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We need Paulo Freire’s education ideas more than ever

The year 2021 marked the centenary of Paulo Freire’s birth (1921-97). A series of events and conferences across the world – particularly in academia – celebrated the legacy of the Brazilian educator. Exiled for more than a decade, Freire’s ideas of Education as the Practice of Freedom (1967), seem to fly in the face of the reality of his native land’s current political regime.

The ideas of Freire, the father of critical pedagogy, are best crystalised in his second book Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1972), a seminal work in the field of education and a must-read rite of passage for social scientists and educationists.

The book is the third most cited text in social sciences after Everett Rogers’ Diffusion of Innovations (1962) and Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962), according to the LSE’s Elliott Green’s 2016 findings.

These centennial celebration events have been timely yet unsettling. Timely as there is a dire need to revive Freirean pedagogy as well as resistance pedagogies in order to question, criticise and change norms, policies and practices that have caused flagrant inequalities and poverty around the world.

The fact is, Freirean critical pedagogy and its emancipatory objectives have been categorically repressed under the hegemony of globalised neoliberal thinking and its ‘education gospel’ for the past five decades.

In subverting Freirean pedagogy – the roots of which can be traced back to Ralf Dahrendorf’s Homo Sociologicus (1973) – neoliberal ideology has instead reduced the human experience to that of a greedy, self-absorbed ‘Homo economicus’ whose education, skills and competencies have been merely the means to individual and national economic utility.

This has led to a gradual metamorphosis in values and in the role of education and culture which has transformed higher education and societies, as discussed in my upcoming book. It has been unsettling too to observe that a hundred years later, Freire’s ideas are ever more relevant in a modern world that is celebrated for its progress by authors such as Steven Pinker.

While it is true that the world has experienced technological and scientific progress, it has failed to distribute its gains, and inequalities have even been normalised as collateral damage within the neoliberal ideology of progress.

And even if the world has progressed from the Stone Age, it has failed to advance to a similar extent when it comes to the social, cultural and political domains. As a result, fascist, far-right and caste-based ideologies are crawling up the social and political ladders while a Freirean pedagogy could have undone the vicious circle of normalisation and internationalisation of oppression among the masses.

Possibilities could have been created of ‘being and becoming’ rather than the ‘having and buying’ norms perpetuated by the neoliberal ideology. We could have undone the oppression of ‘them’ – people from different ethnic, religious and national backgrounds or sexual orientations – by ‘us’. In brief, it could have hindered the process of the oppressed becoming the oppressors.

No magical solution

Having participated and contributed to a few of these events celebrating Freire as well as a conference on socialisation of young people, here are a few reflections as we arrive at the end of 2021 and Freire’s centennial.

I remain cautious, and I know many others do too, when it comes to assuming that education is a ‘bullet-like magical solution’ to all the social, cultural and political malfunctions that we have created under neoliberalism.

Such a magical role has increasingly been assigned to education in the discourses of neoliberal organisations such as the OECD, the World Economic Forum, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

These discourses have simply justified privatisation and restricted access to education as well as lowering gender equality and quality where norms and standards are lacking (for instance, in the case of South Africa).

Hence they have eroded social cohesion and deprived many of their right to learning and development as indicated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. UNESCO’s latest report, Futures of Education, seems to be falling under the spell of the aforementioned neoliberal institutions as its discourse remains utopic while it seeks to promote plurality and diversity through education as an all-in-one solution.

Just as education cannot be a stand-alone solution, so is the case with Freirean critical pedagogy. While it does provide a democratic basis for practice, its outcomes remain, at best, unpredictable.

The impact one educator can have in facilitating a shift in students’ mindsets can potentially be challenged by several other factors.

These include, among other things, the current techno-feudal system of a world where algorithms and ‘big data’ steer the social, economic and political spheres; the inter- and intra-generational transfer of worldviews and resentments as well as poverty and wealth; peer group effects; the characteristics and identity of learners and their willingness and capacity to embrace new ideas.

The importance of environment

The truth is that some educators, too, may be from among the oppressed themselves and be therefore unable to practise and transfer critical thinking and self-reflection.

This is not to say that educators do not have any role to play. They certainly do, and Freirean pedagogy does provide a route towards democratic dialogue and participation. However, Freirean pedagogy remains, simply, a potential activator or catalyst.

For it to be an activating catalyst, critical pedagogy requires a safe and enabling environment where it can be practised. Within neoliberalism and its now normalised short-term contracts, educators may not feel free to practise critical pedagogy as they fear being unable to pay the bills at the end of the month.

Increasingly, practising critical pedagogy has become a mission impossible for many academic colleagues around the world. Academic freedom has been systematically under attack (see the 2021 Free to Think report) either by authoritarian regimes or by the oppressed mentalities of faculty and students in the so-called democratic world.

Critical pedagogy cannot be an option when scholars are at risk and it cannot be a one-way communication from the educator to the learner or it will be a practice that betrays its creator. Critical pedagogy can be a routine practice inside classrooms, as it is on my own courses. Its outcomes are not guaranteed, though. That is evident to all educators.

A shift in learners’ worldviews and their emancipation from the oppressed-oppressor cycle is a possibility, certainly. This can be realised by building on an ensemble of individual learners’ capacities, identities and readiness to learn and at least a minimum of similar social constructions elsewhere within the wider social, cultural and political spaces.

Simply put, a Freirean pedagogy can be enabling, but only against the background of an enabling environment.

Undoing neoliberalism

A final word: Freirean pedagogy can liberate the oppressed among us – educators and learners alike – enabling us to bid farewell to all mechanisms, ideologies and practices that are oppressive.

But it is not a mechanic factory-like process as our education systems have been for a long while. Neither is it a magic bullet. The input should be tailored to each group of learners. The output (the desired process of undoing oppression in the minds and actions of individuals) is a longer and bumpier road.

There should be no farewell to Freire at the end of his centennial therefore. His pedagogy illuminates the road towards a much-needed subversion of neoliberalism and fascism towards an end-of-the-tunnel light of socio-ecological justice.

Juliette Torabian is a postdoctoral fellow in sociology of education at the University of Luxembourg. She is a senior expert in international development (education/gender) and in comparative and international education.