Critical Pedagogy Beyond Humanism
after Paulo Freire
I. Pedagogy of the Oppressed
”To the oppressed, and to those who suffer with them and fight at their side” Paulo Freire (2000)
This is the dedication on the first page of this astounding book, ”Pedagogy of the Oppressed” by Paulo Freire. For many of us who read his work, it sounds immediately familiar, like coming home and being understood, precisely, by a complete stranger. The way schools rob us of our time, our creativity and our becoming selves is a common experience. But Freire writes specifically for freedom, for and with the oppressed. And not only did he write, but he worked towards collective liberation all of his life.
Coming from a middle-class family hit by the economic crisis of the 1920s, Freire realized from a very early age that it was his sudden precariousness that made him unable to learn. He promised that he will dedicate himself to the fight against hunger and poverty. His way to do it was the crafting of this complex pedagogy, later called critical pedagogy. Henry Giroux (2020) wrote that:
Critical pedagogy takes as one of its central projects an attempt to be discerning and attentive to those places and practices in which social agency has been denied… (It) is about more than a struggle over assigned meanings, official knowledge, and established modes of authority: it is also about encouraging students to take risks, act on their sense of social responsibility, and engage the world as an object of both critical analysis and hopeful transformation.
Freire’s programs were not simply teaching literacy, although they certainly did that as well. In one application of his theories in 1962, 300 sugarcane harvesters learned to read and write in just 45 days. His legacy is both huge and undervalued, often hidden from university lectures because of its strong political message. As he wrote, “[f]or the truly humanist educator and the authentic revolutionary, the object of action is the reality to be transformed by them together with other people—not other men and women themselves.”
Of the man himself, it was said that “He fully understood that not dealing with the hard questions was an excuse to let the voices of the powerful work through you” (Apple, 2013). He could engage for hours in dialogue over ideas. Indeed, that is one of the main methods of this pedagogy: dialogue.
[Image Description: Portrait of Paulo Freire drawn with white and red lines on a black background. Freire is depicted with a big white beard, a hopeful look behind glasses, and a red shirt. Behind him, three hands drawn in yellow, stand up in protest, one of them holding a pencil, another, holding sugarcane.]
II. Against banking education
What is so different about pedagogy of the oppressed? For one, this mode of learning stands firmly against what Freire called “banking education”. This you might easily recognize:
In banking education, students are seen as some sort of empty storages to which the teacher must deliver information. Neatly packaged, already ordered, the student’s responsibility is to memorize it, by storing it in the right place of their mind, and taking it out diligently when asked about it.
This mode of learning relies strongly on memorizing information, and is frequently encountered in schools across the globe.
In banking education, Freire (2000) writes:
(a) the teacher teaches and the students are taught; (b) the teacher knows everything and the students know nothing; (c) the teacher thinks and the students are thought about; (d) the teacher talks and the students listen—meekly; (e) the teacher disciplines and the students are disciplined; (f) the teacher chooses and enforces his choice, and the students comply; (g) the teacher acts and the students have the illusion of acting through the action of the teacher; (h) the teacher chooses the program content, and the students (who were not consulted) adapt to it; (i) the teacher confuses the authority of knowledge with his or her own professional authority, which she and he sets in opposition to the freedom of the students; (j) the teacher is the Subject of the learning process, while the pupils are mere objects.
[Image Description: A hand drawn in white lines on a black background holds a square shape in which a child is trying to fit. Next to it there are a floating triangle and a circle shape, drawn in red, also with children in them, struggling to fit within the confines.]
Critical pedagogy, on the contrary, requires something else completely. In this model, the teacher and the student both learn from each other and both are transformed by the process of learning, entering it so as to transform the world. For Freire, there is no such thing as neutral education - education usually serves the purpose of the oppressors. It does so by making the oppressed internalize myths: the myth of their place in the world, the myth of individual success, “the myth that all people are free to work where they wish, … the myth that this order respects human rights … the myth of charity and generosity of the elites” and many such others (Freire, 2000).
Critical pedagogy serves the purpose of liberation, it is towards something, but not something that the teacher decides alone. Both student and teacher dialogue, speak and decide together on what is to be learned, spoken for, and acted towards.“The teacher is no longer merely the-one-who-teaches, but one who is himself taught in dialogue with the students, who in turn while being taught also teaches. They become jointly responsible for a process in which all grow. In this process, arguments based on “authority” are no longer valid; in order to function, authority must be on the side of freedom, not against it. Here, no one teaches another, nor is anyone self-taught.” (Freire, 2000)
[Image Description: Similar to the previous image, but the shapes (square, triangle, circle) disappear and the children are free to find their own movements, to stretch, to play.]
III. Being critical of critical pedagogy
Many critiques have been levelled at critical pedagogy, including a watering down of its political potential. Our purpose here is only to engage in those that work for furthering liberation, not for its diminishment. Thus we must pay attention to the humanistic and anthropocentric discourses within the pedagogy of the oppressed. Indeed, for Freire, the liberation of humans is done in opposition to their so-called background - nature and other animals. For him, the purpose of liberation is, of course, to empower humans (alone) into acting as subjects.
An even stronger critique of his writings comes from ecojustice pedagogy, whose proponents claim that Freiere’s model is in line with the thinking that led to these oppressive systems, born out of the Industrial Revolution. More precisely, C.A. Bowers (2005) argued that Freire engages in:
a human-centered view of human/nature relationships, thinking of change as linear and inherently progressive in nature, representing critical inquiry and thus the autonomous individual as the only legitimate source of agency and moral authority, and most important of all, assuming that the view of reality based on these assumptions should replace the “realities” constituted by other cultural epistemologies.
When we focus on his treatment of other animals, we see that Freire makes broad unsubstantiated claims about them so as to underline the uniqueness of human agency and power. His work relies on an anthropological difference that has been much criticized in the last few years for its prejudices and its human supremacist tendencies. For Freire, “an act is oppressive only when it prevents people from being more fully human” (Freire, as cited in Corman, 2020). Moreover, in his speciesist understanding, “capacities for dialogue and communication are defined exclusively as human capabilities” (Corman, 2020) and thus human liberation is understood as a process of transcending the condition of so-called animality and of being seen as an object. In this vein, some argue critical pedagogy is to be abandoned (C.A. Bowers, 2005). Others claim much of it is to be transformed (Corman, 2011; Kress & Lake, 2020; Markides, 2020). Indeed, it is within critical pedagogy a potential to be self-critical and work towards liberation, always, despite some of its not so critical premises.
[Image Description: Drawn in white lines on a black background, the silhouette of a tall man at the center of the piece. Around him, floating, there are many non-human individuals drawn in red and yellow: a whale, a chicken, a ferret, a kangaroo, a bat, an octopus, a crab, a duck and a mouse.]
IV. Learning in solidarity with non-humans
How can we learn and teach towards collective liberation for both humans and non-humans?
Some authors have claimed that “Dehumanization renders particular peoples along with all non-human entities as disposable and this disposability is marked on both the world and people’s bodies.” (Kress & Lake, 2020). Thus, it is through an understanding against capitalist disposability that we can reclaim Freire. Speculative, intersectional and animal pedagogies also have many things to teach us (Lysgaard & Bengtsson, 2020; Case, 2016; Acampora, 2021). Learning from indigenous worldviews (Markides, 2020) and recent research (Meijer, 2019) we find more and more about the ways in which we can communicate with other animals, and how we have been doing so for a long time. Freire (1970/1993, as rewritten by Markides, 2020) can be re-written with this in mind, saying: “It is not our role to speak to [all entities] about our own view of the world, nor to attempt to impose that view on them, but rather to dialogue with [all entities] about their view and ours".
Through its respect for the other, true solidarity can be found in critical pedagogy. Indeed, later in life, Freire (1997; as cited in Bowers, 2005) wrote:
What I have been proposing is a profound respect for the cultural identity of students—a cultural identity that implies respect for the language of the other, the color of the other, the gender of the other, the sexual orientation of the other, the intellectual capacity of the other; that implies the ability to stimulate the creativity of the other. But these things take place in a social and historical context and not in pure air. These things take place in history, and I, Paulo Freire, am not the owner of history.
[Image Description: The three human children previously drawn in red and yellows are sitting and playing, each with a nonhuman animal. One is sitting and playing music with a chicken, one is playing a sort of jumping game with a rat, and one is playing with a ferret.]
Just as Freire stood firm against oppressing other humans, regardless of their identity, so can a transformed critical pedagogy stand firm against oppressing other animals, regardless of their species.
Instead of inducing students to become fully human persons with humanist ethics (ethics structured by domination), we have to engage in collective forms of inquiry that pose the Western human as a question, not as a presupposed telos. Instead of deciding in advance what the students must come to understand as they think through texts and histories, we have to allow for unanticipatable outcomes. (Snaza, 2017)
Paulo Freire recognized our deep dependence on living ecosystems, and recognized the violence enacted against them through pollution and climate change. If only we recognize, now, other forms of agency along with ours, and speak with - as he says, never for - other beings, then we, together, are acting in solidarity.
So may we walk towards education as a practice of freedom with more-than-human beings.
May we be guided by collective inquiry and love, which Freire puts at the foundation of dialogue.
For all of those who are oppressed, and have yet to be recognized as such.
[Image Description: A human fist (covered in yellow flowers) raised up in protest is crushing thorns, drawn in white and red lines. Next to it, a paw and a hoof are raised as well.]
Acampora, R. (2021). Zoögogy of the Oppressed. Journal for Critical Animal Studies, 18(1), 4-18. Retrieved from http://journalforcriticalanimalstudies.org/jcas-volume-18-issue-1-february-2021/
Apple, M. W. (2013). Can education change society? Routledge.
Bowers, C. A. (2005) How the Ideas of Paulo Freire Contribute to the Cultural Roots of the Ecological Crisis in Bowers, C. A. & Apffel-Marglin, F. RETHINKING FREIRE: Globalization and the Environmental Crisis. 221.
Case, K. A. (Ed.). (2016). Intersectional pedagogy: Complicating identity and social justice. Routledge.
Corman, Lauren. (2011). Impossible Subjects: The Figure of the Animal in Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Canadian Journal of Environmental Education, 17.
Freire, P. (2000) Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Bloomsbury Publishing Inc
Giroux, H. A. (2020). On critical pedagogy. Bloomsbury Academic.
Horsthemke, K. (2018). Animal Rights Education. Springer International Publishing. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-98593-0
Kress, T. & Lake, R. (2020) We Write on the Earth as the Earth Writes on Us: Paulo Freire the (Post) Humanist in James, Kirylo. Reinventing Pedagogy of the Oppressed: Contemporary Critical Perspectives. Bloomsbury Academic An imprint of. https://doi.org/10.5040/9781350117211
Lysgaard, J. A., & Bengtsson, S. (2020). Dark pedagogy–speculative realism and environmental and sustainability education. Environmental Education Research, 26(9-10), 1453-1465.
Markides, J. (2020) Overcoming (In)Difference: Emancipatory Pedagogy and Indigenous Worldviews toward Respectful Relationships with the More-Than-Human World in James, Kirylo. Reinventing Pedagogy of the Oppressed: Contemporary Critical Perspectives. Bloomsbury Academic An imprint of. https://doi.org/10.5040/9781350117211
Noacella, A. (2017) Unmasking the Animal Liberation Front Using Critical Pedagogy: Seeing the ALF for Who They Really Are. Journal for Critical Animal Studies, Volume V, Issue 1
Snaza, N. (2017). Posthuman(ist) Education and the Banality of Violence. Parallax, 23(4), 498–511. https://doi.org/10.1080/13534645.2017.1374520
Scris de M. Martelli
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