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Paulo Freire and the Politics of Critical Pedagogy:A Legacy for Struggle

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Paulo Freire 1977.
Paulo Freire 1977.
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reprinted with permission from enfoqueseducacionales.uchile

Paulo Freire was a scholar and public intellectual who built upon his previous work while opening new doors of inquiry. He was an engaged and transformative educator who addressed issues far beyond the confines of academia and he did so by speaking with courage and conviction to broad audiences. For Paulo, education was the foundation of politics and critical literacy was the emancipatory tool to unlock what it meant to make pedagogy meaningful in order to make it critical and empowering. The echoes of suffering and the need to struggle to eliminate such hardships, particularly among the oppressed never left his work or heart. His interventions were political engagements that crossed boundaries far removed from the academy and its often-sheltered fields of study. He took stances, intervened in issues, and engaged with broader issues of societal significance well beyond the realms of specialized expertise. Freire was a border crosser, a man of courage, commitment, and hope.

Freire is one of the few writers whose body of work transcends the historical moment in which his contributions first appeared. His work reaches beyond its time and translates with even more power and relevance for addressing the future. His legacy at the present moment is prophetic and invaluable for navigating a dark time in history, a time that points to a mix of hope and despair. The intersecting crises of economics, health, climate change, politics, racism, and democracy appear apocalyptic, especially with the rise of far-right and updated versions of fascist politics emerging across the globe.

What role might Paulo Freire's pedagogy and politics of hope have at a time when in the midst of a global pandemic it has become increasingly difficult "not to feel that somethingperhaps the worldis ending, as we struggle to comprehend unprecedented disruptions to our social orders and personal lives."[1] Hope for Freire is not an antidote to what may be called the new age of pandemic times, it is a warning and call to arms to understand and mobilize the resources of the imagination and the tools of critical analysis to address how the crises we face then and today are the result of political, economic, and pedagogical forces that are tied to the mechanisms of a predatory global capitalism. These crises are not strictly the product of the forces of nature, but the outcome of destructive ideologies, institutions, and relations of power produced by human beings, forces that can be both challenged and overcome.

For Freire, pessimism is the underside of apocalyptic thinking and functions largely to depoliticize people. Freire's politics and work encourage us not to look away in the face of such crisis or to surrender to such events as inescapable acts of fate, but to seize upon them as offering up new challenges and opportunities to make politics, hope, and education central to the challenge of rethinking politics and the possibilities of collective agency and resistance. Freire is not trying to locate redemption in the ruins that plague humankind as much as he believes that the impulses of hope can prevent us from becoming accomplices to the terror imposed by the pandemic and its mounting catastrophes. In the manner of Walter Benjamin, Freire wants to brush history against the grain, while affirming his own allegiance to the oppressed. In doing so, he reiterates Benjamin's notion that "Only for the sake of the hopeless ones have we been given hope."[2]

In the aftermath, of George Floyd's murder critical ideas once again have power as millions fill the streets demonstrating against police brutality and institutional racism. Young people across the globe are inserting themselves into the script of democracy, fighting for their place in shaping both the present and future through the registers of social, racial, and economic justice. Radical change once more seems possible as there is talk of embracing collective struggles and exercising power in order to build the institutions, networks, sites, and pedagogical spaces necessary to challenge neoliberal globalization, fascist politics, and its exploitative and racist polices. The mix of despair and hope speaks to a transitional moment in history, one ripe with both the promise of a radical democracy and the emergence of the dark abyss of authoritarianism. It is precisely at this historical interregnum that Paulo Freire's Pedagogy of Hope can be read as an invaluable resource both to understand and critically engage the present moment.

Freire has a lot to teach the current generation fighting to insert themselves into the script of democracy. He regarded capitalism as an evil and repeatedly exposed it as a system of domination that engaged in psychological oppression while ruthlessly exploiting the labor of those considered disposable. He considered capitalism as not only an economic system but also as a cultural and pedagogical system that stripped people of their agency, condemning them to an ideology in which they internalized their own oppression. His work, over a lifetime reaffirms his emphasis on a critical pedagogy that promotes critical dialogue among teachers and students so that both can come to understand how the power of the oppressor is internalized and what it means to self-reflectively overcome what Erich Fromm once called the fear of freedom.

Moreover, rejecting a class-only understanding of domination, Freire understood the oppressed to include a wide variety of groups extending from the homeless, Black people, and poor people to undocumented immigrants, refugees, and indigenous groups. For Freire, inequalities and inequities had to be grasped as part of a series of intersections that made up the totality of the society. Critical pedagogy for Freire was also an intersectional pedagogy. He believed that popular sovereignty, social justice and equality were central elements of the society he worked to bring about. Like the great sociologists, C. Wright Mills he insisted that education for critical consciousness was a foundational element of empowerment rooted in the intersection of the everyday lives of individuals, their histories and existing social structures.

His work was passionate, self-reflective, and global in its analysis of the relationship between education and politics. Not only did he view education as central to politics, but he also viewed systems of oppression as deeply pedagogical endeavors--hegemonic formations rooted in reactionary commonsense assumptions and a regressive notion of educationa theme vital to his classic book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed. In opposition to pedagogies of repression, Freire articulated a critical vision of education as an ongoing process of empowerment whose objective was the creation of critical agents. Pivotal to this project was his concern with understanding how matters of identification, desire, values, and agency provided the basis for both a critical consciousness and a deep sense of individual and social responsibility. Central to Freire's project was a view of civic literacy that rejected the notion that expanding one's knowledge, skills, and understanding of the world could be separated from the task of changing it. Pedagogy for him was contextual and personal in that he believed that one entered into knowledge through an understanding of the experiences that individuals brought to the learning process. Yet, he never abstracted the close-up individual engagements and experiences he encountered with students from larger economic, political, social, and ethical considerations.

Freire work is especially relevant to Brazil today given the repressive rule of Bolsonaro and his criminogenic bungling of the COVID-19 crisis that has resulted in the deaths of over 3000 children and over 500, 000 adults. [3] This almost unimaginable degree of massive suffering and hardship is in part because of the failure of Bolsonaro's authoritarian neoliberal policies. Freire is a threat to Bolsonaro's authoritarian rule because Freire linked the politics of disposability to gangster capitalism being reproduced in the authoritarian regimes across the globe, particularly through its attacks on public and higher education.

Freire rightly recognized that under the reign of neoliberalism and authoritarian politics, education becomes an object of oppression, and a way of deskilling teachers who address matters of racial inequality and injustice. Right-wing authoritarians now use education to discredit any critical pedagogical approach that enables students to realize themselves as critical citizens. In doing so, they undermine and discredit the critical faculties students and others need to investigate "the core conflict between a nation founded on radical notions of liberty, freedom, and equality, and a nation built on slavery, exploitation, and exclusion."[4]

For Freire, pedagogy is always political because it is connected to the acquisition of agency and illuminates how knowledge, identities, and authority are constructed within particular relations of power. Moreover, he viewed pedagogy as a deliberative intervention into how knowledge is selected, shaped, and interpreted as part of a broader ethos in search of political, social and economic justice. For Freire, teaching and learning had to be connected to developing the critical capacities for informed modes of individual and social agency. Critical thinking was not enough. Freire wanted to educate students to be critical and knowledgeable actors capable of intervening in the world. This meant educating students to both master and use their critical capacities as individual and social agents. At the same time, Freire urged educators to provide the conditions to teach students to learn how to govern rather than to be governed. He wanted them to master the knowledge and skills that would enable them to intervene in the spaces where social identities are shaped, values are distributed, and peoples' lives are shaped by power. Such interventions had to take place not only in the schools but also through a range of institutional sites marked by diverse material practices.

In spite of what some readers of Freire's work claim, his approach to critical pedagogy does not reduce educational practice to the mastery of methodologies. Freire stresses, instead, the importance of understanding what actually happens in classrooms and other educational settings by raising questions regarding the following: What is the relationship between learning and social change? What knowledge is of most worth? What does it mean to know something? And in what direction should one desire? Of course, for Freire, the language of critical pedagogy does something more. Pedagogy is simultaneously about the knowledge and practices teachers and students might engage in together and the values, social relations, and visions such practices legitimate.

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Henry A. Giroux currently holds the McMaster University Chair for Scholarship in the Public Interest in the English and Cultural Studies Department and dis the Paulo Freire Distinguished Scholar in Critical Pedagogy. His most recent books are America's Addiction to Terrorism (Monthly Review Press, 2016), and America at War with Itself (City Lights, 2017). He is also a contributing editor to a number of journals, includingTikkun, (more...)

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