Paulo Freire: The Renaissance man

Soumabrata Chatterjee talks about the Brazilian educationist and philosopher Paulo Freire, his ideas on education which have revolutionised Latin America and how they can still inspire us to be better students and better teachers…

We remember the film Karate Kid, right? Jackie Chan as the lonesome teacher and Jaden Smith as the kid who is eager to learn the art of karate and what follows is the run-of-the-mill story of fighting against the odds, a test of perseverance and finally, the joy of liberation … We learn the philosophical value of karate which is not a demonstration of power but of resilience and quiet, sturdy growth defying all odds …

We have seen how Shahrukh Khan inspired his women hockey team to defeat Australia and win the championship in Chak de India

What is the common thread between these two films? What is at its centre? The teacher-student relationship, of course!

The present world has seen the death of the public intellectual as a symptom of social change. Yes, they are still quite influential but we have seen how complicit they are in maintaining the status quo rather than disrupting it. What has happened to the figure of the teacher? The one in old Bengali films, who was stubborn, stood for the old world ideals, fought against injustice and finally was a beacon of hope in a world where all seemed rotten.

Has the teacher lost its original position of respect in the social strata? Is he no longer the man who inspires the youth and all that romantic skulduggery… Is he a worker subject to the rules of alienation just like Dr. Marx diagnosed? Or is he still the living ghost of Jesus who stands for the Christian ideal of piety and benevolence?

When Latin America is fighting the war of communism against the terror of capitalism, there is but one man who stands at the curious juncture of two opposite philosophies. This guy is somebody who understands the historical materialism of power but also inspires the old-world understanding of teaching as a way of progressive social change. A humanist and a materialist his ideas might hold the key to modern education and its problems…

To introduce Paulo Reglus Neves Freire just as an educationist is to commit injustice to his position within the area of critical pedagogy. Critical pedagogy is the art of combining education with critical theory. Education cannot be understood in its liberal sense alone. How do we teach? What are the students learning? How can the students act on the stuff they are being taught? Do we bring our personal problems into the classroom?

Born in Recife, Brazil on September 19, 1921 Paulo Freire was a product of his times. Good men, worse times they were … He was born into a lower middle-class family, played pick-up football with the other kids and the social inequalities left a deep impact on his worldview. A man of inimitable passion for change, he recalls in Moacir Gadotti’s book Reading Paulo Freire, “I didn’t understand anything because of my hunger. I wasn’t dumb. It wasn’t lack of interest. My social condition didn’t allow me to have an education. Experience showed me once again the relationship between social class and knowledge.” At such an impressionable age he learnt the importance of socio-economic conditions in dictating what education one got. His experience with rural folk and labourers informed his understanding that the world does not provide equal chances to everyone.

He became a grammar teacher while he was still in school and he stressed the importance of understanding the students’ expectations and act accordingly. His educational methods were quite uncouth in a society where the balance of power always put the teacher in the superior position in regards to the student. But till he was appointed as the director of Education as SESI, he couldn’t implement his methods. He discerned the apparent disconnection between the working man’s condition and an education which was elitist in its methods. He asked a question which was alarming: How do we speak to the poor? How do we encourage social change through educative models? Do our models favour those who sit at the peak of the society and dictate terms to those below them?

These questions found an answer in his Phd thesis, “Present day education in Brazil” whose revelations would earn him the title of a ‘traitor’.

Freire not only believed in reading the word but also reading the world. For him, the text is society and the society is text. He studies the world like a textbook and he studies the textbook like it imitates wordly relationships itself. This educative model began with the teacher leaving the classroom and talking to the community itself, trying to find out about their life and experiences, churning out words which would later help him educate his students. Therefore, the figure of the teacher comes out of his compartmentalised sphere and interacts with his society thus bringing about social change.

In June 1964, Freire was imprisoned in Brazil for 70 days because of his transgressive thoughts. He worked in Chile and Guinea-Bissau (a West African country) where he advised national literacy efforts. He was allowed to return to Brazil in 1979 after 15 years’ of exile. Till today, his ideas influence Brazil’s educational programmes. His philosophy needs to be propagated to the larger audience.

He is a revolutionary in the perfect sense of the term. A Messiah … In view of the recent rise of the issues of classroom politics and the role of the teacher, his philosophy becomes paramount in engaging with these questions. Just refer to the incident at Jadavpur University where the students have lost faith in the Vice-Chancellor who apparently imposed brutal police action on them. Or, we could just look at the recent debacle in Presidency University where the students were not allowed to take examinations due to meagre attendance. Now, I don’t wish to take sides in these two different issues. Also, I don’t want to discuss these in detail as this is not the purpose of this article. But just to think about it in terms of the hallowed relationship between the teacher and student, the positionalities are no longer locked in reciprocality. The role of the teacher has come under rude scrutiny in modern capitalist societies, where schools are looked upon as what Althusser called ideological state apparatuses. We do not only educate the students but rather enforce our own ideas on their minds which ultimately do not leave much scope for change. The classroom has become a site of struggle; a crude version of the ‘survival of the fittest’ … this is not to engage in a languid bourgeois nostalgia about an irredeemable past where everything was hunky-dory. This is rather to revisit the terms of the teacher-student relationship and promote it as a space where there is possibility of interaction, even improvement.

Paulo Freire’s idea of ‘banking’ education carries an intellectual lineage which goes back to Rousseau or even Plato. John Locke’s idea of the child’s mind being a “blank slate” (tabula rasa) where information has to be written or inscribed comes to mind. Or even, Rousseau’s idea of a child being an active learner. Freire believed that students are not passive conduits through which information can be transmitted or a reservoir in which it is stored.

Freire was a proponent of educational theory. Let me start with his concept of ‘critical consciousness’. The unjust social order promotes inequality in the distribution of capital and power relations. The social fabric is structured in a way as to facilitate certain sections of people who have a privileged background. Freire contends that education can make us aware of such injustices and help us understand these problems as man-made and thus act as agents of change. What he stresses is the value of education as a socio-cultural mobilising force which prevents us from becoming unassuming dupes of power.

Freire believes that literacy education can help shape individuals who are better equipped to handle social anomalies. The student can learn from his own personal experience and he has the possibility of exploring his social dimensions. As Patricia Bizzell says, “The students’ teach as well as learn, the teacher learns as well as teaches, in the Freirean classroom.”

There is a point to be made here. Often teachers are supposed to be apolitical in the classroom because it is not a space of active political activism. However, Freire’s philosophy offers the linkage between the desire of a better equanimous world and education. So even if the teacher does not practice his/her own political agenda, he/she can easily direct the student into political consciousness simply by asking them to be analytical about their own texts.

Freire helped us in understanding that education is a “political act”. It is not a “neutral conveyance” of ideas and facts and information which is delivered to us unmediated and in an unadulterated form. The texts engage us as we engage them. It transforms us as we transform them. It is not a neat package delivered to us for our perusal. Rather, it changes how we view the world and regulates our basic identity. It involves our cognitive, emotional and ethical powers and thus it turns out to be a “site of struggle.” It is like a playground where variant voices wrestle each other to gain the upper hand.

Freire has Christian and Marxist tendencies and that can make his work a little too obscure to appreciate. He was able to alphabetise illiterate peasants in Brazil in less than forty hours. Further, his slide projectors were destroyed with the help of CIA and also he was sent into exile. However, it is not because he made people literate that he was considered to be a social threat. It is because he turned them away from the “culture of silence” which is predominant among oppressed classes. Not only did he give them a voice but enabled them to name and transform the world into a utopia of social equality. It is this culture of resistance that he named as ‘conscientisation’. It is not to be understood just as an economic development; rather, it is also about the “psychological self-realisation” …

As Berthoff quips, it is as if he says that there is no way to transformation; transformation is the way. Change is not something stored in the future. It has to be something related to the present moment. It is the present which has to be revolutionary. Dreams have to be practical. They have to be theoretical.

Let us consider this sentence from his book Pedagogy of the Oppressed: “Dialogue is the encounter between men, mediated by the world, to name the world.” To focus on this sentence alone, we should not let its apparent clarity fox us. It is the kernel of this statement that we search for, the truism hidden in this dictum that we can reach by unravelling the varying levels of meaning that it encompasses in its curt structure.

Dialogue is interaction. The process triggers the intellectual appetite in the partners involved thus bringing on changes over time and history. The modus operandi and the finished product are not poles apart. Both of them transform according to the politics of the moment. It is the veritable present which dictates the dialogic principle. Freire calls his classroom the “culture circle” so it gives us a hint about the kind of “collaborative learning” that it practices. In fact, Freire speaks of “thought-language” which suggests that language and thought are not opposite forces. They come together to create activity, actually to urge activity.

We can just hope to create such a classroom where there is scope of communication, where the world has not become so compartmentalised that every bit of information is commodified and fetishised till its exhaustion. All silent and then we begin again…

Soumabrata is a research scholar in English Studies at JNU.

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