Pedagogy of the Oppressed revisited 50 years on : the relevance of Freire today?

 

Cover image by Robin Sukatorn at drawingdemocracy.com

In the early days of In Defence of Youth Work, we upset the then CEO of the National Youth Agency, Fiona Blacke by criticising the organisation’s embrace of neoliberalism and its outcomes-led, market-oriented agenda. Frustrated by our evident idealism she accused some of us, particularly those of an elderly bent, of ‘drowning in history’, clutching for survival onto battered copies of Freire’s ‘Pedagogy of the Oppressed’. As it was we were quite taken by being so represented. We flirted with the idea of printing t-shirts with the slogan ‘Proud to be a Pedagogue of the Oppressed’, but the mood thankfully passed. Ironically too, in terms of my own political biography, Freire has been a footnote rather than a chapter in the narrative.  Truth is, my copy of ‘Pedagogy’ sits somewhere on my bookshelves in very good condition, not at all well-thumbed.

Encouraged by colleagues, who had qualified through the Manchester Polytechnic Youth & Community course, I did read Freire’s seminal work in around 1977. Leave aside the tortured style I warmed to his argument, the emphasis on dialogue, on a politicised consciousness [conscientização], on the struggle against oppression. However, it was not a revelatory experience. Now this muted response, I will claim, was not born of an excess of arrogance. It was no more than my journey towards some form of radical pedagogy followed a different route. By twist of fate, a cocktail of child-centred teacher training, non-directive counselling and Marxist-feminist education, the latter as a member of a small Trotskyist grouplet lubricated my faltering effort to comprehend usefully the relationship between the individual and society, between agency and structure. If names need to be cited, John Dewey, Carl Rogers, the young Marx, Sheila Rowbotham, Jo Freeman and  Christine Delphy were an eclectic mix of influences – see below.

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Dewey, J. (2011). Democracy and Education. Milton Keynes: Simon and Brown.

Rogers, Carl. (1969). Freedom to Learn: A View of What Education Might Become. (1st ed.) Columbus, Ohio: Charles Meril

Marx, K. Grundrisse: Introduction to the Critique of Political Economy (London, UK: Penguin Books, 1973)

Rowbotham, S.  Woman’s Consciousness, Man’s World (Pelican, 1973; Verso, 2015)

Jo Freeman aka Joreen,  The Tyranny of  Structurelessness  at https://www.jofreeman.com/joreen/tyranny.htm

Delphy, Christine, (1977) The main enemy: a materialist analysis of women’s oppression at https://libcom.org/files/delphymainenemy.pdf

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Thus, although I was heavily involved in the creation of what were viewed in those days as controversial part-time youth worker training courses, references to Freire’s work were noticeable by their absence. However, in the mid-1980s, whilst working for Leicestershire’s Community Education department I bumped into Freire once more, courtesy of his greater influence on community work and his significance on the curriculum of the De Montfort University full-time diploma and graduate courses. Indeed one of its lecturers at the time, Paul Taylor was to find prominence as the author of ‘The Texts of Paulo Freire’ [1993] and the INFED piece, ‘Dialogue, conversation and praxis’.

Yet, despite this proximity, I continued to keep Freire at arms-length. Ironically he fell foul of my growing rejection of Marxism as a quasi-religious dogma, complete with its own holy scripts, defended by a hierarchy of authoritarian leaders and obedient followers. Stimulated by Cornelius Castoriadis, ‘theory as such is a making/doing, the always uncertain attempt ….to elucidate the world’, I became increasingly cautious about the way in which theory stagnates into no more than the reiteration of established beliefs, passed down from gurus of one sort or another. Despite Freire’s insistence upon the centrality of reflective practice – Marx too demanded ‘the merciless criticism of everything that exists’ – his adherents seemed often less than self-critical and more than self-righteous about their practice, not so different in their blinkered outlook from my erstwhile revolutionary comrades. I decided I was neither a Marxist nor a Freirian.

None of which means I’ve no time for either Marx or Freire, far from it. It might though reveal that I’m guilty of reiterating mindlessly a seemingly dismissive perspective on Freire, which I haven’t questioned for decades. In the case of the latter this can’t continue, given the welcome publication of the latest edition of the Scottish Community Education journal, CONCEPT, a ‘Special Anniversary Issue: Pedagogy of the Oppressed’.

For now, I’m tangling with the challenging consequences of reading the truly fascinating diversity of articles that make up this celebration of the 50th anniversary of ‘Pedagogy’s’ publication, whilst contemplating Mel Aitken and Mae Shaw’s conclusion to their editorial.

We regard the Special Issue as a fitting tribute from a range of distinctive voices to perhaps one of the most distinctive, compelling and (still) contemporary voices in popular education.

I hope you will find the time to explore the contents and even join in a discussion about Freire’s legacy. A few immediate thoughts spring to mind.

  • The special issue underlines the continuing importance of Freire for community education and community development, particularly rooting this assertion in the Scottish experience. To what extent is this optimism that ‘the Freirean road remains open and full of hope’ mirrored elsewhere in today’s disUnited Kingdom?
  • Significantly none of the articles speaks directly about youth work, posing the question for youth workers, past and present, what has been or is the influence of Freire on their every-day engagement with young people and perchance the community?

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Special Anniversary Issue: Pedagogy of the Oppressed

CONTENTS

Editorial – Mel Aitken and Mae Shaw

Why Freire still matters – Jim Crowther and Ian Martin

Reclaiming the radical agenda: Paulo Freire in neoliberal times –  Margaret Ledwith

Northeastern Brazilian: Memories of Paulo Freire – Budd L Hall

The road not taken: The road still open – Colin (withGerri)Kirkwood

What Freire means to me •Lyn Tett•Louise Sheridan•Christina McMellon

Pedagogy of the oppressed and the power of big words – Nicky Bolland and John Player, CAMINA

Pedagogy of courage: For a spiritual materialist praxis of humanisation in critical pedagogy – Joel Lazarus

Freire at the ceilidh! Community dance as a training for dialogue – Stan Reeves

Why Gramsci offers us a framework for understanding the work of Freire: And why their work is crucial at this time – Keith Popple

In solidarity: international reflections

Freire at the University – Emilio Lucio-Villegas

Reflections on popular education in the context of Latin America and the Caribbean – Viviana Cruz McDougall

Celebrating Freire: A message of solidarity from South Africa – Astrid von Kotze

Review: The student guide to Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Antonia Darder, (2018) – Bill Johnston

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Thanks to everyone at Concept for bringing together this collection. I hope it gets the attention it deserves.

 

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