In reading Paulo Freire’s inspiring and idealistic book Pedagogy of the Oppressed, first published in 1970, the question arises is whether such a radically transformed educational system is even possible. According the person I interviewed, a professor with many years of teaching experience in many countries, the answer is not particularly optimistic. Paolo Freire’s radical and humanistic view of education is light year’s removed from what actually takes place in most classrooms around the world.
At the lower levels, education often amounts to little more than rote memorization to prepare for standardized tests, with administrators mainly concerned that their ‘numbers’ look good. Higher education has devolved into career training for big business interests, and frankly has become a business itself. Virtually none of the creativity, humanization or liberation that Freire writes about so eloquently really exists in most educational systems around the world, which simply turn out more cogs for the machinery.
There may be a few truly creative and humanistic teachers, although they usually end up frustrated, burned out and cynical because of the nature of the system itself. For Freire, the worst form of teaching is the banking concept of education, in which students are passive and alienated note takers of any information the teacher provides. This has been the normal type of education system in most of the world throughout history, mirroring the authoritarian and paternalistic socio-economic relationships in the world outside the classroom.
In fact, the schools and universities are preparing students to take their place in the system without questioning it. Freire claims that teachers can either work “for the liberation of the people—their humanization—or for their domestication, their domination. ” They can either create an education system in which all persons in the classroom are “simultaneously teachers and learners”, realizing that “knowledge emerges only through invention and reinvention, through the restless, impertinent, continuing, hopeful inquiry human beings pursue in the world”, or simply uphold the status quo (Freire 72).
He also insists that “the teacher cannot think for her students, nor can she impose her thoughts on them” (Freire 77). Ruling elites merely want to use the education system as part of the apparatus of “domination and repression”, to maintain order, but real education should be revolutionary and deliberately set out to “transform” the world (Freire 79-80). Are there teachers who actually believe in this radical mission for education? Is it even possible within the present system? How long does it take for teachers who were once young and idealistic to become disillusioned?
The following are excerpts from an interview with ‘Dr. W. ’–a university professor who has taught in various countries around the world for twenty-two years: Question: Have you ever read Paulo Freire’s book Pedagogy of the Oppressed? Dr. W: Yes, parts of it. Over the years, I’d say I’ve become fairly familiar with his general theories. Question: Do you regard the educational systems you have seen as oppressive? Dr. W: I have experienced many educational systems around the world, including a number that I would regard as extremely oppressive.
For example, I’ve taught in Asian and Middle Eastern countries where primary and secondary school teachers regularly slap, punch and beat students…hit them with sticks and so on. For the most part, those systems are based on rote memorization as Freire described, and the students are not even allowed to question the teacher: they are strictly passive. Mainly, the students are just being prepared for standardized tests, not to develop creativity or imagination, and this becomes very clear when they reach the university level.
At that point, they have become used to treating teachers like little tin gods, although I suppose it prepares them for the kind of bureaucratic and managerial salaried positions most of them will be expected to fill in society. Question: Isn’t that also the case with the American education system? Isn’t it mostly geared toward jobs in the capitalist economy? Dr. W. : Absolutely. The American education system is also a class system, and this is already the case in primary and secondary schools. My first job was as a student teacher in a high school in New York.
The kids from working class backgrounds were generally tracked into ‘general” classes” that were not preparing them for higher education, while those from the middle class were. I’ll never forget the first class I ever taught, with a group of sullen, nonresponsive working class kids, stuck in a basement classroom that did not even have windows, taught by people who didn’t much care whether they learned anything or not. These kids knew it, too. They were not dumb, although the system certainly treated them that way.
They knew they were being prepared for jobs as mechanics and cashiers. And this was not an inner city school, though, where the American class and caste system reveals itself at its most brutal. Question: Caste system? Dr. W. : Yes, in the United States, we have a long history of education segregated by color, with the worst schools always being reserved for minority groups. Compare any inner city public school system today with those in the white suburbs, or with expensive private schools for the upper classes, and you will see the difference in about two seconds.
For the poor and minority groups in the inner cities, the teachers and facilities are much worse than in the suburbs, as is the housing, health care, nutrition and so on. Conditions in these ghettoized schools and neighborhoods are not all that much better from those in developing countries…the types of places Freire was talking about in his books. In those countries, the oppression is very real indeed, and the students are being prepared for lives as peasants, workers or simply part of the marginalized economy and society, like kids in America’s inner city schools. Those institutions are programmed for failure.
Question: But you never taught in inner city schools like those? I mean the types of schools that are like jails, with cops on duty, metal detectors and things like that? Dr. W. : No, my career has been mostly at the university level, and the students I’ve had were relatively privileged by the standards of this world—middle class or upper class. In the Middle East, I taught students from royalty and the aristocracy who had huge allowances every month, and in Asia I once taught students who arrived in limos with their own drivers. I wouldn’t say that they were exactly the oppressed masses Freire was describing.
On the other hand, I taught at a university in the former Soviet Union were about 60% of the students were on scholarships and came from fairly modest backgrounds. A lot of people had also been hit hard by the collapse of the economy when the Soviet Union ended. We even had a former brain surgeon who ended up working as a janitor at the university, earning about $150 a month. The whole medical and public education system was so far gone that she could make more money that way. Question: So you basically see the education system as being unequal, designed to keep people in their place generation after generation?
Dr. W. : Yes, that’s been mostly my experience. I think it’s designed to insure that the children of the owners and the ruling class will stay at the same level as their parents, while the children of the middle class will continue to manage and administer the system for them, and the children of workers will continue to be mostly worker bees, although a few might be allowed up into the middle class. Question: So in all your years of experience, you never experienced education as being liberating in the way Freire describes?
Dr. W. : Absolutely never. The system is set up to do the opposite and it will usually weed out teachers who do not conform to its requirements, unless they are protected by tenure. Most teachers just go along and get along, never rocking the boat because they are relatively powerless themselves and just need the paycheck. Moreover, parents of middle class and upper class students do not want anyone to be liberated, but expect their children to conform to the system—to insure that the family maintains its class position.
Question: So given this reality, is there any way you can imagine that a truly liberating education system might be established? Dr. W. (laughs): I think to do what Freire was talking about would require a revolution. Clearly, then, Dr. W. was a case of someone who had become cynical about the education system after long years of experience. He admitted that he had once been young and idealistic and might even have believed some of Freire’s ideas, but over the years he had found that there was really no meaningful way to put them into practice under the current system.
In addition, he thought that most students simply went along with this system because that was what their parents expected, especially when they were paying private schools and universities to provide certain services. They were most definitely not interested in making students more humanistic, rebellious or questioning of authority, but only to prepare them for careers and to ‘get ahead’ in life. Only in rare cases in American history, such as the 1960s during the era of the Vietnam War, counterculture and civil rights movements did students actually come to question the dominant values of society on a mass scale.
That has most certainly not been the case in recent decades, at least not in the United States, nor in most other countries that Dr. W. had experienced. He had come to regard education as a business, run by bureaucrats and entrepreneurs for a profit rather than to encourage critical thinking or humanistic values among the students. Only occasionally would rebels and nonconformists challenge this system, except in very unusual historical circumstances. WORKS CITED Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy on the Oppressed. NY: Continuum, 2000. Interview with ‘Dr. W. ’ by author, February 4, 2010.