Book Review – Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire

by Mark Votava


If you haven’t read Pedagogy of the Oppressed you should make it a top priority on your reading list.  This book defies the status quo oppression of North American culture and presents us with entering into dialogue with those we might oppress.  This is revolutionary stuff as we, North Americans,  have dominated the world for quite some time through our military and economy without any thought of reconciliation with the rest of the world.

The dominant narrative of individualism, consumerism and upward mobility have cause us to oppress those in our own country who are the poor of the land.  We do not want to listen to them in dialogue.  We do not want to hear their voices, feel their cries and empathize with their pain.  How sad that we live in such a cruel country in the United States.

We have dehumanized people for the sake of power and manipulation.  As an American white man, I am very privileged and often wrestle with my social position in the wealthiest nation in the world.  I do not want to get caught up in dehumanizing anyone become they have less money than me or are of a different race.  Pedagogy of the Oppressed is a great book to help me struggle through how I act in the world I live in.

I am coming to see that humanity is beautiful when we give humans the right to be fully alive and fully human.  Any oppression of this is an injustice and needs to stop in our lifetime.  Sometimes I want to give up hope for a humanized world, but I know we can all work for this in the twenty-first century.

I can work toward this through courageous acts of love with true, authentic generosity to oppose the violence of lovelessness.  The banking form of education where we deposit information into people without listening or dialogue is destructive and manipulative.  This is not how to move forward in our time.  True revolution happens when we liberate the oppressed to have voice, dignity, unity and courage.  The oppressed live inside of a duality where they have life, but their voice is cut off and not acknowledge, respected or wanted.

It all comes down to the oppressors’ idolatry of power, manipulation and control.  The oppressed must struggle for their own liberation and freedom.  Any attempts to keep others semihuman is both exploitive and a form of slavery.  Let’s end the slavery of the oppressed and give them some dignity, some humanity, some sense of freedom and the opportunity to live fully without hindrance.

This would be a miracle indeed in a world that pushes us to oppress others if we have the power to do so.  When will we be conscious enough to use our power to liberate and give life instead?  Do our families, educational systems and churches teach us to oppress the poor?  It seems that it is more common than I would like to admit.

Paulo Freire’s book is an essential read if you are a person of privilege because we need to make sure we are working toward the liberation of those with no power in the world.  They are the vulnerable.  They are the easily exploited ones.  They are the ones God cares so deeply about.

  • Become restorers of humanity

“Because it is a distortion of being more fully human, sooner or later being less human leads the oppressed to struggle against those who made them so.  In order for this struggle to have meaning, the oppressed must not, in seeking to regain their humanity (which is a way to create it), become in turn oppressors of the oppressors, but rather restorers of the humanity of both.”

  • An act of love opposing the lovelessness of the oppressors’ violence

“This lesson and this apprenticeship must come, however, from the oppressed themselves and from those who are truly in solidarity with them.  As individuals and as peoples, by fighting for the restoration of their humanity they will be attempting the restoration of true generosity.  Who are better prepared than the oppressed to understand the terrible significance of an oppressive society?  Who suffer the effects of oppression more than the oppressed?  Who can better understand the necessity of liberation?  They will not gain this liberation by chance but through the praxis of their quest for it, through their recognition of the necessity to fight for it.  And this fight, because of the purpose given it by the oppressed, will actually constitute an act of love opposing the lovelessness which lies at the heart of the oppressors’ violence, lovelessness even when clothed in false generosity.” 

  • Suffer from the duality which has established itself in their innermost being

“The oppressed suffer from the duality which has established itself in their innermost being.  They discover that without freedom they cannot exist authentically.  Yet, although they desire authentic existence, they fear it.  They are at one and the same time themselves and the oppressor whose consciousness they have internalized.  The conflict lies in the choice between being wholly themselves or being divided; between ejecting the oppressor within or not ejecting them; between human solidarity or alienation; between following prescriptions or having choices; between being spectators or actors; between acting or having the illusion of acting through the action of the oppressors; between speaking out or being silent, castrated in their power to create and re-create, in their power to transform the world.  This is the tragic dilemma of the oppressed which their education must take into account.”

  • The motivating force for liberating action

“This solution cannot be achieved in idealistic terms.  In order for the oppressed to be able to wage the struggle for their liberation, they must perceive the reality of the oppression not as a closed world from which there is no exit, but as a limiting situation which they can transform.  This perception is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for liberation; it must become the motivating force for liberating action.  Nor does the discovery by the oppressed that they exist in dialectical relationship to the oppressor, as his antithesis – that without them the oppressor could not exit – in itself constitute liberation.  The oppressed can overcome the contradiction in which they are caught only when this perception enlists them in the struggle to free themselves.”  

  • Interfering with the individual’s ontological and historical vocation to be more fully human

“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.  Such a situation in itself constitutes violence, even when sweetened by false generosity, because it interferes with the individual’s ontological and historical vocation to be more fully human.  With the establishment of a relationship of oppression, violence has already begun.  Never in history has violence been initiated by the oppressed.  How could they be the initiators, if they themselves are the result of violence?  How could they be the sponsors of something whose objective inauguration called forth their existence as oppressed?  There would be no oppressed had there been no prior situation of violence to establish their subjugation.”

  • Treating people as semihuman dehumanizes

“Any attempt to treat people as semihumans only dehumanizes them…”

  • Adapting to the world as it is

“It is not surprising that the banking concept of education regards men as adaptable, manageable beings.  The more students work at storing the deposits entrusted to them, the less they develop the critical consciousness which would result from their intervention in the world as transformers of that world.  The more completely they accept the passive role imposed on them, the more they tend simply to adapt to the world as it is and to the fragmented view of reality deposited in them.”

  • The emergence of consciousness

“Whereas banking education anesthetizes and inhibits creative power, problem-posing education involves a constant unveiling of reality.  The former attempts to maintain the submersion of consciousness; the latter strives for the emergence of consciousness and critical intervention in reality.”

  • Love is an act of courage, not of fear

“Because love is an act of courage, not of fear, love is commitment to others.  No matter where the oppressed are found, the act of love is commitment to their cause – the cause of liberation.  And this commitment, because it is loving, is dialogical.  As an act of bravery, love cannot be sentimental; as an act of freedom, it must not serve as a pretext for manipulation.  It must generate other acts of freedom; otherwise, it is not love.  Only by abolishing the situation of oppression is it possible to restore the love which that situation made impossible.  If I do not love life – if I do not love people – I cannot enter into dialogue.” 

  • A true revolution must initiate a courageous dialogue with the people

“Sooner or later, a true revolution must initiate a courageous dialogue with the people.  Its very legitimacy lies in that dialogue.  It cannot fear the people, their expression, their effective participation in power.  It must be accountable to them, must speak frankly to them of its achievements, its mistakes, its miscalculations, and its difficulties.”

  • Unity, organization, and struggle are labeled as dangerous

“Concepts such as unity, organization, and struggle are immediately labeled as dangerous.  In fact, of course, these concepts are dangerous – to the oppressor – for their realization is necessary to actions of liberation.”

  • Re-create the world and make it more human

“Every move by the oppressed towards unity points towards other actions; it means that sooner or later the oppressed will perceive their state of depersonalization and discover that as long as they are divided they will always be easy prey for manipulation and domination.  Unity and organization can enable them to change their weaknesses into a transforming force with which they can re-create the world and make it more human.  The more human world to which they justly aspire, however, is the antithesis of the ‘human world’ of the oppressors – a world which is the exclusive possession of the oppressors, who preach an impossible harmony between themselves (who dehumanize) and the oppressed (who are dehumanized).  Since oppressors and the oppressed are antithetical, what serves the interests of one group disserves the interests of others.”

  • Inoculate individuals with the bourgeois appetite for personal success

“One of the methods of manipulation is to inoculate individuals with the bourgeois appetite for personal success…”

  • Every authentic revolution is a cultural revolution

“Cultural synthesis is thus a mode of action for confronting culture itself, as the preserver of the very structures by which it was formed.  Cultural action, as historical action, is an instrument for superseding the dominant alienated and alienating culture.  In this sense, every authentic revolution is a cultural revolution.”  

What are your thoughts about Pedagogy of the Oppressed?