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Paulo Freire, Pedagogy and Oppression

From Treason of the Intellectuals

Teachers and ex-teachers – more numerous these days than in the past – will be familiar with the old saw: “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach; and those who can’t teach, teach teachers.”

This is a slur on a noble profession, recognized as such by attentive students and many teachers, retired or otherwise.

There is much in the postmodern world that militates against teaching, hence the increase in dropouts in the profession, and we all should recognize that teaching is at its core both a profession and a professing of some sort of doctrine or truth. Socrates and Christ, for example, were teachers.

Pedagogy has never been everyone’s cup of tea. In postmodern America, just as everyone is either selling something or buying something – a product, a service, an idea, etc. -- so, in the teaching profession, teachers offer to their students the benefits of their minds and experiences. Personalized knowledge that comes from a live mouth to a listening ear is the best kind of teaching. It sticks in a way that, say, virtual teaching does not. The sharp dip in student performance during an extended virtual teaching bout underscores the importance of personalized teaching.

Now then, if a teacher is charged with teaching students how to think, what is the mission of those who teach teachers?

The answer is obvious: The mission of those who teach teachers is to teach their charges how to teach.

Paulo Freire, the godfather of critical pedagogy, is the author of Pedagogy of the Oppressed, a highly influential book – in fact, the third most cited book in the social sciences -- widely used in teacher training and certification courses. The premise of the book is that teaching itself, the transmittal of knowledge from teacher to student, often is a form of oppression, hence the title of the book.

Freire was a Brazilian pedagogue and progressive Marxist philosopher, a target of the 1964 Brazilian military coup d'état that had imprisoned him as a traitor for 70 days. Following the enthusiastic international reception of his widely read and highly influential book, Freire was offered a visiting professorship at Harvard University in 1969.

At least two notable American terrorists -- Bernardine Dohrn, a leader of the radical Weather Underground, now a retired law professor, and her husband Bill Ayers retired Distinguished Professor of Education and Senior University Scholar in the College of Education at the University of Illinois at Chicago – intellectually sat at the knees of Freire.

The Weather Underground, a radical, militant organization claimed responsibility for bombings of the United States Capitol, the Pentagon, and several police stations in New York, as well as a Greenwich Village townhouse explosion that killed three of its own members. Fortunately, U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi was not in attendance during the bombings. Both Dohrn and Ayers later shucked off their terrorist ways.

But Freire’s ways and doctrines are with us still. Oppression, big on college campus in the late 60’s, has trickled down to the lower grades.

Not only do teachers oppress, there is something in the nature of knowledge itself that is oppressive. Some texts oppress, and it would be far better if such oppressive texts were to be replaced not by objectively true historical narratives but by imaginative story telling that corrects the various oppressions of history -- enter critical thinking.

The purpose of critical thinking for Freire, a thoroughgoing Marxist, is not simply to reproduce accurately the past and understand the present; it is to alter both by entering into a critical dialogue with history for the purpose of imagining a future – prospectively less oppressive – that will transform both the past and the future. The traditional education system, Freire taught, was designed to crank out thoughtless workers in order to perpetuate the capitalist system which continually oppresses the working class

Karl Marx put the idea more lucidly this way: “Hitherto,” Marx said, “philosophers have interpreted the world, the point however is to change it.” The new pedagogy hopes to change the world by changing young minds and abolishing objectively real history in favor of literary if not fictional personal narratives. That is also the primary goal of Critical Race Theory, a destructive pedagogy much talked about these days but little understood.

Four things are wrong with education here in Connecticut and elsewhere in the nation: 1) best educational practices should be taken from the field, not from education professors doped up on Freire and false pedagogical amelioratives; 2) subject matter in the various courses should predominate over esoteric psychological and pedagogical theories; 3) the teaching profession has become over-credentialed and should admit to high schools professionals in various fields and occupations whose efforts have not yet been turned under by education courses; and 4) political power and decision making should revert from distant politicians to the municipalities where educational decision making belongs.

MORE> How to Reform Public Education

Kids matter, but so do excellent teachers. Some way must be found to retain at every level of education the best teachers and at the same time to easily eject the worst. The old saw about the rotten apple spoiling the bunch is often repeated because it is often true.


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