Commemorating the Centenary of Paulo Freire

For Freire, literacy was not a means to create workers which the capitalist system wanted. It was a means to create critical thinkers who would question oppression and the power relationships in society

By Dr Pavi Ramhota

The onset of the covid pandemic last year caught all of us off guard. The lockdown that ensued profoundly affected my comprehension of my routinised and socially constructed ‘everyday’. The precision clockwork (like that of the factory system mirrored on the capitalist mode of production) on which is premised the education system in most countries was thrown out of gear. I no longer had any routine to follow and more problematically no audience to impress! The classrooms and offices at the Rabindranath Tagore Institute wore a deserted look.

With the second wave of covid appearing in most countries, it seems that we have to deal with the situation with the help of technology. Much has been said about how the world shrunk both spatially and temporally with the new technological advancement. One of these technological marvels was the invention of internet and its paraphernalia.

For more than a year now much of the classroom teaching and learning is done through virtual platforms. Despite their limitations the ‘traditional’ modes of pedagogy which were used in the usual physical classroom teaching encouraged ‘dialogue’ and sometimes even ‘dissent’. The plurality of ideas, narratives, methodologies and experiments allowed for development of the ‘levefebrian space’ that harnessed critical pedagogy. Unfortunately online teaching has occupied the ‘sacrosanct democratic space’ that defined and in turn was shaped by collective consciousness and wisdom. Jean Baudrillard argued that the new age media technology has constructed simulacra and simulations that mask critical thought. These media platforms have hegemonised the way in which we understand our world. As Joe Moran aptly argues the new technology entails a robotic manner of absorption of information and not knowledge, through spoon-fed capsules of information (e-modules). At the receiving end of this system are individuated and atomized learners who without much deliberation uncritically accept these information capsules as realities.

The world over scholars are celebrating the centenary of Paulo Freire (1921-2021). Paulo Friere, one of the most acclaimed critical scholars from Latin America had challenged the traditional pedagogical methodologies and systems as he believed that capitalism always ensured that the education system is mirrored in its ideology and structure. According to him formal classrooms were not the sole repositories of knowledge. Rather the collective exchanges of ideas of diverse individuals with varying social locations culminated in critical learning. Sharing of individual experiences from disparate social locations allowed for various perspectives to dialogue with one another allowing for the growth of collective wisdom. It was only through this ‘interactionist’ method that a learner could transform into an informed and critical citizen thereby giving a new lease of life to democracy. Education through these ‘spaces of emancipation and dissent’ encouraged heterogeneity and plurality. He was highly skeptical of the lubricated and hierarchised and disciplined monolithic modern education system.

In his famous work ‘Pedagogy of the Oppressed’ (1970),Freire argues how social class relationships and knowledge formation are interconnected. He also delved into the binary of the ‘colonizer and the colonised’. According to Freire, the modern education spaces called schools automatically create a binary: the all-knowledgeable teacher and the ignorant student. In this ‘banking system’ of pedagogy, the all-knowing teacher is supposed to pour knowledge into the students who then uncritically accept it as the ‘truth’. Moreover a highly homogenized group of learners accepting the customized and vetted knowledge only leads to subtle forms of hegemonisation of the general public. They don’t question the structures and people in power as they naturalize the idea of rule.

Thus, for Freire, literacy was not a means to create workers which the capitalist system wanted. It was a means to create critical thinkers who would question oppression and the power relationships in society. True literacy is about comprehending the invisible social forces that shape one’s personality and lifeworld. According to Habermas who further extended the arguments of Freire, it is only through communicative action that we can create dialogues that can lead to better functioning of democracy and emancipatory politics. Most feminist scholars have also furthered his ideas of liberation. Post colonial scholars such as Chinua Achebe, Homi Bhabha, Edward Said, Buchi Emecheta, Frantz Fanon, Jamaica Kincaid, Pierre Bourdieu, Syed Hussein Alatas among others have also in some way or the other addressed similar positions regarding pedagogy and emancipation.

For Freire critical and reflexive engagements were the tools through which the one could deconstruct one’s ‘self’ and comprehend other meta-social processes that construct one’s lifeworld and worldviews. It is only through an engagement with the subaltern, non-consonance, disruption, dissent, heterogeneity and plurality that we can create a just society. According to Freire, these discontinuities and non-teleological narratives are ignored in the traditional spaces of learning. Thus according to him deconstruction and deschooling actually enables one to become critical and reflexive thinker.

Paulo Freire remained one of the most important critical educators of the twentieth century. Not only is he considered one of the founders of critical pedagogy, he also played a crucial role in developing a highly successful literacy campaign in Brazil before the onslaught of the junta in 1964.

As in Mauritius, similarly a large section of the Brazilian population are former bonded labourers who were brought in from various continents for plantation work. These workers were marginalized over the years and it was amongst them that Freire experimented with his ideas of critical and reflexive pedagogy. In the early 1960s, when he was appointed as the Director of the Department of Cultural Extension at the University of Recife, he had the first opportunity for large-scale application of his theories, when, in an experiment, 300 sugarcane harvesters were taught to read and write in just 45 days. They were able to do so using their collective experiences.


* Published in print edition on 18 May 2021

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