The most common questions I have received in response to my thesis so far have dealt with the issue of authority in the teacher-student relationship. Many, based on personal experience, believe that the analogy presumes an oppressive, authoritarian relationship of the teacher over the student. Dewey and Confucius do not operate from this presupposition, but they don’t spend much time explicitly explaining why–they simply assert their pedagogical views and move on to their real arguments.

Paulo Freire, focusing solely on the philosophy of education, fills in this gap in Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1968). In my project, a brief discussion of Freire’s argument of the “problem-posing educator” over the “banking model of education” will serve two purposes: 1) It will show that these conceptions of proper education, while still utterly overlooked in today’s K-12 school systems, still have a modern following and should not be discounted as antiquated or disproven, and 2) It will clarify the fact that my conception of the teacher-student relationship is normative rather than descriptive.

I understand that for most people, the first thing they think of when the teacher-student relationship is invoked is not the same thing that I am utilizing in my thesis, but I think this is okay, and probably even beneficial. For if the two relationship are truly analogous, as I believe, then the easily understood problems in one will mirror those that may be more difficult to see in the other, but are there nevertheless.

I will copy here a few quotes from Pedagogy of the Oppressed that appear to be helpful to my project:

His efforts must be imbued with a profound trust in people and their creative power. To achieve this, they must be partners of the students in their relations with them. (p.75)

This is where Freire begins to explain the cooperative, as opposed to authoritative, process of education that he supports. This is also essentially the perspective that we, as developer, must adopt towards developing nations–we must trust and respect their ability to plot their own destiny.

Unfortunately, those who espouse the cause of liberation are themselves surrounded and influenced by the climate which generates the banking concept, and often do not perceive its true significance or its dehumanizing power. (p.79)

We cannot “give” liberty or development to developing nations because these are not things that can be handed out like awards. These things are processes born within the developing nations, and developers are merely present to assist when requested. Constantly we must recoil from a sense of superiority or authority, however seemingly justified.

…[The teacher] cognizes a cognizable object while he prepares his lessons in his study or his laboratory; during the second, he expounds to his students about that object. The students are not called upon to know, but to memorize the contents narrated by the teacher. Nor do the students practice any act of cognition, since the object towards which that act should be directed is the property of the teacher rather than a medium evoking the critical reflection of both teacher and students. (p.80)

Here again is an example of how the teacher/developer, out of a sense of superior knowledge, does all of the work that the students ought to be learning to do for themselves. This makes me wonder about all of those democratic constitutions adopted by the vast majority of nations over the last century—mostly modeled off of those of Britain or the US (probably more the former than the latter). I wonder if a detailed series of case studies might reveal that those left more flexible and able to meet the specific demands of their adoptive nations turned out more successful than those forced to strictly follow the model constitutions.

Both the US and Britain had to write and edit their constitutions themselves, and this seems like an important developmental stage. In a sense, a constitution is a piece of technology, and as with most technologies, it is most responsibly used by those who created it, not those who received it without having to put work into it.

Unlike technology, however, a constitution cannot really be kept secret or proprietary. But I think developers could take it upon themselves to recommend that developing nations start from the ground up when working to reorder their governments or societies–rather than pushing pre-packaged shortcuts at them. As with cooking, the best social/political reforms are made fresh from local ingredients.

The role of the problem-posing educator is to create, together with the students, the conditions under which knowledge at the level of doxa (notion) is superseded by true knowledge, at the level of logos (understanding). (p.81. Definitions are mine.)

The problem-posing educator is Freire’s solution to the banking-model. My interpretation is that he’s basically prescribing the Socratic Method: keep asking the students questions about their beliefs and perceptions until they are forced to consider them critically, with the ultimate goal of arriving at true understanding. This is already more or less what “practicing” development ethicists like Denis Goulet have been doing, although they have not, to my knowledge, described the process in these terms.

Socrates makes an interesting example–he was a teacher of men, and sometimes those he taught were hostile and didn’t ask for his lessons. Yet he saw himself as a public servant (as he said once or twice in the Apology) and took the initiative in confronting his unwilling students. He was at the same time both aggressive and un-authoritative: the lesson was a collaborative process, and the student was not given an answer, but rather led (or perhaps dragged) to discover one for himself.

Might this be the ideal model for international development policy? Should we act as the gadfly to nations that are walking along the precipice between development and catastrophe? My initial feeling is that this might indeed be best, but only if we also had Socrates’ sense of restraint (that is, his practice of humility, whether genuine or not). This is probably too much to ask of a nation that has issues with arrogance already, though, and so I might be more inclined to fall back on my previous argument that we should only enter into the teacher-student relationship with those students who have sought our help. Stick with the way things work in college as opposed to K-12 education.

Posted by Scott Zuke on Nov 30, 2008.


5 Responses to “Pedagogy of the Oppressed”

  1. sue oriley on March 13th, 2009 1:22 pm

    This was great to discover, i too am writing thesis on similar ideas..

  2. Emmanuel on March 18th, 2009 3:21 am

    Dear Scott,

    Nice work you have on your web. Please I am a Nigerian and am trying to know where the freirean dialogu agrees with the socratic teachings. Please could you help me by answering such. God bless you.


  3. Scott on March 18th, 2009 10:47 am

    Hello, Emma,

    Where I see the greatest similarity between Freire and Socrates is in their method of teaching. In his book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Freire recommends a “problem-posing” style of education in which the teacher presents problems and scenarios that the students must work through using their cognitive and cooperative abilities. The teacher actively participates in the dialogue.

    This is different from the more common style of education in which the teacher only gives answers to students, without asking them to discover the answers for themselves. There is no dialogue, but rather just the teacher speaks and the students listen and memorize.

    Socrates’ style of educating the men of Athens is very similar to Freire’s problem-posing method, as I see it. He would inquire into the nature of some concept–justice, love, friendship, and courage, to name a few–and then actively participate in a dialogue with the other characters. He would frequently say that he preferred this method of questioning and dialogue over the more common practice of the sophists and rhetoricians of his day, which was to speak in long, eloquent speeches while everyone else just listened passively.

    In the context of my project in development ethics, I would say that the development process needs to be conducted as a cooperative dialogue, in which the developer nation frames the most important issues that the developing country needs to address and then asks that country to begin thinking about how it might best go about solving them. That is, I believe where many development efforts have faltered in the past is when the developer–whether a major country like the U.S. or an international organization like the IMF–has told a developing country what is must do in order to continue receiving aid.

    Just as in education, I believe the goal of development should be for the developing nation to gain cognitive and problem-solving skills rather than simply memorizing “answers” and performing them automatically. Democracy, as I see it, is not just the tools of democratic government, such as free and open elections and civil rights, but rather it is the cognitive ability of a whole society to recognize and respond to the problems its citizens are facing. A truly democratic society is fully in control of its actions because it understands them–it does not act on impulse or from memorized, dogmatic teachings.

    Socrates makes a similar point when he says in the Apology that “the unexamined life is not worth living for a human.” To be fully human means to be fully conscious of one’s condition and fully in control of one’s actions—we can only reach this point if we are instructed in such a way that strengthens our personal freedom.

    For both Freire and Socrates, this means that we should not be subjected to a style of education that conversely promotes an oppressive, authoritarian relationship between the teacher and the student. Ultimately, the responsibility of the student is to eagerly seek out his or her own education, and it is the responsibility of the teacher to facilitate–but not dictate–that process.

    Sorry this is such a long response, but I hope it answers your question! If not, please follow-up with me, because this is one of the most crucial building blocks of my whole project, and I appreciate any suggestions for making clearer.


    Scott Zuke

  4. Malquisoft on March 27th, 2009 4:06 pm

    I’m greatly impressed with ur notes on the similarities of freirean and socratic dialogue. Bt can u sight any major differences in their dialogue method.

  5. Scott on March 28th, 2009 12:02 pm

    Major differences I can see would be that 1) Socrates is “educating” grown men, not children, and so the teacher-student relationship is of a different nature, and 2) Socrates’ dialectic style is (arguably) more competitive and oppressive than he lets on, since he can maneuver the course of the conversation to arrive at his own views, whereas Freire favors an honest and cooperative discourse in which the teacher has no ulterior motive.

    I have not really studied Freire seriously, however. I have only researched his writings insofar as I could make them relate to my project in development ethics, so I’m not sure I’m able to answer your question with any great depth or accuracy. If you’re interested enough, you might try downloading one of the drafts of my paper and reading the sections on Socrates and Freire–they’re in Chapter 1, which is available here:

    Thanks for the question!

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