denunciation of oppositional leaders who denounce oppression while depending on authoritarian exhortations and propagandising.

I want to close with a poem that I wrote a year after Paulo died. I share this poem because it explains, I believe, the other reason why the man Paulo Freire was such a powerful influence on the lives of so many of us.

Surf On Pauliño
Budd L. Hall

For Paulo Freire on the celebration of his birthday

Lire les mots
Lire les textes
Lire les vies
Lire le monde
Lire nos cœurs

I mean picture this
600 street-wise American and Canadian activists
Assembled in the conference hall of the New School of Social
Research in New York City
Where in 1932 the first North American meeting of the Workers
Education Association was held

A birthday conference for Paulo Freire, the most influential
Educational thinker of the 20th century
Academics jammed in next to homeless organizers who are
Jammed in next to Lady Garment Workers who are
Jammed in next to the Puerto Rican Independence underground who are
Jammed in next to kindergarten teachers who are
Jammed in next to high school students who are
Waiting to hear from Paulo Freire

And Paulo, 70 years old, who has come to town to help us all
Celebrate ourselves through him, stands up behind a table on the

“I’d like to tell you”,
Paulo says in his quiet gentle voice,
“About the best gift that I have had for my birthday.
I received it from a young boy in Recife, in north-east Brazil where
I was born.
He gave me the gift of a picture which he had drawn himself
A picture of the crashing Atlantic coastal waves
And in the picture was a man riding on what I think is called a
Surf board.
And on top of the board, riding the waves, was an old man with a
white beard and glasses.
That old man was me. It was a picture of me.
And my young friend had written words beneath this picture in his
own handwriting.
He told me ‘Surf on Pauliño’
Surf on little Paul
“And”, Paulo said with a smile that reached out to the entire hall,
“I intend to do just that”.

For Paulo was a transcendent rider of the waves
Waves of respect for the oppressed people of this planet
Waves of intellectual curiosity; lover of words
Waves of exile and loneliness in Chile, Geneva and Africa
Waves of love for his children, his dear Elsa who died before him
Waves of love for the final love of his life, his widow Nita.
And waves of love for his friends in such places as Guinea-Bissau,
Cuba, India, Fiji, France and, yes, for us in Canada.

For if he was a teacher
For if he was an activist
For if he was a writer
For if he was a teller of stories
He was above all a person in the great and ancient tradition of
Brazilian mystics
More than a teacher
More than an activist
More than a writer
More than the teller of stories

He carried with him a warm breeze of historic possibility
He carried with him the memories of many struggles
He carried with him vulnerability and need
He carried with him opportunities for friendship
He carried with him the new eyes of the young
He carried with him revolutionary agency
He carried with him his hand for ours
He carried with him the electric atmosphere of a North-eastern
Brazilian Storm

Lire les mots
Lire les textes
Lire les vies
Lire le monde
Lire nos cœurs

Paulo often apologized for his ways of speaking languages other
Than his beloved Portuguese
And yet he held audiences at hushed attention when he spoke in
English, French or Spanish in every corner of the world
He found ways through his distinct ways of speaking English and
French and other languages to draw us in to his speech
To draw us into himself
So much did he seem to need us, his audience, that we hung on his
Every word and we helped him to reach out to ourselves

So that in the end
we were his text
We were his words
He was our text
He was our words

Lire les mots
Lire les textes
Lire les vies
Lire le monde
Lire nos cœurs

Surf on

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