As Michael Gove intensifies his counter-revolution in the classroom, Sean Ledwith rediscovers the work of a radical educational thinker who influenced ideas about teaching and learning from the 1960s onwards

“There is no ‘I think’, only a ‘we think’” – Paolo Freire

“Rote learning fosters creativity” – Toby Young, founder of a London ‘free school’ and Michael Gove ally

Paulo Freire conducted most of his work among the oppressed peasantry of Latin America, but the philosophy he developed helped spark a revolution in pedagogical thinking that spread around the world, inspiring students and teachers alike.

The radicalism of his vision chimed with the spirit of the 1968 student rebellion in the West and the national liberation struggles in the southern hemisphere. Like other radical theoreticians of education such as Vygotsky, his work was later sanitised as guidance for a good lesson and nothing more. A true appreciation of his contribution, however, needs to recognise his demand for a total transformation of society.

Rival political visions

Paulo Freire was born into a middle-class family in northern Brazil in 1921 and studied law at the University of Recife. It was there he first encountered the ideas of Marx that would become the foundation of his subsequent work on education. He had the option of a lucrative career in legal practice, but gave it up to work on a literacy project among the peasants of Pernambuco Province, one of the poorest areas of Brazil.

The prevailing view of the time was that the illiteracy of these communities was the result of their own lethargy and ignorance. Freire’s Marxist framework, in contrast, enabled him to discern the connection between the squalor of the peasants and the capitalist social relations starting to take a grip on the Brazilian economy. He rapidly came to the conclusion that an exploitative economic system actually depended on keeping a portion of its population in what he called ‘the culture of silence.’

Freire’s rejection of authoritarian education attracted the attention of powerful enemies and he was imprisoned when the Brazilian military seized power in 1964. He was charged with trying to turn Brazil into ‘a Bolshevik country’. After his release a year later, he spent the rest of his life working on educational projects in other parts of Latin America, the US and Africa. His ideas arose from diverse influences including existentialism and liberation theology but the Marxist kernel was ever present – as was his commitment to working with the most oppressed sections of society until his death in 1997.

Freire’s best known book is ‘Pedagogy of the Oppressed’, appropriately first published in the revolutionary year of 1968. The book contains a critique of what he calls the ‘banking model’ of education favoured under capitalist societies. According to this model, the mind of a student is like an empty bank vault into which the teacher deposits facts in a business-like transaction. The role of a student in this process is to ‘patiently receive, memorise and repeat’, words that could have come straight from Toby Young, the current journalistic champion of Gove’s policies.

Freire was attacking the passivity imposed on learning by the Brazilian school system in the 1960s, but his criticisms are equally applicable to Gove’s nightmarish vision of 2-year Ebacc courses, crammed with passive lessons and ending with a gruelling 3-hour memory test.

Radical view of learning

Freire’s alternative to the banking model was based on what he described as a ‘dialogical model’ of teaching. This reconfigured the classroom interaction of teacher and student as a mutually beneficial partnership, revolving around a joint search for a greater understanding of the world. Also known as ‘the problem-posing’ model, this framework rejects the idea that the teacher has all the answers and the mind of the student is a void. Both individuals are situated in a capitalist superstructure that generates alienation and mystification – and both therefore have a shared interest in tracing a path to a higher level of understanding.

Freire created the labels of ‘teacher-students’ and ‘student-teachers’ to express this revolutionary view of the pedagogical dynamic. This encapsulates the notion that a good teacher is always willing to reconsider their understanding of a topic and to enter into a dialogue with a student on its significance.

As he puts it, teachers ‘who authentically commit themselves to the people must re-examine themselves constantly’. Likewise, the student is encouraged to see herself as bringing a new slant to a subject even if she lacks familiarity with it: ‘They become jointly responsible for a process in which all grow’.

The transformative character of Freire’s method is apparent not just in the internal dynamics of classrooms but in its approach to the context of learning. Bourgeois education is founded on slicing up a student’s understanding of the world into seemingly unrelated subjects such as Mathematics, History, Art and the other boxes of the curriculum. A follower of Freire has compared this to a group of blindfolded people holding different parts of an elephant and being baffled by the identity of the creature. One is holding the trunk, one the tail and another a leg. Capitalism depends on these individuals never taking off the blindfold and realising they are only holding one part of a single entity.

‘When people lack a critical understanding of their reality’, he writes, ‘apprehending it in fragments ,which they do not perceive as interacting constituent elements of the whole, they cannot truly know that reality.’ For Freire, the great explanatory power of Marxism was its ability to link together all the subjects of the academy into an integrated understanding of nature and society. This is what he calls ‘education for liberation’ as opposed to the ‘education for domestication’ inculcated by the current system.

Schools and society

Freire’s contextualisation of schooling not only uproots the conventional view of the curriculum but also our perception of schools in wider society. An authentic vision of education aspires to transform the social structure surrounding the academy. The neo-liberal apparatchiks who manage our education system seek to pressurise teachers into an insular focus on ‘audit trails’ and ‘systems management’ as the routes to classroom effectiveness.

For Freire, education is part of the superstructure of capitalism and therefore many of its shortcomings are traceable to the socio-economic base which is beyond the control of any single human being – teacher or otherwise. A ‘problem-posing’ teacher therefore is aware of the inner potential of every student but also of the limits of an interaction that confines itself to the classroom. As Freire observes ‘Precisely because education is not the lever for the transformation of society we are in danger of despair and cynicism if we limit our struggle to the classroom’.

The lessons from Freire are central in answering the problems that Gove’s increasing emphasis on the market in education is posing for teachers and students alike. Teachers have to recognise that they are being forced to abandon the fullest education of the student to fulfil a much narrower economic goal, while their own status, pay and working conditions are under constant attack.

The responsibility of the teacher to offer real hope for the next generation is to educate beyond the classroom. When teachers and students march together against their common enemy the key link between education and capitalism is revealed along with the power to change it, and the hope for a better future can be glimpsed.

Sean Ledwith

Sean Ledwith is a Counterfire member and Lecturer in History at York College, where he is also UCU branch negotiator. Sean is also a regular contributor to Marx and Philosophy Review of Books and Culture Matters

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