Applying “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” to Our Classrooms

One of the introductions to Pedagogy of the Oppressed contains the line “certainly it would be absurd to claim that it [Freire’s method of teaching illiterates] should be copied here [21st century America]” (33). Obviously that’s true, but as Richard Shaull, the writer of this introduction, goes onto say there are still some similarities between Freire’s situation and ours. Like Shaull, I believe that a lot of Freire’s ideas could be very valuable to us (even in New York City) in our role as both educators and students. I would like to think about what Freire can tell us about our role as educators, but mostly I’d like ask a lot of questions I had while reading. (Perhaps that I’m distinguishing between a role as educator and a role a student shows that I haven’t really internalized [come to grips with?] Freire’s ideas yet.)

I’ve never stepped foot into a college classroom as a teacher yet, but Freire is so persuasive I’d like to incorporate much of his thinking into my class. But I’m not sure how to apply it! I’d like to start out with an issue that’s very basic to Freire’s thinking: that some people (probably very many people) are oppressed. Freire writes of the oppressed that “because of their identification with the oppressor, they have no consciousness of themselves as persons or as members of an oppressed class” (46). My first question is: how do we as CUNY teachers help people realize that they are oppressed? I know that sounds very nasty. No one wants to realize he is oppressed. I’m sure it is very painful to learn. But, if I understand Freire correctly, in order to change the existing order of oppressors and oppressed then the oppressed need to realize their oppression. After all, how can we change something if we’re not aware of it?

Freire, very wisely in my view, goes on to write “Every prescription represents the imposition of one individual’s choice upon another, transforming the consciousness of the person prescribed to into one that conforms with the prescriber’s consciousness” (47). I believe this to mean that merely telling the students “You’re oppressed” would be prescriptive, and not very good for anyone. It would be no different from the banking model of education: dumping information into docile students’ heads. But how does a person in authority (who, in my case, happens to be white, straight, male, if not Catholic then the son of lapsed Catholics, and bearded, which I understand is often unconsciously registered a symbol of authority, albeit a very stylish symbol) begin the process of addressing oppression in class? I’m aware that a poorly worded phrase from me can sound an awful lot like oppression, rather than what I hope is a productive, honest discussion about the social landscape. Beside potential outrage at an ill formed turn of phrase by me, I’m concerned with two other negative results: 1) that a student would feel hurt or in pain to learn that he is considered oppressed; and 2) that when beginning a dialogue about sensitive issues of oppression in class, two or more students could begin trading nasty remarks.

I understand that the second scenario is not unlikely. Having talked to some upperclass-people who have taught before I’ve heard stories of students accusing each other of either being oppressive pigs or lazy, charity cases &c. While I want to foster open and honest  dialogue, I want the classroom to feel safe. I don’t want students fearing that in class they will be rudely awakened to learn they are oppressed or that they will be derided by their classmates. My big question is how do we construct a classroom that fosters honest, productive dialogue that feels safe for students? Should I look for texts that might naturally raise questions of oppression? If so does anyone have suggestions? Should I use some kind of collaborative project to get students talking about oppression? If so what kind?

Of course, if I bring up issues of oppression in class I want remember Freire’s later warning “This accusation [that banking education makes students more docile] is not made in the naive hope that the dominant elites will thereby simply abandon the practice. Its objective is to call the attention of true humanists to the fact that they cannot use banking educational methods in the pursuit of liberation, for they would only negate that very pursuit (76).” Again, if I understand Freire correctly, it’s not helpful to simply tell students what to think, even if what we want them to think is good old leftist viewpoints. So how do I bring up the issue without hurting anyone?

I do have other questions about how to apply what I understand Freire to say. I’m curious what Freire means by “problem-posing” education. Does that mean what I’ve been taught is the Socratic method? That’s my guess, but I’m curious to know what others think. I’m also curious how the “problem-posing” method positions the teacher and the student. If I’m asking questions of the students to elicit knowledge from my students, where do I get my authority from? I’d like to believe (and this could be pure vanity) that after 5 years of English study I will have some knowledge to give. How does that fit into my relation with the students? Even more specifically, if I am a Socratic interlocutor, how do I introduce myself to my students? Socrates introduced himself by saying that he knew nothing. I’m not sure if that approach would work with students paying to attend CUNY. How do current teachers introduce themselves to students and explain the student-teacher relationship?

Please NB: I haven’t quite finished the 4th chapter of Freire, but even if he addresses some of these issues in the last pages, I’d be curious to hear other opinions as well.

3 thoughts on “Applying “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” to Our Classrooms

  1. Elissa Myers

    Michael, I too felt really moved to incorporate Freire’s theory into my teaching in the future. You raise a really interesting question about how to do that, though.

    As for problem-posing, if I understood Freire correctly, it seems like he is suggesting that (in his context) the investigators formulate questions with the people, and then attempt to guide them toward answering these questions through showing them various media (including the codifications) which will provoke discussion about the issues. I kept thinking as I was reading that his codifications–abstract images that can be interpreted in different ways, and often contain ambiguities and contradictions–are not unlike literary works, particularly poems. At its base, I think teaching literature provides great opportunities to teach people to think critically about the ideologies they have received, which seems to be the first step to realizing one is oppressed. Furthermore, introducing particular poems written by oppressed groups might allow students to approach knowledge of their own oppression from a relatively safe distance.

    As for the way in which Freire’s investigators develop their curricula with the people, I think that would imply that teachers should tailor their curricula to the students’ needs. Though it might be difficult/not allowed to actually let students choose what is on the syllabus, one could possibly give them choices at certain points in the curriculum (i.e. do a project or a paper over one of a variety of texts), so that they can focus their energy on what interests them. One could also tailor the syllabus to focus on what one thinks their needs are (though one could of course be mistaken).

    It also seems like discussion is a big part of Freire’s methodology, which is also a big part of English literature methodology (though it could be hard to implement in certain settings, like sophomore lit. lecture courses). Though it does seem like there are some obvious roadblocks to implementing Freirean pedagogy, it also seems like a very fascinating and important task worth lots more thought and discussion (perhaps in class today)!

  2. Lindsey Albracht (she/her/hers)

    I know that I’m posting this comment a little late, so you might not see it, but I’ve been reading Ira Shor’s When Students Have Power, which is a book that he wrote in 1996 about his experiences of teaching at CUNY. I highly recommend taking a look at it, as it grapples with a lot of the questions that you’re asking in your post, Michael, and it actually does discuss some strategies that Shor used and the varying effects that they had. Shor, as you may already know, teaches in the English and Urban Ed departments at the GC, and has written extensively about the practical applications of critical pedagogy. I think that reading his work also gives a helpful bit of background for folks who are new to the CUNY system and aren’t as familiar with its historical identity. I’ll put the citation details for the book in our Zotero group site.

    1. Michael Druffel Post author

      Wow Lindsey! That’s very helpful. I am new to CUNY and I’d not only love to learn more of its history but also learn some hands-on strategies for working in the classroom. Thank you very much!

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