Reading Freire: Prefaces and Introductions

This is the first section of a Reading Freire series.

One of the ‘a-ha!’  moments of my academic career came during a crusades class during my undergraduate years where I was saddled with some dozen or so books on the reading list. I was frozen with terror throughout much of the first quarter of that class, until the professor told me I wasn’t expected to read all of them. I was to mine them for the information I needed. I think it was at about that time I developed my “read the introduction, read the conclusion, go back and read the interior parts that go over the parts you either don’t agree with, don’t understand, or just want to learn more about” formula.

That later evolved into a second strategy of coming to rely on secondary sources – people describing what other writers are arguing. Why wade through the density of Foucault or Bourdieu when you can have someone else unpack the theory spread over several books into a few chapters? This sits alongside a notion that no one idea is so brilliant that it takes more than a hundred pages to explain.

But I’m walking back a little bit on that now. There are a few books that I want to read in full. The one that has stood out the most is Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed. My thesis right is now about Southern farmers mired in poverty. How could I justify a PhD with a subject like that without seriously engaging the totality of Freire? And so I downloaded a PDF and the journey begins. And I’ve decided to more-or-less live blog it.

There are about twenty pages of prefixes and introductions to the version of the book I have. One section of it that stood out to me was the discussion of Freire’s Marxist language. A coworker of one of Donald Macedo said that the terms he used were off-putting. Macedo responded:

I reminded her that Freire’s language was the only means through which he could have done justice to the complexity of the various concepts dealing with oppression. For one thing, I reminded her, “Imagine that instead of writing Pedagogy of the Oppressed Freire had written “Pedagogy of the Disenfranchised.” The first title utilizes a discourse that names the oppressor, whereas the second fails to do so. If you have an “op-pressed,” you must have an “oppressor.’ What would be the counterpart of disenfranchised? “Pedagogy of the Disenfranchised” dislodges the agent of the action while leaving in doubt who bears the responsibility for such action. This leaves the ground wide open for blaming the victim of disenfranchisement for his or her own dis-enfranchisement. This example is a clear case in which the object of oppression can also be understood as the subject of oppression. Language like this distorts reality.

I find myself actually agreeing with his coworker for the reason that I think Marxism has it’s own variant of “great man” history theory. Marxism, to my mind, needs to construct a villain in the powerful. It’s a villain in which the weak (but potentially strong) organize against. But when I spend time studying places like China and the Philippines, I don’t see many villains. I instead see awful systems. I see systems where replacing one particular person or clique accomplishes almost nothing. I see systems where the worst excesses often happen far from centralized control.

I see Freire tackling this a little bit in the first chapter:

But almost always, during the initial stage of the struggle, the oppressed, instead of striving for liberation, tend themselves to become oppressors, or “sub-oppressors.” The very structure of their thought has been conditioned by the contradictions of the concrete, existential situation by which they were shaped. Their ideal is to be men; but for them, to be men is to be oppressors. This is their model of humanity.

The oppressed become the oppressors. The robbed become the robbers.

I’m reminded of an analogy I’ve heard from several Chinese students concerning corruption in the Communist Party. They describe a bus that people are periodically embarking or disembarking from. Inside the bus, the passengers are all stealing, cheating, and lying while the bus is moving everyone inside forward (in their careers). New passengers either shut up when they see it and or get off the bus. Those who choose to stay on the bus eventually start doing the same things.

That seems to be the basic model of a lot of bad systems: good people enter it and are eventually transformed into something else. Trying to do good from the inside is intrinsically a corrupting experience. With various shades of gray, that describes working inside most institutions. One plays a certain game to be successful inside the institute to affect change, but that game makes affecting change harder. One must tolerate corruption to crackdown on corruption. One must work with Monsanto to gather political capital to fund  farmer field schools.

I’ll leave it that I have difficulty identifying the oppressors of the subjects I study. I see exploitative, marginalizing systems. But I don’t see oppressors designing those systems from the top-down. I don’t many people or groups to struggle against that would lead to revolutionary change should they fall. The new bosses will look quite a bit like the old bosses unless the feedbacks inside system itself change. I’ll report back on how much Freire has to say about that, rather than the dwelling on false consciousness I’ve seen so far.

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