Like the more famous Teach for America, the New York Teaching Fellows program provides an alternate route to state certification for about 1,700 new teachers annually. When I met with a group of the fellows taking a required class at a school of education last summer, we began by discussing education reform, but the conversation soon took a turn, with many recounting one horror story after another from their rocky first year: chaotic classrooms, indifferent administrators, veteran teachers who rarely offered a helping hand. You might expect the required readings for these struggling rookies to contain good practical tips on classroom management, say, or sensible advice on teaching reading to disadvantaged students. Instead, the one book that the fellows had to read in full was Pedagogy of the Oppressed, by the Brazilian educator Paulo Freire.

For anyone familiar with American schools of education, the choice wasn’t surprising. Since the publication of the English edition in 1970, Pedagogy of the Oppressed has achieved near-iconic status in America’s teacher-training programs. In 2003, David Steiner and Susan Rozen published a study examining the curricula of 16 schools of education—14 of them among the top-ranked institutions in the country, according to U.S. News and World Report—and found that Pedagogy of the Oppressed was one of the most frequently assigned texts in their philosophy of education courses. These course assignments are undoubtedly part of the reason that, according to the publisher, almost 1 million copies have sold, a remarkable number for a book in the education field.

The odd thing is that Freire’s magnum opus isn’t, in the end, about education—certainly not the education of children. Pedagogy of the Oppressed mentions none of the issues that troubled education reformers throughout the twentieth century: testing, standards, curriculum, the role of parents, how to organize schools, what subjects should be taught in various grades, how best to train teachers, the most effective way of teaching disadvantaged students. This ed-school bestseller is, instead, a utopian political tract calling for the overthrow of capitalist hegemony and the creation of classless societies. Teachers who adopt its pernicious ideas risk harming their students—and ironically, their most disadvantaged students will suffer the most.

To get an idea of the book’s priorities, take a look at its footnotes. Freire isn’t interested in the Western tradition’s leading education thinkers—not Rousseau, not Piaget, not John Dewey, not Horace Mann, not Maria Montessori. He cites a rather different set of figures: Marx, Lenin, Mao, Che Guevara, and Fidel Castro, as well as the radical intellectuals Frantz Fanon, Régis Debray, Herbert Marcuse, Jean-Paul Sartre, Louis Althusser, and Georg Lukács. And no wonder, since Freire’s main idea is that the central contradiction of every society is between the “oppressors” and the “oppressed” and that revolution should resolve their conflict. The “oppressed” are, moreover, destined to develop a “pedagogy” that leads them to their own liberation. Here, in a key passage, is how Freire explains this emancipatory project:

The pedagogy of the oppressed [is] a pedagogy which must be forged with, not for, the oppressed (whether individuals or peoples) in the incessant struggle to regain their humanity. This pedagogy makes oppression and its causes objects of reflection by the oppressed, and from that reflection will come their necessary engagement in the struggle for their liberation. And in the struggle this pedagogy will be made and remade.

As the passage makes clear, Freire never intends “pedagogy” to refer to any method of classroom instruction based on analysis and research, or to any means of producing higher academic achievement for students. He has bigger fish to fry. His idiosyncratic theory of schooling refers only to the growing self-awareness of exploited workers and peasants who are “unveiling the world of oppression.” Once they reach enlightenment, mirabile dictu, “this pedagogy ceases to belong to the oppressed and becomes a pedagogy of all people in the process of permanent liberation.”

Seldom does Freire ground his description of the clash between oppressors and oppressed in any particular society or historical period, so it’s hard for the reader to judge whether what he is saying makes any sense. We don’t know if the oppressors he condemns are North American bankers, Latin American land barons, or, for that matter, run-of-the-mill, authoritarian education bureaucrats. His language is so metaphysical and vague that he might just as well be describing a board game with two contesting sides, the oppressors and the oppressed. When thinking big thoughts about the general struggle between these two sides, he relies on Marx’s standard formulation that “the class struggle necessarily leads to the dictatorship of the proletariat [and] this dictatorship only constitutes the transition to the abolition of all classes and to a classless society.”

In one footnote, however, Freire does mention a society that has actually realized the “permanent liberation” he seeks: it “appears to be the fundamental aspect of Mao’s Cultural Revolution.” The millions of Chinese of all classes who suffered and died under the revolution’s brutal oppression might have disagreed. Freire also offers professorial advice to revolutionary leaders, who “must perceive the revolution, because of its creative and liberating nature, as an act of love.” Freire’s exemplar of this revolutionary love in action is none other than that poster child of 1960s armed rebellion, Che Guevara, who recognized that “the true revolutionary is guided by strong feelings of love.” Freire neglects to mention that Che was one of the most brutal enforcers of the Cuban Revolution, responsible for the execution of hundreds of political opponents.

After all this, murkiness may be the least of the book’s problems, but it is nevertheless worth quoting the book’s opening rumination:

While the problem of humanization has always, from an axiological point of view, been humankind’s central problem, it now takes on the character of an inescapable concern. Concern for humanization leads at once to the recognition of dehumanization, not only as an ontological possibility but as an historical reality. And as an individual perceives the extent of dehumanization, he or she may ask if humanization is a viable possibility. Within history, in concrete, objective contexts, both humanization and dehumanization are possibilities for a person as an uncompleted being conscious of their incompletion.

Roughly translated: “humanization” is good and “dehumanization” is bad. Oh, for the days when revolutionary tracts got right to the point, as in: “A specter is haunting Europe.”

Illustration by Arnold Roth.

How did this derivative, unscholarly book about oppression, class struggle, the depredations of capitalism, and the need for revolution ever get confused with a treatise on education that might help solve the problems of twenty-first-century American inner-city schools? The answer to that question begins in Pernambuco, a poverty-stricken province in northeastern Brazil. In the 1950s and sixties, Freire was a university professor and radical activist in the province’s capital city, Recife, where he organized adult-literacy campaigns for disenfranchised peasants. Giving them crash courses in literacy and civics was the most efficient means of mobilizing them to elect radical candidates, Freire realized. His “pedagogy,” then, began as a get-out-the-vote campaign to gain political power.

In 1964, a military coup struck Brazil. Freire spent some time in jail and was then exiled to Chile, where—inspired by his work with the Brazilian peasants—he worked on Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Hence the book’s insistence that schooling is never a neutral process and that it always has a dynamic political purpose. And hence, too, one of the few truly pedagogical points in the book: its opposition to taxing students with any actual academic content, which Freire derides as “official knowledge” that serves to rationalize inequality within capitalist society. One of Freire’s most widely quoted metaphors dismisses teacher-directed instruction as a misguided “banking concept,” in which “the scope of action allowed to the students extends only as far as receiving, filing and storing the deposits.” Freire proposes instead that teachers partner with their coequals, the students, in a “dialogic” and “problem-solving” process until the roles of teacher and student merge into “teacher-students” and “student-teachers.”

After the 1970 publication of the book’s English edition, Freire received an invitation to be a guest lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and over the next decade he found enthusiastic audiences in American universities. Pedagogy of the Oppressed resonated with progressive educators, already committed to a “child-centered” rather than a “teacher-directed” approach to classroom instruction. Freire’s rejection of teaching content knowledge seemed to buttress what was already the ed schools’ most popular theory of learning, which argued that students should work collaboratively in constructing their own knowledge and that the teacher should be a “guide on the side,” not a “sage on the stage.”

In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Freire had listed ten key characteristics of the “banking” method of education that purported to show how it opposed disadvantaged students’ interests. For instance, “the teacher talks and the students listen—meekly”; “the teacher chooses and enforces his choice, and the students comply”; “the teacher disciplines and the students are disciplined”; and “the teacher chooses the program content, and the students (who were not consulted) adapt to it.” Freire’s strictures reinforced another cherished myth of American progressive ed—that traditional teacher-directed lessons left students passive and disengaged, leading to higher drop-out rates for minorities and the poor. That description was more than a caricature; it was a complete fabrication. Over the last two decades, E. D. Hirsch’s Core Knowledge schools have proved over and over again not only that content-rich teaching raises the academic achievement of poor children on standardized tests but that those students remain curious, intellectually stimulated, and engaged—though the education schools continue to ignore these documented successes.

Of course, the popularity of Pedagogy of the Oppressed wasn’t due to its educational theory alone. During the seventies, veterans of the student-protest and antiwar movements put down their placards and began their “long march through the institutions,” earning Ph.D.s and joining humanities departments. Once in the academy, the leftists couldn’t resist incorporating their radical politics (whether Marxist, feminist, or racialist) into their teaching. Celebrating Freire as a major thinker gave them a powerful way to do so. His declaration in Pedagogy of the Oppressed that there was “no such thing as a neutral education” became a mantra for leftist professors, who could use it to justify proselytizing for America-hating causes in the college classroom.

Here and there, some leftist professors recognized the dangers to academic discourse in this obliteration of the ideal of neutrality. In Radical Teacher, the noted literary critic Gerald Graff—a former president of the ultra–politically correct Modern Language Association—took on his fellow profs, arguing that “however much Freire insists on ‘problem-posing’ rather than ‘banking’ education, the goal of teaching for Freire is to move the student toward what Freire calls ‘a critical perception of the world,’ and there seems little question that for Freire only Marxism or some version of Leftist radicalism counts as a genuine ‘critical perception.’ ” Elsewhere, Graff went even further in rejecting the Freirian model of teaching:

What right do we have to be the self-appointed political conscience of our students? Given the inequality in power and experience between students and teachers (even teachers from disempowered groups) students are often justifiably afraid to challenge our political views even if we beg them to do so. . . . Making it the main object of teaching to open “students’ minds to left, feminist, anti-racist, and queer ideas” and “stimulate” them (nice euphemism that) “to work for egalitarian change” has been the fatal mistake of the liberatory pedagogy movement from Freire in the 1960s to today.

But Graff’s cautionary advice fell on deaf ears in the academy. And not only did indoctrination in the name of liberation infest American colleges, where students could at least choose the courses they wanted to take; through a cadre of radical ed-school professors, the Freirian agenda came to K–12 classrooms as well, in the form of an expanding movement for “teaching for social justice.”

As a case in point, consider the career of Robert Peterson. Peterson started out in the 1980s as a young elementary school teacher in inner-city Milwaukee. He has described how he plumbed Pedagogy of the Oppressed, looking for some way to apply the great radical educator’s lessons to his own fourth- and fifth-grade bilingual classrooms. Peterson came to realize that he had to break away from the “banking method” of education, in which “the teacher and the curricular texts have the ‘right answers’ and which the students are expected to regurgitate periodically.” Instead, he applied the Freirian approach, which “relies on the experience of the student. . . . It means challenging the students to reflect on the social nature of knowledge and the curriculum.” Peterson would have you believe that his fourth- and fifth-graders became critical theorists, interrogating the “nature of knowledge” like junior scholars of the Frankfurt School.

What actually happened was that Peterson used the Freirian rationale to become his students’ “self-appointed political conscience.” After one unit on U.S. intervention in Latin America, Peterson decided to take the children to a rally protesting U.S. aid to the Contras opposing the Marxist Sandinistas in Nicaragua. The children stayed after school to make placards:

let them run their land!

help central america don’t kill them

give the nicaraguans their freedom

Peterson was particularly proud of a fourth-grader who described the rally in the class magazine. “On a rainy Tuesday in April some of the students from our class went to protest against the contras,” the student wrote. “The people in Central America are poor and bombed on their heads. When we went protesting it was raining and it seemed like the contras were bombing us.”

These days, Peterson is the editor of Rethinking Schools, the nation’s leading publication for social-justice educators. He is also the editor of a book called Rethinking Mathematics: Teaching Social Justice by the Numbers, which provides math lessons for indoctrinating young children in the evils of racist, imperialist America. Partly thanks to Peterson’s efforts, the social-justice movement in math, as in other academic subjects, has fully arrived (see “The Ed Schools’ Latest—and Worst—Humbug,” Summer 2006). It has a foothold in just about every major ed school in the country and enjoys the support of some of the biggest names in math education, including several recent presidents of the 25,000-member American Education Research Association, the umbrella organization of the education professoriate. Its dozens of pseudo-scholarly books, journals, and conferences extol the supposed benefits to disadvantaged kids of the kind of teaching that Peterson once inflicted on his Milwaukee fourth-graders.

To counter the criticism that the movement’s objective is political indoctrination, social-justice educators have developed a scholarly apparatus designed to portray social-justice teaching as just another reasonable education approach backed by “research.” Thus a recent issue of Columbia University’s Teachers College Record (which bills itself as “the voice of research in education”) carried a lead article by University of Illinois math education professor Eric Guttstein reporting the results of “a two-year qualitative, practitioner-research study of teaching and learning for social justice.” The “practitioner research” consisted entirely of Guttstein’s observing his own Freirian math instruction in a Chicago public school for two years and then concluding that it was a great success. Part of the evidence was a statement by one of his students: “I thought math was just a subject they implanted on us just because they felt like it, but now I realize that you could use math to defend your rights and realize the injustices around you.” Guttstein concludes that “youth in K–12 classrooms are more than just students—they are, in fact, actors in the struggle for social justice.”

Illustration by Arnold Roth.

There’s no evidence that Freirian pedagogy has had much success anywhere in the Third World. Nor have Freire’s favorite revolutionary regimes, like China and Cuba, reformed their own “banking” approaches to education, in which the brightest students are controlled, disciplined, and stuffed with content knowledge for the sake of national goals—and the production of more industrial managers, engineers, and scientists. How perverse is it, then, that only in America’s inner cities have Freirian educators been empowered to “liberate” poor children from an entirely imagined “oppression” and recruit them for a revolution that will never come?

Freire’s ideas are harmful not just to students but to the teachers entrusted with their education. A broad consensus is emerging among education reformers that the best chance of lifting the academic achievement of children in the nation’s inner-city schools is to raise dramatically the effectiveness of the teachers assigned to those schools. Improving teacher quality as a means of narrowing racial achievement gaps is a major focus of President Obama’s education agenda. But if the quality of teachers is now the name of the game, it defies rationality that Pedagogy of the Oppressed still occupies an exalted place in training courses for those teachers, who will surely learn nothing about becoming better instructors from its discredited Marxist platitudes.

In the age of Obama, finally, it seems all the more unacceptable to encourage inner-city teachers to take the Freirian political agenda seriously. If there is any political message that those teachers ought to be bringing to their students, it’s one best articulated by our greatest African-American writer, Ralph Ellison, who affirmed that he sought in his writing “to see America with an awareness of its rich diversity and its almost magical fluidity and freedom. . . . confronting the inequalities and brutalities of our society forthrightly, yet thrusting forth its images of hope, human fraternity, and individual self-realization.”


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