You’ve probably heard of #critlib: that loose affiliation of librarians interested in “critical perspectives on library practice” [link]. Now, I don’t identify with #critlib because. . .reasons. But I do think that the work being done under the mantle of critical librarianship is vital and important work, so it’s something I pay attention to. And one of the things I see an awful lot in #critlib discussions is an uncertainty about the role of critical theory. Reflecting on this, last week I wondered aloud whether anyone would be interested in short overviews of important figures in critical theory. And quite a few people expressed interest. So, I thought a little and I realized something: #critlib is absolutely saturated in the themes and ideas of Paulo Freire–chief architect of critical pedagogy. While his name is rarely explicitly mentioned,1 you still see his influence in talk of praxis, the banking model of education, problem-based learning, enabling student voices, authority being constructed and contextual, scholarship as a conversation, and so on. Personally, I think Freire is one of the greatest educators of the 20th century and his work had a big impact on my development as a teacher. But, I think his work also had some major flaws that people interested in Freire may want to consider. And that’s why I thought I’d take the time to give a brief overview of Paulo Freire and critical pedagogy. This is NOT authoritative. It’s just how one librarian who studied Freire back in the day understands critical pedagogy. The goal is fourfold:
- To give an overview of Freire’s thought.
- To provide definitions and context for frequently used terms (hello, ‘praxis’).
- To identify potential criticisms and considerations.
- To identify where librarians may find something useful
So, let’s begin…
Piaget versus the peasant
I’m going to skip the complete biographical sketch of Freire, because it’s easy enough to find elsewhere. Instead, I’ll tell a brief story about the most important event in Freire’s intellectual life.
Starting in 1947, Freire worked for SESI, a Brazilian social services program aimed at health and education services for the Brazilian working class. Freire traveled throughout his district examining regional school policies, consulting with teachers on curricula, meeting parents, conducting surveys, giving lectures, and so on. As time went on he gained a reputation as a progressive, Marxist reformer (not uncommon in mid-century Latin America) and a leading figure in the development of liberation theology (again, par for the course). He was particularly interested in literacy, but at the time of this story he was studying the effects of corporal punishment on student success. Because he was well-educated, he knew from theorists like Piaget, Vygotsky, and Dewey that corporal punishment only demotivates and silences students, and he traveled throughout the district giving lectures on his findings. And then, at a lecture sometime in 1960, right after Freire presented a thoughtful, articulate, presentation on why children should not be subjected to corporal punishment, a man in the audience stood and the following exchange took place:
“We have just heard,” he began, “some nice words from Dr. Paulo Freire. Fine words, in fact. Well spoken. Some of them were even simple enough for people to understand easily. Others were more complicated. But I think I understood the most important things that all the words together say.”
“Now I’d like to ask the doctor a couple of things that I find my fellow workers agree with.”
He fixed me with a mild, but penetrating gaze, and asked: “Dr. Paulo, Sir—do you know where people live? Have you ever been in any of our houses, Sir?” And he began to describe their pitiful houses. He told me of the lack of facilities, of the extremely minimal space in which all their bodies were jammed. He spoke of the lack of resources for the most basic necessities. He spoke of physical exhaustion, and of the impossibility of dreams for a better tomorrow. He told me of the prohibition imposed on them from being happy —or even of having hope.
As I followed his discourse, I began to see where he was going to go with it. I was slouching in my chair, slouching because I was trying to sink down into it. And the chair was swiveling, in the need of my imagination and the desire of my body, which were both in flight to find some hole to hide in. He paused a few seconds, ranging his eyes over the entire audience, fixed on me once more, and said, “Doctor, I have never been over to your house. But I’d like to describe it for you, Sir. How many children do you have? Boys or girls?”
“Five,” I said—scrunching further down into my chair. “Three girls and two boys.”
“Well, Doctor, your house must be the only house on the lot, what they call an oitão livre house,” a house with a yard. “There must be a room just for you and your wife, Sir. Another big room, that’s for the three girls. There’s another kind of doctor, who has a room for every son or daughter. But you’re not that kind—no, Sir. You have another room for the two boys. A bathroom with running water. A kitchen with Arno appliances. A maid’s room—much smaller than your kids’ rooms—on the outside of the house. A little garden, with an ‘ingress’ (the English word) lawn,” a front lawn. “You must also have a room where you toss your books, Sir—a ‘study,’ a library. I can tell by the way you talk that you’ve done a lot of reading, Sir, and you’ve got a good memory.”
There was nothing to add or subtract. That was my house. Another world, spacious and comfortable.
“Now Doctor, look at the difference. You come home tired, Sir, I know that. You may even have a headache from the work you do. Thinking, writing, reading, giving these kinds of talks that you’re giving now. That tires a person out too. But, Sir,” he continued, “it’s one thing to come home, even tired, and find the kids all bathed, dressed up, clean, well fed, not hungry—and another thing to come home and find your kids dirty, hungry, crying, and making noise. And people have to get up at four in the morning the next day and start all over again—hurting, sad, hopeless. If people hit their kids, and even ‘go beyond bounds,’ as you say, it’s not because people don’t love their kids. No, it’s because life is so hard they don’t have much choice.”
This is class knowledge, I say now. This talk was given about thirty‑two years ago. I have never forgotten it. (Freire, 1998, 17-18)
It is difficult to overstate the profound effect this encounter had on Freire. It’s also difficult to find anything that more clearly explains what critical pedagogy is about. And what a shock it must have been to Freire; he was a progressive, a Marxist, a leading figure in liberation theology–he was supposed to be the good guy! Yet, in that moment, Freire realized that all the educational theory in the world wouldn’t improve the lives of the men and women in his audience if their lived experience was ignored. This is important. But, on a deeper level, this story is also the story of an oppressed and world-beaten man standing up and asserting himself as equally human. Freire realized in this one exchange that theory, divorced from action and understanding, is not just useless: if it doesn’t acknowledge students as fully human and equals, then theory silences. He had spent a decade talking to the working class about the working class. But what about the voices of the working class? Where were they? This is where critical pedagogy was born.
By 1961, Freire was developing adult literacy programs characterized by democratic and collaborative “cultural circles” where participants and coordinators (rather than students and teachers) freely discussed politics, education, inequality, etc. By 1963, his adult literacy curriculum was so well-developed that in one notable case he taught 300 sugarcane workers how to read in just 45 days. The resounding success led the Brazilian government to invite Freire to direct a national literacy program, which he did until the military coup in 1964, after which he was jailed and then exiled until 1980. Upon his return to Brazil, he worked as a prominent education reformer until his death in 1997.
So, what is this pedagogy he came up with that was both an incredible success at improving adult literacy as well as a reason to be jailed and cast into exile? (I was going to include a description of the literacy method, but cut it due to length. Click here if you’re really interested.)
Pedagogy of the Oppressed
In 1967, while in exile in Chile, Freire published his best known work: Pedagogy of the Oppressed [link]. In it, he outlines the core aspects of what has come to be known as “critical pedagogy.” Here’s a sketch of the theory, avoiding as much of the technical jargon as I can (limit-situations, necrophily, culture circles, etc.). Also, all page numbers refer to the 2000 edition:
Critical Pedagogy defined
Recall that Freire was a Marxist and viewed society through the lens of class struggle. In particular, he focused on the relationship between the oppressed and their oppressors.2 However, because Freire also identified as a humanist, he placed dehumanization at the center of his understanding of oppression;3 the oppressed are dehumanized by their oppressors and, in the process, internalize their oppression. The oppressed may want freedom, but only to the extent that they can then have the power the oppressors have. In a sense, the oppressed fatalistically believe that the status quo is all that there can be. But the oppressors aren’t doing so hot either. They may have power, but in the process of dehumanizing the oppressed, they are losing their humanity as well. Thankfully, Freire has a plan: “the great humanistic task of the oppressed is to liberate both themselves and their oppressor. Only power that springs from the weakness of the oppressed will be sufficiently strong to free both” (p. 44). This is where critical pedagogy starts. It’s about the oppressed coming together to examine and understand the reality of oppression so that they can transform the world (p. 54) and become fully human (p. 66). According to Freire, critical pedagogy “makes oppression and its causes objects of reflection by the oppressed” (p. 48). But, it’s not as simple as teachers telling students to rise up against their oppression, because the traditional methods of education are complicit in perpetuating oppression.
The banking concept of education
First, we have to view traditional education as fundamentally narrative: a teacher talks about reality to his or her students and the task is “to fill the students with the contents of his narration” (p. 71). It’s the old “sage on the stage” view of teaching through lecture; the teacher is judged by how much content she can stuff into her students’ heads. The students in turn are judged on how meekly and passively they can absorb that content. (p. 72). Freire likens traditional instruction to a bank and he introduces his famous critique of the banking concept of education, where “education thus becomes the act of depositing…instead of communicating, the teacher issues communiques and makes deposits which the students patiently receive, memorize, and repeat” (p. 72). I think this concept is fairly widely known, but I never see anyone mention the other side of the metaphor: the teacher makes the deposits, who makes the withdrawals? The answer is: the oppressing class. Oppressors use education to make the oppressed docile, to make them “domesticated” (p. 51). Referencing Simone de Beauvoir, he explains that traditional education is about changing consciousness, not changing the oppression. It’s about making students accept their role in society. And, that is the exact opposite of the humanist goal of self-actualization.4
So, Freire proposes a problem-posing education in which “people teach each other, mediated by the world” (p. 80) How does it work? First, problem-posing education is not the same thing as problem-based learning. I’ve seen this mistake quite often. Problem-posing education is a non-hierarchical pedagogy based in critically analyzing reality through dialogue. Freire never explicitly defines it like this, choosing instead to present problem-posing education as the antithesis of the banking concept. He explains:
Banking education (for obvious reasons) attempts, by mythicizing reality, to conceal certain facts which explain the way human beings exist in the world; problem-posing education sets itself the task of demythologizing. Banking education resists dialogue; problem-posing education regards dialogue as indispensable to the act of cognition which unveils reality. Banking education treats students as objects of assistance; problem-posing education makes them critical thinkers. Banking education inhibits creativity and domesticates (although it cannot completely destroy) the intentionality of consciousness by isolating consciousness from the world, thereby denying people their ontological and historical vocation of becoming more fully human. Problem-posing education bases itself on creativity and stimulates true reflection and action upon reality, thereby responding to the vocation of persons as beings who are authentic only when engaged in inquiry and creative transformation. (p. 83)
Ontological? Intentionality of consciousness? Okay, so there was some jargon in there. The point is that in problem-posing education, the teacher meets the students on the same level (teacher-student = student-teacher) and together, in dialogue, respecting each others reason and experiences, the class critically reflects on its perceptions of reality. It is about providing the context and environment for the oppressed to ask “Why?” It’s about encouraging the human-to-human dialogues that will transform reality.
Importantly, not just any dialogue will do for Freire. It’s got to be based in critical thinking and praxis. And here is that word that everyone loves to use on #critlib chats. Praxis. Usually people say it means “theory + action” or “theory put into practice” or something similar and that’s a perfectly serviceable definition. But let’s look at how Freire defined it. First he says that there are two choices at odds with one another: we can reflect on the world or we can act on the world (p. 87). Reflection without action he calls verbalism. This is where the young, pre-Enlightened Freire was at. He thought a lot about oppression and inequality and wrote and lectured extensively, but what action did he really take? On the other hand, action without reflection he called activism and he criticized it for being directionless and easily manipulated by the oppressors. In fact, activism is the tool oppressors use to divide the oppressed and set them against one another. However, if you combine reflection and action, you get praxis, where teachers and students collaboratively participate in “reflection and action on the world in order to transform it” (p. 51). Nothing is taken as given. There are no unquestionable facts of the matter.
Praxis plays a special role because it helps to mediate against the temptation to backslide into the banking model. Freire was well aware that revolutionary leaders or social justice reformers are often impatient:
They approach the peasant or urban masses with projects which may correspond to their own view of the world, but not that of the people. They forget that their fundamental objective is to fight alongside the people for the recovery of the people’s stolen humanity; not to “win the people over” to their side…The revolutionary’s role is to liberate, and be liberated, with the people–not to win them over. (p. 95)
For Freire, the dialogue is the revolution. We don’t transform society and then educate people; the process of education is the transformation of society (p. 135). So, we need praxis, which is not so much “theory + action” as it is “always reflect critically on your actions and how they are working to transform reality.” (Of course, critical reflection is so theory-laden that we can get by saying “theory + action” but it helps to know the Freirean context.)
And this brings us back to the literacy training. Freire was successful because he focused on his shared humanity with the illiterate sugarcane workers; he worked with them through dialogue, not lecture. Throughout the process he took their experiences seriously and did his best not to privilege his own. He avoided the banking model of just telling the workers what he thought they should know. Instead, he listened to them, let them guide themselves, let them exercise their own reason and judgment. He learned from them; there were no students or teachers, there were humans coming together to address oppression and injustice. Through constantly reflecting on how the dialogue developed, he facilitated self-actualization. And in the process, these new readers came to understand their potential and their political power.
Of course, in making these Brazilians aware of the injustice of their social reality and in empowering them politically (i.e., you couldn’t vote if were illiterate) Freire’s program earned him the ire of the ruling elites.5 Hence the jail and exile following the military coup. But, Freire never quit and his ideas about critical pedagogy have thoroughly saturated virtually everything related to addressing social justice in the classroom.
Criticisms and Considerations
It seems odd and a little uncomfortable to criticize someone who did so much good in the world. But, it’s important to know what you’re getting into before jumping into critical pedagogy. Here are some things to consider:
The literacy training method doesn’t work everywhere
Those famous 300 sugarcane workers were culturally, linguistically, socially, religiously, and economically homogenous, as were most of the Brazilian groups with which Freire worked. Also, Latin America at the time was a hotbed of Marxist theory and leftist revolutions. This makes it very easy to share a common dialogue and openly address class consciousness. However, when Freire oversaw a literacy program in Guinea-Bissau in the late 1970s, it was a total failure. The reason? There were a few, but I think the most instructive is that the people of Guinea-Bissau were incredibly diverse (over 30 ethnic groups) and they did not have the same experiences of oppression as the workers of Brazil.6 The thing we have to ask is whether we can have a truly effective problem-posing educational model in a classroom full of students with radically different cultural, social, and economic situations. I think we can, but Freire offers no guidance on this point.
What about intersectionality?
Tied to the last consideration, Freire never really has a good answer for personal identities. He was a Marxist who saw all oppression as some variation on class struggle. But as to sexism, racism, homophobia, and other vectors for oppression, Freire was largely silent.7 This is actually a VERY common problem and a point of contention between old-school Marxists who believe that sexism and racism are symptoms of capitalism, and more contemporary followers of identity politics that view sex, gender, race, sexual orientation, and ability as irreducible.
What about the kids?
Problem-posing education works great for dealing with mature learners. But what about kids? Can a kindergartener be expected to participate in consciousness-raising activities the same way an adult can? Is a child even capable of being the sort of “fully human” self-actualized person Freire is seeking to create? Critical pedagogy is almost always discussed with mature learners in mind (teenagers at the least). Adapting Freire to younger students seems awkward and unclear. Granted, Montessori schools have a lot in common with problem-posing education, but the focus on class consciousness and oppression is what I’m highlighting.
What about formal education?
Freire was working with illiterate and oppressed workers, people without much formal education. These were adults who needed to learn fundamentals like reading and writing and needed to understand their own social and cultural reality. But what about kids in formal education? I can maybe see critical pedagogy in an English or history or philosophy class. But what about chemistry class–how do you get students to co-create the atomic mass of oxygen through dialogue? Aren’t there some areas or topics where the banking model of education is actually the most efficient and effective? I think Freire would agree, but we’re never given any decision procedure for sorting out when to apply critical pedagogy and when to apply other pedagogical methods.
Aren’t people more complicated?
John Elias (1975) suggests that Freire has a faulty view of what it means to be a human, never getting beyond generalities in his description of human nature. As Freire describes the world, humans live in a world where things are clearly and unambiguously right and wrong. Where oppressor and oppressed are the only available categories. Where humans are defined by their relationships to oppression. It’s like, if we just let people talk and we respect what they say, then they will grow as humans. Freire never really addresses the messy, complicated realities of the human experience. Even if we all become enlightened about class struggle, that isn’t going to make all of the evil in the world go away.
This is a humanistic theory
Critical pedagogy is essentially a humanist theory. It focuses on shared humanity and some conception of what it means to be “fully human.” Now, I’m down with that because I’m a humanist. However, that means that critical pedagogy doesn’t play nicely with several other strains of critical thought; in particular the post-structuralist rejection of “human nature.” Likewise, a rejection of metanarratives means that postmodernism and critical pedagogy don’t get along very well because of the latter’s dependence on Marxist historical materialism. Basically, if you are beholden to postmodern and or poststructuralist theories, then you’ll have to find a highly modified version of critical pedagogy that Freire may even disavow. Not saying you can’t mix postmodernism and critical pedagogy. Shoot, postmodernism lets you do absolutely anything, no matter how unusual. It’s just that Freire’s critical pedagogy was based in a (Marxist) humanism, but postmodernism and poststructuralism are deeply critical of humanism. For other approaches to critical pedagogy, try Stanley Aronowitz, bell hooks, or Henry Giroux.8
Freire and the library
If you’re interested in critical pedagogy in the library environment, there are several places to look. I had started to prepare a bibliography, but then I remembered Eamon Tewell’s 2015 literature review on critical information literacy. It totally does the job. Now, Tewell is talking about critical information literacy, which is an loose affiliation of approaches to information literacy influenced by critical theory more broadly speaking. That is, not everyone covered by Tewell is discussing critical pedagogy. Still, Tewell does a great job of highlighting where Freire has influenced library practice, specifically instruction and reference. One note of caution, however: a purely Freirean approach is only possible with genuinely exploited groups; he was explicit that only the exploited could free themselves. Even a modified critical pedagogy that expands the notion of oppression to include identity politics is tricky. So, that Composition 1010 class at your 4-year suburban university is probably not the place to go full Freire and start liberating class consciousness. But, as Tewell shows, certain elements of Freirean thought have made their mark:
- an emphasis on dialogue rather than lecture
- an emphasis on breaking down the teacher/student dichotomy
- an understanding that knowledge is socially constructed, not passed down from on high
- an understanding that the powerful use education as a means of social control
- acknowledging that education is a political act
- using real, relevant examples in class discussion, preferably issues of social justice
I think a lot of public services librarians have adopted at least a few of these ideas. I know I agree with most of them. But be careful: if you aren’t sufficiently committed to the cause, you run the risk of making things worse. For example, I’ve seen people tweet things like “I used #blacklivesmatter as my example when showing databases. I’m so #critlib!” No. Just no. It’s never subversive to stand in front of a group of college students and demonstrate how to search a $10,000 database, no matter what you’re searching. Remember that critical pedagogy is about facilitating space for the oppressed to reflect on the objects of their oppression. And that reflection is key. Just using a social justice issue on a worksheet or whatever is not facilitating reflection. If you aren’t actively engaged in a dialogue and treating students as equals and as open to learning from them as they are to learning from you, then it’s just not praxis and it’s not critical pedagogy.
And, at over 4300 words I’m going to call it a day on this. This was supposed to be a short overview, but it sort of expanded. Sorry if I got a little rambling there. And only working at it here and there over the past four or five days means there’s a LOT left out, so feel free to ask for clarification in the comments. In the future, I’ll definitely write about Henry Giroux and bell hooks, who built on Freire’s theory. But, depending on how this is received, I may shoot for writing about another critical theorist in the next few weeks. Suggestions are welcome.
Update, 7/14/16: I’ve just seen a reference to a super smart presentation by Joshua Beatty at SUNY Plattsburgh entitled “Reading Freire for First World Librarians.” Joshua draws on Freire’s later writings to examine how Freire thought his pedagogy would work in Western Europe, the US, and Canada. Definitely check it out.
Freire, P. (2002/1994). Pedagogy of Hope. (R. R. Barr, Trans.). New York: Bloomsbury.
Freire, P. (2000/1970). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. (M. B. Ramos, Trans.). New York: Bloomsbury.
Freire, P. (1973/1969). Education for Critical Consciousness (M. B. Ramos, Trans.) New York: Continuum.
Tewell, E. (2015). A decade of critical information literacy. Communications in Information Literacy, 9(1): 24-43 [link]
 Except for the sometimes-guilty, sometimes-gleeful admissions that “I’ve never even read Freire”
 This is all based in Hegel’s Master/Slave dialectic, if you want to go that route
 Freire defines oppression as “any situation in which ‘A’ objectively exploits ‘B’ or hinders his and her pursuit of self-affirmation as a responsible person is one of oppression” (p.55). Somewhat inconsistently, he defines oppression again a few pages later as “an act is oppressive only when it prevents people from being more fully human” (p. 57).
 I’m reminded of the staff development session where we read Who Moved My Cheese?
 That program with the 300 sugarcane workers? Funded in part by a USAID/CIA-backed Alliance for Progress grant. They pulled the funding when they found out what he was teaching.
 They weren’t exploited by landowners or capitalists or colonialists; they were ignored. Unlike the Brazilians who were marginalized but still within Brazilian society, the people of Guinea-Bissau were completely left out. Blanca Facundo has a detailed examination of the failure in Guinea-Bissau.
 He did address his own sexism in Pedagogy of Hope and contemporary editions of Pedagogy of the Oppressed have removed the use of ‘man’ to mean ‘human’.
 Reconciling Freire’s dialogue-based pedagogy with Foucault’s discourse-based approach comes to mind as one of the larger problems/projects that might be worth tackling.