by Dave Spencer
The Brazilian educationist Paulo Freire (1921-1997) is regarded internationally as the guru of adult education. Since we are concerned as communists with educating ourselves and with “raising consciousness” among the working class, then it would seem useful to look at Freire’s ideas.
As luck would have it Freire’s classic textbook Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1972) is not only a statement of the principles on which to practise adult education, it is also a handbook on how to build a revolutionary party. There are many references to liberation and revolutionary leadership throughout the book. One of the reasons for this is that in the 1960s in Brazil when Freire was organising Adult Literacy classes on a mass scale, his activity was very radical because only literate people could vote in Brazil. In 1964 after the coup Freire was jailed and then exiled for his efforts. He went to Chile and then to UNESCO where he influenced Literacy programmes throughout the Third World.
One might wonder why Freire is not better known on the left. The reason is that his educational principles contradict entirely the practice and the theory of the left groups. Freire stresses the vital importance of educating and organising from below. The life experience of the students must be the starting point of the dialogue and the mutual respect and trust between tutors and students – between the working class and the revolutionary leadership if you will. The “leaders” should go to the working class to engage in discussion and to be prepared to learn, not to impart ready-made gobbits of “truth” or the party line. “The revolutionary’s role is to be liberated with the people, not to win them over”, says Freire.
Freire calls the top-down method, used by left groups, as well as the state, “banking” education. Charles Dickens criticised this Gradgrind “give me the facts” or “the line” method of education in his novel Hard Times because of its lack of humanism. To Freire there is no neutral form of education – it is either encouraging critical thinking and therefore liberating – or it is uncritical and undemocratic and therefore “domesticating”, i.e. encouraging acceptance of the status quo.
Contrast this to the approach of the left groups. For example, Sean Matgamna of the Trotskyist group AWL wrote an article “The class struggle is the thing” epitomising this approach. He argues that with the demise of Stalinism and the movement to the right of social democracy internationally, the way is clear for real socialism to show itself at last. His advice is to go to the working class and to the working class movement — not to learn anything, not to listen, not to engage in dialogue, but “to organise it, to re-organise it, to plant the seeds of unfalsified socialism”. Exactly the opposite of the principles advocated by Paulo Freire! Nothing personal against Sean, but he is arguing for a top down, “banking” approach where the truths have already been decided upon by an elite and it is just a matter of convincing the masses. This is clearly an idealist position, not a dialectical one and is typical of left groups. Freire sees the class struggle as a process in which revolutionaries play the role not of lecturers on the rostrum dishing out pre-existing truths to the workers but of organisers and facilitators of a dialogue in which the day to day experiences of the working class in struggle play a key part. The class struggle is a dynamic process during which lessons are learned through discussion and practice, not by some formulae from Party HQ.
Freire’s principles are consistent with other approaches to broader education based generally on a cognitive approach to psychology. These contrast with more dominant psychological approaches used by the state, like ideas of inherited genetic intelligence and behaviourist notions of changing the environment to change behaviour. The cognitive approaches to child development of Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky stress the importance of practical experience in the form of play, active stimulation and problem solving for young children, as against rote learning. As I understand it, these are the principles behind the “Scandinavian methods” used in nursery and infant education. For older children and adults, writers like Michael Apple, H. Giroux and J. Mezirow encourage the development of critical thinking in the classroom as against the regurgitation of facts.
A recent example from my own experience may explain the basic issues involved. I was teaching at the local university and one of the modules I was teaching was “Mental Ill Health”. The new administrator approached me one day for a word and said that he wanted me to break down my 10 week module into parts – quarter of an hour by quarter of an hour in the form of PowerPoint presentations. If I were ill one week this would mean some other tutor could take over. Assessments of the students’ knowledge would take place in week 3, week 6 and week 9. As I understand it, this is very much what Freire would call the “banking” approach to education! I pointed out that I did not believe in teaching this way. I explained that among the students in my evening class at that time were a young man under medication diagnosed with schizophrenia, two paramedics who were used to sectioning people, a woman whose son had autism and a man whose mother was in the first stages of dementia. I said I thought the life experiences of these students were more important to listen to, to understand and to discuss than me giving a load of “facts” on a slide — not that there are many “facts” in this subject, there are conflicting explanations. Our dialogue would lead to critical thinking and personal development — which of course could be assessed. The administrator did not understand what I was talking about. I think Paulo Freire would have done.
Freire starts with the oppressed and their “culture of silence”, “fear of freedom”, lack of self-confidence and their fatalism – but also with their wealth of life experience and culture within their communities. The tutors or revolutionary leaders, using their book knowledge, create a dialogue with the oppressed which leads to praxis — that is to informed and agreed action against oppression. Without this democratic dialogue there can be no genuine revolution. Freire is quite definite on these points:
“Manipulation, sloganising, “depositing”, regimentation and prescription cannot be components of revolutionary praxis, precisely because they are components of the praxis of domination…
“Revolutionary leaders who do not act dialogically in their relations with the people either have retained characteristics of the dominator and are not truly revolutionary – or they are totally misguided in their conception of their role and, being prisoners of their own sectarianism, they are equally non-revolutionary. They may even reach power. But the validity of any revolution resulting from anti-dialogical action is thoroughly doubtful.”
This is quite clear and uncompromising and I can think of many examples on the British left where these principles could be applied. The behaviours within left groups are not quirky characteristics of left leaders, as for example described amusingly by Jim Higgins in his book on the SWP or by John Sullivan in his pamphlet Go Fourth and Multiply, they are unfortunately consistent with the behaviours of the ruling class and can be judged as such.
I have dealt here with the basic principles of Freire’s work. I have argued with Freire that any revolutionary movement can only be built from below, starting with the life experiences of the working class, not from the top down using theory used in a biblical fashion. The question of how Freire’s principles can be implemented in a British context is more complex, requiring further discussion.