Critical Pedagogy and Liberation

With the strong emphasis on liberation, I find Paulo Freire’s work, pardon the bad joke, critically important to thinking about how we as educators risk reproducing oppressive structures of society even as we attempt to teach our students to recognize and resist those structures. Power and domination implicit in the teacher/student relationship unconsciously train students to accept hierarchy, power, and domination in their lives, in their workplaces, and in their politics.

In chapter 2 of Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Freire makes the import point that teacher-student relationships are often “fundamentally narrative” in character. The teacher/professor/instructor is a “narrating Subject” while students are “patient listening objects.” In this conception, education can be thought of through the metaphor of “banking,” where instructors deposit knowledge into passive student receptacles. Freire makes the point that we cannot liberate ourselves if we maintain this type of education.

In the alternative, as Dr. Shelli Fowler aptly summarizes, rather a critical pedagogy recognizes the importance of “dialogic exchange” between teachers and students. No longer is education a one-way transmission of knowledge from instructor to student but rather a relationship in which both learn, question, reflect, and participate in meaning-making. As Freire writes in Pedagogy of Freedom, an educator with a “democratic vision… cannot avoid in [their] teaching praxis insisting on the critical capacity, curiosity, and autonomy of the learner.”

Such a critical pedagogy seeks to bring students into subjectivity along with instructors. Students then move from passive objects to agentic subjects. But, and this is an essential insight to remember, the oppressed (a position occupied by students in banking education) are not “outside” or “marginal” to society (in this case the social/economic/political space of the university). They are already “inside” of the structures which oppress them. The oppressor and oppressed are co-constitutive of structures of hierarchy and domination; one cannot exist without the other.

Therefore, it is not simply a matter of “integrating” the oppressed into structures of oppression. Liberation requires -demands- a fundamental transformation of those structures. By way of example, we might take what I will call the “Lean In” ethos. This form of essentially neoliberal feminism sees the solution to oppression of women in (U.S.) society as bringing more women into corporate board rooms and perhaps making small concessions that will allow more women to occupy positions of power. This is integrating women into the structures that have thus far oppressed them. By contrast, a liberatory feminism might advocate dismantling corporations altogether and working to build alternative economic structures that are non-hierarchical, democratic, ecologically sound, and so forth.

This sort of liberatory/emanicaptory approach is deeply threatening to existing power structures, which is why to return to Freire, the banking concept of education remains a tool to suppress the threat that students will raise their consciousnesses of their oppression. The “humanist revolutionary educator” (something I aspire to unreservedly) does not -cannot- passively wait for such a consciousness to materialize. Such an educator actively works with their students to “engage in critical thinking and [seeks] mutual humanization.” Such an educator is a partner of their students and maintains a “profound trust” in their creative power.

I try to carry this with me as I teach and as I interact in the world more broadly. The demands Freire’s work makes upon us are stringent. It is not easy to remain conscious of the ways in which we reproduce power imbalances at the same time we attempt to overcome them. But, this is a central challenge of a critical pedagogy and, truly, of all social change.